Monday, May 31, 2010

Academies and “Free Schools” a view from Professor John Howson

Professor John Howson, President of the Liberal Democrat Education Association, and a well known educationalist, is a good friend of mine and we have been comparing notes on our mutual concerns about the coalition's drive towards mass expansion of Academies and "free" schools. John is far more willing than me to give both a chance, given appropriate safeguards he outlines below. I trust these concerns will be taken into account by those driving these policies (at odds it should be said with current Lib Dem policies) forward -


I welcome the ideas for the Bills outlined in the Queen's Speech and the full statement of policy by the coalition with respect to schools, FE and higher education. There is much to commend in the foresight of the policies outlined. However, they remain to be fully costed. 
I especially welcome a commitment to a pupil premium, although it is important to recognise that more work remains to be undertaken to turn an aspiration into a reality. I especially endorse the vision for the compensatory principle developed for the Liberal Democrats in my paper 'No child left behind' published in 2001, and endorsed in the motion to the Brighton conference of that year. The more recent pamphlet 'School Funding and Social Justice' published by the Policy Exchange think tank in 2008 provides an excellent basis for the implementation, at least in the secondary sector. Hopefully a methodology can be approved in time for the 2012 financial year.
However, the Secretary of State's moves on academies contains risks for the system as a whole. I would call for a cap on head teacher salaries to stop a bidding war breaking out and am concerned that the proposals will not produce a fairer school system that all Liberal Democrats want. I would urge Tory Councillors concerned about the effects of Michael Gove's proposals on academies to consider joining the Liberal Democrat part of the coalition to protect their local school system from being broken up without thought of what will follow.
I remain less certain about the arrangements outlined by the coalition for the organisation of schools. Their plans are uncertain about the over-lapping interests of faith group, parent groups, for profit organisation and groups of professionals, all of whom are promised a stake in the running of schools. I would propose that any group wanting to open a new school, or take over an existing one, should be required to pass the following tests:
The economic test: opening a new school should not cost the taxpayer money, especially in an era of falling secondary school rolls.

The management test: schools should be required to demonstrate they will not pose an additional burden on the pool of leadership talent. Thus, schools in areas where recruitment of school leaders is difficult or types of schools where there is a shortage of leaders should be required to demonstrate how they will be able to attract sufficient leadership without breaching the first test. The same test should apply to teaching staff.

The need test: Groups seeking to operate schools with restricted admissions policies should be able to make it clear how their school will not cause another school or schools to fail the economic test.

The priority test: where there are competing organisations wanting to open schools, priority should first be given to education professionals, then to parents, followed by faith groups and charities, and finally to for profit organisations.
I believe there is an urgent need to understand who has the strategic oversight of education provision, and believe that for primary education the present local authority should retain responsibility for schools in its area including planning oversight for academies. For education between 11 and 18, it should be either the existing authority, if large enough, or a grouping of authorities in an education board formed along the lines of police or fire authorities. Without some strategic direction, it is not clear who will have oversight of the needs of the school system over the coming years. 
I believe that piecemeal suggestions for teacher training outlined in the coalition document do not form a coherent plan, and that the present attraction of teaching as a career is in danger of being diminished: the seeds of the next teacher supply crisis are in danger of being planted. I call for a comprehensive overhaul of teacher supply and training to ensure the necessary flow of highly qualified teachers into the profession: without sufficient teachers, no progress towards a world-class education system will be possible. 
I welcome the acceptable of the need to pay good teachers appropriately, but believes that no changes to national pay and conditions should be allowed ahead of the introduction of a pupil premium funding model lest the aims of the compensatory principle be frustrated by the unintended consequences of a free-market in salaries and conditions. 
I welcome the coalition's determination to recognise the valuable contribution of 16-19 further education, and the associated work that the FE sector undertakes in adult education. This sector remains vital to the development of a successful industrial and commercial base within Britain and, along with modern apprenticeships, requires dedicated ministerial oversight. I call for a minister for post 16 to coordinate all aspects of education and training for this age group between the BIS and Education Departments. 
There remain many other challenges to the development of a fairer and more successful education system within England and I call upon Liberal Democrats to strive for a fair system that provides for all learners despite the severe financial austerity of the present age. 

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Will David Laws go while Nadine Dorries stays?

