Make your views known to the Education Policy Working Group

The Education Policy Working Group had a number of useful evidence sessions. We have heard from the teaching unions, representatives of the exam boards, academics and charities, and from researchers and leaders in think tanks.

There have been a number of themes which have emerged from these conversations as key areas where the working group should focus attention. There has also been a remarkable degree of unanimity from those giving evidence on the key problems facing education, although solutions are less easy to find!

Our first session was focused on the area of teacher recruitment and retention. It is universally recognised that good teaching is a key component of high quality education, yet there is also recognition across all the experts that we are facing a crisis in teacher numbers. Worryingly the evidence is that this crisis is more driven by teachers leaving the profession after a relatively short time, than a failure to persuade more people to join the profession.

Our second session focussed on the exam system, and on the curriculum, and again there was consensus on the impact of a significant narrowing of the curriculum in recent years. There was great concern over the impact of the EBacc on many students choices of subject, with a fear that students are being encouraged to take subjects which may not be suitable or inspiring for them.

Our most recent session focussed on school funding and educational inequalities, particularly the impact of the pupil premium, and the attainment gap between students on free school meals and other students. There was wide consensus that the pupil premium has been a very successful policy. There was great concern over the significant reduction in funding which will be a consequence of flat cash for schools, when pupil numbers are rising across the country. It was clear that a national funding formula will not be at all easy to introduce alongside falling per pupil funding.

This week we are focusing on structures, academisation and the implications for democratic accountability, the role of governors and the need for a coherent structure of school provision. (quite a bit to cover for one evening)! For the session following this we are taking evidence alongside the working group on a 21st Century Economy and focussing on post-16 education and the role and needs of employers. Issues such as early years education will follow in January.

We are beginning to draft some of the questions we will want to include in our consultation paper for the spring, I hope comments on this article might also help to feed into that work.

* Lucy Nethsingha is Leader of the Lib Dem group on Cambridgeshire County Council

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  • Here you go, again, Joe…. The authentic voice of utilitarian economic liberalism echoing Thomas Gradgrind, the notorious school board Superintendent in Dickens’s ‘Hard Times’. Gradgrind was dedicated to the pursuit of profitable enterprise and his name is now used generically to refer to someone who is hard and only concerned with cold facts and numbers.

    I much prefer the position of my old Prof the great Richard S. Peters, a true liberal :

    “He never explicitly talked about wisdom as being an aim of education, but he does, in numerous places, emphasize that education is of the whole person and that, whatever else it might be about, it involves the development of knowledge and understanding. Being educated, he claims, is incompatible with being narrowly specialized. Moreover, he argues, education enables a person to have a different perspective on things, ‘to travel with a different view” .

    Ref : Journal : Educational Philosophy and Theory : Incorporating ACCESS
    Volume 45, 2013 – Issue 2: Philosophy of education in the perspective of Professor R.S. Peters

  • I was a school governor for five years and finally ended up chairing. In my experience, a complete waste of time and just extra duties for the head.
    The governing body comprised mainly people who were sympathetic to the school and any degree of being a ‘Critical Friend’ was seen as an attack.
    A simple, audited, annual statement (parental consultation included) along with ofsted will be just as effective and save an awful lot of time.
    The only function of a Governing Body is something for the head Teacher to hide behind in rough times.
    Sorry to all the well meaning, hard working governors out there.

  • Little Jackie Paper 15th Nov '16 - 2:10pm

    Joe Otten – In maths one option at the GCSE level would be to revisit the linked pair maths GCSE. It was never totally clear to me why that did not go on after the pilot – I believe that some schools had problems with timetables, and it didn’t fit well with discounting rules, but possibly those are problems with the system not the linked pair per se.

    Post-16 it’s tougher. The policy at the moment is that everyone resits and resits until they get a C at GCSE. As far as I know no one thinks this is a good idea and I hope no one falls for it. The Smith Report, due soon should give some pointers.

  • Little Jackie Paper 15th Nov '16 - 2:12pm

    Joe Otten – ‘And if you can find something interesting to say about the dominance of selection by house price, I will salute you.’

    Sorry, I don’t understand. Are you saying that selection by house price is too boring for you to care about or that you don’t see the issue as a problem?

    Both might be defensible (I suppose) just I don’t understand your line.

