Fraser Nelson

Live-blogging from the fringe: “Whose schools are they anyway?”

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So where will the tension be at the Lib Dem conference? Easy: the free schools agenda. Clegg backs it, and when David Laws took over the agenda he backed Gove's market-based reform. But the teaching unions are in a fight to the death against it. The Gove agenda would put power in the hands of parents, whereas it currently rests with unions and local authorities. The latter two have beaten everyone who has spoken about reform, from Callaghan to Thatcher to Blair. But Gove represents an existential threat. Luckily he is in coalition with the Lib Dem MPs, with whom both unions and local authorities have massive influence.

The NUT and NASUWT have huge stalls here, and plenty staff to canvass Lib Dem members. As they know, they have about a year to strangle this agenda at birth because they won't be able to pack this genie of choice back in the bottle. I hung around their stalls, listening to their brief. They say these are new "Tory Academies," and one recently used its new freedom to kick out 20 hard-to-teach pupils. It's a dog-eat-dog world these wicked Tories are introducing. And surely the Lib Dems believe in "democratic accountability" of schools? (That's code for local authority control).

There is even a massive picture of Gove with quotes chosen to outrage Lib Dem activists - i.e. "We are going to change the planning laws. At the moment they are very very tight". I suppose they are chosen to alert Lib Dem councillors to the fact that Gove has located precisely how to liberate schools, and is wise to their spoiling scams.  

I'm blogging this from a fringe event with Sarah Teather, Gove's deputy, who sounded almost apologetic about the Academies Act her department passed in 77 days. At least, she said, Lib Dem priorities are in place - cracking down on homophobic bullying, the pupil premium, forcing Academies to respond to Freedom of Information requests (a tool used by unions, to demand info they may find useful). And, then, this rather wonderful point:

"This is a different message for us as Liberal Democrats. as we have assumed that localism means local government. But there are some people who are not battling with the dead hand of whitehall, but also dead hand of local gvt. I know that's not a popular message amongst LibDems but it's true."

Of all the enemies of reform, teaching unions are the wiliest. They avoid set-piece battles, and operate under the radar. And effectively; Lib Dems in the Lords slipped an amendment in to Gove's Bill requiring schools to conduct "consultation" before they seek independent Academy status. Gove was told by his officials that this was a meaningless concession - turns out the unions want to sue new Academies if they can't demonstrate that they properly conducted this consultation.

Much murmuring of approval in the audience here as Cllr Downes talks of the "unfairness" of depriving councils of extra money. "If these schools rush out, it will impoverish the rest of the service... And they'll have higher salaries for the head. Introduce an inflationary effect on the salary structure" - Funny how Lib Dems hate the idea of good teachers being poached and paid more - "and reduce support for schools who need it most".

The biggest applause came when Cllr Downes said - in his peroration - "This was not in the coalition agreement. I don't think we have any obligation, as Lib Dems, to promote academies".

As it turned to questions, poor Sarah Teather looked like she wants to die. "Gove is unpicking the 1944 settlement" said a woman, a union member, to  murmurs of approval. Then, another hostile question, from a Lib Dem Westminster candidate whose name I didn't catch: "I feel, Sarah, that this Academies Act has been a sacrifical lamb. The Lib Dems did not block it, as we would naturally have done, because it was the first major legislation and we didn't feel we could stop it." Applause. Another audience member presses home the point: "What we are seeing is the dismantling of the education system in this country". Even more applause.