Lib Dems march to Tory tune

21st May 2010 at 01:00
The education package thrashed out by the coalition partners will be unveiled next week, but have the Lib Dems simply capitulated to the Tories' cherished plans for free schools and a vast expansion of academy freedoms? Richard Vaughan reports

As the Queen sets out the legislative agenda of her new Government in the Lords next week, she may find teachers and heads poring over her words that little bit more than in recent years.

Next Tuesday they will find out what they can expect from the newly formed coalition, and at the heart of the speech will be a very Conservative Education Bill.

As The TES reported last week, the Tories are believed to have held out over their plans for England's schools when striking a deal with the Liberal Democrats.

According to sources close to the Tories' education team, Michael Gove's appointment as Education Secretary was one of the last to be announced because new Prime Minister David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg were still trying to thrash out a deal on education reform.

Mr Gove had already stated publicly that he was willing to forgo the education portfolio, but it is understood that in negotiations his condition was that his policies survived. His decision was backed by Mr Cameron, and the Conservatives are believed to have got their way.

The bias is reflected in the ministerial team at the new Department for Education (DfE) - Mr Gove killed off the Department for Children, Schools and Families within hours of his appointment. Tory Nick Gibb is schools minister, while as children's minister Lib Dem Sarah Teather has been edged out of a policy role. Tory Tim Laughton shares the children's portfolio.

The bill that will be included in the Queen's Speech is expected to contain almost all of the Conservatives' school reform plans, setting in motion legislation for so-called free schools and a roll-out of academy freedoms.

Sir Bob Balchin, a Tory policy adviser who helped draw up the Conservatives' draft Education Bill, said he expected two main school policy areas to be mentioned.

"I believe the Queen's Speech will have reference to new schools that could be set up by parents, charitable organisations and businesses, and, indeed, the ability of all schools to seek the freedoms of academy status," Sir Bob said.

And he added: "I believe there is a serious determination to have those two things in the speech next week."

It is thought the bill will immediately allow schools judged "outstanding" by Ofsted to apply for academy-style freedoms, while schools that have been in special measures for more than a year will automatically become academies.

Becoming an academy can grant a school an additional 10 to 12 per cent in cash, and as a recent TES survey showed, the majority of headteachers in outstanding schools would consider turning their school into an academy.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, believes that as times get tougher more and more heads will want to opt for the change in status.

"Schools and college leaders are extremely anxious about the future funding situation," Dr Dunford said. "They will be examining the Queen's Speech both for signs of early cuts and for the expenditure of any funds on government projects, which could reduce the size of the pot distributed to institutions."

The seven-page coalition agreement document outlined a vague pact between the two parties to ensure both sides agreed to promote the reform of schools so that "new providers can enter the state system in response to parental demand; that all schools have greater freedom over the curriculum and that all schools are held properly accountable".

But while the Liberal Democrats support the idea of academy freedoms being rolled out to more schools, the party's manifesto had called for academies to come under local authority control, something the Conservatives vehemently oppose.

It is here, at local authority level, that cracks could begin to appear between the parties as the majority of Lib Dem power is now at local government level, where there would be vociferous opposition to schools being removed from council control.

Although the new government has promised more detail on the agreement hammered out between the two parties, when it comes to education the Lib Demy seem to have secured very few victories.

Peter Downes, Liberal Democrat education spokesman on Cambridgeshire County Council, said: "A lot of Liberal Democrats are extremely concerned about the implications for state schools in general of the Gove policies for the creation of these free schools.

"We think it is going to be immensely complex, socially divisive, educationally dubious and financially disastrous at a time of constrained resources. If these things go ahead it could take education in this country back decades.

"What the Lib Dems really want to see is good-quality local schools commissioned and supported by locally elected democratic bodies and that is what we will continue to argue for. We are very anxious about the application of free-market principles to state education."

