A Liberal Vision for Education: There’s no point reforming our broken system. This is a new education system.

Mark Pack recently looked at the attitudes towards income inequality between ’87 – ’09. The interesting thing in this data is the fact that almost a consistent 80% of people for over 20 years have said that the gap between the rich and poor is too large. While there has been no change in attitudes since the financial crash there has been a decrease in belief that the government should increase tax or benefits to address the concern.


Mark Pack makes the case for education as a way to improve incomes for those from lower socio-economic families and states that this needs to be made as it can’t just be assumed by default.  Mark Pack states that

Instead, it is policies such as providing better educational opportunities for the least well off (pupil premium anyone?) which best fit what the public says it wants

But once people have woken up to the idea of the Pupil Premium, and it is no longer something we can use to show what we will do in power, what is the Lib Dem education policy? I think that we can be congratulated for implementing a good policy which will hopefully make a real difference to people’s lives, most notably in the future. However, the problem with any policy based on an existing system is that it very much depends on how good the existing system is in the first place. So how good is the educational system we have in the UK at the moment?

Well Eric Schmidt, Chairman of Google, condemned it. Anthony Seldon said that it is collapsing into a form of mass indoctrination. While Ofsted shows that nearly one in every seven schools inspected this year have been judged no better than satisfactory twice in succession and have no more than a satisfactory capacity to improve. At the same time, nearly one in every five colleges inspected this year have received only a satisfactory rating for the third time in a row. I could go on but the point it that we have a system that does not serve the people who it is intended to serve. Many people do not come out with as good a grades as they could get and many don’t even get an education. On top of that if anyone went to a state school like mine will know that they are not nice places to be and can in fact, at times, be very dangerous.

To illustrate the point that this is structural, Labour pumped millions in to the system only to find limited improvement, or even worse in some areas. While we may characterise this as Labour incompetence, and in some cases it was, it was also due to the system being inflexible and incapable of improvement. So how much use is improving a system that doesn’t work?

A Liberal education system is one where the pupils learn the best way they learn. Children learn in very different ways and sticking them all in front of a teacher at the same time to do the same thing is an outdated way of teaching. We have put sticking plasters on the system to try and make it more responsive to the children’s needs but the system remains an outdated. Because of this we are producing children who are brilliant at something, but they don’t know it and never find out. We demonise children for being bored despite living in a technological age and instead of looking at the system we look at the children and say it must be something wrong with them.

We need to start looking at new ways of doing education as part of our new vision for the country. This should be personalised learning. We have the technology and understanding to engage children. We have the expertise to deliver teaching tailored to what they are good at. We can reorganise the curriculum so that there isn’t a focus on academia, which seems to be routinely agreed upon that is not the most effective focus for education. We can do better than what we have.

For a much better talk on the current education system and more on personalised learning watch this (it is very good):


The Lib Dems need to make themselves relevant again. The only way to do this is if we have a idea of what a Liberal Britain would look like and to be honest I am not too sure of what that is right now. Education is a good place to start and personalised learning is a very liberal idea.

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14 Responses to A Liberal Vision for Education: There’s no point reforming our broken system. This is a new education system.

  1. Mark Pack says:

    Thanks for picking up on my post.

    For me, there’s also the question of whether saying “we got the Pupil Premium” is enough or whether we should be saying more about how we think the money should be used by schools.

    There’s certainly a lot of virtue in saying ‘here’s the money, decide locally on what matters most and spend it accordingly’, but should we be quite so quiet on what we think might be the best choices? Certainly for local councillors or campaigners talking about schools in their wards, it seems to me we should have ideas – and some of those of course can lead back to your final point.

    • Hi Mark and thanks for commenting, it’s always nice to have such a star of the party comment. Sorry if it comes across that I was picking on your post! It wasn’t meant to come across as picking on it, more building on the point of how important it is to make the case for education, which is your point. I think the Lib Dems have done really well with the PP and the changes to allow local areas to make changes. My with then saying how we think the PP money should be spent is still within the framework of an outdated education system that can only be improved to a point. Ken Robinson talks of a revolution in education to get to where we need to be as he thinks there is no point in reform if what you start with is so poor. I think his ideas resonate well with many and we would do well as a party to take up his ideas. However, I don’t think that this would be able to be achieved locally if the local education system is still tied to the national one (which is limiting and preventative for many).

