Posts Tagged education

Harrogate day 2: keeping the faith

Saturday was the day for the schools debate and the controversial topic of faith schools. The daily announcements showed 3 different amendments on faith schools. I put in a card to speak – so had everyone else.

But that was for the afternoon. First I went to hear Simon Hughes on the fight for fairer fuel bills. Then according to my reminders, it was Lorely Burt launching the small business survey on level 4 of the conference centre. Except in my text, she’s Lordly Bust. And level 4 turned out to be on the ground floor. Strange are the ways of conference.

Then it was over to the Holiday Inn with our Euro candidates, to meet up with Vince Cable. Anyone who says Lib Dems don’t do religion should see the queue for Vince.

Then back to the main hall for another cult figure, Howard Dean. Ed Davey reminded us of Howard’s early opposition on Iraq, and his breakthrough use of the internet in campaigning. Every speaker seems to reference Obama this conference, but Howard is entitled. He made the point that Obama deliberately reached out to groups like evangelical Christians on issues of common interest: poverty, climate change, Darfur. And that nothing beats repeated face-to-face contact.

In search of the same, I trotted across town to make it to the candidates’ meeting with Governor Dean (venue turned out to be called the William and Victoria. And there was me asking for the William and Mary). Governor Dean developed his theme of no no-go areas: and he urged us to fill the void left by a failing Labour party, as we filled our void with some lunch.

Back to the hall for Chancellor Vince. And then it was the schools debate. Our schools policy proposes radical action – freeing schools from Whitehall control, cutting class sizes, extra money for the poorest with the pupil premium – which will transform schools and reactivate social mobility. So far so good. But how do we handle faith schools? Often our conference debates are interesting but rarely a genuine conflict. This time there was a real decision to make.

The motion proposed requiring faith schools to phase out any selection by faith within five years. That wasn’t enough for the secularists who wanted no faith schools but too much for others who found it offensive to their Lib Dem faith of localism. Why would we pass a policy that decentralises all education decision making except admissions policy for some schools? And then imposes a single option that local communities might not want. Would a faith school with no members of that faith community within its walls in either staff or pupils be more than a soulless logo? As Jonathan Davies argued, I do not want to impose my faith on you, but do not impose your secularism on me.

We had many Islington voices in the debate. James Kempton proposed the policy, with Farhana Hoque in support (she pointed out that as a Muslim girl in a Catholic school, she had ended up an atheist: so much for the brainwashing power of faith schools). Arnie Gibbons spoke for the secularists, Meral Ece for those who value the faith element in schools. After a nail-biting counted vote – literally too close to call – the amendment allowing councils to decide was passed. I’m happy with that: the real enemy of equity in our schools not faith, but class.

Social mobility has gone into reverse under Labour. And I’m proud that our party is doing something to change that.

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Harrogate day 1; trains, training and twenty-one again

It’s spring conference time, so there I was up at silly o’clock yesterday to get the 7am train to Harrogate.

The train was excellent: free power and wifi for our laptops – in standard class; drinkable tea; pretty countryside. What’s not to like?

Change at York: our next train is on platform 8. We have signs for platforms 1-7, 9 and 10-12. Platform 8 is cunningly hidden, but we find it, and get the bus-like train to Harrogate. I love this bit of the journey: pretty little stations that evaded Beeching with names like Poppleton; the stunning view of the river at Knaresborough; and then Harrogate itself.

Harrogate is a great conference venue, a place you’d be happy to visit anyway. The centre is very compact, which is great for conference, but can make finding accommodation a challenge.

My hotel is strategically placed between the station and the conference centre (and nearly opposite Betty’s tea rooms). Some folk are commuting from as far away as Leeds. Although not our intern James. He not only blagged a first class train ticket from an Islington member whose travel plans had changed, but then swiftly relocated from Leeds to Harrogate, taking up the room of another Islington delegate who’d suddenly fallen ill. Clearly a man to watch.

Conference proper started last night, but we arrived early for training. Long hours listening scribbling top tips, collecting handouts, shuttling from one classroom to another. (Why are the training rooms called suites when there is neither loo nor drinks for miles?) I kept expecting to find myself back in double Maths with Miss Wyeth. Quite appropriate for an education-themed conference. The training is excellent and we headed for the rally full of new ideas.

