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What We are Thinking and Doing, No. 12, Spring 2013

April 14, 2013 2:28 PM

Preface

Welcome to the LDEA's Spring Conference 2013 booklet, packed with insights, opinions and information about Lib Dem current education policies and thinking. Many thanks to the Lib Dem Group of the Local Government Association for printing this booklet on behalf of the LDEA.

Issues covered in the edition cover a wide spectrum of topical issues from Secure Children's Homes to the importance of music in the curriculum to current thinking on vocational education. In particular, we are very much looking forward in this edition to 2015, and I hope you will find the time to read James Kempton's introductory piece on how members can contribute to education policy formation in the near future.

The consultation paper from the FPC Working Group on Skills and Post-16 Education will be discussed at this conference and we hope that you can find the time to give feedback to the questions contained in the paper either at Brighton or afterwards via the Lib Dem website.

I hope you find much of interest among these pages to while away any spare minutes you have at Brighton or indeed once conference is over.

Helen Flynn

Executive Member, LDEA

Introduction

Towards an Education Manifesto for 2015

James Kempton

Education has always been a defining issue for this party. Good education is essential to delivering on the liberal promise of supporting and enabling every child to go as far as their ability and talent will take them. Nick Clegg has repeatedly stated his belief that education is at the heart of what we stand for as Liberal Democrats and has urged that our ambitions for education are put at the very heart of our manifesto in 2015. And with David Laws being both Chair of the Manifesto Group and also Schools Minister, we can have confidence this will be delivered. This is hugely encouraging.

Our party cares passionately about education, but none combine that passion with the skill and expertise to turn it into practical political policies better than the members of the Liberal Democrat Education Association. We in the LDEA have a great opportunity over the coming months to develop our ideas for a Liberal Democrat manifesto for the 2015 General Election. Your elected Executive Committee have made this offer to David Laws and the party. Colleagues, I urge you to support us in this and take up the challenge!

LibDems are good at policy -making. In 70 years of opposition, often the best we could do to improve our country was to come up with new and innovative ideas for the other parties to adopt as their own! It is worth noting that writing our manifesto from the perspective of being one of the governing parties in a coalition government is bound to be different. In particular for the first time we have to ask ourselves these new questions and it would be useful if members could feed in their views:

  • Which of our existing education policies should be retained? Either, for example, policies we implemented successfully in the coalition government, or ones we were not able to implement due to opposition from the Conservatives
  • Which education policies implemented by the coalition government should be amended, and if so how? Either, for example, where circumstances have changed or because coalition negotiations distorted what we wanted to do.
  • Which education policies implemented by the coalition government should be abandoned? For example, conservative priorities we were forced to accept as part of the coalition deal.
  • Which existing Lib Dem education policies should be dropped? Either, for example, ones which are no longer relevant or where the intervention was found to be ineffective after the benefit of detailed scrutiny by the coalition government.

These questions are important because our record in government will necessarily shape what we say in the General Election. But we need to look forward as well. Bold vision thankfully remains part of our political DNA because strong and innovative thinking is needed as much as ever.

  • We may have made progress towards our goals of equity and excellence in education, but the challenges of how to make every school a good school and how to close the class-based gap of underachievement require new thinking and new policies for government.
  • We have extended support in the early years because early intervention and prevention deliver better outcomes, but attention and spending remains heavily focussed on school-age education.
  • We have rolled back Labour's micro-management culture of schools but the Secretary of State for Education's writ still runs too wide in our education system, and local democratic accountability too little.
  • The hugely influential pupil premium has begun to re-shape school funding towards need but there are still deep and longstanding inequities in the amount of money schools are given to educate pupils in different parts of the country.
  • We recognise that no school system can be better than the quality of its teachers but there is more to be done to make teaching a high status career choice, as it is in other countries.
  • We have begun to instil more academic rigour in the curriculum and examination system but have yet to bring the same reforming zeal to technical and practical education and to the creation of the more "work-ready" workforce that will drive economic recovery.

We want to get the LDEA and the wider party thinking about these questions and many others. This process will begin at our AGM at Spring Conference, continue through using the LDEA "ldeatalk" email groupand through creating other opportunities over the coming months for people with ideas to come together to share and debate them. Every one of us has something important to offer. I do hope you will want to join in this big education debate.

