One of the working groups submitting policy to Federal Conference in Glasgow next month will probably have a harder time than the other groups. The “14+ Education” policy which looks at school leavers, Further Education and Higher Education and presents its findings and policy ideas to be voted on (PDF of the full text is http://bit.ly/14yqTtH). I’m not going to argue here the pros or cons of the current system, old system, any new system or free-to-students system of paying for Higher education. Those arguments have, and will continue to, rage on both inside and outside the party. Here I will discuss some of the great core elements of the motion and mention my take on the fees element of the motion. There are 15 key themes in the paper; I’ve picked 3 that stand out for special mention here:
  • Information, advice and guidance (IAG)
For too long, young teenagers have been asked to simply think about what job they want to do for the rest of their lives. In some respects, that’s still the case. It’s redundant because jobs-for-life no longer exist, and how many of us know ourselves later in life so well, never mind at 14-16? Despite this, we still need to offer support, as some people at that age develop skills and talents in particular areas which they know they do want a job in, or someone can recognise their talents may suit a particular profession. The system of IAG proposed here looks at careers, educational attainment and developing personal skills. It also argues to consider the guidance from age 10 and the guidance to continue to be available to those over 25, which previously were assumed to know everything about their career choices and need no further support. This is a fantastic move, and overall this section deserves special credit.
  • Literacy and numeracy
Great debates were held and a collective view that the terms of “English and Maths” were inappropriate. This is because English and Maths are core subjects, whereas literacy and numeracy are skills, talents and are found in every subject area. They are also vital for employment, even on day 1 of your new job in understanding your contract and induction material. Of course English and Maths remain specific subjects; just that literacy and numeracy must be recognised as core concepts and skills, not individual lessons. Continuing the studies of literacy and numeracy until 18 matches with the new RPA (Raising of the Participation Age) in education, as well as allowing those who did not do so well at 11 or 16 to continue to improve, and those who did well to further they skills in these areas and apply them to other subjects of study.
  • Student premium, travel assistance
Overall, the Liberal Democrat core pledge of the Pupil Premium has been introduced, delivered and increased in government. We’re rightly proud of this achievement and should continue to be so. However, problems can arise in further education for students, and the EMA replacement, whilst seeming to help those with special needs better, has not covered enough students. To this end, a student premium would follow those 14-18 year olds entitled to free school meals, and cover free or subsidised transport up to 18. This is a fantastic approach as transport costs are often seen as a major hindrance to students. Finally, fees. As mentioned above, there is no argument in this blog for a particular system, other than to state the evidence does show student numbers have not suddenly dropped significantly and that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds have actually increased in number as university applications. I hereby offer the following reassurances:
  • The working group took this issue very seriously, as with the rest of the paper. There are some concerns from some people that fees were not considered well, or the group was minded to just want to keep the current system and not bother with analysing how it works.
  • There were many, many discussions with external professionals and bodies, including discussions regarding fees, so these were taken on-board to discuss within the hugely experienced and talented team in the working group, so it wasn’t just the group’s own ideas that were considered
  • The current proposal was suggested, after such consideration, to keep the current system and review it in the next parliament, when the first cohort of students complete their studies and begin to pay back, if earning over £21,000. This will allow for a proper, factual and evidence-based review.
I know at least one amendment will be offered to the FPC on the fees issue. I support this process and allow conference to decide on any amendments put forward. All I ask is that you seriously consider the rest of the paper and don’t focus solely on what is, admittedly, the emotive issue of student fees. Lee was a member of the Education working group, exec member of LDEA and vice-chair of Liberal Youth

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