David Laws writes… Nick Clegg and I have always been clear that Free Schools must also be fair schools

On Thursday this week, Nick Clegg will set out the Liberal Democrat approach to improving standards in schools.

He will set out what parents and pupils should expect from schools. This is an issue we have worked on together for some time, and which was debated and agreed at our party’s conference this Spring.

The Liberal Democrats are instinctive supporters of freedom, diversity and choice. We believe in giving schools more autonomy and teachers more freedom.

That’s why we have supported extra powers to innovate for free schools and academies and have taken steps in government to extend autonomy for all schools. We have given all schools the freedom to attract, retain and reward the best teachers. We have shortened the national curriculum so there is less direction on how to teach. And we have simplified the funding system and ensured that our new pupil premium – extra money to support disadvantaged children – is given to schools without strings attached because teachers know better than politicians how best to spend that money.

However, there’s a crucial difference between the freedom to innovate and experiment and the freedom to drop basic protections. That’s why Nick Clegg and I have always been clear that Free Schools must also be fair schools. From the beginning of the coalition, we said Free Schools would be prioritised in areas where there is a basic need for school places; that they would be able to give preference to children from disadvantaged homes; and that we would not allow them to be handed over to profit making firms.

The task, then, is to deliver both freedom and fairness – the core mission of liberalism.

Over the coming years, state funded schools will enjoy more independence from Whitehall than ever before. In a system underpinned by diversity and freedom, parents want to see some basic safeguards so they know that their child will receive a proper education wherever they go. That’s the whole idea behind our ‘parent guarantee’.

This is light years away from the kind of detailed prescription and micromanagement that characterised Labour’s approach to schools. It’s about ensuring that every child is taught by an excellent teacher with the requisite skills and training; that they all learn the basic essentials of the curriculum, and that they can all choose a healthy square meal each day – free, for all infant school children.

An autonomous school system can only be as good as its professional workforce. Subject experts and others who lack qualifications can still do a good job, as I pointed out in the House of Commons last week. But parents are entitled to do more than hope for the best – in a state funded system they are entitled to be confident of the quality of their child’s teacher. If you want to take full time responsibility for pupils’ day to day learning, ensuring they acquire the knowledge and skills they need to live a fulfilling and rewarding life, you should hold or be working towards a teaching qualification.

One year ago, Michael Gove removed the requirement for academies to employ qualified teachers. Liberal Democrats made clear then that this was not our position, and in March this year our party made a public commitment to qualified teachers in all schools. This will be in our next manifesto.

So, the choices on education at the next election will be clear. In office, Labour demonstrated that they don’t believe in freedom or innovation – drowning frustrated teachers and school leaders with endless diktats from Whitehall. Many on the right, meanwhile, think freedom means anything goes, parents picking a school and hoping for the best.

Only the Liberal Democrats are offering our schools more freedom and autonomy, while guaranteeing good quality standards for all children.

* David Laws is Liberal Democrat Minister for Schools.

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31 Comments

  • Andrew Emmerson 22nd Oct '13 - 9:03pm

    “Only the Liberal Democrats are offering our schools more freedom and autonomy,” Except they can’t hire which staff they want – and the Tories say they can .. So sorry David – you’re wrong.

    You’re wrong in that line, you’re wrong on this issue.

  • Helen

    Agree with virtually everything you say – QTS is an absolute no-brainer and these arguments about ‘highly qualified people’ are really poor.

    I, though in anti-intellectual Britain I am loathe to admit it’ am one of these ‘highly-qualified people but in no way could I teach a class of children my subject. My wife is a teacher and I could never ever do her job – my skills are a long way from what is required. That is not to say all people who are highly-qualified are not suitable for teaching but if they are then they should have no problem taking a teaching qualification to show it and thus become even more highly-qualified!

    On the point on HE, I differ slightly in your view as here the expertise and mastery in a subject becomes more critical and finding a good balance between that and good teaching is more difficult, especially as most University lecturers are employed for their research rather than their teaching prowess. Saying that though any work and ncouragement given to improve their teaching skills would be welcome

  • Paul Kennedy 22nd Oct '13 - 10:35pm

    Thanks for this clarification, David

    Please could you also make clear that it is not fair or right for ideological Conservative Councils like Hammersmith & Fulham to use sham consultations to close popular and successful primary schools like Sulivan School in Fulham purely in order to provide a site for a free school.