James Kempton is the Vice Chair of the LDEA. He can be contacted at: james.kempton@me.com

Ambitious for all our children: the LDEA looks into exams and curriculum

Denys Robinson

"Too much assessment and not enough learning": surprisingly wise words from Michael Gove, though I report them somewhat out of context. Or, as Phil Willis once quipped: "You don't increase the weight of a pig by keeping weighing it."

"Ambitious for All Our Children" is a report published by the Working Group set up by LDEA to look into what Liberal Democrats would do now with our curriculum and exam system. It has been developed since last summer by a group involving Parliamentarians, experienced senior teachers and student representatives. It has been modified by the Lib Dems' Parliamentary Committee on education chaired by Dan Rogerson and Joan Walmsley. Most recently, its sixth version was written following discussions at the LGA/LDEA education conference in Nottingham. We discussed this version with David Laws in a very positive meeting.

What key messages would voters (especially teachers) take away from this report? I'd point to three.

While Liberal Democrats think there is too much testing, we nonetheless want to be respected as the party promoting rigour in the national tests and exams we retain. We do young people no favours by "dumbing down" qualifications they need for the world of work or for higher education. We believe in setting high standards, but for all our children, not just a selected few.

The report urges the Party to champion those students and schools that the system is failing. We have already strongly supported disadvantaged pupils through the Pupil Premium, and now need to look at a Student Premium to help those for whom staying on at sixteen may be a financial challenge. We support a move away from age-related exams so students sit them when their teachers judge them ready. We want to maximise success: the Tories want to separate 'sheep' from 'goats'.

We propose a step-change in the quality of technical education in England. Economic growth needs to come from high-end manufacturing and electronics rather than blind faith in the financial sector. The UK has serious skills gaps. While a handful of excellent new University Technical Colleges (UTCs) will set an example others can follow, we need to give many more students the opportunity at 14+ to follow courses at FE colleges with workplace experience while maintaining that broad education which is the right of every young person.

So then: rigour. Within two years, every teenager will be expected to be in education and training until they are eighteen. They need to leave school or college with a certificate that details all their achievements in and out of school. A2 and AS A-level grades certainly (though we want A** and A* grades to record the very highest achievements), along with new high-quality vocational qualifications, GCSE grades, communication and numeracy skills, work experience, community service and evidence of team working and presentational skills. The term 'Baccalaureate' has been much devalued, but we think such a certificate amounts to a modern Baccalaureate.

These proposals owe much to the Tomlinson Report, to the International Baccalaureate and the "Modern Baccalaureate" that can be viewed at www.modernbaccalaureate.com. It needs to be supported by a 'points system' which will enable both employers and universities to identify readily the strengths of young applicants for jobs, apprenticeships or degree courses.

The Tories often give the impression of only being interested in an educational elite: nurturing those young people with keen academic abilities, good at memorising, slightly geeky, 'swots' even. Lib Dems want a good and suitable education for all our children. Liberals believe that people should all have the chance to be the best they can be. The UK cannot afford to waste the talent that all too often today is neglected and overlooked.

Today's assessment and testing regime, allied to a narrow and restrictive curriculum, turns off too many young people. Boys as young as six already hate school because they are being crammed for tests that take no account of their developmental needs. Teachers' understandable anxiety about school league tables can narrow their focus to levering a handful of pupils over the Government's thresholds, when other so-called 'no-hopers' may need much more attention. By 14, many young people with a practical turn of mind are bored to tears by a curriculum that is all paperwork, a watered-down version of someone's ill-remembered grammar school timetable.

The Working Group's report proposes extending the Early Years phase from birth to age six. We should ensure that formal schooling does not start until age six, whether the setting is a primary school, a nursery, a pre-school or a kindergarten. This does not at all mean 'holding children back', but focusing on their social, physical and moral development and providing appropriate learning opportunities for each individual child.

We stress the importance of the early identification of both abilities and disabilities of individual children through multi-agency working. This is where both gifted children and those with physical handicaps and learning difficulties can be identified and provided with appropriate support.

Early diagnosis would hugely reduce the 20% currently reported as failing to reach an adequate standard of literacy and numeracy at age eleven. The diagnosis of dyslexia and other visual perception problems at an early stage by qualified assessors would enable children to flourish who might otherwise languish for several years, and in some cases never recover.

We propose literacy and numeracy tests for most young people before they move on to the 14+ phase, with one-on-one tuition and extra classes for those still struggling. While accepting the verdict of Conference in retaining SATs in Year 6, we would publish teacher assessments (moderated by other local schools) alongside SATs results.

