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Speech to the Institute of Education, London 1995

Paddy Ashdown (Liberal Democrat)

Location: London

Ladies and gentlemen, like a College Lecturer, I will begin by saying that anyone who has come here to listen to Gillian Shepherd is in the wrong place! and might want to leave now!

When I was asked if I could bring my lecture forward from next year, because the Minister had to pull out of this afternoon, I thought at first she must be worried that she’d have no bright ideas left after the Conservative Party Conference!

But then I discovered that it is, in fact, the first combined Education and Employment Department questions in the Commons today.

These are impossible for the Secretary of State to get out of. So it is not to criticise Gillian Shepherd to wonder which would serve Britain’s education system better - 45 minutes of questioning here or 45 minutes of ya-boo-sucks in the worst behaved classroom in the country!

However, with the Party Conference season over, one thing is crystal clear.

Education is now top of the agendas of all three parties. And it will keep a high profile right up to the next election.

Now think back to what happened to health in the last election - the battle of “Jennifer’s Ear” and all that - and some of you might regard this new political profile as something of a mixed blessing.

But that prominence does at least give everyone concerned with the future of education in this country a great opportunity to raise the issues that matter ... so make the most of it!

And the strength of the protest from parents, governors and teachers against the government’s education cuts earlier this year - which I think really took some Westminster politicians by surprise - showed that education matters to the PEOPLE of Britain, too.

The reasons are well-known and well-rehearsed, and I don’t intend to spend long preaching to the converted.

Education is what feeds our curiosity, fosters our talents, broadens our horizons, helps us to fulfil our potential as individuals.

It is what breeds tolerance and respect, and holds together a lawful, liberal society - the sort of society, to quote the Liberal Democrat Constitution, “in which no-one is enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity”.

And increasingly, as we all know, it is the key to both individual and national economic success in the modern world.

Intelligence. Skills. Insights. Ideas. These will be the most important properties and the most important source of wealth in the twenty-first century.

Knowledge will mean power - and ignorance will mean isolation.

Now, statements like these have tended to become rather pat on platforms like this. But they have to be repeated - because they’re more than tired platitudes, they’re plain truths.

And whether levels of education and skill are getting better or worse in Britain, what is absolutely clear is that, in relative terms, other countries are racing ahead, and we are falling behind.

In the latest World Competitiveness Report on the adequacy of different countries’ education systems, Britain was 35th out of 48.

The question is - how do we reverse this.

The reality, as everyone knows, is that we have to do two things.

First, we have to make a concerted effort to raise standards.

And second, we have to invest significant extra funds to create new opportunities.

Some say getting education right is just a question of resources. Politicians who won’t commit themselves to extra funding say it is all an issue of standards.

In fact, if Britain is to become the world’s leading learning society - and that must now be our aim - then it can’t be done without hard work to raise standards, and it can’t be done without money, either.

The Liberal Democrats are the only party in Britain who will give you both.

I intend to focus primarily on how we raise standards today, but I will begin with the issue of extra investment - not least because it is absolutely central to any effort to raise standards.

The problem of underfunding is well-established, and the scale of the problem especially clear to anyone working at the coal-face of our education system - in the classroom.

Over the last three years there have been 12,000 teacher redundancies because of cuts.

This year’s cuts amounted to 50 pounds for every primary pupil, and 200 pounds for every secondary pupil.

And the non-funding of the pay award amounts to an extra cut of a quarter of a billion pounds.

The non-funded pay award is quite extraordinary when you think about it. I read a letter in an education magazine recently which just about summed it up. It said:

“Dear Sir,

My son was delighted when I told him I was increasing his pocket money by five pounds a week. .... He was, however, bemused, when I told him I was not funding the increase!”

In our primary schools, there are a million pupils in classes over thirty and nearly 100,000 in classes over 36.

And Britain still languishes near the bottom of the European league table in nursery education provision.

I could go on, but I am sure most of you know the statistics. The reality was finally given the stamp of official recognition in Gillian Shepherd’s secret Chequers memo:

“Insufficient resources now threaten the provision of education in the state schools sector”, it said. It couldn’t be clearer. And yet, nothing in Gillian Shepherd’s Conference speech addressed the problem.

Yesterday I wrote to every Conservative MP not on the Government pay-roll, calling on them to lobby the Chancellor to put education investment at the heart of the Budget, and to back education investment before tax cuts when it comes to voting on the Budget. As I said to them: “while there are legitimate debates about the right structure for education, and a range of ideas for raising standards, it ought to be common ground between the political parties that education needs and deserves a higher level of resources”.

Liberal Democrats say education must now be the first call on the nation’s resources - and that, self-evidently, means that other areas of spending are not.

