Nick Clegg on education

Nick was at IPPR today giving a speech on the future of education – and is that one Ms Linda Jack I hear asking the questions? Indeed it is!

This speech is partly reproduced in edited form at Comment is Free. Now, I know you’ve got dinner to eat and tv to watch but I do recommend you take the time to listen to the podcast version of the speech – it’s rather fuller and better.

It strikes me that our commitment to local decision-making doesn’t make for catchy soundbites. Labour and the Tories’ authoritarian policies make naturally good speeches. Beginning-middle-end. You can get behind a man who rants on about forcing everyone to wear school blazers. Maybe just to stab him in the back, but you can get behind him. Likewise, Labour’s polyclinics, while a total top-down one-size-fits-all disaster, are an absolute gift to speechwriters because they fit into a nice neat “Here is a problem, we must do something, this is something, therefore we must do it” pattern. People are conditioned to respond to speeches like those.

A man who stands up and says he can’t possibly have all the answers for every school in the country, so he plans to devolve spending powers to individual schools so that they have the power to decide on their own answers, is a subtler proposition. It is, in my view, something that needs to be emphasised and explored in our speechifying more than the commitment to increase funding itself, laudable though that is.

For example, Nick really brings out the point about top-down control very effectively for me in the Q&As:

If you start trying to add all sorts of caveats and qualifications to how the pupil premium is used by teachers and heads in each particular school, you by definition end up repeating the errors we’ve seen over the last ten years, which is that funding becomes too conditional; it becomes too qualified; it often becomes short-term.

The refrain I hear in travelling round the country speaking to a lot of hardworking heads is not, “Oh, we wish we got better guidance on which are the most needy children to help,” it’s “We’re not helping the needy children because we’re not being given the flexibility to do it”.

This is proper liberalism and it’s unanswerable common sense, and I think it will find more of an audience than a spending commitment, which like all spending commitments, however important and however ingenious, runs the risk of inviting a chorus of “Oh no you won’t”s.

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  • Very nice, than you.

  • Alix Mortimer 5th Jun '08 - 7:26pm

    Why, you’re welcome! And for my next trick…

  • Alix – I think you raise a really important point that while local decision-making is “unanswerable common sense”, it doesn’t yet seem to have found populist expression.
    Indeed, it’s the opposite position that has, in the phrase “postcode lottery”.
    Look it up in Google, and you’ll find LibDems using this phrase in relation to health, schools, postal services, recycling, care for the elderly, … even television reception.
    Yet as Mike German has written, quoted in these pages by Mark Pack in January, true localism inevitably implies real differences in priorities resulting in different areas of the country.
    Yet, in soundbite land, no-one wants to suffer because of a postcode lottery.
    So how can our commitment to localism be expressed in popular discourse in a way that doesn’t fall foul of the knock-out blow of the “postcode lottery” meme?

  • This article perfectly frames the two-fold challenge for modern-day politics.

    Parties need to have good policies, but also be able to communicate them effectively to the intended audience.

    We need for our leaders to be able to say ‘this is’ with rhetorical flourish, but we also need them to show ‘how to’ in a visually demonstrative way.

    It is a rare skill to be able to compliment a substantial speech with a relevant ‘stunt’ and provide a good one-two punch to really hit the message home through all the various media forms.

    While we’ve mastered the jab, we’ve still to learn how to deliver a stunning knock-out blow.

  • passing tory 6th Jun '08 - 1:21pm

    Asriel, I fear the problems probably lie a lot deeper as far as you guys (i.e. the Lib Dems) are concerned. The problem lies in the popular concept of equality. For instance, as long as you make it a primary operational requirement that every child should have a completely equal chance in life then you are going to struggle to shake off a centralising tendency in education, whatever proud words are uttered about localism. Ditto healthcare.

    I have heard Clegg bang on about equality quite a few times so I fear you have been hoisted by your own petard on this one.

  • passer-by, what do tories care for equality? with what authority can tories speak on the subject?

    Your comment exudes conservative analysis and highlights the inherent inconsistency of your selfishness.

    Equal chances are ensured by decentralising and devolving decision-making powers – these are abilities which enable people to ‘get on’, yet you want to create restrictions on this and thereby the ability to gain membership of the rich club.

  • passing tory 6th Jun '08 - 4:33pm

    Orangepan; I have nothing against the concept of equality, but I have seen at close hand how the ideas that you put forward do not achieve what you set out to achieve, and indeed can easily have the opposite effect. The question is how best to achieve these aims within the constraint of the real world.

