On Monday, Peter Downes, the Liberal Democrat Lead on Children's Services at the County Council led a debate at the Liberal Democrat Party Conference which opposed the Coalition Government's Free Schools and Academies proposals. The motion was opposed by the Lib Dem Schools Minister, Sarah Teather, but was unfortunately supported by the Liberal Democrat Conference.
Thankfully, on a practical approach, the motion doesn't affect Government policy, but it is still disappointing for at least two reasons. Firstly, opposing a bill which allows greater freedom for schools totally ignores the huge lessons of the last 13 years (and indeed from before), that the ever centralising, controlling agenda doesn't work. Whilst exam results have improved in Britain, our international standing in terms of literacy and numeracy has gone backwards and Head Teachers, Governors etc. have become increasingly frustrated by the mass of bureaucracy and paperwork from central Government. The coalition has offered an alternative which rewards success and encourages fresh independent thinking through the creation of free schools, whilst offering commitment to the most vulnerable through the pupil premium and other emerging ideas.
I have to say - I do not expect a flood of Free Schools in Cambridgeshire, but, whilst we have to treat them on a case by case basis, we do have to be open minded and examine them on their merits rather than based on a rigid opposition to all things different.
However, it is the second reason for my disappointment that is the most important - and that is that by driving a wedge between himself and Lib Dem Ministers Peter Downes has harmed Cambridgeshire's ability to influence the National agenda and improve the lot for the children of our County. When Nick Clegg accepted a role in Government, it gave Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrats a unique opportunity to influence the National agenda according to their own vision. What they have actually done is oppose, oppose, oppose. Never more so than with this motion to the Lib Dem Party Conference which has created huge distance between Peter Downes and the very people he could and should have worked with in order to help improve the lot for the County.
I am afraid Peter Downes must recognise that his stance, however principled, has harmed his ability to serve the people who elected him. It is time for him to realise that having someone else fulfil his opposition role will better enable the rebuilding of bridges between Cambridgeshire Liberal Democrats and Education Ministers at a National level.