Liblink: David Laws – the ‘poor’ quality of education policy

In the Guardian today, Peter Wilby speaks to ex Liberal Democrat schools minister David Laws about his life and careers so far and his work at the new Education Policy Institute.

Like the IFS, Laws’s institute will, he tells me, be “data-driven, influencing debate by the quality of its analysis and its quantitative skills”. The quality of education policymaking is poor, Laws argues, and the institute wants to make it better.

Was policymaking poor when he was schools minister? “Yes. A lot of decision-making is not based on evidence but on hunch. I had little coming to me from civil servants that presented the latest academic evidence.

The article then goes on to Laws’ evidence based perspective on grammar schools, free schools, and academies, which I might crudely summarise as being that they don’t seem to make the kind of difference that would merit the policy and resource focus they get.

I ask what he is most proud of from his period as schools minister. He immediately mentions the pupil premium, though he wasn’t in office when it was introduced: “I negotiated it into the coalition agreement and I insisted on it being in our 2010 manifesto.” From his own work, he picks out Progress 8, a quintessentially Laws policy, heavy with data, much of it beyond the grasp of ordinary mortals. “It incentivises schools to help every single pupil instead of prioritising just a few on the [GCSE] C/D borderline.”

I suspect that Progress 8 is an even more significant policy than the Pupil Premium in raising attainment. In changing from the back-of-a-fag-packet measure of the number of C grades, Progress 8 not only values every grade as being worth more than the one below (is that really rocket science?) but it is also a “value added” measure meaning that the schools with academically strong intakes don’t get to coast and those with academically weak intakes don’t get pilloried even when they do a good job.

Read the whole piece here.

* Joe Otten was the candidate for Sheffield Heeley in June 2017 and Doncaster North in December 2019 and is a councillor in Sheffield.

Read more by .
This entry was posted in LibLink.


  • Phil Beesley 1st Aug '17 - 2:16pm

    Yeah, I read the article. I’ve no idea why Peter Wilby writes “much of it beyond the grasp of ordinary mortals” unless it is to discourage criticism.

    @Joe Otten: “In changing from the back-of-a-fag-packet measure of the number of C grades, Progress 8 not only values every grade as being worth more than the one below (is that really rocket science?) but it is also a “value added” measure…”

    It doesn’t have a lot to say about young people as young people. Its about exam factories.

  • Ryan McAlister 1st Aug '17 - 3:39pm

    Progress 8 is a car crash, speaking as a teacher.

    It has led to a narrowing curriculum, as schools funnel students into certain subjects to ensure they maximise their points in each “bucket” of the calculation. It relies on unreliable, teacher assessed data at from Year 6 and crude extrapolation that takes no account of a student’s individual circumstances. It has increased teacher workload as schools demand ever more data to track student “flightpaths”. You get the idea, I could go on.

  • “Progress 8 … is also a “value added” measure…”

    So that’s all right then. Assuming, of course, that anyone can actually measure the value added.

    US experience says they can’t as data scientist Cathy O’Neil says in this fine series of rants.

    I can’t think of any reason why this would be different in the UK. What I am sure about is that treating schools as exam factories and teachers and pupils as data points isn’t going to work. In fact as far as I can tell it’s a major reason several teachers of my acquaintance have left the profession recently.

  • paul barker 1st Aug '17 - 5:43pm

    I didnt like the comment about Tim either (presuming it was accurately reported, something we cant assume) but if we only listen to people we like then we betray the principles of Liberalism.
    David Laws himself was on the recieving end of a great deal of bigotry, directed at both his percieved Class & his Sexuality. Lots of other leading Libdems have also come in for personal abuse, sometimes from our own members, we should be careful not to add to it.
    We are a small, currently unpopular Party that big chunks of The Establishment would like to destroy & we should all cut each other some slack.

  • Mark Blackburn 1st Aug '17 - 5:45pm

    I’m getting more and more cynical when I see the words ‘evidence-based’? Usually means a selective take on a piece of ‘evidence’ to justify an ideologically- driven position. Having seen the pressures our local schools are in during my PPC campaign, taking some smug satisfaction in ‘Progress 8’ is laughable.

  • I love evidence, but sometimes you just have to have faith. We should have faith in our teachers and reduce the amount of evidence we are asking them to produce.
    Also nice to note he thinks not vetoing the tuition increase was a mistake, now that truly is evidence based.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 1st Aug '17 - 5:57pm

    Great empathy with our terrific Katharine, but feel Paul does well in response.

