A Tribute to three Liberal Democrats

December has not been a happy month for me as a Liberal Democrat. During the past four weeks I have seen the loss of three important members of the Party. All had an interest in education. This post is by way of thanks for their dedication and service.

Paddy Ashdown was Party Leader when the ‘penny on income tax for education’ policy was promulgated in the 1990s. The policy was to contrast with the then Conservative government’s reduction on spending on education that continued into the first two years of the Labour government under Blair and Brown. Paddy was an inspirational figure and came to help me become elected in 2013 to Oxfordshire County Council.

Honorary Alderman Jean Fooks was a City Councillor in Oxford for a quarter of a century and a County Councillor for sixteen years. A physics graduate from Oxford, when women physicists were even less common than they are today, Jean taught me all I know as a councillor about the concerns over children taken into care and their education. These young people suffer in many different ways, but the lack of concern on the part of some schools and those in national government for their education is a burden they really should not have to bear.

Education, is about learning, butt it must be set in the context of the child. If the Christmas story tells us anything it is not to judge a person by their circumstances. Most children are taken into care because of the failure on the part of others. We must not expect the system to compound that failure, especially when these children are moved into other areas. When, for reasons of economics, these children end up in areas where there are many of them located together in a small area, the State must consider what the implications for their education will be? Removed from their families, they must not be cast out of our education system because they are troublesome. Jean realised this, and through her work on Corporate Parenting and visiting the children’s homes on a regular basis, she set an example of leadership.

Gordon was, until the summer, the treasurer of the local Lib Dems. He was then diagnosed with the condition that sadly ended his life all too soon afterwards. Gordon, was also a volunteer with Children Heard and Seen, a small Oxfordshire charity that works with the children of those in prison. All too often children with a parent, usually a father, in prison have a high risk of a life of offending themselves in later life or even as adolescents, this is especially the case for many boys. CHaS has sought to recognise the needs of these children that often have nobody to turn to that understands their position. They can be bullied at school and have lost a vital role model. Mentors, and those such as Gordon, can show these children that they are worth talking time over and can help them to fulfil their potential.

All of these three have been inspirations to me in the steps that they were prepared to take to help others. As we enter 2019, the memory of all of them will remain with me as I continue to try to do my best for Oxfordshire and its residents.


Back to Banbury

So, there’s to be a general election on 8th June. Last time, in 2015, I stood for the Lib Dems in Banbury, winning 6% of the vote and just saving the deposit. I wait to see whether I will be invited to stand there again in June. Coming off the back of a real fight in my county division for this May’s county council elections, another four weeks of campaigning isn’t what I expected.

Still, time to start thinking of some new slogans to go alongside the ‘If you voted remain in 2016 then vote Lib Dem in 2017.’

I think education will play a bigger part in the sub-text of this general election than in 2015, when it barely rated a mention.

Here are two possible slogans for starters

If you want your child to attend;

A secondary modern school; Vote Conservative

A good comprehensive: Vote Liberal Democrat

Another might be

If you think children;

Can be taught by unqualified teachers: Vote Conservative

Need professionally trained teachers: Vote Liberal Democrat

Do let me know of any other such slogans that you can suggest for the campaign.



End of an era

This week  marks the retirement of Baroness Sharp of Guildford from the House of Lords and witnesses the departure from front-line politics of the last of a trio of important female Liberal Democrats politicians, all of whom have been very have been influential in different areas of education.  Baroness Sharp’s departure follows the retirement of Baroness Shirley Williams earlier this year and the decision of Dame Annette Brooke not to contest the 2015 General election.

Baroness Sharp was elevated to the peerage in 1998 and has resolutely fought the higher education corner in the upper house on behalf of the Liberal Democrats ever since. Baroness Sharp’s political career began in the early 1980s when she joined the newly formed SDP  and was selected to stand in Guildford  in the 1983 general election. She fought three further elections in Guildford for the SDP and then the Liberal Democrats, gradually squeezing a 20,000 majority down to 4,500 and preparing the way for Liberal Democrat victory in the election of 2001.

On the national scene she has played an active part in policy making, chairing a number of policy working groups and for several years being vice-chair to Paddy Ashdown on the Party’s main policy committee.

As leader of higher and further education policy group, who produced the paper ‘Quality, Diversity and Choice’ for the Party.

Baroness Williams was one of the founders of the SDP and had previously been an education secretary during the Labour government of the late 1970s. Created a Life peer in 1993, Baroness Williams played an important background role in education for the Party in her role as a senior politician of wide experience. Her great speaking ability motivated many audiences in both the conference hall and at fringe meetings during many Liberal Democrat conferences over the years.

