Nick Clegg spent this morning singing the Lib Dem equivalent of Take That’s Back for Good, telling his target voters from the teaching profession that whatever one of his colleagues had said or did, they didn’t mean it. The Deputy Prime Minister was trying to apologise for comments by Vince Cable, who had rather clumsily underlined a valid point he was trying to make about the need for better careers advice in schools by suggesting that teachers ‘know absolutely nothing about the world of work’.
‘I know that Vince did not intend to offend teachers,’ pleaded the Deputy Prime Minister on his LBC radio show. He then described the profession as the ‘lifeblood of society’, which could risk offending those carrying out other worthy public services such as nursing, but never mind. Mr Clegg was anxious not to offend teachers because they and other public sector workers form a key part of the 25 per cent of voters who would either vote Lib Dem tomorrow or would consider doing so that the party is targeting with very specific messages in speeches and policy announcements.
Perhaps he was even more anxious to do so given he and other Lib Dems have never shied from expressing their displeasure when Michael Gove clashes with a teaching union. Dr Cable’s comments managed to paint the Lib Dems as having an even lower esteem than the Education Secretary, who is their favourite pantomime villain (although the Lib Dems insist that they have never run polling on Michael Gove or based their strategy on how disliked or otherwise he is by voters).
But there is something quite funny about the Lib Dems and education that this little incident highlights. They like to take the moral high ground on being nice to teachers (except when they’re being clumsy), and they do enjoy having a bit of a go at Gove. The Education department is one where personal animosity exists between the ministers and the Lib Dems. Initially that involved Nick Clegg having a poor personal relationship with Gove and Liz Truss, whose childcare ratio reforms he stitched up. But after David Laws intervened in the Ofsted row, the tensions are internal as well.
But the tensions do obscure the fact that the Lib Dems do agree with probably about 80-90 per cent of the Conservatives’ education reforms. They found the fuss over the history curriculum a bit amusing, and had struggled to get a hold of the document itself because Gove carried it around with him so often. And they disagree with the Conservatives on unqualified teachers (and point out that so do the public – although this policy is perhaps one of those ones that bears a bit of explaining as ‘unqualified teacher’ can often mean ‘very qualified teacher who doesn’t have a teaching qualification’, which is quite different).
But on academies and free schools and standards, the two parties are united. And it seems they’re now united in accidentally annoying teachers who they really, really want to praise.