I think it is arguable that it is the education policy space that has seen more turmoil than any other policy area since the coalition began in 2010. The tide of ceaseless initiatives and new structures, conceived—seemingly at least–from Michael Gove’s view of how the world should operate mixed with his personal boyhood experiences of education, have left the education world reeling.
The thunderbolt hurled down recently from the DfE, announced by Nick Clegg, that pupils at Year 6 should be classified into deciles seems so retrograde that it is difficult to take seriously. But take it seriously we must, lest the lunatics are given carte blanche to completely take over the asylum.
At the Lib Dem Education Association, we are doing as much as we can to engage with the grass roots and find and recruit party members, connected somehow to the world of education, who can help contribute, in an evidence-based way, to the policy-making process as we gear up for 2015. But as we begin this process, both at the LDEA and here at the SLF, we keep coming back to the fundamental question, that somehow has been lost in all that haste at the DfE: “What is education for?”
We need to be careful. Increasingly we are being carried along by the argument—sometimes overt, sometimes tacit—that education is about being able to compete in the “global race” and therefore is vital in producing citizens who can help us compete. It is at root an economic argument, one that Tony Blair articulated so well when he made his “Education, education, education” speech.
Thus, we see Kenneth Baker, architect of the UTCs and studio schools, standing up at various events and quantifying in great detail “skills gaps” that need filling– in engineering, for example—so that we can compete in the global race. It is beginning to look like a state-planned economy—far away, indeed, from the usual more laissez-faire Tory position.
Though it is no doubt critical that individuals can be empowered , skilled and educated so that they can look after themselves, wherever possible, and make their way in life through working, this is not the same as an all round Liberal approach to education, which sees this as merely one of the goals of education. Education in both its truest and literal (from the Latin verb “educare”)sense is a process of “leading out” what is within an individual.
As I argued in an SLF review of education policy back in September 2012 (http://socialliberal.net/slf-publications/re-framing-education-policy-eveloping-a-coherent-progressive-and-sustainable-education-policy/), there is an alternative approach to education that involves developing the individual—in whatever way their talents, aptitudes and proclivities lie—and then letting those confident and skilled individuals shape our economy through their fulfilment of their own goals, and maximising their talents and capabilities. This would arguably in turn lead to: a more sustainable economy with free, empowered and adaptable citizens; a narrowing of the gap in inequalities of income and wealth; and an equaling out of perceptions of status in society.
There has never been a better time for this Liberal idea of education to take hold, as, through developments in technology, there is a vast number of opportunities to personalise education to individuals. For me, the massive void that has not begun to be addressed through any education initiatives so far has been finding ways of making sure our children are at the cusp of 21st century learning. We lag so far behind more progressive countries in this regard.
At the LDEA we will be debating “What is Education For?” in one of our fringes at conference and will be addressing 21st century learning through articles in our conference booklet. At the SLF, we are continuing this debate and are planning to publish a book on a distinct Social Liberal approach to education before the end of 2013.
For those with a strong interest in education, keep in touch, and contribute to the debate wherever, and however you can.
Helen Flynn is a Harrogate Borough Councillor, Vice Chair of the Lib Dem Education Association and elected member of the Lib Dem Federal Policy Committee. She is also sits on the SLF Council.