John Pugh writes: Our vision for Education

Teacher In Classroom

In 2010 Michael Gove, acting before the ink was dry on the Coalition agreement, rushed the Academies Bill through Parliament. Governors were free to turn their school into an Academy Trust, without canvassing parental or local opinion . This being a little high-handed, I moved an amendment during the Commons debate requiring school governors to consult parents – particularly important  as the government were pressing on with this radical change during the school holidays.

Gaining the support of Ed Balls, then Labour party Education spokesman, I pushed it to the vote and divided the House. We lost as most of my colleagues voted against and the Whips angrily  informed me that trying to amend government legislation, however crass, was not how coalition in the Commons was meant to work. Now in 2016 we have even school governors sidelined as the Academy bandwagon, courtesy of the Tories smashes through every barrier.

The Liberal Democrats used to be seen as the party of education. Despite significant financial and political commitment in the years of coalition, that reputation has faded- so much so that in a poll last year of head teachers our policies were rated below those of other parties including the Greens. Our support amongst those who take an intelligent interest in educational matters plummeted.

However one cuts it or seeks to edit the history, that’s a less than ideal outcome. One legitimately might console oneself with the narrative that one had done much that was good. Skewing funding towards disadvantaged children (pupil premium) usually pays dividends; extending free school meals worked surprisingly well etc. History may be kinder than the electorate was.

However, it would take a special kind of arrogance to claim that all went as well as could reasonably be expected and not to wonder whether we might have got some things a little bit wrong.

Agreement over that is likely to be elusive but if educational policymakers cannot or will not learn lessons there is no hope. But more importantly we have to frame policy for the future.

Currently the Conservatives are proposing massive structural upheaval through the forced academisation of all schools, simultaneously making non-applicable not only their own national curriculum but also their own recent legislation like the Education and Adoption Act 2016. “Thought-through” this proposal is not.

Opposition will be considerable and campaign opportunities plentiful. The government seems intent on steamrollering over any parental, professional or community interest in its way. All the meaningful levers will be firmly gripped by whoever happens to be Secretary of State for Education – an authoritarian model which couples equally smug paternalism with inefficiency.

Opposition in itself is not enough.We must endorse a different vision and working out from that draw out the consequences for the curriculum, assessment, standards, funding, school organisation inspection and professional training. It’s a tough call.

To set the ball rolling I have written a spokesperson’s paper (download here) outlining a direction. Limited circulation so far has produced a positive reaction but I am always indebted to those who point out my errors and omissions. So please get in touch at [email protected] with your thoughts and help refine policy. You may wish to skip the cautionary preamble.

* John Pugh was Liberal Democrat MP for Southport until 2017 and was elected as a Councillor for the Dukes ward of Sefton Borough Council on 2 November 2017.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Thanks for sharing this, John; it’s a thoughtful piece. My main question is how we move from this to a) a tighter mission statement, and b) from that to actual policy development. Are there any policies or clear objectives which you would expect to see from this?

    I agree wholeheartedly that a shift away from what I call the Gradgrind effect – attempting to quantify everything (fact, fact, fact!) – is required, probably at every level. The question is what replaces it, and which aspects of the current system are presently seen as central (league tables, for instance) and may in fact be doing more harm than good vis à vis ‘total education’ (which I like as an idea).

  • I have to declare an interest as a former Head, but completely agree with you, John. And what a good idea to consult.

    Going beyond the technicalities – (and I could write a bucketful on this) – I see a massive opportunity for the Liberal Democrats to re-establish themselves as the party of education – AND – to resist the imposition of Academies on reluctant or unwilling local communities. This is particularly sharp in rural areas and the Tory heartlands where many schools may be threatened with amalgamation and closure. Already Tory Councillors are ringing alarm bells. We are the party of local government and there is the added point of saving local democracy from destruction.

    There is an historical precedent. Although it is well beyond living memory the huge Liberal landslide of 1906 was based amongst other things on opposition to a Tory education policy being thrust on local areas.

    We could really set the heather alight on this and re-connect with the electotate – with the added bonus of being right.

  • If we are talking about “total education” can I please make a plea for “linking the learning” across subject areas? As a Geography teacher I constantly find the kids I teach are amazed when I show how the learning in my classroom links to things they may have learned in science, maths or IT lessons. I really wish we could break out of subject-based pigeon holes and help children and young people to understand that ALL aspects of their learning go hand-in-hand. THIS, for me, is part of what total education should be.

  • John Roffey 29th Mar '16 - 7:11am

    I have not read JP’s ‘spokesperson’s paper’ as it is clear from the article that he has carefully considered the key issues. However, on reading the article my initial thought was that it was akin to setting a high quality diamond in wood – and a cheap pine at that.

    Although it is commendable that John believes that it is important to frame policy for the future – at present it seems far from certain that the Party has a future. Unless there is a significant rise in popularity before the next GE – realistically it has to be acknowledged that few seats will remain after 2020.