    As one who always gives a well meaning decent person wriggle room, I would with David Laws, but , not being a school teacher, although I have taught a lot, it is to adults , I understand what Ryan says here, and Mark thus also.

    Sometimes it would be good to ditch the evidence and go with the gut feeling.

    Marcus Aurelius said , All things in moderation including moderation itself.

    I can be and am moderate a lot of the time , except when I am not !

    Once in a while similarly let’s as a party also lose the obsession with evidence in favour of common sense…

    quote as good as the other one , by Sir Henry Campbell Bannerman-

    Liberal politics meant, the politics of common sense

  • Peter Watson 1st Aug '17 - 6:43pm

    @frankie “he thinks not vetoing the tuition increase was a mistake, now that truly is evidence based.”

  • Richard Underhill 1st Aug '17 - 10:25pm

    I do not usually comment on education policy, not being a teacher nor a parent, but I am currently reading a book by Digby Jones a former trade minister in Gordon Brown’s government, now a crossbench peer, not Labour. He quotes from top statistician Claus Moser:,_Baron_Moser “One in five adults were functionally illiterate. 16% of the population could not read a poster advertising a pop concert at the Birmingham National Conference Centre to find out where the concert was to be held.
    25% of adults could not work out how much change to expect they would expect from £2 if they had bought £1.58 of groceries.” Moser’s report was in 1999, but how much has changed since then?
    “If someone wants a job as a lathe operator he needs to be able to read the instructions on the machine, if not an employer will be reluctant to recruit him.”

  • Ryan McAlister 2nd Aug '17 - 12:09pm

    Joe, please tell me you are aware that the writing element of KS2 English SATS are teacher assessed? They are moderated by LA’s (some interesting stats out last week on how moderators give significantly lower marks than teachers by and large).

    I won’t rise to the bait on your other comments.

  • Speaking as a Governor, Joe you are incorrect in saying “KS2 data is Exam Data not teacher assessed”. Parts of it are teacher assessed, and Nick Gibb, Schools Minister has got himself into an inordinate amount of hot water with teachers and especially Heads, with a confused and constantly changing Moderation of results system especially with the Writing parts of the SATS. This has made the data most unreliable for inter – County and other comparisons, and OFSTED has been acknowledging those problems. With any luck this will change from now on, but I wouldn’t bet my shirt on it!

    On another topic, it seems to me that your arbitrary removal of posts here is not justified.

  • Ryan McAlister 2nd Aug '17 - 12:16pm

    Actually I will rise to it.

    The whole point of the “buckets” in the attainment 8 calculation is to avoid a narrowing curriculum while still ensuring a sufficiently academic program of study at KS4. Attainment 8 is of course the basis calculating progress 8. The third bucket, the “open group” is supposed to allow students to study subjects that interest them without dumbing down their overall experience. Giving the prohibitive penalty applied when you don’t fill up the the first two buckets with eligible courses (filling them gives you the ebacc as a minimum), your patronising accusation that students are getting a worse deal from a wider choice of subjects available to them in bucket 3 is contemptible.

  • Christopher Curtis 2nd Aug '17 - 12:21pm

    ‘“Narrowing of the curriculum” I understand is code for more (poorer) students taking the more important and challenging subjects. Presumably any change in patterns of subjects taken gets this sort of complaint from the teachers of subjects that lose out.’

    That comment has everything. It dismisses the concerns of informed and committed teachers and parents as selfish self-interest; makes sweeping assumptions that we all know and all agree what the “challenging and important” subjects are; supports the rigid control of the curriculum by a centralised bureaucracy and throws in a healthy dose of (possibly inverse) snobbery and “we know what’s best for you”. I never thought I’d read such an anti-liberal piece of Govian nonsense on a LibDem web site. We should know better.

    Narrowing of the curriculum is about the denial of opportunities to learners. When subjects like art, music, drama, dance (or for that matter Latin or catering) can no longer be studied by most students in most schools it is not because those students are studying “challenging and important” subjects instead, but because someone in authority has decided what the curriculum should be, that everyone should be forced to learn what he thinks is good for them and that schools should be forced to teach what he thinks they should teach. Of course, that won’t apply to the better off kids in private schools: they will still study a full curriculum with more choice.

    There are issues about providing every student with a challenging curriculum in which s/he learns important things. The idea that the curriculum should be more or less the same for every student and the idea that it should be more or less the same as the 1950s Grammar School curriculum is laughable, but is our country’s current education policy.

