Let’s make the Lib Dems the party of education, education, education

Education is going through a difficult time, with many schools declaring teachers redundant, increasing class sizes, cutting out subjects and asking parents for money. The Government claims education has never been better funded. It takes no account that this is mainly due to an increase in pupil numbers, or that additional costs are being placed on schools. Nor do they mention the unfunded increase in National Insurance. They are prepared to waste money on Grammar Schools. As Liberal Democrats we should take a different view, scrap the Grammar Schools and start funding education with a fully costed proposal, part funded by savings from staying in the Single Market.

When we have sorted out the finance and stopped wasting money on Grammar and Free Schools it is time to break down the National Education System (which Labour appear to support), and remove the Regional Schools Commissioners. The tasks currently carried nationally and regionally should be devolved locally, through revamped LEAs. That is not returning to the old LEA structure, but LEA school support was very valuable and in many cases achieved more than a ticking off from Ofstead. League tables should go, and be replaced by a report of strengths and weaknesses, with proposed improvement actions. 

The attainment gap needs to be addressed. Poor attainment starts at home. The pupil premium should be increased, on condition that schools work closer with families. We need to address the running down of Youth Services, as these services often inspire children.

We need closer working between LEAs, schools, voluntary services, social services and mental health services.

This is just a summary of where Liberal Democrat Education policy should be going. The paper to be presented at the Autumn Conference should take us a step forward. Let us make Education Education Education a Liberal Democrat cry.

* David Becket has been a Lib Dem member since 1992 and is a former councillor on Berkshire County Council, West Berkshire Council and Newcastle under Lyme Borough Council

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  • Trouble is just been talking to two teachers at the Gym this morning. In simple terms they recall how we betrayed the students, its Tuition fees, Tuition Fees, Tuitions Fees.
    We are in the situation the Conservatives were in at the turn of the century, after 1997, there was nothing for them in 2001 and not much but something in 2005. They had to wait till 2010. We are still in the early stages of that process, we will get nothing out of this election except more anguish, an election in 2020 may have been a bit different. Problem is if we are down to next to no MPs what do we do, do we even carry on. The immediate future does not appear to be orange.

  • Richard Underhill 14th May '17 - 12:46pm

    Nicola Sturgeon was on the Andrew Marr Show (BBC) and Peston on Sunday (ITV) this morning. She had to admit to problems with literacy and numeracy in Scotland years after education was devolved to Scotland and years after her predecessor and her have ben first minister. Andrew Marr had been proud of past successes in Scotland on education. She was not asked whether SNP leaflets will be read by everybody, nor whether arguments about levels of government spending will be understood by everybody in time for the current election.

  • Graham Evans 14th May '17 - 5:20pm

    You talk about LEAs as though they were all the same, but they vary in size enormously, from small unitary authorities to large county councils and major metropolitan cities like Birmingham. You also ignore the fact that 16+ education is divided among schools with sixth forms, either academies or under LEA control, and Sixth Form and FE colleges which are autonomous corporations. FE colleges in particular provide the bulk of vocational courses, including apprenticeships. Our local government structures are a complete mess, and regional mayors with differing powers have further complicated the system. Until we rationalise central and local government, including funding, inter-agency cooperation will amount to little more than hot air.

  • Andrew McCaig 14th May '17 - 7:12pm

    I fear league tables, whilst very imperfect, have actually made big improvements in primary schools in particular. At that level what they measure is basic literacy and numeracy, and with the new measure of improvement from KS1 to KS2 schools in poorer areas can demonstrate their quality..

    I remember only too well the days when educational theoreticians visited such abominations as Fletcher maths and never using phonics on our unfortunate children.

    I also remember the Ofsted inspections that made the primary school my children went to “excellent” even though they were bored out of their minds, and not being stretched in the least.

    I agree that home-school partnerships are absolutely key, but so is a degree of control over the curriculum. School support is better devolved but we cannot afford a free for all..

  • Peter Watson 14th May '17 - 7:23pm

    “This is just a summary of where Liberal Democrat Education policy should be going. The paper to be presented at the Autumn Conference should take us a step forward.”
    But there is the small matter of a general election (and associated manifesto) between now and then!
    How representative is this article of where Liberal Democrat Education policy is now and where it has been recently?