Over 20 years ago I was at a training course about work with young women organised by the NYA (National Youth Agency). It was in the days when "anti-oppressive practice" was high on the agenda - and a debate ensued about whether it was right for the two male members of the course to even be there. Inevitably the debate turned to who was most oppressed and the difference between sexism and racism. One of the participants turned to the colleague she had came with and said "but when you walk into the room I don't even notice that you are black" - her colleague's response has stayed with me ever since - "but I do" said she.

Those of us who regard ourselves as reasonably "right on" (sorry a blast from the past when my local newspaper used to refer to me as the most "right on" councillor!) when it comes to issues of discrimination can all to often forget that we firstly do not always really understand the discrimination and oppression others face, but also just how rich the seam of discrimination is, that despite legislation, still runs through our enlightened society.

This was brought home to me during the hustings for Mid Beds when all my opponents (Nadine Dorries I expected but the Labour candidate I was rather shocked at) appeared to be vying in playing to the gallery on the issue of whether or not it was right for Relate counsellor Gary McFarlane to have been sacked - the article by that bastion of liberal sensibilities Melanie Phillips more than sums up the attitudes expressed here. Some members of the audience were incandescent and saw all this as further evidence of Christianity being undermined. As I pointed out, there are some jobs that people cannot in all conscience do because of their faith - I personally wouldn't be able to work in a betting shop - so in my view, Gary McFarlane had chosen the wrong career path, it wasn't good enough to say it was OK for him to discriminate, so was he checking the marriage certificates of all the couples he counselled, would it have been OK for him to refuse to counsel a couple of different ethnic origin because he personally didn't believe in "mixed" marriage?

I only cite these examples because for some who are very quick to condemn David Laws are equally quick to forget that despite legislation, despite protestations that someone's sexuality in this day and age shouldn't be an issue, it clearly is. Just as the dismal lack of women and BME MPs in our modern parliament demonstrates, regardless of what we claim about equality in our country - in reality we don't live it out (or are we saying that women and BME candidates aren't as good as white middle class men and that is why they are underrepresented?).

I think Sarah Bedford has brilliantly summed up the issues here, so I just had a couple of other perspectives to add.

Let's look at the facts as we know them. It seems David rented a room from his partner before he was his partner. He didn't do what others have done and take out a mortgage in order to make a nice profit in the future, he rented (at what by any standards was a reasonable rent in central London and certainly a lot less than my MP is paying for her so called second home in rural Bedfordshire) a room. Now it is not unheard of for tenants to end up in relationships with their landlord - according to David this is what happened a couple of years later. So first question - when does a "relationship" become a "partnership"? 3 months? 6 months? A year? After all - lets not forget this was David's home when he was in Westminster - it wasn't nearly as straightforward as someone meeting, and ultimately deciding to move in together. And also it seems it is fair to say this relationship did not have the other hallmarks of a "partnership" - otherwise his partner would have been sharing the house in Somerset as well surely? But, I forget, the crucial ingredient, which is why I have banged on about it so much earlier - this was a relationship that David like so many before him and so many sadly in the future, felt unable to share with his friends and family. Having gone through the pain of losing half my family when I chose inconsiderately to marry someone I loved but who happened to have a different colour skin to me, I know how real the fear of losing those you love because of the one you love, is. I have a friend who, because he married someone of a different faith has never been able to tell his father. His father doesn't even know he has five grandchildren. So those of us who think the world is such an enlightened place because of our more enlightened legislation, should seriously think again.

So my second question is - for those who are simplistically looking at this as David Laws having wrongfully claimed money for rent - what are they saying should have happened? Clearly his landlord rented a room in his home in order to recoup some of the costs of his home - something many many people do. Should he have been expected then, having entered into a relationship with David, to foot the bill and lose out on the contribution to his costs? I know many of my friends who rent rooms have to in order to meet the cost of their mortgage. Should we have expected David to move out? The irony is that if they had entered into a more formal civil partnership, sharing everything they had, presumably David would have been able to claim for the whole cost of maintaining that home as his second home. And this is where for me the true absurdity lies and why it for me is SO linked to the underlying homophobia. When I got married I moved into my husband's home. He had a high mortgage and we split all the bills - I didn't pay him rent, I contributed to the costs. So at the very minimum, if David had felt able to declare his relationship he would have been quite within his rights to claim for half. But I doubt that Sam Cam has been paying half towards the cost of the Cameron second home? The hypocrisy is palpable.

