The Liberal Democrats apparently spent a decade working out their education reforms, published today. But the result is a series of proposals that could lessen chances for poorer pupils, rather than increase them.
They have proposed abolishing most of the accountability in the system that ensures that pupils have a minimum entitlement and that spurs improvement. It is all very well sniffing about the 600 pages in the national curriculum, but this covers eleven years of a child's education, across a range of subjects. Perhaps someone could ask them what precisely they propose to drop? Tearing it up for its own sake will hardly give the entitlement to poorer children the Liberal leader Nick Clegg says he wants. That, after all, is why we have a curriculum.
Equally, one must be sceptical about plans to give all schools the same freedoms as academies: a big benefit of academies at the moment are that they focus on schools in inner city areas where results are poor. Taking away that incentive will make it harder to effect improvement in those schools, changes that academies are delivering in the vast majority of cases. There is no sign in the Lib Dem paper that they have any plans of their own to improve failing schools. (Charities can already set up schools and enter competitions for new schools under Labour legislation).
The Liberal Democrats may be on stronger ground in focusing their class size pledge on 5-7 year olds. After all, there is little evidence that lower class sizes make much difference for older children. But it is questionable that this is the best use of resources, given that most infant classes have adult:pupil ratios near or below 15 anyway, with the help of teaching assistants and one-to-one tuition. The most useful thing they could do at this age is to focus on phonics, as Labour is doing as a result of the 2005 Rose Review, and ensure pupils can read. But on this they are curiously silent, presumably on the grounds that schools should have the "freedom" not to teach children to read.
In truth, this policy paper is not all that radically different from traditional Lib Dem education policies. There is little interest in outcomes, and a big focus on inputs, including an underfunded pupil premium or voucher for poorer youngsters (not in itself a bad thing, but ignoring the extent to which money is already heavily skewed towards disadvantaged pupils - and the impact of moving towards a national funding formula on schools outside the inner cities). At the same time, they deliberately ignore all the evidence that assets are crucial to improving social mobility, by abandoning Labour's innovative child trust fund.
In the end, without clear accountability and clear expectations about outcomes, their talk of improvements rings hollow. And, with the axing of trust funds, so does their talk of improving social mobility.
This blog posting was originally written for Labourlist and has been picked up by Iain Dale.