Saturday, January 12, 2008

Nick Clegg's speech on the reform of public services

Nick Clegg made his first big speech today at the Liberal Democrat Manifesto Conference, which was held at the London School of Economics. See Paul Walter for a comprehensive survey of the media coverage it has received.

His proposals on education - allowing parents dissatisfied with existing provision to set up their own schools - are exactly what I have been wanting the party to support for years.

Here is an extract from Clegg's speech (I was not there to "check against delivery" as the drafts they send journalists always say):

There is plenty wrong with the government’s Academies programme - from the selection rules to the absurdity of trying to run schools all over the country at the behest of one Minister in the House of Lords.

But there is nothing wrong at all with allowing schools the freedom to innovate.

Nothing wrong with bringing committed people and organisations into our education system.

And nothing wrong with allowing schools to exist outside direct daily local government management - as long as they are under local government oversight.

And it makes me angry when I hear people attacking new schools which have replaced old, failing, local authority schools many of which consigned generations of children who could have done much better to the educational scrapheap.

So, with these principles in mind, I want us to look at establishing a new liberal model of schools that are non-selective, under local government strategic oversight but not run by the council, and free to innovate to drive up standards for all our children.

They could be established by any suitable sponsor, including parents, educational charities, voluntary and private organisations with the right credentials.

Sponsors should be independently assessed for their expertise, with no ministerial involvement.

This new generation of schools - let us call them Free Schools - will have the funding to help those children who need the most support; the obligation to be accessible to all; and the freedom from unnecessary political and bureaucratic interference to innovate in the best interests of their pupils.

I could hardly have put it better myself.

The devil, as ever, will be in the detail. What exactly will "local government oversight" mean in practice? Will central government have to intervene where - as is overwhelmingly likely - Labour councils prove hostile to the establishment of new schools that are not part of their empire? And will Evangelical businessmen be able to set up Free Schools, just as they have set up Academies?

The BBC and James Graham (a powerful combination) seem to believe that the principles which will govern Free Schools will be extended to all schools. Auntie thinks we are ruling out selection by aptitude at existing specialist schools. James discusses the abolition of faith schools and grammar schools.

I don't read the proposals that way, and would be very surprised if this is what Nick Clegg intends. But we shall learn more soon, no doubt.

Besides there is something odd, in a country whose politics is increasingly dominated by the products of selective fee-paying schools, about the way that selection by academic ability in the public sector is now treated as anathema by almost every mainstream politician.

1 comment:

James Graham (Quaequam Blog!) said...

I didn't assume that all schools would be Free Schools, but I admit I did assume that he was proposing to scrap selection across the board, at least over time.