More cash, even in these tough times

23rd April 2010 at 01:00
The Liberal Democrats pledge to give schools the freedom and the funds they need to innovate

If the opinion polls are right, Britain could be waking up to a new government - of one or more political parties - in just two weeks' time. Many people will be cheered by this thought, but others will fear that one set of flawed policies will sweep in to replace what is presently in place - with both good and bad effects.

If we are to make the right decisions to improve the quality of education in this country, we need to start with a realistic appraisal of what has been good and what has been bad about policy and results over the past ten or even 20 years.

Ed Balls has to pretend that the Government has got everything right. Michael Gove and the Conservatives argue, absurdly, that everything has got worse and that educational standards have fallen.

The Liberal Democrats start by trying to be honest. We believe that there have been some developments to welcome over the past 13 years: more money for school buildings and for teacher pay and recruitment; higher standards in many schools (not least in places such as inner London); and higher aspirations for every child.

But there are some huge challenges still facing us, and some Government policies which desperately need changing. It is unacceptable both that so many young people fail to secure basic levels of performance, such as five good GCSEs including English and maths, and that the gap between outcomes for rich and poor children is so wide.

It is also striking that the outcomes for poor children differ hugely across the country and between schools - highlighting the need for both higher and fairer funding, and for continued improvements in leadership and teaching in many schools.

Government targets and micro-management are also having a tremendously damaging impact on the education of our children. Innovation is squeezed out by central diktat; teachers are demotivated by the top-down approach to what is taught and how it is taught; and schools are in danger of becoming "exam factories" in which all that matters is crude league table scores rather than a stretching and well rounded education.

Liberal Democrats would want to make some major changes to education policy. In particular, we want to bring to an end the era of standardisation and centralisation which has reigned supreme in English education under both Conservative and Labour governments over the past 25 years.

We would, however, aim to pass only one education bill in each Parliament; not the one each year delivered by Labour since 1997.

Our first bill would be an Education Freedom Act. Out would go the hugely prescriptive national curriculum, and in would come a slimmed down minimum curriculum entitlement. Out would go education by central diktat, and in would come a freedom to innovate granted to all schools, and not just a select few.

Out would go ministers interfering on a daily basis in the delivery of education policy and in would come a new and independent Educational Standards Authority, with a remit to distance politicians from all but the big strategic decisions in education, and to restore confidence in standards.

The Liberal Democrats are not just arguing the case for more freedom for schools; we also want to back schools with the extra cash needed to close the performance gap between advantaged and disadvantaged.

Just as in the 1990s we led the political debate for more money for education - with our call to commit to schools the money from raising the basic rate of tax by 1 penny in the pound - we are now leading a campaign for new money to go into a pupil premium to help disadvantaged pupils to catch up.

We know that at present there is too little money to help schools with lots of disadvantaged young people to do well, and we know that half of all disadvantaged pupils do not attend schools which are funded properly for this disadvantage.

I am very proud that even in these tough economic times my party has made school and college funding its number one public spending commitment, with #163;2.5 billion extra per year going into schools and colleges through the pupil premium, from specific cuts in other areas of government spending.

Unlike the Conservatives, we are not talking about shifting money from one school to another. We are talking about extra money. Instead of ring-fencing education, we are doing better than that by bringing in new money to fund the pupil premium.

With extra freedom and extra funding there will be high expectations placed on all schools and colleges to deliver first class education.

With additional freedoms, intelligent accountability mechanisms become even more important. Sadly, what we have at present is "dumb accountability", which fails to highlight many schools and colleges with weak performance, and which unfairly condemns many teachers whose schools happen to be based in very tough catchment areas. We also have crude accountability measures, such as the five A*-C GCSE target, which distort the choices made by schools and by pupils.

The Liberal Democrats would scrap the crude league tables and would replace them with an assessment regime which takes pupil intake more fairly into account. We would replace the discredited five A*-C target, with its undue focus on the CD borderline. We would slim down the external testing regime, which is turning schools into exam factories. We would take all oversight of standards away from national politicians, and give the lead role to our Educational Standards Authority.

Freedom for all. Fairer and higher funding. Intelligent accountability.

These would be the principles underlying Liberal Democrat education policy. If we can put these principles into practice, I believe that we can go on making real and dramatic improvements in the education of our children over the years ahead.

David Laws, Liberal Democrat spokesman on Children, Schools and Families.

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