Wednesday, December 29, 2010

"Advocate for Access to Education" - An important new role for Simon Hughes

Almost from the moment I became a youth worker there has been a political advocate for young people who has stood head and shoulders above the rest, who has been an inspiration, not only to me but to so many others in the field - that person is Simon Hughes.

So I am absolutely thrilled to hear this evening that he has been appointed by David Cameron and Nick Clegg as "Advocate for Access to Education" with a brief to engage with young people in secondary education about how to deliver the government's objective of increasing educational participation, particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. Now, of course, I would prefer a simple "Advocate for Young People" but this is a start and will give Simon an opportunity, I trust, to interpret the role as widely as possible. After all, access to education is about more than just dispelling myths or providing information, or extra support through the pupil premium - it is about a whole range of other issues that impact upon a young person's life.

Nick Clegg said "Simon Hughes record championing the concerns of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds make him ideally suited to lead this important work to ensure that an increasing number of young people with the talent to succeed at university have the chance to do so - regardless of their starting point in life.

"I know Simon will be tireless in seeking the best ways to communicate the opportunities open to young people, just as he will be a strong advocate for them to government."

On accepting the role, Simon Hughes said "It is a privilege to be asked to take on this role, and I will do so with urgency, enthusiasm and determination.

"Parliament has settled the maximum university fee level in England from 2012 and we now have a critically important task to ensure that every potential student has access to all the facts about the costs, benefits and opportunities of further and higher education.

"I will work with every person of goodwill to ensure that from 2011 we have the best system of educational advice, information and support in place, designed to benefit all potential students and to ensure that disadvantaged young people increasingly gain access to further and higher education."

Clearly, my view hasn't changed - and is still in line with party policy, namely that we should be phasing out tuition fees altogether. We all, as Liberal Democrats - Simon included - must continue to make that case. However, if the PM and Deputy PM are honestly interested in engaging young people and their ideas about what is best for their futures, I sincerely hope that his findings may lead to if not a rethink, at least a modification of what is on offer at the moment. Michael Gove may bleat that it is not the case that higher fees put off young people, particularly those from poorer backgrounds, from applying to University, particularly the top Universities, but as the Sutton Trust research shows - this still is and will continue to be, a very real barrier.

It is also very encouraging that Simon is being asked to make recommendations on the successor to EMA - a hugely important issue if young people are not to face yet another financial barrier to participating in education. So, I wish him all the best in this crucial role - I know there is no one else with the skills, expertise and understanding to be able to ensure young people themselves really do begin to have a say in their futures.

And interesting to note that the Guardian is already interpreting this appointment as another government U turn......

Thursday, December 16, 2010

3 Cheers for Nick.......

......on this one! I am absolutely delighted that at last we have an end to the pernicious practice of locking up asylum seeker children. Children, many of whom will have already suffered terribly in their own countries and now find themselves in a "place of safety" where they are anything but safe. Having been involved with the campaign against arbitrary detention with the awesome Emma Ginn, I am only too aware of the impact keeping anyone locked up at Yarlswood, let alone children, has on their mental health and well being.

So today reminds me of all that is still great about Nick Clegg. I am still cross about a lot of things, but this is an area where I know he will fight and fight hard. As an FPC rep on our Justice Home Affairs and Equalities Parliamentary Policy Committee I have to say that this committee above all reminds me why I am a Liberal Democrat. I believe we have a fantastic opportunity, as witnessed in the tone of the Sentencing Green Paper, to have a big influence here - but in order to do that I believe there is another very big battle Nick has to win - that is the battle to keep Ken Clarke - I urge him to take up the cudgels on this one - on this issue too Nick, be assured, I am right behind you!

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Where now on Tuition Fees?

Those of us who were part of the 104 have been having a lively debate over the last couple of weeks. An email we received this morning from Martin Pierce really sums the situation up brilliantly - with his permission I reproduce it -

On the day of the vote some things seem clear to me:

* Nick and Vince and co will win the vote but have lost the argument

* I - and I think voters - understand that manifestos are statements of intent and particularly in a coalition, cannot be enacted in full. However, it's the breaking of the personal pledge that is the more serious - it was unambiguous and was freely and voluntarily entered into. To break it makes you either a knave or a fool

* The argument about the deficit doesn't hold up for anyone who thinks about it for a minute because this system (in fact one of the few good things about it) moves payment from upfront to after graduation. It is a choice that our leaders in government have made

* The repercussions for trust in our party - and its distinctiveness vis a vis the other parties - will i believe be serious and long lasting. We have abandoned the moral high ground we had - and in a street fight with the other two we'll never win. If the Norwich South activists on C4 News last night are representative, Lib Dems on the ground are bewildered and deflated

* What Craig did was brilliant - and brilliantly simple! That 1 out of 6 candidates should feel strongly enough to sign the petition showed how strongly held our position is, but it took someone to bring us together. This group HAS influenced the debate, and crucially, the backbenchers voting today know we're out here in numbers

* Where next? Some of us are old enough to remember the poll tax 20 years ago - it was enacted but had lost so much credibility that it was dead in the water as soon as Thatcher was gone. So the lesson is, keep up the arguments, stick to party policy, don't let them think it's over.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Tuition Fees and the Potential Damage to Social Mobility Now - A Mother’s Tale

The tuition fee debate is far from over and one of the consistently loud and clear voices against tuition fees and for our party policy is Susan Gaszczak. Here is her personal view on what tomorrow's vote means for her and her family.

On the eve of the Tuition Fee debate in the House of Commons I start the day with a heavy heart. In my own household the discussion around degrees and aims, goals and dreams of my own children has caused much tension and worry.

My teenagers have not protested, but they have worried and stressed about the impact their goals in life will have on them in future years.

They have lived in recent years through a depression, seen banks collapsed and talked of debt and how dangerous it is. Talk of credit and credit cards – gambling on the stock market and high incomes have featured over the last few years.

Last night I read Nick Clegg's interview where he talked about social mobility and told us he has listened to us his party. Well maybe Nick has to listen again. These proposals will have an impact on social mobility now and here is how.

Teenagers of my children's age will be amongst the first to be landed with a debt of £18k, which they will have to repay when they reach the heady income of £21k, and that excludes the cost of actually living and eating while going to university. It will probably mean they live at home and go to University locally. Hurray I am supposed to say?

As a single mum I currently work part time, to enable me to care for them and bring them up with some stability. Hurray, they will possibly get free tuition and maybe even a bursary.

So, what is my incentive to get a full time job? Currently, I work part time on a self-employed basis for the party; seasoned party members know what that really means. I would love to find that perfect full time job, but the worry of landing my children with huge amounts of debt may stop me. So my income capacity is diminished so that I can give my children the best start in life.

At a party conference in years gone by I spoke of a young man who was affected so badly by the debt he incurred going to university it caused him mental health issues. He, at times, wanted to end his own life. That was the legacy for him of Labour bringing in Tuition Fees.

Now we face yet higher fees, yes, with a better system of repayment but still with the possibility of huge damage to the social mobility of the current generation.

I want my children to fulfil their dreams. I do not want them to worry about debt. The ironic thing is they have grown up in a family committed to public service: their dreams are to work in the public service and give something back, yet whatever way they go to university they will pay more than ever to achieve that goal.

Ministers, Junior Ministers, Parliamentary Private Secretaries, and our back bench team, I urge you to think hard before you vote for these proposals. Social Mobility will be affected, but not in the way you hope if you are backing these proposals