  • Nigel Jones 14th May '17 - 8:08pm

    Education policy has been discussed substantially in recent months at the Liberal Democrat Education Association; our work is now interrupted by the general election.
    However, I must support David Becket in raising Education as a major policy area for our party. I am a Parliamentary candidate and our Labour MP who is standing for re-election is going to make Education his main policy stand. The current demise facing our schools may well make it a major item in this election.

  • Peter Watson 14th May '17 - 8:37pm

    @Nigel Jones “The current demise facing our schools may well make it a major item in this election.”
    Such a change in emphasis would be most welcome after months of Brexit Brexit Brexit.

  • Antony Watts 15th May '17 - 8:53am

    I am an newby here, did LDs abandon student fees? Are we now promoting free Uni?

  • On tuition fees: what I would say if it came up on the doorstep: “A lot of mistakes were made on tuition fees. It was a mistake to sign the pledge in the first place, as we live in a representative democracy so candidates should not be signing “pledges” to vote for a particular thing come what may. As we were not in government on our own, but a junior coalition partner, we were not able to get a lot of our program implemented, so it is regrettable but not surprising that we were not able implement most of our manifesto commitments. We did make sure that students would not have to pay upfront. However, we did not handle this issue very well, I admit that, but we are not in coalition anymore and the people involved in that policy are no longer in charge..”

  • Laurence Cox 15th May '17 - 10:58am

    @Alex MacFie

    I disagree that we were wong to sign the pledge on tuition fees; what was wrong was our failure to make it a ‘red line’ in the coalition negotiations. It is all about integrity, making our actions align with our words. By failing to do so, Nick Clegg (as Leader he has to take the responsibility for this) has damaged the Liberal Democrat brand so severely that, as theakes has commented, it will take at least a decade to recover. If we take the period from the previous Tory majority (1992) to the current Tory majority (2015) as an indicator of how long it takes to regain the electorate’s trust, it looks like we could be a small party in opposition until the 2030s.

    Frankly, all that stuff about being a ‘junior coalition partner’ is just spin. While we could not push through pledges from our own manifesto we did have the power to block Tory pledges and our failure to do so made our parliamentary party complicit in the outcome. We did, after all, block the 2013 boundary review. The only honest thing to say on the doorstep is that we admit that we made mistakes and that we now need to rebuild the voters’ faith in us, however long it takes.

  • Peter Watson 15th May '17 - 11:06am

    @Antony Watts “did LDs abandon student fees? Are we now promoting free Uni?”
    As far as I can tell, until the new manifesto is published, there is still an aspiration to scrap tuition fees and also a pride in the current system.
    From the 2015 Manifesto:

    Liberal Democrats have ensured that no undergraduate student in England has to pay a penny up front of their tuition fees. Students in England do not have to pay anything until they are earning over £21,000 per year – a figure which will increase in line with earnings – and over that income, monthly repayments are linked to earnings. This means only high-earning graduates pay their tuition fees in full. We now have the highest university application rates ever, including from disadvantaged students.
    But we need to ensure higher education is accessible to all those who can benefit, including at postgraduate level. Liberal Democrats in government secured the first ever income-contingent loans scheme for graduate degrees, which we will protect and seek to extend.
    We will:

    Establish a review of higher education finance within the next Parliament to consider any necessary reforms, in the light of the latest evidence of the impact of the existing financing system on access, participation (including of low-income groups) and quality. The review will cover undergraduate and postgraduate courses, with an emphasis on support for living costs for students, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    From the Autumn 2013 Conference:

    Conference calls for:

    A commitment to a review within the next Parliament on the current system of higher education finance, which will examine its impact on access, participation and quality and consider both the pressure on the Public Sector Borrowing Requirement from unpaid loans and progress made on widening and increasing participation, with a view to reforming the system to address these challenges if possible or if necessary for fees to be eliminated in a feasible and cost-effective way, and there should be no increase in the fee cap level pending the outcome of the review

  • Peter Watson 15th May '17 - 11:13am

    @Antony Watts
    P.S. Don’t mention the fees. Theakes mentioned it once but i think he got away with it.

