UK coalition leaders spar over schools

UK coalition leaders spar over schools
THE POLITICS OF EDUCATION: PM David Cameron (above) leads the Conservatives who want British schools to be independent in setting their teaching priorities.

British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has denied allegations that his government is "facing a crisis" after news emerged that the senior politician plans to distance himself from the country's existing education policies which emphasise the autonomy of schools against state controls.

In a speech scheduled for delivery today but whose contents have already been leaked to the media, Mr Clegg - leader of the Liberal Democrats in a ruling coalition with the Conservatives - argues that, unlike the Conservatives who want British schools to be independent in setting their teaching priorities, the Liberals prefer to enforce a single national standard of quality controls on schools.

Mr Clegg claims that his disagreement with the government is part of a "grown-up" debate. But Conservatives close to Prime Minister David Cameron accuse Mr Clegg of being more interested in how he fares at the next general election than in the welfare of Britain's schoolchildren.

The spat is over the centrepiece of the current government's education policy which created the so-called "free schools", set up by parents or groups of like- minded individuals and paid for with taxpayers' money but operating outside the daily control of the authorities.

Education Secretary Michael Gove regards the free schools as the biggest achievement of his career. "They are run by teachers, not local bureaucrats or politicians, and are free to set their own curriculum, decide how they spend their money and employ who they think are the best people for the job," he told Parliament in London this week in a spirited defence of his scheme.

And they are popular: Since the system was introduced in September 2011, more than 170 free schools have been established, many at the behest of ethnic and religious minorities.

Given the scheme's popularity, the Liberal Democrats went along with the plan; even the opposition Labour Party recently accepted that the free school movement is irreversible and pledged to protect their independence should the party return to power after the next general election scheduled in 2015.

But Mr Clegg is now determined to break this consensus.

In his speech today he plans to dismiss "certain aspects of schools policy" as merely "the priorities of the Conservative Party which I would not want to see continue".

The Deputy Prime Minister will add that he believes "every parent needs reassurance that the school their child attends, whatever its title or structure, meets certain core standards of teaching and care".

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