There is much more in the report: support for creative subjects, the arts and music, ground-breaking plans for primary school pupils to experience foreign languages. Please look at it in full on the LDEA website and send in your comments. We are working alongside the FPC group on Education and Skills (Upper Secondary to Lifelong Learning) led by Baroness Sal Brinton.

To conclude, a purely personal opinion. I would like to see the Lib Dems return education to the professionals. Teachers, students, universities, employers, parents all have a valid contribution to make in designing our curriculum and exam systems. Party politicians should have very little input. On the lines of Ofqual and OFSTED, I should like to see an Office for the Prevention of Interventions by Secretaries of State. Readers can work out the acronym for themselves.

Denys Robinson is a member of the LDEA Executive Committee and has worked on the drafting of the Working Group's report.

Reforming the asylum support system

Sarah Teather

Over the past few months, I have been chairing a cross-party inquiry into asylum support for children and young people, supported by the Children's Society. For those of us who share a concern about how our children and young people are educated in the 21st century, this report, based on evidence from over 200 individuals and organisations, makes for alarming reading. There are as many as 10,000 vulnerable children in the asylum system being forced into destitution, whose families are often treated with a complete lack of human dignity. We were really shocked by the levels of poverty that we found families were living in, often struggling to live on as little as £5 a day.

The panel was made up of MPs, peers and other experts from a range of political persuasions, and yet we unanimously agreed to call for an immediate end to the system known as 'Section 4' support, which leaves some families with no cash at all. Instead they receive a tiny amount of money on the 'Azure' payment card, meaning they cannot do essential things like take the bus to get to hospital, or save up for a coat to keep their child warm in the winter. Families may have to walk miles every day to get their children to school or nursery.

We all agreed that asylum support rates should be brought into line with basic benefit levels, as currently they are leaving families far below the poverty line. With inadequate levels of financial support available, parents struggle to pay for school uniforms, school trips, or for extra-curricular activities. One mother told the panel her son does not have a writing desk and has to do his homework on the floor. Without access to computers at home, it is difficult for children to complete assigned homework tasks.

The inquiry found that inadequate financial support coupled with frequent moves within asylum accommodation mean that this group of children's education is frequently disrupted. Dispersal measures for asylum seekers mean that those relying on asylum support are forced to move to allocated accommodation in different parts of the country. One mother explained that her six-year-old son had been to four different schools in two years. She was left to navigate the system alone, with no information about how to apply for a school place. Her son missed weeks of school because of the length of time it took to secure a place. We recommended that newly dispersed families be provided with information about their rights and entitlements, as well as services in their areas and where to get support to ensure their child does not miss education.

Another problem witnesses highlighted was that, although free school meals ought to be available to all children who need them, some of the most vulnerable children are not currently eligible. Only children on 'Section 95' asylum support are entitled to receive a free school meal, while those on 'Section 4' asylum support or those who are completely destitute would only receive a school lunch at the school's discretion. The pupil premium is also not available to these children and their schools. As a panel, we recommend that all children who receive asylum support, including those on Section 4 support, should have equal access to nursery placements, free school meals and the pupil premium, given that they are children living in severe poverty.

The Liberal Democrat party has been at the forefront of ensuring that asylum-seeking children have the same rights as their British born peers, regardless of where or to whom they were born. We must continue to raise the issues highlighted by the inquiry report and demand reform of the inhumane asylum support system. We must ensure that families in the asylum system, who have fled persecution, torture and violence, receive the dignity, respect and resources they need for their children to develop, learn and flourish. Please ask your MP to tell the Immigration Minister it is time to end forced destitution.

Sarah Teather is the Member of Parliament for Brent Central.

Beyond EBacc

Jon Hunt

Let's start with a radical idea. It is that young people by the age of 14 could be making real choices, not just about what they study but about how they study.

"Choice" has been a political buzzword for much of this century. Politicians have been trying to build it into public services.

On September 5th 2011 Nick Clegg made a speech about education and stated the following: "And the evidence is overwhelming: good schools need high-quality teaching; sufficient freedom; diversity and choice."

At the time he was speaking in favour of the then coalition agenda: academies, free schools and the EBacc. Now the EBacc has gone and the Liberal Democrats can think more freely about what we want from the exam system and from the curriculum. But we should not just be thinking about what we want - but what young people want and how they can be enabled to make good choices which liberate their potential.

