Wednesday, 7 April 2010

An exciting day in politics today - the election was called, MPs spent the evening debating the Digital Economy Bill, and I spent my evening following the collective rage of Twitter at the bill whilst occasionally posing attacking questions to my MP. However, putting these shenanigans aside, it's time to follow up my previous article - Analysis of Conservative education policies - I'm now going to look at the Liberal Democrats' policies in this area. Whilst I don't feel able to support a particular party in all fields, I regard the Lib Dems  as being the party which considers education to be most important. Paddy Ashdown, during his 1997 campaign, pledged more investment in schools, planning to pay for it with a 1p rise in income tax, and more recently, they're the only mainstream party which plans to scrap university tuition fees. Before I begin, I must also congratulate the party on having their policies very clearly set out on their website, there were three downloadable documents with reference to education policy, and a webpage, which was a stark contrast to other parties, who hadn't gone into much detail at the last check. One more thing, the documents used: 1, 2, 3, 4.

[caption id="attachment_322" align="alignleft" width="128" caption="Reducing and then abolishing fees for university students remains a key commitment of the party."][/caption]

The most well-known and probably both the most striking and popular education policy of the Liberal Democrats is their commitment to scrapping university tuition fees. I'm unsure about whether or not to go to uni, and a big factor in that uncertainty is that I have a natural fear of saddling myself with debt. Far from making it easier for the less well off to access university, Labour have simply taken away the free higher education that their generation benefited from, resulting in it being costly and unappealing to students like me who really aren't very wealthy. For some reason, I don't particularly want to walk out of university with £15,000+ worth of debt to pay off,  and, with fees set to rise, the prospect becomes even less appealing. The Lib Dems hit the headlines a short while ago for giving up their scrapping policy, but the sensationalist claims of having dropped it aren't true; they still plan to be rid of them, but within a time frame of 6 years, with a progressive yearly reduction in the number of people who have to pay them in between now and total abolition. This wouldn't benefit me unless I wait 6 years to go to university, but I still believe that higher education should be freely available to all, and if it can benefit future generations, then it can only be a positive thing. Of course, concerns about the cost of this are raised, especially at a time when "savage cuts" are promised, so I would think this promise could result in a reduction of funding in other areas or an increase in taxation, which is never going to be popular. However, I'm sure the legendary Vince Cable knows what he's doing!

Secondly, another commitment is the introduction of something the Libby Dems like to call a 'Pupil Premium'. Politicspeak aside, what is it? It's funding from the government, targeted at the least successful and most disadvantaged pupils - so schools in deprived areas can expect more funding. Schools will largely be able to spend this as they wish, but a key focus of this is reducing class sizes, as schools should be using the additional money to hire more teachers and support for students. This, combined with additional government investment, is intended to cut class sizes of students aged 5-7 down to about 15 per class. This a noble cause, but I must raise the question about class sizes in secondary school, and indeed the later years of primary school. Whilst I've been at secondary, pupil numbers have grown and grown, and class sizes have therefore increased. From experience, I know that smaller classes are far better - you get more interaction and help from teachers, and classes are much easier to manage. Furthermore, secondary school, for some reason, brings out the obnoxious, boisterous nature in some pupils, and disruption from them can really ruin education for other pupils who are generally on task and wanting to work and learn. I would suggest that reducing sizes for secondary schools should also be a priority, but the only party I can see with a credible solution to this is the Conservatives, who plan to allow groups of parents and teachers to set up their own schools with state funding. That's not necessarily the best alternative, but it's he best we've got aside from building hundreds of new fully state-run schools or opening schools completely up to the profit-making private sector.

I think I can fairly safely say that most teachers don't like the national curriculum, at least not in its current form. Originally introduced by the Thatcher government in 1988, it's generally seen as restrictive and overbearing, as it prescribes very exactly what must be taught and precisely what students should get out of the unit or section. The Lib Dems aim to reduce this burden by making it less prescriptive. However before attacking the curriculum too much, we should remember that it serves a very important purpose; if we didn't have it, the types of things being taught in schools could vary wildly, making the schools system inconsistent and perhaps less useful in some areas than others. Rather than total abolition the current state of the curriculum would be replaced with something the party likes to call 'The Minimum Curriculum Entitlement'. Again - what is that? It's not quite clear, but I can gather that it's basically a name given to a reduced national curriculum. They do, however, spell out a few changes:

  • The mandatory teaching of PSHE - Physical Social Health Education - like a more grown-up version of circle time, but without the conch to pass around, and instead of playing Chinese whispers, students talk about drugs and sex.

  • Increased compulsory physical exercise - 2 hours in primary school, 3 hours in secondary. I'm afraid you could never get my support on that one - I despise school PE. The very thought of running around a cold field in shorts makes me want to run and hide in a cupboard somewhere. I've had to put up with 2 hours per week until entering the sixth form, and that eventually culminated in an debate with my PE teacher about why it was pointless. If you made me do three hours, I would probably have ended up outright refusing to do it or hiding in the aforementioned cupboard. Perhaps because I'm obnoxious, but I don't come to school to be instructed about what sport to do, when to do it, how to do it, and what to wear whilst doing it. However, even I, with my movement-hating ways, can see that we have a growing problem with obesity, and it needs to be tackled. I'm just not sure forcing people like me who hate getting up off our chairs to go running around a field is the best way to ingrain a love of sport which lasts for a lifetime. Despite being subjected to forced PE since primary school, if it weren't for the fact that I'm blessed with my Dad's metabolism, I'd be a waddling pile of flab.