  • Lucy Nethsingha 15th Nov '16 - 2:59pm

    Thanks for the comments so far.
    Joe I love the mug! Some competence in English and Maths is important for all pupils, I think most schools and teachers would recognise that, but beyond those subjects what is important will depend on the individual. For some languages will be their passion, others science, for others art and music will be not only what they enjoy, but where they earn their income in future. This is I feel relevant to Geoff’s point about what education is for. Surely one of the things education is for is to learn what you are interested in and what you are good at. We do live in a competitive world, and we need to prepare our young people for a global market in jobs and skills. That means not only giving them the knowledge and skills to compete, but also the self-knowledge to know what their place in that world is, and the confidence to make the choices which will lead to happy and fulfilled lives. You could call that philosophy, or psychology, or any number of other things, and I don’t believe we should tell schools how to do it. Schools and teachers will nurture their pupils best if given the freedom to develop their own school philosophies and ethos. We do however need some way of judging when schools are doing it well, which is not easy.
    On other comments, the time when school governors become very important is when all is not well in a school, when the Head is not coping, or parents are not happy. Having a strong governing body can make a huge difference in such circumstances, as I know from 17 years experience on many different governing bodies!
    The trite answer to the selection by house price question is that if all schools were good there would be no issue, parents could choose the school with the ethos that suited their ideals, and everything would be lovely. I know that is not how it works in reality, and the real problem is that the peer group a child is working with make a huge difference to their achievement. This the real reason parents are desperate to get their kids into “good” schools, and they are right to care about it, but it is not good for social mobility. Very hard to solve that problem! Having attended a rather ordinary comprehensive myself I would like to reassure all parents that kids can do very well in such schools, as long as they are truly comprehensive, as mine was. The real killer is the secondary modern, disguised as a comprehensive.

  • Donald Smith 15th Nov '16 - 3:44pm

    I’d like to agree with Geoffrey Payne that we also need to think about what education is for. Preparing children and young people for adult life should be more than an exercise in learning discrete subjects, some of which have only a tenuous link with how to live as an adult. I’d like us to revisit the idea of the citizenship curriculum as well as PSHE and SMSC strands of the curriculum in England to give them great importance.

    I also think we need to look again at replacing GCSE and A Levels with the diplomas that were advocated in the Dearing report. We need a way to give equivalence to technical, vocational and academic education, and the diplomas offered a way to do that.

    I’m delighted with the work so far – teacher recruitment and retention is the most crucial issue of all. A narrowing curriculum is a curse we need to fight against, and the pupil premium and other measures to close attainment gaps are also very important.

    I must declare an interest – I worked for 25 years in heritage/museum education, have just spent 6 years as a secondary school governor, am involved in the work of one of the A Level awarding bodies and was involved in helping to create the Humanities and Social Sciences Diploma that was axed by Gove in 2010.

  • @ Joe Orton. Sorry Joe, I spent 25 years at the chalk face and I still hang out with lots of teachers and I’m afraid I just don’t agree with your take on this. First of all, the obsession with teaching methods is killing the profession. Any one who has been teaching a long time will tell you that methods go in and out of fashion. Things that were good practice 25 years ago were then regarded as “bad” and then they are great again. Jolly Phonics is a good example, or teaching through topic work in primary school, and all because some advisor at the LEA decides that this is how it should be done now. An experienced teacher knows that there isn’t just one way of doing things and the “right” way is the one which works with your class.
    Governors are impotent in practice, but they should be major players. The problem is that they only know what the heads tell them and many heads, especially bad heads, feed them B.S.
    The problem of retention is multi faceted. While some young teachers leave because of the workload, there is also a serious problem of bullying by senior management in many schools. There are not enough good heads to go around and as a result there are many who hang on by ruthlessly dealing with anyone on the staff who might question their decisions. Older teachers in particular are often targeted as many weak heads prefer young staff who are perceived as keen to please and less likely to question decisions. I heard a story yesterday of a young teacher in Hertfordshire who was put on a competency warning. She was observed by the head, assistant head and an advisor from the LEA. At the end of the lesson the head and assistant head graded the lesson “unsatisfactory”. The advisor graded it “good, with outstanding aspects” and added to the head “You must really dislike this teacher, does she ask too many questions ?” If you think the picture I paint is not an accurate one, I would recommend that you read the “secret teacher” blog in The Guardian.

