A 21st-Century Liberal Approach to Education

Education has always been of special importance for liberals and Liberal Democrats throughout the ages. It has been one of the best vehicles for enabling individuals to obtain their full potential, develop their talents and make the most of the opportunities that they are presented with. It is with this in mind that Helen Flynn and John Howson’s chapter is so warmly received in the latest publication from the Social Liberal Forum, ‘Four Go In Search of Big Ideas’.

Flynn and Howson rightly place great emphasis on the need to improve early years education. They call for a highly funded early years sector that is equipped with the staff necessary to develop the learning of schoolchildren and identify any potential barriers that they may face in future learning. These teachers would need to be well educated and properly trained. The authors identify that educational inequalities emerge even before children start their formal education at the age of five. The socio-economic inequalities faced by children from the poorest backgrounds need to be tackled with extra funding from the very beginning.

Flynn and Howson propose a professional College of Teaching that would be a watchdog for professional standards in education in a similar way that the British Medical Association is in regard to the NHS. This is very much needed if the public is to continue to have faith in the professionalism and high standards of the UK’s education sector. In a similar vein, Flynn and Howson also suggest having Chief Education Officer in government who would help to guarantee best practice and develop evidence-based policy.

Assessments are undoubtedly an important part of education. It is time that we review how we assess and evaluate the progress of schoolchildren in education, if not overhaul it entirely. The authors support the idea of replacing GCSEs and A levels with an overarching diploma. When it comes to the assessment of 11-year-olds, Flynn and Howson suggest having a system of national sampling of the education standards in the basic subjects. This would help to reduce the anxiety currently faced by schoolchildren at the end of primary school when they have to sit their SATs tests.

Local democracy is a core value of liberalism. Flynn and Howson support the idea of increased local democratic oversight when it comes to the delivery of local education. They believe that devolving additional education policy powers to local areas would allow for innovative school structures and systems of school improvement. The authors also suggest having a regional system of school inspection and believe that it would be more effective in identifying problems in schools than the current inspection system in England.

One of the radical ideas proposed by Flynn and Howson is to develop a political consensus around education policy. This would include all the main parties agreeing on what policies are needed to create a progressive education system. This would help to ensure the best educational outcomes and that resources are used most effectively regardless of who was in office. The Liberal Democrats have previously made a similar proposal when it comes to managing and properly funding the NHS. Both health and education have become ‘political footballs’. Such a political consensus on education has been shown to work effectively in Finland since the 1970s.

Flynn and Howson’s chapter is filled with new big ideas that will help to revitalise the Liberal Democrat offering on education. They are both informed and imaginative proposals that would deliver a progressive education system for decades to come. With these policies the Liberal Democrats would truly become the undisputed Party of Education.

Four Go In Search of Big Ideas is available from the SLF website for £9.50 including postage and packing. Find us at www.socialliberal.net.

* Paul Hindley is a PhD politics student at Lancaster University and a member of the Liberal Democrats in Blackpool.

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This entry was posted in Books and Op-eds.


  • Oliver Craven 10th May '18 - 7:26pm

    Personally, I think we need a fundamental shift away from the factory-like setting of current schools towards a new kind of learning, where the students of every age are empowered and the teachers serve as guides to push bright children forward and help those who are struggling to catch up.

  • @Oliver Craven

    This is VERY, VERY important. The most important parts of my education were things like statistics and how to assess scientific research. I guess you have to take on some basics ultimate “truths” – Newtonian physics for example – but we know after Einstein that is wrong and even Einstein’s physics is wrong as it doesn’t explain everything. But there is far too much emphasis that there is some ultimate truth to learn, soak up and parrot back in exams.

    Now while there is much poor information on the internet there is also so much brilliant material – TedEd, and youtube channels such as Numberphile and Sixty Symbols on maths and physics are very interesting. More than ever we need to equip people to know how to go out and seek and assess information and indeed just what to learn after ending formal schooling – as today’s ten year-olds will have to learn and re-learn skills and information many times over in their careers and lives and how to find to find out how to stay healthy, be good parents, deal with money and finances…. etc. etc.