  • Christopher Curtis 2nd Aug '17 - 12:38pm

    On a wider point, the only thing that raises attainment is students learning better which is related to (but not the same as) teachers teaching better. In turn, better learning and teaching is supported by better curriculum, where what is to be taught and learned is better defined and better sequenced, and by better approaches to how concepts and skills are taught and learned (pedagogy). There are many other factors impacting on learning and teaching (from what students have previously learnt, their study habits, motivation etc. etc.)

    Assessment of students and indirectly teachers (individually or collectively) can contribute only by showing which learning and teaching approaches work best. At best, it is an indirect support for improving attainment. Publishing and aggregating specific assessments is a very poor way of supporting improved assessment as it tells you very little about what has worked or not worked in the learning and teaching for those students. At best it tells you which schools at present are doing better than others. It tells you nothing about how and why they are doing so.

    Progress 8 is marginally less damaging than the league tables it replaces since the comparison of attainment at KS2 and GCSE “counts” for all students, rather than just those at the C/D boundary. It does nothing to improve attainment and by discarding a whole range of valuable learning from measurement, it forces schools to narrow their curriculum and students to seek to attain in narrow and restricted ways.

  • Interested to hear of David Laws’ pursuit of what he calls ‘evidence based policy’ on wat succeeds in education.

    Does his interest include considering the evidence on the motivation of teachers given there has now a seven year cap on public sector earnings (for which David Laws bears some responsibility from his time at the Treasury) ?

    Some quite damning comments on this in the recently published, “WAGE GROWTH IN PAY REVIEW BODY OCCUPATIONS” by Alex Bryson (UCL) and John Forth (NIESR)
    Report to the Office of Manpower Economics in June 2017. It’s findings are on the web.

    The teaching profession has seen average pay fall by £3 an hour in real terms and police officers by £2 an hour, while the wages of nurses have stagnated during a decade of public sector salary freezes, a new report for the government’s pay advisers has found.

    The report, commissioned by the Office of Manpower Economics – which supports the independent bodies making recommendations on public sector pay, found median hourly earnings of UK workers dropped in real terms by almost 6% between 2005 and 2015, with some sectors suffering worse drops than others.

    Motivation of the teaching workforce, whilst not the only issue, is surely one of the variables Mr Laws should be considering ?

  • Typo wat = what.

  • Katherine Pindar – David Law was essentially a Yellow Conservative who was instrumental in shifting the party from the left of New Labour under Kennedy to the right of it in 2010 and the Coalition, which resulted in our collapse. He was infamous for the statement that public spending should be capped at 37%

  • Katharine Pindar 2nd Aug '17 - 1:39pm

    Thomas, thank you for pointing out that David Laws was instrumental in shifting the party rightwards. I am increasingly concerned that the shift back to a centre-left focus for the party during the past two years under Tim Farron may now be under threat again.

  • Christopher Curtis 2nd Aug '17 - 2:07pm

    Joe Otten:
    You’re doing it again. Why is it “self-serving nonsense” if I say something that you do not agree with?

    There has been a massive change in our education system since Margaret Thatcher’s time, from schools which were run on behalf of local parents and taxpayers by elected and fairly directly accountable councillors to one in which almost every detail is run by an enormous central government department and there is a powerful body charged with ensuring that the department’s policies are enforced. That change has given colossal power to whoever is the current Secretary of State. As David Laws says in the interview, this has allowed decisions and policy to be made very poorly, based on ideology and personal experience rather than evidence or experience. It has also allowed the imposition of ridiculous levels of change, much of which is reversed before being fully implemented because it is there for political rather than educational reasons. I don’t frame it as “parents and teachers against the state” but I certainly believe that we would have a much better system if the people most involved with it made more of the decisions.

    Lists of important and unimportant subjects are pointless. Subjects are a fairly poor way of defining the things people need to learn and in our system are heavily affected by the public/grammar school tradition more than any deeply logical grouping of skills and concepts. Challenge and importance come from precisely what is taught within whatever “subject” or “topic” groupings you adopt and achieving sufficient coverage across the whole curriculum of the skills and understanding you need. We’d be much better off arguing about things like the need for everyone to be able to read and critically evaluate a variety of texts and how that is best taught, and which texts everyone should read, instead of arguing about whether History is more important than English.

  • @ Joe Otten “so it is a good job, isn’t it, that teaching fared much better than most of the public sector – and public sector workers fared better on average from the fallout of the 2008 crash than private sector workers.)

    Are you sure about that, Joe ? Can you tell us your source, please ?

