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Speech by Liberal Democrat education spokesman Don Foster to the ...
Speech by Liberal Democrat education spokesman Don Foster to the

conference of the Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors in Bristol last Sunday:

'I find myself in an odd position. When I read the 'Times' on Friday I came across an article by Peter Riddell. It referred to part of the speech I'm about to make. I instigated a leak enquiry. And I found the culprit. Non other than Paddy Ashdown.

Now I see that you've actually given me 15 minutes more than him to speak. Whether this is a sign of your enthusiasm following the 'Times' article or a cunning trick to provide me with enough rope to hang myself I'm not sure. Perhaps I will be by the time I finish!

But I'm delighted to be here with so many of you who have spear-headed our successes in recent years. I value the support that so many of you have given me and the rest of the parliamentary party. Thank you.

Much of the thinking behind the policy review process in education that I want to talk about today has come from ideas Liberal Democrat councillors and activists have proposed and from some of the exciting and imaginative ideas you have implemented in your councils.

But I must start by saying well done to Trevor Riddlestone on his fabulous win in Ashley ward here in Bristol last week. And to Barbara Janke, and the rest of the Bristol group, for the great progress they've made in the past few years and for the great job they're doing keeping Labour on their toes and making life difficult for them.

And whether locally or nationally, Labour need to be kept on their toes.

Anyone who voted Labour at the last election believing that when Tony Blair said 'Education, Education, Education' it meant that we'd see enormous improvements must be feeling somewhat mystified. Class sizes have continued to rise, school budgets have continued to fall and Chris Woodhead remains in office.

Of course, the Labour government has done some good things such as reintroducing an induction year for teachers, scrapping nursery vouchers and, after huge pressure from Liberal Democrats, introducing a General teaching Council almost worthy of the name.

But even when they've tried to do good things, Labour seem more interested in capturing the headlines than worrying about the details.

Take class size reduction, for example. While the idea is right, it's quite clear that the new Labour government hadn't the foggiest idea how to do it - or how much it will cost. They're trying to take the credit while leaving LEAs to try and work out the details - and leaving LEAs to take the blame where it's not working out.

It's like the pupil who asks if he can be punished for something he hasn't done. On being assured that he can't, he turns to his teacher and says 'Thank goodness, because I haven't done my homework'!

In so many areas they haven't done their homework. Except, perhaps, in one.

Consider the literacy target. Concerned about levels of literacy in our schools, the government has set a so-called 'tough' target. So tough that if 80% of 11 year olds fail to attain a Level 4 in the English SATs test by 2002 then David Blunkett has said he will resign.

But is this really a 'tough' target? Don't you just have a sneaking suspicion that in this case the DfEE might have done its homework and calculated that the chances of not reaching the target are minimal.

You'd be right to have a suspicious mind. On the current trend of SAT score improvements we look set to meet the 'tough' target a whole two years early.

It's not a tough target, but a politically expedient target; not a targets for educational benefit, but a target to capture the headlines. It's a target that WILL be reached conveniently in time for the next general election.

And while I'm on this issue of targets and testing, isn't it ludicrous that, under Labour, we're spending almost three times more on testing children's literacy than we are spending on books to help them improve their literacy. It's madness.

And one other bit of madness is the bidding system. Announce a bright new idea to get the credit. To get the newspaper headlines. But because you don't know how it should be done, ask others to put in bids for the, often limited, funds you'd make available.

It creates a huge new bureaucracy. Ask your local council how much officer time is being spent simply completing the forms to bid for this or that - bids more often than not that are rejected.

Bids for Standard Funds, bids for Education Action Zones, bids for class size reduction, for the integration of education and child-care, school buildings, School Toilet Fund (for heavens sake). Early Excellence Centres, specialists schools, arts, sports, after school clubs, ICT training for teachers... the list goes on and on. The new Labour Education Lottery. New Labour bureaucracy gone mad.

But the worst example of bureaucracy gone mad is over tuition fees and Scottish universities.

