David Laws is no Tim Farron. It’s hard to imagine him rousing the passions of the party faithful as the party president does.
But what he lacks in crowd-pleasing rhetoric he makes up for in two things: first, a clear passion for education and secondly a seemingly effortless grasp of his brief.
There was little in the way of new announcements in his speech to conference, though he did confirm that the pupil premium would rise to £900 per pupil in 2013 and that by 2015 the Lib Dem pledge to dedicate a total of £2.5bn a year to the policy will have been honoured in full.
What he did instead was to set out his vision for the role he has just been given in the Department for Education. He began with a tribute to his predecessor, Sarah Teather, who had not only overseen the introduction of the pupil premium but had done tremendous work, he said, on policies for pupils with special educational needs – not a policy area that receives masses of media attention, but one which it was right to focus on.
He framed his speech around a school he recently visited with the deputy prime minister – Mulberry School for Girls in the London borough of Tower Hamlets. This is a school in one of the poorest boroughs in the country; one, Laws said, where if results were dire few would bat an eyelid, because it could (albeit shamefully) be explained by the persistent link between family deprivation and educational underachievement.
Yet this school does not have dire results. Four in five pupils get five good GCSEs or more. They’ve sent dozens of pupils to Oxbridge. Every school, he said, can be like this. And every school must: “Opportunity cannot only extend to the edges of the playing fields of Eton”.
His vision for his time at education is to turn our schools system from one that entrenches privilege to one that will hand opportunity to every child, for “there is nothing inevitable about poor children doing badly at school”.
How do we do this?
First, we have to maintain high levels of school funding. Education, he said, never has been and never will be cheap. He paid tribute to Danny Alexander for the protection of the schools budget, which has received one of the most generous funding settlements of all areas.
This is why the pupil premium is so vital: “you voted for it, you campaigned for it and now we are making it happen”.
But money is not everything, Laws said – it has to be spent well. And to ensure that the pupil premium is spent well we must hold schools to account. There will be no return, he said, to the micro-managing tendencies of the Labour government, but schools where the pupil premium is not being spent on the disadvantaged or where clear best practice is being ignored should expect to be held accountable for that.
And schools need greater freedom – greater school autonomy, Laws said, is a characteristic of higher performing schools systems. But again, freedom must come with accountability.
Laws made clear that schools that are not deemed “good” by Ofsted and who fail to improve should expect to see much greater levels of intervention: “how can we settle for less than every school..being a good school”?
Concluding, Laws said that while he may also have responsibilities in the cabinet office, education is his number one priority. Good education, he said, is a cornerstone of a liberal society, and of the society which we as a party want to create, “and it is my job to deliver it”.
* Nick Thornsby is Thursday Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs here.