A review of education policy

A review of education policy

This article appeared in 2011 on the Lib Dem Voice web site and was based upon a speech I prepared as outgoing President of the Liberal Democrat Education Association to be delivered at their AGM in Sheffield
As we approach the end of the first year of coalition government it is worth assessing the balance sheet in respect of education. Can we as Liberal Democrats be pleased or dismayed at what has happened in education?

The two obvious big events provide contrasting pictures. On the one hand there has been the tuition fees shambles, and on the other, the Pupil Premium success. But, there has been much more to consider; new forms of academies; additional schools; changes to the ways schools are funded; abolition of EMAs; and of Quangos such as the GTCE and TDA; provision for deprived two year olds in education centres; expansion of Teach First and a new troops to teachers programme, all alongside a WhitePaper on schools and teachers, and an expected Green paper on SEN, and of course two Education Bills as well as the Wolf Review. Oh, and the name of the Department has been changed to bring back Education, dumping families and children from the title.

But above all there has been the ambivalence towards local democracy. To paraphrase George Orwell: private chain good; public chain bad. For, although local authorities may retain a monitoring role, but without necessarily the money to conduct it properly, a National School Service is quietly emerging, with Whitehall connecting directly to schools. Localism it may be, but not democratically elected localism. A national funding formula, administered by schools where the Secretary of State determines who will be able to be a governor, and whether or not new schools are needed, and who will operate them, seems more like a NHS model than a local school system.

A few years ago schooling was largely a local government function, and councils were free to decide the level of funding they would allocate. Some saw it as a priority service, and allocated more funds, whereas others allocated merely what was recommended. Now even local decisions about distribution of funds between age – groups are likely to disappear under any national formula. Schooling as a function will be little different to refuse collection; except that councils get to choose the contractor who collects their rubbish. They won’t even get to select who runs any new schools in their area, for the Secretary of State reserves this right to himself.

In Liverpool, at our conference, the Party expressed unease, or perhaps even downright opposition, to a centrally run model of schools. Has there been any attempt by the Party at Westminster to allay those fears or are our government ministers and LGA representatives happy to recognise we can do no more in coalition than in opposition to stop the move away from education as a local government function?

I am not sure how the Pupil Premium is playing out on the doorsteps. Telling middle class electors that their school won’t get any extra money because it’s going to the school serving the social housing estate down the road must be a difficult sell. But, so long as the final outcome is a notion of equality that sends funds where they are needed to achieve outcomes through raised standards we can no doubt live with doubts of a few voters.

The tuition fees debacle was another matter. It remains to see how deep our PR failure runs in the psyche of electors, and whether they want to punish us for what the media has described as a monumental -u- turn. And it may be that the Barnsley by-election gives us some idea, but not much given the non-campaign that the Party ran there.

I know there are many within the Party who cleave to the view that our policy is still ‘no tuition fees’ and we will go to the electorate on such a policy at the next election. But, can we really expect those electors between the ages of 18 and 35 who have paid fees to be sympathetic to such a policy? And how will we answer the 200,000 or so youngsters denied a place under the present system since, if we abolish tuition fees, we may not be able to fund as many places in higher education.

What we can point to is the fairer deal for part-time students, and the fact that fees no longer have to be paid up front. What we haven’t done is enough to secure scholarships for those less well off students who may end up in less well paid jobs.

Personally, I would have sought to persuade the bankers to spend a small fraction of their profits to fund a scholarship scheme for those first generation higher education students who would otherwise be deterred from going to university. This is a form not so much of Teach First, but rather of Educate First.

And to the NUS I would say, if your members in Liverpool Riverside, Oxford West and many other constituencies had voted Liberal Democrat in greater numbers, we would have been in a much stronger bargaining position in the debate over tuition fees.

Nevertheless, I am disappointed that £9,000 rather than £6,000 appears to be becoming the norm for fees. With demand outstripping supply, how will the price be forced down? I am even more concerned that by privatising all non STEM subject teaching the government has lost control over the type of courses on offer. How are we going to protect philosophy, Latin, and even perhaps music, without dumbing them down to attract more interest from students keen only on the financial rewards
of their degrees?

Finally, on the big picture, I think the FE sector has got a raw deal. Splitting education post 16 between two departments of state is a thoroughly bad idea and I see little or no sense in it. Either return all non-adult education to the DfE or put all post-14 education in BiS, but please do something sensible. Abolishing EMAs may have been inevitable, but we do need to ensure that pupils outside London, where youngsters receive free transport, are not disadvantaged. Free transport
plus free school meals is a powerful incentive to study the wrong course.

Our voice in the coalition may not be strong enough to reverse some of the Tory schemes for education, but we do now need to start planning for the next general election. The work of the LDEA governance group, led by Andrew Bridgewater, provides a good model for ordinary Party members’ involvement in policy debate outside the Federal Policy committee structure. We need more room for such debate unless our Party is to become no more than a mere replica of the other two behemoths whose leaderships have too often become detached from the views of their ordinary party members.

So, my assessment overall: the Pupil Premium and tuition fees probably cancel each other out in political terms, but the re-ordering of our school system taking place largely without debate or dissent has the real likelihood of changing the political landscape in a more fundamental manner than any event since local authorities lost control of their health services when the NHS was created.

A National School Service is now a real probability. Is this something we wish the coalition to be remembered for?

This article was originally the speech given by departing president of the Lib Dem Education Association, John Howson.

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