Is education at the centre of Lib Dem philosophy?

The preamble to our constitution says no-one should be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. These three go together. So, when we put Education among our top priorities, we must get it right.

Thus, poverty can prevent some people from getting the benefits of a good education, while conformity to a backward-looking community can inhibit an individual’s educational development. In September 2013, RISE (Research and Information on State Education) concluded that 80% of the difference in performance of school pupils was due to factors outside the school. Our schools and colleges cannot on their own, solve the ills of society.

However, this is no excuse for what was presented in the Agenda 2020 conference paper at Bournemouth (consultation paper 121). It only had two slim references to Education (pars. 2.6 and 3.5.3) and we need to say much more.

Thus, in our philosophy we must do more than just talk about educational opportunities and state the principle of helping people to help themselves. Many disadvantaged people need help to avail themselves of opportunities and all sorts of people are not always turned on by the educational opportunities sometimes provided for them. So we also need properly funded local agencies who can get alongside people in their communities.

Then we must extend the principle that decisions should be made at the lowest practical level (normally used in the context of government); we should enable decisions to be made as close as possible to the individual. Our educational institutions need freedom for decisions to be made that nurture and develop each person.

Person-centred, quality teaching and learning should be the main focus, not structural change. The main concern about structures (such as free schools and academies) is that they should be a fair use of limited funds, overseen as close to communities as possible and enable those involved to help the disadvantaged.

We believe also in equality of status for all forms of good education, not just the academic. I want to see a blurring of the divide between vocational and academic and a greater emphasis on practical approaches to learning; good experience, rather than just force-feeding.

Finally, education is not just for getting a good job, but should be a creative broadening experience. Education should enable good personal development in outlook, morality and spirit, recognising the value of each human individual. Education should help people live free from exploitation and oppression, supporting people in a way that does not regard them as slaves to the economy or to the establishment.

At the conference debate, Julie Smith in her summation took this message well and I look forward to an improved document. I also look forward to an explanation from our leader as to why Education is not among the top 7 Parliamentary priorities at the moment.

* Nigel Jones is Chair of Newcastle-under-Lyme Lib Dems, Chair of Liberal Democrat Education Association, Boro' Councillor (2002 to '15) and Parliamentary Candidate (Newcastle under Lyme '10 & '17, Walsall North'15).

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39 Comments

  • Peter Bancroft 6th Oct '15 - 9:09am

    This is a good article, but it makes the same mistake Charles Kennedy used to make when saying he just wanted everyone to have a good school. Our current system is not somehow agnostic – it strongly pushes us towards both overall mediocrity through limiting people of normal means to a single provider and it restricts social mobility by making the top performing schools only available to people with expensive houses and/ or the means to pay fees.

    Structural reforms therefore really have to be part of the conversation and are a big part of how to get to the objectives that you very rightly laid out. Bearing in mind how important having an educated, mobile population is to liberalism we do often seem to overlook it (and let’s not even talk about the party’s own internal training processes!).

  • “In September 2013, RISE (Research and Information on State Education) concluded that 80% of the difference in performance of school pupils was due to factors outside the school. Our schools and colleges cannot on their own, solve the ills of society. ”

    Exactly. Yet those few disadvantaged pupils who, despite everything, want to succeed usually have their hopes crushed by the prevailing culture of the school they are forced to attend. As Peter Bancroft writes, “Our current system is not somehow agnostic – it strongly pushes us towards both overall mediocrity through limiting people of normal means to a single provider and it restricts social mobility by making the top performing schools only available to people with expensive houses and/ or the means to pay fees”, and I agree wholeheartedly with him here.

    The answer to me is simple – to expand and open up the places in these schools to all comers on a merit basis, not a selection by house=price/wallet basis as we have currently.

    @John Marriot “We need to bring all state schools back into the Local Authority orbit (notice I didn’t say control) and vocational education needs to have equal parity of esteem with the academic (as envisaged over ten years ago in the Tomlinson Report)”

    Whilst I fully agree with the second part od your statement, how exactly will “bringing all state schools back into the Local Authority orbit” change anything? It’s operation of the system, not the control, that needs changing.

