Hunts Lib-Dems upset leadership over academies and free schools

HUNTINGDONSHIRE Liberal Democrats inflicted an embarrassing defeat on their party’s leadership at this week’s conference in Liverpool.

HUNTINGDONSHIRE Liberal Democrats inflicted an embarrassing defeat on their party’s leadership at this week’s conference in Liverpool.

The conference defeated Nick Clegg’s leadership on a motion about free schools and academies, proposed from Hunts by former Hinchingbrooke head teacher Peter Downes, who leads the party’s opposition on Huntingdonshire District Council.

The motion urged politicians, school governors and local parties to have nothing to do with Education Secretary Michael Gove’s ‘divisive’ proposals to create academies out of success schools and to set up ‘free schools’ away from local education authority influence and funded directly by Whitehall.

“The Academies Bill was rushed through Parliament in July with a speed and urgency normally reserved for anti-terrorist legislation,” Mr Downes told delegates.

In spite of some helpful changes in the Lords, “the substance of the Act we now have on the statute book is potentially a very significant threat to the stability, fairness and viability of our educational system.”

He said Mr Gove’s vision was predicated on a number of fallacies, including the fact that councils no longer controlled schools (nor had they for years), though they did provide specialist support, that major reform was needed because of parents’ dissatisfaction with schools (when the satisfaction rate was actually 94 per cent), and that standards could be raised by changing a school’s name or status.

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“The most dangerous fallacy is the idea that the principles of the market place can be applied to state-funded education,” Mr Downes added. “Gove expects ‘good’ schools to expand and take in more pupils; ‘free schools’ will spring up and provide competition so that allegedly under-performing or failing schools will be forced to improve their performance or wither and die.

“Just as the supermarket drives the corner shop out of business, so it will be with schools.

“When Tesco provides some new products to lure people away from their competitors, the unsold items in the failing shops can be returned to the wholesaler or sold off in a sale.

“But not so in schools. Pupils are human beings, not tins of beans. A school that withers and dies does so over a few years, perhaps covering the entire career of a pupil in that school, possibly affecting his or her life chances irrevocably.”

Mr Downes denied that the motion was intended to bring down the party’s government coalition with the Conservatives.

“I understand, as we all do, why the coalition had to be formed. We have had that re-explained to us many times during this Conference. We accept that; we trust Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and his colleagues to do the best they can to uphold Lib-Dem principles in difficult and unforeseen circumstances.

But being in coalition should not require us to abandon the basic principles that our experience, knowledge, working parties and debates have formulated over many years.

“Liberal Democrats believe in good local schools for all, supported and co-ordinated by democratically-elected local bodies. We believe in fairness and in protecting the most vulnerable.”

Urging support for the motion, he told delegates: “Go back and explain, calmly, rationally and persuasively, that academies and free schools are divisive, costly and unfair. They’re in the statute book, on the shelf, and that’s where they should stay.”