A New Liberal Approach to Education: Challenging the Broken Status Quo - by Layla Moran MP
A video of this lecture is available on the SLF Facebook page here.
It is an enormous honour to be here today to deliver this intimidatingly titled lecture.
It is however an even greater honour to deliver it as our Party’s Education Spokesperson.
As many will know, Education is my raison d’etre.I am driven by one overarching objective: that every child whose life I have the privilege of influencing, will leave their educational foundation with a sense of wonder about the world and with a toolkit to build a rich life upon it.
The early years of my career were in one of the most innovative schools in the world. After completing my Physics degree at Imperial, just after by 21st Birthday, I started teaching Maths and Science at an international school in Belgium. It was a school that put teacher development and curriculum innovation at the heart of its mission. I learned my craft from some of the best.
I had always been keenly aware that not everyone was as lucky as I to have had access to the best schools and supportive parents, but I has assumed, naively, that the State, especially a well-resourced State like Britain, would be there to step into the breach for those who did not. I equally thought most schools were like the one I was teaching in.
That bubble was burst when I came back to the UK to do my PGCE three years into my career. My placement was at a state-maintained comprehensive school in Hillingdon. I was still not technically qualified but I was the second most experienced science teacher in my department.
At first sight the school looked like a concrete monstrosity, with students and teachers scurrying furtively from place to place with grimaces where smiles should be.
But this first impression was off the mark. I made friends for life with my energetic but overworked colleagues, united in our frustration in our lack of resources to deliver a tickbox curriculum.
And the children were wonderful, as all children are. But some of course came from some very deprived backgrounds and I remember being depressed by the heavy handed discipline procedures that seemed to mainly want to segregate the trouble makers so they didn’t slow us down in delivering the bland syllabus.
The moment. The one moment seared in my memory, came when we had a staff meeting to discuss GCSE performance. I remember this vividly, sitting in the back of an overcrowded, stuffy staffroom. The head of the school came in and told us that the GCSE students’ names had been listed and each department had their own version of this list to put on their wall. They had been colour coded. Green, for ‘will achieve A*-C’, Yellow for Borderline and Red for ‘below’. We were told to focus on the yellows. Push the greens and make sure the reds pass but not to worry beyond that. When I asked why, the answer was clear. League tables they said.
I was angry. Not just by the nature of the system we found ourselves in, but by the overt way we were told to play it. This couldn’t be right. One of the students I saw the most potential in was one of the Reds. How dare they write him off.
But like a good NQT I did as I was told. A cold beer in the company of my equally appalled colleagues and we were replenished in our endeavour make it work. Teachers always do.
That anger brought me here today. I burn with a passion to fix this broken system which has not much changed since my early experience. I left the system almost immediately and retreated into the arms of the International Baccalaureate, a much more enlightened evidenced based approach that better chimed with my values.But I was left with a question, how on earth did we get here? Why are education systems so different? And which is the best one?
That led me to do as Masters in Comparative Education at the IOE. I learned about the history of our system, some of the causes for what’s going wrong and vowed I would join a Political Party and be part of the answer rather than rant from the sidelines. And it will come as no surprise to learn, that by the end of it, having mapped out in a grid-like fashion what the research said would help vs. different Parties’ Policies, that the Liberal Democrats were top by some way.
And as saying goes ‘the rest is history’. But I prefer my own version ‘the rest was my future’.
So how did we get here?
I am no historian, but I do believe that past is often a prologue.
So let’s start at the legislative beginning, and as with most good things, it all started with a Liberal MP…in this case William Forster the member for Bradford.
His Elementary Education Act of 1870 was the first of a number of acts of parliament passed between 1870 and 1893 to create compulsory education in England and Wales for children aged between five and 13.
Until then, education had been provided by the churches on an ad hoc basis and immediately the tension between church and state reared its head. On the one hand, we’re those who stood for the preservation of denominational interests, the other, advocates of a secular education.
The strain culminated at the second reading. By then the controversy had assumed threatening proportions; and George Dixon, the Liberal member for Birmingham, moved an amendment, the effect of which was to prohibit all religious education in schools. The government made its rejection a question of confidence, and the amendment was dramatically withdrawn. That broad consensus the religion should form part of the daily life of schools hasn’t effectively be challenged since.
The next leap forward was in 1944 with Education Act.
William Beveridge, who of course lends his name to this lecture, had sparked a national conversation about the welfare state with his famous report that recognised that the post-War world needed a new way forward.
Sponsored by the Tory Rab Butler, the Act was the first time free secondary education was made available to all. The 1944 Act was wide ranging, provided for nurseries as well as adult education and gave schools a duty to provide school meals and milk. Well we all know how those ended.