Dame Annette Brooke was a former teacher who, at the time she stood down from parliament, had attained the distinction of the longest serving female Lib Dem MP. Her contribution to education was mainly, but not exclusively, in the field of early years’ education which she championed with great vigour and expertise and help the Party to develop a significant policy base in this important but previously under-represented area.

All three of these politicians helped further the Liberal Democrat cause in developing a Party that has a deep and abiding interest in education. Over the years, I have been privileged to have been able to work closely with both Baroness Sharp and Annette Brooke. As the Lib Dem’s fortunes revive over the next few years, it will be important for a new generation of politicians to fill the shoes of these three women that have each done so much to help the Party achieve an understanding of the importance of education to society and to promote it through its policy agenda.



The real issue is not QTS, but how it is achieved

There is clear water developing between the three main political parties at Westminster over the need for teachers in state funded schools to be qualified only after a period of training. Regular readers of this blog will know where I stand on the issue as I have made clear my belief in the need for QTS to be backed by a preparation course – see my last blog ‘Teachers are made not born’.

This afternoon the Labour Party at Westminster have an opposition day debate in the main chamber around the topic. This is the sort of debate that normally passes relatively without comment, but what is interesting is the amendment put down by the government in the names of the prime minister and his deputy; and Michael Gove and David Laws. I have reproduced it below with the key section underlined:

Line 1, leave out from ‘House’ to end and add ‘notes that this Coalition Government is raising the quality of teaching by quadrupling Teach First, increasing bursaries to attract top graduates into teaching, training more teachers in the classroom through School Direct and providing extra funding for disadvantaged pupils through the pupil premium which schools can use to attract and reward great teachers; notes that the part of the Coalition led by the Deputy Prime Minister believes all schools should employ teachers with Qualified Teacher Status, and the part of the Coalition led by the Prime Minister believes free schools and academies should retain the freedom to hire teachers without Qualified Teacher Status; further notes that funding agreements with academies and free schools will not be altered in relation to Qualified Teacher Status prior to the next election; and regrets the findings of the recent OECD skills report which revealed that those young people educated almost entirely under the previous administration have some of the worst levels of literacy and numeracy in the developed world, underlining the need for radical schools reform and demonstrating why nobody can trust the Opposition to protect education standards.’

Of course, the really disingenuous of you may reflect that QTS could be awarded after a period of service in the classroom untrained, and that period, as in the past when it was the route into teaching I used, could be two years. The subtle change to the Staffing Regulations in 2012 allowed for schools to confirm that there had been no competency proceedings against a teacher in the past two years. This might permit an unqualified person to be granted QTS as in the past after two years of successful service or at least develop a career in different schools. So long as QTS can only be granted after a period of prescribed training, by an approved route, this is not an issue, but as ever the devil is always in the detail. The real issue is not QTS, but how it is achieved.

There are also matters for those in favour of QTS needing to be backed by training to resolve, especially around training for specific types of school now funded by the State that follow a particular philosophy of education not covered in the present training arrangements. But that should be possible to resolve once the key principle of mandatory preparation has been agreed.

Finally, the Liberal Democrat position on Qualified Teacher Status owes much to the motion passed at their Spring Conference that David Laws thought last week he had proposed – actually it was Lord Storey that proposed it, and Baroness Brinton who seconded it – that had its genesis in the work of Liberal Democrat education activists including the late Andrew Bridgwater who had a hand in the drafting of the motion’s wording. It would be a nice gesture, and a fitting memorial, if a Lib Dem MP recognised that fact during the debate this afternoon.

Private education, but State Funded?

As a nation, can we afford private education funded by taxation? For that is surely what Nick Clegg was offering when he said in his keynote speech earlier today:

“But I am totally unapologetic for believing that, as we continue to build a new type of state funded school system – in which parents are presented with a dizzying range of independent, autonomous schools, each with its own different specialism, ethos or mission “

So if you want a school for your child, and are prepared to meet the food standards, follow the National Curriculum, and employ qualified teachers, my Party, the Lib Dems, will fund it even if there is another school down the road. As a result could every humanist is a village with a Church of England primary school have an academy that looks like a typical community school even though both schools will be half empty? I bet the Treasury wouldn’t approve that. But, Nick might, of course, have been talking only about urban areas.

