Clegg on free schools and National Curriculum: no more, no less than party policy. And that’s for better and worse.

No-one should be that surprised by Nick Clegg’s decision to distance the Lib Dems from Michael Gove’s schools policies — specifically that every teacher should be qualified and that every school should teach the national curriculum. After all, what Nick is due to set out in a speech this week is the policy that was voted for overwhelmingly by the party’s conference in March this year.

Here’s what the adopted policy – Every Child Taught by an Excellent Teacher – says about teachers in all schools having qualifications:

All classroom teachers, including in academies and free schools and Further Education colleges, to be required to have Qualified Teacher Status (QTS) or Qualified Teacher in Learning and Skills (QTLS) Status or to be working towards them, to be achieved within three years of employment.

And here’s what it says about the National Curriculum being taught in all schools:

All schools, including academies and free schools, to subsequently be required to teach the new, slimmed down, National Curriculum.

There’s only two categories of people who should be surprised by Nick’s speech today (other than journalists, of course, who usually ignore the boring political stuff, like policies). First, those Lib Dem members who think Nick Clegg always freelances on policy and ignores the policies voted for by the party. And, secondly, David Laws, who stood up in the House of Commons on Thursday to say this:

Mr Laws: We want to ensure that teachers in schools have good qualifications and the capacity to teach. The hon. Lady [Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab)] will know, however, that there are plenty of teachers who may not have formal qualifications but who still do a superb job. We are ensuring, through the Ofsted inspection process, that every single teacher has the capability to teach. All classes are assessed for quality, and that is the right way to ensure a backstop of high standards.

To be fair, David will have been speaking on behalf of the Coalition Government (and not as chair of the Lib Dem manifesto group). Nick’s speech will be as Lib Dem leader. We’re assured that the two are entirely united on the issue — but, even if they aren’t, it’s the party that makes Lib Dem policy.

Personal opinion: my own view is that the Lib Dems, for a party committed to localism, are remarkably keen on setting national standards.

In general, I do think teachers should have a teaching qualification or be working towards one – it’s important to have a sound basis not only in subject knowledge, but also the wider pedagogy. Here’s Ofsted head Sir Michael Wilshaw on the issue: “I would expect all the teachers in my school to have qualified teacher status. … What I want to see is all heads to ensure their unqualified teachers can teach effectively and when that is proved they are given Qualified Teacher Status (QTS).” However, there are circumstances in a range of subjects (eg, computing, sports, foreign languages) when I can imagine a head-teacher wishing to make exceptions. And I’d rather the head-teacher and governing body of a school laid down what those exceptions might be than that politicians/Whitehall does.

I’m curious to know how big a problem this is. I’d be very surprised if many schools – certainly existing LEA or recent converter academy schools – are reliant on a vast army of unqualified teachers. It is more likely to be the case that unqualified staff are more frequently found in free schools (and, of course, in independent schools). Egregious examples like Al-Madinah in Derbyshire will the hit the headlines. Certainly the critical spotlight of attention will be much more searching for the 170 free schools than it is for the other 25,000 schools across England and Wales; and that’s probably as it should be.

A couple of weeks ago, Peter Hyman – formerly an adviser to Tony Blair, who then re-trained as a teacher and head-teacher and set up a new free school in east London, School21 – set out his vision in a widely-praised article in the Evening Standard: We need a new schools model for the 21st century. He wrote of the targets-driven orthodoxy that has dominated in the last couple of years: “a relentless focus on the basics, a tough approach to behaviour management and massive intervention in Years 10 and 11 to convert every D grade into a C grade. Something more was needed.” All of these are necessary, but they are not sufficient. Peter Hyman co-founded School21 to challenge that orthodoxy. Liberals should be championing grassroots innovation, not wanting to do it down.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

Read more by or more about , , , , , , , , or .
This entry was posted in News and Op-eds.


  • Paul Pettinger 20th Oct '13 - 11:35am

    How extraordinarily duplicitous of Clegg to distance himself from parts of the Free Schools agenda. It might wash with some voters, but no wonder the Tories are ruffled by him turning on their love child.

  • What I mostly want is transparency.

    Have a national standard. Individual schools can override this – but they must list every teacher that does not meet that standard, and the reason for their exception.

