Ms Teather dishes out a dose of realism to the Lib Dems

23rd September 2011 at 01:00
Pet policies will have to wait for better times, she tells conference

There has seemingly been precious little for Liberal Democrats to cheer about over the past 16 months, despite being in government for the first time in 70 years.

A U-turn on raising student tuition fees led to nationwide protests, a referendum on voting reform saw the party soundly beaten and, to make matters worse, it suffered its heaviest defeat in the local elections on the same day, losing more than 700 council seats.

So it was against this backdrop that Lib Dem ministers were tasked with drumming up morale among their party faithful at this year's conference in Birmingham and shouting about what it had managed to achieve during its time sharing power.

Dutifully taking her place among them was children's minister Sarah Teather, MP for Brent Central, who loyally banged the drum about the party's crown-jewel policy, the pupil premium, which directs additional funds to children receiving free school meals.

Ms Teather was able to announce that the money for the pupil premium would be doubling from #163;625 million this year to #163;1.25 billion in 201213. A coup on the face of things, but in reality it was nothing more than confirming the existing plans of the Government, which intends to increase the deprivation fund to #163;2.5 billion by 201415.

This reannouncement was seemingly an attempt to appease the parts of the party that had put forward a motion - subsequently carried - for Lib Dems to back a new, extended pupil premium, called the education credit. The credit would be used to pay for a free computer, a free breakfast (as well as lunch), free transport to school and even free music tuition.

But speaking to TES, Ms Teather said the ideas, while laudable, were difficult to achieve in practice.

"There are lots of great ideas, some of which we're already taking forward, certainly around the parenting support," she said. "But some of those ideas are for a better financial climate."

Like her fellow Lib Dem MPs in government, the young minister used her speech to attack Labour's legacy, laying the blame for the "shocking inequality at the heart of the nation's education system" squarely at Labour's door.

"Labour didn't only waste money," Ms Teather told conference delegates. "They wasted the chance to make a difference for our children."

It was a combative statement, considering it was Labour that introduced Sure Start centres and extended learning to early years, much of which Ms Teather's policies build upon, particularly extended hours of education to two-year-olds.

Speaking afterwards, she pushed her point. "Labour saw these Sure Start centres as vehicles of the state and owned by the state, and they were very focused on numbers without always focusing on what they were really delivering," she told TES.

"I mean, if you want everything done by list and ringfence and press release, well, great. Congratulations to you. Your legacy will be a lot of fabulous press releases and no difference to people's lives. I guess if you're a Lib Dem and you've been out of government for 70 years you're a bit more focused on getting a decent legacy."

By being in coalition, the Liberal Democrats were creating "fairer admissions" than had been seen previously, Ms Teather said, giving excluded children a "better deal" and "strengthening" access to vocational education, as well as "so much more".

Just what more Ms Teather referred to remains to be seen, but it was a brave attempt by the children's minister to show her Lib Dem colleagues what the party had achieved during nearly a year and a half in government.

But if the Lib Dems want to show a "decent legacy" of their time in power, their tough talking will need to be backed up by more than just words.


Nick Clegg announced this week that he would be reallocating #163;50 million of the pupil premium to pay for summer schools to help "poor children" catch up before joining secondary school.

The plans were unveiled in his leader's speech at the Liberal Democrat conference in Birmingham, and come in response to the riots that took place this summer in cities across England.

The deputy prime minister said the young people involved in the unrest had "simply fallen through the cracks" - not just this summer, but many summers ago.

"We know (summer) is a time when too many children lose their way, so this is a #163;50 million investment to keep them on the right path," Mr Clegg said.

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