Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Time to examine your navel Mr Downes

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.


  1. Martin,
    It is good that you recognise that Peter's stance was a principled one; he is a man of integrity so unlikely to take any other.

    Peter did examine Academy schools and found them, and the process by which they were rushed through, wanting.

    The Lib Dems as a party have always made and discussed policy through active debate and discussion; it is open, healthy and transparent. To think otherwise is to misunderstand the party ethos, we are a political party serving people not a regiment serving ourselves.

    Whatever Mr Gove's talents, and he is an amusing journalist, I don't know how much of his past experience was in education and/or teaching. Whereas, there are few at national level with Peter's ability and experience on schools, and no-one at County level so I hope that Whitehall is looking carefully at what he said. I have placed the full text here so people can read it in full:

    Peter is not only serving the people of Cambridge but the nation by sharing his wisdom with us.


  2. Creepy title. How will poor Peter sleep, haunted by the thought of Mr Curtis surprising him in the dead of night, equipped with a little torch: "Time to examine your navel, Mr Downes!"

  3. Whoever wrote that last anonymous post, thanks for the giggle, but trust me Peter has not found himself a stalker - and yes I realise in hindsight that “contemplate”would have been a better word. But if it generated a laugh maybe it was worth it.

    Anyway, back to the serious stuff.

    As a country we have to compete internationally - especially if we are to try to attract and develop high quality business that competes globally, that means our standards of literacy and numeracy must also compete globally. The reality is that our standing is sliding. (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7115692.stm)

    Of course parents are mostly happy about their children’s education, I am a satisfied parent, I could never, ever thank Alderman Jacobs School and Sir Harry Smith for the standard of education they delivered for my children and I am proud that my son is training to be a teacher. But, that doesn’t stop me recognising that things could and should be better and that the increasing centralisation agenda we have suffered increasingly over the last 13 plus years has done us harm internationally.

    We also need to recognise that local authorities and Central Government do not have a monopoly on good ideas and innovation in education. Academies and Free Schools enables much needed innovation and challenge in our school system. We can get buried in all the detail we like in order to find fault - but that principle is absolutely and totally solid. Where I have concerns about aspects of the detail I make those views known without causing the divisions between myself and others in the way that Peter has done - that allows me to work for Cambridgeshire in a productive way. That is the area where I think Peter has created a huge problem for the County that can only be improved by him stepping aside.

    There is one other aspect to this - we are lucky in Cambridgeshire. Overall our links between the Local Authority and Schools is a good one, our education system is a good one (albeit there are always areas that need to improve). That is not true elsewhere and there are places in this Country where Local Authorities are stifling and bureaucratic, in the same way that Central Government was to us under New Labour. We should not let the Cambridgeshire experience get in the way of overcoming that problem.

    I absolutely recognise that Peter’s stance was principled, but his principles will not change a much needed Government policy, but they will harm his ability to influence it for the betterment of the people he represents. It is for that reason he needs to consider his position.

  4. Martin,
    Peter hasn’t caused any splits. His County Council colleagues respect him on this matter. It is how we make Party policy. This link may help you understand:

    This comment also seemed rather apposite:
    “Do not be misled that the “government” will “completely ignore” decisions of our conference. Actually they matter in ways in which they never mattered in the past. Government involves a huge amount of negotiation, discussion, decisions – over priorities more than policies or even laws, and administration as much as policy. The Academies Bill is (unfortunately) now law. But the effort put into the academies programme and how it will be done, are all to play for. The political dynamics of the coalition and within the political world as a whole matter a lot and have changed as a result of the conference motion.”