By Fiona Millar
Why did Michael Gove seem so ready to give up his cabinet job to Lib Dem education spokesman David Laws as part of the coalition negotiations? It is true that the Lib Dems have their soft Tory/rightish wing, rooted in organisations like Centre Forum, which argues that Tory education policy doesn’t go far enough and is supported by authors of the Orange Book, a group which includes chief Lib Dem coalition negotiator David Laws and believes in a greater role for markets in the public sector.
However, when the Liberal Democrat conference passed its policy document ‘Equity and Excellence‘ last year, it came down resolutely in favour of ideas that may not necessarily chime with either Labour or Tory priorities. Their flagship policy, massive (£2.5 billion) investment in a pupil premium and smaller class sizes, is to be funded by cutting key Labour policies of tax credits and the Child Trust Fund, both of which could be argued are equally powerful routes to promote equity and social mobility.
The Lib Dems also promised to rip up the National Curriculum; to give schools freedom to choose what and how they teach; to give heads more freedom in determining teachers’ pay; to create a new overarching diploma that would include academic and vocational qualifications; to stop any new schools selecting by ability, faith or aptitude and to require existing faith schools to prove they are truly inclusive within five years, none of which was in the Tory or Labour plans.
Significantly, the Lib Dem grassroots came out against using existing BSF budgets to create surplus places in ‘free’ schools – a key Tory policy.
However, the Lib Dem promise to ditch academies, and replace them with new ‘sponsor managed schools‘ that are funded via the local authority, is more ambiguous. Although widely interpreted as meaning an end to academies, the detail of the policy is sketchy. The Lib Dems claim that under their plans all schools would be given the same freedoms, but within a local authority framework.
What they don’t say is whether they would encourage existing academies to come back within the maintained system (the interpretation that many Lib Dem grassroots members, who care deeply about local accountability, prefer) and whether the new sponsor managed schools would be maintained or independent, the latter being more firmly in line with the Centre Forum/Michael Gove position. Maybe that’s why Michael was so ready to deal?
This is a crucial distinction. Independent schools may well be ‘commissioned’ by local authorities and come within their ‘oversight’, as the Lib Dem policy states. But they are effectively owned and run by the sponsors. They are not governed by the body of law that protects the rights of pupils, parents and teachers in the maintained state sector, but are controlled by their ‘funding agreements’, confidential commercial contracts, between the sponsor and the secretary of state, which could easily be converted into similarly loose contractual arrangements between the local authority and the sponsor.
The current model funding agreement has been tightened up in the last few years so that academies are tied into regulations on admissions, SEN and exclusions. However funding agreements could easily be ripped up by a government of a different political persuasion, and re-drafted to make these new institutions (whether they are called academies, free or sponsor managed schools) really free and answerable to no-one BUT the sponsor. This is one reason why opponents to academies, fearing the policy would lead to irreparable fragmentation of the school system, have been so vehement in many places.
Not for the first time, the Lib-Dems have rather cleverly managed to be all things to all men (and most of their senior figures are men). The election campaign forced light to be shone on their foreign and immigration policies. The next few days and months could force their real intentions on schools into the limelight.
This post was also published at The Truth About Our Schools.