Let me pause for a moment to contrast what That Government achieved in the midst of a world war with the current decree from the Cabinet Office that there is to be no new legislation during Brexit. If ever we wanted an example of how suffocating Brexit is to our country’s imagination it is that.
A generation passed with subsequent Acts that tinkered with the system. Labour had tried to achieve full comprehensivisation in the70s, but this was kaiboshed by one Margaret Thatcher, then Education Secretary in the Heath Government. She was instrumental in the creation of the ‘New Right’ which believed in market forces driving up standards.
And then came The era of Reagan and Thatcher. The markets ruled and competition was king. The Education Reform Act of 1988 was a great leap. However in my eyes not necessarily one in the right direction. I attribute many of the issues we find in the system today to its driving principles.
Much of the landscape today is derived from this Act. League Tables, Ofsted, funding formulas, GCSEs, the National Curriculum, Key Stages and the concept of parental choice to name a few.
The stage for our modern era was set.
But not before New Labour took the new consensus and supercharged it.
Tony Blair’s clarion call of ‘Education, Education, Education’ is one of the most memorable leitmotifs of his Premiership. By the time I’d finished school and entered the profession, performance related pay, data driven targets and the introduction of Academies were in full swing.
Had I known then what I do now, I would have realised that that colour coded list that reduced my precious students to a set of traffic light colours, was a direct result of 20yrs of policy sediment and consensus around a Tory ideology
Today, 2018, is exactly 30yrs on from the 1988 Act. And I daresay, with some exception made of course for the work done by David Laws and Sarah Teather in Coalition, the direction policy has taken has simply been a continuation of the approach adopted at the time of Phil Collins being Top of the Pops and Spitting Image on ITV.
The thrust of my argument, in sharp contrast to David Blunkett who in 2014 said that the ‘changes are irreversible’, is that, in the midst of the biggest shake ups in political history, now is the time to challenge the consensus and define a New Liberal approach to Education that is fit for the future. In my view in 1988 we went down the wrong path, and when evidence presented of the approach not working, rather than turn back, we doubled down.
I reject the notion that we cannot achieve radical reform in education. I further argue, that as the Liberals who began this project, it is incumbent on us to provide the thought leadership and bravery required to challenge it.
Now I can hear the sceptics among you ask ‘Is the system so bad that it really needs such radical reform’?
This week, in my role as a primary school Governor, I attended part of a workshop to come up with a new vision the school. 50 excited staff members and governors in a room, sitting on child sized chairs, trying to define what education means to us in our community. We narrowed down a number of statements into to a few thematic words and were constructively arguing between a handful of different versions to make up our final vision.
Aspire vs. Inspire. Reach vs. Challenge. Semantics mattered. Energy was high and conversations deep. And then, hoping to be helpful, one teacher put up her hand and asked ‘What does Ofsted want’.
In that moment my heart sank slightly. We’d recently been through an Ofsted Inspection and it has been brutal. The school was downgraded from Good to Requires Improvement.
The inspector had been clearly disrespectful to staff and didn’t listen to a word of verbal evidence we had presented. They had reduced our headteacher to tears, and caused two members of staff to hand in their resignations the week after. But that wasn’t the part that annoyed us, even though our complaint had solicited an apology over their behaviour.
What annoyed us most was that the report utterly failed to capture what we would consider to be the best parts of the school. How we educate students from over 70 countries, how they are polite, always laughing and we gladly take those from worse off backgrounds and help them bridge the gaps that are a sad consequence of their inbuilt disadvantage.
We are especially proud of how our most disadvantaged students do, and Free Schools Meals and the Pupil Premium, great Lib Dem policies go a long way to help us do it.
In the painful year since inspection, we have ‘improved’. We have improved above all in providing the kind of evidence that helps us get a Good in and inspection.
Has the process made us reflect on efficiency and teaching and learning? Yes. Although we were doing that before, we just minute it better now.
I believe a barometer for how well an education system does is not to measure how well middle and upper middle class children do, but to focus on how well it serves those who do not have the safety nets of homes with decent incomes and parents who have the resources to play the system.
Equal access to a good education for all it largely political rhetoric and not the reality for many families. And it needs to be challenged.
The system we have now is one where even teachers can’t work out the difference between an academy, a free school, a grant-maintained or a voluntary aided school. All the data suggests the proliferation in types of Governance has had little to No effect on school improvement except to cost the state more money. Yet it has become part of the fabric of the myth that if we give parents choice, standards will rise…
Not that I suggest parents are to blame.
The premise must always be that parents always want to best for their children. I never blamed Dianne Abbott for sending her children to public school. She was following her instincts as do the vast majority of parents.
But, in the state system not all schools are as good as one another and it doesn’t take a genius to see the more a parent has in terms of wealth, time and connections, the better able they are to game the system. Moving house to be within catchment, employing tutors to help them pass the 11+ and get into the Grammar, and so on.