    And also inspire students with howmagical and intriguing maths (things like prime numbers), physics and a host of subjects are – compared with boring rote learning of multiplication tables in a classroom on a wet Monday is. Be intrigued and you will be motivated to find out and learn – and with the internet you can learn – at any age.

    Personally I think it was an oversight on God’s part but unfortunately He didn’t provide us with a manual when we were born! Education should be more about how we create and find and develop our own manual and skill set continually through out life and there was far too little of that in my education certainly.

  • So are we talking about ages 5 to 18 education in general (ie. all the forms currently legal in this country) or just state schools?

    I think, given recent revelations about unregistered schools and homeschooling and the importance being attached to regular (state school) attendence – being backed by the imposition of fines, we probably need to revisit the law around school attendance and just what constitutes an education.

  • John Marriott 10th May '18 - 8:58pm

    Oh no, not more attempts at trying to reinvent the wheel! So called child centred education à la Plowden Report, which formed the basis of what happened in the 1960s and 1970s and which would appear still to have its advocates today, is to a great extent why state education is now in such a mess.

    Oliver Craven’s concept strikes me as a version of FO FO ( too rude to explain but I think many people know what the initials stand for ). Education comes from the Latin verb, which means ‘to lead through’, not to sit back and hope for the best. Without the active involvement of the teacher you are chasing shadows.

    David Raw’s comment sum up the rest. Of course I entirely agree with him. After all, he and I both used to work at the chalk face.

  • Peter Watson 11th May '18 - 10:58am

    @John Marriott “FO FO”
    “Find out for oneself”?
    I agree with the concerns you express. It strikes me that Lib Dems often come from a background similar to my own, enjoying and valuing education (and being pretty good at it), but not really identifying with those whose circumstances give them a very different perspective. I’m reminded of a TV show some years ago which followed trainee teachers, and in which one clever and well-qualified chap with good intentions obviously struggled to cope with the concept of children who might not want to learn or even be at school.
    On a related note, on a day when grammar schools and faith schools are back in the news, what are Lib Dems saying about it?

  • Our education spokesperson, Layla Moran has said this on Twitter, Peter Watson:

  • Peter Watson 11th May '18 - 1:26pm

    @TA Gilbert “Our education spokesperson, Layla Moran has said this on Twitter …”
    “I’ll be fighting this. Selection is segregation”
    Great. Unfortunately that brings me back to a pet peeve about Lib Dem policy on grammar schools: if they are so terrible, then why don’t Lib Dems want to do anything about getting rid of the current ones?
    I had hoped that a recent conference vote which called for “the government to abandon the selection by ability and social separation of young people, into different schools” had made the party’s position much clearer and consistent with what senior Lib Dems (like Layla Moran) imply when they speak about grammar schools, but apparently that is not the case so those senior Lib Dems sound unconvincing.
    Is Layla Moran simply saying that she will be “fighting” any change to the status quo and defending the current amount of “segregation” in all those grammar schools which are eligible for the government’s extra funding?
    I’m more relaxed about faith schools, but even there a Lib Dem conference vote to end “selection in admissions on the basis of religion or belief” failed to make it in to the party’s manifesto last year.

  • John Marriott 12th May '18 - 9:46am

    @Peter Watson
    Re FO FO. Yes, that’s the polite version. The one I heard probably needed an ‘and’ in the middle and used an expletive for the first ‘F’ and ended with ‘find out’.

    On a more serious note, a LDV contributor on a recent thread recommended that I have a look at a book by one Robert Peal called “Progressively Worse”, published by CIVITAS, with a commendation from Michael Gove (so you can guess where he’s coming from). In it he charts the failings of so called ‘progressive education ‘system’ from the early 1960s to the present day. I haven’t finished it yet as it’s competing with Andrew Roberts’ biography of Napoleon, although a quick glance at the end would lead to think that his thinking is along the lines of Gove. He is certainly a big fan of Sir Rhodes Boyson and what he did at Highbury Grove Boys’ School in Islington.

    I agree with him that state education is in a mess but selection at 11 is NOT the answer. He hasn’t got a kind word to say about the 2004 Tomlinson Report either; but that, in my mind, would still be a good place to start, if someone in Whitehall could dust it off.

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