...a blog by Richard Flowers

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Day 3550: Freak Schools


Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

The BIG controversy of the week – at least according to the meeja – was the policy motion saying: "We think Free Schools stink". I paraphrase. A bit.

Having made ONE speech (collecting MY Blogger of the Year Prize) and then gotten his face on the telly asking Captain Clegg a question ("do you agree with Vince"; pitch him a HARD one why don't you) my normally shy Daddy Richard seems to have gone a bit CRAZED for the limelight and submitted a speaker's card.

To make matters even WORSE, he thought he have a go a speaking AGAINST!

Don't panic, this wasn't Coalition-loyalty gone MAD; it was the USUAL reason for attacking a policy at Lib Dem Conference: it wasn't Liberal ENOUGH!

The central thrust of the motion was contained in lines 16 and 17 which say:
In relation to 'free schools', conference calls on all Liberal Democrats to urge people not to take up this option…
and then go on to list all the BAD things that might be a RISK if Free Schools go ahead.

Basically an instruction to all Liberal Democrats, but especially those in local authorities, to scupper the implementation of the Coalition policy. i.e. it's fine to have Free Schools on the statute book so long as we don't let anyone ever USE them.

(Incidentally, Mr Evan was a LITTLE bit naughty in his remark that this was "just" "calling on" people to do this as if this was merely a suggestion, when he knows perfectly well that "calls on" is conference language for "conference says you WILL do this", not "conference says you might like to do this". Having said that, I suspect most Liberal Democrat ministers will use exactly that loophole to totally ignore the motion.)

The second of two amendments submitted was clearly aimed at substantially watering down this main thrust, starting by deleting those powerful lines 16 and 17 and all that followed, and although it restated the risks more clearly, it replaced that command with a softer:
urges Liberal Democrat Parliamentarians to work within government
which is both less vocative and rather more touchy-feely Coalition compromise-ive.

The first amendment, by the way, was to add a further RISK to the table of BAD THINGS that Free Schools might cause, namely a risk of increasing RELIGIOUS divisions, clearly for people worried about Faith Schools

There were more than seventy cards put in and so Daddy's was NOT one of the ones called, but here's what he WOULD have said:
Conference, I'm wary of this free schools idea. I'm sure we all are.

But I don't think this motion makes a clear case for why we should be wary or what we should do about it.

Are we wary because it's the Tories?

We all know Free Schools are a Tory totem, something to flourish at their voters, maybe even more importantly at their backbenchers, rushed through the House because, well, because the Tories didn't actually have so many policies and free school were a big visible marker to announce they had arrived

But are we using this motion just to prove we're different? Because that's gesture politics. And I'd like to make that gesture to the Tories too, but it's not a good enough reason for making policy.

Are we wary because of our principles?

Because if we are the motion doesn't say so.

I'm right there with Freedom from Ignorance, but I want us to remember Freedom from Conformity too. We don't know all the answers and I'd rather we put our efforts into making sure resources go to those who need them than stopping other people from trying something new that might work better.

Are we wary because we're too used to used to running local government and this takes us out of our comfort zone?

We are the party of handing power back to people and Conference Free Schools does hand power back to people. If we want to be about giving power away it means giving our power away too.

Are we wary because of the money? Because this as the motion says risks:

"Creating surplus places which is prejudicial to efficient use of resources in a time of austerity"

That's a good reason right now. But alarm bells start to ring. It sounds like we don't just mean for now, but for always.

And I don't agree with that.

I don't think it is wrong to create a surplus of places, and I object to the idea we should be placing the emphasis on efficiency.

When I think of education, I want to think of opportunity first, not efficiency

Conference, efficiency is the enemy of choice.

A perfectly efficient system has exactly as many places as there are pupils and no choices at all.

If you want pupils to have genuine choices, you are going to have to have some surplus places.

I think with this motion we're in danger of missing the point. What is wrong with free schools is not that they create surplus places, but that they risk creating surplus places for people who already have plenty of choice.

Like the movers of amendment one, I'm suspicious of faith schools and the possibility of increasing social divisions.

But I don't think the answer is to reduce parents options.

I think that people end up sending their kids to faith schools because they have too few choices, not because they have too many.

Conference, I wish I could recommend the much better-drafted amendment two, but it contains the same problem, the same emphasis on efficiency not choice, so I'm going to say I'm against the motion.

