Monday, 11 December 2006

Why Ming is letting the side down on Education

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.


Pythagoras said...

I have just listened to "Mid-day" Radio 4 where they were exploring the scheduling of education & the allocation of secondary school places in Brighton. They have come up with the idea of distributing the brain power across the city such that schools can only take eg. 20% of the most able pupils, 30% of the next ablest etc. even if the catchment area provides them with a much greater pecentages at the top end of the abilty spectrum. The remainder would be bussed out (literally) to provide the necessary brain power in less advantaged schools.They think this will bring the standards up in the lower performance schools, and increase the parental buy in. Think again have they never heard of peer pressure, conformity and dilution.

Liberal Neil said...

Seems to me that Comprehensive Schhols, properly resourced, would be a pretty good systme based on your two key principles.

Do you have any real evidence that the introduction of the Comprehensive system damaged existing good schools?

Jonny Wright said...

I don't disagree with you - reforming the current comprehensive schools, giving them the right resources, and coming up with procedures to allow streaming by subject and better flexibility, would be a very good system based on my key principles. My question is: why is the Lib Dem leadership not coming up with some detailed policy along these lines? I'm not in any way trying to undermine schools of any kind that are doing well, but I would like a policy lead from Ming, rather than a defence of the status quo.

As for the introduction of the comprehensive system - when the (equally unfair) tripartite system was ended, high-achieving grammar schools were merged with secondary moderns, or amalgamated together with other schools, to form comprehensives. I see this as a massive disruption of pupils who were happy and settled in high-achieving schools, for reasons of political ideology rather than pupils' best interest.

monsterravingloony said...

Kudos for criticising your own party leader - not that I disagree with you here.

I suspect that you're a liberal purist who'd like the Lib Dems to be both Liberal and liberal (ie. both upper and lower case). That is, follow the liberal philosophy of say JS Mill.

Sadly I don't believe real politics has any great respect for such ideals. Philisophical fundamentals are far too readily sacrificed in the dirty business of scrabbling around for votes in a political "competitive environment".

It's a shame because the Lib Dems do have a tradition of innovation and convention-breaking policy proposals. They have been able to indulge themselves a little because their real influence in national policy making has been limited so there has been little to lose in terms of votes and much to gain in terms of publicity. Maybe the fact that they are a bit more popular now has worked the other way and tempered that spirit of noble adventure.

Anders said...

I will admit I didn't see that edition of Question Time, but in terms of a choice between comprehensive and grammar schools, then surely what Ming said is exactly what you want.

You've said that you would like to see some detailed policy. But if our policy is too detailed it would go against our belief in decentralisation and local decision-making.

Personally I am all for comprehensive schools. I went to one myself, but admittedly mine achieved very good results. In fact mine was a former secondary modern that now achieves the sort of grades that grammar schools would be proud of. I am all for putting people in to sets within a school, and whilst smaller class sizes is becoming a but of a politial cliche, it is exactly the thing that will allow teachers to treat pupils more individually.

However I am fundamentally against busing people around cities. Firstly it isn't environmentally sustainable, but if we want pupils to have some respect for their community then we need to have them going to a local school.

Tristan said...

The other thing is children are individuals and they and their parents should be trusted to know what sort of education is best.

This means real choice. A variety of providers, not a choice between identikit state run schools.

The only liberal solution to having state funded education (which I believe is necessary) is a full voucher system.

Anonymous said...

The reality is that the comprehensive system has failed. However, it failed because it was a)sabotaged and b)undermined from the start by contradictions in government policy.

a) it was sabotaged because the middle classes did not want their children mixing with working-class children and therefore sent them to private schools where high school fees acted as a metaphorical high wall, over which the poor could not climb.

b) it was undermined by the government's continuation of faith schooling. I go to a private school and im not ashamed of that. I believe my parents made the right decision in doing that because the other choices were abysmal. In my borough (Hammersmith & Fulham), the top 3 comprehensives are all faith schools with very limited places for non-religious pupils. If you're not a Catholic girl or boy, you can't get into the London Oratory. If you're not an Anglican girl you can't get into Lady Margaret's, and if you're not a Protestant girl, you can't get into Sacred Heart. It's that simple, and it's Faith schools that we as a party should be having the debate over.

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