Why we must stop this 'preposterous' bill
The Lib Dems justify membership of the Coalition by arguing it is necessary to overcome the economic crisis. But on education, their leaders have tied them to Tory plans which have nothing to do with that crisis and which they strongly opposed before the election. These are the proposals for "free" schools and the transformation of primaries and secondaries into academies, which was not even mentioned in the Coalition's "programme for government".
But the Lib Dems' misgivings, if not strong doubts, have been revealed in the Lords' debates on the Academies Bill. In the second reading debate, a majority of speakers - cross-benchers and bishops, as well as Labour and Lib Dems - expressed criticisms or reservations. Then, in the committee stage, which finished this week, more than 195 amendments to the Bill were tabled - many put down by Lib Dems, some of a far-reaching character, such as the attempt to remove primaries from the rush to promote more academies.
As is often the case, the amendments were not pressed, pending the undertaking by Schools Minister Lord Hill to give consideration to the issues raised. Not until the report stage next week will we learn how far the Government is prepared to go to appease its Lib Dem and cross-bench critics. But it has already had to revise its parliamentary timetable, faced with accusations of undue haste and inadequate committee time, making it impossible to start the "fast-tracking" of academies by September, always a ludicrous intention given the complexities to be resolved.
Education Secretary Michael Gove will be foolish if he ignores the views of Lib Dem peers like Baronesses Williams, Sharp, Garden and Walmsley and Lord Greave, who have more knowledge of and experience in education than he and Lord Hill, and cross-benchers like the Lords Rix, Low and Northbourne, and the Earl of Listowel, who have long been involved in fields such as special needs and have voiced concerns about the effects of the Academies Bill's provisions if not amended.
He should also heed the warnings of the bishops, even if for partisan reasons he disregards the wise words of Labour peers like former education secretary Estelle Morris and film maker and educationalist David Puttnam.
The ministers have sought to justify their proposals by quoting Tony Blair's call for "a system of independent state schools, underpinned by fair admissions and fair funding, where teachers are equipped and enabled to drive improvements, driven by the aspirations of parents". But the proposed fast-tracking of "outstanding" schools to academy status is a perversion of Blair's academy policy.
Gove's central purpose seems to be to assume total control over the funding of large numbers of schools, with the aim of removing the local authorities from any serious role in education, regardless of the chaos that would cause and the dangers it would pose, especially for primaries. How else is one to interpret his invitation to all schools to become academies?
The ideology underlying that aim (which the Lib Dems cannot share if they are to remain true to their own aims) is that competition and market forces are the key to higher standards and greater parental choice. Even if that ideology were not in contradiction to all that has been done and is being planned to build partnerships, federations and increased co-operation between schools - often referred to in the Lords debates - Gove no longer talks of the 200,000 additional school places he promised before the election as essential to promoting "market forces". How could he in face of the cuts he is now planning?
And how preposterous is the intention to confer immediate academy status on the "free schools" which don't even exist yet, and which in many cases (as was pointed out in the Lords) are not likely to exist for some years, while tens of thousands of long-established and successful schools may have to wait years before they are deemed fit to pass under central government control.
You do not have to support Gove's academy plans to see the injustice and potentially damaging repercussions - surely a recipe for creating even more hierarchies of schools than already exist, and which the Lib Dems and the bishops cannot want to see.
How much of a stand will they make on the position of primaries? Shirley Williams argued cogently in the Lords that primaries are crucial institutions that help to hold communities together, are heavily dependent on local authority advisory services and require the support of their community more than secondaries do, and need governing bodies that sustain and include members of the community.
Her colleague Lord Greaves said further discussion on primaries, small schools and federations is required as the Bill progresses. But will it get it, given the minister's pathetic response to their arguments? After all, he had actually met a primary head who was "very keen on academy status".
Gove's claims of professional support for "free schools" and academies is something else the Lib Dems should question. Astonishingly, when announcing his "free schools" policy in the Commons last week, Gove said "more than 1,700 schools have expressed an interest in gaining academy freedoms", which he went on to say was "a remarkable and heartening display of enthusiasm by frontline professionals for our plans". Similarly, with 700 expressions of interest in opening new schools, it was "no surprise that so many idealistic teachers want to start new schools".
What does that say of the 400,000 teachers who have not expressed an interest? And how does Gove reconcile his conversion of enquiries into enthusiasm with reports of seminars which Shirley Williams has held around the country with Teaching Awards winners, where enthusiasm for his plans was non-existent?
For these and other reasons, the report stage of the bill could be the first test of the Coalition's viability. It could be that the Lib Dem peers have more fortitude and are more aware of the dangers in the bill than the Lib Dem MPs, but at least on their performance to date they have given us some hope that, in conjunction with the official Opposition, they might help prevent the chaos which an unamended bill would create.
Fred Jarvis, Former general secretary, NUT (1975-89).