Can the Lib Dems free themselves from Gove’s legacy?Posted: December 1, 2014
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.