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Nick Clegg vs school freedom

19 October 2013

10:50 PM

19 October 2013

10:50 PM

Nick Clegg’s aides have been briefing the Sunday newspapers saying (in effect) that he that he’s had enough of this school freedom malarkey. Certain head teachers are using their new liberties in ways of which he disapproves. So if he’s in government after the next election, he’ll curtail these freedoms somehow. He’s chosen to enter the squabble over ‘qualified’ teachers (a canard, explained below). He also proposes curtailing freedoms teachers have been given over the curriculum. But the more important overall point is that he’s positioning himself as being opposed to Michael Gove’s reforms.

‘Clegg turns on Michael Gove over his ‘ideological’ BW94-q3IEAA2oCLschool reforms’ says The Observer (right). The Independent on Sunday has a similar story. Clegg is planning a speech where he will say

“Parents don’t want ideology to get in the way of their children’s education”

In itself, an uncontroversial statement. But for those in the know, it’s a dog whistle. The i-word is the accusation that the unions level at Tories who trust teachers to teach. Except this particular ‘ideology’ is known as liberalism.

What’s Liberal about the Lib Dems?

You really do give up with the Liberal Democrats. You’d think the clue was in the name. They want to curtail freedom of the press, and now school freedom. As Jeremy Browne said on BBC Sunday Politics, “free schools are a small ‘l’ liberal policy.” He supports them but, in a dig at Clegg, said it would be a shame if his party were to become a pale imitation of Labour. Browne is a real liberal, so is David Laws. But the Lib Dems, as a party, do tend to be like a broken supermarket trolley: you can try to push them straight but they always veer to the left.

It’s funny: one of the (many) things you learn from Matthew d’Ancona’s brilliant history of the coalition thus far is that Michael Gove offered to give the schools job to David Laws, a Lib Dem. But the Lib Dems are no friend of liberty, as Clegg keeps demonstrating. (Laws is fine, but it’s Clegg – always worried about his own political position – who overrule him). As things turned out, Gove passed the Academies Act in 77 days and conferred freedoms that would take an act of parliament to revoke. Including freedom over the curriculum, to let teachers teach what they want. If Clegg is to be taken seriously, then he proposes to curtail these freedoms with a kind of ‘Back In Your Box, You Dumb Teachers, And Take New Marching Orders’ Act 2015.

Some 170 new free schools are open – two or three have problems, as you’d expect. This is what freedom looks like. And there will be more problems like the Muslim school in Derby which has failed so spectacularly. But notice the fuss being made, notice how quickly action is being taken. If only sink schools in the state sector were remedied as fast.

The furore actually shows that Gove’s system is working. The one-in-five 16-18 year olds in state schools who are functionally illiterate and innumerate show how badly the system of council monopoly over state school provision has failed. As do the 25,000 who’ll quit school this year with no qualifications to show for their time in classrooms.

The ‘qualified teachers’ canard. Free Schools and Academies have freedom hire brilliant people who may not have official Qualified Teacher Status (QTS). This drives the unions mad. Free schools can, for example, hire staff from overseas who may not have sat the QTS tests, or hire teachers from the higher education sector. Or linguists, engineers, computer whizzes –  private schools already top up their teams with such outsiders. Now state schools do too, and the unions go spare. This also means head teachers don’t have to rely on staff who have been through the  established teacher training colleges, which are often hotbeds of mediocrity. When Gove granted these freedoms, the head of the Independent Academies Association had this to say:-

“Virtually all teachers in academies will continue to have the teaching qualification; where there are severe shortages of suitable staff or specialists in subjects like computing or technology, the new flexibility will be extremely useful.”

Now unions want Clegg to remove this freedom. The Deputy Prime Minister is choosing to spin this their way: that freedom over staff (explained here) means free schools will be filled with clueless backpackers who have no qualifications. He’ll say:-

 “Frankly it makes no sense to me to have qualified teacher status if only a few schools have to employ qualified teachers.. We should have qualified teachers in all our schools.”

Of course, the vast majority of teacher in all schools have QTS – the debate is whether there should be any (say) the odd Mandarin specialist who can help without having gone through teacher training colleges. So Clegg, technically, is saying nothing that contradicts his government’s reforms. But rhetorically, he has crossed the floor.

Clegg is, at least, talking about a post-2015 scenario. David Cameron would never sponsor legislation to repeal  freedoms granted in his Academies Act (well, not before an election anyway). So it doesn’t really matter what Clegg thinks about how schools should be run. The Tories have given teachers these powers. It’s odd to think that only Tories trust teachers enough to use them.

P.S. The longer extract from Clegg’s speech is below:-

“We believe greater autonomy enables school leaders to take responsibility in those areas where they know what’s best for their pupils, while also giving them the freedom to innovate. But it shouldn’t surprise you if I say that, although we work well with the Conservatives, our two parties still have differences of opinion, some strongly held. Looking to the future, there are aspects of schools policy currently affected by the priorities of the Conservative Party which I would not want to see continue.

“For example, while I want to give schools the space to innovate, I also believe every parent needs reassurance that the school their child attends, whatever its title or structure, meets certain core standards of teaching and care – a parental guarantee, if you like.

“Parents don’t want ideology to get in the way of their children’s education. They don’t care about the latest political label attached to their child’s school. What they want, and expect, is that their children are taught by good teachers, get taught a core body of knowledge, and get a healthy meal every day. What’s the point of having a national curriculum if only a few schools have to teach it? Let’s teach it in all our schools. And what’s the point of having brilliant new food standards if only a few schools have to stick to the rules? Let’s have quality food in all our schools.

“Diversity among schools, yes. But good universal standards all parents can rely on, too. And, frankly, it makes no sense to me to have qualified teacher status if only a few schools have to employ qualified teachers.”

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