  • Sue Sutherland 15th Nov '16 - 5:37pm

    I too agree with Geoffrey Payne that we need to consider what education is for. We also need to educate pupils about the world of work as some people just do not get the basic rules, turning up when you have agreed you will, working hard but having breaks, not having emotional phone calls except in emergency situations, not doing what your Mum has said but doing what your employer has asked and other simple rules. Citizenship is also vital for a Lib Dem society.
    I think it’s also important for schools to cooperate rather than compete. Some subjects, even at primary level could be taught at schools with the expertise to do so. This might help the problem of house price selection and the problem with teaching music, drama, sport etc. Obviously at secondary level it would give pupils more choice of subjects. This doesn’t have to mean pupils travelling around all day because technology enables distance learning, but it would be good if pupils sharing a lesson could meet up now and then.
    It might mean employing more teaching assistants to help those who are having difficulties with a subject and to keep order but I think the principle is far more in accordance with Lib Dem thinking than endless competition. I really appreciated the experience of group working that my daughters had as part of their education a few years ago now, as that was far more like real life than the exams only system which has returned to haunt modern children just as it haunted me.

  • Sue Sutherland 15th Nov '16 - 5:40pm

    PS I also agree that school governors really come into their own when there is trouble and conflict among the staff. It’s also useful for the Head to have someone to talk ideas over with.

  • Lester Holloway 15th Nov '16 - 5:45pm

    This BBC documentary makes some interesting points on education:

  • OFSTED inspect a school and give it “Good” for its Governance. Soon after they go into another school just a couple of miles down the road and give that school “unsatisfactory” for Governance. The catch is that the two schools are federated and have the same Head Teacher and Governing Body.
    Absolutely true and explains why many sane people steer well clear of teaching as a profession.

  • What is the aim of educating children? Everything should surely flow from this one question…………….

    1. You just have to find the one spark that ignites and inspires someone, and from that flows success in other areas of their lives

    2. Having the confidence and ability to stand up for yourself and for something worth standing up for and contribute fully to whatever it is that fuels your passion and motivates you

    3. Growth into self confident independent adults who are really motivated to do something with their lives

    4. Education is really a very simple thing that we often make far too complicated –
    it’s basically about human relationships, the way we treat each other and the way we respond.

    5. You have to display love (in its broadest sense) and joy in what you are doing.

    We have tied ourselves in knots unfortunately because we don’t start with these simple truths in my opinion

  • grahame lamb 16th Nov '16 - 9:13am

    I am following this debate with great interest. I note that one question that is starting to predominate is: what is education for? Good question.

    Another question I should like to ask is this: what is education?

    At school one of of my teachers took the trouble to explain to us that there was a bit of Latin here. Ducere – he said- means to lead. Ex means out. So you are drawing out the abilities and -perhaps- the potential of the child.

    Does this mean that training is different. Perhaps the opposite? Is it not putting in? Equipping children with skills. Numeracy. Literacy (today including IT literacy).

    Is it also about social and life skills; financial responsibility including pension planning or how to function in a community (however defined).

    How do schools fit in the community. What actually (other than “education” goes on in schools)?

    Which brings me to my last point about Governors (referred to in posts above).

    I would say that all institutions which are permitted to to take charge of us: schools, hospitals, prisons, police stations etc) should have outside oversight by lay members of the community in which they operate.

  • David Evershed 16th Nov '16 - 12:28pm

    The Education Policy Working Group is doing well to take evidence from a variety of sources. I hope they will also be taking evidence from parents, pupils and business.

  • Education in this country suffers from an undiagnosed and uncorrected STRUCTURAL problem that leads to a deeply flawed APPROACH in schools.

    The structural problem is that the only model of tertiary education in policy-makers’ heads is university. Hence apprenticeships were side-lined and polys became universities which were then expanded beyond all reason to become very nearly the only game in town.

    Desperate for better results, governments have bullied teachers to treat students like sausages, something to be pushed into university (preferably Oxbridge!), an approach that offers nothing to the majority. What could possibly go wrong?

    The solution is surely to create an apprenticeship-based alternative for tertiary education. Working towards the entry requirements for that would create a realistic objective for school students (and teachers), each according to their ability and motivation.

    As it happens there is a hugely successful model for how this could work – and it’s British.

