Unqualified teachers: Laws dodges the bullet as row returns to Westminster

23rd October 2013 at 11:27

As a piece of political drama, it appeared irresistible. How would David Laws - the man caught between two political camps over the increasingly contentious issue of free schools employing unqualified teachers - wriggle out of this one?

In recent days, tensions in the Coalition have been escalating since deputy prime minister (and Lib Dem) Nick Clegg surprisingly decided to turn on his (Tory) cabinet colleague, education secretary Michael Gove, calling for greater scrutiny of free schools - and, significantly, an end to them being allowed to hire unqualified teachers.

This has triggered outright fury among many Tories, outraged that, just days after Lib Dem schools minister David Laws publicly supported the "teachers who may not have formal qualifications but who still do a superb job",  his party leader had decided to backtrack so spectacularly.
Yesterday afternoon, the spotlight was on Mr Laws, a man apparently caught between divided loyalties to the blue and yellow camps. Despite his political affiliation, he is widely regarded as being to the Right of the party and perceived as sharing many of Mr Gove's views. So how would he keep both of his bosses happy?

Mr Laws was called upon to provide the government response in a Westminster Hall debate - mischievously called by Labour MPs - to discuss the issue of teacher training. While a number of weighty issues were discussed, from the shortage of maths and physics teachers to the impact of Schools Direct, all anyone really wanted to hear was on which side of the fence Mr Laws would come out.

Shadow schools minister Kevin Brennan repeatedly taunted his opposite number, audaciously inviting Mr Laws to join with Labour to pass a motion opposing unqualified teachers.

Mr Laws - happy to match Mr Brennan in the theatrical stakes - milked the unspoken drama for all it was worth, glancing at the clock at increasingly regular intervals to ensure he saved the million dollar question until the very end of his 15-minute slot.

"David Laws is incredible at wasting time," tweeted @missmcinerney. "His super-power is forming sentences that *sound* like they mean something but actually don't." Labour MPs were also growing increasingly frustrated, anxious that the smooth political operator would talk his way out of having to answer the question.

Eventually, to ironic cheers from the Labour MPs, Mr Laws announced he would "return to the issue of qualified teachers". The answer, inevitably, was something of an anticlimax. In fact, Mr Laws smirked, it had already been announced at the Lib Dem conference over six months ago, when party members backed a motion insisting that all teachers should be qualified.

Mr Clegg, as Lib Dem leader, was free to express party policy, Mr Laws calmly explained, while his own role as education minister meant he was required to support official government policy. Mr Laws grinned, eyes smiling, as if to suggest he had no idea what all the fuss was about. But as for the minister's personal view, we still have no idea. The issue, then, remains as clear as mud.

And with that, the debate came to an end. As another meeting about football governance started up, the majority of the MPs quietly sidled out of the room. They'd clearly had enough sport for one afternoon.


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