  • Laurence Cox: I suspect that the only reason the boundary review was blocked is because it was so unpopular among Conservative MPs. I wonder if the reduction in the number of MPs will ever be enacted although boundary changes will continue to be made from time to time. What a waste of money.

    However, you are right that the only way to deal with our part in the coalition is to apologise profusely for any mistakes.

  • Malcolm Todd 15th May '17 - 11:54am

    nvelope2003 15th May ’17 – 11:35am
    I wonder if the reduction in the number of MPs will ever be enacted although boundary changes will continue to be made from time to time.

    That’s rather an interesting point. Actually there’s no possibility of boundary changes being made at all without the reduction in MPs unless there’s new legislation to reform the process again, because there simply isn’t any other basis for the boundary commissions to operate under – there is only the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 as amended by the 2011 Act which mandates the 600-member total. So we are in 2017 electing a parliament on boundaries drawn up 15 years ago, and unless the ultimate recommendations of the current review are passed by the next parliament, we’ll be using 20-year-old boundaries by the next election. At what point does this become a scandal?

  • Malcolm Todd: Thank you. I think it is already a scandal. Maybe there will be so many Conservative MPs in the next Parliament that they need to lose a few to get some space. I suppose it might be easier to let the present law proceed but with all the rows which Brexit could cause the Government might have to back track. Oh what fun !

  • Dave Orbison 15th May '17 - 2:18pm

    Alex McFie on student fees “As we were not in government on our own, but a junior coalition partner, we were not able to get a lot of our program implemented, so it is regrettable but not surprising that we were not able implement most of our manifesto commitments. ”

    Indeed, the LibDems were not in full control and so could not implement their promises/pledges/manifesto etc. But the problem with this line is surely it is logical for the voter to ask themselves in respect of any current promise, “What are the chances of the LibDems forming the next Government?” Well, we know the answer is “Absolutely none whatsoever”.

    So then what is the point?

  • On student fees, I think that we did not realise our strength as the junior partner in coalition negotiations, and gave away this valuable point. I think that the Conservatives were far more canny on this, and maybe recognized the potential negative impact on the Lib Dems that would arise. So, where do we go from here. I would like to think that we could now say “sorry, we were a naive in the coalition negotiations and done over by the Tories. We gave learnt our lesson and will not let it happen again (we won’t go into a coalition anyway)”. I would love it if we were to say in our manifesto that we would right the wrong, and commit to the policy again, please!

  • nvelope2003 15th May '17 - 6:58pm

    Dave Orbison: It is just as well the early Labour pioneers did not think like you as they would never have got anywhere – nice for the Liberals but perhaps not so nice for the working class movement. You have to start somewhere. That is the problem with so many people who expect instant solutions.

  • Peter Watson 15th May '17 - 7:49pm

    @Paul D B “On student fees, I think that we did not realise our strength as the junior partner in coalition negotiations, and gave away this valuable point.”
    The Coalition Agreement allowed Lib Dems to abstain:
    “If the response of the Government to Lord Browne’s report is one that Liberal Democrats cannot accept, then arrangements will be made to enable Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain in any vote.”

    I could write “with the benefit of hindsight” but it was predicted before and commented upon during: the handling of tuition fees was hopeless. From the beginning it was suggested that Nick Clegg was not in favour of the party’s official policy to “scrap unfair university tuition fees”. Making every Lib Dem candidate publicly sign the NUS pledge to vote against an increase in tuition fees assumed the party would be opposing a government that increased tuition fees, something the Lib Dems warned against during the election campaign. This was backed up with criticisms of Labour for previously breaking promises on tuition fees and was part of an election campaign that played heavily on Nick Clegg’s personality and a message of “no more broken promises”.
    Days after the election the party negotiated for abstention which suggested they were already willing to break pledges to vote against. Some Lib Dems voted for the increase. A senior Lib Dem (Vince Cable) was responsible for the government’s proposals and another (Simon Hughes, who had abstained) was appointed to an advocacy role to explain the fees policy. Later, Nick Clegg made an apology which was widely ridiculed and which made it unclear whether he was apologising for making a promise or breaking it. Throughout that time senior Lib Dems defended it as a graduate tax, pointed to university application statistics showing increased social mobility (generally implying rather than claiming a link), and tried to reinterpret the wording of the NUS pledge. The party still notionally “aspired” to scrap fees and Labour’s 2015 policy to reduce them was attacked.
    Somehow the party never managed to “own” or “disown” the new fees system: it got all the blame for the bad stuff and no credit for any good aspects. Overall, the approach taken made the party look both dishonest and incompetent.
    And the price for this was paid every time Nick Clegg and the party campaigned on any issue (especially electoral reform) and in numerous elections up to May 2015 … and beyond it would appear.

