Hinchingbrooke ex-head to challenge Gove on academies and free schools

THE coalition Government’s new schools policy, which was rushed through Parliament last month, looks set to face a serious challenge next month – thanks to a retired Huntingdonshire head teacher.

THE coalition Government’s new schools policy, which was rushed through Parliament last month, looks set to face a serious challenge next month – thanks to a retired Huntingdonshire head teacher.

While he may have retired as head of Hinchingbrooke School, in Huntingdon, which he led from 1982 until 1995, he remains extremely active in Liberal Democrat politics.

He is leader of the Lib Dems on Huntingdonshire District Council and deputy leader of the party’s 23-strong group on Cambridgeshire County Council.

And he will be urging the party’s national conference in Liverpool next month to call for what amounts to a boycott of new academies and ‘free schools’.

In Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire he is also warning them off – for both moral and financial reasons.

He wants local education authorities to retain strategic control of school places funded by public money, and he says people should have nothing to do with free schools, which would be expensive, socially divisive, educationally ineffective and financially wasteful.

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His motion to that effect has been chosen by party managers for a major set-piece debate at the national federal conference. He accuses Education Secretary Michael Gove of trying to ‘privatise and commercialise’ education.

Cllr Downes told the Hunts Post: “We are in coalition, and things have to happen that we may be uneasy about. Certain concessions have had to be made, particularly in relation to the financial situation, for example, we would not have put up VAT to 20 per cent.

“But in relation to education there’s no financial or educational advantage to the country. These proposals would make the situation worse not better. Although the legislation has already gone through, there’s no onus on us to support it. “We want to dissuade people from going down these lines.”

Cllr Downes said his motion was not intended to destabilise the coalition. “But we have to keep our distinctive features. Privatisation and commercialisation of education is not something we can support. So it will be interesting to see what happens.”

The former head is urging fellow party delegates not to be dominated by the national partnership with the Conservatives.

“It has been a difficult few weeks, and I’m hoping this might help to move the argument forward and encourage Liberal Democrats not to feel overawed by their big brothers in the coalition.

Here, he is urging school governors not to rush into seeking academy status. “If you cut yourselves totally free of the local authority, you are exposing yourselves to serious risks and costs,” he said. “Or is the point of academies that you can pay teachers less?”

And, although at present there is no sign of any free school proposal in Huntingdonshire, he urged people to treat the phenomenon “with a very long barge-pole”.

He added: “For this policy to go through without challenge is not a good idea. This is a re-run of grant-maintained schools [from the 1980s] except that the extra money comes not from central government but from other schools. It’s almost a moral issue.”

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