Education has always been of special importance for liberals and Liberal Democrats throughout the ages. It has been one of the best vehicles for enabling individuals to obtain their full potential, develop their talents and make the most of the opportunities that they are presented with. It is with this in mind that Helen Flynn and John Howson’s chapter is so warmly received in the latest publication from the Social Liberal Forum, ‘Four Go In Search of Big Ideas’.
Flynn and Howson rightly place great emphasis on the need to improve early years education. They call for a highly funded early years sector that is equipped with the staff necessary to develop the learning of schoolchildren and identify any potential barriers that they may face in future learning. These teachers would need to be well educated and properly trained. The authors identify that educational inequalities emerge even before children start their formal education at the age of five. The socio-economic inequalities faced by children from the poorest backgrounds need to be tackled with extra funding from the very beginning.
Flynn and Howson propose a professional College of Teaching that would be a watchdog for professional standards in education in a similar way that the British Medical Association is in regard to the NHS. This is very much needed if the public is to continue to have faith in the professionalism and high standards of the UK’s education sector. In a similar vein, Flynn and Howson also suggest having Chief Education Officer in government who would help to guarantee best practice and develop evidence-based policy.
Assessments are undoubtedly an important part of education. It is time that we review how we assess and evaluate the progress of schoolchildren in education, if not overhaul it entirely. The authors support the idea of replacing GCSEs and A levels with an overarching diploma. When it comes to the assessment of 11-year-olds, Flynn and Howson suggest having a system of national sampling of the education standards in the basic subjects. This would help to reduce the anxiety currently faced by schoolchildren at the end of primary school when they have to sit their SATs tests.
Local democracy is a core value of liberalism. Flynn and Howson support the idea of increased local democratic oversight when it comes to the delivery of local education. They believe that devolving additional education policy powers to local areas would allow for innovative school structures and systems of school improvement. The authors also suggest having a regional system of school inspection and believe that it would be more effective in identifying problems in schools than the current inspection system in England.
One of the radical ideas proposed by Flynn and Howson is to develop a political consensus around education policy. This would include all the main parties agreeing on what policies are needed to create a progressive education system. This would help to ensure the best educational outcomes and that resources are used most effectively regardless of who was in office. The Liberal Democrats have previously made a similar proposal when it comes to managing and properly funding the NHS. Both health and education have become ‘political footballs’. Such a political consensus on education has been shown to work effectively in Finland since the 1970s.
Flynn and Howson’s chapter is filled with new big ideas that will help to revitalise the Liberal Democrat offering on education. They are both informed and imaginative proposals that would deliver a progressive education system for decades to come. With these policies the Liberal Democrats would truly become the undisputed Party of Education.
A version of this blogpost originally appeared on LibDemVoice.org.uk