  • Eddie Sammon 20th Oct '13 - 12:19pm

    I must say I am not a big fan of regulation and people shouldn’t take away other people’s freedom if they don’t want it to be taken away from themselves. However, the principles learnt from the financial crisis apply to all areas of government and I think the problem is lack of supervision, rather than hard and fast rules. Free schools make people worry about chaos. We shouldn’t get into a cherry-picking exercise where national curriculum, qualifications and food standards are non-negotiable, but opening times and holidays are open to chaos.

  • Paul Kennedy 20th Oct '13 - 12:43pm

    Localism would be great if local government were genuinely democratic.

    As I explained on another post, the main reason schools are queueing up to become academies in Hammersmith & Fulham is to avoid being closed down by the predatory Tory council so as to provide sites for their free schools policy.

  • Richard Harris 20th Oct '13 - 2:38pm

    I am no longer surprised by the Lib Dem Leader’s ability to get policies implemented then try to give the impression that any bad aspects are the responsibility of the “others”. Please, please, Mr. Clegg, stop it. You voted for the policy, now stand up and defend it.

  • Philip Rolle 20th Oct '13 - 2:49pm

    Nick Clegg doesn’t go far enough.

    Free schools don’t belong in the state sector: they belong in the independent sector. They should be funded by those who support their ideals.

    State schools should be good enough to ensure that parents in general don’t need to send their children to independent schools. There will always be those with ( mainly ) religious bees in their bonnets who want to run a school differently to the mainstream, but they should operate in the independent sector.

    Finally, localism must not trump quality or necessity. Some things are too important to be left to parents or head-teachers and must be guided centrally. An example is sex education.

  • Stephen Donnelly 20th Oct '13 - 3:55pm

    @Philip Rolle: “Free schools don’t belong in the state sector: they belong in the independent sector. They should be funded by those who support their ideals”.

    Why do you think that ? Is it not possible within the state sector to have a variety? Does everything need to be subjected to central control ?

  • @Philip Rolle
    “State schools should be good enough to ensure that parents in general don’t need to send their children to independent schools.”

    The only way anyone has found so far to make this happen is Academies/Free Schools. Do you have a better way? i.e. Something that hasn’t been tried before and failed.

  • Philip Rolle 20th Oct '13 - 6:16pm

    I suspect that in time we shall find that those who run free schools will often have agendas that are at odds with the kind of society that I want to see and that is why I oppose them being state schools.

    There seems to me to be no reason why state schools cannot be possessed of some variety. But do we really want a regime that teaches that evolution is rot and being gay is wrong?

  • Patrick Smith 20th Oct '13 - 6:21pm

    I agree with Nick Clegg in insisting that all Teachers must be QTS or equivalent (Vocationally trained) in Free Schools but I think there has to be latitude with LAs, as the best schools alone are those who serve the aspirations of the pupils in the belief that each pupil should achieve equally, regardless of birthright and parental income or social influence.

    I do not think that the reason why we have almost 1 million 16-24 year olds classified as NEETS ,is to do with them being failed by unqualified Teachers in Free Schools.

    Surely government policy framers, must now reflect that unlike some EU States our National Curriculum is all hallowed and retains the academic totem pole and does not specifically prepare pupils for kinaesthetic vocational training and work in engineering sciences and building industry, from age 14 years i.e.Year 9 ?

    I believe that that many pupils are more vocational and less academic to GCSE from a much earlier time, that post 16 requires, new policy definition and respond by the new provision of special Vocational defined school pathways that are not currently available from Year 9 onwards in State or Free Schools.

    The debate has to be recruiting a good industrial weighted calibre of vocational and science and language Teachers in all schools in the future to help eliminate the risk of teenagers facing a skills shortage market apart from knowing numeracy and literacy.

  • David Allen 20th Oct '13 - 8:11pm

    Geoffrey Payne,

    “At our Sheffield conference in 2010 we voted by a margin of 10 to 1 against free schools and academies. Nick Clegg on the other hand has said he has always supported the policy … However I thought I would praise Nick Clegg for what he is now saying..”

    Well, nice try, but, people aren’t stupid. Clegg said nothing when it mattered, when the policy was being established. So what does it look like, when there is bad news, and Clegg suddenly comes forward with criticisms, together with claims that he “was purely stating what he had always said”? It looks like cynical opportunism, doesn’t it! Nick Clegg’s stock-in-trade.

    If Clegg had said today that the new news from Al-Madinah ought to make everybody think afresh, that wouldn’t have sounded cynical.

