BBC: Coalition faces Lib Dem revolt on free schools

Michael Crick reported for BBC2’s Newsnight on a potentially controversial debate at this September’s Lib Dem conference:

September’s Lib Dem conference in Liverpool will be a pretty tame affair, I predict, since most Liberal Democrats are still on cloud nine over the fact they are now in government for the first time in 65 years.

The biggest controversy, I reckon, could well be over a motion denouncing Michael Gove’s radical policies on free schools and academies. The resolution has been specifically picked by Lib Dem conference organisers for a substantial debate.

First, it calls for local councils to keep their role in the “oversight” of the provision of state schools. This is quite contrary to Gove’s strategy of greatly reducing local authority involvement in education. And second, the resolution urges Liberal Democrats not to get involved in Michael Gove’s cherished new policy of free schools.

Given how important local councillors are in the structure of the Liberal Democrat Party and the prevalence of teachers in the party, there must be a pretty good chance that the motion will be passed.

You can watch the 5-minute report here:

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  • Cheltenham Robin 31st Jul '10 - 11:41am

    We’ll also have scores of journalists trawling the bars in search of dissent (which I’m sure they will find)

  • It’s an interesting situation where a liberal conservative coalition is begin opposed by a conservative liberal faction. Peter Downes article on LDV last month is worth reading to understand the basis of his opposition

    Broadly an argument that “in practice there need to be restraints on freedom to protect fairness”

    I can’t say that I agree with him. The pro-LEA lobby’s arguments tend to rest on an assumption that diversity of provision is bad and state planning works. The pro-diversity lobby doesn’t claim to know what the best education system should be and wants to create competition and choice to encourage different approaches.

    In a diverse system if Peter is right, the state schools, like the one he used to run, will outcompete the arrivistes, parents will choose the state schools. Or there will be a happy mix catering for different preferences and needs.

  • Peter Venables 31st Jul '10 - 12:27pm

    @ Andy

    What about the kids who lose out during your jolly liberal experiment.

  • I am an old hippy & I mostly hated everything about school except ( some) lessons so the “free schools” idea rather appeals. The role of LEAs is in co-ordination & mediation, not controlling a schools ethos.

  • Where in these free schools in coverted shops and warehouses will be the science labs, the technology workrooms, the dance and drama studios, the music rooms, the gyms, the libraries, the computers, not to mention the rest of the local community? Strange idea this: C18th Dame Schools with an C18th curriculum. Our kids deserve better than this.

  • Peter one answer to that question is what about al the kids who have lost our from the joyless socialist one-size fits all experiment for the last 70 years. How are you going to stop kids losing out in the state system? Or do you need another 70 years to twiddle the knobs in the ministry?

    The free schools at least provide an alternative.

    I could go further and ask you how you going to stop kids losing out from having parents happy to dump them in a school and think that’s all there is to education, versus those that engage actively in their children’s upbringing. But I fear you might start talking about nationalising children.

    What I do though find most empty about your question is the underlying assumption that there is some unitary planned system or method of schooling out that could absolutely guarantee every child the best possible education for them. Or that parents or even state actors will agree what that looks like.

    When there is no black and white answer to something liberals tend to prefer choice, and tend to prefer trusting people to choose for themselves, not relying of a committee and bureaucracy.

  • mike cobley 31st Jul '10 - 3:31pm

    So you’d be okay with Scientologists setting up a school under this system, then? What about local chambers of commerce? Or BAE Systems? Or Rupert Murdoch – yeah, can just see it, welcome to the Rupert Murdoch Primary School and Sky Call Centre (training). Sorry, but I think that this decoupling of schools from government control is in fact a de-democratisation of the education system,. But that’ll be the least of our worries come this time next year, after the cuts have started to bit, and thousands upon thousands are out on the streets marching in defence of their jobs, their homes and their future. You can chit-chat on and on about Liberal policies and getting bits of the LD manifesto into legislation, but when the job losses mount up all people will talk about is that WE were the ones who kept Cameron in power and allowed him to do this to the country.
    Celebrate the achievement of government? Whats the point if we are morally responsible for the destruction of peoples lives, the rollback of welfare and benefits, and the generally downgrading of the quality of life? Putting and keeping a Tory government in power is not what I’ve campaigned and worked for down the years, and I’m damn sure that this is not what Roy Jenkins had in mind.

  • what use will there be of any motion at conference. The deeds are already done. The agreements have been made. Soon lib dems will not be able to afford to go anyway as soon as the money is cut in the north because of the southern weighting that is proposed by IDS.

  • On the day Gove announced this policy, I was with the head teacher of an outstanding primary school in a small town. The school is incredibly successful both in terms of standards and in terms of the broad and exciting curriculum it offers its pupils – artists in residence, visiting authors, exceptional sporting opportunities etc. Most of the parents feel hugely lucky to be able to send their children there, but there are still a small number of dissenters – maybe one in ten.

