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Lib Dems' Laws aims to level the playing field

Out go the academies, the 600-page national curriculum and central control over schools. In comes greater flexibility for heads over pay, cash help for poorer pupils and a new general diploma. Richard Vaughan talks to the party's spokesman on schools about its major education policy paper

The poky office on 1 Parliament Street, complete with electric fan heater, is a far cry from the yawning office spaces with floor-to-ceiling windows David Laws was used to during his days as managing director of Barclays Bank.

But the Liberal Democrats' education spokesman, with his side-parting and clipped speech, gives the room a suitable businesslike air.

The party yesterday introduced its first major education policy paper since Nick Clegg took over as leader. Called Equity and Excellence, the paper is also the first since a TES poll found that the party's policies were by far the most popular among teachers.

Equity and Excellence is no small undertaking: the biggest headline grabber comes in the shape of the pledge to abolish the academies programme. The controversial initiative has of late picked up momentum under the current administration and is one that has been earmarked for expansion should the Conservatives gain power after the next election, whenever that might be.

But according to the Liberal Democrats, the system is at its core an unfair one and, instead, the party is proposing the more balanced sponsor-managed schools - albeit a system with a less catchy name.

"We're not abolishing the substance of academies in terms of the greater freedom and the devolution of powers that they bring," Mr Laws said. "But these freedoms are restricted to only one or two hundred schools out of 23,500 schools across the country."

Instead, the Lib Dems are proposing a "more level playing field" where all schools have the freedom to innovate and, importantly, given the same access to capital as academies are afforded.

Behind the proposals is a devolution of power over such schools away from central government to the local authority. Mr Laws described the existing structure in which all academies were managed by one ministerial office in Whitehall as "unsustainable".

"We are looking for some consistency in the way all schools are treated, and for the local authority to be placed in the driving seat, taking on a role of commissioner that will have the power to change the management of an academy if it is failing," he said.

"The Government has finally acknowledged that it can't run what will be up to 400 academies from Whitehall, but we think it more logical to give local authorities the role of commissioners and abolish the academies programme for sponsor-managed schools," he added.

A new, entirely independent and depoliticised agency, which the Lib Dems would call the Educational Standards Authority, would be set up to take a lead role in overseeing local authorities in their new role. It would take on the role of inspecting not only the entire educational system but would assess standards, approve qualifications and oversee Ofsted.

Mr Laws said: "It would not only hold schools to account but also the local authority as commissioner. However, the local authority will only be accountable for delivering high standards in its schools, not for the precise way in which they do it."

Greater freedom is a theme that appears throughout the paper. The new policy proposes more freedom over continuing professional development, where Pounds 500 is provided per teacher annually. The party would make the General Teaching Council responsible for administering this.

"I think there is a real concern that CPD is just spent on telling teachers about the latest 10 changes to government policy," Mr Laws said. "We want to enable teachers and headteachers to see what they want to gain in order for them to develop as professionals and so they can keep up with the latest teaching practices."

Likewise, heads will be given more freedom over pay, so that they can attract teachers to work in more "challenging" schools or find staff to take on more responsibilities, set out through the party's pupil premium policy.

"The national pay and conditions rules are complex, and we are hearing from headteachers that they want a lot more flexibility over how they try and bring in more of the best teachers in to their schools," he said.

The Lib Dems would also throw out the existing 600-page national curriculum, which they claim is another example of government "meddling". Mr Laws said it was just another area where the "standardisation and centralisation agenda has gone ludicrously far".

"We believe we should spell out the major subject areas, but not what precise elements of each subject should be studied or how much time should be spent on a particular period of history," he added.

Which standards schools are judged on is also an area that would change according to the new paper. Labour's reliance on the five top-grade GCSEs including English and maths has become a limiting benchmark according to the Lib Dems.

The target placed too much focus on the CD borderline, said Mr Laws. A school's focus is concentrated too much on getting pupils up a few percentage points from a D to a C grade, so they contribute to the existing five A* to C target.

"At the moment there is no incentive for a school to stretch the high-performing pupils or the low-performing ones," Mr Laws said. "We would take the eight best GCSE or equivalent results and allocate a number of points to each grade. We would then ask for the sum of those results. We believe it would give credit and benefit to the school for each individual grade."

The paper also sets out proposals to replace the existing diploma model with one that encompasses all qualifications, both academic and vocational.

"The existing diploma offers a hideous range of qualifications, which many pupils think are too much of a risk to take. It has created a stigma of a second-class qualification," Mr Laws said.

"We want to see a general diploma where pupils can take GCSEs, Btecs and other vocational studies, making it easier to mix academic and vocational subjects, and so reducing the stigma."

All of this costs money, of course. Money that the Liberal Democrats acknowledge will be in short supply post 2011 when the allocated spending on education has been used.

However, according to Mr Laws, the Lib Dems hope to position themselves as the only party pushing for extra funding in education at a time when the big two look to "squeeze" cash out of the sector.

The party would scrap 10 to 20 direct-government funded schemes such as the National Strategies, devolving money straight to schools instead. Ditching middle-income tax credits would, the party said, provide an additional Pounds 1.5 billion in cash, while throwing out the Child Trust Fund would deliver an extra Pounds 500 million.

"After 2011, growth in public spending will dip below levels before 1979," Mr Laws said. "The whole issue of funding education is going to reopen as a major political issue. We want to be the one party arguing for cash in education when the rest are looking to squeeze it."

David Laws: the CV

1984: Joined the Liberal Democrats

1987: Graduated from King's College, Cambridge (Double first-class honours, economics)

1987: Investment banker at JP Morgan before being made managing director at Barclays de Zoete Wedd

1994: Lib Dem economic adviser

1997: Lib Dem director of policy and research

2001: Succeeded Paddy Ashdown as MP for Yeovil

2002: Covered brief of Chief Secretary to the Treasury

2005: Party spokesman for Work and Pensions

2007: Party spokesman for Children, Schools and Families.

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