  • Nigel Jones 6th Oct '15 - 10:23am

    So far then, there is agreement on what are the basic principles as our starting point for developing party policy on Education. In so far as there is an important role for LAs, not a detailed controlling role as in the past (as john says), then yes, Peter, structures have a part to play, but we must get away from the current government thinking that a change of structure is the key. On vocational education, I entirely agree. Lord Baker agrees with that, but he is not going about it in a democratic way as he pushes for University Technical Colleges etc..
    I await further comment.

  • Stephen Howse 6th Oct '15 - 11:09am

    “Education is not just for getting a good job, but should be a creative broadening experience. Education should enable good personal development in outlook, morality and spirit, recognising the value of each human individual. ”

    Absolutely, 100% agree with this.

    But then I suppose all the Lib Dems who comment on this piece will.

    The devil, of course, will lie in the detail – I suspect that we will all agree with that in principle but would seek to apply it through different policies.

    I believe that as each child is individual, and each child has different educational needs, having a one-size-fits-all approach to schooling (i.e. through comprehensives) is a bad idea. Others, no doubt, will strongly disagree with me, and say that we can only have equality of opportunity if each child gets an equal education from an equal school.

    Let the debate begin! I’m glad to see this piece on here, and glad that we can have this debate.

  • Peter Bancroft 6th Oct '15 - 11:20am

    I don’t think you can really have a sensible debate whilst ruling out discussions of structural reforms. Has anyone ever come across a school which top level academic education, competent music and arts teaching, strong practical vocational training and a varied sports programme? I would suggest that it is borderline impossible for such a school yo ever exist…

  • @Stephen Howse “I believe that as each child is individual, and each child has different educational needs, having a one-size-fits-all approach to schooling (i.e. through comprehensives) is a bad idea. Others, no doubt, will strongly disagree with me, and say that we can only have equality of opportunity if each child gets an equal education from an equal school.”

    Indeed they might try. But “equal schools” apart from being inherently wrong is practically impossible – there is too much natural variation in the real world to permit this to happen. And in any case, as the article mentions, schools have limited influence on a child and it’s the wider environment in which they live that has the most influence.

    We should be providing a variety of schools with different emphases and moving pupils into those best suited to their needs.

  • Wow this is a big one, so many topics under one banner.

    Firstly, I’m pleased that people are not advocating a return to LA control. One point that is important is that the method by which you judge of a school is performing is effective and there is a role for a national system such as we have (though I would suggest lighter) but also a local system of judgement too. Both have to be removed from the running to avoid the conflict of interest.

    The Academy chains had some possibility but are not exactly being operated to the best they could. There are some questions over too much geographical dominance etc. That is a longer topic than can be discussed in one comment.

    Then there is the current obsession with “super-heads” “executive heads” and other such structures with many schools being pushed towards bigger structures. The British chose to adopt Napoleon’s in sult of “nations of small shop keepers” some people work better in smaller schools with heads that are focused on the staff in their (comparatively small) team.

    Diversity matters in so many ways, for children and for the staff who teach them. All this sits in the restrictive national structures.

    Add in is the current ‘norm’ for how we have cut the different schools by age, is what we have really the best or just where we are?

    One final point, on ‘parity of status’ between academic teaching and technical training. I’ll point out how obsessed the LibDems have seemed over University tuition fees (an obsession which subsequently blew up in their faces) and how little they talked about training.

  • Stephen Howse 6th Oct '15 - 1:09pm

    “One final point, on ‘parity of status’ between academic teaching and technical training. I’ll point out how obsessed the LibDems have seemed over University tuition fees (an obsession which subsequently blew up in their faces) and how little they talked about training.”

    Or apprenticeships – on which we were comprehensively outflanked by the Tories, despite it being a Lib Dem Secretary of State at BIS who created and implemented the policy!

