“The doctrine of collective responsibility is not some old musty constitutional suit of armour. It is much more concerned with common sense, good faith and comradeship amongst those who must act together in Parliament if they are to give effective leadership… No alternative substitute for that good faith exists”.
So said Michael Foot, who knew a thing or two about the dangers of loose tongues around the table. But he never reckoned with our Deputy Prime Minister.
Nick Clegg’s speech in Bethnal Green was supposed to set out his vision for education. But as he railed against the policy of unqualified teachers – which his Government has implemented – a rather simpler message began to emerge. It went something like this:
“I may be the Deputy Prime Minister of Her Majesty’s Government. But please believe what I say, not what I do.”
Is it any wonder that politicians struggle to gain public trust?
Alas for the DPM, it is actions that speak louder than words, not the other way round. And, if we’re honest, the Liberal Democrat leader does have some previous for being less than trustworthy when it comes to policies for young people. But a bit more on those words:
“The first wave of free schools will open this week. The idea is that parent groups, charities and other organisations can open schools where they are not happy with the existing choice. It is controversial with many, and there are risks – but I am confident we have mitigated those risks”.
Or so he said back in September 2011 at a speech in Wandsworth.
Unfortunately, as we have seen with Al-Madinah Free School debacle, he was empathically wrong. For where exactly did the role of teaching quality weigh in this risk assessment? Because as the Labour Party knows, the best way to improve our children’s education is by raising the quality of teachers. It is very simple – good teachers change lives, awakening the life-long thirst for knowledge and aspiration in young minds that a rich society and vibrant economy needs. We want to train up the teaching profession, not talk it down. That is why we have opposed, at every step, the Government’s policy to encourage unqualified teachers.
Which brings me onto his actions. Because when Labour peers tabled an amendment to the Education Act specifically to mitigate against those risks, what did the DPM do? Why, he ordered his peers through the lobby to crush the amendment, ensuring the growth of unqualified teachers in our classrooms. To be precise, a 141% growth in Academies and Free Schools since 2010. That amounts to 5286 unqualified teacher in total, with fully one in ten teachers in Free Schools being unqualified.
Furthermore, when the OFSTED report into the Al-Madinah Free School debacle was unequivocal that too many unqualified teachers were at the heart of that school’s failure last week, with what message did Nick Clegg send his Schools Minister, David Laws, into Parliament? He responded to Labour’s criticism of unqualified teachers at the school as “nothing other than total and utter opportunism.”
But there can be no escaping one fact: these are his policies. His record. His failure. To try to renege on them now simply isn’t credible.
Of course, Nick Clegg may well protest that this all part of a grown up and sensible approach to coalition politics – fine. But with that comes a tacit admission that the most important lever we have for raising educational standards was negotiable; that for five years he was prepared to play politics with our children’s education.
Still, perhaps we are being unfair. Perhaps this represents a genuine conversion to the kind of pragmatic and effective education policy which Ed Miliband is pursuing. Labour has absolutely no quibble with the policy of wanting properly qualified teachers in our schools. The trouble is just that it is difficult to believe what Nick Clegg says anymore.
So next week, Nick, when we put it to a vote in the House of Commons again, where will you stand this time?
Tristram Hunt is Shadow Secretary of State for Education