After a year’s work in the run up to the General Election co-writing the Liberal Democrats’ Equity and Excellence education policy paper with other members of the 5-19 Education Policy Working Group, I opened the Coalition Government’s first education White Paper with understandable trepidation.
Nothing can be more important than giving every child a fair start in life, but the education system inherited from Labour offered some young people pretty much the best education system anywhere in the world, while leaving others ill-equipped, under-funded, and lacking the skills needed to get on in life.
The White Paper launched by the government today, called The Importance of Teaching takes as its starting point the unflattering international comparisons of the performance and skills of our pupils. Its critique of where and why the school system is underperforming is one that will be very familiar to most Liberal Democrats. It is a vision for a system based on excellence, underpinned by freedom and fairness: an education system which challenges low aspiration and achievement and where school-level innovation and diversity are seen as strengths to be welcomed.
It envisages a system where all schools rightly have the freedom to drive better outcomes for children, with a slimmed-down national curriculum and more freedom for heads and teachers. It is supported by new “teaching schools”, which will offer more school-based teacher training and give more attention to continuing professional development. There is a new focus on measures to improve discipline in schools – which is one of the key reasons cited by many graduates for being reluctant to consider a career in teaching. Schools will suffer much less bureaucracy, so we have seen the last of the centralised micro-managing of schools which characterised Labour’s failed approach.
I welcome the White Paper’s endorsement of the urgent need to restart social mobility with measures such as the Pupil Premium, which we know will ensure that the school system addresses rather than entrenches social disadvantage. After years dominated by debate over school structures (to be fair, across all parties), it is refreshing to find the Coalition Government putting teaching and learning right at the heart of its programme for raising achievement.
The White Paper tackles the key concern about raising educational standards for everyone: everything from reviewing Key Stage 2 tests to tackling (especially homophobic) bullying. By putting more data in the public domain, and by reforming national targets, it tackles the pressure on teachers to focus narrowly on borderline (especially C/D borderline) candidates to climb up the league tables. Instead, schools will now be judged on how well they serve all of their pupils. The Ofsted inspection regime will be reformed, with inspections targeting the weakest schools and freeing the best schools from an unnecessary inspection burden.
One of the key differences that to my mind marks this out as a Coalition White Paper rather than just a Conservative one, is the prominence given to the role of local government in ensuring fairness. As a former Council Leader myself I very much welcome the acknowledgment of the importance of councils using their democratic mandate to act as champions for children and parents, especially in things like ensuring fair admissions arrangements and in holding all schools to account.
The White Paper sets out an ambitious reform programme to raise standards for all children while narrowing the gap between rich and poor. With the number of reviews commissioned in the early days of the Coalition Government still on-going (Key Stage 2 tests, the early years education, vocational skills to name but three) there is still a significant “green” tinge to this White Paper. And in other areas too – such as the strategic role of Local Authorities where ministers are still deep in discussion with the Local Government Association – the White Paper signals the direction of travel but acknowledges there is still more work to be done. This provides great opportunities for all of us who care about education and getting it right to make our contribution and take advantage of the more open and inclusive policy-making process that is one of the more unexpected aspects to governing through a coalition.
Read the White Paper in full here.
To offer comments on the White Paper, email [email protected]
James Kempton was Chair of the Liberal Democrats’ 5-19 Education Policy Working Group.