Now let me make one thing absolutely clear. Neither Paddy Ashdown nor the Liberal Democrats believe in throwing money at problems. Absolutely not.

But go to an estate where youngsters without jobs can’t get training because the Government’s cut the training budget, and tell me that money’s got nothing to do with it.

Go to a school where there are more than thirty-five kids in a class because of the government’s cuts and tell me that money’s got nothing to do with it.

Go to a village where there is no pre-school education, and tell me that money’s got nothing to do with it.

And that is why the debate about nursery vouchers is, in a way, so irrelevant.

I have always thought that vouchers are an interesting mechanism for extending parental choice - where there is a choice to be made.

Trust this Government to mess up and discredit an interesting idea.

The plain fact is that vouchers will not in themselves “create” pre-school education where it does not exist.

The current proposals are more about political point-scoring than trying to reach a sensible consensus-based approach to increasing places. The current proposals will do nothing for three year olds, and could actually undermine existing provision.

The reality is that without enough quality provision, vouchers amount to little more than a subsidy to those whose kids have places already.

If the Government really wants to make a reality of Margaret Thatcher’s commitment to pre-school education for all - made, you will remember, back in 1972 - and if the Labour Party want to deliver their frequently made commitment to the same goal, then it can only be done with new - substantially new - resources. Almost 900 million pounds more, to be precise.

Everyone agrees we need to do it. But unless you say how you will pay for it, the commitment is worthless, and will only raise unrealistic expectations.

The Liberal Democrats guarantee the resources to provide high quality early years education to every parent who wants it. And we say where the money will come from.

Just be clear.

Doubling the amount of money for the assisted places scheme does NOT amount to a strategy to invest in education.

Phasing out the assisted places scheme and gradually using the money saved to cut primary school class sizes - however laudable - does NOT amount to a strategy to invest in education, either.

The National Commission on Education was nearer the mark when it said an effective strategy to create new opportunities and raise standards in education would cost at least an extra two billion pounds a year.

Liberal Democrats agree. And if necessary, to make that investment, we are prepared to ask people to pay an extra penny of income tax to do it. That’s the Liberal Democrat guarantee to invest in people.

But Liberal Democrat education policy combines the cash to create new opportunities with a programme to raise standards, which I want to set out this afternoon.

It is a six pronged programme.

First, giving schools the freedom to do more, as a real resource for the whole community.

Second, involving parents more in the learning process.

Third, raising teachers’ professional status and standards.

Fourth, improving the inspection process and follow-up support in schools.

Fifth, establishing a new more flexible qualifications framework post-14, as the basis for an effective system of lifelong learning.

And sixth, harnessing new technology to transform learning, and to put our classrooms in the vanguard of the Information Age - modernising our education system with a computer-based technological revolution.

Combined with extra resources, this is a programme that can turn Britain into an education leader in the twenty-first century.

First, we need to make more of our schools.

Still schools are seen by too many as eight-thirty to three-thirty events for a particular age group. In the education revolution this country needs, they must become, instead, the centres of community learning networks offering a whole range of educational opportunities for all ages, all through the day, all through the year - a process, incidentally, in which new technology has a critical role to play.

School playing fields, playgrounds and gymnasiums are often completely unused during school holidays. Computers and laboratories are normally used only by the pupils of a school.

These are resources which should be used much more effectively - and doing so will give schools a great opportunity to expand opportunities for the whole community.

Liberal Democrats will fully support this.

One approach - for example - would be for local authorities, schools and sports clubs to band together into Community Sports Bases to maximise the use of leisure facilities in local communities - trading off cheap access to school facilities for access to sports club facilities and quality coaching. Sports clubs involved in the local Community Sports Bases would benefit from its charitable status and zero-rating for VAT.

The key point is that it’s about looking outwards, thinking imaginatively, taking a strong community focus, and working in partnership with others.

Making the most of these resources depends on giving schools the freedom to develop imaginatively and independently.

Liberal Democrats pioneered local management of schools in Cambridgeshire, and we want all schools to have maximum freedom and autonomy.

But when Government “reforms” put the purse-strings in the hands of centrally-appointed quangos and the power to close schools in the hands of the Secretary of State, the rhetoric of devolved power is a complete fraud.

We believe that all schools need to operate with as much independence as possible, within a light-touch local strategic framework, which concerns itself principally with only two aspects of education - equality of access and quality of provider.

Only that way can there be - for example - an effective strategy for meeting special educational needs in any area, or an equitable approach to admissions and funding, or an effective structure for post-14 education.

This is not to attack choice, or to try to strangle the independence of individual schools, or to seek to return to the heavy hand of LEA bureaucracy.

It is to move forward in a common-sense manner - combining freedom for schools to develop in their own distinctive ways with partnership and sensible strategic planning.

