Two questions journalists aren’t asking about Nick Clegg’s free schools speech

by Stephen Tall on October 22, 2013

Nick Clegg’s speech on free schools – setting out the policy approved by the Lib Dem conference last March – has ruffled feathers. Apparently he and David Cameron even had lunch yesterday to discuss this ‘bombshell’ announcement (which in fact won’t be made until a speech this Thursday).

My view (as I set out here on Sunday) is that schools should have the freedom to appoint teachers who lack formal qualifications, though I’d expect these to be the exceptions not the rule in the vast majority of state-funded schools. But I don’t think it’s at all surprising that Nick Clegg should talk about what the party’s policy on free schools will be at the next election. Journalists’ shock-horror at it all (see Iain Martin’s piece here, for instance) is based on their own ignorance rather than any abrupt Lib Dem U-turn.

Two questions interest me, though, and they seem to have gone unasked so far:

1) How many unqualified teachers are there teaching in academies or free schools? Are we talking thousands, a handful, or somewhere inbetween? Are they found in schools which are rated good or outstanding by Ofsted – as 75% of free schools are – or in schools which haven’t yet been inspected or have been found lacking?  (I don’t know the answers: but these are the kind of questions you’d expect both politicians and journalists to find out before they set off pontificating.)

2) Why did David Laws stand up in the House of Commons last week and argue so vehemently in favour of schools having the freedom to appoint teachers without formal teaching qualifications? Part of the reason – one I gave to the Guardian’s Nick Watts on Sunday – is that David was speaking on behalf of the Government from the despatch box; therefore he was stating the Coalition’s current policy, not the Lib Dems’ future one. That’s true, to a point. But David lacerated Tristram Hunt, Labour’s new shadow education  secretary, for his party’s policy contortions in this area. Yet David chairs the Lib Dems’ 2015 manifesto group and I can’t believe he doesn’t know the party’s adopted policy on free schools. So I’m confused why he would make such an unambiguous commitment to retaining schools recruitment freedom, one his party opposes.

Answers on a postcard, please. (Or below-the-line may prove quicker…)

Update: Fullfact has dug into the figures here, Ignorance is bliss? Inspecting the rise in unqualified teachers. These show that “as a proportion of all full-time equivalent teachers in [publicly funded] schools, the prevalence of unqualified FTE teachers has actually shrunk from 10% in 2010 to 4.4% in 2012.”

* 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.