ANYONE who knows me knows I’ve had a bit of an odd relationship with parties: member of none, I’ve campaigned for the Tories, had a dalliance with UKIP, and so far, nothing has stuck. So when I was invited to hear David Laws MP speak to Liberal Democrats on education, I took it. After all, why not?
It’s been a rough couple of years for the Liberal Democrats. They’ve lost a lot of support from young people over the tuition fee debacle, where the stance went from “no increases” to £9,000 per year. Clegg’s performance over this was admirable. Despite advisers warning him against apologising, he insisted upon it – explaining that he thought his original promise was the wrong thing to do. How many politicians have such a spine not just to apologise when wrong, but also to go against their advisers? That’s not all. When Clegg sold his constituency home, he gave the almost £40,000 profit he made on the house back to HMRC. When Osborne made in the region of £400-500,000 profit on the sale of his, he pocketed it. Clegg, with his conduct, demonstrates a sense of right and wrong that most politicians could never aspire to. That, essentially, is one of the reasons why I never wrote off the party, despite it not seeming to be a natural fit for me. Of all, the Liberal Democrats represented something more moral, more substantial: to quote Matt Sanders, Lib Dem Councillor and Special Adviser in Education who spoke before Laws: the Lib Dems had a goal to show “how politics can be done differently”. With actions like Clegg’s, you can see that they’re taking that to heart.
There were some things this evening that I can’t say sat very well with me – but for the most part, I could see why education is something the Liberal Democrats are doing so well on. They have all the right priorities – using education as a means to “reset the playing field”. Their aim of removing the correlation between “disadvantage” and “poor results” is being realised, but they neither say, nor should they, that they don’t have an awful lot of work to do to ensure that the trend continues to go on the way it is under this Coalition. They want to eradicate the attainment gap between children of different backgrounds – good. Nothing is more valuable to a child than a good education. Nothing else will take them up in the world to the same extent good qualifications, good knowledge, and good foundations in understanding can. Whilst the socialist Left call for income redistribution to redress the imbalance, many (myself included) have argued that the effect of shifting money around is limited – educational opportunities can give you unlimited effects. It’s the best goal to pursue – and the Lib Dems have put their best foot forward with education.
Laws was right to argue that past decades have left a “gulf” in prospects between rich and poor. He’s right to argue that this is unacceptable. However, the tone when referring to grammar schools is not something I empathise with. As a ex-grammar school pupil, I can say this for my experience: pushy parents helps, but at schools like these, the teachers will push you too – they know what you’re capable of and they’ll go out of their way to help you attain it. Putting high-achievers in one place so they can learn from, and push, one another creates a good atmosphere for those children that others wouldn’t appreciate. I would argue that it is common sense, and good policy, to seek to elevate all schools to the status of grammar schools, not that we seek to diminish the huge effects that grammar schools have on children because of their “elitism”. Grammar schools work well because they have children of a similar ability range. It’s not elitist, it’s good education policy. That’s not to say a policy of only grammar schools works but it is to say that they should be an object of analysis and admiration for the most part. I felt that element of the discussion when grammar schools were mentioned was lacking.
The emphasis on empowering the individual
There are two things, however, that having heard about them this evening, is giving me food for thought on a personal level with regards to this party. Firstly: the emphasis on empowering the individual. I was sitting next to a lady who is a volunteer at the Citizens Advice Bureau. She explained that in her view, it was important to empower individuals to make choices for themselves, to encourage them “to do what they want to do, rather than telling them what to do” – essentially, to remove the barriers and restrictions (including a lack of information) that prevents people taking control of their own lives. Laws echoed this very sentiment. He presented the case that a good education gives people the right start to “succeed in life themselves”. I couldn’t agree more. Education must do two things – it must help the individual gain skills to advance their station should they so desire, and it must enable people to control as much of their own life as possible through informed decision making. It was reassuring to see the Liberal Democrats agree.
Secondly, was the analysis Laws gave of where there are failings – one large one of note. In a preoccupation to achieve the A*-C grade requirements, schools are helping children at D grades move to C grades. Limited, if any, effort in some schools is being made to move C grades to B or B grades to A. Children getting E or F grades can be sidelined completely. Giving a school metrics to achieve cannot lead to schools only caring that those metrics look good. A system which entrenches “satisfactory” Cs without encouraging children to aspire to higher is good for nobody, not the economy, not society, least of all the child. It’s appalling, and shocking, that it happens. But it does. At least someone’s taking note.
Most of us feel shoehorned into the Conservatives
An evening listening to the Liberal Democrats serenade me on their education policy hasn’t got me at my laptop signing up, but it’s piqued my interest. They’ve definitely edged into first place. I’ve said before that us liberal/libertarian types need to join parties in order to push forward with policies we like – work within the political framework, to change the political framework. An evening with the likes of David Laws, listening to what are almost certainly considered “classical liberal” thoughts, and hearing how their aspirations for children’s education effectively match mine leads me to recommend this: head along. Just listen. Most of us feel shoehorned into the Conservatives, and whether you end up liking the Lib Dems or not (after all, this is just education policy, there’s a lot more to them!), one thing I’d vouch for is that they offer a meaningful alternative to the Conservative Party for our kind of thinker.
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