The pre-rally reception was such a tight squeeze that the host speaker could barely get in. They say the secret of a successful party is too many people in too small a space, with plenty of drink. The reception was working on the Meatloaf principle (two out of three ain’t bad).

The rally itself was a celebration of 21 years of the LibDems, elegantly reviewed by Alix here: jazz, videos, uplifting speeches, and a reminder of how far we’ve come.

I remember those dire years after merger, the party coming 5th in a Euro election, our unofficial theme song “The only way is up”. And now we are the most successful liberal party in Europe, and Labour is down to a 484 majority in Islington South. Lord Rennard suggests our new theme should be “you’ll never walk alone”. It’s a great tune, but not one we’ll be singing on the Arsenal-loving streets of Islington.

Then dinner with friends and onto the local government reception – in time to see Islington council win the award for regeneration. Not a bad start to the weekend.

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The transforming power of education

Last night we had an inspiring evening debating education and social exclusion.

The other week, my parents reminded me that my first ever political demo was against education cuts – in my pushchair! As the daughter and sister-in-law of teachers; a school governor; a former youth worker; and a scholarship girl at university, I am steeped in a commitment to the transforming power of education and the importance of seeking excellence for all pupils.

But as I’m a Lib Dem you’d expect that. What was special about last night was debating the issues with our guest speaker, Stephen Williams MP. Stephen is not only part of our Education team in Parliament, he embodies what we are campaigning for. Stephen told us of his background: a kid getting free school meals, the son of a road worker and a dinner lady, who became the first in his family to get to university – and now an MP.

And unlike the Labour MPs – who broke Blair’s tainted promise and pulled up the ladder of achievement that helped them, by introducing tuition fees – Stephen and the Lib Dems are still looking at ways to extend opportunity. Like the pupil premium, and cutting class sizes (launched in Islington!) to give the poorest infants the same pupil-teacher ratios as prep schools. And like the truly radical proposals on parental leave.

With the sad death of Ivan Cameron, parents in politics are in the news for tragic reasons. I now believe that the big divide in politics is less between men and women (although it’s still there) and more between people who have caring responsibilities (usually women) and those without.

I’m so proud that Lib Dems have serious plans to address these equity issues and to power up the transforming effect of education. This is just what communities like Islington need.

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Will local government do training better than quangos?

Yes: according to Islington Council leader James Kempton in a new pamphlet, “Governing a world city“.

The booklet looks at the big issues for London government – crime, the Olympics, housing, child poverty – and James’ piece is on the latest changes proposed to the education and training of 16-19 year olds. Unusually for a Government so in love with quangos as new Labour, this time the change is back to local councils.

James rather optimistically writes that this “shows a real shift in government confidence over [local government’s] ability to deliver.” He points out that getting rid of the quangos “cuts out a layer of needless bureaucracy”, hooray for that, although the language of “light touch commissioning models” and “a regional commissioning plan to guarantee learner choice” suggests that bureaucracy isn’t entirely done for.

Best of all, he sets out some real examples of how this will benefit London teenagers, including giving young people who’ve left school access to courses as well as school students; sensible careers advice; and lots of new apprenticeships, including on projects such as Crossrail.

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More on Lib Dems’ education plans

More coverage of the Lib Dem schools’ policy – launched in Islington – in the Guardian, and the Indy.

At the heart of the plans is cutting primary school class sizes to just 15, to give state school infants the same good start as their peers in private schools: as the Indy points out, a recent report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development revealed that the gap in class sizes between state and private schools was larger in the UK – at 13 pupils per class – than anywhere else in the world. Internationally, the difference on average is between one and two pupils per class.

Setting low minimum class sizes would particularly benefit boroughs with a high turnover, like Islington. As a school governor myself, I know how the official number of pupils – recorded each January and on which school funding depends – varies dramatically from term to term. A lower number of pupils to start with means schools could handle an influx of pupils mid year much better.

Investing in schools isn’t just about improving education, important though that is. It’s crucial for children’s life chances and those of their whole family. Social class still dictates the education you’ll have and the life you’ll lead, not your intelligence or commitment. That’s wrong, and it’s Labour’s shame that it’s still the case.