  • Peter Watson 15th May '17 - 7:53pm

    P.S. It is also important to note that some Lib Dems – including Tim Farron – voted against the increase in tuition fees. Keeping the promise they made was honourable and to be applauded but this added to the confusion over the Lib Dems’ position(s).

  • Dave Orbison 15th May '17 - 7:55pm

    nvelope2003 – In fairness I take your point and in many respects I agree with you. I have certainly been critical of the Progress Party within Labour who use self rightous terms as needing to be ‘realistic’, ‘sensible’,’electable’ or ‘having to appeal to the middle ground’ as a means of sneering at more ambitious programmes.

    A couple of years ago I visited “The People’s Museum’ in Salford and was struck by the enormous mountain Labour had to climb to get Parliamentary representation. The exhibits from the Press then were as rabid as they are today. So you are right, if some in the Labour movement of today had their way, they would have seen an independent Labour Party as a pipe dream. They would certainly have denounced Attlee’s plans for the NHS, house building programme and nationalisation of broken industries on the back of WW2 that all but made us bankrupt, as plainly ridiculous and unrealistic. Thank goodness they were not around then.

    I see the LibDems are full of people who equally lack ambition. I think you call them Orangebookers. They willingly signed up to the Tories Coalition. They chose to break promises and then justify this by responding to challenge by patronising us with ‘of course don’t you silly people realise we were never in power so how could we do this’.

    You say you have to start somewhere and perhaps this is the difference between us here. I see the LibDems, having had their ‘foot in the door of Government’ as selling out on student fees, supporting the bedroom tax, public sector pay freezes, burdening the NHS with restructuring – many polices which the LibDems now apparently oppose. I struggle to see that actual experience in Government fits with ‘you have to start somewhere’. As I see as less of a start and more of a finish.

  • The fact that not a single person here has any idea what the party position currently is with with tuition fees is incredible! How on earth therefore, will the public?

    Claims of doubling our number of MPs are just a pipe dream if we are still unable to articulate what we are about.

    If we stopped banging on about second referendums (which the public don’t want) and came up with some dynamic, radical and ambitious policies we might be less of an irrelevance. Brexit is happening, whilst I didn’t vote for it we must stop treating the general populous as if they are think, or indeed patronise then by claiming they were lied to or the choice wasn’t explained properly.

    If all the parties agreed that they would implement brexit as per the referendum result (i.e. We are leaving) and instead focussed on the domestic agenda more, May would not have the lead she has.

  • @ Dave Orbison I rank Attlee as the outstanding PM of the 20th Century. He had the courage (and calmness) to deliver – and an appropriate attitude to the right wing press. Great man.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th May '17 - 1:54pm

    Paul D B

    On student fees, I think that we did not realise our strength as the junior partner in coalition negotiations, and gave away this valuable point.

    No, it is exactly the other round. There is this idea that junior coalition partners can get whatever they want, but if you look at coalitions around the world, or in local government here, it just doesn’t work like that.

    The Liberal Democrats were in a very weak position following the 2010 general election. They achieved a much lower share of the vote than had been predicted, so they were clearly on the way down. There weren’t enough Labour MPs to form a Labour-LibDem coalition, and Labour weren’t that interested in it anyway, feeling it would be much better to go into opposition and denounce the LibDems for forming the only viable government in order to destroy them.

