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David Laws on education lessons from this parliament and directions for the next

November 30, 2014 1:10 PM
In Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by East Midlands Liberal Democrats

David Laws addresses Centre ForumDavid Laws, Lib Dem minister for schools, delivered a keynote speech at CentreForum this week, 'Education: Lessons from this parliament and directions for the next'.

As the title suggests, it was a reflection on the Coalition's policies, and in particular the Lib Dems' achievements. But also a look forward to what he sees as the major educational issues and what Lib Dems should be seeking to do in the next parliament.

You can read the full text over at CentreForum's site here. But here's an excerpt in which David looks to the challenges of the five years to come…

Most teachers do strive for higher standards, and to do the very best for the children in their class. If you do not accept this basic premise - or if you are not prepared to show that you do - then most teachers assume you don't understand what makes them tick, and will never look to you for leadership. And, frankly, some of the very best people will look at the open warfare between teachers and politicians and simply decide that the profession is not for them. The question is how to galvanise and motivate teachers' instinctive desire to do good.

The right response is not to lower expectations and shower peoplewith praise for the sake of it - that would be patronising to teachers and a conspiracy against poor children and better education. All politicians will sometimes challenge teachers to do things differently. If the challenge is fair, and if it comes with a promise of support, most will listen - particularly if politicians can show a willingness to listen in return.

A future government needs to avoid the conflict that demotivates serving teachers and could actually repel some of the best people from this extraordinarily important profession.

A future government must work with the profession to make raising standards the joint endeavour that it could be and should be.

Raising Standards

So how should we pursue this agenda into the next Parliament? Let me start with clarity about the aim.

The aim must be an education system in which the overwhelming majority of young people, of all backgrounds, reach a good level of attainment. That means 85% or 90% of pupils, at each key stage of their schooling, reaching a set of standards that signifies a credible benchmark of international success. Let us be clear that this means higher than Level 4c at Key Stage 2 and higher than the current 5 A*-C GCSE standard. If the Liberal Democrats are part of the next government, there will be no backsliding on these ambitions, which are already embedded in our accountability reforms.

But of course, education is about far, far, more than exam results. It is about music, the arts, thinking creatively, sports, being a confident person and a responsible citizen. It is about securing the skills you need for life, whether that is age appropriate sex and relationship education, first aid or understanding of personal finances. It is a false choice to imply that you have to decide between a rounded education and a solid academic core. Children who have mastered the basics in English and maths are more likely, not less likely, to be able to flourish in these other areas.

How, then, should we support this raising of standards? Let me set out my approach under five themes.

  • Resources.
  • Revolutionising the quality of early years education.
  • Raising teacher quality.
  • School improvement.
  • And finally, what I will call "getting politics out of education."

Resources

Let me start with money. Money isn't everything, of course. Pour money into a badly run school with poor teachers and you will still have a bad school. But it is naïve and dangerous to think that money isn't important.

We have to be able to recruit outstanding teachers. We know that many interventions that help improve education cost money. It is no coincidence that some of our best performing schools are also our best funded ones. And if we want to expand provision - whether it is more places in early education or more young people staying on until 18, all this costs money.

That is why in spite of the tough economic climate, my party is making a clear commitment to education funding in the next Parliament. Not only will we protect schools funding in real terms, as we have in this Parliament, but we will extend the ring fence to protect early years funding and the funding of 16-19 education. It cannot make sense to continue protecting schools and colleges only up to age 16, in an age when education is now until at least 18.
Nor can we address the clear evidence on the importance of early intervention and early years quality if the real budget for early years is allowed to shrink.

We are the only party currently promising to protect all of the education budget, from cradle to college. For me, this will be a very high priority if the Liberal Democrats are in coalition talks in May 2015.

The Conservatives have not promised to protect schools funding, let alone wider education funding. They have promised to complete deficit reduction with no contribution from taxation, and indeed with tax cuts for the most wealthy 10%. It is extraordinary to me that a mainstream political party can propose that responsibility for sorting out the deficit should fall solely on the working age poor and the public services we need to build a fairer society. Majority Conservative Government poses a serious risk to the quality of our education system. Without money, standards will fall, reform will stall, and it will become much harder to recruit talented new teachers.

Labour, too, have been strangely silent on their spending plans for schools. A Liberal Democrat government would have the resources to expand early years education and improve its quality, to protect the Pupil Premium in real terms, and to ensure adequate funding of schools and colleges, right through to age of 18.