And what of the students?
The modern National Curriculum is a straight jacket that encourages conformity, not individualism and creativity of thought. Children at 5 are now tested within two weeks of entering school. Labelled like a pork product in a production line, and then data is painstakingly collected term on term, year on year until they leave.
Don’t get me wrong I love my data. But Data should inform not drive. Sometimes it feels like the Data is the purpose, not the tool.
There is a rural saying that I have borrowed from Tim Farron that says ‘ it don’t matter how often you weight the Pig, it don’t get no fatter’. Teachers obsess over the data and worry about value added and progress instead of spending time on high quality evidence based professional development that is far more likely to improve said data than measuring it.
Meanwhile, the curriculum is narrowing.
The number of students being able to access high quality arts subjects dwindles with the ’reorganisations’ necessary as a result of funding cuts. There is less and less time for that critical one to one interaction between a teacher and a student.
I was struck, just this week, that we saw the numbers of exclusions is up. Disproportionately white working class males. Many of whom have undiagnosed or minimally supported learning difficulties.
The scourge of lack of SEND provision is one that me and my fellow Parliamentarians in the Lords have taken up with gusto. As ever, it is the well-resourced parents who can pester the school, LEA or Ombudsman to ensure they get what they need.
To borrow a well loved teenage phrase: it’s just not fair.
And all this to a backdrop of low productivity, a teacher retention and recruitment crisis and an alarming rate of anxiety and depression in schools.
Is it any surprise that those who ‘fail in the system’ are the ones who the system ‘fails the most’?
So what now. What do we do?
Can you feel my sense of panic as I have watched, ten years after deciding to first intervene to stop this juggernaut, how over time the very drivers of improvement the same ones that have caused much of the crisis.
This isn’t just about funding. Although that has made things much much worse. This is a battle for ideologies.
Measuring, comparing, competing, the ideologies of the ‘New Right’ adopted by ‘New Labour’ and broadly too by the Coalition, are all in part responsible for it.
Well first, fellow Lib Dems, have heart that we have already done something. At our last conference I was proud that we passed policy that talked a small part of this and promised to abolish SATs (tests taken at 11), league tables and Ofsted.
We would replace Ofsted with an Inspectorate with a much wider remit, for example it would have an emphasis on wellbeing.
School improvement would centre on world class teacher professional development and schools being professional critical of their own and other schools’ practice.
We would pare down the National Curriculum and take it out of the hands of politicians altogether. No more minister fiddling with the maths curriculum because he feels like it thank you very much. Teaching is a science and an art, and as much as you wouldn’t want a minister deciding which order to cut you in an operation, nor should they have any say in how to teach mathematical mastery, or anything else.
We would also ensure arts were available in schools to all, not just those who can afford it, because lots of research shows students who have access to frequent high quality arts subjects have better outcomes and improved behaviour.
These are just a few of the things we have already adopted. Finally policy moving in the right direction.
Would you like to put a bet on how much of it the Labour Party nicks when they announce their policies eventually? And maybe one could argue that is what it means to be a smaller Party.
But it’s not enough for me. I want more. I want to reprise Beveridge’s zeal for starting a new conversation about education.
We could, and I believe we should, go much, much further.
I believe we should be the Party to challenge everything.
For example, given the age of compulsory education has been raised to 18, why do we have GCSEs? Why do we test at that age why not at 15 or at 17? Or why at all?
Given that the agrarian society on which the 19C Acts was built no long exists, and we know the detrimental effect of long summers on children of deprived backgrounds, why not spread school over more days but allow more more flexibility for parents to take their children on holidays and teachers to attend professional development?
What are the skills we need to cope with a world where machine learning will do the same basic tasks rote learning curriculum engenders? The machines can’t look someone in the eye and see how they are feeling, at least not yet, should we not be doing better at teaching things like that?
And I believe we need to braver as a Party.
Why, as a Liberal Party, knowing the damage it causes to the families caught up in the system, do we not further challenge Grammar schools? In my view selection is segregation.
And why do we accept, nearly 150 years later, the fudge on separation of church and state decided by Forster’s Act? Is it not time to fully uphold the notion that all children should have an equal right to any school, I simply do not see the place for religion of any type to play a part in our schooling system. Not in an age when communities are increasingly diverse and fewer and fewer families practice any religion at home.
It’s time to bring our education system, kicking and screaming if we have to, into the 21st Century and prepare us for the next 150years, not hold on to the consensus of the last.
In his guiding principles to the report Beveridge famously wrote that “a revolutionary moment in the world’s history is a time for revolutions, not patching”. He was right. And right now we face another such moment in the story of our Democracy.
And it is because of Brexit and the crisis we now face that we must be revolutionary. So when these Saharan political winds pass and the sand dunes have rearranged themselves, we will be ready, rather than just getting started.