Imagine a world without Ofsted inspectors, where schools were not forced to become academies, and none were named and shamed in league tables.
It may sound like a distant paradise for many teachers working in England’s education system, but it is just the sort of future the Liberal Democrats will envisage if their spring conference approves a new education policy this weekend.
The committee that drew up Every Child Empowered: education for a changing world had been meeting for more than a year before former teacher Layla Moran was appointed party education spokesperson after being elected to Parliament last year, but the document bears her unmistakable fingerprints.
It is informed by many of the conclusions she reached during her years in the classroom about how schools in England are judged and held to account.
It is a detailed paper with a horizon that stretches from early years to further education, and it has a view to a future where artificial intelligence and robotics have transformed the world of work. Along the way, it addresses issues such as home education, mental health and SEND.
Layla Moran responds to readers' tweets about the proposed new Lib Dem education policy
The headlines it generated focused on three big beasts of today’s schools landscape it wants to slay: Ofsted, Sats and league tables.
But do the more detailed policies contained in Every Child Empowered live up to the promise of those bold statements? How different would a Lib Dem world be, given that inspection, assessment and comparison would be reformed, rather than removed altogether?
But before looking at the policies themselves, there is a more basic question that has to be answered. To be brutal: why should anyone care what the Liberal Democrats say?
After all, Moran is one of only 12 Lib Dem MPs, the party is stuck in single digits in the opinion polls and it remains a toxic brand for many following its broken tuition fees pledge.
One tweeter, James MacRae, said simply: “They’ll promise to abolish Ofsted, then when in power they’ll treble the inspections.”
'Moving the debate forward'
Moran has two responses, including the possibility that, who knows, the Lib Dems might again find themselves in a position of power one day. But more immediately, she thinks her party has a role sparking debate.
“Political parties lead directions of policy,” she says, “and what we are trying to do is to move the debate in a direction that we think is right for the country. I fully expect that other parties are going to start nicking some of it, and then it will be implemented.”
So, what about the detail?
While Moran is keen to discuss the whole range of policies contained in Every Child Empowered’s 44 pages, the sections on Ofsted, league tables and Sats stand out.
“I always said that if I ever get elected and I get hold of any kind of education policy, those are the three things that I really want to change,” she says.
The proposal to replace Ofsted was greeted with cynicism by some. Sean Coughlan, BBC education correspondent and a former Tes reporter, tweeted that “the Lib Dems have reached the stage in the political cycle where they're calling for the abolition of Ofsted”.
The paper cites concerns about the reliability and validity of Ofsted's inspection judgements, and “the negative impact of the inspection regime on schools, teachers and pupils”.
Ofsted itself complains that a lot of the document is based on “quite outdated information about the way we operate and what we do”, and the day after its launch, Lord Storey – Moran’s Lib Dem counterpart in the House of Lords and a member of the working party – went out of his way to praise how “very supportive and very helpful” Ofsted had been when he was a primary head.
The document talks tough when describing the problem with Ofsted, but the proposed alternative does not feel so radically different.
“We would replace Ofsted with a new HM Inspector of Schools,” it says, “drawing on the best traditions of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Schools”.
The outcomes of inspections would come in a “report card format”, covering areas such as attainment measures, curriculum breadth, feedback from parents and pupils, pupil welfare, leadership and management, longer-term pupil outcomes and teacher workload.
Moran acknowledges that chief inspector Amanda Spielman is already talking about much of this, but she denies that this or any of the other populist proposals are an exercise in headline-chasing: “I’m really purist about this – I will live or die by my values to do with this area."
Ofsted 'is too far gone'
She adds: “We thought about radically reforming Ofsted. The thing is, it’s too far gone.”
All schools – state and independent – would be inspected every three years, under her plans, and the current four grades would be replaced with “good”, “requires improvement” and “requires support”.
And it is this latter grade that perhaps gives a better sense of the area where the Lib Dems do want to make a more fundamental change: the consequences of inspection. The proposals aim to remove the “very stressful all-or-nothing impact of the current Ofsted regime”.
Forced academisation following an “inadequate” judgement or a dip in results would come to an end, and in its place, “the inspections process will provide evidence for the improvement partner, which they can take into account alongside all the other evidence they have of the performance of the school”.
