I have just had a chance properly to catch up with Andy Burnham’s speech to the Labour conference and was struck by the line that:
Free schools and academies can embody the comprehensive ideal.
This doesn’t seem to have been much noticed but it is a fairly clear indication that Labour will not pick a fight with Michael Gove on the question of local authority control over schools.
Shortly before Burnham spoke I chaired a fringe meeting on schools policy where shadow education minister Kevin Brennan was on the panel. When quizzed about the government’s plans, Brennan, like Burnham, carefully navigated away from any pledges to reverse the structural changes that Gove is introducing.
He all but acknowledged that a Labour government would accept the mass expansion of academies and the creation of free schools as a fait accompli by the next election. (Note also that Ed Miliband accused David Cameron of importing failed free market ideas into the health service in his leader’s speech. He could have made the same argument about Gove and schools – but didn’t.)
By contrast I was very struck at the Liberal Democrat conference how much hostility there was to Gove’s plans bubbling away under the surface. I came away with the distinct impression that many Lib Dems, including a number of MPs, are not reconciled to the free schools agenda. They feel licensed to attack the NHS reforms and wonder why they can’t be just as vocal on education. (Answer: because Gove’s stuff was much more clearly sign-posted in the coalition agreement.)
But one thing the Lib Dem leadership needs to remember is that free schools and academies — even more than the NHS changes — take money and therefore power away from local authorities. And local authorities are where most Lib Dems have conducted most of their politics in recent memory. Clegg, who came up through the European parliament, might not have noticed this stealthy assault on his party’s base, but the members certainly have.
Westminster seems to have signed off on free schools and academies. I’m not sure Labour and Lib Dem grassroots got the memo.