This was the starting point for some work we began in the West Midlands region about two years ago. As regional policy chair, I had just completed a six year stint as chair of Birmingham's education scrutiny committee and had spent much of that time pushing the question of the large numbers of young people who were quite clearly not achieving their potential through the GCSE system. Our regional policy committee just happened to draw together a group of people with considerable expertise in this area.

Bringing things up to date, at the LGA/LDEA Conference in February 2013 in Nottingham there was a sense of liberation as delegates met the day after Michael Gove had abandoned the EBacc project. An excellent talk from radical thinker Professor Mike Tomlinson helped us on our way.

At this event, a workshop on so-called "vocational education", led by myself, came up with a set of principles for developing technical and practical choices.

The first was that using vocational education as a "dumping ground" for young people who could not achieve the latest GCSE target was the wrong approach.

The right approach is to develop a system that offers young people the skills they will need this century. The starting point then is that technical and practical choices-as well as academic choices-- should be available to all young people. Developing these choices can produce massively beneficial spin-offs. The first is to get the diversity - and choice - mentioned by Nick Clegg into the system.

The second is to create an education system in which "disengaged" young people are not branded as hopeless failures and are not side-lined into courses of study which will forever limit their potential. Currently more than 40% of boys are failing to attain English at C-grade at GCSE. Talk to boys and you will find that many detest this particular course of study. Add deprivation, local culture and peer pressure into the mix and there are tens of thousands of young people for whom the exam system has little point.

However in our complex world, sweeping reform can be dangerous so our workshop proposed a two-step process to integrating technical and practical choices into the curriculum.

Step one is very simply to use the proposed GCSE reforms. In addition to the five original EBacc subjects students will be benchmarked on three more subjects. These should include technical and practical choices brought wholesale into the GCSE framework.

Step two, however, gets us to a system where there is real choice. We came up with the buzz phrase "interlocking pathways," allowing young people to do a mix of academic and technical choices between 14 and 19. Current thinking amongst policy-makers involves the phrase "twin-track" and indeed Mike Tomlinson showed us how this might be developed - an International Baccalaureate with an academic core and a Technical Baccalaureate with a technical core. Maybe - but it is also important that in encouraging young people to make choices at 14 we do not lock them into those choices. For instance, a teenager with low aspirations might choose to do motor mechanics, discover the joy of maths and decide to seek a university place as a theoretical engineer.

There are a couple of things that flow from all this.

One is that at the age of 14 teenagers will be confronted with making real, but not irrevocable choices. This might include moving school to find the right course.

Secondly is the issue of resources, which are often mentioned as a barrier to developing good technical education. We are already seeing resources being concentred in some of the new University Technical Colleges (UTCs), some of which admit at 14.

To enable choice for all young people, local authorities need to be tasked with the role of strategic coordination, making sure that schools are developing specialist facilities and that young people have access to the appropriate range of courses. I see this as a commissioning role.

Thirdly there is the question of literacy and numeracy. The more the system relies on GCSEs to measure achievement in this area, the more the flaws are highlighted. A proper Baccalaureate structure would allow students to gain credits in literacy and numeracy across a range of courses of study. By all means teach students about Shakespeare but allow them to demonstrate literacy in technical writing or writing about science fiction.

We had reached similar conclusions in the West Midlands region. We called our policy paper "Beyond the EBacc - Choice and Opportunity in Schools and Colleges." Our paper, agreed by our regional conference a year ago, now feels a little dated as the EBacc has been shelved. But it also contains thoughts about taking these interlocking pathways forward.

So as the work of the Federal Policy Committee makes its way to autumn conference we will be mining our work for ideas to enhance the proposals that emerge. One idea is the creation of an "open school" - a virtual resource that can provide both students and teachers with access to resources to undertake quite specialised modules of study.

You can find the West Midlands' paper at http://westmidslibdemspolicy.blogspot.co.uk/p/beyond-ebacc-west-midlands-policy-paper.html

Jon Hunt is a City Councillor in Birmingham and regional policy chair in the West Midlands.

Don't forget the music

Gillian Stunell

Point 1. Statutory Guidance from the Department for Education, issued in October 2012, underlines the requirement for all maintained schools and academies in England to provide a "broad and balanced curriculum"[i]. There seems no reason to suppose that this requirement will change in any revision of the National Curriculum. Primary school timetables from the days of the 11+, often consisting entirely of versions of English and maths, must send a shiver down the spine of even the most hardened politician. The National Curriculum has certainly ensured that schools can`t get away with that any more …. Or has it?

