When I watched Sarah Teather last year, take on her party activists over the need to liberate schools from local authorities, I put her down as a politician of substance. This year: not so much. Set aside her car crash stand-up comedy routine (Sky News has the gory details). She seems to have given up selling school reform to her party. Her speech (text here) began by denouncing Labour for spending so much and achieving so little. But then she slipped into Labour’s tactics: boasting about the money being spent, as if this were an end in itself. Schools in England have had “an additional £625m to spend on pupils” she said – a figure that is only meaningful to a bureaucrat. A per pupil figure might have meant something. Then: “Today, I can announce the amount of money available to the pupil premium will double to £1.25bn.” This is precisely the logic that Labour used: focus on the input, not the outcome. The rest of her boasts were instantly forgettable.
The puzzle is that, as it happens, Sarah Teather has more to boast about than any other Lib Dem in Birmingham. She’s an education minister, and they’ve seen the number of Academies soar. Some 125 free schools are opening this term. Nick Clegg used to say that he thought of the policy first. David Laws certainly proposed it before the election. It’s very liberal: it takes power away from politicians and puts it where it belongs, with the parent. It should be a huge liberal boast. Two dozen of them are opening now, half of them in the most deprived areas of Britain. Look what’s happening in Inner Bradford. This, surely, is a triumph of social mobility – and something to boast about to the Lib Dem conference.
Astonishingly, Teather made no reference to this in her speech. The word ‘Academy’ was not mentioned and the only reference to ‘free schools’ was ‘free school meals’. All she seemed to speak about was now much cash Big Brother was doling out, even quadruple-counted cash like £30 million to ‘investing in relationship support’ for parents. Nothing about the role she has played in that great liberal mission: taking power from the few, and passing it to the many. School reform is the single greatest success story of his coalition so far – and the greater the success, the more the unions and dispossessed local authorities complain.
If Teather wanted to boast about Lib Dem policies in action, she could have. Before the election, David Laws spoke (pdf)about “all schools should be free from meddling politicians” – even if that means councilors who turn up to his conference. At the Lib Dem 2008 conference, he denounced “the centralized education which has suffocated schools for 20 years.” The coalition has smashed this monopoly, yanking a genuine choice out of the bottle. Laws correctly observed that “[Labour’s] Academies have freedom to innovate. In the future, ALL schools should have them.” Exactly what the coalition is delivering. A pledge, made in that very hall in Birmingham three years ago, now being delivered – and transforming life chances for thousands of pupils. Is Teather now embarrassed about this success? Is Laws now seen as being a bit too right-wing for her party’s comfort?
This time last year, Gove sent Teather a bouquet of flowers so impressed was he at her determination to sell coalition policy to her party. Now, if she gets a bouquet at all it will be from the unions. Reform is exhausting. I certainly hope that the LibDems have not already run out of puff.