The pupil premium: it's the only policy in town

24th September 2010 at 01:00
With their party opposed to the Coalition's free school movement, Lib Dem leaders pin conference hopes on key cash crusade

If ever there was any doubt that the Liberal Democrats were in government, all one needed to do was look at the security in place for this year's party conference.

In previous years if a Lib Dem conference attracted a police presence anywhere near as large as was on show in Liverpool this week, it would most likely have been due to a couple of old party members sharing a joint in the gents' toilets.

However, it wasn't so much the hands-on approach from the security guards that ruffled the beards and pony-tails of the average Lib Dem delegate this year, but the fact that they were in coalition with the Conservatives.

And yet despite the party being in cahoots with the unlikeliest of bedfellows, this week was abuzz with optimism and even confidence that the Lib Dems could soften the Tories and make the partnership work.

Indeed, during the run-up to the conference, polls and surveys were showing that it was not so much the Coalition that was rubbing up Lib Dems the wrong way, but rather the cuts that have come with it.

By Monday, however, all of that optimism was about to change, when Lib Dem delegates voted overwhelmingly in favour of a campaign against the Conservatives' plans to create hundreds of free schools and dramatically expand the academies programme.

Despite all of the fixed smiles and backslapping that has been taking place between Lib Dem and Conservative minsters during the first few months, there has been an incessant grumbling from the Lib Dem grassroots over the Tories' controversial approach to school reform.

Retired headteacher and Lib Dem councillor Peter Downes had put forward a motion to oppose the new types of schools for fear they would "increase the social divisiveness and inequity into a system which is already unfair".

The creation of free schools, Mr Downes said, would lead to existing local schools to wither and die.

"The most disturbing aspect of the policy is the idea that the principles of the market place can be applied to state-funded education," he said. "Just as a supermarket drives the corner shop out of business, so it will be with schools. But when Sainsbury's provides some new products to lure people away from their competitors, the unsold items in the failing shops can be returned to the wholesaler or sold off in a sale. But not so in schools. Pupils are human beings, not tins of beans."

The party's parliamentarian members tried to soften the motion by rewording the majority of the policy calling for the Lib Dems to work within Whitehall to give local authorities a clearer role.

The amendment was put forward by Baroness Joan Walmsley and backed by MP Dan Rogerson, both of whom are co-chairs of the Lib Dem education committee.

Baroness Walmsley said: "I believe the most useful thing we can do in the interests of the children is to try to affect the way in which the Act is implemented, not tell schools and parents what to do in a top-down way - that's not very liberal is it?"

But in spite of the moves from the party's parliamentary brigade, members backed the motion, which was seen as a slap in the face for party leader and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.

Speaking after the vote, Mr Clegg gave a pleading speech to his party in which he asked them to "hold their nerve" and to "stick with him" while attempting to impress upon them that Coalition was "right for right now".

Mr Clegg said he was aware that delegates were worried about the expansion of the academies programme, adding that the motion merely showed a "passion for education" within the Lib Dems.

"We're opening up the option of academy freedoms to all schools because if one headteacher is free to run their classes in the way they know best, why shouldn't all teachers be?" he said. "My vision is that every school, in time, will be equal, every school equally free."

But it is clear the Lib Dem leader still has some way to go to convince a party to which education is a hugely important issue.

Children's minister Sarah Teather said she was "secretly rather proud and relieved" to find the conference making trouble even when the Lib Dems were in Government, and that compromise was "inevitable and healthy" in coalition.

Ms Teather added that while legislation for free schools and academies had been accepted, a key Lib Dem manifesto commitment, the pupil premium, had been agreed.

"Negotiation is something that happens on a daily basis when in a coalition," she said. "We talk about how to implement different pieces of policy every day. There is no doubt that free schools are a flagship policy for the Conservatives just as the pupil premium is a flagship policy for the Liberal Democrats. But the free schools policy was not the same as it was before the Coalition was formed."

The pupil premium is a policy that has been clasped on to and held aloft by Lib Dem ministers as a crucial victory during its negotiations with the Conservatives before a coalition was formed.

During the conference pupil premium became a mantra for Lib Dem ministers, who, it could be argued, have little else to sing about when it comes to education policy.

But despite its good intentions few people believe it will make the impact that the Lib Dems seem to preach it will.

Chris Keates, general secretary of teaching union the NASUWT, said any claims by the Lib Dems of scoring a victory in securing a pupil premium were "risible".

"The pupil premium currently being considered does not propose anything remotely like the pupil premium in the Liberal Democrat manifesto," Ms Keates said. "The swingeing public spending cuts mean that the proposed pupil premium will not keep pace with the rising real-term cost pressures in schools and will quickly be eroded by inflation."

And as one attendee, who was himself the head of a leading qualifications body, speaking off the record, said: "Are we really expected to believe an outstanding school, with great results, doing well in league tables, is going to risk that for a little extra cash that comes with a disruptive child? So what does this policy really mean? I'll tell you: more money for poorer schools - wow!"

It looks like Nick Clegg and his team have a little more convincing to do.

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