Early Years

That takes me directly to my second policy priority: quality in the early years. Much has been achieved in this parliament, but there is still a very long way to go. While there are many examples of excellent practice, too many early years settings which serve poor areas need to improve. And the early years profession has had too little attention from policy makers. The pay is very low and qualifications and status are lagging behind many other developed countries. This is despite the evidence that it is the early years that can have the biggest impact on later life chances.

In the next Parliament, we should expand early education so that it reaches all two year olds. But we should make as our TOP priority a revolution in the quality of early years education - particularly for disadvantaged children. We have already taken a big first step in this direction by announcing an Early Years Pupil Premium of around £300 per child per year. This is a good start, but not enough.

In the next Parliament, the Liberal Democrats would aim to increase the Early Years Pupil Premium to £1,000 per year per child - which would in full time terms mean that it would be higher than both the primary and secondary premia. We need to front-load our spending on education - so that we are investing early. We will also consider using our capital budget to allow more schools to provide on-site high quality early years provision, prioritising areas of high disadvantage.

The Free Schools Budget has grown very rapidly over recent years from a few hundred million to well over a billion pounds per year. That is almost as high as our spending on annual maintenance. It is close to the level we allocate for basic need - new school places. In future, we should target all new schools in areas of high basic need, and we should release some of the rest of this budget to build new nurseries, including in schools.

We must also invest in the quality of the early years workforce. We are lucky to have many excellent and dedicated staff in the early years. But we need more of these outstanding people. And this is not just about childcare. Many passionate people ask why they should teach in the Early Years when they receive proper pay and Qualified Teacher Status only for teaching in primary education.

In the next Parliament, we will ensure that early years teachers can secure Qualified Teacher Status and we will promote this standard across the sector. Alongside this, we will aim over time to significantly increase pay. Again, we will target these measures first on the settings serving areas of high disadvantage. By 2020, every early years setting should aim to employ at least one person who holds Qualified Teacher Status.

Teacher quality

That takes me to my third theme: teacher quality and professional development. Politicians are forever arguing about structures, accountability and the curriculum. Too little attention has been given for too long to those people who actually deliver education - our teachers.

Our schools are full of incredible teachers who work hard and want the best for their students. But we need to attract more outstanding people and we must do far more to invest in the development of the workforce. Bluntly, we need to be nicer to teachers and we need to invest more in them. Not merely because the elections are coming up, but because we cannot deliver good education without motivated and high quality people. We know that the quality of teaching a child receives has a profound impact on the results they achieve - more than any other school-based factor.

I do not believe that a free for all in teacher qualification standards is the answer. It runs counter to what matters most: high quality teaching. Of course, you can always find the odd untrained person who might make a brilliant teacher, lawyer or policeman. But I find it as bizarre to suggest that teachers should be able to teach without a proper recognised professional qualification as to suggest that a doctor or dentist should be able to practice on us without training.

I think the Conservatives have been wrong to insist that academies and free schools should be able to hire unqualified people to teach. And Labour were wrong to change the law on this so that the decision was in the Secretary of State's hands.

In any new coalition, the Liberal Democrats will insist on all teachers, including in free schools and academies, being qualified and we will legislate to give parents that guarantee. And we also need to go much further in viewing Qualified Teacher Status as being a process and not an event.

This will put teaching where it deserves - on a par with other top professions like medicine and law. We must do far more to help teachers develop their own practice and build a culture in which career-long learning is the norm. There is currently far too little high quality Continuing Professional Development to support teachers. I would eventually like to see all teachers benefiting from a minimum of around 50 hours of high quality professional development each year - just as happens in other high performing countries and professions. But we must first ensure that the professional development on offer is of high quality, with an impact on what actually matters: pupil outcomes.

That is why we must do more to incentivise and support good professional development. It is also why my party has long supported an independent professional body for teachers led by teachers - a Royal College of Teaching. We should make progress on this and soon. This can act as a focal point to promote evidence-based professional development and drive up standards.

We must also recognise that to create the space for more professional development, we must remove some of the things that are less important. That is why the Deputy Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have launched our "Workload Challenge", and I am delighted that 44,000 teachers have taken the time to give us their views. We will look carefully at the submissions and we will act to reduce unnecessary workload pressures.

