Instead of creating dividing lines that contradict earlier commitments to free schools, education could be front and centre in the Liberal Democrat manifesto as proof positive of the benefits of Coalition – a calling card of respectability and maturity in a signal area of importance to voters.
What would such a positive story look like? What is the moderate, centrist, pragmatic, small-l liberalism narrative that Stephen Tall, editor of Lib Dem voice, mentioned earlier in the week? I think it looks something like this:
Nick Clegg MP
“At our party conference, I talked of the benefits of Coalition. I talked about how the Liberal Democrats are now where we always should have been – in power. And I talked about how, ever since we came together in 2010, the Liberal Democrats have been working to deliver for the British people.
For the first time, what we said in our manifesto mattered. And right at the centre of our manifesto was education. There, on the front page – ‘a fair chance for every child’
And we have delivered on that. Let’s look at what Liberal Democrats have achieved in government in education.
Starting at the beginning. The earliest months and years of a child’s life, so crucial in setting life chances. And we know that children don’t start from the same place. Circumstances of birth and family life leave a dark shadow on even the youngest children. So that’s why we have made early intervention a priority. We have protected Sure Start – against those who wanted to scrap any form of state provision for the youngest. Yes, the budget has been cut. But fewer than 1% of centres have closed. And 67% of the population lives within a mile of a centre.
And it’s not just Sure Start centres. We have extended childcare options for working parents. Starting this September, 20% of the most deprived 2 year olds now receive 15 hours of free childcare a week – and that’s doubling to 40% by next September. £750m – in a tight economic situation – to provide for children. And we’ve kept the free hours for 3 year olds and 4 year olds as well.
The pupil premium. A signature Liberal Democrat commitment. £2.5bn by the end of this Parliament – more money direct to schools to help the most deprived children receive a world class education. And just look at what a difference it is already making – to schools like Pakeman primary school, Westminster Academy, and Longford Park special school – winners of the first ever pupil premium awards.
And to help parents at times of difficulty, and make sure every pupil receives at least one good meal a day, universal free school meals for 5, 6 and 7 year olds. No stigma. No judgement. Just a hot, nutritious meal for everyone.
And we’ve tackled the issue of schools that do not provide enough young people with the education they need. Too many of these serve our poorer communities. But the Academies programme is offering more children a high quality education. As Paul Hunt says, “Every child should be entitled to a liberal education: an education which promotes the freedom of the individual, both in terms of enabling them to get on in life (socially and economically) and to flourish in terms of intellect and cultural enjoyment”. Academies – funded in the same way, under the same admissions rules, and with the same requirements to cooperate on issues such as fair chances for pupil with special educational needs and those who are more challenging to educate – are raising life chances. And we’ve changed the way in which schools are judged in the league tables, so they’re no longer under pressure to get as many children over the C borderline, at the expense of focusing on all children.
For young people who want alternative pathways towards work and further education, we’ve strengthened vocational qualifications. We’ve massively increased the number and quality of Apprenticeships on offer and introduced Traineeships for 14 year olds. We have created world class centres of vocational training through University Technical Colleges. And we have created financial support for those who need it – including a brand new 16-19 bursary fund – and a Youth Contract that eases the transition for young people into jobs.
And even Higher Education. Yes, I said Higher Education. No one needs reminding of some of the recent history of this party in this area. But let’s look at what has been the result. Student numbers – up. Applications from disadvantaged groups – up, to record levels – including to some of our most prestigious universities. Student satisfaction at record highs. More money available for universities to spend on facilities, teaching, and bursaries and financial support than ever before – an estimated £675m a year by the end of this Parliament. More financial support from the government; part time students eligible for loans for the first time ever. The return of maintenance grants for those in need. And when students graduate, lower earning graduates will now pay less under this new system than the previous one, and those earning less than £21,000 will not pay a penny.
So next time someone says to you that the Liberal Democrats can’t be trusted, or aren’t a serious party, or are just a wasted vote, just tell them. Tell them about education.”
The question for all political parties in the run up to 2015 will be what positive message and policies to tell on education (a task Policy Exchange will be supporting them with). As part of the Coalition government, the Lib Dems have a strong story to tell of a liberal education, and they should focus on that, rather than on opportunistically differentiating when times get tough.