Lib Dem activists reject schools policy
Updated on 20 September 2010
The coalition government's schools policy comes under fire from activists at the Liberal Democrat conference - in a move that risks embarrassing the party leadership, but not a vote that threatens the coalition says political editor Gary Gibbon.
Delegates at the conference in Liverpool approved a motion criticising academies and free schools and rejected an amendment tabled by Baroness Walmsley, a party spokeswoman on education.
The motion, proposed by Peter Downes, a Lib Dem councillor in Cambridgeshire and former comprehensive school head, said councils should still have a role in the academies school sector.
"Local authorities should continue to exercise their arm's-length support for all state schools funded wholly or partially with public funds with particular emphasis on their work with disadvantaged pupils."
Free schools rejected
On free schools, it said the party should "urge people not to take up this option" because it would lead to "increasing social divisiveness and inequity ". The amendment would have watered down this criticism.
Mr Downes told the conference the academies bill had been rushed through parliament after the election "with a speed and urgency normally reserves for anti-terrorism legislation".
To applause from delegates, he described this as "hasty and misguided", adding: "The substance of the act we now have on the statute book is potentially a very significance threat to the stability, fairness and viability of our education system."
The Education Secretary Michael Gove was wrong to suggest that schools were controlled by local authorities. In his time as a teacher he had learned that it was central government that was most guilty of interference, not councils.
The coalition government's approach was "incompatible with Liberal Democrat education policy," said Mr Downes.
A vote that signals future problems for the coalition government?
This isn't critical for coalition relations, writes political editor Gary Gibbon.
Lib Dems have already helped to get the Academies Bill (which helps to pave the way for free schools) through parliament it doesn’t mandate MPs to vote against a coalition measure.
But it could have implications for the Tories’ dream of a free school in every neighbourhood.
Tories wanted to rush through schools reforms as soon as they came to office because they were all too aware that much of their time in office would be spent cutting down trees – this, for them, was proof they’d be planting some too.
David Cameron’s team have talked about free schools being the footprint they wanted to leave in the sand. If Lib Dems, resourceful and determined activists and councilors some of them, decide they want to throw every spanner they can at the free schools movement they could be useful allies for the teacher unions and others already engaged in that campaign.
But the Education Minister Sarah Teather said Lib Dems had succeeded in amending the academies bill, adding: "As part of a coalition, this is part of a package."
She argued that there were elements in the legislation Lib Dems should support, including the pupil premium, which would mean schools enrolling disadvantaged pupils receiving more money.
And she called the motion "fundamentally illiberal", adding: "Councillors have to be able to use every tool that is available to them to improve life chances for their children. If the best way to solve a local problem is to work with the government of the day, this conference should not stand in their way.
"Please don't vote for a boycott, don't tie our councillors' hands, please vote down the motion. Last time I debated education with you, the only thing we could do was to stand outside and shout, to moan and complain and hope that somebody would listen to the things that we don't like. That's different. Now we have a chance to change things, and we have."
But delegate Sal Brinton, from Watford, said a "two-tier system that is divisive" was being created.
The Academies Act went through parliament before the summer break. It creates the first of a new wave of academy schools, free from local authority control, and also paves the way for parents, charities and other organisations to set up controversial Swedish-style 'free schools'.
There is unease among many Lib Dems about the policy. During the passage of the legislation in the Commons, six Lib Dem MPs voted against the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government.
Lib Dem critics are worried that funding arrangements will lead to a schools elite developing. They want reassurance that schools that decide to remain under council control will not be discriminated against financially.