  • Helen Tedcastle 6th Oct '15 - 2:10pm

    Peter Bancroft and TCO’s comments sadly are just part of the failed approach to education that we have had forced upon us for the past decade or more. Re-structuring is precisely what the education system does not need. Asserting that the system aspires towards mediocrity is precisely the kind of talk we had from Michael Gove. it has led to the chaos and fragmentation of the current system.

    We must rather pay more attention to the sensible and knowledgeable comments of John Marriott and the article-writer.

  • Peter Bancroft 6th Oct '15 - 2:34pm

    You can’t really accuse me of defending the startup on the basis of me rejecting the status quo. I also would hope that we could aspire in our party to a level of debate which is above “you’re a Tory”, particularly when someone is strongly rejecting the Conservative approach and calling for something entirely different.

  • Peter Bancroft 6th Oct '15 - 2:37pm

    …and thanks to my phone for converting the first “status quo” to “startup”

  • Paul Holmes 6th Oct '15 - 2:42pm

    @stephen howse “One size fits all as in Comprehensives”

    I don’t know what your personal experience is, but as a Teacher I worked in three different Comprehensives all of which were very very different and in no sense ‘one size fits all.’
    As an MP on the Education and Skills Select Committee I visited many many more schools and never found this ‘one size fits all’ Comprehensive system that some people like to throw around as an insult.

  • Stephen Howse 6th Oct '15 - 2:48pm

    @Paul Holmes: “I don’t know what your personal experience is, but as a Teacher I worked in three different Comprehensives all of which were very very different and in no sense ‘one size fits all.’”

    I attended one. We had some marvellous teachers, and I do not denigrate their efforts or their genuine desire to improve the life chances of the kids they taught at all. But my experience was that classes tended to move at the pace of the slowest, and that lessons and work tended to be aimed at the middle of the ability range, unless there was setting in place (but there wasn’t for all subjects). There were also some subjects and qualifications which simply were not taught, meaning if you really wanted to study them you had to go elsewhere.

  • Peter Bancroft
    Could you go back to your post at 11.20 and explain what it is supposed to mean, shorn of typos, ?incorrect grammar etc?

  • Nigel Jones 6th Oct '15 - 3:13pm

    Some good points so far and I suppose it was inevitable that people will focus on the practice of Education. I wrote the article in order to start from principles and then see where these might lead us in our examination of the system as it exists and then take us forward on policy. For example what are the implications of my point about the Education system providing opportunity ? That is not enough; we need communities that can help with those youngsters whose circumstances and background hinder them from taking up those opportunities.
    @John Marriott (first posting) “Politicians tend to think that the answer is to apply management techniques and structures more akin to building motor cars than producing well-rounded individuals”. I agree.
    @Stephen Howse “having a one-size-fits all approach to schooling (i.e. comprehensive) is a bad idea”. I agree about the one-size bit; when comprehensive schools became the norm, some of us battled with teachers who said we must teach them all the same because we are a comprehensive school. Yet, many schools have become more diverse and my son went to a comprehensive where all youngsters of any social background were made to feel welcome, but they adopted a huge variety of approaches according to the youngsters needs.
    @Psi : Your point about Lib-Dems being obsessed with University matters was valid; through the work of Sal Brinton a couple of years ago that has shown signs of changing, thankfully. I know of at least one other Baroness who strongly agrees that the party should focus attention more on those who do not go to university and I hope I can change the party’s focus accordingly.

  • Paul Holmes 6th Oct '15 - 3:14pm

    @stephen howse It has often been said that everyone is an expert on education ‘because they went to school’.
    But ‘you’ cannot draw from one personal example a ruling that therefore all schools are like the one ‘you’ attended.

    Incidentally all schools have ‘some subjects they don’t offer’ because of budget and staffing constraints, historical specialisms, whims (also sometimes known as professional judgement) of Headteacher/Governors, Government dictat pushing some subjects off curriculum etc etc.