For those of you who missed it earlier this week let me fill you in on the latest instalment of the tuition fees saga: the story of everyday ministers, Lords and Scots.

The Government, if you remember, has created a bizarre anomaly in the legislation which means that although Scottish students studying at Scottish universities don't have to pay their fourth year fees, English, Welsh and Northern Irish students at the same universities do. In fact it's worse than that. Any student from any EU country except England, Wales or Northern Ireland who goes to a Scottish university will get their fourth year free of fees. If you're from Umbria in Italy it's free. But if you're from Cumbria, you pay.

The House of Lords, understandably, threw this outrageous situation back at the Government. The Government threw it back at the House of Lords. Then last week, exceptionally, the House of Lords rejected it again - with almost the largest number ever of Liberal Democrat peers in the lobby.

Well, that was Tuesday night. Next Wednesday, in the Commons, it'll be batted straight back to the Lords, unless enough Labour MPs can be persuaded to see reason.

It's a kind of Wimbledon with ermine.

An entertaining spectator sport, but a deadly serious matter. Applications to Scottish universities have already fallen dramatically.

Well if the Government think we're going to accept this, in the Commons or the Lords, then I have a message for them - as John McEnroe said 'you cannot be serious!'

It's high time ministers admitted the game is up, and retired - hurt.

The problems of tuition fees, though, goes a lot wider than just the Scottish anomaly. Whatever the Government's rhetoric about lifelong learning, the stark fact is that university applications by people over the age of 25 have fallen by more than 15% this year. Because of tuition fees.

We warned the Government this would happen. It's one of the reasons why we opposed tuition fees - a tax on learning. It's why we've consistently voted against tuition fees and will continue to do so.

Liberal Democrats will guarantee - and it will be there, in black and white, in our new policy paper - that in the system of undergraduate finance we would adopt there's no place for tuition fees - top up or otherwise. We'd scrap them.

But what else should be in our new policy paper? How, in the area of education, should we address the challenge laid out by Paddy to us yesterday?

How are we to develop our ideas?

How can our education policies contribute to creating powerful citizens, living in strong communities, supported by enabling government both national and local?

How can we focus less on what we put in - in terms of resources - and more on what we get out in terms of high quality services meeting the needs of all our citizens?

I want to share with you some of the ideas in the education policy paper to be published early next week. But I stress that they are ideas - no more. The final decision on what our policies will be rests with you and the party at large. And as Paddy outlined, there will be opportunities to test, to challenge and - where agreed - to alter them before the mid-term manifesto is finalised.

Let me begin with our ideas for the early years; arguably the most important years.

We know from detailed research that investing in early years education brings huge benefits for individuals and the nation; special educational needs are picked up and dealt with earlier, juvenile crime is reduced and in later life people get better, more rewarding jobs and make fewer demands on the social security system.

That's why Liberal Democrats have long argued for high quality early years education for three as well as four year olds. And where resources have allowed, Liberal Democrat councils have introduced imaginative and exciting early years education programmes.

But now we should go further.

When is the most important age for learning?

All research shows that it is when children are very young; when they are with their prime educators - their parents. So we propose a system of educational as well as social and medical support for the parents of the very young.

For the slightly older children - high quality early years education - with the emphasis on high quality. The government may have promised early years education for all four year olds (and we'd go further to three as well as four year olds), but can it be high quality if so many of the children are crammed into over crowded reception class with inappropriately trained staff ? We'd do it differently. AND we'd ensure that early years education is closely - much more closely than now - linked to care provision.

And why, for all other age groups have we established the so called Key Stages, each with their own specified, expected outcomes. Why should there not be a similar approach for nursery education? That's why we propose a new Key Stage - the Foundation Key Stage - for children aged 3 to 5 plus.

And yes, I mean five plus. Research indicates that formal schooling is best left to age six. That's when we're proposing it starts.

But whether it's for nursery education or any other type of education, it can't be high quality education unless we have available highly qualified and highly motivated staff.

Yet one of the most serious problems in higher education is the shortage of applicants for teacher training. Nearly 20,000 highly qualified, experienced teachers left the profession last year, but fewer and fewer are coming forward to replace them.