    If Clegg had said at the outset that he had reservations but would accept the policy in the spirit of coalition, then he wouldn’t have sounded so cynical now.

    Better, he could have put up today’s arguments at the outset, and asked for some changes as the price of his party’s agreement. He is now saying he would like qualified teachers, the national curriculum, and healthy meals. If at the time he had said that he needed some concessions before he could sign up, then maybe he’d have at least got the healthy meals. As things stand, he won’t get anything, and the Tories can afford to ignore what he says.

    It’s no use talking argumentative late in the day, after selling the pass at the time when it mattered. It just looks duplicitous.

    For what it’s worth, I think Jeremy Browne got it right. If you’re going to be an orange Tory, your best electoral strategy is to come right out and admit it. At least you’ll be trusted by those voters who like orange Tories. The Clegg way ahead will get trusted by nobody.

  • A shame he did not go further and reiterate the unacceptability of religious discrimination in state-funded school admissions. We live in hope though… Perhaps that is for another high profile announcement?

  • I wonder if its the social Lib Dem MPs ( who face the hardest battle to keep their seats) that are starting to pressure Clegg on this and also with respect to Jeremy Browne.

  • Peter Watson 20th Oct '13 - 10:53pm

    Back in 2011, in a speech about free schools that was trailed in advance as an attempt to claim that Lib Dems were joint architects of the government’s education policy, Clegg said, “we’re offering all schools the chance to take on Academy status, either individually or as part of a chain. Where they have full control over their curriculums, staffing and budgets.” (

    Apparently joint architects meant reluctant passengers. By full control over their curriculums Clegg meant they would follow the national curriculum, and by full control over their staffing he was implying that teaching staff would have to be qualified. I don’t think I’ll ever understand Clegg-speak.

    Also, apparently (but secretly) Clegg was ahead of Labour and isn’t jumping on a Millibandwagon with promises that all teachers in free schools will have to be qualified under a future Lib Dem government but not this one (I wonder if that is the first hint by Clegg of possible Lab-LD coalition policy).

  • Julian Critchley 21st Oct '13 - 12:06am

    So much nonsense is written about state education in the press, usually by people who have no experience of state education since they themselves sat in a classroom (and in the case of most journalists and politicians, not even then). It’s so depressing when the inaccuracies are repeated again and again by talking heads who literally have no clue. It’s as if I were to sit in my GP’s waiting room with someone else whose experience of the NHS is confined to being a patient, only to pronounce confidently what was wrong with the practise and what needed to be done to fix it. Helen Tadcastle provides a voice with obvious experience and knowledge of the system, but some of the other guff written above is just depressingly wrong. For example :

    Cobblers No 1 : “variety” . There’s no variety for the overwhelming majority of parents. You will have to send your child to your nearest school with places in any area where schools are oversubscribed (which, increasingly, is all our large urban areas). The only exceptions to this are the religious schools. You may well have a free school here, an academy there, an LEA school over there, and a religious school yonder, but unless you’re religious, you’ll pretty much be going to your local school, because every non-selective, non-religious school (the great majority) prioritises distance to the door. The whole variety and choice argument has always been guff. It’s a classic case of the central-London-living chattering classes being unable to consider that most of the country isn’t like Islington or Notting Hill.

    Cobblers No. 2 – being an Academy confers “freedom” over curriculum. No it doesn’t. LEAs haven’t had any influence over curriculum for decades. Every time any politician said that academy status granted freedom from LEA control over the curriculum, they were lying. Being an academy does grant the “freedom” to employ untrained teachers, who can be paid less, as well as the “freedom” to hide the accounts. Not forgetting the “freedom” to be forcibly incorporated into a private academy chain run by a Tory donor, who will then instruct the school to buy its services at a premium from a second, commercial, company owned by – yes, you guessed it – the same man ! Not quite the freedoms most parents would look for. As for any other “freedoms”, academies are inspected under the same criteria by OFSTED, which means that they’ll be criticised for exactly the same reasons that LEA schools will be criticised. Given that most schools are terrified of the OFSTED gauleiters, you’ll find that there’s very little difference in practise between an academy and a LEA school.