But, the reality is that for all this, it doesn't look good - and I come back to what I said about David Laws yesterday - he has a brilliant mind but intelligence and wisdom are not necessarily co terminus. Given not only the expenses scandal, but also the way others of his colleagues have been mercilessly outed, did he not think this was something he should have taken advice about? Did he really think that when he took on such a high profile and controversial role, the press would not be digging around in his private life? Maybe he sadly confused cleverness for wisdom and thought he was clever enough to outwit them. I may not agree with his politics - the reason the Tories love him is the reason I always used to wish he would run along and join them - but over the years as I said yesterday, I have come to respect him as a man who is a true liberal and deeply committed to making our country fairer and more equal - even if I don't approve of his methodology in doing so. I can't help but compare David Laws' alleged sins with those alleged of my erstwhile opponent in Mid Beds, Nadine Dorries. She who can't decide where her second home is - is it the poky 1 bedroom jobby in Gloucestershire or is it her farmhouse mansion in Bedfordshire for which we are paying a fortune? Did she produce an annual report costing nearly £10,000 and which she published on her now defunct blog, or was she confused and didn't actually produce anything, paying the money back because of a mayoral election that took place months before? Did she take her Twitter and Blog down due to police advice and because of what happened to Stephen Timms a week afterwards? Will her daughter have time to work for her full time at a nice little income of £28,000, or may she be distracted studying for her degree? Bizarrely I think the allegations surrounding Ms Dorries are far more serious, potentially criminal, and yet she is still sitting pretty in the house of contradictions.

So, getting back to David Laws, I sadly fear he has no choice but to resign and allow the Standards Commissioner to adjudicate and on a personal level, I trust he will find that his family and friends still love him, just as Simon Hughes discovered a few short years ago.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Simon Hughes, the 1922 Committee and the Future of Lib Demmery

As predicted, Simon Hughes has just launched his deputy leadership campaign. He unsurprisingly has the backing of Vince Cable.

Of course I am delighted he has thrown his hat into the ring and although I am a great fan of Tim Farron (I would see him as a future leader) at this time I think we need someone of Simon's stature and standing in the party to help provide the ballast and temper the undoubted euphoria felt by many on the right who seem a lot more comfortable cuddling up to the Tories.

Simon, I think unfairly, was the fall guy for the party on Question Time and Any Questions last week and did a sterling job of trying to justify some of the justifiable and frankly, in my view some of the unjustifiable outcomes of this coalition (55% and abstaining on nuclear power come to mind). As deputy leader I have no doubt he would be fiercely loyal in public and constructively critical in private. For those of us who are deeply troubled already by the way we seem to be rolling over to have our tummy tickled, Simon will be an honest broker - ensuring that those caught up in the excitement of being part of government don't forget that not all of us share their enthusiasm and are worried about our concerns not being taken into account. James Kirkup has a thoughtful (if possibly mischievous) piece in the Telegraph. He questions whether the election of Simon Hughes as deputy leader would spell 1922 type trouble for Nick Clegg, but then, rightly in my view, surmises that it is probably what Nick wants. Too right, it is not only what Nick wants, it is also what he needs, to help keep those of us on the left of the party a wee bit happier - although he should remember (as I texted Simon a couple of days ago to remind him ;-}), even his election will not be enough to keep some of us in line! For goodness sake, we are liberals for a reason aren't we? Dissent is part of our lifeblood, not only that, as I pointed out at Autumn Conference, dissent and scrutiny is vital if we are to avoid screwing up completely. As Nick Clegg rightly pointed out in Birmingham, we are in danger of becoming vaguely North Korean in our amorous uncritical embrace of the coalition. To continue in this mode is surely a tad unhealthy?

It seems to me that whatever happens in relation to the deputy elections, now would be the perfect time for our Lib Dem backbenchers to form their own '22 committee - 2010 committee? Frankly I think the future of our party depends on it - the activists are the backbone of this party and in my view those of us (and we are in the majority) who would see ourselves as social liberals, are the backbone of the party and the only hope of us not turning into a shapeless meaningless mush, easily digested by the carnivorous Tory party! If we are not careful, the question "what are the Liberal Democrats for?" is in danger of becoming a reality. And this is why I have argued so strongly that however devastated some of us are with what has happened, we have to stay and fight. And if we don't win this fight, I fear we may ultimately see a split in the party and possibly a realignment of the liberal left.

