2 November 2014
Last updated at 00:00
David Laws raises frank concerns about how party politics can harm schools
The Schools Minister David Laws has warned of the “corrosive impact” of self-interested political meddling in schools policy in England.
He is calling for an independent body to set the curriculum content and measure whether standards in schools are really improving or declining.
The “whims of here-today, gone-tomorrow politicians” should not decide which books pupils study, he said.
“That is completely inappropriate,” said Mr Laws.
The schools minister, setting out Liberal Democrat ideas, said parents and teachers would have much greater confidence in an education system with less “political interference”.
Mr Laws called for an independent Education Standards Authority, which would:
- Control curriculum content and prevent short-term political changes
- Provide an objective measure on standards to stop politicians “marking their own homework”
The minister also said the Lib Dems would keep the academy school system, and allow more free schools to open.
There was an important role for politicians in setting the overall strategy and financing of the education system, said Mr Laws, but the detail should be left to subject specialists.
“Ministers float in and out of the department, often for quite short periods of time” which created “too much turbulence”, he said.
Politicians should not “mark their own homework” on standards, says Mr Laws
“We’ve had in this Parliament, parts of the English and history curriculum decided it seems on the whims of here-today, gone-tomorrow politicians, down to the level of what works of English literature are taught,” said Mr Laws.
That will be seen as a swipe at the controversial re-writing of the curriculum under previous education secretary, Michael Gove.
There were arguments over changes to GCSE English which saw the removal of modern American writers such as Arthur Miller, F Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck and Harper Lee.
The proposed Educational Standards Authority would “put subject experts in the driving seat rather than politicians”.
“Subject experts could have a greater perspective over a long period of time, rather than having things chopped and changed around depending on the whim of whoever happens to be the minister at that time,” the minister said.
David Laws says Lib Dems would not be against more free schools opening
Mr Laws also warned that party politics was getting in the way of an objective assessment of standards in schools.
He argued that an Educational Standards Authority would provide an independent analysis.
“We don’t want decisions over standards and assessments to be made by politicians who are essentially marking their own work.
“We all have a strong incentive to say that the previous government was hopeless and any improvement was down to grade inflation.
“In assessing standards and drawing conclusions, it’s much better in the long run, even if it’s uncomfortable for politicians in the short run, that these things are informed by real evidence of what’s going on.”
Mr Laws called for “realistic comparisons with other countries, based on evidence rather than bogus claims about the latest performance data, which are based often on a partisan assessment”.
“We’ll have a better education system if the degree of political volatility is reduced and policy-making is based more on evidence and less on what suits the politicians in control,” he said.
The school vote
Mr Laws said independent schools benefited from being at a “greater degree of distance” from the constant upheavals in the state sector.
With the general election on the horizon, political parties are seeking to win over the education vote of teachers and parents.
David Laws said the Liberal Democrats were making a “cradle to college” spending promise to protect budgets from pre-school classes through to the 16- to 19-year-old-age group.
In contrast, he warned the spending plans of the Conservatives beyond the election would leave education services unprotected and at risk of being cut.
He said the Liberal Democrats in office had delivered the pupil premium to support disadvantaged pupils and free meals to infant pupils.
Mr Laws also said he wants to extend free meals to all pupils in primary school.
Free meals should be extended to all primary pupils, says Mr Laws
But the Lib Dems are not likely to call for any reversal in the drive towards more academies and free schools.
“I think we’re going to have to work with the system we’ve got,” he said.
There is divergence with their coalition partners over allowing Ofsted to inspect academy chains.
“I think it’s inevitable – and most people in Parliament think it’s not defensible in the future to have a different system of accountability for academy chains and local authorities,” he said.
And there is no ruling out more free schools.
With the right sponsors and in the right areas, he said: “We’re certainly not saying that we couldn’t have any more free schools.”