Opinion: “The Importance of Teaching” White Paper – putting Lib Dem policy into action?

After a year’s work in the run up to the General Election co-writing the Liberal Democrats’ Equity and Excellence education policy paper with other members of the 5-19 Education Policy Working Group, I opened the Coalition Government’s first education White Paper with understandable trepidation.

Nothing can be more important than giving every child a fair start in life, but the education system inherited from Labour offered some young people pretty much the best education system anywhere in the world, while leaving others ill-equipped, under-funded, and lacking the skills needed to get on in life.

The White Paper launched by the government today, called The Importance of Teaching takes as its starting point the unflattering international comparisons of the performance and skills of our pupils. Its critique of where and why the school system is underperforming is one that will be very familiar to most Liberal Democrats. It is a vision for a system based on excellence, underpinned by freedom and fairness: an education system which challenges low aspiration and achievement and where school-level innovation and diversity are seen as strengths to be welcomed.

It envisages a system where all schools rightly have the freedom to drive better outcomes for children, with a slimmed-down national curriculum and more freedom for heads and teachers. It is supported by new “teaching schools”, which will offer more school-based teacher training and give more attention to continuing professional development. There is a new focus on measures to improve discipline in schools – which is one of the key reasons cited by many graduates for being reluctant to consider a career in teaching. Schools will suffer much less bureaucracy, so we have seen the last of the centralised micro-managing of schools which characterised Labour’s failed approach.

I welcome the White Paper’s endorsement of the urgent need to restart social mobility with measures such as the Pupil Premium, which we know will ensure that the school system addresses rather than entrenches social disadvantage. After years dominated by debate over school structures (to be fair, across all parties), it is refreshing to find the Coalition Government putting teaching and learning right at the heart of its programme for raising achievement.

The White Paper tackles the key concern about raising educational standards for everyone: everything from reviewing Key Stage 2 tests to tackling (especially homophobic) bullying. By putting more data in the public domain, and by reforming national targets, it tackles the pressure on teachers to focus narrowly on borderline (especially C/D borderline) candidates to climb up the league tables. Instead, schools will now be judged on how well they serve all of their pupils. The Ofsted inspection regime will be reformed, with inspections targeting the weakest schools and freeing the best schools from an unnecessary inspection burden.

One of the key differences that to my mind marks this out as a Coalition White Paper rather than just a Conservative one, is the prominence given to the role of local government in ensuring fairness. As a former Council Leader myself I very much welcome the acknowledgment of the importance of councils using their democratic mandate to act as champions for children and parents, especially in things like ensuring fair admissions arrangements and in holding all schools to account.

The White Paper sets out an ambitious reform programme to raise standards for all children while narrowing the gap between rich and poor. With the number of reviews commissioned in the early days of the Coalition Government still on-going (Key Stage 2 tests, the early years education, vocational skills to name but three) there is still a significant “green” tinge to this White Paper. And in other areas too – such as the strategic role of Local Authorities where ministers are still deep in discussion with the Local Government Association – the White Paper signals the direction of travel but acknowledges there is still more work to be done. This provides great opportunities for all of us who care about education and getting it right to make our contribution and take advantage of the more open and inclusive policy-making process that is one of the more unexpected aspects to governing through a coalition.

Read the White Paper in full here.

To offer comments on the White Paper, email [email protected]

James Kempton was Chair of the Liberal Democrats’ 5-19 Education Policy Working Group.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • From the White Paper
    •Increase the authority of teachers to discipline pupils by strengthening their powers to search pupils, issue detentions and use force where necessary.”

    Can I ask what is meant by ‘force’?

  • Got my answer?

    2.15 We will also encourage Armed Forces leavers to become teachers, by developing a ‘Troops to Teachers’ programme which will sponsor service leavers to train as teachers”

    Does this also relate to cuts in the armed services?

  • Anthony Aloysius St 24th Nov '10 - 4:34pm

    “Would you prefer children to be educated in a brand new state of the art BSF School by an adequate teacher, or a 1960’s classroom with only a chalkboard and an extraordinary teacher?”

    Is that the choice, though? Is there any guarantee they won’t end up in a Portakabin with someone who can’t teach?