With the huge rise in the pupil population that is occurring over the next decade we will certainly need more school places, as David Laws discussed for two hours yesterday with the Education Select Committee members at Westminster. But, choice, and a funding guarantee for existing schools, plus the Pupil Premium, means any further inflow of pupil numbers from hard-pressed parents currently paying for school fees that now want the State to pay for their child’s education, but on their own terms in respect to ethos and mission, and presumably admission criteria, and who might see this parental guarantee as a good deal, will cost the State money to finance the switch of sectors for these children. In 2002, I calculated that the cost of such a transfer might be more than £2 billion, and it would certainly be more now. It might even bring back many of the former direct grant day schools that left the state system over the issue of comprehensive intakes in the 1970s since they presumably meet most of the criteria set by Mr Clegg.

If this huge influx of new schools happens in the secondary sector over the next few years, then either other services will be less well funded or taxes will have to rise.

Nick’s other big idea, of superheads for failing schools, has been tried before with mixed results. The difference this time is that he seems to expect these new head teachers to take the job for the long-haul rather just until the school improves. But that’s what every chairman says when they appoint a new football manager. If these superheads are to be employed by Whitehall, then it is another nail in the coffin of local authorities’ involvement in education. After all, until recently, Oxfordshire and many other authorities had a pool of primary heads to undertake just this sort of role, and they already knew the school and the area. The money might be better spent identifying what works for schools that are under-performing, and providing local help and support. In some cases it might mean a new head, but in others raising aspirations or dealing with a problem outside the school that is affecting a group of children may be what is needed to raise performance.

Leading on Free Schools

The news that Nick Clegg’s speech on schooling, scheduled for later this week, has been either leaked or handed out in advance to the press that presumably then ignored an embargo should not come as much of a surprise. Even though Nick Clegg’s speech isn’t to be until Thursday, and was billed as about standards in schools, it would appear to have been communicated to the press further in advance than is usually the case. Either way, one wonders whether his office bothered to consult anyone in the Party with views on education.

After all, it is more than three years since the Liberal Democrat Party Conference at Liverpool passed the following motion about Free Schools:

Conference is concerned by the establishment of academies and free schools under coalition government policy.
Conference re-asserts its commitment to the key principles agreed at the spring 2009 conference in Harrogate in policy paper 89, Equity and Excellence, and specifically that:
i) Local Authorities should retain strategic oversight of the provision of school places funded by the use of public money.
ii) Local Authorities should continue to exercise their arms-length support for all state schools funded wholly or partially with public funds with particular emphasis on their work with 
disadvantaged pupils.

Conference calls on government to ensure that schools remaining within the Local Authority
family are not financially penalised by the creation of academies and specifically:
a) That academies should be required to pay the full cost including administrative overheads for
any services they buy back from the Local Authority.
b) That academies should have only observer status on the Schools Forum as they have placed themselves outside the democratic system for the funding of education.
In relation to ‘free schools’, conference calls on all Liberal Democrats to urge people not to take up this option because it risks:
1. Creating surplus places which is prejudicial to the efficient use of resources in an age of
2. Increasing social divisiveness and inequity into a system which is already unfair because
of the multiple tiers and types of schools created by successive Conservative and Labour
governments and thus abandoning our key goal of a high quality education system for all
3. Depressing educational outcomes for pupils in general.
4. Increasing the existing complexity of school admissions and exclusions.
5. Putting at risk advances made in making appropriate provision for children with special
6. Putting in jeopardy the programme of improving school buildings.
7. Wasting precious resources, both human and material, at a time when all efforts should be

focused on improving educational outcomes by enabling effective teaching and learning to

take place in good local schools accessible to all.

8. Increasing the amount of discrimination on religious grounds in pupil admissions and the employment of teaching staff, and denying children access to broad and balanced Religious Education about the range of different world views held in society.

That motion was proposed by Cllr Peter Downes of Cambridgeshire, and seconded by myself. As the BBC noted, earlier this week the Minister of State, David Laws, was still taking a different line to that now being espoused by his leader about free schools. So that raises a second issue, about leadership styles. I voted for Nick Clegg in the leadership election because, having been on working parties with both candidates, I admired Nick’s positive attitude to making things happen. But, taken to extremes such a driving force can make others feel left out, as I imagine most of the part’s education lobby are feeling this morning after listening to the BBC news report.

We await the details of the speech to see how far Nick has moved his position within the Party away from both Mr Gove’s and Mr Hunt’s ‘private schools on the rates’ approach to education, and also what justification Nick gives for his change of heart. but, I suppose we must be grateful for any re-think of policy in this area that was never a part of the Coalition Agreement.