Can the Lib Dems free themselves from Gove’s legacy?

Last week David Laws set out the Lib Dem offering on education for the next election. For openers he told us that it has been “a pleasure” to serve in the DfE …. the initial reaction has to be that all the feedback from the department suggests that almost no one else there thinks that. It’s been one of the unhappiest departments in Whitehall.

Having said that, he found very little to disagree with in current policy. He took credit for things like the pupil premium, the expansion of free early years provision and free meals for all infants while graciously allowing the Tories the English Baccalaureate and exam reform. The main problem it seems was a failure of communications – Gove didn’t “take the profession with him”.

When he turned to the next five years, the content was as dry as the delivery. The core aim is simply to get more kids through harder exams (while still providing a rounded education). That way apparently will bring social mobility. There was no sign of any kind of vision about the world young people will be going out into and what they need to learn to be ready for it – nothing about the imagination, creativity, flexibility and collaboration that the real world now demands.
He had five policy priorities:

• Protect the schools budget and extend that protection to early years and post 16;
• Higher pay and qualifications for early years staff;
• All teachers to have QTS (one of his few quibbles with Gove), a big investment in CPD and action (undefined) on workload;
• School improvement which involved recognising too many academies and chains weren’t working well, expecting chains and local authorities to do more by publishing more data to compare how well they work and using high performing schools to sort out weak ones.
• Getting politicians out of the detail of curriculum and qualifications – I guess another implicit criticism of the Gove regime.

So the first two, no doubt desirable, involve throwing money at the system in quite substantial amounts – as well of course as what is needed to manage the increase in the number of pupils that will be arriving in secondary school by some point in the next parliament. Where the money will come from remained unsaid. On developing teachers and reducing the amount politicians meddle, few outside Gove’s circle would disagree.

But for the rest there was a deeply depressing inability to look up and see any of the really big issues that need addressing. This was the world as seen from Whitehall. The current demand across the political spectrum for the devolution of power away from the centre might as well be on another planet. The idea that a school system might work better if local communities played a real part in driving it was equally missing.

There was a basic acceptance of the current muddle in school governance and accountability. Some things, he recognised, were not working well. To put them right, the answer, in this dismal world, is more data. Local authorities and academy chains must be measured and compared. Astonishingly he could see no real difference between them – both are variants of the middle tier. The idea that local authorities are democratic bodies answerable to their voters while chains are private organisations run in many cases by Tory donors is not apparently of any importance.

School improvement for Laws will come through schools supporting schools. This is something many people would agree with. But it turns quickly into a one way street. Find good heads and teachers and parachute them into problem areas. Pay them a bit more. Give them and their schools a new badge to show how good they are – and so of course make sure the rest know they’re not good enough.

There is absolutely no understanding here about how change management actually works. No recognition that there are very few schools that have nothing to offer others and that mutual respect and shared learning are the keys to progress.

But most of all, in this speech there was no attempt to see the school system as teachers, parents and students see it. No recognition of how the curriculum and the testing regime are turning schools into a dull treadmill. No any understanding of how parents are struggling to navigate a chaotic admissions system. Nor any attempt to understand how the fear of Ofsted distorts the whole system and is driving good people out of the profession.


4 Comments on “Can the Lib Dems free themselves from Gove’s legacy?”

  1. Alan says:

    Regarding governance and accountability, within academies parents have no real influence over education (I resigned from being a parent governor in an academy for that reason). Furthermore, the Parent Governor Representatives (England) Regulations 2001 prohibits parent governors from academies from sitting on local authority scrutiny committees, whereas, parent governors from maintained schools can sit on such committees – for the time being anyway. The enforced reconstitution of governing bodies, bringing them more in-line with academies, is minimising the roles of local authorities and parent governors. What do politicians have to say about that?

  2. terryloane says:

    Your analysis of the situation, John, is spot-on, I would say. Politicians of all parties seem to have nothing to offer other than their claim to be better than their opponents at getting “more kids through harder exams”. Our politicians certainly do lack “any kind of vision about the world young people will be going out into and what they need to learn to be ready for it – nothing about the imagination, creativity, flexibility and collaboration that the real world now demands.”

    Frank Coffield and Bill Williamson have written about the need to change schools ‘From Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery’, and Paulo Freire observed that: “Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

    But I look in vain for any sign that any of our politicians (with the possible exception of the Green Party) have even the remotest interest in the sorts of imaginative and radical change that Coffield, Williamson and Freire advocate. The education system itself oppresses the young, and I Increasingly feel forced to agree with Freire both that: “an unjust order… dehumanizes the oppressed” and that: “the oppressed must be their own example in the struggle for their redemption.” Oppression is not, I believe too strong a word to use to describe the experience of the victims of the current system. And the politicians simply will not take the initiative to do anything about this oppression.


    Frank Coiffield and Bill Williamson, From Exam Factories to Communities of Discovery: the democratic route, Institue of Education, London, 2012.

    Paulo Freire, Pedagaogy of the Oppressed, available at:

  3. trevorfisher2 says:

    what speech are you referring to – the guardian had one reported last Wednesday, BBC are reporting another on their website. THe anti academies alliance tell me the Guardian one was not made available except to Lib Dem members, and the text is not on Laws constituency website,

    The guardian reported him as saying Local AUthorities should have a role in the middle tier, but this does not seem to be an issue in this report, so locating the text of the two speeches is important and if you have the texts please could you let us know where we can access them

    Many thanks, trevor fisher

  4. David Pavett says:

    I agree about the weakness of David Laws’ position. The problem is that it is not only the Lib-Dems who have difficulty distancing themselves from the Gove legacy but the Labour Party too, as Terry points out above. Labour’s proposed Directors of School Standards would almost certainly wrest even more control away from local authorities. Labour would leave sponsored academies and academy chains in place and would approve new free schools rebranded as “parent-led academies”. If all that is not continuing the Gove legacy then I don’t know what is. Besides, Tristram Hunt is quite open about his approval for much that Gove did. It is interesting to observe the floundering of the Lib-Dems but they are almost bound to receive a battering in 2015. More concerning is Labour’s failure to make a clear critique of what was done by the Coalition through Gove and its consequent failure to develop a coherent radical alternative.