    It is of course how accountants of various sorts (and some other professions) organise their training. Important elements (not a comprehensive list) include:

    1. Self-governing membership associations collectively cover the water-front (but are NOT ‘one-stop shops’); some specialise in higher level work, some in lower level (e.g. chartered accountants, accounting technicians respectively). There are, however, big overlaps so competition between associations provides market discipline.
    2. The associations set the syllabus and mark exams but DON’T teach which is done by third party providers (who have to be very sharp to survive).
    3. Courses are easy to fail; it’s important to maintain the integrity of qualifications offered.
    4. There is a requirement for relevant on-the-job experience which means that at some stage candidates must be in relevant employment. Employers typically provide ‘study packages’ including block release time for studies and a contribution to fees.
    5. Associations, especially the higher level ones, have an important regulatory role.
    6. Qualifications are ‘portable’ – that is they are widely accepted and are not tied to the specific requirements of a particular employer. Even those who don’t complete their studies can find work as PQs (Part Qualified), a status understood by employers.

    This approach is simple, devolved, proven, cost-efficient and market-driven. What’s not to like?

  • Trade skills (widely defined) have been neglected in Britain since at least the industrial revolution despite numerous royal commissions and the like fingering it as a key strategic weakness. We belatedly need to move up a few gears.

    My earlier comment argued that the accountants approach to training suggests a way forward in that it offers a framework that could easily be adapted and further developed for other trades to stand beside university as a post-school option.

    The aim should be to give students the opportunity to gain world-class training at a level to match their ability and ambition. For example I would:

    1. Licence new trade bodies or (better) cajole existing ones to become member-governed associations working under a new legal framework. Let’s call these ‘guilds’ for convenience.
    2. Empower guilds to provide qualifications in their sphere of competence.
    3. Make student membership open to all – school leavers and mature candidates alike. In a changing world there are many that need to retrain.
    4. Allow members in good standing with their guild to use a ‘kite mark’ type logo and make it a criminal offense for other to use it.
    5. Require guilds to regulate the quality of their members’ work to eliminate cowboys.
    6. Employers should pay all costs in the first instance – this to include course fees & study leave plus the cost of supervision (likely to be high in the first year but small thereafter).
    7. The government should set a tariff for each year of each course based on the approximate cost and refund that to employers but ONLY AFTER a student has passed that complete year’s studies. This would mean that employers are incentivised to select and support the best students and taxpayers get what they pay for (bearing in mind that PQs have value too).

    This approach builds on the proven model used by accountants and others and eliminates the notorious market failure that afflicts training whereby one employer may bear the cost of training only to see the newly qualified employee move to a rival firm.

    Its existence would give the less academic half (or more!) of the school population a realistic goal, one their teachers could teach towards and their parents could relate to.

    And for those who belatedly discover academic ability, a suitable trade qualification could be the entry qualification for university.

  • Lorenzo Cherin 16th Nov '16 - 7:40pm


    How do we take part , where is the survey some of the other policy groups have put out I think , for a start that would be useful. Your piece give cause for hopeful policy input being forthcoming.I am sure you are doing good work.

    Your useful , yes very helpful, contributions ,and usual , indeed very ,high standards, let you down here , be careful judging subjects as you are seeming to , one persons medicine …. and all that jazz ….we need more specialism ,again , all subjects rammed down young or older throats is a recipe for quitting school! And judge music less than maths and you get no Leonard Bernsteins , who , in a myriad of lectures proved at the advance level , both , to an extent ,connect !

    I have had a University education that took in probably the greatest philosophy and theology college in the UK, Hethrop , Queen Mary ,and the LSE, all in London University. If I had been through the many examples of European ,and the US , system, of secondary education, I reckon , to have been forced to study , for example , science, chemistry or physics, and the like at a later level , I would never have got my upper second Honours degree , despite being academic. Theories of left brain , right brain , like politics , mean I would not have bothered ! Mixing subjects from science to sport , can suit some , not me. Arts and humanities, politics and social science , that was versatile enough for me !

    We need to emphasise the individual, that is why we need streaming for subjects, not grammar schools , it is also why we need all students at the early level to be able to have a range of subjects , and then in the secondary years to start adding them if they want ,and subtracting them, if they prefer , therein , proof that basic maths has a practical , educational , purpose !

  • Lorenzo
    a perfect personal example of all the knots we can tie ourselves up in if we don’t put the person at the centre of education, not the subject or god forbid, the slow death by testing we have now.

    Kids (and adults actually) will find their own level, their spark and their passion if we give them the support and space to do so.

    Years ago I had a quote above my desk at home which went something like this:

    I can not teach anybody, anything
    I can simply provide an environment in which they can learn.