The document says the system will “remain robust in ensuring that poor standards are not allowed to persist”, but does the emphasis on partnerships and inspectors building relationships with schools – carrots rather than sticks – mean going soft on failure?
Not so, says Moran.
“If it is an issue with leadership then that leadership needs to be sacked. There is nothing in the system we propose that you still cannot have that backstop.
“I would like to see some schools stopped from getting to that point in the first place, and I think that if you were encouraging schools to be open and honest about their challenges rather than hiding it from the inspection service, which is what happens, then you are more likely to identify the red flags much, much earlier and stop it.”
Abolishing league tables?
What about another headlining-grabbing idea from Every Child Empowered: abolishing government league tables?
It proposes replacing the existing performance tables with “a reformed system including more qualitative information about schools”, including performance, ethos, pastoral care, mental health support and the breadth of subjects offered.
But the Lib Dems would not stop school exam results being published, and there would be nothing to stop schools, journalists or parents using them to simply compile exam league tables of their own and ignore all the extra information the Lib Dems are calling for.
For Moran, the important thing is to take “the emphasis off the government endorsing the league tables in any way”.
Given that something like today’s league tables would still inevitably appear somewhere, wouldn’t the need to score highly and so attract pupils still influence how schools behave? “It’s a fair critique,” Moran says, but adds that Ofsted is a bigger force providing perverse incentives in the system.
The third of the big beasts Moran wants to slay is Sats.
The concerns raised in the document are familiar: teaching to the test, poorer quality teaching and concerns about the mental ill-health of pupils. The proposed solution is to “scrap the current high-stakes mandatory Sats tests at KS2”, to be replaced with “a combination of a moderated teacher assessment at the end of each phase and a lighter-touch standardised test to ensure consistency”.
It is a proposal that Moran says was one of the biggest areas of disagreement within the working party, with questions about how to measure progress without Sats, and how to avoid the pitfalls of bias in teacher assessment that have been raised by researchers.
For Moran, the word “moderated” is key. “You moderate without names, without gender, and you can moderate out that bias,” she says.
The policy document takes the party in a different direction to their coalition years.
As their critics remind the party, the Liberal Democrats were in government throughout the Gove era, and one of their leading thinkers, David Laws, served as schools minister for much of this time.
Always on the right of the party, he believed “passionately in choice and competition”, and said there was a need for “a stronger accountability mechanism” to prevent schools from coasting in areas where choice and competition do not work.
'Damaging and divisive competition'
In some ways, Every Child Empowered seems to represent a mea culpa for the party’s role in that era, talking about the “damaging and divisive competition between schools” it believes school league tables encourage.
Indeed, Moran’s first appearance on the Lib Dem stage came six years ago when she spoke against David Laws’ vision for education at the party conference.
“I was as nervous as hell,” she recalls now, remembering how she criticised an approach she saw as too data-driven.
“That was five years into my career as a teacher and I had stood up and said, ‘Right, there is something we have got not right here and we are not really addressing it.'
“I feel quite strongly that we are beginning to address it now.”
It seems she is swimming in the same direction as her party’s leader, Sir Vince Cable.
When asked last year by Tes whether Moran’s concerns about “needless competition” between schools marked a break from the emphasis on parental choice and academisation introduced during the coalition, Cable described it as “a change in emphasis”, adding: “A degree of school autonomy, treating headteachers and their teams as grown-ups rather than have councillors leaning over their shoulder, has been healthy, but I think the balance has gone the wrong way”.
"Choice" is an important word for Liberal Democrats, with their emphasis on empowering individuals to make their own lives.
Moran contrasts two different sorts of choice: one that seeks to harness parental choice as a market force to improve public services, and the one she champions in today’s policy document.
She points to its emphasis on schools having a broad curriculum where “the choice is for the children. [Laws] talks about choice like it is a choice for parents, a choice for the voter. It’s missing the point. What we are passionate about choice for the student.”
She concludes: “I think this is very liberal. It is much more liberal in some ways than the old system, which was about reducing people to numbers. This is about people deciding who they are for themselves, and recognising that in an education system.”
This weekend’s vote at the spring conference will show how far Moran has brought her party along with her as she seeks to change direction.
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