There's been a drop of nearly 40% in the number of graduates applying for physics teacher training, and the fall in maths applicants is even higher. There's now only one qualified maths teacher for every 160 secondary school pupils. . It is no exaggeration to describe this as a teacher crisis.

We have to do much more to make the profession more attractive - to gain more recruits, and improve retention.

We have to show teachers they are valued. The General Teaching Council is a small step in this direction. But much, much more must be done too - such as sabbaticals, greater use of qualified ancillary staff, improved terms and conditions, less paperwork - that's what, in our policy document, Liberal Democrats are offering.

And a higher priority for teachers' pay.

It's a disgrace that in opposition Labour said that staging the teachers' pay award was a deception and an admission of economic failure. But in their first year in office what did they do? They changed their minds and did it anyway. They, too, phased the pay award so that teachers got an increase below the rate of inflation.

A great morale booster!

Instead, while proposing that entry standards into teaching should be raised, we are also proposing - for those training as teachers - a special training salary of around half the starting salary. And for those who complete their training and enter the profession, a completely new salary structure that recognises the need to reward separately both responsibility and professional development.

And we consider, too, the need for increased flexibility in salaries by geographical area. In particular, we should be prepared to pay extra to recruit good teachers to work in challenging - or failing - schools, to reverse the cycles of decline that so often take root.

Liberal Democrats are not in the pockets of the teachers. But good teachers - and head teachers - are the key to improving standards in our schools. We want the very best teachers but we'll also expect the very best from them.

That's why we are in favour of tough, independent inspection of schools. But not as it's currently done.

That's why we're proposing a radical reform the current inspection process so that it helps schools rather than intimidates them - not least by linking the inspection with advice and support.

But giving teachers the time and the room to teach and to pay attention to individual children is vitally important too. That's why the Liberal Democrats attach so much importance to reducing class sizes.

I was born in 1947 so I have a particular interest in the policies adopted by our predecessor party, the Liberals, in 1947.

One policy of that time - it may come as a shock to many - was to allow council tenants to buy their council houses. Yes, we proposed it nearly 50 years before the Tories.

And in education we were equally radical proposing, for example, that teachers' salaries should be raised as soon as possible together with other measures to raise the status of teachers.

And class size was important in 1947. The Liberal Assembly of that year passed a resolution which said, 'The most immediate need is to reduce the size of classes in primary schools'.

Today's Labour government has limited ambitions for class size reduction. We want to go much further. They only want to reduce class sizes for pupils aged 5 to 7. We want to reduce class sizes for all primary school pupils and for some secondary school classes as well.

And if we're really to make a difference, reducing primary school classes to 30 just isn't small enough. We'd go further and aim for 25.

But rather than the traditional approach of setting an arbitrary limit on class sizes we should consider the much more flexible idea of a 'Maximum Average Class Size' of 25. That would ensure that schools - and LEAs- were able to deploy their resources to best effect, and bring an end to the huge number of pupils in oversized classes.

And for secondary schools we're also proposing smaller class sizes - a maximum of 18 for foreign language, science and technology classes.

But small classes are not much use if the buildings are crumbling, the roofs leak and books and equipment are in short supply.

That's why were proposing a massive programme to re-stock schools with the books and equipment they need and to launch a new project - Schools 2010' - which would ensure that, by the year 2010, temporary classrooms are at a minimum and that all buildings are of a high standard.

Well qualified, highly motivated and respected teachers - from whom we will expect much - working with smaller classes in decent buildings with adequate supplies of books and equipment. That's the aim and - because it will deliver the high quality education the people of this country need and deserve - we are committed to funding it, and, if necessary, raising taxes to do so.

But what of the enabling structure within which these teachers should be working?

Whatever you may have been told - structures do matter.

More than a few of you, I suspect, will have been watching the development of EAZs with some wariness over the past few months, concerned they could end up easing LEAs aside and rendering them irrelevant.

