A penny for our thoughts

25th May 2001 at 01:00
While even one person still leaves school unable to read or write the system has failed. But with the right political strategy that just won't happen, claims Phil Willis

WHILE education has become a bit of a political football over recent weeks, I make no apologies for being pleased education has remained top of the agenda.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says everyone has the right to an education, but I believe that in a modern industrialised nation we must promise more. Everyone should have the right to a high-quality education and be able to access that education throughout their lifetime.

One of the most damning reports published on our educational record was Claus Moser's report which revealed that a fifth of adults were both functionally illiterate and innumerate. If I were to outline my vision for the future it would be that we must raise educational standards to a point where no one would get to adult life and not be able to find a plumber in a phone book. While it is right to celebrate the educational achievements of our university leavers and the increasing number of children gaining GCSE and A-levels, as long as we have even one child leaving education disaffected and without any skills or qualifications, we have failed.

Creating that educational opportunity for all, not just the selected few, requires investment, coherent planning and trust in the professional judgment of those who are to provide it.

The Liberal Democrats are willing to provide that investment. By placing a penny on the basic rate of income tax and spending the additional income solely on education, we can make real progress in improving quality and creating opportunities for all. This additional stream of funding would see a guaranteed extra pound;3 billion invested in schools, colleges and universities every year, over and above government spending levels.

Our opponents have said that our proposals would cost more than the income of the penny. Yet independent scrutiny of our costings has confirmed our honesty, and proved that our sums do add up.

The Liberal Democrats are willing to look at long-term planning in education rather than focusing on short-term populism. It was because of long-term planning by Liberal Democrat-controlled local education authorities that we were able to recognise the recruitment and retention problem facing schools several years ago. Thus, we first advocated paying training bursaries for trainee teachers in September 1998 - a policy whch Labour did not adopt until March 2000. To address the now more serious situation, and to ensure that we do not see a repeat of these problems in future years, we now believe a full pro-rata training salary with employee benefits is necessary to guarantee an adequate supply of new recruits to the profession.

In the long term we want to bring primary class sizes down to an average of 25 and fund 5,000 additional teachers for our secondary schools. These commitments are in addition to Labour's proposals that do no more than cope with rising pupil numbers. Our investment will help make a real difference in every classroom.

As an ex-teacher myself I believe passionately that we need to return creativity to our classrooms to instil ambition and enthusiasm in the next generation. For this reason, the Liberal Democrats are proposing to replace the overly-prescriptive national curriculum with a minimum curriculum entitlement. By allowing schools to offer a broad and balanced curriculum, teachers will have greater freedom to do the part of the job they enjoy (which is never the endless paperwork), and pupils will be moving away from feeling like factory-fodder on a never-ending conveyor belts of tests.

The Liberal Democrats are also willing to put faith in those we have trained to teach our children. This is not just political rhetoric but a real belief in the value of public services. Both Labour and the Conservatives have spent far too much time bashing public services when they should be backing them. That is why, in addition to giving teachers greater professional freedom with the curriculum, we will replace performance-related pay with a system of pay increases linked to continuous professional development. This will remove the bureaucratic overload which the PRP system created and ease the divisions that it caused in staffrooms.

Labour's record to date on education shows a poverty of ambition which has failed to make any real inroads into the social inequities that scar our landscape. The Conservative proposals for our schools are, as can only be expected, very much for the few rather than the many.

A quality education can make a real difference to someone's life and teachers are fundamental to creating that opportunity for all. The Liberal Democrats believe that by investing seriously, we can create a world-class education system for Britain founded on the belief that every child matters.

Phil Willis is Liberal Democrat education spokesperson

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