EXCESSIVE TESTING is "squeezing the joy out of education", according to the Liberal Democrats, who this week pitched for the teacher vote by pledging to review the exams regime.
David Laws, the party's new children, schools and families spokes-man, also said they were the best bet for continuing the school funding boom that was beginning to slow under Labour.
He was speaking exclusively to The TES at the party's annual conference in Brighton as he prepared to launch its new "pupil premium". The policy, which would see an extra pound;1.5 billion spent on schools every year, is targeted at the most disadvantaged pupils.
The 41-year-old former investment banker argued from the platform for improved choice by giving all schools the same curriculum freedoms as academies and an end to selection by aptitude.
He also called for a fully independent educational standards authority to "replace the Government controlled Qualifications and Curriculum Authority". The new body would restore confidence in the exam system, spread educational best practice, and help England understand better how it compared with other countries.
Mr Laws said too much time was being spent preparing for exams rather than teaching and educating. "We need to look at whether all the testing is necessary," he said. "I am worried that the number of tests is overloading the system and squeezing the joy out of education."
He did not want to turn the clock back to a time without accountability; some testing was needed because it held schools to account and gave pupils an incentive to learn.
But he said: "The existing testing regime is excessive with some distorting effects such as encouraging schools to focus on borderline pupils. You have to design a system for every child, not just the ones that help meet government targets."
At the weekend, Mr Laws, a rising star in his party, was forced to deny that it had become little more than a think tank for Labour and the Tories to cherry-pick ideas. But the launch of the pupil premium during the Lib Dem's lacklustre week at the seaside was the perfect illustration of the party's predicament, as it is squeezed between its bigger rivals on the centre ground.
The Lib Dems were the first party to look at the idea of boosting school budgets for every disadvantaged pupil they took. But only a fortnight ago the Conservatives' education policy review revealed its plan for a similar "advantage premium".
Mr Laws said: "What sounds to me like a re-badged pupil premium is actually a very pale shadow of it."
However, the two ideas are almost identical and at first glance the Tories appear more generous, offering up to an extra pound;6,000 per pupil compared to between pound;1,000- pound;1,500 a year from the Lib Dems.
Mr Laws said the difference is his party is fully committed to its plan while Mr Cameron is still considering his, it is fully costed, and it represents new money rather than a redirection of existing funding. He also believes his policy will benefit a wider range of deprived pupils.
Mr Laws is firmly on the right of his party last year George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, invited him to join the Conservative shadow cabinet. He turned them down, but there was further evidence of common ground with both the Conservatives and Labour on choice this week.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, as a co-editor of the controversial Orange Book which in 2004 suggested the Lib Dems should take a more free market approach, he said: "Choice is not a dirty word but one of the essential freedoms in a liberal society."
But he told the TES: "There is a tendency for the Government to think diversity is something you can impose by prescription or by changing name plates rather than something you nurture by allowing individual schools to innovate by giving freedom to school leaders and others."
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