LibDems vote against free schools

20 Sep 10
Liberal Democrat members have condemned the coalition government's education policy in a direct snub to two of the party's leading parliamentarians.
By David Williams in Liverpool

20 September 2010

Liberal Democrat members have condemned the coalition government’s education policy in a direct snub to two of the party’s leading parliamentarians.

Following a lengthy debate at the LibDem conference in Liverpool today, the party voted in favour of a motion calling on members to campaign against the free schools introduced this summer by Education Secretary Michael Gove.

In doing so, the party defied pleas to defeat the motion from children’s minister Sarah Teather. It also voted down an amendment by Baroness Joan Walmsley, co-chair of the party’s backbench committee on education, intended to soften its tone.

The motion states the party’s concern at the establishment of free schools and academies, and emphasises the importance of councils in exercising strategic oversight of and support for all publicly-funded schools.

It calls on the government to ensure that schools without academy status ‘are not financially penalised by the creation of academies’.

Free schools risk  ‘increasing social divisiveness and inequity’ while making the education system more complex, it concludes.

Cambridgeshire councillor Peter Downes, who drafted the motion, said it was a ‘fallacy’ that councils interfered in local education, condemning instead the burden of centralised regulation, inspection and the National Curriculum.

In an enthusiastically received speech, he argued that free schools were ‘likely to be divisive, costly, and unfair.’

‘This isn’t localism,’ he said, ‘but a massive centralisation of our school system.’

An amendment approved by delegates also emphasised that allowing more faith schools would increase the amount of religious discrimination, while denying pupils access to a broad and balanced religious education programme.

Ahead of the vote, Teather had told her party that she was ‘secretly rather proud and relieved’ that the party conference was ‘as much trouble in government as when we were in opposition.’

She argued that the establishment of free schools was part of a broader policy package that included introducing the pupil premium, which will see schools funded more generously for each child they take from a deprived background.

Commenting on the conference’s approval of the motion, Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said it highlighted the ‘faultline’ in the coalition over education policy.

‘Academies and free schools are Tory policies and stand in direct opposition to previous LibDemthinking. Before the election we had Sarah Teather triumphantly saying that the LibDems ‘provided the only opposition to the academies project’ and of the free schools programmes that it was a ‘shambles’, but where is her opposition now?,’ Blower said.

‘The grass roots of the party overwhelming spoke of their rejection of academies and free schools. They know, as does the NUT, that implementation of this policy will lead to a fragmentation of the education system which will benefit the wealthy and leave the most disadvantaged behind. It is a costly and divisive policy that is not wanted and not needed as the delegates at the Liberal Democrat conference today have so overwhelmingly indicated.’

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