Dust-up at the DfE – and it’s not just David Laws bearing the scars

Don’t trust the truce that’s been declared over education policy. This is Coalition war

It is just as well David Laws’ appearance at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers’ conference did not follow immediately after the spat that has just emerged between him and his boss, Education Secretary Michael Gove.

The Liberal Democrats’ schools minister arrived at the conference with his arm in a sling, which he put down to a heavy fall while canvassing.

More cynical minds could have been forgiven for wondering if there was a more awkward explanation, given the tangible tension between them. Indeed, in a joint article for The Times earlier this week the duo said: “To judge from the latest breathless headlines, you might expect the two of us to be crouched under our desks like the last survivors in a Bruce Willis movie, only popping out occasionally to blast each other with shotguns.”

They tried to douse the flames – specifically over the Liberal Democrat plan to give all pupils under seven in England free school meals.

The relationship between the two is fraught but not so strained that they are unable to speak to one another.

Signs there would be open disagreements between the two first emerged at an education conference early in the New Year in Nottingham where Mr Laws made it clear that in the coming months he would be setting out the differences between Conservative and Liberal Democrat thinking on education.

True, there had been spats – mainly between his party leader Nick Clegg’s office and Mr Gove in the shape of exam reforms (opposition from Mr Clegg forcing Mr Gove to drop his plan to replace GCSEs with an English Baccalaureate) and child care policy (where the Lib Dem leader withdrew his support for a plan which would have brought in higher child/staff ratios in early years settings).

In the New Year, though, just after Mr Laws’ speech, events played their part in making the rift between the two Coalition partners deeper than possibly even Mr Laws anticipated in his speech.

There was Mr Gove’s controversial decision to oust Baroness (Sally) Morgan, who had chaired education standards watchdog Ofsted for three years and developed a good working relationship with chief schools inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw.

Mr Laws, who had asked Mr Gove to review the intended decision, was said to be furious. Lib Dem sources claimed it had been done to undermine Sir Michael – whose organisation had just produced reports highly critical of some of the Government’s flagship free schools.

There was another rift, too, over the Government’s decision to allow free schools and academies to recruit unqualified teachers – said in two critical Ofsted reports of free schools to be at least partly responsible for poor standards. Statistics showed the number of unqualified staff was increasing in schools and Mr Laws made it clear the Lib Dems would come forward with a manifesto pledge to phase out the policy.

In addition, there was the revelation that 14 academy chains had been barred from running any more schools because of concerns over standards and financial management in the ones they run now. It fuelled a row over whether Ofsted should be allowed to inspect academy chains in the same way as it does local authorities. Mr Laws backed that idea, as did Sir Michael. The Department for Education refused to grant that power.

In the event, Sir Michael came up with an ingenious way round the impasse – sending his inspectors into every school run by a chain that concerns had been expressed about. The DfE, for its part, claimed this showed changes to the policy were not necessary.

With the election less than a year to go, the differences are set to continue to be highlighted. “We’ve had these squabbles and I’m sure they will continue to come but they have a professional working relationship and I’m sure that will continue,” said a source close to Mr Gove. “They [the two] get on.”

Gove is in a similar place to Laws – with much speculation he will be given a key role in the election campaign.

In that case, expect the squabbling in public to continue. Realpolitik in the run up to the General Election demands it.