The policy area in which the Tories seem to have ceded some ground is the pupil premium. The agreement document says the coalition "will fund a significant premium for disadvantaged pupils from outside the schools budget by reductions in spending elsewhere".

This appears to be closer to the Lib Dems' vision. During the election campaign, the Conservatives suggested they would pay for the premium by restructuring the entire schools budget while the Lib Dems had pledged #163;2.5 billion for the policy, to be paid for by scrapping tax credits for families on above-average incomes.

But it remains to be seen what a "significant premium" will amount to. And with the prospect of immediate cuts to the tune of #163;6 billion, as outlined by Chancellor George Osborne on Monday, the sum may be substantially less than the Lib Dems would have hoped.

The new Government has already frozen a raft of initiatives and the DfE has placed a moratorium on the work of all its quangos in order to establish what is a priority for the new ministers. The Government has also frozen the #163;55 billion Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme, halting plans for hundreds of new secondary schools.

It is expected that a sizeable portion of BSF funding will be redirected to pay for the party's free schools policy.

As the Conservatives examine what is left in the coffers, the party may have to revise the extent of its plans for free schools - something the new children's minister Sarah Teather pointed out just two weeks before being handed a ministerial role.

In a BBC interview in April, Ms Teather said the Conservatives' free schools policy was a political stunt. "It's a shambles unless you give local authorities that power to plan and unless you actually make sure that there is money available.

"Otherwise it's just a gimmick ... It's all very well for Michael Gove to deal with bureaucracy and give parents power - but of course they are not really giving parents power because there is no money."

Ms Teather, like many other coalition members, may be forced to swallow her words. However, when the Lib Dems hear the Queen's Speech next week, they may be left asking themselves whether they have reached a genuine compromise with the Conservatives, or whether their educational policies have themselves become compromised.



Nick Gibb, minister for schools and

MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton

Age: 49

Education: mostly state - Maidstone Grammar; Roundhay, Leeds; Thornes House, Wakefield; and Durham University, where he read law.

Known for: championing synthetic phonics and being keen on traditional methods. He was vocal in his criticism of the Rose review of the primary curriculum, calling it disappointing and confused. Before entering Parliament, Gibb, who comes from a teaching family, was a chartered accountant specialising in corporate taxation.

Classic quote (from a Commons debate): "I do agree ... that Romans, Saxons and the Middle Ages, as well as the oceans and continents, the rivers of the UK and the countries of Europe, should be taught in primary schools. I disagree with his comment that primary schools should not teach about kings and queens: they are an important part of understanding our history, and I hope that they remain in the primary curriculum."


Sarah Teather, minister for children and families and MP for Brent Central

Age: 35

Education: independent - Leicester Grammar and St John's College, Cambridge, where she took a degree in natural sciences specialising in pharmacology.

Known for: being, at 29, the youngest MP when she was elected in 2003 at a high-profile by-election; she has since increased her majority. A speaker of Gujurati, Hindi and Urdu, she sings soprano in the Parliament choir.

Classic quote (from her maiden speech):

"As the youngest Member, I dare say that I am the only Member still paying back a student loan. However, I am aware that I am extremely lucky. When I went to university, I received a full grant. Tuition fees had not been introduced. Students who are studying for GCSEs and hoping to go on to university face extraordinary levels of debt."


Tim Loughton, minister for children and families and MP for East Worthing and Shoreham

Age: 47

Education: state - Priory School, Lewes; he studied classical civilisation at Warwick University and Mesopotamian archaeology at Clare College, Cambridge.

Known for: The former banker's most prominent role to date was in the Channel 4 series Tower Block of Commons. He stayed with three different families living in a Birmingham tower block, including single mum Natina. He was baffled by the absence of the Daily Telegraph in the newsagent, but came across as genuinely engaged.

Classic quote (from Twitter): "Eventually got the call from Number 10 on Thursday afternoon - Minister for Children - but not before I had managed to cut the PM off."

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