David Laws: Lib Dems will fight to defend schools funding

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THE Liberal Democrats arrived in government with one overriding objective for education: to make sure that every single person, whatever their background and whatever the circumstances of their birth, is able to achieve their full potential.

The Labour government, to its credit, had invested significant amounts of money in education. But, despite all the extra resources and political commitment, the attainment of poorer children remained stubbornly low.

England does have some of the best schools in the world, but the tail of underachievement is unacceptably long – and this is socially regressive and economically inefficient. Breaking this link between income and attainment is the central challenge facing the English education system.

This is a Government which, I think, has a proud record on education. But the next government still has much to do – England cannot yet claim to be a world leader in education standards and too few children reach acceptable minimum standards of attainment in too many schools. What should we be doing in the next Parliament?

The aim must be an education system in which the overwhelming majority of young people, of all backgrounds, reach a good level of attainment.

That means 85 per cent or 90 per cent of pupils, at each key stage of their schooling, reaching a set of standards that signifies a credible benchmark of international success.

Let us be clear that this means higher than Level 4c at Key Stage 2 and higher than the current 5 A*-C GCSE standard.

If the Liberal Democrats are part of the next government, there will be no backsliding on these ambitions, which are already embedded in our accountability reforms.

But of course, education is about far, far, more than exam results. It is about music, the arts, thinking creatively, sports, being a confident person and a responsible citizen. It is about securing the skills for life.

It is a false choice to imply that you have to decide between a rounded education and a solid academic core. Children who have mastered the basics in English and maths are more likely, not less likely, to be able to flourish in these other areas.

What about resources? Money isn’t everything, of course. Pour money into a badly-run school with poor teachers and you will still have a bad school.

But it is naïve and dangerous to think that money isn’t important. We have to be able to recruit outstanding teachers. We know that many interventions that help improve education cost money and it is no coincidence that some of our best performing schools are also our best funded ones. If we want to expand provision – whether it is more places in early education or more young people staying on until 18 – all this costs money.

That is why in spite of the tough economic climate, my party is making a clear commitment to education funding in the next Parliament.

Not only will we protect schools funding in real terms, as we have in this Parliament, but we will extend the ring fence to protect early years funding and the funding of 16-19 education.

It cannot make sense to continue protecting schools and colleges only up to age 16, in an age when education is now until at least 18.

Nor can we address the clear evidence on the importance of early intervention and early years quality if the real budget for early years is allowed to shrink.

For me, this will be a very high priority if the Liberal Democrats are in coalition talks in May 2015.

The Conservatives have not promised to protect schools funding, let alone wider education funding. They have promised to complete deficit reduction with no contribution from taxation, and indeed with tax cuts for the most wealthy 10 per cent.

It is extraordinary to me that a mainstream political party can propose that responsibility for sorting out the deficit should fall solely on the working age poor and the public services we need to build a fairer society.

Majority Conservative government poses a serious risk to the quality of our education system. Labour, too, have been strangely silent on their spending plans for schools. A Liberal Democrat government would have the resources to expand early years education and improve its quality, to protect the Pupil Premium in real terms, and to ensure adequate funding right through to the age of 18.

In government, Liberal Democrats have made huge progress in raising standards and building a school system where everyone can succeed whatever their background. We are determined to finish the job – a stronger economy and a fairer society, with opportunity for everyone.

This is what drives me, and I know it is what drives most of those working in education. Working together, we can, and I believe will, deliver it.

David Laws is a Schools Minister and Lib Dem MP. This is an edited version of his speech to the CentreForum think-tank.