    Teaching to the middle in a mixed ability class is poor educational practice and discouraged and I don’t think I can recall ever witnessing a Comprehensive school that did not utilise either/both setting and streaming whenever it had the resources to do so. I did witness the combination of League Tables and OFSTED lead to Senior Management starting to demand some concentration on grade D/C pupils as ‘the extra help would achieve the biggest bang for buck increase in the all vital % of pupils gaining 5 A-C grades. But that was a result of Central Government policy and (in the school I worked at at that time) was out of class intervention rather than affecting whole class sessions.

    It’s also the case that research into Grammar schools showed that the lower end of the ability spectrum within the school ( but by definition of selection at 11, in the ‘top end’ of the ability spectrum of the population as a whole) tended to lose out, regard themselves as failures and leave disproportionately at whatever the legal age was at any given time.

  • @Paul Holmes, the problem is not with Comprehensive Schools per se, for some of their pupils I’m sure they’re the right option and do a great job. The problem is that for most people there is no choice, so that if the local school is one that is totally unsuited to their child they have no option but to send them there, even though that decision will probably ruin their child’s life going forward.

    I cannot see how that can ever be squared with the “none shall be enslaved by conformity” part of our preamble.

  • @Tim 13 perhaps I can help. Peter Bancroft writes at 11.20 “Has anyone ever come across a [single] school which [provides] top level academic education, competent music and arts teaching, strong practical vocational training and a varied sports programme? I would suggest that it is borderline impossible for such a school [t]o ever exist…”

    You will note I’ve added three small changes which will hopefully make it easier for you to understand what he’s asking, and the message that he’s trying to get across. Namely that it’s impossible for one single institution to cater for every educational eventuality effectively which means, in practice, that they cater for all of them adequately and none of them exceptionally. For some pupils that will be fine as they are in the “sweet spot” of that school, but for many it won’t be. In which case we need to provide institutions that are better tailored towards their requirements rather than offering them no choice but what happens to exist locally, other than for that small minority who can afford to move or pay fees.

    Peter – I can think of only one example of such a school, and it’s not in the State Sector.

  • Nigel Jones 6th Oct '15 - 7:43pm

    @Jayne Mansfield: One example may illustrate what I mean. Save the Children UK has worked with about 12000 families in the last 6 years, supporting parents and community activities for those children who need help to do their best at school. Look up ‘Families and Schools Together’ on the website. One implication of this is that there is a role for Local Authorities to coordinate such work and help all schools in their areas, if only the LAs had sufficient resources to ensure that ALL children who need such ‘family’ help are provided for. On a matter of principle, it is not a complete replacement of parental support, but enabling parents to fulfil their role and also providing that replacement support where it proves impossible for the parents to do so.

  • Simon Foster 6th Oct '15 - 10:32pm

    I’m glad the Chair of the LDEA has kickstarted the debate. As a former Head of Politics A level at an FE College, I’m going to add some philosophy in here from Liberalism on why education is so important:

    For liberalism, education is absolutely crucial, as liberals believe humans act, more often than not, rationally. As individualists, Liberals do not believe it is our job to tell people how to live their lives (in stark contrast to Conservatism and Teresa May today). Instead, Liberals want to equip people with the best tools so they can develop themselves, to have more power over their own lives.

    Literally, this is an increase in freedom to do things, that comes from a good education. That great welfare Liberal, William Beveridge, spoke of ignorance as one of the five giants that needed slaying for a person to be free to live their life. Isaiah Berlin identified “positive freedoms” which are necessary to enjoy our negative freedoms. To start with, you need to read at a basic level to be able to enjoy life at a basic level.

    Modern/social liberalism describes education as a process of self-actualisation. The more educated you become, the freer you become. This is connected to the idea of developmental individualism – creating a society where the individual can develop to the maximum of their ability, in the areas they deem to be important.

    Final thought: whatever our thoughts on education, it should be a priority very high up our list as Liberals.

