Nick Clegg: Coalition not in crisis over free schools discord

Oct 20, 2013 by

Nick Clegg has denied there is a “great coalition crisis”, ahead of a speech in which he will distance the Liberal Democrats from part of the government’s policy on free schools.

The deputy prime minister will argue free schools must follow the national curriculum and should not allow unqualified people to teach.

But he told Sky News this was part of a “grown-up” debate between the parties.

Downing Street had expressed surprise at Mr Clegg’s comments.

Free schools, set up by parents and other groups, are state-funded but operate outside local authority control.


Chair of the Independent Academies Association, Nick Weller, defends the free school system

They were established under a policy pioneered by Education Secretary Michael Gove and since September 2011 more than 170 have been opened across England.

Currently free schools have discretion over what to teach, but in his speech to a school in north London on Thursday, Mr Clegg will ask: “What’s the point of having a national curriculum if only a few schools have to teach it?”

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image of Iain Watson Iain Watson Political correspondent, BBC News

For three-and-a-half years, the Lib Dems have been part of a coalition that was committed to free schools.

But some of these schools have had bad publicity recently. Nick Clegg wants to see changes that would “reassure parents”.

That would mean less flexibility and the imposition of certain minimum standards.

But those close to the education secretary made it clear they were given no advance warning of the deputy prime minister’s speech, and Downing Street officials are hinting that No 10 had been equally unsighted.

Nick Clegg concedes he will not get his changes past the education secretary before the election, so he will pledge to make them in the next Lib Dem manifesto.

But his criticism has ruffled Conservative feathers and his partners are suggesting the move owes more to the Lib Dem leader’s need to form a coalition with his own core voters than it does to education policy. Expect to see further examples of where the coalition parties disagree in the run up to the general election.

His next party manifesto will also say all schools should adhere to new standards on meals and demand that teachers are either qualified or near qualification.

Last week, the head teacher of a primary free school in London, who was still studying for her postgraduate certificate in education, stood down following criticism from Labour councillors.

There was also controversy when the Al-Madinah free school in Derby was classed as inadequate by education inspectors.

In his speech to a London school this week, Mr Clegg will say: “I’m proud of our work over the last three years to increase school autonomy, which, in government with the Conservatives, has been through the academies programme.”

But he will go on to question “aspects of schools policy currently affected by the priorities of the Conservative Party which I would not want to see continue”.

Mr Clegg will add: “Whilst 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.”

Appearing on Sky News, he said he was a supporter of free schools, but his concern was about maintaining standards.

He said: “Most head teachers and parents would expect that the teachers who teach their children have the proper qualifications.”

Asked whether his comments were a signal that the Lib Dems were moving closer to Labour’s policy, with a view to possible coalition-forming after the next general election, Mr Clegg said this was “complete and utter nonsense.”

He added that “tensions” were part of being in coalition and said: “It’s not a political crisis when some of those differences are articulated in public.”


But a Downing Street spokesman said earlier that, as recently as last week, the Lib Dem schools minister David Laws had said he was “100% behind the coalition’s free schools policy, which makes Nick Clegg’s comments all the more surprising”.

Education Secretary Michael Gove’s allies have accused Mr Clegg of “fundamentally misunderstanding” the nature of free schools.

Independent Academies Association chairman Nick Weller, who oversees several free schools in Bradford, said: “As a responsible employer I think I’d want every member of staff to be fully qualified if they’re teaching – it’s only that way that they can earn a full amount of money, a good wage and it’s only that way you can open up career opportunities later on.”

But he told BBC Breakfast he could understand schools employing some non-qualified staff such as a former sportsperson for the PE department or a computer programmer for the ICT department.

Lib Dem sources have told the BBC that Mr Clegg argued for his proposed changes in cabinet but they were blocked by Mr Gove.

But Mr Clegg said current education policy was “something for Mr Gove” to handle and that he did not interfere in the workings of his department.

Under plans announced by Labour, parent groups and other organisations would be able to set up schools outside local authority control, although local authorities would have greater powers to intervene when there were concerns about standards.

But last week, shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt said a future Labour government would allow most existing free schools to remain open.

via BBC News – Nick Clegg: Coalition not in crisis over free schools discord.

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