Nick (finally) makes his education speech and launches the Coalition’s own ‘Champions League’

by Stephen Tall on October 24, 2013

Five days after it was pre-briefed, Nick Clegg finally made his speech on A Liberal Vision for Education at Morpeth School in Tower Hamlets.

(Morpeth is, by the way, a fantastic school. I visited it for my day-job 18 months ago, and was shown around by two of its pupils, Vanessa and Mahir: the transformational progress of London schools in the past decade is one of the modern wonders of Britain.)

There was little in the speech we didn’t already know. In fact, there was little that wasn’t known last March when Clegg’s “surprise U-turn on free schools” (© all lazy journos) was – as I’ve already blogged – approved as party policy by the Lib Dems’ spring conference.

The party is in favour of school autonomy but with three guaranteed minimum standards: all teachers should have, or be working towards, recognised teaching qualifications; all schools should follow a stripped-back national curriculum; and all schools should follow agreed food quality standards.

This very intentionally positions the Lib Dems in the centre between Labour, which has a tendency to want to interfere in everything, and the Tories, who are very happy having no core standards at all. As The Times notes today, it’s an approach which has widespread public support:

Nick Clegg receives public backing for his moves to tighten regulation of free schools, which he will outline in a speech today in East London. Some 66 per cent agree that schools should only be allowed to employ people with formal teaching qualifications, while 56 per cent say that the national curriculum should be compulsory for all schools.

Personally, I’m still not keen on politicians telling schools what they can and cannot do. But Nick Clegg’s position is squarely in line with approved party policy. It is also very close to Labour’s policy as recently re-emphasised by new shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt.

The one new proposal was the so-called ‘Champions League of Head Teachers’, a truly awful appellation — though not as bad as the ones that were rejected, according to the Mail’s James Chapman – for a decent idea. This will aim to match schools facing tough challenges with ‘high-performing head teachers or exceptional deputy heads ready to take on this challenge’. (You can read more here.)

This announcement has been welcomed by the Association of School and College Leaders: “We are delighted that our work with the government on how to attract the best school leaders into schools and areas where they are needed most has borne fruit in this announcement today.”

We need to see the details, of course. The key question the proposal needs to address is why would a head-teacher (even one fully committed to the ideals of teaching) who’s doing well at their own school uproot themselves and their family to take on a school in need of improvement and with real pressure to turn results around fast?

Head-teachers are increasingly being treated like football managers: one dodgy season and they’re out. This has happened twice already this term (to my knowledge), at academy schools in Wellington and at Gloucester. Results matter, of course: kids’ later lives depend on them. But they can fluctuate year to year for reasons out of the head-teacher’s control. And while leadership is crucial, that doesn’t start and end with the head: they will need an effective team, too.

Those caveats aside, though, this is a positive proposal. But, please, let’s quietly ditch the ‘Champions League’ moniker.

PS: it’s well worth reading ‘Nick Clegg’s Alternative Speech’ as written by Policy Exchange’s head of education, Jonathan Simons. Here’s how it concludes:

… next time someone says to you that the Liberal Democrats can’t be trusted, or aren’t a serious party, or are just a wasted vote, just tell them. Tell them about education.”

* 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.