      I think we need a Liberal Vision for the country (which is a firm solution focused principle but also ties in well with the criticism we have received over the years) and I think a liberal education vision would give people a better idea of who we are. Local solutions to local problems but enabled by a change in a national educational framework.

      But then I am talking to someone much more knowledgeable than I, so I wonder if you think this makes any sense?

      • Mark Pack says:

        No need to apologise – good tone and content in your post.

        One possible solution to the challenges you pose is to allow more diversity of educational providers. More schools run along, for example, the Steiner education lines would both make for a more diverse system and also allow for the sort of experimentation that may create new forms of education in the future.

        However, allowing such diversity is something that is rather controversial in the party…!

        (My own view is that I’m in favour of diversity of providers, as long as that goes with appropriate coordination and safety net roles for the relevant, most devolved, part of the democratically elected state.)

      • Hi Mark, I like your idea of a diversity of providers as I do think that the constraints of the current system have meant other systems have been viewed as inferior, such as Steiner, when in fact such schooling could be considered superior. The problem with the current system is that we could end up with a diversity of providers providing something very similar due to the constraints. Once this is gone these providers could be free to truly provide different solutions to proving education.

        I guess one issue would be that unleashing a diversity of providers can lead to some based on values that we as a party would not consider good for the children or society. A very authoritarian school with excessive boundaries can stifle creativity and cause damage to children’s social/moral development. It could also give rise to segregation and intolerance through the more extreme examples of religious schools. So how much influence should the national framework have? I guess there needs to be a strong liberal voice for the whole system. Given that, I think diversity in schooling is an excellent idea.

  2. ChrisB says:

    I think you’ve given a great illustration as to why people might not be that keen on a diverse mix of educational providers; it allows dangerous fringe ideas to indoctrinate people with bizarre nonsense such as anthroposophy, and there are countless such issues in the Steiner model. It would be a greater improvement if all religious indoctrination were banned from our education establishments entirely. I’m not suggesting there isn’t things to learn from Steiner, there are many great ideas in these schools, but it also provides a great example as to why diversity in education can cause unexpected problems without a great deal of scrutiny; it also shows that measurable outcomes are not the only outcomes. It’s no good being a well rounded/educated, happy individual if that is predicated on some kind of metaphysical nonsense that could collapse on you later in life, or your choices are effected by the whims of God, “the flying spaghetti monster”, etc. Since children can’t reason for themselves, it’s surely our job to protect them from such toss.

    The pupil premium will do nothing to address the most fundamental variable of child development – parenting. No amount of money allocated to the education system will stop people being raised in environments where they’re marginalised, malnourished and taught mainly by TV networks owned by large corporations. The pupil premium can do nothing to raise the standard of intake for a school, and as this is the main factor that dictates outcomes, I find it hard to believe that it can have a significant effect. When I look at people I can’t always see the school, but the parenting is often apparent to me.

    I think schools important, but I feel that my kids education is in my hands – it’s my responsibility and I’m better at it than the school. We customise her learning together – I’d point out that she’s only marked as absent if it can’t be proven that she was in education that day, she can have as much time off as we require so she can spend time learning about other things, and we do. It’s these considerations that are giving her an advantage over her peers; not money, schools nor teachers. I am making a person, it’s my problem; schools have a minor influence in this and I think you’ve both overplayed their role in a child’s education and development. I don’t believe in problem kids, just problem parents. Kids are born highly programmable, so the question is, who does the programming?

    I’ve always thought that better results could be obtained if we intervened more in pre-school parenting. By the time kids get to school, you can already see much of the person; I don’t see how you can change this radically without altering the most defining period of their lives and I don’t trust solutions that make no mention of this. I agree with Ken Robinson’s synopsis on schools – they need to develop more creative thinking and imagination; I don’t see that much of what’s been written here naturally follows from that premise and I think diversity of providers will only benefit rich families, or at least families smart enough to be able to make the best choice rather than going with the default option.

    To summarise, I’d like to point out that schools don’t make people; people having sex makes people.

    • Hi Chris, thanks for the comments and I agree that there diversity of providers can be a problem and I totally agree with you about religion in education. I also agree totally with the fact that parents are the most influential element for any child in their development and achievements. I do think we need a clearer picture for our education system though, as it is still important as a formative aspect of a child’s development and ultimate life outcomes.