Point 2. Music became a statutory part of the English National Curriculum in 1988[ii]. Musicians and educators alike were delighted. Certainly there were problems. There has never been an over-supply of qualified secondary school music teachers, and the situation isn't about to get any better[iii]. In primary schools generalist teachers often say they aren't confident to teach music[iv]. But almost nobody says music in schools should be abandoned and schools which don't provide it for all are generally apologetic. And, as one teacher said "If it wasn't in you'd wonder why it wasn't in"[v].

Many people think that 'being musical' means playing an instrument or singing with skill. The reality is that every normal human being is musical. We all have sensitivity to rhythm and pitch. Our bodies run on rhythmic patterns and effective language relies on varying vocal pitches. The differences between us are about whether we have had the opportunity to develop our basic human musicality. Shouldn't we all have that chance? Setting aside possibly dubious claims for music, such as the so-called Mozart Effect, music is powerful stuff. It is "a unique form of communication that can change the way pupils think, feel and act." Music "brings together intellect and feeling and enables personal expression, reflection and emotional development"[vi]. So why would you want to set up a curriculum without all that benefit?

The current mania for targets and accountability works against music and any other subject whose contribution can't be measured quantitatively. Is it really beyond us to find some way to use accountability more intelligently and add some kind of useful assessment of how parts of school life such as music contribute to pupils' self-esteem, enthusiasm for learning, social skills and communication? Ofsted's frameworks have narrowed consistently, and inspectors are now unlikely to even consider, let alone mention, the contribution music makes in schools. But it remains true that schools where every pupil is involved in musical activity are generally high-scoring on all the measurable assessments you can make.

In the primary school world there is still a major misunderstanding about music opportunity and instrumental teaching. However much government funding goes into instrumental teaching, the truth is that not every school uses it. Sometimes it just means that children learn an instrument free for a term; only some of those continue to learn. And sadly there are schools where the fact that some children have the opportunity to play instruments and sing means that some others do very little music. If music isn't part of the everyday classroom world there will always be children who miss out on it. Teachers will say they aren't confident in music, and will drop it if they're under pressure to raise scores in core subjects. But this problem can be addressed and, interestingly, in infant and special schools most teachers sing and do rhythm activities without even thinking about it!

In secondary schools music is under threat from a narrowing curricular outlook, despite Goves abandonment of the EBacc. Of course young people should achieve in a broad spectrum of subjects leading to a balanced attainment at 16. But music should have some status within it. Without endorsement music will be sidelined as a curricular element in some schools. And if it doesn't have curricular status it becomes more difficult for schools to justify the cost of employing music specialists. Schools where there is a culture of music for all, and the majority of students are involved in practical music-making, are ones where a music specialist coordinates a wide range of music opportunities, from music technology to swing bands, choirs, classical groups, brass bands and ethnic music groups. Much of this will be outside the curriculum, but how many schools employ a qualified music teacher if music isn't in the curriculum too?

The Government's support for the Henley Review's recommendations [vii] [viii] is welcome. Anything where the Government supports music education is welcome! However, the rhetoric around this shows the usual misunderstanding of what music education is about. Yes, the music hubs which are developing to provide specialist music input for schools are offering classroom music teaching as well as individual and class instrumental tuition. But it is also the case that there are teachers on the hubs' books who aren't trained to cope with whole classes, and who don't know much about the school curriculum and how it works. The main problem, though, is still that schools themselves have to be willing to engage positively with music. And for every pupil to benefit from it, they have to understand that employing a drumming teacher for a couple of terms won't ensure that all children access long-term musical experience.

So the plea remains. DON`T FORGET THE MUSIC. If you are involved in any policy-making around the school curriculum please make sure that music is there. Remember that everyone is musical, and that everyone is better for being involved with music - and that's teachers as well as pupils!

Gillian Stunell

Gillian Stunell has worked as a classroom music teacher in the nursery, primary and secondary sectors. She is a primary music consultant and is currently working in special schools. She is a member of LDEA.

'Simpler' does not equal 'fairer'

Peter Downes

In December 2012 the government announced a number of changes to the way schools receive funding. Until now, Local Authorities (LAs), working in partnership with the local Schools Forum, have devised their own way of distributing the Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG) to individual schools in giving them their Individual Schools Budget (ISB).

