Nick Clegg’s promises on free school profiteering didn’t amount to much, but his comments on the restored role of local authorities slipped under the radar
The deputy prime minister’s spinners were out on manouevres this weekend, briefing a lot of nonsense about how our hero had defeated the nasty Tory profit-monger Michael Gove over his plans to allow greedy capitalists to make a few bob out of free schools.
Since no such plan is on the agenda in government (much to the annoyance of some providers and think tanks) and was even ruled out in the Tory manifesto, this particular Aunt Sally seemed to have been introduced merely to impress the more gullible types at the forthcoming Liberal Democrat conference, as well as the Sunday lobby with its particular fondness for the genre.
Unsurprisingly, there is little in Nick Clegg’s actual speech today to justify any of that hype. But there is a lot that is potentially rather more alarming for free schools and academies, and is a real threat to their independent development. This threat comes from a clear desire by the DPM to restore the role of local authorities in several crucial respects.
The local authority, according to Clegg, ‘could have a key role in deciding who new providers are and holding existing providers more sharply to account. Local authorities, closer by their very nature to their community than the Secretary of State, could be more determined than distant Whitehall to drive up attainment in their own patch – for example by setting higher standards for all schools in their area.’
But for most of the schools converting to academy status, a desire to have greater independence from the local authority is a big selling point. So too for some of those involved with free schools: read, for example, what Patricia Sowter, who is sponsoring Woodpecker Hall Academy, told me in my article in this month’s Public Finance.
Already, that independence is being eroded, the result one suspects as much of pressure from a resurgent Conservative-led Local Government Association as of the DPM’s arm-twisting at the cabinet table. The government has retreated on plans to move to a national funding formula, as the DPM notes approvingly in his speech, and is giving the job to local authorities to decide (with a few extra restrictions) on the funding of academies and free schools in their area, even if the money is paid by a national agency.
It remains to be seen, too, whether large authorities like Birmingham and Kent, where their Conservative politicians oppose coalition academy policies, not to mention the councillors across the country of all parties who are hostile, will see this new phase in quite the same spirit that the DPM envisages.
Yesterday, I thought that Clegg’s spin about profit-makers was all about currying favour with his activists. Today I wonder whether it was as much about deflecting the media from his rather more worrying pledge to revitalise the role of local authorities in education. That is a battle that he and his Tory councillor allies appear already to have won
A longer version of this blog first appeared on Conor’s Commentary