    And that it is also not fair or right to block a successful primary school’s academy application – backed by the respected London Diocesan Board for Schools – because the predatory Council wants to close it down to get its hands on its land.

    For further details, see @paulkenfulham

  • Peter Watson 22nd Oct '13 - 11:38pm

    “From the beginning of the coalition, we said Free Schools would be prioritised in areas where there is a basic need for school places; that they would be able to give preference to children from disadvantaged homes; and that we would not allow them to be handed over to profit making firms.”

    This sentence makes three claims, but how accurate are they?
    How are free schools prioritised and by whom? And why are they appearing where there is no shortage of places?
    Can free schools have an admissions policy to give preference to one group over another?
    Do free schools have to put all contracts out for open and competitive tender, or can they be legitimately manipulated to buy services from a profit making firm that has links to the running of the school?

    (Strictly speaking, I suppose Laws only makes one claim that Lib Dems said something, so perhaps would be entirely accurate even if none of the three things were actually delivered.)

  • As we are in government I judge Laws and his predecessor and our Tory overlords by actions and not words. We canned the unaffordable school building programme just before a bulge in pupil numbers necessitated the building of more schools and more classrooms. Gove faffed around with ideological changes which were mainly half baked and largely abandonned. The government persists in misdirecting the education of our kids towards passing tests and making their schools look good in league tables, rather than actually educating them. Teachers are bound up in more and more red tape, in the early years spending more time measuring kids’ progress than actually teaching them. Unfortunately I think the coalition is about as good as Labour, the only improvement is the ridiculous grade inflation which was denied, Gove even messed that up by moving the goalposts (or unexpectedly keeping them in the same place) at the last minute leaving himself open to legal challenge. When it comes to education this government is hapless and I have very little confidence that my kids will receive a good education from the state – certainly at least in secondary education, I seriously think I will have to teach them some of the subjects myself for them to learn as much as I did in school. Utterly depressing.

  • Julian Critchley 22nd Oct '13 - 11:52pm

    “We believe in giving schools more autonomy and teachers more freedom.”

    Excellent. I’ll look forward to the commitment to abolish OFSTED in the manifesto. As it is they, after all, who dictate to ALL schools exactly how they should teach each lesson, and exactly what their endless policies should be. I’ll also look forward to the end of compulsory performance-related pay, as obviously you’ll be wanting to give schools the autonomy to maintain a collaborative ethos, as many wanted, as opposed to the Govian approach of forcing all schools to adopt a DFE-approved PRP system.

    This sounds fantastic. Am I getting anything wrong ?

  • “we said Free Schools would be prioritised in areas where there is a basic need for school places”

    In other words, an area with schools that are complete rubbish, will not be allowed to introduce free schools to replace them, unless the rubbish schools are oversubscribed. It is meaningless to allow free schools to give preference to “children from disadvantaged homes” if the areas where those children live are not allowed to have free schools.

  • @ Alistair

    ” The government persists in misdirecting the education of our kids towards passing tests and making their schools look good in league tables, rather than actually educating them.”

    I think you must have missed David’s recent announcement to end Labour’s perverse 5 C’s GCSE target. Its a HUGE improvement that has been welcomed by MP’s of all parties and will finally rid the practice of ignoring kids way below (or above) the D/C borderline.

    More here http://liberalnorth.wordpress.com/2013/10/15/34/

  • Julian Tisi 23rd Oct '13 - 9:20am

    “So, the choices on education at the next election will be clear. In office, Labour demonstrated that they don’t believe in freedom or innovation – drowning frustrated teachers and school leaders with endless diktats from Whitehall. Many on the right, meanwhile, think freedom means anything goes, parents picking a school and hoping for the best.”

    A very welcome announcement and certainly one I support. Also, nicely squares the circle as it were between what he and Nick said this week.

    Just one question for David Laws – why did we stand by and allow Michael Gove to remove the requirement for academies to employ qualified teachers?

  • I must say whilst welcome, this statement supporting the requirement for teachers in substantial posts to be trained, does not gel with the impression Laws gave in the House last week. Perhaps a bit less animosity towards those from the opposition whose points it appears now you actually agree with would help.

  • Richard Church 23rd Oct '13 - 12:07pm

    ” That’s why Nick Clegg and I have always been clear that Free Schools must also be fair schools”

    Fairness surely requires that all parents have an equal chance to get their child into their neighbourhood school, regardless of whether it is a free school or an academy. I look forward to our next manifesto committing the party to ending discrimination on grounds of religion in the admissions policies of all state funded schools.