  • I wasn’t going to comment on the technology v. extraordinary teacher aspect of the discussion, but actually I just remembered that my English literature classes were taught in a portakabin: I remember nothing of the surroundings but plenty about the teaching. I think that anyone who has been lucky enough to be inspired by a teacher would agree that the environment in which that takes place is pretty much irrelevant.

    Two other things: I am going to keep banging on about Education Maintenance Allowances in the (vain?) hope that if enough of us do that it might get through to the parliamentary party that abolishing them is a really retrograde measure: the Pupil Premium is great, but pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds need to be encouraged to go on studying full time after 16 and the EMA is of crucial importance in that.

    Secondly, the main problem in education, in my opinion, is the anti-education culture that exists amongst secondary school pupils. There is a range of abusive terms applied to kids who want to study – nerds, boffs, etc. – so that it is not just classroom disruption that causes problems but peer group pressure as well. This problem seems to be ignored by the politicians, probably because it is one that they can’t come up with solutions to.

  • This is the provocative question we ask…

    “Would you prefer children to be educated in a brand new state of the art BSF School by an adequate teacher, or a 1960’s classroom with only a chalkboard and an extraordinary teacher?”

    Is “provocative” now a synonym for “misleading”?

    How many people involved in these sweeping educational reforms have actually got front line teaching experience?

    Just because you went to school doesn’t make you an expert in inspiring someone from inner city Birmingham on why it is important to learn the grammatical structures of a foreign language.

  • @tonyhill
    I am going to keep banging on about Education Maintenance Allowances in the (vain?) hope that if enough of us do that it might get through to the parliamentary party that abolishing them is a really retrograde measure:

    You are not alone!! I have raised this so often with no response. However, schoolchildren are raising it now, on the streets! How sad that to be heard this has to happen. It annoys me when as in this article the Pupil Premium is put up as a victory when the withdrawal of EMA has part funded it and there are doubts that it will even be used as it is supposed to be. I do not think you can seperate the fees issue from this white paper. Schoolchildren are seeing a very bleak future ahead, no jobs and no Uni and now what? Will they wonder whether there is any point in doing well? I also think that teacher morale will plummet as they look over their shoulders.
    P.S. Gove really hung Vince Cable, Clegg and the Lib Dems out to dry on fees today in a BBC interview!

  • @ Anne

    I completely agree. The EMA issue is, in my opinion, far more vital for addressing social mobility than that of university tuition fees. Yet we do not see it addressed. Try googeling education maintenance allowance, or search both the BIS and DoE websites and there is very, very little of note to be discovered.

  • Agree on EMA, which despite all the placards very much in evidenceat the demos, has provoked little real discussion in mainstream media.

    Perhaps Gove’s “hanging the Lib Dems out to dry” on fees is a consequence of him and the Tories clearly being put to the sword in their attempt to totally sideline councils on school education. The evidence is there apparently, of their role being written back into the White Paper at the last moment. James Kempton would have been writing a very different piece (or not writing at all I suspect).

  • I agree with all comments regarding EMA, I cannot understand why this hasn’t been a big issue, maybe someone should write an article for LDV about it

  • Peter Chivall 25th Nov '10 - 1:33pm

    On EMA all I can find out is that the review conclusions will be announced in January. EMA or something equally accessible/ valuable to its users, is absolutely essential for families on below average incomes to continue supporting 16-19s in 6th form and FE. Moves towards compulsory education up to 18 really would result in massive riots (by parents this time)without continuing financial support.
    An effective, unambiguous, win over continuing support for 16-18s might go some way to repairing the damage done by the Tuition Fees fiasco.

