Free Schools – A great idea but they do need qualified teachers!

Free schools are a very Liberal idea; no one should have a monopoly in providing education, including the state and local authorities, but it should always be of a high standard.

We Lib Dems welcomed the opening of Hawthorne’s Free (High) School in Bootle because it offers a real opportunity to turn around the increasing numbers of families who are sending their youngsters out of Bootle each day to high schools in Maghull and Crosby. We wish the School well, whilst realising they have taken on a monumental task which by and large Labour has ignored and certainly hope will go away as soon as possible.

But what about the fuss over the free school in Derby which has hit the buffers due to Ofsted saying it is failing in every way? Of course that is unacceptable, of course it has to shape up or be closed down. Yet Tories oppose seemingly any form of regulation of Free Schools, I assume this is on the basis that market forces will decide whether it sinks or swims. This is falsehood though because whilst a school fails its children are being let down and they don’t have another childhood to make up for one that an education system has failed.

It is because of such concerns that Deputy Prime Minister and Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg has called for changes and some necessary regulation. For my part I can’t see how a school can work effectively without qualified teachers and whilst I am not sold on the rigid (tractor factory) National Curriculum there does have to be a clear standard for education wherever it is delivered.

Personally, I would not have the Government fund Free Schools that are set up for religious purposes. But then again I don’t think it is the job of the state to teach religion at all. Surely, taking on board a religion should be a decision of the individual not something predetermined by a decision of your family?

But back to Free Schools, they are a good thing and can be a force for change and excellence in education but they can’t just take money from the Government and pretty much do with as they wish! The Derby experience should not be a call to close all Free Schools as some in the Labour Party seem to think it. Then again where do Labour stand on Free Schools? Utterly opposed? Well they used to be. Supporting them? Well that was their surprising recent announcement pre-Derby. Moving back to opposing them? Well their utterances post-Derby would lead you to think they are doing another U turn!

The objective is quality education and Free Schools can deliver that but regulation of them must be brought in so to stop a minority of them damaging the education of our young people. I wonder what Labour’s policy on them will be next week?

Retail Stress – Bootle Strand is at the sharp end!

We often hear of the stress that high street retail is going through because of out of town supermarkets/retail parks, the recession and on-line buying but here in Sefton we really do have an example of what happens when all these things (plus the advent of Liverpool One?) happen together.

The Strand is really suffering and a walk around it shows just how many empty units there are; I would guess it must be above 35% now. In February the national average for retail vacancies was just over 14% and back then Bootle was being recorded as being at over 25%.

The Strand was a 1960’s build shopping Centre some 4 miles or so north of Liverpool City Centre and it was enlarged and refurbished in the 1980’s if I recall correctly. But the last few years have not been kind to it and I hear that even WH Smith is about to pull out as its lease comes to an end.

The rear of the shopping centre has empty unit after empty unit and I have thought back to comments made by the now retired Planning Director of Sefton Council when he warned that the expansion of retail parks in Aintree, the rebuilding of Kirkby shopping centre and the advent of Liverpool One may have detrimental effects on Bootle’s Strand. It seems he could well have been right and we have also had a recession and a big take up of internet shopping since then.

I took the three shots below in the shopping centre recently. One shows units around the once busy but now closed T J Hughes Department Store, whilst the other two show how innovative use of vacant shop windows is being taken up to advertise Bootle’s new Free School.

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What future Bootle Strand? As someone who works in Bootle and have done all my working life this is a sad situation and one from which I really do hope that shopping centre can recover from, but it is clearly going to be an uphill struggle.