Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Enough ministerial meddling

David Laws

Teachers' skills and talents are under-used in the current system, says David Laws. The Liberal Democrats' policy is to free them to work creatively and remove many other bureaucratic constraints.

As the political and public debate is increasingly framed by talk of cuts in public spending, school and college leaders are understandably apprehensive about the years ahead. The public spending environment from 2011 onwards is going to be much tougher and this could undermine both the capital building programmes and current expenditure on, for example, pay and staff numbers.

One major challenge is going to be how to protect education - and to improve performance - at a time when we will be moving from a period of high spending to one of much greater public sector austerity.

When he became leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg made it clear that education would be his priority and the party has conducted a detailed review of policy in this area, producing fresh policies designed to help improve England's education system.

A key goal must be to close the performance gap between rich and poor children. We know that many of the poorest children are already trailing behind their better-off counterparts before they even start school and that they continue to fall further behind as they grow older. It is shameful that we have an education system which too often perpetuates inequality instead of tackling it.

It is clear that schools need more resources to help those children in need of extra support, which is why the Liberal Democrats are committed to introducing a 2.5 billion pupil premium. This would increase the per-pupil funding of the poorest pupils to private school levels. The premium would follow these pupils to any state school they attend, ensuring that schools taking pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds receive extra cash.

The money to fund this would come from savings that we would make from reforming the tax credit system, so that no school loses out. Headteachers know only too well how unfair the current complex school funding system is, particularly for those schools in local authority areas which may not be the most deprived but which serve pockets of deprivation.

The pupil premium would tackle this by ensuring money follows the most disadvantaged children, no matter where they are in the country. Schools would be free to spend this money as they choose and could use it to cut class sizes, provide more one-to-one tuition or to recruit more excellent teachers, particularly in shortage subjects. The extra money, matched with the freedom to spend it to suit local priorities, would make a real difference.

Government shackles

As I visit schools and speak to teachers across the country, time and time again they argue that to really raise standards and get the best from the pupils, they need more freedom to work creatively. At the heart of our policy proposals is an Education Freedom Act which would cut the size of the central department and prevent politicians from interfering with the day-to-day running of schools.

The key freedoms - currently available to only a small number of schools which have academy status - would be extended to all schools. This would allow all headteachers to be freed from the shackles of central government. The constant flurry of directives and new initiatives imposed on schools by Whitehall would end. School leaders would be encouraged and enabled to work far more creatively to drive up standards in their schools and focus on the priorities unique to their school.

With extra freedom must come proper accountability and we would want to create a fully independent Education Standards Authority (ESA), reporting to Parliament, replacing Ofqual and incorporating much of the QCA and Ofsted. This ESA would have real powers to stand up to ministers and would be charged with conducting random sampling to measure changes in educational standards and performance over time.

Ministers currently have far too many powers when it comes to the curriculum, qualifications and the management of schools. Indeed, the current education bill (the 12th in as many years) awards the secretary of state even more power to meddle, interfere and prescribe. Unless we have a fully independent regulator, the annual 'dumbing down' argument is set to continue.

Real freedom can only be achieved if it is coupled with re-thinking the current National Curriculum. It should be replaced with a slimmed-down Minimum Curriculum Entitlement, setting out the core requirements but offering far more choice to pupils and teachers. As schools and colleges are increasingly collaborating, this should also expand the options available to young people.

This should be developed so that, from age 14, students have a right to study at a college if their school doesn't offer the subject they want to study. Such a move would mean that all students could study shortage subjects like separate sciences, even when they are not offered by their school.

While collaboration between schools and colleges should be encouraged, the new diplomas the new diplomas simply aren't the answer. They are complex, poorly understood by parents, employers and pupils and are an administrative nightmare - particularly in rural areas.

There is obviously a problem with the way in which the more vocational qualifications tend to be held in poor esteem, but the new diplomas aren't the right approach. Making them compete with A levels and GCSEs has ensured that their future is far from secure. The frustrating element to this is that there are, in fact, many good vocational qualifications - such as BTECs - which are being undermined in an attempt to make diplomas work.

Sir Mike Tomlinson first proposed a much better model. A single General Diploma could be introduced using existing, respected qualifications such as GCSEs, A levels and BTECs as building blocks. This would be far less confusing and provide teachers and students with choice as well as a real opportunity to mix vocational qualifications with the more academic. I welcome the lead that ASCL has taken in this area.

Recruitment incentives

No matter how many structural changes are made, an education system can only be as good as its teachers. I have met many excellent and inspiring teachers, but we still have a real problem in recruiting excellent teachers into struggling schools - particularly in the shortage subjects.

The bureaucratic and complicated national pay and conditions needs to be replaced to give headteachers more freedom so that they can devise suitable incentives to recruit and retain excellent staff. Whilst all schools would still be required to deliver at least the baseline national pay increase to staff - and the basic minimum pay rates - the extra freedom, coupled with the additional cash from the pupil premium, would make a real difference.

But we should also invest more in our staff and this would include an annual continuing professional development entitlement for all teachers. With extra investment and freedom, it is right to have higher expectations and teachers should therefore have to periodically re-certify - just as doctors do. Not only will this ensure that the very best teachers are in our schools, but it will also help to raise the status of the profession.

School and college leaders are vital to improving our education system. You are committed to getting the very best from all our young people and our proposals are aimed at assisting and not hindering you.

Too often, politicians and their constant meddling stand in the way of improvement. But by setting schools free and restoring confidence in standards we can create an education system which gives all young people the best of starts in life, providing the prospect of real improvement even in the tougher economic times ahead.

David Laws is Liberal Democrat Shadow Secretary of State for Children Schools and Families.

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