    As has been pointed out by Tony Greaves in an earlier thread – the current strategy is not delivering any significant sustained improvement in the Party’s fortunes and it seems to me that a Micawber like ‘something will turn up’ – which seems to be inherent within longer term liberals – really is no longer justified now that UKIP and the Greens have joined the competition for the people’s vote. Whatever the case in the past – the vast majority of voters will vote for the Party that most reflects their views – and coalition government does not feature highly for many.

    Even after the EU referendum, the critical issues for each voter will be one of the following – the economy [where the Tories are favored]; protection of the poorest in our society [Labour’s strength]; immigration [UKIP] and climate change [the Greens] – the necessary 15-20% will not favor coalition government – which appears to be the hope based on the current strategy.

    If I am right, the Party needs a new start that clearly breaks with the past by acknowledging the coalition’s failures plus some unique policies that will attract new members and votes – keep in mind that the Party’s rivals are UKIP and the Greens – both, essentially, with a single lead policy.

    The Party needs a strategy that deals with actuality – if John’s policy is to be placed in an appropriate setting.

  • Allan Brame 29th Mar '16 - 7:34am

    @ John Roffey
    I’m not clear how you think John Pugh is arguing in favour of coalition government.
    If we are to survive, then yes, you are right, we need to be developing a coherent set of new policies – and John (P) is making a thoughtful contribution to this.
    More immediately, we need to re-establish ourselves as a party that actually wins seats and the local elections in a few weeks’ time offers us the opportunity to do precisely that.
    It is up to all of us to do our best to make sure we end up on May 6th with a significant increase in councillors for the first time in years. Let’s turn the fightback from rhetoric to reality

  • Nigel Jones 29th Mar '16 - 9:56am

    I am pleased to see that John has decided to give his paper wider visibility. I intend to follow this with an article of my own. Meanwhile we in the Liberal Democrat Education Association are working on a motion for the Autumn conference, to lay the foundations for our approach to Education policy; a broad brush motion. We also intend to send something to the Select Committee’s inquiry on Multi-Academy Trusts soon; so if anyone has comments for either of these, do please send via our website
    As John rightly says it will a tough task to write our alternative detailed policy and we must take time to get that right, since we should not make the mistake of focussing on structure alone.
    Nigel Jones, Chair LDEA

  • Graham Evans 29th Mar '16 - 10:53am

    @Phil Dunn The embedding of science, maths and It in schools is an important point. One of the biggest challenges of the FE sector is in Maths and English. The arises from the failure of many full-time students coming from the schools sector at the age of 16 to have achieved at least a grade C in GSCE Maths and English. The colleges then have to bring the students up to this level, trying to achieve in just over a year what the schools sector failed to do in over decade. Across the country, this is proving to be almost impossible with the success rate of resits averaging less than 15%. However, one of the keys issues identified by OFSTED is the failure of FE teaching staff to embed maths and English into whatever the specialist subject is being taught, i.e even if for instance catering is being studied, the catering teaching staff should use every opportunity to introduce maths and English into their lessons.

  • Allan Brame 29th Mar ’16 – 7:34am
    @ John Roffey
    ‘I’m not clear how you think John Pugh is arguing in favour of coalition government.’

    I am not arguing this is the case – I am arguing that, although JP’s offering is of high quality – it will not receive the recognition it deserves – essentially because the Party is no longer taken seriously by the majority. This is because the strategy has been that the coalition was successful – when this is not the general view [clearly because of the massive seat loss].

    Until its many failures are acknowledged and a new start clearly made – the publication of the secret report would help – I am afraid the Party is likely to stumble from crisis to crisis with the very real danger of ceasing to exist as a mainstream party after 2020.

  • Tony Dawson 29th Mar '16 - 1:03pm

    @John Roffey:

    ” the strategy has been that the coalition was successful”

    John, I think if you look at John’s posting, you will see that he says:

    ” the Whips angrily informed me that trying to amend government legislation, however crass, was not how coalition in the Commons was meant to work. ”
    It appears to me that John Pugh clearly had a far better idea of how Lib Dems in coalition ought to operate in the interests of both the party and the country than the Whips office did: the latter appeared for four years to strangely think that Lib Dem backbench MPs ought to be far more loyal to a coalition dominated by Tories than ever Tory back benchers are when there’s a majority Tory government. It was also John Pugh MP who put his head over the parapet within the parliamentary party and said that a Party led by Nick Clegg into the 2015 election was not going to do very well. He probably underestimated how badly that was going to be. But at least he is an MP who thinks.

  • Greg Thomas 29th Mar '16 - 2:48pm

    One of the features of Academies is that they can set their own remuneration packages ( including supplementing the pension if they so wish), and presumably you would object to this aspect of the ‘package’? Certainly the NUT does. If so you appear to have overlooked the inherant paralogism in your argument in your Paper that to compare outputs without comparing inputs is fallacious. Why should a teacher in the leafy middle-class suburbs be paid the same as someone in a ‘challenged’ area?

  • John Roffey 29th Mar '16 - 6:15pm

    Tony Dawson 29th Mar ’16 – 1:03pm

    “John, I think if you look at John’s posting, you will see that he says:

    ” the Whips angrily informed me that trying to amend government legislation, however crass, was not how coalition in the Commons was meant to work. ”

    Thanks for that Tony – I did notice the section you highlighted – but as I had not particularly followed JP’s actions during the coalition – I did not know the whole story. Rather than claim something that I was not sure was true – I stuck with what I did know was the case.