School improvement

My fourth theme is school improvement. The mantra here under the last two governments has been about autonomy and structural reform. Some of this is to be welcomed. As a liberal, you do not need to persuade me of the benefits of devolving power. And many sponsored academies have made amazing progress in raising standards. Structural reform has been highly valuable where it has cut through complacency and failure and delivered better leadership and governance.

But I think there has sometimes been a naivety in both the Labour and Conservative parties about just what structural reform can achieve by itself. Changing the nameplates and designation of a school doesn't make much difference to performance if the same people are running the school.

Let's be honest and acknowledge that some of those schools that have voluntarily converted to academy status have only done so because they hoped to get a bit more money and sometimes because they wanted a little less scrutiny. Many converter academies are, as a consequence, no better schools than if they had remained under the local authority umbrella. And indeed the Department for Education has placed many hundreds of academies under close watch because of their poor performance.

That is proof, if needed, that changing the designation of schools does not automatically lead to success. Academisation itself is NOT a magic bullet. Now I welcome real school autonomy, provided it is within a clear and consistent structure of national standards - a guarantee to parents of what they can expect from every state funded school. But many academy chains have no better record of success than the average local authority. And we are struggling at present to find excellent sponsors for even the very weakest schools.

So if we are to raise the standards of the thousands of underperforming schools, particularly those requiring improvement, I believe that we need to do two things:

First, we need a clearer spotlight on the performance of the middle-tier and a more effective system to hold both local authorities and academy chains to account; and

Second, we need to make the so called system of "school led improvement" a reality that works for all and not just some.

Let me start with the first of these. At present, too much of the intervention around weak schools is left to the Education Department. Yet we have over 4000 schools that require improvement or are in special measures. Here lies an inherent contradiction in the drive for autonomy - it has led to even more meddling from the centre. But this provides a limited capacity for scrutiny which inevitably drives attention towards only the very weakest schools.
Regional Schools Commissioners are a response to this limited capacity and limited ability to micromanage from the centre. But they still cover absurdly large areas.

As a consequence of not putting enough focus on a middle tier of accountability, we are allowing too many underperforming schools, weak local authorities and mediocre academy chains to deliver poor education for too long.
Top down oversight, led by officials often hundreds of miles away, is allowing schools to slip through the net and contributing directly to lower standards.

Many chains and local authorities across the country are doing a good job in driving up school performance. But others are lagging behind, with significantly higher levels of underperforming schools. If all local authorities and chains were performing at the level reached by many of the better middle tier bodies across the country, we would today have over 2,000 fewer "requires improvement and inadequate" schools. We need a system which is far more effective at holding academy chains and local authorities to account.

The first step is to develop a more intelligent way to spot problems at this level. To do this we must produce clear and transparent performance information - league tables - showing how effective both academy chains and local authorities are in improving their schools. These tables should look at OFSTED ratings of schools, but also the extent to which individual pupils make progress, and the rate of improvement in results across the local authority or chain over time. We are working on such tables right now in the DFE, at my request. I hope that we can publish these tables before the end of the Parliament, but if not I would certainly commit to publish them if the Liberal Democrats are in the next Government.

The tables should include both local authorities AND academy chains, so that all middle tier bodies can be compared fairly against each other. These tables will show that some academy chains and local authorities are doing a brilliant job. Some are doing a mediocre job. Some are doing unacceptably badly - both local authorities and academy chains.

By bringing this to light, these tables can inform the next crucial stage in an enhanced accountability regime for the middle tier. OFSTED should inspect those local authorities AND academy chains where schools are doing badly; and they should rate all these bodies on how effective they are at improving schools.

I entirely support the Chief Inspector in his desire to have the powers to inspect Academy Chains, as well as LAs. I regret that neither Michael Gove nor the present Secretary of State has been willing to give those powers to OFSTED. I am determined to change this in the next Parliament.

We simply cannot let either failing chains or local authorities off the hook. Nor can we leave school improvement to chance, or hope that "autonomy" will prove to be the magic wand solution. That is why we must make use of another crucial weapon in the fight against underperforming schools: and that is, simply, OTHER schools.

We now have nearly 1,000 National Leaders of Education. And over 600 Teaching Schools. We are seeing the development of a "School Led System" of improvement, which I welcome. But I am not yet convinced that the "School Led System" is a reality across much of the country, with support often weakest in the places where it is most needed.

