Chalk Talk: Free schools and fisticuffs

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The Independent Online

Just a few thoughts about the latest controversy over the Government's flagship free schools scheme.

It all began at about the time TV historian Tristram Hunt took over from Stephen Twigg as the Labour shadow Education Secretary and his first interview – intriguingly with the Mail on Sunday (hardly the best friend of his leader) – was widely interpreted as a sign of a thaw in the Labour attitude towards the scheme.

It must, therefore, have come as a shock when, in a Commons debate on the Al-Madinah Muslim free school in Derby – described as "dysfunctional" by inspectors – Hunt branded the programme as a "dangerous free-for-all" and an "out-of-control ideological experiment".

If I were Michael Gove, I would prefer a return the days of Labour hating free schools! To be fair to Hunt, though, the comments made in his interview were just a repeat of something announced by his predecessor three months before.

Meanwhile, schools minister David Laws is put on the spot when his boss, Nick Clegg, came out against a key element of the programme and insisted that free schools and academies should employ qualified teachers. Just days earlier, Laws had been in the Commons extolling the virtue of allowing them to employ non-qualified teachers. He told MPs: "If I went to the House of Commons in Michael Gove's absence to take this urgent question [on free schools] and gave the view of the Liberal Democrat Party, he would be entitled, when he came back, to be a little upset. If the Labour Party ever needs to be in a coalition, you will find yourself voting for things that wouldn't be your first preference." Which, roughly translated, means – I think – "I didn't mean what I said."

Personally, I do see some merit in free schools being allowed to appoint non-qualified teachers to teach things like sport, drama and dance, but not being allowed to go down the road of packing their schools with non-qualified staff.

I doubt if we're in the mood for that kind of sensible consensus now, though.