Clegg on free schools and National Curriculum: no more, no less than party policy. And that’s for better and worse.

by Stephen Tall on October 20, 2013

No-one should be that surprised by Nick Clegg’s decision to distance the Lib Dems from Michael Gove’s schools policies — specifically that every teacher should be qualified and that every school should teach the national curriculum. After all, what Nick is due to set out in a speech this week is the policy that was voted for overwhelmingly by the party’s conference in March this year.

Here’s what the adopted policy – Every Child Taught by an Excellent Teacher – says about teachers in all schools having qualifications:

All classroom teachers, including in academies and free schools and Further Education colleges, to be required to have Quali?ed Teacher Status (QTS) or Quali?ed Teacher in Learning and Skills (QTLS) Status or to be working towards them, to be achieved within three years of employment.

And here’s what it says about the National Curriculum being taught in all schools:

All schools, including academies and free schools, to subsequently be required to teach the new, slimmed down, National Curriculum.

There’s only two categories of people who should be surprised by Nick’s speech today (other than journalists, of course, who usually ignore the boring political stuff, like policies). First, those Lib Dem members who think Nick Clegg always freelances on policy and ignores the policies voted for by the party. And, secondly, David Laws, who stood up in the House of Commons on Thursday to say this:

Mr Laws: We want to ensure that teachers in schools have good qualifications and the capacity to teach. The hon. Lady [Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab)] will know, however, that there are plenty of teachers who may not have formal qualifications but who still do a superb job. We are ensuring, through the Ofsted inspection process, that every single teacher has the capability to teach. All classes are assessed for quality, and that is the right way to ensure a backstop of high standards.

To be fair, David will have been speaking on behalf of the Coalition Government (and not as chair of the Lib Dem manifesto group). Nick’s speech will be as Lib Dem leader. We’re assured that the two are entirely united on the issue — but, even if they aren’t, it’s the party that makes Lib Dem policy.

Personal opinion: my own view is that the Lib Dems, for a party committed to localism, are remarkably keen on setting national standards.

In general, I do think teachers should have a teaching qualification or be working towards one – it’s important to have a sound basis not only in subject knowledge, but also the wider pedagogy. Here’s Ofsted head Sir Michael Wilshaw on the issue: “I would expect all the teachers in my school to have qualified teacher status. … What I want to see is all heads to ensure their unqualified teachers can teach effectively and when that is proved they are given Qualified Teacher Status (QTS).” However, there are circumstances in a range of subjects (eg, computing, sports, foreign languages) when I can imagine a head-teacher wishing to make exceptions. And I’d rather the head-teacher and governing body of a school laid down what those exceptions might be than that politicians/Whitehall does.

I’m curious to know how big a problem this is. I’d be very surprised if many schools – certainly existing LEA or recent converter academy schools – are reliant on a vast army of unqualified teachers. It is more likely to be the case that unqualified staff are more frequently found in free schools (and, of course, in independent schools). Egregious examples like Al-Madinah in Derbyshire will the hit the headlines. Certainly the critical spotlight of attention will be much more searching for the 170 free schools than it is for the other 25,000 schools across England and Wales; and that’s probably as it should be.

A couple of weeks ago, Peter Hyman – formerly an adviser to Tony Blair, who then re-trained as a teacher and head-teacher and set up a new free school in east London, School21 – set out his vision in a widely-praised article in the Evening Standard: We need a new schools model for the 21st century. He wrote of the targets-driven orthodoxy that has dominated in the last couple of years: “a relentless focus on the basics, a tough approach to behaviour management and massive intervention in Years 10 and 11 to convert every D grade into a C grade. Something more was needed.” All of these are necessary, but they are not sufficient. Peter Hyman co-founded School21 to challenge that orthodoxy. Liberals should be championing grassroots innovation, not wanting to do it down.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.