Answer: when Michael Gove is telling free schools to teach the importance of marriage and avoid ‘inappropriate teaching materials’ or they won’t get funding.
Previously on this blog I have explored the way in which the rhetoric around free schools and academies set up local authority oversight as a ‘straw man’ of red tape to be demolished by the heroic Conservatives, while doing nothing to address the effect of direct central government diktat in stifling creativity, creating bureaucracy and instilling anxiety in educators. Today’s revelations show how this has been taken a stage further. Having allowed schools to opt out of the ‘oppression’ of having their funding allocated by their local authority, Gove is now making them jump through ideologically loaded hoops in order to collect their money from the Department of Education, such as by stipulating that children should be ‘protected from inappropriate teaching materials and learn the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and for bringing up children’ in the model funding agreements for academies and free schools.
Aside from the debate about the specifics of this, it is a complete contradiction of Gove’s previous arguments on free schools and academies. In a speech at an event organised by the Policy Exchange think tank in June, he says ‘We want a school system in which teachers have more power and in which they are more accountable to parents – not politicians’. He quotes a recent OECD survey which concluded that ‘in countries where schools have greater autonomy over what is taught and how students are assessed, students tend to perform better’ – just one of fifteen uses of ‘autonomy’ or ‘autonomous’ in the speech. He even emphasises, without irony, the safeguards against prospective school providers ‘whose ideology runs counter to the UK’s democratic values’ – it’ll be interesting to see what happens if a free school democratically decides that it actually wants to teach children to explore issues of relationships and sexuality, rather than propagandising.
A Lib Dem vision of educational decentralisation could look quite different. In September Nick Clegg placed on record several caveats for his support for free schools. Lib Dems at Conference went further, passing a motion reasserting the importance of local authority involvement and oversight. Meanwhile, the wrangling between Lib Dems and Conservatives in Government over local government finance made me proud to remain a Lib Dem. The ability for local authorities to take control over their own finances and raise additional revenues from, for example, taxes on pollution might well result in additional resources being allocated to one of the most visible and important front-line services that local authorities provide – schools. It’s interesting to note as well that the Lib Dems don’t have a minister with a say over secondary schools, with Sarah Teather having been given the broader children and families brief.
I will be writing to my Lib Dem MP to ask whether there is any hope of putting Gove back in his box.