    Cobblers No. 3 – NEETS are a consequence of failure at school. A large proportion of those NEETS are graduates, including many with good degrees from “traditional” universities. It’s a wee bit more complicated than that, isn’t it ? Like – not having any decent jobs to go to locally, even with your degree, or not being able to afford to move from poorer parts of the UK to the south-east, where the jobs are. NEETS aren’t all hopelessly illiterate washouts, you know. Perhaps you’ve been exposed to too much Tory propaganda that everyone not in work is a “skiver” ?

    Free schools are such an irrelevance. There’s a couple of hundred of them, many of which won’t last another 5 years, compared to 20,000+ established schools. The light and heat generated is disproportionate in every way to their significance. Their current model is utterly unsustainable, and when someone sane returns to the education department after 2015, they’ll have to be either closed or integrated into a more planned system. Free schools are a Govian vanity project dreamed up in order to provide jobs for a bunch of talentless Tory thinktankers who believed their own hype about how easy it is to be a teacher/run a school (how’s that working out for you, Annaliese Briggs ?), and to give Toby Young the opportunity to avoid having to pay through the nose if he doesn’t want his kids mixing with the local poor children.

  • Nigel Quinton 21st Oct '13 - 9:21am

    Why was there no LibDem spokesperson available for the Today programme this morning? Surely it was obvious following Nick’s comments that this was going to be a key news item?

  • Peter Watson 21st Oct '13 - 10:46am

    @Nigel Quinton “Why was there no Lib Dem spokesperson available for the Today programme this morning?”
    Since Clegg’s speech is not until Thursday, one cannot help but wonder why it was leaked so far in advance, especially since the furore seems to have caught everybody by surprise.
    It seems that Clegg cannot do right for doing wrong. He is making statements with which I (and many others) agree, and which are in accord with party policy. Yet, with plenty of justification, he is accused by both sides of hypocrisy for promoting/supporting/allowing the measures that he is now criticising, attacked for dodging collective responsibility when it suits him and also for not doing so when it would have made a difference. An article at also suggests the vote chasing that might explain his changed public position ( Perhaps the party does need a new leader before the general election, one who can cash in on the electoral benefits of economic recovery while reminding voters about the differences between party policy and coalition policy without being tarnished by the latter.

  • Why has nobody I have heard in the media asked the Tories that given it was a Conservative government that introduced the national curriculum why they hare so keen for some schools to be able not to follow it now?

  • Thank you to those who actually understand education in our national schools. As a headteacher myself, fully educated for the roles of teacher and headteacher [two different things] it’s good to read posts which I recognize are about education and the needs of future generations – as far as anyone can judge those needs to be. Too many people post opinions on all kinds of subjects, based on what they read in the press these days. Mr Gove seems to do the same in his role of Secretary of State for Education. Is he qualified to rule on education? I doubt it.

    Decades ago, lecturers on my higher qualification courses warned of the problems which would arise should education be placed in the hands of politicians in central government. Education generally, they said, would lose the ‘liberal educational’ components [it doesn’t mean Liberal] which made UK the envy of the world. A liberal education doesn’t concern itself overly with the specifics of each year, decade, government, country – it is universal and teaches how to think. Unlike a professional and vocational education that prepares students for their careers, a liberal education prepares students for the rest of their lives. Such an education helps the individual have the necessary skills to face most obstacles in life. For example, a liberal education helps students be self-conscious and aware of their actions and motivations. Individuals also become more reflective of their environment and more considerate for other beliefs and cultures. Overall, a liberal education provides the framework for an educated and thoughtful citizen.

    A liberal education cannot be developed in a system which has a focus on the local needs of industry, the decisions made in a national Cabinet or Party office, made one year and rearranged the next – as politicians do. Any education has to last a life-time for every individual and has to be left in the hands and minds of those who have studied how to do it over a long period. Governments come and go and cannot be trusted to be responsible for the education of a single individual who will rely on it for a life-time.

  • Stephen Donnelly 21st Oct '13 - 10:06pm

    @Philip Rolle you say : “I suspect that in time we shall find that those who run free schools will often have agendas that are at odds with the kind of society that I want to see and that is why I oppose them being state schools.”. But why do you think you should be the one to choose for everyone. What gives you the right to impose your kind of society on anyone else ? By suppressing variety you will prevent discovery and innovation. and limit personal freedom.

    @robdn. I agree with much of what you say. I was educated in the state system, and am a little reluctant to make this point, but is not the finest liberal education offered by public schools, to the lucky few who can afford to attend.