  • Peter Chivall 25th Nov '10 - 1:38pm

    On the White paper as a whole, while welcoming the re-inclusion of Local Authorities in the Govian universe (probably as much due to pressure from Tory leaders in the Shires as to any influence of Clegg & co.), I attach below my comments on another thread on LDV which is more appropriate here:Peter Chivall
    Posted 25th November 2010 at 1:13 pm | Permalink

    @ Steve Way
    One place where the Party’s leadership could start speaking out (and our MPs voting with their consciences) is over the Education White Paper which is hugely elitist and a complete rag-bag of right-wing shibboleths with little or no evidence to support its proposals, virtually none of which can be justified with reference to the Coalition Agreement.
    Just take one proposal: where is the evidence for graduates with 3rd-class honours being less effective as teachers than those with 2nds and 1sts – or is this just a cynical ploy to cut the training budget now that recruitment is up because of the recession.
    Ex-services officers and senior NCOs have leadership and communications skills which would serve them well in the classroom, but would their academic qualifications stand up to Gove’s stringencies about graduates. If not then Gove is simply hypocritical and inconsistent. (He recognises this by offering a condensed degree route to ex-services entrants – but not to anyone else!)
    There is much good analysis in the White Paper about the over-prescriptive National Curriculum and the distorting effects of League Tables at GCSE, but simply slimming down the Curriculum for State Schools is no good if more schools are encouraged to opt out as Academies, and if initiatives like the ‘English Baccalaureate’ are only available if schools have the resources to teach Combined Sciences at GCSE. (More so if there is a desperate shortage of Science graduates, and those without 2:2 or better are excluded from teaching)
    The White Paper, in 95 pages, gives just 4 paragraphs to Vocational Education, which should be the appropriate provision for around 1/3 of young people. Although Gove has announced a review, due in April, by Prof. Alison Wolfe, there is no attempt to consider the interraction of this with his elitist Academic proposals.
    Gove is also deeply ambiguous about the role of Local Authorities. He wants them to be “champions of parents and students” but also to be promoters of Free Schools and Academies (in direct contradiction to Liberal Democrat policy). Yet all the inspecting is to be done by OFSTED, who will retain their deeply destructive (and self-serving) “most teachers are useless” philosophy.
    Meanwhile, Gove wants to move towards a system where all schools, 6th form and FE funding is controlled from Whitehall by an Education Funding Agency. So much for the “localism” agenda! Education may in Gove’s vision, be administered locally, by 22,000 heads and boards of (unpaid) governors, but it will be controlled, even more so than under New Labour, by Michael Gove and a bunch of quangocrats.

  • My children attend the local comprehensive which has a very mixed mixed intake and quite a number of the children there have been saying they will not go on to take A levels because the EMA is being withdrawn. One or two of these children are Oxbridge calibre too.

    I think many parents like me are becoming very concerned about the lack of a future our young people are now beginning to see for themselves. It is worrying them – all they see ahead is debt and no direction as to where the jobs will be or indeed if there will be any job after years of studying. Why are the government doing so little to raise money from the Banks and Tax avoiders? This money could be put into education which is vital for our country’s future. The pupil premium is a good idea however I don’t think Nick realises that pupils from poor backgrounds who wish to attend a leafy middle class suburban high performing school may find it very difficult to fully fit in and be accepted. Many middle class parents are snobs and whilst their children might happily become friends with children from poorer backgrounds the middle class parents will discourage it. They will not want their children ‘hanging out’ and going to the houses of the ‘wrong sort’. We all know it happens I have witnessed terrible snobbery from parents myself. This will only affect the self esteem of the poor child – I believe it will make things worse in reality. My 13 year old asked me a couple of weeks ago why the govt are giving more money to schools doing well and asked why are they not giving it to help poorer schools so they can do well? I had no answer.

    Re homophobic bullying – we moved our children from non religious school to a Catholic school. Regrettably my children tell me there is terrible homophobia in their new school. This is a relatively high performing school with a very mixed socio-economic intake.

    I think too having worked in high performing schools myself that Ofsted should be carrying out unannounced inspections of these schools- I know from my own experience that staff and support staff are redeployed (the plans have often been made months in advance) for the Ofsted inspection, problem children are ‘encouraged’ to stay at home or some are ‘threatened’ or put in ‘isolation’ resulting in Ofsted reporting on lessons and behaviour that are very often not reflective of reality.

    I know several people who are Governors of school and who report that in reality governors have little to say at the meetings and normally just ‘ tick the boxes’ and agree with the Head so lets be honest about the level of accountability/scrutiny.

    Schools can manipulate their intake which helps them look better than they are as we all know.

