After the Second World War, education policy became a story of two parties, Conservative and Labour, fighting out an ideological battle in front of a Cold War backdrop. Most of the time, this battle completely ignored the best interests of the kids. The tripartite system, whatever the intentions behind it, made the social divide worse. The introduction of comprehensive education was just as bad: it undermined schools that were serving their communities well, and caused huge disruption to pupils. Worryingly, Ming Campbell used his last appearance on BBC Question Time last month to give his wholehearted support to comprehensive education. Instead of setting a genuine Liberal agenda for education, he is throwing his weight behind one side of a dishonest political battle, fought by grown-ups, with children as their pawns – and he is letting the side down.
As a party, we need to come up with some new answers on this subject. The Liberal Democrats are the party of localism and decentralisation. We say that the right answer for Scotland is not necessarily the right answer for England or Wales. Why is it so hard for us to accept that the child who is great at English might be dreadful at maths? That the budding young athlete might struggle at physics? That the talented chemistry student may need extra help with art and crafts?
A truly Liberal Democrat approach to education should be centred around two key principles:
1. Kids are all equal. Equal in terms of the opportunities they're given, and in terms of how much we value them. Children have different strengths and weaknesses, and (although this may be heresy to a few fruitcakes out there) some are more intelligent than others. However, every child, regardless of capability, has an equal right to a top-notch education that will allow them to get the most out of their own potential, whatever that potential may be. A Liberal Democrat education policy would emphasise fairness of funding, equality of facilities and activities, and equal worth placed upon each young person, entirely regardless of their background.
2. Kids are not identical. They are not cold-faced communist clones, with identical needs and identical interests. The original (and extremely sensible) intention behind comprehensive education was that by creating a socially diverse environment, children would benefit from a richer and fuller experience. It was never meant to impose conformity and rigidity on pupils, the way it can do in practice. The school environment needs to be flexible enough to provide different methods for different pupils, according to ability and according to interest. If that includes streaming and selection, to make sure that kids are learning at their own correct pace, then we should be brave enough to go against the grain and say so.
Both of the old parties are happy to uphold the mangled mess of the status quo. Both Labour and Tories have chosen to avoid alienating voters, by avoiding taking a firm position on this touchiest of subjects. Into this vacuum, the Liberal Democrats should be leading the way with radical, and uniquely liberal, policies. Instead, Ming Campbell’s outspoken support for comprehensive education is merely pitching the party into one side of a socialist-conservative battle that has long since reached stalemate, and which only ever worked to the detriment of schools and pupils.
It’s time for a new Liberal education policy. It’s time for another way.