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Why Liberal Democrats oppose the Cameron government’s education reforms

April 7, 2016 9:47 AM
By Jamie Dalzell in Liberal Democrat Voice
Originally published by South Lincolnshire Liberal Democrats

The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society. For our party, a strong education system, freely available to all, is the key to building the society we strive towards.

This year, David Cameron's government has announced an extensive programme of reform to the British school system, including the much publicised forced conversion of all schools to academy status, the resulting abolition of the Local Education Authorities, the removal of Qualified Teacher Status (QTS), the end of parent governors and the extension of the school day.

Currently any opposition to the education reforms are being attacked by Nicky Morgan's Department for Education as "playing politics with our children's future". This comes despite these sweeping reforms having been brought forward with almost no consultation with teachers or with parents. The scale of these reforms were not included within the 2015 Conservative General Election manifesto and therefore there is no clear mandate.

Liberal Democrats are committed to strengthening the democratic process and ensuring that there is a just and representative system of government. The Cameron government appears to be showing a total disregard for our democratic processes. This alone gives our liberal party ample reason to oppose these reforms until they have been subject to proper consultation and discussion.

However, reviewing the basis and impact of the proposals raises further significant concerns.

One of the major impacts of forced academisation is that our County Councils will no longer have any involvement in running schools. The Local Education Authorities will be abolished and all monitoring and funding will be managed centrally by the Department for Education. At the same time, they are also seeking to abolish parent governors.

Liberal Democrats believe that people should be involved in running their communities and we are committed to empowering local government. By centralising control of our schools, the Cameron government will significantly undermine accountability; your MP is going to have a lot less influence on the Department of Education than your County Councillor had with the local authority. Without proper scrutiny, bad things tend to happen and we are already beginning to see this within existing academies as illustrated by the financial indiscretions of the Perry Beeches academies trust that came to light this week.

The Cameron government argues that these changes will raise standards and ensure "excellence everywhere". They have very little data to support these claims. There are undoubtedly some great academies, led by superb teachers and providing excellent education. However, current academic research is far from conclusive on the benefits of academy status and many studies contradict the government assertions. For example, recently the National Audit Office found that informal interventions such as local support were more effective than academy conversion.

As a party, we believe that policy decisions should built on a foundation of evidence. The government cannot provide data to support their disruptive reforms. They are also ignoring the expertise and knowledge of concerned teachers and governors, which in itself is strong evidence that further review is required. School leaders have had the opportunity (and added incentives) to convert for some time and yet many, particularly in primary schools, have taken informed decisions to resist academisation. It does seem staggering how quickly the Cameron government appears to ignore 'free market' principles when they undermine their own half-baked ideas.

The move towards universal academisation is just one way in which the current government is removing choice, and therefore diversity, from our education system. They have also announced a complete rehaul of teacher training, with the closure of PGCE routes and the end of Qualified Teacher Status (QTS).

As a liberal party, we aim to foster diversity and to nurture creativity. Diversity provides more solutions to more problems and should be embraced. We are therefore intrinsically opposed to any policy which removes options unless absolutely necessary. The PGCE route into teaching has been highly successful, providing many trainee teachers with experience from a broader range of schools and a wider professional network when they begin their careers. School based teacher training routes should not be discouraged, but should not become the only choice. Meanwhile Qualified Teacher Status does provide assurance as to the ability of teachers and it is actually academies, who do not have to employ QTS teachers, which open the door to the erosion of teacher standards

It is also worth noting that although Nicky Morgan has publicly commented that QTS can be awarded after only 120 days of classroom experience, non-academy schools can only employ teachers that also pass their subsequent induction year with an additional 189 days of experience. Only academies could employ people who failed this induction. When discussing QTS, this is either a significant oversight by the Minister of Education or a deliberate effort to mislead the British public.

Overall, there are many reasons to be deeply concerned by the Cameron government's proposed education reforms and there are many unanswered questions as to the long-term impact of a system where schools can set their own entrance criteria, are competing for graduates and have little accountability to their local communities. However there does appear to be a significant risk that this will lead to a more divided society which fails to bring opportunity to its most deprived communities.

As Liberal Democrats we will not allow that to happen.

* Jamie Dalzell is a Cambridge based member and activist and Membership Development Officer for the city from January 2016.

John Marriott Lincoln, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Fine words, Jamie. Is that you talking or is that party policy? You need to join in the thread started by Mary Reid a few days ago about the underachievement of white students as compared with those from an ethnic background. Had you done so, as well as reading my own recent article on the nationalisation of our state schools and the comments that ensued, you will have seen that some of us are way ahead of you!