  • ok, I’m not going to be popular, but what’s the point of EMA? bribing students in staying in school?
    Frankly if the student/parents can’t understand that having a basic education (and GCSE is not enough basic these days) is good for them, I don’t see how £30/week is going to help.
    If it’s money they’re after, they can get any part time job that’ll pay better anyway.

    Anyhow, isn’t the compulsory age being raised to 18 by 2015? so the EMA will be redundant.

  • James Kempton 25th Nov '10 - 5:00pm

    Interesting comments on EMAs. It is worth remembering that LibDem education policy has been was somewhat sceptical about the impact of EMAs since at least March 09. And with the forthcoming raising of the participation age for education and traning to 18, the original role of EMAs to create a more level playing field in post 16 staying on rates in education has disappeared.

  • James, Sandra F and anyone else who doubts the value of EMAs: have you any idea of the financial pressures on families that exist on benefits? For a student from a family without an income except from benefits simply the cost of travel to and from college can be prohibitive to further education. It’s all very well saying that the problem will disappear when the compulsory age of leaving education is raised to 18, but how will it? The poverty won’t go away, the pressures to earn money, in the black economy if necessary, won’t go away. Anyway, the idea of forcing young people to carry on being educated until they are 18 was one of Gordon’s fin de siecle crazy ideas that could not possibly have been funded adequately even when the economy was booming, let alone now.

  • @Sandra F

    you ask what the point of EMA is but then answer your own question. Incorrectly in my view.

    I work with inner city sixth formers. There are of course a handful who abuse the system but must do not. I wish people would have more faith in young people. The point of it is to reduce the pressure on them to enter the workplace at the expense of continuining their education. EMA allows them to travel, feed and equip themselves; without this the funds need to come from the family or part time work; there are many families who put pressure on their children to contribute to family funds rather than continue to be burden. Without EMA many sixth formers will feel obliged to help the family at the expense of their own futures. It is not a bribe it is assistance.

  • @James Kempton

    perhaps but there are a few years to go yet before the higher age comes into effect.

  • Patrick Smith 25th Nov '10 - 6:25pm

    I suggest that this White Paper is progressive and stands up well to scrunity, if you actually read it though (81 pages).

    I noted that at the end of 2009 there were 183,00 NEETs : teenagers between 16-18 years of age, not in education,employment or full time training. This is 9.2% of the age group and surely must be reversed soon.

    Only 4% of the 80,000 Free School Meals pupils actually achieve the `English Baccalureate’ at the present time.

    There has been a lamentable drop off of Year 9 pupils signing up for modern languages, since 2000 and in 2004 there were 79% studying and in 2008/09 this figures has been massively reduced by optionality free-fall to 44%.

    One staggering revelation that we have at present is 575,000 (yes , no exaggeration) different kinds of vocationally related qualifications available : and still 9.2% 16-18 year olds not in training .Perhaps they are being baffled by the myriad of choice and titles of so many vocational courses? It is all just too complicated and ought to be made simple for youngsters to understand?

    Mc Kinsey (2007) said `The quality of education system cannot exceed the quality of its Teachers’ and this maxim runs throughout and underpins the excellent parts of much forward thinking Liberal Democrat driven Education policy that is well worth implementation in schools and colleges.

    The increase of the £2.5 Billion `Pupil Premium’ is new money and a cornerstone L/D driven policy.

    It will ask that all schools in receipt of this fairer funding mechnism that will help under performing and most disadvantaged pupils are under a duty to inform parents how the new money is being spent.

    I would ask for more detail on the stated £15.8 B. targeted spending on new school buildings as the clear task is to find safe and completed school buildings where pupils are not being made to suffer in the cold and drafty classrooms.

    The ability to predict rising primary rolls is also a key task to get right over the next school years.

    Overall I would give this White Paper 8 out of 10.

    A clear bloomer is opening Teaching up to ex-service personnel per se when Teaching is much more nuanced in many subjects.

  • James, I’m afraid I’m not an expert on LibDem education policy. I know that David Laws was hostile to EMAs and therefore probably drove party policy in that direction, but do we actually have a policy on EMAs? If so, is it one expressed by the LibDem Education group, or is it a Conference resolution? It seems to me that this is one of those “don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone” bits of social provision that was something that the Labour government did that was extremely well-focussed and beneficial.