  • Better lunch - all schools required to provide time and facilities to let students sit and eat a healthy meal. Can't argue with that one.

This reduction in the curriculum also has a partner - reduction in testing, and using the saved money to invest in a rather scary thing called "Diagnostic assessment". This means a test at age five and at the start of secondary school to determine which pupils are likely to fall behind and require additional help. This sounds good, but since my year 7 CATs debacle, I'm always a bit wary of this type of testing. Despite having taken my CAT 5 years earlier, it was still used to determine my predicted grades for our GCSEs, which was simply absurd considering teachers know far better what I'm capable of than a test I took eons ago. Testing a child within the first few days of their arrival at a new and nerve-racking experience of moving to secondary school - especially if, like me, they went a school that none of their peers did - is a rather odd way of assessing pupils. No-one performs at their best when they're in a completely new and scary experience. Especially not little Bradley - little Bradley was scared and lonely and confused. If they're going to use systems like this, it should be used in conjunction with teacher assessment in class, because nothing beats a teacher's knowledge of their pupils.

[caption id="attachment_328" align="alignright" width="199" caption="David Laws - Lib Dem schools spokesperson"][/caption]

A more sweeping change is the introduction of the General Diploma. This is a qualification that incorporates GCSEs, A-levels, and vocational qualifications, and would be started at age 14. This is intended to give more choice to pupils and be more useful to employers. It is up to the pupil to choose their courses and methods of study, but I would suggest that it must be solely up to the student; there should be no requirements for them to study x number of academic qualifications and x number of vocational. Pupils tend to know how they work best - for some, that may be entirely vocational courses, whilst for others it could be totally academic qualifications. Don't impose any requirements - leave it up to pupils and teachers to sort out.

Another interesting and striking change is allowing students to leave school at 14 to enter college or work-related learning courses. There are clear benefits to this - some students just aren't cut out for the somewhat restrictive and prescribed routine of schools. That doesn't mean by any means make them stupid, but their skills are differently placed to others, and those skills ought to be used and nurtured if possible. When students don't feel comfortable or happy at school, they could end up being disruptive and generally making a nuisance for teachers and other pupils. If we can solve both the disruptive problem, and get them doing something that they enjoy and is useful for them in the future, we ought to jump at the chance. However, I have concerns that some students could use it as an excuse to get out of school, and then simply not turn up at college or their work training, which could end up with them staying at home and eventually falling into the benefits cycle, which isn't good for them, and isn't good for taxpayers. There would have to be a monitoring system to make sure they're doing what they should be, and if there not, there needs to be other options and sanctions in place to make sure they're in the right place.

An issue that I heard raised quite recently during Prime Minister's Questions - in amongst the shouting, screeching, and general crap that goes on - was that there is a discrepancy in the funding provided to sixth forms and to colleges. Currently, colleges receive less funding per pupil than sixth forms do, and the Liberal Democrats say there is no reason for this. They plan to increase the funding of colleges, and to pay for this, they want to scrap EMA bonuses. I fully support the equalising in funding, but I'm not convinced that using the Education Maintenance Allowance bonuses (EMA) to pay for it is the best way. Firstly, when they say "EMA bonuses" I'm not sure whether they're referring to the weekly payment of £10, 20, or 30 that students get depending upon family income, or the biannual £100 bonus. If it's the latter, Labour have already said they're scrapping it, so it's not that shocking, but if it's the weekly payments, I think it's a bit regressive. I must declare that I have a vested interest - I receive EMA. Whilst there are some cases of people cheating the system if their parents have split up by claiming to live with the parent that earns the lower wage, the vast majority of pupils do meet the criteria, and I am one of them. Removing our weekly bonuses takes funding away which helps us less well-off students to save money for the future and pay for school supplies. To take away support for the poorer pupils would smack of an old-fashioned Thatcherite hatred of socialism (sorry, Conservatives), with little positive benefit. I request that the party makes it clear whether they are talking about weekly EMA payments or yearly bonuses, because the wording the documents is unclear; the impression I get is that it is the removal of EMA totally, which is very disappointing, they ought also to look at gaining the money for equalising payments to sixth forms and colleges from elsewhere before they raid my EMA.

The final area I want to write about is the plans to prevent new selective schools from being set up. This legislation would stop new schools selecting pupils on any grounds, including ability or religion. Whilst there is perhaps an argument to say that preventing selective schools - especially on religious background - goes against the freedom of schools to choose and therefore traditional liberalism, I strongly support this proposal. I have long felt that faith schools are unfair; I do not think it is right that students are unable to attend a particular school because they have a different religion or none at all. It would be fairly easy for me to pretend to be a Catholic, but if there was a very good Muslim-only school that I wanted to attend - and I don't think it would be particularly easy to pretend to be a Muslim - I would feel very hard-done-by that I couldn't attend the school simply because I didn't follow the same religion. With regard to selection on grounds of ability, I also agree that it's unfair. Students who are less academically able should not be closed off from the best schools.

Overall, I think there are some very good policy proposals from the Liberal Democrats. I believe I have covered most of them, but there are still areas left which I have not mentioned in this analysis simply because it would take too long to cover them all in enough depth to be useful. An overall theme is handing back power to schools themselves - particularly with the party's proposal for an Education Freedom Act, which aims to reduce the influence and control that Westminster exerts over schools and colleges, as the party says that too much bureaucracy and micro-management of schools has resulted in it more difficult for teachers and staff to do their job. The keystone policy of scrapping tuition fees of university education still remains, which is very good to see, and this pursuit of fairness does seem to be reflected overall in the Liberal Democrats' approach towards education.

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