  • Katerina Porter 30th Mar '16 - 11:57am

    The most successful education in Europe, and sometimes in the world according to OECD tables is Finland’s. The schools are comprehensive and focused on the particular child. There are no league tables, no external testing until the final vocational or academic exams at 18. School starts at seven, with kindergardens before which are on froebel lines – learning through play and learning to play together. This is surely something to examine, Academies being accountable to whom in real fact? Before Thatcher we were apparently admired for our progressive methods – certainly at that time our own children with experience of both private and state schools both of high reputation found those particular state schools better.

  • One of the key features of Academies that is being overlooked is ownership. There is an implicit assumption that an Academy has to either be self-supporting or a member of a commercial chain. Actually, the only given is that Academies notionally, stand independent of the LEA; which can be thought of as being a government owned Academy chain. So there are many ownership styles possible.

    Given the government has effectively given LEA’s 4 years notice of redundancy, I would suggest that switched on LEA’s would be looking to convert themselves and their controlled schools into a free standing Academy chain; changing the role of LEA governor from that of someone who broadly attends governor meetings to someone with an agenda and a vested interesdt in keeping their job). The CIC wrapper around a Trust or company structure would seem appropriate. Naturally as the LA/LEA are the ones controlling the establishment of the CIC. it can determine such things as board structure, community representation, IT systems and covenants over public assets (eg. school grounds and other spaces shared with the community) etc.

    I bring this up as it would seem that whilst Westminster is obsessed with introducing the concept of competition between individual schools, there is no real reason why we can’t subvert the initiative to improve schools.

    The only real issue will be those currently employed by their LEA, being re-employed by the new CIC/Schools Trust. Yes, re-employ, not TUPE’d across; because the new organisation will be hard pushed to fund the escalating costs of TUPE benefits, without cutting back on real-terms spend per pupil.

    So whilst John Pugh’s paper contains much, perhaps it needs to be more grounded, so that it can be clearly communicated to the public and LibDem councillors can begin to influence their colleagues – who knows what may happen. Certainly there is at least one LA (Conservative) who are following this path for their provision of services to those with learning difficulties…

  • Helen Tedcastle 30th Mar '16 - 3:54pm

    Greg Thomas

    ‘If so you appear to have overlooked the inherant paralogism in your argument in your Paper that to compare outputs without comparing inputs is fallacious. Why should a teacher in the leafy middle-class suburbs be paid the same as someone in a ‘challenged’ area?’

    Why indeed. Perhaps it’s because a teacher is judged on their ability to add value to the outcomes (hate the jargon but it simpler to use it in this context) of every child in their care. If a child attends a school in a leafy area, it does not mean that they have no difficulties or obstacles to learning.

    Outcomes should not simply be measured on exam results but on the ability of the teacher and the school to enable that child to achieve their potential. Reducing the teacher’s role to that of measurable exam results is the worst sort of reductionist thinking.

    Ultimately, this is why PRP is a nonsense. Education of a child is a collective endeavour- parents, teachers, other significant adults, a community. It is not simply about one teacher’s input in a particular class but a whole experience.

    Good article by John Pugh, one of the few Lib Dem MPs (current and immediate past) who actually understands the issues in education.

  • Helen Tedcastle 30th Mar '16 - 4:24pm

    Graham Evans
    ‘ The colleges then have to bring the students up to this level, trying to achieve in just over a year what the schools sector failed to do in over decade. Across the country, this is proving to be almost impossible with the success rate of resits averaging less than 15%.’

    Thus proving once again the nonsense of the policy of the previous Secretary of State in decreeing that the ‘problem’ of GCSE English and maths attainment can be pushed into FE and expecting FE teachers to meet a benchmark in no time.

    There is such a thing as the bell-curve of ability and the fact of a long term shortage of specialist maths teachers in secondary education. Numeracy and literacy have been given a high priority by successive governments within these subjects and they have been given core status and thus high priority and privileged access to resources for thirty years.

    Given the perception of failure to deliver, there is a very good argument for seeing the deep-rooted ‘problem’ of literacy and numeracy as a cross-curricular one rather than the preserve of two subjects. Literacy and numeracy should not be measured by grade C in maths and English but profiled across a child’s portfolio.

    That way arbitrary benchmarks are rendered irrelevant.

  • Helen Tedcastle 31st Mar '16 - 3:13pm

    John Marriott
    ‘ Giving the educational establishment more or less free rein was a bit like putting children in charge of the sweet ‘

    For good or ill, the era of comprehensive education has given more young people greater access to education and higher learning than in the era of post-war grammar/secondary school education. This is an inconvenient truth for many who hark back to a golden era that was golden for a few who passed the eleven plus.

    I admit that I entered teaching a generation later, 1989 and have never experienced the ‘educational establishment’ having free rein over education. I can’t imagine what it is like for teachers and education professionals to be consulted over education. It sounds amazing.

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