  • Matthew Huntbach 23rd Oct '13 - 1:10pm

    Julian

    In other words, an area with schools that are complete rubbish, will not be allowed to introduce free schools to replace them, unless the rubbish schools are oversubscribed.

    If the local schools are “complete rubbish”, and there are people who think they know how to run schools better, and there is government money being given out to improve schools, why don’t those people just ask to be appointed as governors to those “rubbish” schools? That would surely be much more efficient than paying to establish a new school and letting the other ones run down more.

  • Graeme Cowie

    Did you fail a PGCE perchance?

    I love the use of ‘arbitrary standard’ – the same could be said of all the professions that demand a qualification. Aren’t all qualifications arbitrary? Insofar that someone decides the standard and applies it – this Government is very good arbitrary standards based on the prejudices of Michael Gove – a man with no experience of educational professionalism and his friend Cummings who wrote one of the worst pieces of ‘research’ that I have had the misfortune to teach.

    Isn’t one of the reasons for the drop in non-qualified teachers in academies due to the fact that the Government has been converting them in droves so comparing 2010 data with now is apples and pears – have you a link to the data source?

    I have no problem with flexibility around QTS and fast-tracking certain people to it if appropriate but that is not what is being done here – it is the assumption that anyone with a qualification in a subject can teach, when in fact it is the art of teaching which is the most important part of the job, not expertise in the subject.

    I have a PhD in chemistry, I could not teach 11-16 year olds my subject as I haven’t the aptitude for teaching and the level I look at it is completely different than for GCSE, or even A Level.

  • Julian Critchley 23rd Oct '13 - 8:06pm

    Graeme – nice piece. I could go on a long time about how research is abused and/or ignored in education, but I won’t.

    At the crux of the issue here is that Gove himself describes teaching not as a profession, but as a “craft”. The problem is that at the heart of a craft is the ability to do the same thing repeatedly until you’re very good at it. There’s nothing wrong with that, and if I was getting a handmade suit or piece of furniture, I’d rate that skill rather highly. Teaching, on the other hand, is not about doing the same thing repeatedly. The very essence of teaching is to remain flexible, and to use judgement when faced with different situations. Anybody who has ever known a teenager – or accurately recalls their own teenage years – will know that consistency, or even logic, are not always present. The same child can be a different person from one day to the next. Multiply that by 30 and you have a class. Then bear in mind that while some may be up, some may also be down at the same time. Throw in variables you can’t control like : the weather, their external lives, the previous lesson, their diet, their mix of ability, their hormones, the nature of the subject, how much they slept last night, what topic you’re teaching today, etc etc etc, and you have a recipe for a very novel experience whenever you step into the classroom.

    In fact, I’d go so far as to say that a teacher who does the same thing with each class, irrespective of variables, without taking into account the nature of the beast before them and altering their plans accordingly, is a poor teacher. That’s why it is a profession – the judgements which are required, and the ability to use a range of professional expertise to try and get the best out of a series of situations in which not all variables are predictable. Gove doesn’t understand that. He’s been an absolute disaster for the profession, and for schools more widely. I’ll not forgive the LibDems for facilitating his vandalism for many a long year.

  • Peter Watson 23rd Oct '13 - 11:20pm

    @Graeme Cowie “The proportion of teachers in free schools and academies without a PGCE or equivalent DROPPED under the Coalition expansion of such schools from 2010 to 2012! ”
    This is because the government encouraged/coerced existing good local authority schools with a much lower proportion of unqualified teachers than existing academies to become academies, diluting very much the proportion of unqualified teachers overall in academies. In the latest data available, local authority schools still have a lower proportion of unqualified teachers than academies. The improvement is not because previously unqualified teachers in academies suddenly became qualified or were replaced.

  • Peter Watson 23rd Oct '13 - 11:34pm

    @bcrombie “Isn’t one of the reasons for the drop in non-qualified teachers in academies due to the fact that the Government has been converting them in droves so comparing 2010 data with now is apples and pears – have you a link to the data source?”
    Yes. There’s a bit of discussion about the data on a parallel thread: https://www.libdemvoice.org/two-questions-journalists-arent-asking-about-the-nick-cleggs-free-schools-speech-36869.html
    I also empathise with your comments about teaching. Every few years I speculate about a career change, and as a chartered chemical engineer working in software development, I’m confident in my subject knowledge in a few areas (regularly tested by helping my three children with schoolwork!). But I would definitely want formal instruction (as well as practice) before being let loose on a classroom, and from what I’ve seen of PGCEs, they look like an excellent combination of education theory with teaching practice in different school environments.

