Professor John Howson, President of the Liberal Democrat Education Association, and a well known educationalist, is a good friend of mine and we have been comparing notes on our mutual concerns about the coalition's drive towards mass expansion of Academies and "free" schools. John is far more willing than me to give both a chance, given appropriate safeguards he outlines below. I trust these concerns will be taken into account by those driving these policies (at odds it should be said with current Lib Dem policies) forward -
I welcome the ideas for the Bills outlined in the Queen's Speech and the full statement of policy by the coalition with respect to schools, FE and higher education. There is much to commend in the foresight of the policies outlined. However, they remain to be fully costed.
I especially welcome a commitment to a pupil premium, although it is important to recognise that more work remains to be undertaken to turn an aspiration into a reality. I especially endorse the vision for the compensatory principle developed for the Liberal Democrats in my paper 'No child left behind' published in 2001, and endorsed in the motion to the Brighton conference of that year. The more recent pamphlet 'School Funding and Social Justice' published by the Policy Exchange think tank in 2008 provides an excellent basis for the implementation, at least in the secondary sector. Hopefully a methodology can be approved in time for the 2012 financial year.
However, the Secretary of State's moves on academies contains risks for the system as a whole. I would call for a cap on head teacher salaries to stop a bidding war breaking out and am concerned that the proposals will not produce a fairer school system that all Liberal Democrats want. I would urge Tory Councillors concerned about the effects of Michael Gove's proposals on academies to consider joining the Liberal Democrat part of the coalition to protect their local school system from being broken up without thought of what will follow.
I remain less certain about the arrangements outlined by the coalition for the organisation of schools. Their plans are uncertain about the over-lapping interests of faith group, parent groups, for profit organisation and groups of professionals, all of whom are promised a stake in the running of schools. I would propose that any group wanting to open a new school, or take over an existing one, should be required to pass the following tests:
The economic test: opening a new school should not cost the taxpayer money, especially in an era of falling secondary school rolls.
The management test: schools should be required to demonstrate they will not pose an additional burden on the pool of leadership talent. Thus, schools in areas where recruitment of school leaders is difficult or types of schools where there is a shortage of leaders should be required to demonstrate how they will be able to attract sufficient leadership without breaching the first test. The same test should apply to teaching staff.
The need test: Groups seeking to operate schools with restricted admissions policies should be able to make it clear how their school will not cause another school or schools to fail the economic test.
The priority test: where there are competing organisations wanting to open schools, priority should first be given to education professionals, then to parents, followed by faith groups and charities, and finally to for profit organisations.
I believe there is an urgent need to understand who has the strategic oversight of education provision, and believe that for primary education the present local authority should retain responsibility for schools in its area including planning oversight for academies. For education between 11 and 18, it should be either the existing authority, if large enough, or a grouping of authorities in an education board formed along the lines of police or fire authorities. Without some strategic direction, it is not clear who will have oversight of the needs of the school system over the coming years.
I believe that piecemeal suggestions for teacher training outlined in the coalition document do not form a coherent plan, and that the present attraction of teaching as a career is in danger of being diminished: the seeds of the next teacher supply crisis are in danger of being planted. I call for a comprehensive overhaul of teacher supply and training to ensure the necessary flow of highly qualified teachers into the profession: without sufficient teachers, no progress towards a world-class education system will be possible.
I welcome the acceptable of the need to pay good teachers appropriately, but believes that no changes to national pay and conditions should be allowed ahead of the introduction of a pupil premium funding model lest the aims of the compensatory principle be frustrated by the unintended consequences of a free-market in salaries and conditions.
I welcome the coalition's determination to recognise the valuable contribution of 16-19 further education, and the associated work that the FE sector undertakes in adult education. This sector remains vital to the development of a successful industrial and commercial base within Britain and, along with modern apprenticeships, requires dedicated ministerial oversight. I call for a minister for post 16 to coordinate all aspects of education and training for this age group between the BIS and Education Departments.
There remain many other challenges to the development of a fairer and more successful education system within England and I call upon Liberal Democrats to strive for a fair system that provides for all learners despite the severe financial austerity of the present age.