Coalition split as Clegg disowns Tory education beliefs

Nick Clegg: 'We are not identical parties'. Picture: PA
Nick Clegg: 'We are not identical parties'. Picture: PA
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A MAJOR rift in the UK coalition has opened up after Nick Clegg attacked the ideology behind the Conservatives’ education reforms.

The Liberal Democrat leader accused the Tories of failing to enforce “basic standards” in schools as he dramatically disowned key planks of the coalition’s education policy in England and Wales.

Mr Clegg exposed a major difference between the Lib Dems and the Tories when he insisted all teachers south of the Border should be qualified, and the English national curriculum should be taught in every school.

Under current UK government policy introduced by Education Secretary Michael Gove, all schools free from local authority control, including the controversial free schools south of the Border, do not have to adhere to the national curriculum and do not have to follow nutritional standards.

The tensions within the two parties became public when it emerged that Mr Clegg will use a speech this week to say that: “Parents do not want ideology to get in the way of their children’s education.”

Mr Clegg insisted his criticism of “ideological” measures championed by Mr Gove was not a government “crisis” or political positioning, but a “perfectly sincere difference of opinion”.

“This is something I have made clear publicly and privately in government for a long time,” the Liberal Democrat leader said.

“Coalition works in that we agree on a lot on education… but of course there are tensions and pinch points. We are not identical parties.”

Mr Clegg said: “The Conservatives really don’t want any minimum amount of basic standards to apply to schools who have these new freedoms. And I think what we need to do is a sensible balance.”

He insisted it was “complete and utter nonsense” to suggest the Lib Dems were adjusting their policy to appeal to Labour in the case of another hung parliament in 2015. The Opposition wanted to “strangle” school freedoms, he said.

Mr Clegg also played down suggestions of a rift with fellow Lib Dem and schools minister David Laws, who last week defended the performance of unqualified teachers.

“David Laws is right that that is the policy of the Department for Education (DfE). He is quite right in stating that is the present approach,” he added.

Mr Clegg will detail his party’s approach in a speech at a London school on Thursday.

“I’m proud of our work over the last three years to increase school autonomy, which, in government with the Conservatives, has been through the academies programme,” he is expected to say.

“And it is Lib Dem policy to give all schools, whether they are academies or not, those same freedoms to attract and reward excellent teaching, set their own term dates and vary their school day.

“We believe greater autonomy enables school leaders to take responsibility in those areas where they know what’s best for their pupils, whilst also giving them the freedom to innovate.

“But it shouldn’t surprise you if I say that, although we work well with the Conservatives, our two parties still have differences of opinion, some strongly held.”

A DfE spokesman said: “Free schools are raising standards and giving parents more choice. They are run by teachers – not bureaucrats or politicians.”