Plans for so-called ‘free schools’ announced by the Secretary of State recognise the need to improve the education for all pupils; harnessing the enthusiasm of new groups offers the chance to widen community involvement in education. But, like a 1960s child of the flower power revolution, Mr Gove seems more intent on letting a 1,000 flowers bloom than on ensuring a school system fit for purpose and offering value for money in a time of austerity. Schools in England have always been run by a diverse group of bodies ranging from faith groups to livery companies. Letting teachers take charge in the same manner as other professionals who would routinely expect to be free to run their own organisations offers new opportunities that can significantly reduce differences in attainment levels between different groups in society. Assisted by a Liberal Democrat inspired pupil premium funding model, we could be on the verge of creating a high quality education system for all for the first time in a generation. However, any new opportunities must be cost effective in a period of austerity, and must operate within a clear framework of accountability that covers all schools. Pupils will still miss school, some will be expelled, others will develop special needs and many will move homes each year. Creating new schools is the easy part, developing the framework that allows them to succeed alongside other successful schools calls for more vision and knowledge than the Secretary of State has so far displayed. As a Liberal Democrat, I believe in striving for excellent education for all; nothing less is acceptable. But, schools cannot exist in isolation from each other without the risk of some of the very pupils Mr Gove is concerned about slipping through the net. Announcing ‘free schools’ and ‘grant maintained academies’ is the easy part: the hard slog of achieving success for all now starts. I am sure that Liberal Democrats will play their part in the coalition as the goals espoused by Mr Gove fit our aspirations. But, he will need to demonstrate how his ideas work for every child, and not just the few. John Howson is the President of the Liberal Democrat Education association. He writes here in a personal capacity
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