    Probably the greatest piece of advice any potential educator can be given, I think

    PS: I’ve been reading your other contributions on other threads with interest this last few days as I’ve started to be more active – you make some great points, which always make me think – thanks.
    Have a good evening – Mike

  • Lorenzo Cherin 16th Nov '16 - 10:41pm

    Mike S

    It is those rare and marvellous comments like yours that make this whole online element to our activism worthwhile and I heartily thank you !

    I had not seen your own wise and compassionate comments about education above . Your point about love is one I particularly value .

    I look forward to more interaction.

  • David Pearce 18th Nov '16 - 2:38am

    There is a mismatch between the sort of people entering teaching and the job requirements. Requirements include a long day, taking work home with you, spending your weekends on your job, inconvenient holidays. During the day you will be faced with challenging individuals ranging across, the thick, the violent, the brilliant, the bored, the uninterested, the disabled. These may be lumped together in one class. Somehow you need to be able to deal with them all at once, 40 at a time. They might have outside forces encouraging them to cooperate, or telling them it is a waste of time. You will be expected to stand in front of them teaching a subject you know nothing about, yet be expected to hold their respect. I dont think this sounds like an easy job, but do trainees get told all this? If you have the ability to do all that, wouldnt you be better off doing something else?

    The job is undoable as currently formulated.

  • @ David Pearce
    “If you have the ability to do all that, wouldnt you be better off doing something else?

    Unfortunately yes David & after many years, like many others, that is exactly the conclusion I reached.

    The points you make above are true, and I would add a few more.

    Most teachers go into the profession (or at least used to), because first and foremost, they have a love and joy of seeing a young person reach their potential, acting as an enabler and wanting to provide the environment and support to allow this to happen.

    When governments of all colours, constantly tell teachers not just what to teach but also how to teach it, this is stifling (for both teachers and pupils), creativity goes out of the window, motivation suffers and pupils become disillusioned, bored and insecure.

    It is this cocktail that creates many of the so called discipline issues we now see today in many of our schools.

    Coupled in the last decade with the almost constant pressures of assessment (don’t even get me started here), the potential litigation issues around extra curricular activities and the fact that rarely if ever do things stay content long enough for anyone to access if the previous set of so called ‘bright ideas’ worked – and this creates a high pressure and inappropriate environment in my view for kids to explore their passions, for sparks to ignite, for potential to be realised.

    Teachers simply feel the life blood in being drained out of them and leave to try something more rewarding. New potential recruits see all this and conclusions are drawn.

    I do not believe schools will improve until we let teachers teach, let kids be kids, let the headteacher steer the ship and crucially stop this unhealthy obsession with constant testing and assessment dominating and running the whole show.

  • David Evershed 22nd Nov '16 - 11:08am

    Mike S

    Schools are not there for the benefit of teachers.

    Like most workers, teachers need to be directed, controlled, their performance measured, feedback given and improvement areas identified.

  • @David Evershead.
    And there, ladies and gentlemen, is the problem in a nutshell. Teaching is just another job and teachers have lost most of their professional autonomy. Would you say that doctors, dentists, lawyers and other professional groups need to be “directed and controlled ?” Consequently you can’t get quality candidates to take on this job. Schools should seek to recruit the best and then let them get on with what they are good at.

  • Hi David
    I wasn’t going to rise to the bait, but then saw your Gold banner.
    Seriously – you are a member of the Lib Dems and you believe the best way to motivate and allow kids to reach their potential is to direct & control?

  • Rebecca Taylor 9th Dec '16 - 10:15am

    I’m probably too late, but one area I am looking into (on a professional basis) is how little support there is for working adults to undertake (non university) education or training to improve their career prospects/change careers.

    It’s possible to borrow money for course fees through a career development loan (relatively high interest rate; repayments start soon after course ends regardless of income) or advanced learner loans (government backed). Both of these only cover course fees; there is nothing for living costs and the welfare system doesn’t support people to do more than short term basic job skills training.

    I strongly suspect that there are many people who can’t afford to improve their job prospects through (non university) education and training because even if they can find/borrow money to pay course fees, they can’t afford not to work while studying. These are probably people who already have financial commitments (mortgage, kids, car) that they manage to meet but their income level means they don’t have much left over.

  • Delya Wilkinson 12th Dec '16 - 4:48pm

    I feel you should allow streaming in all major subjects. Let teachers teach rather than endure the poorer education since the comprehensive system. Ask teachers what they want. They want the best for all but teaching a large range of ability in one room does not work. It may give the idealist a feel good factor but not teachers, not parents and probably not pupils.

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