Nick Clegg: Coalition not in crisis over free schools discord

Nick Clegg, Michael Gove Nick Clegg's attempts to change coalition policy are said to have been blocked by the education secretary

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Nick Clegg has denied there is a "great coalition crisis", ahead of a speech in which he will distance the Liberal Democrats from part of the government's policy on free schools.

The deputy prime minister will argue free schools must follow the national curriculum and should not allow unqualified people to teach.

But he told Sky News this was part of a "grown-up" debate between the parties.

Downing Street had expressed surprise at Mr Clegg's comments.

Free schools, set up by parents and other groups, are state-funded but operate outside local authority control.


Chairman of the Independent Academies Association, Nick Weller, defends the free school system

They were established under a policy pioneered by Education Secretary Michael Gove and since September 2011 more than 170 have been opened across England.

Currently free schools have discretion over what to teach, but in his speech to a school in north London on Thursday, Mr Clegg will ask: "What's the point of having a national curriculum if only a few schools have to teach it?"


For three-and-a-half years, the Lib Dems have been part of a coalition that was committed to free schools.

But some of these schools have had bad publicity recently. Nick Clegg wants to see changes that would "reassure parents".

That would mean less flexibility and the imposition of certain minimum standards.

But those close to the education secretary made it clear they were given no advance warning of the deputy prime minister's speech, and Downing Street officials are hinting that No 10 had been equally unsighted.

Nick Clegg concedes he will not get his changes past the education secretary before the election, so he will pledge to make them in the next Lib Dem manifesto.

But his criticism has ruffled Conservative feathers and his partners are suggesting the move owes more to the Lib Dem leader's need to form a coalition with his own core voters than it does to education policy. Expect to see further examples of where the coalition parties disagree in the run up to the general election.

His next party manifesto will also say all schools should adhere to new standards on meals and demand that teachers are either qualified or near qualification.

Last week, the head teacher of a primary free school in London, who was still studying for her postgraduate certificate in education, stood down following criticism from Labour councillors.

There was also controversy when the Al-Madinah free school in Derby was classed as inadequate by education inspectors.

In his speech to a London school this week, Mr Clegg will say: "I'm proud of our work over the last three years to increase school autonomy, which, in government with the Conservatives, has been through the academies programme."

But he will go on to question "aspects of schools policy currently affected by the priorities of the Conservative Party which I would not want to see continue".

Mr Clegg will add: "Whilst I want to give schools the space to innovate, I also believe every parent needs reassurance that the school their child attends, whatever its title or structure, meets certain core standards of teaching and care. A parental guarantee, if you like."

Appearing on Sky News, he said he was a supporter of free schools, but his concern was about maintaining standards.

He said: "Most head teachers and parents would expect that the teachers who teach their children have the proper qualifications."

Asked whether his comments were a signal that the Lib Dems were moving closer to Labour's policy, with a view to possible coalition-forming after the next general election, Mr Clegg said this was "complete and utter nonsense".

He added that "tensions" were part of being in coalition and said: "It's not a political crisis when some of those differences are articulated in public."


A Department for Education spokesman said free schools were "raising standards and giving parents more choice".

He added: "They are run by teachers, not local bureaucrats or Westminster politicians, and are free to set their own curriculum, decide how they spend their money and employ who they think are the best people for the job. This government is not going to take these freedoms away."

Under plans announced by Labour, parent groups and other organisations would be able to set up schools outside local authority control, although local authorities would have greater powers to intervene when there were concerns about standards.

But last week, shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt said a future Labour government would allow most existing free schools to remain open.

On Sunday, Mr Hunt said: "Michael Gove and David Cameron's divisive Free Schools programme is unravelling for all to see.

"But Nick Clegg is locked-in to this failure too. It is his policies that have led to the mess we saw at the Al-Madinah Free School earlier, the looming crisis in teacher recruitment and the 141% rise in unqualified teachers since 2010."

A Downing Street spokesman said earlier that, as recently as last week, the Lib Dem schools minister David Laws had said he was "100% behind the coalition's free schools policy, which makes Nick Clegg's comments all the more surprising".

Michael Gove's allies have accused Mr Clegg of "fundamentally misunderstanding" the nature of free schools.

Lib Dem sources have told the BBC that Mr Clegg argued for his proposed changes in cabinet but they were blocked by the education secretary.

But Mr Clegg said current education policy was "something for Mr Gove" to handle and that he did not interfere in the workings of his department.

Unqualified teachers 'better'

On the issue of teacher qualifications, the head teacher of independent school Brighton College, Richard Cairns, said he believed that "teachers are born not made".

"At Brighton College, this year's Sunday Times Independent School of the Year, we have 39 teachers without formal teaching qualifications, including me."

He continued: "Once teachers are in the school, they have a reduced teaching timetable to allow them to spend time observing other good teachers and are actively mentored. By the end of the year, they are, in our view, better trained than any PGCE student."

His view was echoed by fellow independent school head, Katy Ricks of Sevenoaks School in Kent, who said she seeks "ability, enthusiasm and potential".

"As an untrained teacher myself, my own experience and those of my colleagues around me demonstrates clearly that good classroom practice, of course essential to being an outstanding teacher, can be learned on the job as long as there is a supportive framework within the school," she said.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 333.

