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There’s some debate about whether Nick Clegg intended his criticism of the Free School programme to be as high profile as it became. Even if it was initially an off the cuff remark, he has now doubled down and made a whole speech on the same theme.

His pitch is essentially this:

  • He invented Free Schools in a speech when he became Lib Dem Leader. His party supported their creation as part of the Coalition. He really likes autonomy for schools. He thinks these things because he’s a liberal.
  • However, he also wants to reduce their autonomy. He doesn’t think they should have been created in the format which he voted for. He thinks these things because he’s a liberal.

He claims such a collection of views is typical of the Liberal Democrats. He’s right, but not for the reasons he thinks. Far from being some kind of admirable consistency, his stance is downright hypocritical – an attempt to be all things to all people.

There are two issues raised by his intervention.

The first is the question of whether teachers without a formal teaching qualification should be allowed in the classroom.

Clegg caricatures these people as “unqualified” and wants them banned, but as Toby Young has pointed out it is perfectly possible to be qualified to teach – through Higher Education or practical experience, for example – without having a PGCE framed in your downstairs loo. By the same token, there are teachers who aren’t up to the job but hold the piece of paper which the Lib Dems judge to be so valuable.

Britain’s private schools – hardly renowned for their low standards or poor results – regularly hire teachers who don’t have a formal teaching qualification. In today’s speech, the Deputy Prime Minister fondly recalled that:

“…what you never forget about your school days are those teachers who changed your life.”

Embarrassingly, Nick Ferrari reminded him on LBC this morning that several of those teachers who changed Clegg’s life at Westminster School were the very people he now derides as “unqualified”:

“But you were taught by people who didn’t have these qualifications. Mr Cogan your English teacher? Do you remember Mr Cogan? A former Royal Marine. He didn’t have this relevant piece of paper. A gentleman called David Cook. I don’t know if you remember Mr Cook. Mr Cook studied history. He was at Westminster, he as in charge of tuition into Oxford and Cambridge. He didn’t have the piece paper. Theo Zinn who was a classics teacher, do you remember Mr Zinn at your school? Remember Mr Zinn, fantastic classics teacher who often would ignore the books on the A level curriculum if there were ones he thought were better for the pupils.”

Awkward is not the word for it.

What Clegg tries to portray as laudable Lib Dem subtleties of thought are proving to be simple confusion. If PGCE’s are so valuable, and teachers without them so useless, then there would surely be no chance of “unqualified teachers” being hired. Unless, of course, he’s saying he doesn’t trust the judgement of headteachers to hire their own staff – in which case it would be reasonable to ask why he supports setting them free to run their schools at all.

This brings us to the second, wider, issue raised by Clegg’s actions.

These are fundamental questions about the structure of the state and the delivery of services. He pays lip service to “autonomy” and “freedom” for schools, but his actual proposal it that schools should be more closely controlled from Whitehall.

On the Today Programme he told us:

“I want to improve this move towards greater autonomy across the whole school system.”

In his speech he said:

“We believe greater autonomy enables school leaders to take responsibility in those areas where they know what’s best for their pupils”

But he also wants hiring freedom to be taken away from headteachers:

“…we should have qualified teachers in all our schools. That means free schools and academies too.”

Presumably this means that choosing which applicants are and are not good teachers is not one of “those areas where [school leaders] know what’s best for their pupils”. It certainly is not “greater autonomy across the whole school system” to restrict who schools can hire by Whitehall edict.

The whole idea of Free Schools, indeed the whole idea of more flexible, localised services, is that a civil servant or a minister in London does not know best about everything. Devolving the management of services, and giving the people a choice about which they prefer, is a far better, wiser way to secure the good results that the nation’s children deserve.

Clegg is displaying the traditional Westminster knee-jerk about passing power down, and out of his own grasp. He has obviously decided which people he judges to be good at teaching – the irony is that he is completely unqualified to do so.

24 comments for: On Free Schools and localism, Clegg isn’t waving a liberal banner – he’s exhibiting his own confusion

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