It’s Laws v Gove again as Lib Dem schools minister says academy chains should be accountable to Ofsted

by Stephen Tall on February 6, 2014

‘It’s civil war in the Coalition classroom’ – that’s how the Independent bills the latest row between those two very civil politicians running the education department, Conservative secretary of state Michael Gove and Lib Dem schools minister David Laws.

I wrote at the weekend about the first spat, which erupted after Michael Gove’s decision to sack Baroness (Sally) Morgan as chair of Ofsted for doing too good a job – at least, that seemed to be the gist of his argument, as he praised her to the skies for her “superlative” work before saying it was time for a change. Others, including David Laws, suggested Mr Gove might have a more nakedly political agenda, and be itching to foist a fellow Tory, Theodore Agnew, on Her Majesty’s schools inspectorate.

Today, David Laws returned to the fray. In an interview with the Indy he understatedly notes, “I don’t think it is one of the best decisions that Michael Gove has ever made.”

He pointedly makes clear his view that the process for appointing the new chair of Ofsted will be totally impartial, having already turned down Mr Gove’s olive branch that the panel could be chaired by Paul Marshall, David Laws’ co-editor on The Orange Book, and a non-executive director on the Department for Education board. ‘Mr Laws insisted,’ the paper notes, ‘that the panel chairman must be appointed by Sir David Normington, the Public Appointments Commissioner, as set down in the rules.’

And David Laws opened a new front against Michael Gove by making clear his view on behalf of the Lib Dems that Ofsted’s powers should be extended so that it can inspect academy chains which run multiple schools, just as it can inspect local authorities:

The Schools minister wants legislation to extend Ofsted’s powers so it can inspect groups of academies. Although it can scrutinise individual academies, it cannot investigate these “chains”. Academies now account for 54 per cent of state-funded secondary schools and 1,752 (48 per cent) of academies are in chains of two or more.

Mr Gove, whose critics claim he is over-protective of the chains, is resisting the idea – even though Ofsted can inspect local authorities, which supervise other state-funded schools.

Mr Laws said: “When the academies programme started, it had a lot of enemies and was regarded as a precious flower that needed protection. But this flower has now grown strong enough to survive in the full heat of the sun. There are some really good local authorities and there are still some terrible ones. In the same way, there are some good academy groups doing an absolutely fantastic job – like Ark and Harris – and some not doing so well.”

The Liberal Democrat minister said: “Ofsted must be able to shine a spotlight wherever it wants to. I don’t want there are to be any constraints. It ought to be able to inspect the chains.” He conceded that the legislation needed to extend Ofsted’s powers would not be passed before the general election. However, the proposal will be included in the Liberal Democrat manifesto.

David Laws is quite right on the principle of this. Let’s say Ofsted inspects a handful of individual schools all run by the same chain and finds worrying problems – at the moment, they would be unable to inspect the running of the academy chain as a whole, but instead have to continue inspecting each of its schools individually. That would take time during which those other schools run by the academy chain might continue to fail their children. It’s only fair that academy chains should operate under the same accountability as local authorities.

Inevitably, the right-wing media has treated David Laws’ intervention as a cynical ‘differentiation’ ploy, targeting Michael Gove because of his unpopularity among voters in the progressive centre. I don’t buy it. I mean, it’s true that he’s unpopular, but the last Lib Dem minister who would exploit that for purely political ends is David Laws. No, his concerns – that some academy chains are failing their pupils’ education – are real and genuine. That the Conservatives are unwilling to see this risk shows they are as ideologically blinkered as those in Labour who refused to believe some local authorities could also be at fault.

* 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.