We don't need to make this Tory policy a whipping boy to prove we are different. We're better than that. So, let's go back and come up with a better Liberal critique so we can make Free Schools into Schools of Opportunity!

Anyway, in spite of Daddy's dramatic NON-INTERVENTION, the motion was passed by a huge majority (amended with the FIRST amendment on Faith Schools, but not the SECOND amendment that watered it down).

Now, you may very well think that that is a silly thing to do, passing motions that won't really change anything, but of course is DOES change something: it changes the way that the Liberal Democrat conference members felt about THEMSELVES.

When we all arrived in Liverpool we were all, quite separately, worrying away about what the Coalition really MEANT. All of us, every single one, were pretty sure that WE were still Liberal Democrats, but what about everyone else? Was it TRUE what the Hard Labour chorus have been hooting all summer about us being ABSORBED by the Conservatories? Would we find ourselves alone among a breed of POD PEOPLE?

Getting to Conference, the first thing that happened was that we all SHARED these worries; but the SECOND thing that happened was that we all CARRIED ON BEHAVING LIKE LIBERAL DEMOCRATS.

Passing the motion opposing Mr Borogrove's silly policy was a way for us to come together and say "we are STILL the Party of Liberal Democracy".

And that is why, or ONE of the reasons why, by the END of the week, the Party was feeling much better about itself.


Yes, of COURSE Daddy Alex wrote the speech for Daddy Richard – or "script edited" it as he insists; you don't think Daddy Richard can WRITE, do you?


Alix said...

I share your daddy's general unease. Yes, it was cultural glue and all that, and yes, I suppose I *can* just tell conference to fuck off and not obey their silly instruction. But is this motion the best we could do to set out our stall? Really? What about the more obvious injustices of coalition policy, like some of the expected benefit cuts?

I didn't listen to the whole debate, but I certainly didn't get the sense a complex issue was having justice done to it. And there's a good whiff of small-c conservatism coming off that motion text. I could wish people had chosen something more Obviously Wrong to get upset about.

JohnM said...

I don't see how freak schools are anything but divisive. In the end a freak school is just a shiny new building and an ISO9001 organisation - what're they to do with education? Be radical and talk of free subjects - now that has mileage!

Joe Otten said...

There are two kinds of conference debate - the showpiece where almost everyone agrees, and the serious debate, where speakers for and against are allowed in roughly equal numbers.

This was a showpiece and therefore the vote is meaningless.

lizw said...

I wish he'd got to make that speech - I was very uncomfortable with what seemed to be an anti-choice atmosphere in the hall and an unwillingness to trust parents to do the right thing if given more responsibility. Both attitudes seemed rather illiberal to me, and contrary to our much-proclaimed localism.

Alix said...

"...contrary to our much-proclaimed localism."

I read a piece somewhere recently commenting on the contrasting ways the Tories and Lib Dems "do" localism. One trait pointed out was the fact that a lot of Lib Dems equate "localism" with "local authority", whereas the Tories historically distrust LAs as loonie left organs (until they started winning fistfuls of seats on them, of course, at which point they started morphing into staunch bastions of democracy...)

That's clearly what lies behind a lot of the disquiet about freak schools - securing the role of LAs had a very prominent place in the motion. Of course, I agree that LAs are totally bound up with localism, inasmuch as they're the democratically elected bodies so logically first in line for devolved powers. But maybe some people in the party have stopped seeing the wood for the trees a bit if they've started fixating on LAs to the exclusion of arguably even more "localist" groups.

Seem to remember this theme about the separation between LAs and "real people" comes up in various Yes (Prime) Ministers!

Unknown said...

Daddy Richard is right - I wish he'd been able to make that speech. (I also wish I'd been able to make mine!) I think Alix has rather hit the nail on the head: the problem of being a party of councillors is that we can sometimes unthinkingly equate the council with local people. Lib Dems living in one-party states like Newham borough or Fenland in Cambridgeshire might disagree.

As Joe and Alix say, the issue was not properly debated. Most of the speakers for the motion can be divided into two categories: 1) "I'm worried about the same things that the motion's authors are worried about" and 2) "Here's some horrible things that happened with an academy being opened where I lived".

There was essentially no discussion of whether we could learn from other countries to implement free schools in a way that ensures maximum opportunity and minimal room for schools to engage in social engineering. The only person to mention real evidence was Michael Atkins (who also gave the funniest speech and so was thrust in front of TV cameras afterwards!).

You can tell Daddy Richard that I'll send him my speech that didn't get to be heard either :)