    There is simply no way the Conservatives would agree to tax rises in order to continue subsidising universities. How could the LibDems force them to do so, when the Tories could just turn round and say “If you don’t agree to a coalition on our terms, we’ll call another general election and fight it on the grounds ‘the existence of the LibDems makes the country unstable, so get rid of them so we can govern properly'”? Labour would have joined in saying the same thing. If the LibDems had done unexpectedly well in the 2010 general election, there would be concern from the duopoly parties that the LibDems could do better if another election followed shortly, but I think the Labervatives could be pretty confident that the LibDems be the major losers if another one was called not long after May 2010.

    If the LibDems had insisted on maintaining subsidies for university education, the Conservatives most likely would have balanced that by insisting on massive cuts in the number of university places: and blame us for forcing it on them.

    Instead of pushing the coalition as a triumph, the LibDems should have made clear from the start that it was a sad compromise, which inevitably would reflect the distortion of the electoral system that gave the Conservative five times as many seat for just one and a half times as many votes.

    The message from the tuition fees system should be this: if you want things provided by government, they have to be paid for, if they aren’t paid for by taxes, they’ll have to be paid for in some other way.

  • Matthew Huntbach 16th May '17 - 2:07pm

    Jay Kay

    If all the parties agreed that they would implement brexit as per the referendum result (i.e. We are leaving)

    That is exactly what the LibDems are saying by calling for a second referendum. They are saying they accept the results of the first referendum, and so cannot just stop Brexit unless there is another referendum that agrees to doing so.

    Let’s put it in an abstract way: the people vote X because they believe X will lead to Y, and they want Y. I believe that X will lead to the opposite of Y. So what am I to do? Should I support X because that’s what the people voted for, or should I oppose X because that’s what I believe the people really want?

    I believe that Brexit will lead to the opposite of what most people who voted for it give as the reason they voted for it. I have heard nothing from anyone, despite repeatedly asking for it, which suggests to me that I might be wrong on this. I believe that Brexit will lead to Britain becoming a country with less control by the people, and instead run by and for shady international supreme wealthy types. The Leave campaign was funded and run by those who wanted just that.

  • Matthew Huntbach,

    What is important in any negotiation (and I have done a few pretty large ones) is that you understand what your boundary conditions are, what your Best Alternative To A Negotiated Agreement is and what your counterparts interests are. In this regard the negotiations to enter into the coalition was the critical point to secure what was important to people (in this case tuition fees), as one of the basic elements of the agreement. If the Tories would not give way, then we had a choice to proceed or not. That us not to say that we should not have entered into the coalition, but there were always going to be costs associated with any compromise.

  • Matthew Huntbach 17th May '17 - 8:33am

    Paul D B,

    Sure I am not saying the coalition was best handled. However, we have to defend what happened. One of the big problems is this common idea that junior coalition partners can get whatever they want out of a coalition. That never happens. If the LibDems had insisted on that one issue, they would have had to sacrifice something else – as I suggested most likely agreeing to massive cuts in universities.

    Before 2010, talk about coalition was always on the line that the LibDems would be in a luxurious position of being able to choose which party to form one with and both would be offering anything to form a coalition. As we saw in 2010, it doesn’t work like that – a Labour-LibDem coalition was not viable because it would not have a majority and Labour, seeing how bad things were going, felt it would be better to go into opposition and denounce us for having to go for the only alternative. That very greatly reduced our negotiating power.

    My own view is how this should have been handled is that an agreement should have been made for the LibDems to be able to propose the necessary tax increase to pay for subsidising university tuition, but accepting the Conservatives would not vote for it. Then it would be up to Labour and the other parties to vote for it, if it really was possible to get a majority for the alternative.

    By not doing this, Labour was able to get away with attacking us for having to make the compromise we made, without having to say anything practical about how it would have dealt with the problem.

    As a university lecturer, I have to be grateful to the LibDems for saving the university system, and hence my job. Life for us, while still very much under pressure, is better than for other public services with the big cuts they have had. The fees and loans system is not my preferred solution, by any means, but I can see the line that this was the best compromise available, with the loans pay-back actually being not that different from what would otherwise have to be paid in extra taxation anyway.

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