The second task is to bring parents much more into the education process. This is the most cost-effective way to add value to the learning process and raise standards.

I believe most parents are more interested in participating in their child’s learning than in participating in their school’s administration.

That is not to undervalue the work of, for example, Parent Teacher Associations, which play an extremely important role. Nor would I wish to undervalue the equally important role of parent-governors.

It is just to argue that parents have a much greater role to play in the education process.

The home, after all, is not just the earliest influence on all our learning experiences, but also the most important.

The challenge is to enable parents to be constructively and productively involved once the process of “formal”, school-based, education begins.

In many cases I am sure that the will and the desire to be more involved are not the problem - but knowing HOW, and having a formal framework within which to do it, probably ARE.

Parent-school contracts have a key role to play.

Parent-school contracts are a way of entrenching the parental responsibilities that go with the right to free education provided by the State - responsibilities that are too often overlooked.

To make parent-school contracts work, every school will need a home-school links member of staff, acting as a bridge between home and classroom, parent and teachers, and who can give parents guidance about what more they could be doing to help their children learn.

At the beginning of the year, parents would come to the school and discuss with the teachers their children’s progress, their concerns, and what they, as parents, could do as their part of the “educational bargain”.

This could involve help within the school, but would focus primarily on what they would do to help in the learning process at home - for example, providing a given amount of time each week with reading, or agreeing a statement of behaviour to be expected from the pupil.

Of course, such agreements would have to be arrived at freely between the school and parents if they are to succeed. But we would require inspectors to assess how well home-school links were being developed as part of the inspection process.

I do not believe it would take long for the concept to become as accepted as, for example, paying the TV licence, or not drinking and driving, or indeed, wearing a school uniform - and established as a useful, indeed, fundamental element of the drive to raise levels of education in this country.

The third key task in the drive to raise standards is to recognise the professional status of teachers and encourage teachers themselves to raise professional standards.

The corner-stone must be a new General Teaching Council - giving teachers the professional body that almost all other professions have, and the framework of self-regulation within which good teachers can be encouraged and poor teaching can be identified and isolated.

The General Teaching Council would promote professionalism, safeguard and improve standards, and advise government.

It would also be crucial to establishing a culture for teachers where there are real rewards for success and real consequences for failure.

As well as striving to improve the quality of teaching, there should be incentives such as sabbaticals and secondments to keep good teachers in the profession and opportunities for all teachers to develop their skills and interests.

As well as objective assessment and the expectation of the highest in professional excellence, there should be additional support and in-service training for teachers who need it most.

This brings me to the fourth key area for raising standards - the inspection-and-support process.

Critics of inspection tend towards the view that “you don’t fatten a pig by constantly weighing it”. That is true up to a point. But, to quote my colleague Don Foster, “weighing does give some idea whether the pig needs fattening and, if so, by how much”.

And perhaps the biggest problem with the inspection process right now is the inadequacy of inspection “after-care”, especially after savage cuts to advisory and support services. These services are staffed by the very people, incidentally, who the Prime Minister dismissed as wasteful “administrators” in the arguments over the cuts earlier this year.

My Party does believe that inspections can make a significant difference. But the true value of inspections will only be realised if their findings are followed up with helpful advice and effective support - and that requires more than the high-profile Task Forces for the very small number of “failing schools”.

Raising standards requires a continuous process of review, individually planned in each school.

Every school’s Institutional Development Plan should include details of it’s own priorities for its self-review.

Strengthened LEA advisory teams would then act as moderators of each school’s review process.

We would lengthen the Ofsted inspection cycle to six or seven years, but increase the powers of various bodies to initiate an inspection.

For example, an LEA advisory service - worried by the actions or performance of a particular school - would be able to call for an inspection.

And we would scrap the current bidding system and have inspections, once again, led by a rejuvenated HMI.

But I reiterate the key point. Inspections have to be followed-up by effective support and training to put things right.

With this approach, Ofsted and the LEAs could help ensure that standards improve by both weighing the pig and helping it alter its diet so that it fattens in the right places.

The fifth task is to reform the structure of qualifications after 14.

Britain still has a serious “staying-on” problem after 16.

A large part of the problem is the qualifications structure. The artificial and unhelpful divide between academic and vocational courses remains. A-levels are too narrow and specialist. And too many people have no education or training at all once they leave school.

That is why two central planks of the Liberal Democrats’ education commitment are the guarantee of two days a week education or training for everyone between 16 and 19, and a significant expansion of opportunities for adult education and retraining.

But we should also be moving towards a more integrated, but also more flexible, framework of courses post-fourteen. A modular structure, leading to a qualification more like the International Baccalaureate than the A-level.

And as well as giving individuals more choice and flexibility as they map out their future learning, it will provide a solid, credit-based framework within which to make lifelong learning a reality.