    (Although I am also a member of the LDEA Executive, I’m writing this in a personal capacity).

  • @John Marriot ” I’m not in favour of diktats from County Hall, but I AM in favour of schools being democratically accountable to the communities they serve.”

    We certainly agree on the first point, but I don’t see how LEA oversight provides local democratic accountability for a school.

    Surely the polity that a school serves is, ultimately, it’s pupils and therefore by extension their parents. The teaching staff are the other important stakeholders. There are likely to be several schools within one County Councillor’s ward and if they are not in the County’s ruling group, they will have no influence. Too many councils never see a change of ruling group. The electoral cycle for councils is four years; that is far too long to address a problem. And a councillor is chosen by a wide range of electors on a wide range of issues, of whom only a minority will have a direct interest in the workings of their local school.

    “Democratic accountability” is nothing of the sort.

  • Matthew Huntbach 7th Oct '15 - 10:06am

    Paul Holmes

    Incidentally all schools have ‘some subjects they don’t offer’ because of budget and staffing constraints, historical specialisms, whims (also sometimes known as professional judgement) of Headteacher/Governors, Government dictat pushing some subjects off curriculum etc etc.

    The big issue is that for many subjects, if you are skilled in it, you can get a much higher paid job elsewhere. That problem will not go away by unscrewing the “LEA” sign on a school and screwing an “Academy” sign on it. It won’t go away if you have special schools for the most able; oh sure, those schools will be able to recruit the teaching staff, but that makes it even more unlikely that the less able pupils get taught these subjects.

  • Nigel Jones 7th Oct '15 - 11:41am

    Jayne Mansfield and Simon Foster, “education as a process of self-actualisation” conveys a great deal as to what a liberal education is about, but it misses one vital component. Is there such a thing as the ‘self’ in isolation from other people ? Even the concept of freedom does not imply that a person acts in a self-centred way; a free person will also have learned how to relate well to others. That is one of the roles of Education. Thus, some family cultures cause tension between school and family. This can be major in certain ethnic communities, but it has always existed. Tensions occur between middle-class teachers and working class families. These tensions are inevitable if we are to continue to develop a multi-cultural society, but education can help each young person to broaden their outlook beyond that of their background and then they can find their own way in life, relating well, but freely, to both society and family.

  • During my career as an engineer it became obvious that , from time to time that structural reform was the “answer”. There is an arguable case where the structure impedes decision making or fails to encompass the changing environment but, it is seen as the silver bullet.
    Nowhere is this more true than in education. Local management of schools enabled decisions to be taken in school. The so called Local Authority control was/is confined to monitoring and support. The education process is not complex. It requires a quality teacher in a resourced classroom supported by a quality Head teacher/ in-house inspector. If per pupil funding is uniform how does the so called type of mainstream school enhance this process?
    Creating different types of schools is plain nonsense. The city Academies created by Labour simply increased resource to meet the needs of disadvantaged communities along with significant LA professional support. The process remains unchanged. The best teacher achieves 4 times the pupil progress than the worst but it isn’t just the school is it?

  • Nigel Jones – I’m glad you raised the issue of why education was not chosen as one of the seven key topics. I have asked the same question.

  • SIMON BANKS 7th Oct '15 - 2:49pm

    Peter Bancroft presents a misleading picture by talking of state education as a single provider: even without academies there is considerable variation and a Liberal approach would be to free LEAs of some top-down government prescription. For any particular parents, of course, choice is limited, but for most it would be limited by geography anyway. He also assumes that the best schools are all in the private sector (this does not seem to be true if you look at measurable success against pupil-teacher ratio) and treats social mobility as good in itself. If we’re enthusiastic about social mobility on its own, we’re enthusiastic about people going down in the world as much as up and we’re happy about a deeply unequal society where many are enslaved by poverty, as long as if they were intelligent and talented, they had a chance to better themselves.

  • @Simon Banks ” even without academies there is considerable variation and a Liberal approach would be to free LEAs of some top-down government prescription”

    Yes but that variation is not uniform. Some areas are allowed to provide different sorts of schools and others aren’t.