  • The most worrying thing about the White Paper is the encouragement and expansion of academy chains. These are effectively privatised versions of old style LAs (pre-LMS), running a collection of schools. They employ their staff centrally and can move them around the academies, they provide school improvement services centrally, they share finance, personnel support etc. All of which may seem perfectly reasonable – except that they appear to be accountable to absolutely nobody. The individual academies may be inspected, but there is no provision anywhere for inspecting the sponsors.

  • I’ve got mixed feelings about EMA. On the one hand it provides valuable support for those from disadvantaged backgrounds who want to continue in 16-19 education. On the other hand the system is often abused: people who live in 2 households applying from the poorer one whilst subsidised by the wealthier one, people earning enough to pay National Insurance or even Income Tax in their spare time getting it, young people with parents who live off “unearned” incomes far higher than the £31,000 household cut off for EMA payments receiving the full £30.00 P/W, plus the phenomena of 16-19 year olds being shunted between short courses, which do not lead to proper jobs or add much by way of personal development, to gain EMA and be kept of the dole roll.

    In short it is very flawed.

    Plus, if the education and training “participation” age does rise to 18 by 2015 then EMA will become a little redundant as an incentive-which is first and foremost what it is.

  • @tonyhill & Muxloe: teenagers in full time education are entitled to free or at least concessionary travel in most places.

    After all, if they were able to be in education until 16, what’s another couple of years?
    anyway at 16, they’re more likely to be unemployed (and not entitled to JSA) so not bringing anything and if not, a few hours of part-time job, even at the reduced NMW, covers the EMA anyway. (now the fact that the NMW depends on your age is something I can’t remotely understand can be legal since it’s highly discriminatory).

  • SandraF – “teenagers in full time education are entitled to free or at least concessionary travel in most places”.
    Not in either of the local authorities that I know anything about they aren’t. At £1.60 each way on the bus that accounts for more than half of a £30 EMA for a start. And the poverty trap means that most additional income into a family on benefits gets taken back in reduced benefits, so getting a part-time job, while useful in terms of gaining experience (if there are any such jobs to be had) makes no economic sense.

  • Helen Flynn 2nd Dec '10 - 12:54pm

    I have read the whole of the white paper and find its focus to be very narrow and completely lacking in any innovationary tendency that would be worth of the 21st century we are actually living in.

    Though teachers have more ‘freedom’ it is only in relation to how they teach a very narrow range of largely traditional subjects. How is that going to equip our children to the challenges of the future they have in store? I am disappointed that the paper is so knowledge-based, rather than being skills-based. It seems that academia has the won the day once more, despite the fact that the traditional routes that relied on an academic grounding are being increasingly outsourced to China and India–law, accountancy, etc. There should be more room and outlet for true creativity as children learn, so that they can forge their own futures with skills and competences that they can use to craft their own paths.

    There is too much of the whiff of conservatism about this paper and, overall, it reminds me of a return to Victorian values, both in terms of the curriculum it advocates and the structures that the curriculum will be delivered in. It is lacking in both ambition and relevance to the challenging times we are living in.

  • “Though teachers have more ‘freedom’ it is only in relation to how they teach a very narrow range of largely traditional subjects. How is that going to equip our children to the challenges of the future they have in store?”

    Well, freedom is really being re-framed as freedom from local authority control – that is if you become a free school or an academy. If you are either of those you have the freedom to go beyond the curriculum. Hence, the proposed curriculum, really creates more freedom for ‘those’ schools (since they have a smaller NC they must teach, leaving space for other things), while the others are restricted to those core subjects and no more. If I were cynical (I am), I guess that’s a strong ‘incentive’ towards becoming an academy and an education system based on UK private schools (even Latin gets optioned under the NC).

    I thought the freedom most teachers wanted was from central government control, but apparently all the SIPs, LA support and the local accountability they offer are the problem.

    The rest of it is oddly contradictory. On one hand it restricts funding of ITT to people with a 2.2 or above, but academies wont even be required to hire teachers who have achieved QTS (that is, qualified as a teacher!). Teaching schools will be set up and teaching will become something akin to an apprenticeship. The proposals for troops into schools is laughable. The message here is to demote teaching as an academic practice and have people who do as they are told.

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