    In the educational case, rather than chasing equality for the sake of it, I am more interested in focusing on trying to keep social mobility and the mean level of attainment high. In practice this seems to work well by keeping central control to a minimum and guiding each child towards a future consistent with his or her abilities. This means pushing kids at the top end (something that has been sadly lacking) as much as supporting kids at the bottom end.
    Under such a scheme, each child will explicitly NOT have the same opportunities, but should have the best start in life for them. That is the best you can do, as far as I am concerned.

    We are currently in a regime in which those who were educated at independent schools are taking an ever-increasing percentage of the top places in society. Chasing equality – which has been the dominant educational philosophy of the last 40 years – will not solve this. A more pragmatic ( Tory 🙂 ) approach could.

  • passing tory, you’re right: this issue is deeper than I acknowledged.

    And, in response to your last post, it’s tempting to suggest – following Popper – that we should be aiming to challenge obvious inequalities (i.e. a pragmatic approach) rather than “chasing equality for the sake of it” (i.e. an ideological approach)

    But when do differences count as inequalities? Would it be fair if LEA A has an average class size of 12 when LEA B has an average class size of 32?

    Citizens in LEA B might complain that this is unfair, and that central government should make rules (and find funds) for class size that apply across the country. It might not be great a great outcome for LEA A that this results in every class size in the country being 27 (say), but citizens in LEA B would then say that at least it’s the same for everybody.

    So the original question about localism still stands: how to find a powerful way of expressing the view that it is for the voters in each area to decide how they want to prioritise?

  • Can I express my appreciation of ‘Passing Tory’ for his/her contributions to LibDem Voice. They are invariably good tempered and help to stimulate debate. I wish that more Liberal Democrats would participate in the discussions on this site, particularly when important issues like this are raised. I still recall with shame saying to Gordon Lishman about forty years ago that I wasn’t interested in ideology: perhaps there was more of an excuse then when the Party had a handful of MPs and controlled no councils, but today there should be a ferment of discussion and debate within the Party, and there isn’t, although to give Nick Clegg his due he is trying to get people thinking a bit more than his predecessors did. Still, no time…better get on and write the story for the next Focus – how about “Massive Response!”

  • passing tory 6th Jun '08 - 7:29pm

    Alix, well I am going to have to disappoint in that I am quite a fan of school uniform as it in fact does quite a good job of providing precisely the form of equal opportunity that you should like. It is hard for a kid to prance around in designer trainers in a school with unform, and kids in old hand-me-downs look more or less identical to those who get a new set every term.

    I realise that when you mention uniforms many a liberal sees repressed personality and young minds being bent to some inflexible authority but then, as discussed with respect to the tube party, I think that a few artificial boundries during childhood are a good thing and the pros definitely outweigh the cons.

    As for phonetics; don’t dig it. I am not particularly dogmatic about this as I am sure there are cases where other approaches work well, but I also know that in the small number of remedial cases I have worked on I have been able to achieve in a few weeks with phonetics what the school had failed in two terms with other approaches. Do I think they should be mandatory? No, and indeed I don’t think that that is Gove’s proposal.

    As for corporal punishment, I am with you on that one although I would also be wary of taking that philosophy too far though. I have experimented with being nice and cuddly, and with (what in military context is termed) beasting, and (with boys in particular) sometimes you can get results pushing agressively that are simply not possible with the softly-softly approach.

  • passing tory 7th Jun '08 - 5:11am

    Alix, thanks for the link – can’t claim I read the Standard although I did wade through all the policy documents at the time.

    It would be most surprising if there were no policy overlaps between the parties, although in terms of the “pupil premium” this may be a case of convergent evolution as much as inheritance; the Conservatives have a long record of looking towards market-style solutions like this …

  • Matthew Huntbach 8th Jun '08 - 9:55pm

    “Would it be fair if LEA A has an average class size of 12 when LEA B has an average class size of 32?”

    Yes – so long as LEA A and LEA B are equally financed so it is a matter of choice rather than necessity.

    LEA A might have chosen to throw all its resources into lowering class sizes, which would be at the expense of other things, while LEA B has decided that bigger class sizes aren’t too bad and that saves money for other things LEAs do, maybe even better youth clubs and sports facilities and the likes.

    If the citizens of LEA B don’t like what has been done, they can vote out their councillors and put in new ones with different ideas at the next council election.

  • two points: school uniform can be an expression of freedom within the school or be used as an article of repression, and, having had experience of both, I would say this depends entirely on the regime instituted from the head and his/her minions.

    PT makes a good point that equality of opportunity is an idealistic position, and I agree it is also true that different individuals have different needs and interests, so should we be promoting equal access to opportunities?

  • *shouldn’t we be promoting equal access to opportunities? (I don’t want to create the inference that I’m opposed to this)

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