That Nick Clegg is now trying to differentiate our party from the Tories, though a bit late in the day, is to be welcomed. However, I would be happier if he were to do it in a less cack-handed and more Liberal way (Lord only knows what the thought processes are of those allegedly bright young things advising him.)
Less cack-handed because, although some of his criticism of the Tory recipe for so called "Free" schools is welcome, it would have been wise, before opening his mouth, to check with his protégé David Laws, the responsible minister, who recently gave them enthusiastic support in the House of Commons. So we open ourselves up to familiar, but unjustified, criticism of being Janus faced.
Then Nick goes on to claim that " Free" Schools should follow the national Curriculum -surely the most illiberal concept since the Act of Uniformity. When I trained as a teacher in the 1950s we were taught to be proud of the fact that, whereas French teachers were bound by the dictates of their minister, in freedom loving England the curriculum (apart from laws that we must has some religious "instruction" and physical education: mens sana in corpore sano) each school was free to choose the studies best suited to the needs of its pupil. The result was, on the whole, that schools tended to be more conformist than innovative, but there was at least the opportunity for the less hide-bound schools to push the boundaries. There cheers for political education and StarPower.
In the discussion of this topic on yesterday evening's Six O'clock News on Radio 4 M/s Liz Truss, a Tory junior minister in the Department for Education, claimed that "any new innovation (such as Free Schools) was bound to attract (something or other. . .)"* Oh dear oh dear. And these are the people in charge.
Just to be clear, the case against free school is as follows:
- They tend to be set up by groups with a particular aim in mind but without regard to the actual need for additional places in the area. As a Liberal I support the rights of groups to set up their own schools, but at their own expense, not by diverting public funds from other more legitimate areas. For this reason I also believe Liberal Democrat policy should be to remove the charitable status of the Public (ie private) Schools.
- Many are set up by religious organisations, some of them with somewhat questionable views on topics such as evolution, and social policies such as boys and girls not eating together. I recognise the invaluable contribution that the churches (and synagogues) have made to the development of public education in Britain, but feel that religion "on the rates" has now served its purpose.The state should now be withdrawing from religious eduction, not entering into more of it.
- Schools set up for particular religious or ethnic groups are socially and politically divisive. We have seen the sad effects of the the segregated educational provision for Roman Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, and should not be encouraging more of it in the rest of the UK.
- The excuse of "freeing schools from local authority control" is a blatant piece of misrepresentation, implying as it does that local authorities held back educational progress. Many were highly innovative, not least my own West Riding under its celebrated education chief, Sir Alec Clegg.( no relation, as far as I know, though there is a Nick Clegg ancestor buried in our local churchyard). Local authorities tried to share educational resources fairly for the benefit of their entire communities, and not just those with the loudest voices or deepest pockets. It should be Liberal Democrat policy to restore rather than further diminish local authority responsibility.
- And, of course, all schools should employ only qualified teachers. Yes, I know, and indeed believe, that the best teachers are "born not made" but at the same time wouldn't be all that happy to be operated on by an unqualified surgeon, or have an unqualified lawyer represent me in court. All children should be taught by properly qualified teachers rather than amateurs, however gifted they might think they are.
*Those who do not share my pedantic irritation at this redundancy are invited to suggest an innovation that is not new.