At the moment, those who were clearly so successful on our negotiation team, appear to think they can walk on water. Despite not agreeing with him politically I have a lot of time for David Laws - he is a principled liberal - I will never forget the way he stood up to Tory attempts to poach him (although arguably they got what they wanted in the end!). He is incredibly intelligent, competent, trustworthy and honest. But it should be remembered, intelligence and wisdom are not necessarily co terminus. His kneejerk decision to axe Future Job Funds apparently on the basis of some dodgy advice from a penpusher in DWP, is worrying. Our manifesto was clear in its commitment to tackle the outrageous level of youth unemployment and yet one of the first messages we send out to young people is that their future is not a priority for us (and I was with several leading representatives of the youth sector yesterday who were horrified). So I think it is even more important for David and others of our representatives in government to listen to the party without whom they wouldn't be there.

Which brings me to my next point. As a democratic party, we have clear lines of accountability and decision making in relation to policy making. The FPC is responsible for developing policy and Federal Conference is responsible for determining policy. It is essential that we retain our distinctiveness as a LIBERAL and DEMOCRATIC party - I am worried that these democratic systems we have in place are being undermined by what is happening, it is surely more important than ever that we continue to make policy that truly reflects our values, and not only that, expect our MPs to support and champion in in the chamber rather than being prepared to sit on their hands, pick and choose according to their own personal preferences, or worse totally ignore it. As Lynne Featherstone rightly pointed out, we had a negotiating team who were "male and pale" although the pale was more of a murky orange! This means they have TOTALLY ignored our manifesto pledges on families children and young people. I have lost count over the last couple of weeks the number of calls I have had from the children and young people's press and CEOs from the sector very worried about this glaring omission. But lets embrace with open arms the nonsense that is Academies - oh and "Technical Academies" ah........sounds a lot like a return to Grammar and Secondary Modern to me.

OK, rant over, happy to hear arguments about why I have no reason to worry about the future of the party I love, but more importantly, the future for the country that I love and those people in this country who I fear will continue to be marginalised, neglected and ignored. "We're all in this together"............yeah right.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

When even Evan Harris and Tony Greaves desert you.........

Well, all over bar the shouting - actually, no shouting whatsoever. Today's special conference, while spawning arguably one of the best conference speeches ever, delivered by Simon Hughes, proved to be more of a triumphalist rally rather than a serious examination of the potential pitfalls of sleeping with the enemy.

The nine amendments to the motion, all of which I supported, I hope will go some way towards dealing with some of the concerns of the activists. However, the very genuine concerns about our MPs abstaining on the issue of top up fees, were not dealt with satisfactorily either by Chris Huhne or Nick Clegg.

But, in all conscience, I was one of the 12-35 (numbers are disputed) who voted against the motion. OK, so my political heroes, Evan Harris and Simon Hughes lead the progressive charge to support it. Even Tony Greaves was persuaded. Maybe this is the point I should concede defeat? Seriously, I wish I could. I was one of the standard bearers for Nick in the leadership election. I had a look back at my "10 Reasons to Vote Nick Clegg" my last reason was that "I would trust him with my life so I know I can trust him with my party". Well, I would still trust him with my life, I now need him to prove I can trust him with my party. This is a high risk strategy, which could make our party irrelevant for a generation. And I am a Liberal Democrat because I honestly believe liberal democracy offers the best hope for us to renew our society, to make it fairer, freer, more equal and more just. Without us there is a vacuum.

So, called as the first speaker after the amendments were moved (I understand there was a bet on FCC about when I would be called!) it seemed the idea may have been to get the awkward squad out of the way. Despite my fear that this new marriage made in heaven may be the Hammer Horror version of Pride and Prejudice - the adorable Mr Darcey turning into Count Dracula, my fellow delegates were far too smitten to give a damn.

But I was gratified that one of my fellow delegates came up to me afterwards to say that my speech (also calling for those of us who I regard as the backbone of our party to stay) had persuaded him that he should not resign, but like me, stay and fight.

