June 14, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith
The most interesting aspect of the Lib Dems’ announcement this morning of a manifesto promise at the next election for all English schools to have qualified teachers and follow a core curriculum is not the the policies themselves, but the political positioning that goes with those policies.
At present, staff at free schools and academies do not have to have formal teaching qualifications and have broad control over the curriculum. The Conservatives have argued that the ability to vary the curriculum in free schools and academies takes power away from politicians and bureaucrats in Whitehall and hands it to heads and teachers, as ‘they are the ones who know their pupils best’. The schools must provide “broad and balanced” teaching, including maths, English, science and some religious education, but what they do is not controlled in the way it is in local authority runs schools.
But the Lib Dems are able, with the timing and the wording of this policy pronouncement, which their media briefing clearly stated was related to the current Ofsted investigation into 21 Birmingham schools, to put some clear water between them and the Conservatives on the issue of the importance of having a core curriculum. The Lib Dems argue that the “parental guarantee” they want to make offers, whichever school a child attends, a “a world-class education that will help them fulfill their potential.” The implication here is that the freedom on the curriculum that schools have been enjoying might not be offering children that. In a week where the Department of Education have been accused of not being able to keep an eye on what is going on in their centrally controlled schools, this is a sharp accusation.
Which leads me to the more important piece of political positioning. Both parts of the Lib Dems’ announcement brings them more into line with Labour Party education policy – which also calls for staff at free schools and academies to have qualified status and is also in favour of a more mandatory core curriculum. A year before a general election in which a hung Parliament is likely it is important to ‘spatially analyse’ Lib Dem policy pronouncements in terms of where it puts them between Conservatives and Labour. This edges them Ed-wards.
The second analysis that needs to be performed on every manifesto commitment issued by the Lib Dems is the priority of them. Where will each one stand when it comes to coalition negotiations. David Laws, the Education Minister and the person in charge of their manifesto, has already indicated that they will not be making any unrealistic or undeliverable promises (scrapping tuition fees anyone?!) in that manifesto whilst still retaining an independent policy making position. This policy is one that we already know would be deliverable if they went into coalition with Labour, but with the Conservatives? Will the Conservatives back down on curriculum freedoms? I don’t think they will, but they might on teacher qualifications. I can genuinely say…watch this space!