    @306 Denis
    My comment to you never mentioned marking or the media platform we are using to make comments. You need to go back and check your research. Depending on the role you're trying to fill good grammar is not always the optimal way to choose the candidates for interview. Language evolves, rigid rules may actually be harmful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 332.

    I fail to understand the benefits of free schools. They`re state funded but don`t need to follow the national curriculum or have qualified teachers. Seems more like a system of political or religious indoctrination than an education system to me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 331.

    I'm not left-wing (before that's thrown at me) but:
    1. 'Free' schools cost more because of the nature of the subsidy;
    2. Education is actually state controlled - try not following standards and get through an OFSTED inspection;
    3. Senior management time is spent on business, not pedagogy;
    4. Teachers need to be taught how to teach - would we be happy having unqualified doctors?

  • rate this

    Comment number 330.

    Gove is confrontational, arrogant, not very smart, wants schools to go back to "how it was in my day", and, worst of all, has never taught so cannot appreciate the modern demands of the job, yet fails to consult those at the sharp end of education. He thinks unqualified personnel can do the job of professional staff....and doesn't understand why teachers don't warm to him. As I said, not smart!

  • rate this

    Comment number 329.

    More wars have been started over religion than anything else. 243

    Really? Are you sure?

    Did you go to a free school?

  • rate this

    Comment number 328.

    Choice in the type of educational establishment attended is about the rich and powerful exerting dominance.

    As for Clegg/the Lib Dems - waiting three and a half years to say what you think makes you like you've been a lapdog, rather than a partner, in the coalition; you should have clearly stated where you disagree from the off start. Now it looks like posturing ahead of the general election.

  • rate this

    Comment number 327.

    Secretbanker suggests "make sure 'inset' days are carried out during school holidays" - they already are, the 5 training days were taken off the teachers' holidays, the number of days in school hasn't changed. Another example (from many years ago) of the erosion of teachers' T&C

  • rate this

    Comment number 326.

    'School rift not a crisis' - Clegg

    Nick dear boy, if you ever want to be voted for ever again I suggest you start making moves of discontent to prove you too are not in power just to shaft this country to benefit a few of your mates.

    This is the last chance for you and the lib dems.

  • rate this

    Comment number 325.

    Eton.. appears to be doing ok, state of the art equipment, buildings that do not leak, 15-25 pupils to a class and fully qualified teachers. Suggesting to me that state education is massively underfunded and hiring the local celebrity to run free schools and employing unqualified teachers aint gonna fix nought. An ill conceived concept that is not being regulated and is doomed to failure.

  • rate this

    Comment number 324.

    There is a general election in the offing; of course he will start to indicate areas of difference with his coalition partners, otherwise voters will perceive no difference between them and his party will become an irrelevance, if it hasn't become such already

  • rate this

    Comment number 323.

    Looks like the beeb have a "fundamentally misunderstanding" of the difference between a split and a disagreement.

  • rate this

    Comment number 322.

    It is to the great shame of the UK that every couple of years we play politics with our children's futures. Education should be the realm of professional educators, not the military, not religious groups, nor company executives. The education of our children should be the bedrock upon which our country is built, not the policy upon which the next government is elected.

  • rate this

    Comment number 321.

    I am a qualified teacher and I've worked in mainstream, as well as the independent behavioural sector. Politicians are clueless. Children are not units, they are individuals. Allow schools the freedom to cater for individual needs. I was assaulted daily in some behavioural schools, but I love what I do. Some of the assaults were caused because of policies written by clueless politicians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 320.

    Continuing from my previous comment...

    "Miss, I have a question about all this bible textbook stuff..."

    "OK, tell the class!"

    "Well, my cousin - who's parents can afford to give him a real education - told me that biology was more complex than Genesis, stuff about genes and complex trees of interrelated species..."


  • rate this

    Comment number 319.

    The people who know best about educating children are the PARENTS.

    if they want to send their children to a school that teaches creationism then the state has NO right to interfere.

  • rate this

    Comment number 318.

    A large amount of public money has been wasted on the divisive and discriminatory, failing Al-Madinah School without proper scrutiny of how the public money was going to be spent there. There is a lack of state control and scrutiny of free schools despite them enjoying a significant amount of public funds. Gove is happy to throw public money at unqualified or inexperienced staff.

  • rate this

    Comment number 317.

    We should have got rid of free schools a long time ago. State-funded religious propaganda institutes have no place in a 21st century, mostly secular society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 316.

    I wonder how many people are opposed to the principle of free schools compared with those who simply dislike aspects than can be put right, but ones that Gove won't. If every school was forced to have qualified teachers, not to teach religion and not to discriminate in any way, how many would still be against them?

  • rate this

    Comment number 315.

    282.Bob Roberts
    "Pay average wages and you will get average politicians. People with half a brain will just do something that pays better."

    Some say Rooney gets paid £140,000+ per month ... therefore he'd make a brilliant politician, eh?

  • rate this

    Comment number 314.

    All teachers in every single school, need to be fully qualified teachers to the highest standards. It is fine to have support staff with knowledge in specialist subjects but they can never be teachers of the qualified kind. We owe it to the next generation to provide the best possible education. Our teachers need good degrees and top-class training.


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