    According to an Institute for Fiscal Studies Report comparing public and private pay :
    “Since the end of the financial crisis, private sector earnings have grown again, but
    only by a total of 5.3% in cash terms between 2010–11 and 2013–14. Public
    sector earnings grew at the slightly slower pace of 4.1% over the same period.”

    “Public Sector Pay in the UK” research by Jonathan Cribb, Carl Emmerson, Luke Sibieta, Institute for Fiscal Studies October 2014.

    And of course teachers (who tend to have a student loan to repay) read newspapers and notice such things as a 12.5% increase in British Gas prices at the same timeas the Chief Exec of that body got a 40% pay rise.

    Oh, just in passing, David Laws’ own EPI in a report last October concluded “England’s teachers work the longest hours and get paid one of the worst salaries in OECD countries”.

    Food for thought, Joe ?

  • Christopher Curtis 2nd Aug '17 - 2:11pm

    To clarify, you’re entitled to think that something I have written is “nonsense”, but it’s not fair to assume that I am “self-serving” unless you have clear evidence of my motivation.

  • Richard Underhill 2nd Aug '17 - 4:45pm

    Not being a teacher or a governor I do not understand most of the above, but can anyone answer the points about illiteracy and innumeracy above? with the consequences for unemployment.

  • Christopher Curtis 2nd Aug '17 - 6:11pm

    Richard Underhill

    It’s not a simple question to answer, as the 1999 statistics were not measuring the same things in the same way that they are measured today so it is difficult to compare.

    There was a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation about a year ago which said: “Five million adults are lacking basic reading, writing and numeracy skills essential to everyday life and being able to find and secure work”. ( That might suggest that the situation has improved (5 out of about say 50 million UK adults is 10% compared with Moser’s 20%) but the report says that literacy and numeracy levels are worse for some age groups and some areas and unusually older adults are more literate in this country than young people, which suggests our education system is getting worse, not better.

    Hope that helps.

  • Joe – The chance of a single two-digit decimal derived from two other numbers, both subject to ‘gaming’ and both calculated from an arbitrary combination of subjects and weights, yielding any meaningful data is negligible on either side off the Atlantic.

    The onus is on those behind Progress 8 to justify its methodology but, in an admittedly brief search, I didn’t find any independent appraisal of its statistical validity or robustness. Without that it’s junk.

    When you measure something you change that thing. In science, good instruments can reduce that change to acceptably low levels but with humans that’s not the case. Hence, targets that attempt to measure something finish up driving behaviour like ‘teaching to the exam’ or even outright cheating. Moreover, the extra workload on teachers and others detracts from their real work and costs a fortune into the bargain.

  • @Katherine PinDar. Given that, if true, the party’s shift leftwards was even more electoral unpopular in 2017 than Clegg’s nadir in 2015, and that a centrist platform as partly influenced by David Laws got nearly 7m votes in 2010 (the highest ever total for a liberal party), why would the ending of a left wards shift be cause for concern?

  • Steve Trevethan 3rd Aug '17 - 10:12am

    How are the assessment results referenced?
    Criterion referencing has significant differences from norm referencing.
    Is some other approach being used?

  • David Evans 3rd Aug '17 - 11:17am

    TCO because the rightward lurch in the party resulted in our near annihilation on 2015 and its aftermath (i.e. we are now considered by many to be untrustworthy and largely irrelevant) continued to 2017, despite Tim and many other’s best efforts.

  • Ryan McAlister 3rd Aug '17 - 12:55pm

    Joe. I note you have avoided addressing my comments about the bucket system used for calculating Attainment (and thus Progress) 8. You have also ignored being corrected by multiple people on your assertion that Teacher Assessment plays no role in KS2 SATS. Silence also when it was put to you that LA Moderators consistently award much lower scores than those teachers (you are aware of course that Sheffield has a particularly lamentable moderation record? Link on request…), which throws the reliability of that KS2 baseline into serious question.

    You are not a great advert for politicians at the moment, skittishly moving on when called upon your inaccuracies.

  • TCO,

    We did best under a left-wing pragmatist and worst under right wing ideologues. There is no apatite for small government, even the majority of those that claim there is, only mean cut the bits I don’t use. Problem is everyone uses some bits and when their bits get cut my do they squeal.

  • @ Joe I don’t know whether you ever considered the dampening effect of post 2010 austerity which was much fiercer than that of the Alistair Darling policy post 2008 – indeed all the indicators of the economy then showed it was recovering pre-May 2010.

    I commissioned a report when I held office in Scottish Borders on the effect of the Coalition welfare cuts – the impact was a cut of £ 10 million per annum minimum in demand in the Borders economy…………. and you will know what the impact of that was in the result in May 2015.