  • jedibeeftrix 21st Oct '13 - 10:35pm

    “In general, I do think teachers should have a teaching qualification or be working towards one – it’s important to have a sound basis not only in subject knowledge, but also the wider pedagogy.”

    In general, I disagree that it should be a requirement.

    I recall my father, a biology teacher with an enviable reputation for grade attainment in his school, being forced to do a PGCE after 35 years of service.

    It was a joke.

    I have nothing against the teacher ‘qualifications’ per-se, they may well benefit some, but by enforcing it on all you just push excellent teachers into the private sector to the detriment of state pupils.

    To quote Harry Mount on Nick Clegg:

    “Looking down the list of those teachers’ CVs in the Record of Old Westminsters, I see that not a single one of them lists a teacher’s qualification. Instead, practically without exception, they went to Oxford or Cambridge and straight on into teaching.”

    To cap it it all off you (generically) will complain loudly about the iniquity of private education and how it cements privilege for the rich. It makes my teeth grate!

  • Julian Critchley 21st Oct '13 - 11:40pm


    To quote Harry Mount on Nick Clegg:

    “Looking down the list of those teachers’ CVs in the Record of Old Westminsters, I see that not a single one of them lists a teacher’s qualification. Instead, practically without exception, they went to Oxford or Cambridge and straight on into teaching.”

    I think you may be in danger of seeing something as good, which is in fact bad. Yes, there are plenty of teachers in public schools without teaching qualifications. I’d suggest to you that this is because it’s a not the hardest job in the world to teach very small classes of very intelligent, motivated students with plentiful resources and committed parental backup. Teaching large classes of mixed ability, including the sort of low ability children private schools rarely see, who don’t come with the motivation, behavioural norms or parental support one might hope to find, is a very different kettle of fish, and brings with it the need for a much broader skillset.

    The interesting thing about the teacher recruitment market is that state school teachers generally have little difficulty switching to the private sector, while private school teachers often find it very hard to move the other way.

    I’m an Oxford graduate who went into teaching after a decade of working in the adult world, and I simply could not have managed what I had to manage without the training I got on a PGCE course. Some of it was less relevant than other bits, of course, but the sort of theoretical grounding – and classroom practise from the school placements – which a training course demands, were absolutely vital in ensuring that I was prepared for the challenges of teaching the 93% of kids who don’t necessarily start with all the advantages.

    I’ve recruited quite a few teachers since I made the switch, and I will always prefer a PGCE trainee over a school-based trainee, because in my experience they are much more likely to be successful classroom practitioners, and I wouldn’t look twice at someone who didn’t have the commitment to obtain the relevant training before applying for a job. You might call that closed-minded, whereas I’d call it being a professional who demands high standards for children who only get one shot at their education.

  • Philip Rolle 22nd Oct '13 - 12:14am

    Stephen Donnelly said: “…why do you think you should be the one to choose for everyone. What gives you the right to impose your kind of society on anyone else ?”

    First of all, I would not seek to ban schools; merely ensure that those who do not keep to the rules do not operate within the state sector. And the imposition of rules, a framework, is hardly controversial. For instance, if free schools want to act in contradiction to equalities legislation, I submit that this ought not to be seen as “variety” – it is harmful and the state should not sanction it. There is a place for challenging the law of the land, but a school is not that place.

    There is of course also the point that much of the basic education that a person needs is prescriptive. We have seen already what happens when students receive a “liberal education” but their employers find they lack basic skills in language and mathematics. Variety must not trump quality.

  • jedibeeftrix 22nd Oct '13 - 1:07pm

    good point julian, thank you.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Alex Macfie
    @David Raw: So? They were exclusively Lib Dem ~ Tory battleground seats (we lost seats to Labour in 1997), won by us when the Conservatives were self-destructin...
  • nigel hunter
    Roland you mean GBnews is in trouble so they have to 'stir it' to get an audience?...
  • Roland
    >” I’d expect Floella to be polite but highly critical of the delays in compensating victims of the Home Office and, indeed, those administering the Sche...
  • Cassie
    'Not all farmers are rich...' Indeed. The average income of lowland grazing livestock farms in 2022-23 was £21,600. Upland farms lost £10,400 on average fr...
  • Roland
    Re. Lee Anderson Been here before not that long ago… This is about creating “news” for GBnews.....