From first place to third degree for Lib Dems' Laws

26th March 2010 at 00:00
Last week the Liberal Democrats' education spokesman David Laws won the audience vote at the TES pre-election debate, seeing off Michael Gove and Ed Balls. He was later grilled by teachers on the TES Connect website on his approach to schools, teaching and the prospect of a hung Parliament

George: The biggest stress for teachers in schools over the past few years has been the constant changes to the curriculum. Do you plan to keep things as they are for now or to create more changes?

David Laws: We believe passionately in both more stability in curriculum content and much more freedom for schools. We would replace the existing heavy-handed national curriculum with a Minimum Curriciulum Entitlement. This would be a slimmed-down version of the national curriculum, giving schools much more freedom to set their own priorities, and it would also be a guarantee that every school would deliver a basic entitlement in key subjects that all children should have access to.

Nick Moore by email: The Cambridge Primary Review has proposed an extension of the Early Years Foundation Stage, postponing the start of the primary education phase until the age of six. On what grounds did you reject this?

David Laws: Formal schooling has always started at age five in England and it's more important that we have an appropriate curriculum and mode of learning for young children than that we worry too much about what a particular phase is called.

Steve: What role if any do you perceive for the General Teaching Council?

David Laws: The GTC has real potential value and there are issues about professional development and the policing of an individual's entitlement to teach which require an overarching body of this type, and which individual schools cannot be expected to resolve by themselves.

Chickensaltash from Twitter: Which educators who practise in the classroom help inform your policies on education?

David Laws: Much of what has influenced me since I became education spokesman has been listening to the practical experiences of real teachers and headteachers, rather than relying upon either political ideology or a lot of the rather unimaginative debates in Westminster. If I was to select one head whose achievements have most left an impression on me it would be William Atkinson at Phoenix School, and I'm delighted that his achievements and the school's were recognised in his knighthood last year.

Nina Casey: Would you make any changes to the current proposals for the new curriculum and would you be getting rid of all SATs?

David Laws: We led the campaign in Parliament to scrap key stage 3 tests and downgrade key stage 1 tests. We propose to reform and reduce testing at key stage 2 and rely upon teacher assessment with external moderation.

Laia from Twitter: Do you believe behaviour has grown worse in the past 20 years?

David Laws: Although it's tempting to view the complaints of teachers about behaviour as trying to "reinvent a better yesterday", I hear time and time again from experienced headteachers that behaviour and lack of support in the home environment have got worse in the past 30 or so years. I was originally doubtful of this claim, but the fact is that many of the social statistics suggest that things have got worse - with rising family breakdown, soaring child poverty and the UN report on child well-being placing Britain at the bottom of the international league tables.

Lee Brown: Lib Dems and Labour seem very cosy on education. What will you demand for education if we get the expected hung Parliament?

David Laws: I can see that I'm going to have to be nastier to Ed Balls in the future. The Liberal Democrats disagree with Labour's obsession with centralisation and standardisation, and with the Conservatives' failure to pledge to protect the schools budget. Michael Gove also has some pretty eccentric ideas - such as giving vocational qualifications no value at all in league tables.

While I will get in trouble with Nick Clegg if I start to negotiate a hung Parliament position in the way you're encouraging me to, one of the key four pledges that the Lib Dems have said they will fight the election on is a #163;2.5 billion Pupil Premium to deliver extra money to schools to help close the gap between the life chances of advantaged and disadvantaged students. We will certainly use any influence we have in the next Parliament to promote this and other education policies.

Hainez from Twitter: How would Lib Dems change the form of Ofsted inspections?

David Laws: The Lib Dems believe that Ofsted is necessary but how it does its job is incredibly important. We have to get the right balance between light touch regulation where possible but serious assessment and support where this is necessary.

I agree that the use of the word "satisfactory" is open to confusion and potentially demotivating. In my own county of Somerset one headteacher with 25 years' experience expressed his bitterness to me about having his school classed "satisfactory" in his very last inspection. There has to be a shared understanding of what this category means and whether a satisfactory school is on the right side of the inspections borderline.

I personally think that to have half of schools graded inadequate or only satisfactory either tells us that there is a lot of scope for improvement or that the classification system is seriously flawed. I accept that there is a real problem about the language that is used - because schools, like pupils, often respond better to praise than implied criticism.

rmsimonwilliams from Twitter: Should teaching assistants be taking on teachers' roles?

David Laws: No. The core role of a teacher is managing the learning of a group of children. There is good evidence that with the youngest children it is qualified teachers who add the most value. However, this is not to underestimate the role of the many fantastic and dedicated teaching assistants.

Marc: Should all teachers be trained to masters level as a basic requirement?

David Laws: No. A better-qualified teaching workforce is vital but this would be an arbitrary and unnecessary imposition and we might do better to invest more in CPD for existing teachers. by email: The recommendation of the Rose Report that phonics be the prime approach for teaching children to read is the most important step forward in combating illiteracy in decades. Can you assure us that this would be carried forward with real vigour?

David Laws: I am not enthusiastic about politicians telling schools and individual teachers how to educate young people - our record is not a good one. Decisions about methods of teaching should be made independently of politicians, and schools should be informed about best practice and about the alternatives (which will sometimes be better for individual pupils).

Marc: Should the academy structure be applied to more and more primary schools?

David Laws: It depends what you mean by the "academy structure". If you mean more freedoms for all schools, including primaries, then yes. If you mean welcoming new groups which have suitable qualifications in to the delivery of state education, my answer is yes. However, we need a tier of democratic accountability (which is not the same as interference) for all schools, and we need to make sure that the ability to innovate is granted to all and is not rationed.

Mark Robson by email: Neil Postman, in his excellent book The End of Education, suggests that clarification is needed as to whether education is about making a life or making a living. What is your view on the purpose of education?

David Laws: The first of Neil Postman's purposes of education is more important than the second - but a good education should deliver both.

Next in the hot seat

Further webchats will take place with Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, and Michael Gove, shadow school secretary.

Submit your questions to, via Twitter to @timesed, or by visiting the special Education Election section of our website:

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