The final prong of our programme to raise standards must be a technological revolution in the way education is delivered.

I have been making speeches on the information superhighway for over a decade now. Last May I dedicated a whole speech to the enormous opportunities of information technology for education. So I am glad that the opportunities offered by the new technologies are now being recognised across the political spectrum.

Take multi-media learning systems - not systems to REPLACE traditional classroom teaching, but to enhance it.

In the words of Dr Joyce Wood of Sussex University, an integrated learning system offers students “engagement without surrender, connection without commitment, the possibility of failure without humiliation. It lets the user exercise control and elude it at the same time ... It constantly stretches the child, adjusting to allow success only three-quarters of the time and offering praise for achievement. The child feels competent but not complacent. The system monitors the child’s progress, giving the teacher a diagnostic report of strengths and weaknesses”.

Systems like this would turn the learning process on its head - and make it far more exciting.

One school inspector, after seeing an Integrated Learning System in a school in Coventry, said:

“In a poorly taught class he would expect the students to be on task for 40% of the lesson. With a good teacher that would rise to 60%. Here he judged the figure was 95%. He was astounded.”

But integrated learning systems are just one of a whole range of new opportunities.

With information technology, we can revolutionise the scope of flexible and individual learning.

We can transform the delivery of training in the workplace.

We can hugely expand the role of our schools and universities.

Yet we are a long way off.

At the moment, according to Her Majesty’s Inspectors, too many pupils are receiving “a very limited diet of IT and to a relatively superficial level”.

The National Commission on Education made clear that: “the key difference between a good application and a poor application of IT appears to be well-trained, well-prepared and well-motivated staff supported by adequate investment”.

Yet the amount of IT training on teacher training courses is totally inadequate. And although in-service training for teachers has received more attention, it is still woefully short. These deficiencies must be tackled as a matter of urgency.

The challenge is not just to familiarise students with new technology, but to expand the use of IT to improve the quality of teaching right across the curriculum - to turn the computer into a tool to improve educational productivity in the way computers are used in business and industry.

We won’t be able to achieve this with public money alone.

But a partnership project in Liverpool - like similar schemes in, for example, the Silicon Valley - illustrates how we can move forward, and they should be given maximum encouragement.

In Liverpool, the LEA, the local Association of Secondary Heads, John Moores University and the UK’s largest private vocational training company plan to put 3.5 million pounds worth of multimedia hardware into schools to provide National Curriculum teaching in the day, and commercial training for small and medium sized businesses out of school hours. Schools and the University are providing free premises to the training firm. The firm is buying the hardware and putting IT-skilled staff into the schools to support the teachers during the day.

Now that’s what I called expanding the role of the school.

Universities, in particular, have a great opportunity. Not just to expand opportunities for their students, as they have been able to do through, for example, the SuperJANET network. But also to take advantage of the new technologies to EXPORT their own courses and services.

The new Technology Centre at the University of Ulster in Belfast, for example, will be franchising lectures to three Japanese Universities, using distance learning techniques.

The key task for Government is to set the framework of public policy within which the information society can flourish - and within which access for all is made a priority.

Without that, access will be restricted and we will see an even greater widening of the great social gap of the future - the gap between the information haves and the information have-nots in our society.

Ensure a competitive market, lay down a framework of sensible regulation and market-driven technological development will see to the rest.

The most important commitment from GOVERNMENT is to create the sort of national information infrastructure, with public access at its heart, that Al Gore is overseeing in America. Left to their own, market forces will NOT somehow just sort things out.

We’ve known for a long time that BT would be prepared to link up public access points in return for lifting the ban on their entry into the entertainment market.

But let’s not sell ourselves cheap, in a cosy, corporatist deal.

They’re getting a great deal - driven, let’s be clear, not by some public-spirited altruism, but by hard commercial sense - and we should be getting in return, not just public access points in libraries and schools, but connection to every house and business in the country, on a universal access basis, to a universal, massively broadband, low-cost network.

This is perfectly possible. It would be absolutely unforgivable if the opportunity for UNIVERSAL access was lost because open debate about what Government required and open competition to achieve it was replaced by cosy private chats and sweetheart deals over champagne and canapés.

After all, if Britain is to be a learning leader in the twenty-first century, the learning process cannot stop at the classroom door.

The technological revolution must take new learning opportunities into the home and into the workplace.

What is clear is that we can’t AFFORD to miss this opportunity.

We CAN become an education leader, even the world’s leading learning society, but it will require COMMITMENT to match all the politicians’ warm words.

My Party understands that Britain’s people are Britain’s future.

And we guarantee that commitment.

To raise standards.

And to invest.

And if we do both, Britain will have an education system we can be proud of, and most importantly, Britain will have a future.

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