The Deputy Prime Minister's spinners were out on manouevres this weekend, briefing a lot of nonsense about how our hero had defeated the nasty Tory profit-monger Michael Gove over his plans to allow greedy capitalists to make a few bob out of free schools. Since no such plan is on the agenda in Government (much to the annoyance of some providers and think tanks) and was even ruled out in the Tory manifesto, this particular Aunt Sally seemed to have been introduced merely to impress the more gullible types at the forthcoming Liberal Democrat conference, as well as the Sunday lobby with its particular fondness for the genre.
Unsurprisingly, there is little in Nick Clegg's actual speech today to justify any of that hype. But there is a lot that is potentially rather more alarming for free schools and academies, and is a real threat to their independent development. This threat comes from a clear desire by the DPM to restore the role of local authorities in several crucial respects. Here is what he says:
I think some confusion has been allowed to grow around our long term vision for schools: There’s an increasing belief that we are trying to sideline local authorities altogether because Academies so far have only had a direct relationship with the Secretary of State and the department in Whitehall. So let me straighten this out once and for all. This government wants all schools, over time, to have the opportunity to be autonomous with Academy freedoms. Both Liberal Democrats and Conservatives promised that in our manifestos. But we do not want that to lead to mass centralisation of the schools system. Far from it: as Academies become more commonplace, and eventually the norm, we will make sure people do not lose their voice over what local schools provide. So we will need to develop a new role and relationship between schools, central and local government.
Councils have an essential job. We will ensure they have a stronger role in making sure there are school places in the area for every child, not just those who know how to play the system. We have strengthened their role in admissions. They will oversee our new, fairer, admissions code. A code which makes it easier for the poorest to get the best places and easier for any citizen to complain if the rules are broken. We will strengthen their role supporting children with special needs. Sarah Teather is bringing forward a radical set of reforms which will ensure local councils can help knock heads together to get a better deal for disabled and disadvantaged children. And we will give them a critical role ensuring there is fairer funding Local authorities will help ensure the schools forums which currently divide up the cake locally are more transparent and they will help guarantee that academies, and other schools, are funded on exactly the same basis.
But we can – and we will – go further. Where there are no schools the local authority "owns" any more - there should be no barrier to the local authority working in a new relationship with academies, in partnership with central government.
The local authority could have a key role in deciding who new providers are and holding existing providers more sharply to account. Local authorities, closer by their very nature to their community than the Secretary of State, could be more determined than distant Whitehall to drive up attainment in their own patch – for example by setting higher standards for all schools in their area. That is why I am inviting those local authorities which wish to move to the new phase to grasp this opportunity and be involved in piloting this new role, starting from next year.
For most of the schools converting to academy status, a desire to have greater independence from the local authority is a big selling point. So too for some of those involved with free schools: read what Patricia Sowter, who is sponsoring Woodpecker Hall Academy, told me in my article in this month's Public Finance.
Already, that independence is being eroded, the result one suspects as much of pressure from a resurgent Conservative-led Local Government Association as of the DPM's arm-twisting at the cabinet table. The Government has retreated on plans to move to a national funding formula, as the DPM notes approvingly in his speech, and is giving the job to local authorities to decide (with a few extra restrictions) on the funding of academies and free schools in their area, even if the money is paid by a national agency. It remains to be seen, too, whether large authorities like Birmingham and Kent, where their Conservative politicians oppose coalition academy policies, not to mention the councillors across the country of all parties who are hostile, will see this new phase in quite the same spirit that the DPM envisages.
Yesterday, I thought that Clegg's spin about profit-makers was all about currying favour with his activists. Today I wonder whether it was as much about deflecting the media from his rather more worrying pledge to revitalise the role of local authorities in education. That is a battle that he and his Tory councillor allies appear already to have won.