When Labour became New Labour I felt so much for my Trade Union pals who felt they had to leave with no home to go to. This week I have really come to understand how they felt. Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning felt like a bereavement. I watched the nuptials on Wednesday morning as if in a daze, surreal. This is the moment I should have been shouting from the rooftops, overcome with excitement, OUR Nick in No 10! But it passed me by, I was too devastated.

Yes I understand all the arguments (more than well rehearsed in 4 hours this afternoon), but however much I understand them, I can't at the moment change how I feel. I am angry with the Labour dinosaurs who blocked a truly progressive alliance, I understand we were backed into a corner, that this is more about damage limitation than a true meeting of minds and ideologies........but I can't change how I feel.

I am genuinely relieved that our involvement in government is already mitigating against the worst excesses of the Tories. I understand why Labour may uncomfortable......A Tory majority government would have been likely to be so unpopular they would have romped home next time, a Lib Dem coalition makes that less likely. It also, I hope, means less people will suffer and even die, because of a right wing Tory government.

Who knows what the coming months will bring. Vince Cable lifted the lift on Pandora's box, telling us that things were far worse than Labour had let on and that it was going to be "bloody awful", but that we could make it less so. That is the best I can hope for.

Oh, by the way, for those of you who were there - I have a pair of pink fluffy handcuffs, one careful owner, never used - free to the person who can demonstrate they will have some use for them :-) or maybe I should auction them on Lib Dem Act????

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Be Careful What You Wish For

Emerging from an interesting contest with the Tory Party's "pinup" (?) Nadine Dorries I am only just getting my thoughts together on what happened. In Mid Beds even Nadine was worried we would halve her majority (I heard this from two independent sources) and we really thought it was possible. I was even invited to meetings with ex Tory activists who were so disgusted with her they wanted to help me. Everyone was impressed with Nick's performance, everyone seemed up for something different, the polls, even at the last minute seemed to be in our favour. I fully expected to see Bridget Fox, Ed Fordham, Sal Brinton et al, easily elected on Friday morning. I certainly did not expect the shock of Evan Harris, Susan Kramer, Lembit Opik, losing their seats.

So, at some point there will be a post mortem, but not yet. Locally we did at least increase our share of the vote and open up the gap between us and Labour. Right now we have what we wished for, a hung parliament. Interestingly Cameron's dire warnings didn't work, we have what the public wished for, a hung parliament. But now, having had a very idealistic perspective until the early hours of Friday morning, I find myself feeling rather queasy. As others have commented, if we believe in PR we have to believe in coalition governments - so we have to be prepared to work with others.

In principle there are issues I think we could work with the Tories on, in practice I wonder how possible that would be. Cameron has exhibited his characteristic arrogance on the issue of a referendum on PR. He has a place for us all in government, so long as we do as we are told! He will listen to us, so long as we are saying what he wants to hear, as soon as we say we want to make the electoral system fairer - he puts his fingers in his ears and turns his back. He is the Daddy (sorry Richard and Alex!) and we will do as we are told - however much we whine, don't we know that STV cookie is not good for us and we can't have it! Cameron also displayed his approach to partnership working by pulling the eminently reasonable Andrew Lansley out of the cross party talks Norman Lamb instigated on tackling the huge problem of how we pay for care for the elderly. And there is the little matter of the commitment to clean up politics, interestingly he was quick to call for the whip to be taken away from Labour MPs accused of false accounting, but not a murmur about Nadine Dorries?

So do I think we can really do any kind of deal with the Tories? I absolutely accept that Nick has had to talk to them as they do have the biggest share of the vote, but lets not forget, more people voted against them than for them. I accept that there has to be compromise on both sides, but if we are genuinely putting the country first can we really sign up to an approach to tackling the deficit that flies in the face of our policy, that we believe will threaten the future security of the country, not secure it. And the problem, even if we get support on everything except electoral reform (which 62% of us want), we run the risk of being part of what can only be a decidedly insecure government.

So what of the alternative, the "Rainbow" alliance? Clearly with Brown in the loop this is likely to be strangled at birth, and even if he wasn't there it would still be a risky strategy, to be seen to be propping up a Labour government. And would Labour be prepared to curtail and row back their attack on civil liberties? Could we ever sign up to their unenlightened approach to tackling crime and dealing fairly with asylum seekers? What would it look like if we ignored the verdict of the country on this moribund and clapped out government?

Yes, indeed, be careful what you wish for!

So what would I do? You shouldn't have to ask :-)