    She pointed out that if these parents are allowed to go away and start their own school (and they are likely to do so), the impact on her budget will be enormous. Losing a tenth of your funding may not seem much, but in primary schools 80% of the funding is spent on staffing – and a reduction from 30 to 27 per class does not allow any reduction in staffing costs. She was clear that all of the additional things I mentioned above and much, much more would have to go, harming the education of the 90% – with absolutely no guarantee that the other 10% would benefit.

  • Mike, I think your question is rather like asking whether you’d be happy to send your children to a state school if the BNP or communists were the state. I suspect the answer would be no.

    Personally I would not choose to send my children to a school run by scientologists. I’m a secular humanist. Oddly though in the state system I have to send my child to a school that is obliged by law to provide an assembly of a broadly religious nature each day. One of the many quriks of one-size fits all.

    Further nothing about the free school movement or diversity of provision prevents the state stopping harmful practices through regulation. There are many things the state does not run that it does regulate.

  • “My successful school serving a catchment of urban and rural with a real mix of pockets of deprivation (mainly in our urban area) and affluence (mainly in our villages) is under threat from a group of parents in the rural area who have told a local feeder school Head that they do not want their children to go to the “urban jungle!””

    And so what if they don’t? If these people want to set themselves apart from everyone else then so be it.

  • Ray Cobbett 31st Jul '10 - 6:43pm

    The conference is likely be a rubber stamping exercise with hardly any notice being taken
    by the organisers of anybody’s views. The ‘we are in government now’ tendency will ensure
    that dissent is minimised although a bit will be permitted for the benefit of the Cricks.
    We can’t afford another election for years so like it or lump it or join the Millibands. Oh yes
    ‘free’ schools will quickly become a pushy parents charter and a bonanza for Capita!
    Things can only get better.

  • David Allen 31st Jul '10 - 8:35pm

    “September’s Lib Dem conference in Liverpool will be a pretty tame affair, I predict, since most Liberal Democrats are still on cloud nine over the fact they are now in government for the first time in 65 years.”

    Cloud nine or cloud cuckoo land?

    Norman Lamont’s phrase fits the bill. The Lib Dems are “In office, but not in power”.

  • Andrew Suffield 31st Jul '10 - 8:53pm

    The conference is likely be a rubber stamping exercise with hardly any notice being taken
    by the organisers of anybody’s views.

    You’ve never been, I take it.

  • >So you’d be okay with Scientologists setting up a school under this system, then? What about local chambers of commerce? Or BAE Systems? Or Rupert Murdoch

    I have big reservations about the idea, but isn’t that effectively what Labour was doing already, from 2000-May? Faith schools and academies sponsored by business people/charities/ ‘learning trusts’ accountable to, er, who exactly?

    BBC, 2004, on academies: ‘Faith groups are involved in two of the 12 that have opened and 13 of the 31 in development.’ And anyone with £2m to invest could sponsor a school and have a say in its curriculum. (They even dropped the £2m requirement last year)

    The reason kids fail in schools is the culture at home. Those with parents who couldn’t give a stuff will probably fail whatever school they go to (if they bother to show up). Free schools just seems like another way for motivated parents to get their children away from the no-hopers, without having to fork out private school fees or move to a ‘better area’. For which I wouldn’t blame them!

  • One issue that hasn’t been discussed with free schools is the cost. At a time when we are told the public finances are under unprecedented pressure, how can it be sensible to pledge to set up lots of new free schools, even in areas where there are already surplus places at existing schools? Either this will increase overall public spending (at a time when it’s supposed to be reducing) or more likely money will be cut from the budgets of existing state schools.

    I’m also concerned at the new planning guidelines issued to support free schools, which effectively instruct local authorities to give planning permission to any free school proposed for their area. There may be many legitimate planning grounds for opposing a new school in a particular location but it seems these are to be ignored – so much for ‘localism’ and handing power back to local communities!

  • What right do councillors have to tell parents they cant have a school of their own?

  • @Cassie – you make an important point.

    I think it is not unreasonable to expect parents to be involved in the schooling of their kids. Too many parents, from all classes in society, simply expect the state to educate and even care for their kids. They say they haven’t got the time to sit with their kids, read with them, make sure they have done their homework, and so on – to which I say, bloody well make time, or otherwise you can’t complain about the job the state does (a job at which it will always fail – the state cannot substitute for good parenting, it can only supplement it). In the situations where parents genuinely cannot devote enough time to their kids, then the state should intervene. Other than that, it is galling to say you’re too busy to actually spend some time educating your own kids, then getting all in a huff when you find there’s no space for you to dump little Timmy at the local comprehensive.

