The uppity brigade learns to rebel responsibly
For nearly a century, Liberals could go into their annual get-together fairly certain that, at least at national level, almost nothing they voted through would mean much in practice. But as they make their way to conference in Birmingham tomorrow, delegates will be aware that they no longer have that luxury.
With coalition government everything changed. With great power comes great responsibility - and none more so than in the pesky area of education. At the time of going to press, not a single motion criticising either the academies programme or free schools had been proposed. Lib Dems will instead turn their attention to the pupil premium, their pet policy area and one that their ministers introduced to the Government's agenda. Expect much trumpeting of this achievement from the rostrum.
Members, however, want more. Indeed, the party's parliamentary education and families committee has proposed a motion calling for a pupil premium plus, or an "education credit". It would be used to pay for a free computer, free breakfast and lunch, free music tuition and transport to school. It would also include face-to-face careers advice and support for pupils to get work-experience placements.
"We want a more holistic wraparound package of support to help children fulfil their potential. This would help them right the way through their education, and would eventually give them support to find employment," said Baroness Walmsley, co-chair of the committee. "The education credit will be a natural development of the pupil premium. That benefit focuses resources on those who need it the most."
Funding for the pupil premium, which was introduced in April, will rise to #163;2.5 billion a year by 201415. It is paid to children eligible for free school meals and is worth #163;430 per pupil in 201112.
The details and costs of the proposals to extend this, which will go to conference vote on Sunday, are purposefully vague.
"This is a broad brush idea at the moment," Baroness Walmsley explained. "But it's not pie in the sky; this is all tangible stuff which can be done." Lib Dems hope that the education credit would eventually be expanded to eligible children up to the age of 19, as well as all looked-after children. Those who qualify would be from households officially classed as being in poverty by the Government.
Charities working with children from deprived homes have greeted the idea of an expanded pupil premium warmly. Anne Longfield, chief executive of children's charity 4Children, said: "Whether expansions in support for disadvantaged children are best delivered via a new education credit or as part of other existing mechanisms is an important debate and we will watch the conference deliberations with interest."
It seems extremely unlikely that the Tory partners in the Coalition will heed the Liberal Democrats' conference decisions, or will be prepared to cough up the cash needed. But perhaps they should remember that coalition government cuts both ways.
From Meals to Music: The Education Credit
Lib Dem proposals include:
1. Five free hours of early-years provision from the age of two.
2. Free transport for all below the age of 18 attending schools or colleges.
3. A free breakfast and midday meal if required.
4. Face-to-face careers advice and assistance with securing a work-experience placement.
5. Financial support to buy a computer and pay for broadband access.
6. The maximum musical instrument teaching eventually decided upon in the Government's response to the Henley report.
7. Access to the Healthy Child programme and priority access to locally delivered parental-support programmes for pupils' families.