    We had ten Councillors and were in power – we have (only just) got two now. There are consequences I’m afraid (as you will know in Sheffield) ….. and I know (as an ex-Head) that teachers are pretty brassed off these days. However well intentioned he may be one mentions the name David Laws to teachers with bated breath.

  • @David Evans I seem to recall that you thought Tim was going to be the answer to all our problems.

    Don’t you agree that they got worse during his leadership?

  • @Frankie – not true.

    The highest ever vote total for the Liberal or Liberal Democrat party, and it’s first experience of government for 70 years, was in 2010 under a “right wing idealogue” (your words).

  • Joe

    SATS and GCSEs aren’t meaningless, but they are not nearly as robust and reliable as you imagine.

    For one thing what are you actually measuring in any particular case? Achievement yes, but also lots of environmental things that are noting to do with school. Children are not robots and simply cannot be measured as reliably as, say, voltage.

    And then there’s the incentives around the measurement. It’s well established (except apparently in ‘economic liberal’ circles) that targets like these drive perverse behaviour. And the more weight put on them the stronger is the incentive to ‘game’ them; make them a factor in teacher assessment – either directly or indirectly via consequences for the whole school – and the chance they are being fiddled goes through the roof.

    This is NOT just a problem at the chalk-face. The government too is ever more neurotic about *results* so the various agencies involved are strongly incentivised to *prove* they are getting results. Prima facie evidence that this sort of thing happens comes from the astonishing growth in first-class degrees; more are now awarded each year than the total number graduating in the 1970s. Grade inflation is rampant and many people must be winking at the erosion of standards involved.

    So, yes, as you say, you can notionally subtract one of the numbers from the other but what does it actually mean. Both numbers come with random errors which may cancel or add so the result is even more random. Hence Cathy O’Neil’s description of it as a random number generator. The US authorities clearly aren’t evidence-led so, while the specifics of the UK system are different, how sure are you that it’s materially different over here?

  • Ryan McAlister 5th Aug '17 - 4:57pm

    No. Not teacher moderation. Teacher assessment. Which is LA moderated for some teachers at some schools.

    I’m going to end it now. You clearly have no interest in accuracy, and yet again avoided the substance of the argument. Poor.

  • Geoffrey Payne 6th Aug '17 - 6:44am

    Well I think this is all fascinating. I can remember many years ago Nick Clegg spoke at a Lib Dem event before the Coalition about how he wanted to be radical in decentralising power. Not only from central government but also from local government towards people and communities. He then went on to extrol free schools as an example of that. And now? Well that part of the conversation has gone missing. We just do not talk about it anymore. The Tory preference for grammar schools is an indicator that free schools have failed to capture the public mood.
    Also fascinating is David Laws now opening admitting that he is ideologically inspired by Milton Friedman. But of course with one very important qualification about social mobility. As a front line Lib Dem politician I did not hear him mention his name once. There were clues though. His association with the libertarian think tank the IEA for example. I suspect the same is true for Nick Clegg, it is a question I would like to ask him. If you want evidence of the ideological shift under Nick Clegg then that is it for all to see. Let’s remember back in 2008 it was Vince Cable and not David Laws who led the calls for nationalizing Northern Rock.
    That all said I found myself often agreeing with David Laws on education policy towards the end of the Coalition. The good news about being evidence based is that it forces you to be more objective and his critique of Michael Gove as being too ideologically driven is spot on. On the other hand I agree with those who argue that an over reliance on grades is a flawed measurement. I think we need to include quality of life indicators as well and Richard Layard has done some good work on this. There are some examples in the far East where only grades matter and children suffer extreme pressure from that.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

To have your photo next to your comment please signup your email address with Gravatar.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?


Recent Comments

  • Peter Davies
    Cost of living may be the main issue but it will never be our issue. It's the Tories issue (in a totally negative way). We only gain if we are putting forward a...
  • Fiona
    You raise some very good points Charley that need more consideration in decision making at all levels. Unfortunately, as seems inevitable these days, anything a...
  • John Barrett
    I too was sorry to hear you had been going through all this. Hopefully in the weeks and months ahead things will improve, and the medical world will wake up to ...
  • John Barrett
    Really sad to read this news. He was a lovely man. Having travelled abroad with him many years ago to a variety of meetings, he was always kind, thoughtful and ...
  • Tim Rogers
    Cost of Living is the issue here in Cornwall as elsewhere. If you can marry that up with Brexit then that's fine but rejoin cannot be a main platform. I spent t...