  3. Thank you for this post Matthew. I greatly enjoyed the video. I am glad somebody in the party is saying that our current system is broken. I get fed up with the Social Liberal education forum, which is mainly a whingefest against Michael Gove and government policy – implicitly suggesting that things are fine as they are. Still, it is not quite so easy to translate the call to transform education into practical policies. I will offer two more optimistic thoughts.

    First, I think the ideas in the video are gaining currency amongst teachers. I know this as chair of governors at a primary school. Apart from flexible approaches to teaching, and emphasizing the importance of pupils enjoying learning, I am struck by the focus on “life skills”, and especially the effort to make pupils think through the consequences of their actions – and the consequent impact on behaviour and much else. The likelihood is that the revolution is already happening, albeit too slowly, in British schools anyway. Some of the ideas promoted by the last government (especially “Every Child Matters”) were positive, although trumpeting “achievement” was not. The current government’s policies are not as unhelpful as people suggest – but they do depend on local leadership to work.

    Second, in answer to Chris, I think you can exaggerate the importance of parents. It’s hard, but interventions led by schools can make up a lot of the gap for pupils with a poor home life…and we should be wary of writing off children who are not blessed with attentive parents. I am rather afraid that such attitudes are the heart of much mediocre teaching and leadership in our schools – “what can we do?”. I have read somewhere that for many aspects of children’s lives peers are a stronger influence than parents. By establishing an excellent culture a school can influence that peer environment and hence the child – and compensate for a poor quality of home life. And also schools can reach out to parents and improve their participation and confidence. Don’t give up!

  4. ChrisB says:

    Hey Matthew(s),

    Thanks for your replies and conveniently uniform monikers. :) This is one of my favourite subjects, as it influences my life directly a lot more than most factors do.

    My child would get a decent education and social life with or without a school, the same cannot be said regarding the things my wife and I provide. Most humans that have lived never went to school, many children alive today will never attend school, but they all had a parent at the time of birth; if you asked a kid “would you rather lose mummy and daddy or the school?” I think we know what they’ll probably plump for. I think you can exaggerate the importance of schools.

    I live in one of the poorer areas in the country, and I’ve been involved in the sorts of interventions you’re describing; there are many social factors that schools are powerless and poorly placed to address. I could list many situations that you wouldn’t want a school to intervene in, but still felt something should be done – especially in cases of unpleasant separations. It is often unfair to tax an already stretched facility by making them social workers/police too; I’d rather all of this happened at the point of the damage being done by trained mediators and professionals.

    I see no evidence at pre-comprehensive level that even an “outstanding” school can compensate for a poor quality of home life. If you’ve been told you’re worthless (just like your father) since birth, some art and an attentive teacher (that’s responsible for 30 other kids too) isn’t going to fix that. Try telling our headmaster that he can and should do more rather than the parents! The schools are often full of good people trying to help and make things right, against a tide of parental negligence. Whilst I’m not overtly concerned about the schools shortcomings, they certainly exist, they’re nowhere near as difficult to orientate as explaining to your 8 year old why she can’t sleepover a friends house whose parents drink constantly, legally and without challenge.

    What you’ve read regarding the influence of peers is something that becomes true as a child develops. Babies are mainly influenced by their parents, teenagers by peers, these are simply different developmental stages. I’m suggesting that it is easier to intervene earlier, pre-school, and attempt to deal with the root cause of the issue, which is usually the behaviour and beliefs of the parent, than it is to try to convince a 15 year old that his peers are wrong, drugs are bad and you might want to stop punching teachers.

    I’m not writing those kids off, far from it, I’m suggesting we intervene when they’re younger and malleable enough for peer groups not to be the dominant force – I’m afraid by the point in time you’re concerned about it’s too late for anyone external to intervene, and that’s the point we currently find ourselves. Schools do intervene, but it doesn’t always work because we’re trying to change a more formed human and family unit, rather than one that’s still receptive to ideas and shifts in character. Why would it be better to do this when they’re older and in school?! A lot of the mess I’ve seen could of been prevented if the first 3 years were different.

    A young kid spends about 1140 hours a year at school, a fraction of the time they spend at home. At school one adult looks after my daughter and 30 other kids, at home 3 adults look after her alone. With numbers like this exaggeration isn’t required.