In fact most of the successful bids have actually been led by LEAs or at least have the LEA as a major partner - something that has itself drawn criticism from the Tories, and from some commentators.

Personally, I have no qualms about this. In fact Phil Willis and I spent a fair amount of time in the committee of the School Standards and Framework Bill actually trying to ensure that LEAs were involved with every EAZ.

Nor do I have qualms about business involvement. I believe business can have a part to play in our schools. For too long we have tried to separate the world of education from the world of work. Both can and should learn from each other. While the state should ensure adequate funding for 'mainstream education', the use of private sector expertise and cash to expand learning and support opportunities for the whole community can only be good news.

If anything, I am more enthusiastic about EAZs than the government. For too long governments have tinkered with an education system that's failing the nation. While the current EAZ proposals are not perfect, they offer the hope of much needed and long overdue new thinking and radical change.

But amid all the changes and uncertainties affecting them - from EAZs to development plans, adjudicators and school organisation committees - it's hardly surprising that there's more and more confusion about the role of LEAs.

And there's equal confusion about the role of school governors. Many, feeling ill prepared, wonder what they are there for. More than 350,000 people uncertain about what their responsibilities are and to whom - and by what means - they are accountable.

The policy paper suggests a new and radical approach to solve these dilemmas.

In their recent report, 'Changing Partners', the Audit Commission looked at the role of LEAs and identified what they described as 'a surprisingly broad consensus' about what that role should be.

This had four components.

First, the articulation of a vision that reflects the needs and interests of the local community.

Second, acting as a vehicle for improvement in their area.

Third, ensuring an equitable and inclusive system of education.

And fourth, managing trade-offs; dealing with the tensions and conflicts that arise between the interests of schools, pupils, parents and communities.

Four components that bear striking similarity to the role articulated by Liberal Democrats back in 1992.

Then we said the LEA role should be; strategic planner (including admissions policy and the fair allocation of funding), raiser of standards and the arbitrator of disputes.

Remember, we called it the 'light touch' LEA.

I believe that the time has come to articulate more clearly what we mean by a 'light touch' LEA. The time has come to re-empower and clarify the role of both LEAs and governors.

LEAs should be given prime responsibility for the procurement of education without necessarily being involved in the ownership and operation of state schools. The LEA - as commissioning agent - should be responsible (and democratically accountable) for;

- ensuring the provision of - and equality of access to - sufficient places of high quality for the children in their area by contracting with education providers - contracts based on clearly specified outcomes

- monitoring and raising standards

- allocating funding, and

- establishing admission policies

To strengthen schools as key institutions within their communities, able to take control over their own futures, we should establish - rather than the THREE types of school (aided, foundation and community) proposed by Labour - a single type of school based on the aided model.

To more effectively liberate the enormous reservoir of talent, skills and goodwill within communities for the benefit of local education, we should encourage community-based groups (such as a parish council) to establish not-for-profit Neighbourhood School Trusts. These Trusts would be run by Trust Boards which would be the new style governing bodies. They would;

- take over the running of individual schools or groups of schools

- own their own premises and employ their own staff

- contract with the LEA to provide education for the children attending their school or schools; to standards and within admission policies laid down by the LEA

- contract, if they wish, with others for the provision of other services such as adult education or youth services - playing their part in the development of life-long learning

A radical step, yes. But one which could help us create truly community schools, greater accountability in our education system and a new, clearer, more focused role for both LEAs and governors ... more effective local government as a commissioner of action, as a regulator of quality and as a guardian of equality rather than a doer itself.

It offers the scope for the LEA to contract with more than just the Neighbourhood School Trusts; with other education providers - to be experimental and innovative.

And the Neighbourhood School Trusts, firmly rooted in their communities, can also be experimental and innovative in meeting the wider needs of the communities they serve.

With the proposals I've outlined above and others I've not had time to describe - such as a better deal for part time students, reversing the casualisation of staff in FE Colleges and plans to slim down the national curriculum - the Education policy document offers radical solutions to some of the problems that beset our education system.

They are solutions which the party must debate. I look forward to the debate and to your contribution to the debate.'

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