    “For any particular parents, of course, choice is limited, but for most it would be limited by geography anyway. ”

    Some pupils travel up to 30 miles to go to the right school for them. It’s difficult to envisage many communities where such a travel horizon could not be met.

    But ultimately the choice affects the child, and no choice can mean a life-ruining experience for that child. As Liberals are we prepared to accept the status quo and continue to allow that to happen?

  • Matthew Huntbach 9th Oct '15 - 9:48am

    TCO

    Yes but that variation is not uniform. Some areas are allowed to provide different sorts of schools and others aren’t.

    Nicked from Wiki, but it’s what I experienced LEAs as being about from my own time as a councillor on one. Their responsibilities are:

    They are responsible for distribution and monitoring of funding for the schools

    They are responsible for co-ordination of admissions, including allocation of the number of places available at each school

    They are the direct employers of all staff in community and VC schools

    They have a responsibility for the educational achievement of looked-after children, i.e. children in their care

    They have attendance and advisory rights in relation to the employment of teachers, and in relation to the dismissal of any staff

    They are the owners of school land and premises in community schools

    Nowhere here does it say that LEAs have control over what is taught in schools and how it is taught. They don’t.

    I am FED UP with discussion on education being wrecked because it gets taken over by clueless people like yourself who are obsessed with two things that aren’t actually true. The other is the supposition that it is a necessary aspect of al comprehensive schools that everything is taught in mixed ability classes.

  • @Matthew Huntbach question: can a LEA school set it’s own selection policy?

  • Jamie Dalzell 9th Oct '15 - 1:38pm

    Apologies, I’m a bit late to discussion on this one (fittingly, I was distracted this week by school governor duties)…

    I did also speak about education at the 2020 Agenda discussion at the conference (hello Nigel – please do drop me a line), and I really am very keen to see education back at the very centre of Lib Dem policy.

    I think the points and discussions raised above are interesting and highlight the many great benefits of having a carefully considered liberal leadership in education. Ultimately kids needs to be at the centre of education and it is obvious that a liberal philosophy demands the flexibility and freedoms that would allow a more tailored and rewarding education for all.

    However, the greatest defence our children have from the constant policy meddling are the professional teachers who, as Jayne Mansfield acknowledges above, spend their careers getting to know their classes and providing the support that changes young peoples lives. As BrianD notes, “the best teacher achieves 4 times the pupil progress than the worst”.

    Therefore the overall structure is an entirely secondary consideration. My biggest criticism of dear Mr Gove (and I have more than a few) is not the constant disruptive and damaging changes he brought in but actually his complete and abject failure to consider and address the ever worsening shortage of qualified teachers. That should have been his biggest single priority, but instead he fiddled with many other headline grabbing issues (many of which only worsened the situation).

    I fear that the discussions around structure (academies, LEAs, grammars etc.) follows the current policy priorities of the incompetent government when they are focussing on entirely the wrong thing. First and foremost, we need to strengthen the teaching profession (with such ideas the Royal College of Teaching) and to ensure that we can turn the tide on recruitment and retention issues. For example – let’s be the party that pledges full funding for all PGCEs and that rewards young teachers for (5 years?) committed service by cancelling the large student loans that they incur just to get the university education they require.

    Just a thought (well, maybe a rant…)

  • Matthew Huntbach 9th Oct '15 - 7:46pm

    TCO

    @Matthew Huntbach question: can a LEA school set it’s own selection policy?

    Please note, the spelling should be its without the apostrophe unless it’s short for “it is”, which it wasn’t when you wrote it.

    Short answer is “no”, co-ordination of admissions is an LEA responsibility.

    If schools were to set their own selection policy, that would be restricting the freedom of applicants for school places, wouldn’t it? Would any school voluntarily have a selection policy “we prefer to take less intelligent and weak performing pupils”? And would any parents voluntarily choose to send their children to such a school?

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