  • #

    Free schools just seems like another way for motivated parents to get their children away from the no-hopers, without having to fork out private school fees or move to a ‘better area’. For which I wouldn’t blame them!

    Surely one of the points about schools for “everyone” is that people become socialised with others in total. It is vital that we all understand something of people’s different backgrounds. Which is one of the reasons we should not allow a further “opt out of society” choice – in addition to the sort of schools that Cameron and Clegg attended.

  • There seems to be a thread here that state education is poor and many parents want to get their kids out of it. All the kids in our extended family went to local primary and comprehensive schools (Birmingham, Edinburgh, Shropshire) and did really well. The youngest has just left her Birmingham school that serves a major council/social housing estate with 4 A levels at grade A. They all went into HE. They learned how to get along with all sorts of people from different backgrounds, abilities and attitudes. The school buildings weren’t great but two of those schools are now in the final stages of being rebuilt and the new facilities are super and also serve as local community leisure (gyms, swimming pool) and cultural centres (theatre and music venue). I agree that the schools might have been better if the Headteachers and LEAs had more freedom to determine curriculum and spending priorities locally (too much big Government micro mangagement by both previous Tory and Labour governments) but that could be done without undermining the whole system. In Birmingham there are a number of small parent run faith schools in former factories, shops, etc. The kids learn the 4 R’s (the last one being religious indoctrination) and not much else as the facilities are really poor. I don’t want to see money going from good state schools to fund small groups of parents with their own agendas.

  • Matthew Huntbach 2nd Aug '10 - 10:54pm

    Andy Mayer

    Peter one answer to that question is what about al the kids who have lost our from the joyless socialist one-size fits all experiment for the last 70 years.

    Er, Andy, actually it was the Tories who introduced the National Curriculum. They did so on the argument that the problem with schools was that there were too many loony teachers all doing their own thing.

    Have you ever been a school governor, Andy? Or a councillor in an LEA? I have been the latter, my wife the former. I can say from that, I had no say on what went on in the borough’s schools, my wife had a great deal of say on what went on in the one where the was Chair of Governors. Did you catch the recent furore about the high income of the headteacher of Tidemills School in Deptford recently? Tidemills is in the LEA where I was a councillor, actually. In his defence, it was explained how this headteacher had introduced all sorts of things to make big improvements to the school and had received various incentive payments for that. How does that fit in with your claim that LEA schools are “joyless socialist one-size fits all”?

  • Matthew Huntbach 2nd Aug '10 - 10:58pm

    Niklas Smith, like many in this debate you mention the Netherlands. No-one who mentions the Netherlands in this context points out that this was part of what was known as “pillarisation” i.e. separate Catholic, Protestant and Socialist organisations for just about everything. It was not about free market competition, more about tribalism. Funnily enough, it did not produce what the vocal opponents of faith schools amongst the Liberal Democrats claim is inevitable from them, but that’s another story.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Aug '10 - 1:04am

    Niklas Smith

    I think my point that no disaster is likely to occur if free schools are introduced still stands.

    The main thing is that it is essentially writing a blank cheque, and is hence a direct contradiction to the government’s claim that its prime aim is to reduce the deficit.

    The point I’m trying to make is that much of what it is claimed “free schools” will provide is ALREADY provided by the current system, or could be provided within it by far chepaer measures than wiring blank cheques. Schools already have much more autonomy than is supposed, what Andy Mayer wrote really is clueless nonsense.

    If it’s a good thing for schools to have more autonomy over what they teach and how they assess – simply abolish or at least wind down the National Curriculum. If it’s a good thing for schools to find their own support for problem kids rather than rely on the LEA’s, well simply cut the LEA’s and let them do it. Simple, why all this bureaucratic mess of setting up new schools while leaving in place the old ones?

    I take your point about school governors. Yes, some are elected by parents, some appointed by the LEA. I think the LEA appointments could be made much more open – it was something I campaigned for when I was Leader of the Opposition in LB Lewisham. This was after becoming Leader and just being told I had so many governors places I could appoint to, and not knowing half enough people to fill all those place I was offered to fill. But the number I had to fill was tiny compared to the number which were essentially distributed within the Labour Party. It shouldn’t be like that, and LEA’s could be forced to make sure it isn’t like that.

    Governors have a lot of say over what goes on in LEA schools, particularly anyone prepared to put a bit of effort into it (many aren’t, so just let the Head get on with it). However, doing it properly is a tough time-consuming job, and it’s unpaid. Anyone who wants to run a school can do so by taking in being a governor – most LEAs really are finding it hard to get people to do the job, so just ask if you like, you may be surprised at what they’ll give you.

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