  5. ChrisB says:

    After making the last post I’ve seen a few stories that back my assertations, most notably this : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-16186158

    • Thank you for taking the time to explain your ideas, Chris – I think you are talking a lot of sense. The evidence about intervening very early is overwhelming – but I read about one American study which showed that disadvantaged pupil that benefited from intensive early intervention tended to relapse in later life if the intervention wasn’t maintained. It’s a question of needing both good early intervention and good schools – but you weren’t suggesting otherwise.

      The BBC story was interesting, though we do need to be a bit wary about placing so much stress on standardised tests (going back to Matthew’s original post). That might explain why a small number of schools seem to be doing so well with more disadvantaged pupils – they might be ruthlessly teaching to the test.

      I take your point about schools being more important later in life. But one point is that we should beware thinking of a school as simply a question of a small number of staff delivering services to their pupils. The idea in a well led school is that you create a constructive culture, so that pupils get support from all round, not just from the teachers.

  6. ChrisB says:

    Hey Matthew,

    Thanks for your reply, I’m in complete agreement about the potential for relapses in early interventions, I think these things should be followed up periodically. I believe that if you can fix a generation, you can fix families as a whole. Families are the original “cluetrain” network, ideas and attitudes spread through them extremely quickly.

    As for testing, aspects of it really irk me – in particular, what we’re testing. Up until 11 years old we only measure Maths and English capabilities. This puts far too much emphasis on these 2 subjects (that probably should be considered the same subject – symbolic logic), and means we have a crude understanding of the capabilities of the individual. No formal recognition is given to creative, athletic, musical, or any other abilities a child may have – if you’re no good with symbolic logic then you’re going nowhere; if you find it particularly easy then you’ll have a hard job putting a foot wrong, which can cause its own problems. However, testing can provide a useful yardstick as to the progress of a child, and I think measurement can be a really good thing. So, I have a nuanced view on testing – I hate what we’re testing for and how we test, not always the testing itself.

    On your final point, this brings us full-circle. I agree that a school isn’t just a bunch of teachers, but parent participation is often an illusive dream. Many schools in the most underprivileged areas have the lowest parent participation; this is caused by many things. CRB checks act as a disincentive, I’m not saying they’re not necessary, but some parents that have minor criminal records would never consider participating in anything that highlights their past. We have a culture where threats like pedophilia have been over-exaggerated at the expense of adults getting involved in schooling.

    So, this is how I get to the point of blaming parents – it’s hard to see how some families can get out of the ditch if they’re not digging. This is one of the few areas where I’m decidedly non-libertarian – I think if people can’t give a kid a good start we can’t leave them alone with kids until they can. I think the rights of the child are paramount – nobody asks to be born, so the people that make you are responsible for you. Schools are a modern problem, for much longer there have been happy people with good parents and lives of misery caused by poor parents. I understand that those people often have poor parents themselves, so the only answer I see is to disrupt this chain.

    Schools and education can certainly be improved, but I believe if we can fix the attitudes of some parents we could address a great deal of societies woes.

  7. Hi Chris. “if you find it particularly easy then you’ll have a hard job putting a foot wrong, which can cause its own problems” My own school career summed up (and that was in 1960s/70s)

    You are making some very good points, though I struggle with the politics of your conclusion. Incidentally my point about schools being more than the teachers was directed at the pupils themselves. My understanding of schools that have done well in difficult neighbourhoods (gathered from the media and not direct experience) is that the school leadership has been able to establish a strong culture which draws the pupils in, so they flip from undermining the school’s work through peer pressure to supporting it.

    • ChrisB says:

      “You are making some very good points, though I struggle with the politics of your conclusion.”

      You’re not the only one, these are difficult points for liberals – this is about individual rights, both those of the parents and the child. However, I don’t see that people have the right to abuse their kids, whether that by traditional means, or by bad diet, allowing them to do what they want, not teaching them anything, sticking them in front of the telly, etc. At the front line of all this it’s brutally apparent why some people have very little hope – that to me outweighs any privacy issues I have with intervening in young families.

      Everyone should have the right to a chance in life, but many kids get written off before they get to junior school because their parents weren’t concerned with their development. I think this is a foolish and costly error we keep making, when we could of helped the parents for a few months, getting a grip on the philosophy of parenthood, a bit of Matthew’s solution focused approach – give them some hints as to what works.

      Merry Christmas all!

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