I’m proud that my party is proposing something that will really change it.

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Social mobility no better under Labour

I remember years ago meeting a councillor from one of the leafier bits of Sheffield.

We compared notes on our patches, including advice surgeries and casework. Most of mine was housing or planning; she agreed about the planning, but said she had hardly any housing casework. It turned out that was because she had hardly any council housing in the ward.

Nowhere’s like that in Islington. Part of the charm, and the challenge, of our community is that all kinds of people live side by side. In my row of council and ex-council flats, there are everyone from young professionals flat-sharing to respectable pensioners, to large families making do on small incomes. We share a postcode but our life chances are all very different. And Labour’s grand plans to tackle social exclusion and inequality, and improve mobility and opportunity, have failed.

As Martin Narey, Chief Executive of Barnardos, reported recently, “Britain today is a society of persistent inequality. The life chances of children remain heavily dependent on the circumstances of their birth. Children born to poorer families have less favourable outcomes across every sphere of life.”

He was writing in his role as independent Chair of the Liberal Democrats’ Social Mobility Commission. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg set up the Commission because as a party we care passionately about social mobility. Many Liberal Democrat supporters from a social democrat background have joined us because they feel angry and betrayed by Labour’s failure to deliver on what could have been a common agenda.

Instead, over the last five years, many of the key indicators of social exclusion have got worse, not better, according to research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Meanwhile, the extra money Labour has put into schools has largely benefitted children from better-off backgrounds. And the poorest families have been excluded from university because of tuition fees. Liberal Democrats are calling for a pupil premium, as extra money to support the poorest pupils, to try and redress the balance.

I’ve blogged before about child poverty. Islington-based charity the Child Poverty Action Group is running the 2 Skint 4 School campaign to highlight how poverty and bad education are linked in a vicious circle.

The waste of opportunity – for individuals and our country – is a tragedy; investing in the best start for young people is the right thing to do morally, socially and economically. The cost of crime, unemployment and poor health from doing nothing, is far greater than the cost of doing the right thing now.

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On the fringe: children and technology

For once, I didn’t have to agonise over which speaker to hear at 6.15pm yesterday, because I was on speaking duty myself.

Some weeks ago I agreed to be a guest speaker at a fringe meeting on children and technology..

Organising fringe meetings is a nerve-wracking business. In the early 1990s I was chair of LINk, a think-tank of the day, and I well remember the dilemmas over size of room, speakers, etc. If you go for a small room you’ll get mobbed, a large one and you rattle around. The worst situation is where the panel outnumbers the audience – entirely possible when there are 40 or more meetings at the same time – and you feel you’ve let your speakers down.

Our meeting hosts, Vodaphone, seemed to have got it right: with an interested audience and a diverse panel. Andrew Peart from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers was concerned about cyber-bullying, while Cary Bazalgette, a media literacy expert (and Islington resident!) was arguing that children need freedom to explore and create in order to learn.

We heard from Lesley Gannon from the National Association of Head Teachers about policy development, and from Annie Mullins of Vodaphone (and chair of the Home Office task force on internet & child protection) about the industry’s response.

The internet is an almost impossible area to regulate, even if you can agree what regulation is needed.

For example, YouTube can’t screen all the material posted there without employing hundreds, possibly thousands of staff: at which point you have to charge for YouTube – and then its whole nature changes.

My views? Technology leaps generations (remember people saying they needed their children to programme the video player?) so while adults have to adapt to new technology, for young people it’s as mainstream as fridges and phones are to their parents.

The challenges for teachers are the same teaching web safety as road safety, the same teaching netiquette as etiquette; it’s less about banning things, more about teaching our children to navigate them safely and responsibly. My problem with ‘happy slapping’ is the slap not the snap.

Worrying about ‘the youth of today’ and worrying about the subversive effects of new technology are both age-old. So is trying to get the balance right between freedom and safety.

One questioner suggested restrictions on material with ‘teachers’ and ‘fighting’ in the title. But where would that leave a webstory about “teachers fighting cyber-bullying”?

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