Teather: “Free schools must not make profit”

It’s all unquiet on the Liberal Democrat front over government plans for private involvement in publ

It’s all unquiet on the Liberal Democrat front over government plans for private involvement in public services. Sarah Teather, Lib Dem minister for children and families, tells the New Statesman’s Rafael Behr why she thinks education need not fear.

The current atmosphere around the Liberal Democrats' role in government is gloomy. The weekend before I speak to Sarah Teather, delegates at the party's spring conference have both supported and opposed plans to reform the National Health Service, in rival motions. That does not, I suggest, indicate a happy party. People are still uneasy, the children's minister concedes. "We need to work harder to make sure that they understand exactly what's been achieved."

We are supposed to be talking about education, not health, but I'm intrigued by parallels between the two agendas. The academies and free schools programme is also predicated on the belief that competition from new providers will drive up quality.

Lib Dem grass-roots hostility to this mechanism in the NHS is well advertised; I pick up similar suspicion regarding schools. Has Teather detected the same?

“At a Lib Dem conference you'll find people saying, 'Well, that doesn't feel very Lib Dem.' Of course it doesn't. This isn't a Lib Dem government, it's a coalition." Does she believe that competition from the private sector is the best way to drive up standards in public services? "I don't have any ideological objections to the use of the private sector," she says. "The Liberal Democrats have never had any ideological objections to the use of the private sector - that's the same in health and in education." What about the prospect of companies making a profit from running schools? "That's different. That was one of the key dividing lines that Nick Clegg made clear -…free schools will not be making a profit during the life of this coalition."

Teather's main ministerial focus is on what happens to children before they reach school. She points to a substantial increase in free nursery places as one of the ways in which her party is helping children from poor backgrounds. The obvious danger is that any such ambition will be sabotaged by welfare and tax credit cuts. Teather was a critic of government plans for a cap on the level of benefit any household can receive. In February, she missed a crucial parliamentary vote on the measure - a highly irregular ministerial abstention. It prompted calls by some Conservatives that she resign.

So, does she now support the policy? "I am on record as having concerns," she says, "but I am also pleased to see the changes that were brought in on the back of those concerns."

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The end of socialism