Lib Dems rebel over free schools

By Alex Stevenson

Liberal Democrat activists have defeated their leadership over coalition plans for free schools and academies.

In the first major act of rebellion at the autumn conference voters clearly rejected schools minister Sarah Teather’s attempt to water down a motion stating that “conference is concerned by the establishment of academies and free schools under coalition government policy”.

Supporters of the motion argued that the Lib Dems needed to reassert their party policy made before the general election, which backed local authorities retaining strategic oversight of school places paid for with public money.

It also demands that academies be required to pay the full cost for any services they buy back from local authorities and lists seven “risks” associated with academies.

“The academies act is not a true reflection of the coalition agreement and therefore we must surely be free to point out its limitations and potential dangers,” the motion’s mover, Peter Downes, proposed.

John Howson, summing up for the motion, argued the motion’s wording was deliberately intended as a statement of independence from the government.

“If you believe the debate on our schools system should be wider than just Westminster… vote for the motion, because… the motion was carefully crafted to recognise that being in coalition should not require us to abandon our basic principles,” he pressed.

Schools minister Sarah Teather countered by highlighting lines in the motion which would prevent councils from using academies.

“Councils have to be able to use every tool that is available to them to improve life chances for their children,” she told delegates.

“Please don’t vote for a boycott. Don’t tie councils’ hands.”

Baroness Walmsley, co-chair of the Lib Dems’ backbench education, families and young people committee, added: “We should trust the governors, teachers and parents to make their local choice in local circumstances after proper consultation, which is in the Act.”

Another amendment, adding the risk of increased discrimination on religious grounds to the list, was also passed.

The amendment supported by Ms Teather was defeated by approximately two votes to one before delegates rallied to back the original motion.