  • Peter Watson 23rd Oct '13 - 11:49pm

    @Graeme Cowie “The proportion of such teachers in the state sector as a whole is only slightly below the average for those in free schools.”
    The data is not there for free schools – unless you have another source.
    The figure for academies before dilution by previously local authority schools was high at 10%, and I am not aware of any evidence that it has reduced in those particular schools. The concern is that the figure for free schools could be of the same order, and it would be very reassuring for confirmation that it is not, especially after recent news stories about some free schools.

  • Julian Critchley 24th Oct '13 - 12:09am

    @Graeme and @bcrombie

    Sorry, posted in haste. I thought bcrombie’s piece was a lovely pithy and accurate paragraph, whereas I’m sorry Graeme, I don’t agree with what you wrote.

  • Graeme Cowie

    You cannot judge the whole of PGCE in UK by ‘knowing’ a couple of people in one area where education is managed differently.

    In secondary education the best way is for someone to have a degree or a lot of experience in the subject they teach, not always the case , and and then a teaching qualification conversion (i.e. PGCE). In primary some people take the BEd route.

    On your point that in ‘free’ schools (free to whom? Not the taxpayer who seem to pay disproportionately) quality is managed by the head and board of Governors – can you explain to me how a 27 year old with no experience of teaching as head of a ‘free’ school assesses the teachers?

    I do think we can live with some flexibility – I am a fan of breaking a few conventions when appropriate to do so – but the basis of teaching should be QTS.

    In my industry there is a lot of focus on proving competence and this is mainly looking at qualification, experience and chartered status – I see QTS being a similar thing. Proving competence to teach.

    When you have the possibility of free schools to appoint people like the person mentioned above as headteacher then I think their competence to judge teaching capabilities is definitely put into question.

  • Peter Watson 24th Oct '13 - 1:44pm

    Here. Laws writes, “From the beginning of the coalition, we said Free Schools would be prioritised in areas where there is a basic need for school places”. Elsewhere, “The schools minister David Laws has defended placing free schools in areas with spare places and high-quality existing schools” (http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/oct/23/parents-free-schools-minister).

    Here, “parents want to see some basic safeguards so they know that their child will receive a proper education wherever they go. That’s the whole idea behind our ‘parent guarantee’.”. Elsewhere, “Michael Gove and David Laws signed off on proposals to scale back vetting of schools despite civil service warnings” (http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/oct/23/ministers-free-schools-reduction-checks)

    Here, “in March this year our party made a public commitment to qualified teachers in all schools”. Last week, “Laws had said unqualified teachers were doing a superb job in schools, and said the best backstop to teaching quality was not formal qualifications, but Ofsted inspections.” (http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/oct/20/nick-clegg-david-laws-free-schools)

    And this is the man in charge of the Lib Dem manifesto! I expect we’ll have to hold it up to the light to read between the lines. 😉

  • Shirley Campbell 25th Oct '13 - 2:01am

    I despair. Personally, I should like to see persons with relevant honours degrees, educated in our state-funded schools, with the will to impart their knowledge to our nation’s young, given carte blanche to teach in our state-funded schools. It worked admirably in the past and, in 2013, we have more honours graduates than we had in the past. Bring on our nation’s talent and let them loose in our nation’s schools. Our nation does not need to indoctrinate its people in the art of teaching its own. Our nation has state-funded comprehensive schools that are prohibited from selecting their pupils on the basis of gender, ethnicity or archaic class classifications (classify and crucify), so bring on those versed in diversity to teach in our state-funded schools. Honours graduates educated in our state schools know the score, or should know the score, so let them use their initiative and teach in our state-funded schools. We don’t need to be patronised by those educated in the nation’s public schools; we have our own educated people.

  • >while guaranteeing good quality standards for all children.

    So I hope Nick Cleff and Nick Laws will encourage and support OFSTED in putting the Al-Madinah free school into Special Measures…

  • Peter Watson 26th Oct '13 - 12:00am

    A BBC report suggests somebody might have found a way to make money out of a free school 😉 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-24677371).
    Frighteningly, it looks like this was set up before Gove and Laws signed off on reducing the vetting of free school proposals.

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