Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Education policy under the Liberal Democrats

David Laws

The last Leader looked at the future of education under a Conservative government. This month we review the Liberal Democrat's education policy.

A TES recent survey ran with the headline 'Lib Dem policies most in tune with teachers' aims' (19 Sept 08). One of the most popular Lib Dem policies (and ASCL policy objective) was the promise to scrap Key Stage 3 SATs. Now that the Brown Labour government has done this, what would the Liberal Democrats change in education?

Perhaps most significant is the Lib Dem proposal to redirect power away from central government by cutting the DCSF by half and confining its remit to setting broad strategic goals and upholding the legal framework in which schools and colleges operate.

At its party conference this autumn, leader Nick Clegg went even further saying "ministers would have to stop sending their regular diet of directives and diktats to schools. In fact I'd ban them from doing it - with an Education Freedom Act."

Alongside a slimmed-down DCSF they propose creating a fully independent Educational Standards Authority to replace the government-controlled QCA (to be divided into Ofqual and QCDA in the Education and Skills Bill 2009), a policy supported by ASCL.

This would be a powerful body with independent oversight over exam standards and would incorporate Ofsted's responsibility for inspection, as well as commissioning and disseminating research on good educational practices to schools and colleges.

A fair funding settlement for all institutions would close the funding gap between school sixth forms and FE colleges, which ASCL has campaigned for. Like the Conservatives, they would introduce a 'pupil premium' which, Lib Dems say, will significantly boost funding for the poorest pupils.

David Laws, the Lib Dem shadow minister for education (left), says his party would not dictate how schools spend the extra money but that they strongly favour cutting class sizes, more one-to-one tuition, financial incentives for teachers to work in the most challenging schools and extended schools with shorter summer holidays and Saturday opening, thus increasing the amount of teaching time.

The party promises to fund suitably qualified English, maths, sciences, foreign language and ICT teachers in all secondary schools and to abolish 'F' and 'G' grades at GCSE. It would also establish an overarching general diploma, as recommended in ASCL policy.

Academies would be replaced with a new model of sponsored schools, with strategic local authority oversight. Legislation would enable parents, charities and private companies set up state funded 'free schools', but these would be required to accept overarching admissions policies and the minimum curriculum standards.

Lib Dem rhetoric on admissions has little to differentiate it from the other parties, with the view that parents must be empowered to choose their child's school, contrary to the ASCL position that in reality parents can only express a preference and, with a fixed number of places, choice cannot be fulfilled for all.

David Laws is clear however, that schools must be prevented from selecting pupils and has pledged to remove selection from academies, and specialist, trust and foundation schools. Admissions would be overseen by local authorities which would be given greater financial freedom and powers to add to national funding.

On the curriculum the Liberal Democrats say they would allow more innovation and a more personalised education and give every school the freedoms currently enjoyed by academies. David Laws told his party's conference in September "the national curriculum is suffocatingly detailed and prescriptive" and said his party would replace it with a much shorter document - a policy sure to find approval with a majority of ASCL members.

Anna Cole, ASCL parliamentary specialist

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