We should therefore be doing much more to encourage other good schools to help those that need to improve. There are still too few System Leaders, particularly in those parts of the country where they can make the biggest difference. And too many weak schools do not know of high performing schools with which they could partner.

Tough accountability means that head teachers presently have a strong incentive to concentrate only on their own schools, in order to "guard" their OFSTED ratings. And school autonomy could also mean schools focusing only on their own needs, at the expense of those of the system as a whole. A more intelligent middle tier accountability regime will play a role in addressing this, encouraging chains and local authorities to drive support to their weaker schools.

But we need other changes.

We should, in my view:

1. Refocus and revitalize the National College of Teaching and Leadership as a "National Leadership Institute" focused explicitly on identifying and supporting the school leaders of the future and on getting them into the schools and areas of the country where they can make the biggest difference. This cannot be left to chance.

2. Establish a new high profile, one-stop-shop 'match-making' website to help broker support between weaker schools and System Leading Schools.

3. Recruit many more system leaders - including those with a specific expertise in 'gap narrowing' - and pay them an addition to their regular salary. We almost certainly need to double the number of National Leaders of Education.

4. Reward and incentivise schools to take on a "System Leader" role by designating up to 2,500 Outstanding and Good Schools as "System Leaders", with a National Leadership Institute grant to enable them to build extra capacity to allow them to undertake this system leadership role.

5. Expand the Talented Leaders Programme, to attract many more outstanding leaders and deputy head teachers to parts of the country that particularly need them.

There is huge potential in a school-led system in which a more autonomous, highly qualified profession leads the way on improving outcomes. But we cannot naively think that it is autonomy alone that provides all the answers. We need to create the right supporting circumstances to create real and lasting improvement. If we can achieve this then the vision of a school-led system that can drive improvements right across the country can become a reality.

Politics in education

My final theme, is "taking politics out of education." I have talked about the need for some changes in the architecture of the Education System - with a new Royal College of Teachers and a new National Leadership Institute. Part of the justification for such changes is to strike the right balance between political accountability of the education system, and protection from the day to day vagaries of politics.

It is, of course, right that many issues in education should be matters for politicians. So issues such as finance, the nature of the core curriculum, rules relating to selection - these are all proper matters for public concern and political debate. But the micromanagement of education is, I believe, often excessive and damaging. There is too much change and instability. And in some areas too much political interference.

Political interference and instability can damage education, and it is right that there should be a degree of separation between some aspects of education and politics. Independent bodies such as OFQUAL and OFSTED do a good job, and their independence should be guarded. The leadership of OFSTED AND OFQUAL should be selected on the basis of competence, and not on the basis of political allegiance or pliability. The removal of Sally Morgan as Chair of OFSTED was one of the worst decisions taken by the former Secretary of State.

Politicians should be able to set out the core subjects that schools must teach. But they should not be allowed to prescribe exact works of literature which are or are not to be studied. This is a degree of political control of education that horrifies any liberal.

Commentary on issues such as changes in standards should not bebe dependent on politicians or a potentially self-serving department. And changes in qualifications, curriculum and accountability should not be allowed to occur with such rapidity and so little notice that the education of children could be damaged.

My time at the Department for Education has confirmed my view that we should establish an Educational Standards Authority, independent of the Department, which would be charged with assessing changes in standards and performance over time and overseeing the detailed development of curricula.

The next government should also set a very high hurdle for further changes to qualifications and the curriculum, beyond those already announced. Let us give schools the chance to implement existing reforms, before rushing to further change.

So my priorities for the next Parliament would be these:

1. Set incredibly ambitious targets to raise attainment and narrow the gap.

2. Protect education funding from cradle to college and ensure that this extra funding supports high attainment and gap narrowing.

3. Deliver a revolution in the quality of early years education.

4. Focus on increasing teacher quality, with a new Royal College of Teaching and a high quality CPD entitlement for all teachers.

5. Move all schools to good or outstanding by stronger and more intelligent middle-tier accountability and making the system of school led improvement work for all and not just some.

6. Establish an Education Standards Authority to reduce political interference in education.

In government, Liberal Democrats have made huge progress in raising standards and building a school system where everyone can succeed whatever their background. We are determined to finish the job. A stronger economy and a fairer society, with opportunity for everyone. This is what drives me, and I know it is what drives most of those working in education. Working together, we can, and I believe will, deliver it.