Nick Clegg’s split from the his Conservative Coalition partners on free schools appears to be turning into a rift with members of his own party, after surprised Tory MPs highlighted apparent policy differences between the Deputy Prime Minister and his Liberal Democrat colleagues.
Mr Clegg warned voters that they cannot expect the two governing political parties to agree all the time, as the Lib Dem leader insisted that teachers in the newly created free school should be properly qualified.
He was deliberately putting himself at a distance from the Conservatives, whose Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has encouraged free schools to hire people from outside the teaching profession with specialist knowledge who “can inspire their pupils”.
Leading Tories privately admitted on Sunday that they were caught completely unawares by Mr Clegg’s comments – which he will deliver in a speech on Thursday – as they appeared in Sunday newspapers.
Mr Clegg will say: “It makes no sense to me to have qualified teacher status if only a few schools have to employ qualified teachers.” He will also argue that free schools should have to stick to the national curriculum and that their school meals should have to meet standards set by the Government.”
But some leading Liberal Democrats see this as an issue on which they can show they are on the side of parents who want a choice for their children, not on the side of the teaching unions.
Tories were quick to point out the contrast with what his fellow Lib Dem, the Schools Minister David Laws, told MPs during a debate on free schools last Thursday.
Mr Laws said: “There are plenty of teachers who may not have formal qualifications but who still do a superb job.” He added that despite the recent highly publicised failure of the Al-Madinah free school in Derby and the resignations this month of two free school heads, the “vast majority” of free schools “have done an absolutely fantastic job”.
Mr Clegg played down the apparent split, saying Mr Laws was stating “the policy of the Department for Education”. A source close to Mr Clegg said: “David has been instrumental in helping to write this speech. He’s one of Nick’s closest political allies – that’s well established. David has been involved every step of the way.”
But Jeremy Browne, the former Lib Dem Home Office minister sacked by Mr Clegg this month, warned against the Lib Dems becoming “a pale imitation of the Labour Party” and told the BBC’s Sunday Politics programme; “I support free schools. I am interested in how we can innovate, how we improve our educational outcomes … in this country.”
A Department of Education made it clear that Michael Gove has no intention of changing policy because of Nick Clegg’s intervention. A spokesperson said: “Free schools are are run by teachers – not local bureaucrats or Westminster politicians – and are free to set their own curriculum, decide how they spend their money and employ who they think are the best people for the job.… This Government is not going to take these freedoms away.”
Case study: Broadening my daughter’s horizons with Latin, travel and music convinced me
Latin, music and the chance to travel the world were among the reasons why Valerie John chose to send her daughter, Ella, to the West London Free School, established by the journalist Toby Young in 2011.
Ms John said teachers of subjects such as English and maths should be qualified, but exceptions could be made for sports and drama teachers “if they’ve got the experience”.
However, she said: “We should be allowed to choose what we want to teach. That’s the whole purpose of having a free school.
“I think they need to use our school as an example of what you’re aiming for.
* Teachers urge action on crisis in recruitment
More than 170 academics and teachers’ leaders – including Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers – have signed a letter to The Independent urging Education Secretary Michael Gove to take urgent action over the growing shortage of school places and the crisis in teacher recruitment. However, a spokesman for the Department for Education said it had hit 95 per cent of its recruitment target this year.