Clearly, the main driver in the local formula has been the number of pupils in the school but LAs have also devised other ingenious ways of ensuring that, as far as is humanly possible in this imperfect world, schools received enough funding to give their pupils a fair allocation. So, for example, the size of the school, its location, the age of its buildings, the unusual turnover pattern, the different costs of each year group, might all have been built into providing the ISB.

The apparent complexity of some these locally negotiated formulae, some of which had up to 37 factors, was judged to be unsatisfactory by the DfE who claimed that people could not understand them. The people who could not understand them were the officials and ministers in Sanctuary Buildings. Those who had devised them understood them and knew exactly why they were necessary.

The DfE has now limited the number of factors in the ISB distribution to 12. The effect of this has been to allocate more money through the Age Weighted Pupil Unit (AWPU) and there is one weighting for all primary aged pupils, one for KS3 and another for KS4. There can only be one lump sum, up to a maximum of £200,000, irrespective of whether the school is small or large, rural or urban, in purpose-built accommodation or adapted Victorian buildings.

The outcome of these centrally imposed changes has been to create local winners and losers and thereby make life considerably more difficult for certain schools. The requirement to be simple has increased unfairness.

Another change affects the way schools meet the needs of pupils with a full SEN statement. Most LAs distributed funding to schools through their formula to enable schools to meet the needs of pupils with special needs that fall short of a full statement, what we used to call Action or Action Plus. The cost of a full statement i.e. where more than 25 hours of special attention are needed, usually fell on the LA's central budget. Under the new arrangements, each school must meet the first £6,000 of a child's statement, equivalent, roughly to 11.5 hours of teaching assistant. Above that, the LA meets the assessed needs with a further grant.

The effect of that has been felt differentially. Some smaller schools, which have a good reputation for looking after SEN pupils and therefore attract more than a typical share, find themselves unfairly penalised. Larger schools with relatively few full statement SEN pupils are better off.

The third and most significant change in the December 2012 announcement was the change in the way the extra grant allocated to academies is calculated. The Local Authority Central Spend Equivalent Grant (LACSEG) has morphed into the Education Services Grant (ESG). The purpose of this grant is to give academies their fair share of what the LA would have spent on them if they had remained as maintained schools. This enables them to buy in services such as school improvement support, legal or insurance cover, that the LA provides 'free' to maintained schools.

In the early days of converter academies in 2010-11 the LACSEG was calculated on the basis of certain lines in the LA's Section 251 return which gives an account of how funding received by the LA through its general grant (not its DSG) is spent on school-based education. Owing to inconsistencies in the way S251 was compiled, the early converters found themselves with substantially more money than they expected or needed to replace the missing services. This 'bonus' is the main reason why so many schools converted to academy status so quickly. The DfE did nothing to correct this anomaly even though it had stated quite unequivocally that 'there should be no financial advantage or disadvantage in becoming an academy'. Not surprisingly, it found itself having to pay out enormous sums. Two converter academies received a LACSEG of over £1 million on top of their normal ISB.

When it realised, belatedly, that this was costing them a lot of money, the DfE tried to claw it back from the LAs by recouping money from their general grant, irrespective of whether they had any academies. This outraged the Local Government Association who encouraged LAs who felt badly treated to ask for a judicial review. The DfE eventually backed down and gave the aggrieved LAs a refund. The National Audit Office reported in November 2012 that the implementation of the post-2010 academy programme had gone over budget by £1 billion.

Clearly this overspending could not continue in a time of national austerity so in December 2012 the DfE decided that an LA needs to spend £116.46 per pupil on providing central services. How it arrived at this speciously accurate figure remains a secret. It announced that this figure would be deducted from the general grant to councils for every child in the school system. The councils would get it back for the children they continue to educate in maintained schools and every academy would receive that for the pupils they are educating.

That seems simple and fair, but of course it would remove, at a stroke, the financial advantage of being an academy, so the DfE announced that an academy would get £150 per pupil in ESG for 2013-14, dropping to £140 in 2014-15. As this figure, which is still beneficial to academies, would have caused turbulence for those who previously received an even more generous LACSEG, their ESG will be protected at 90% of what they got last year. In addition, academies will get £20 per pupil to enable them to buy insurance that they could have got more cheaply if they had stayed with the LA

This seemingly simple solution has created another unfairness. Some LAs are so poorly funded by central government grant and their own low council tax, that they cannot afford to spend £116.46 per pupil. In Cambridgeshire, for example, the spend is £66 but they still lose £116.46 so every pupil in an academy in Cambridgeshire removes £50 from what the council has to spend on its other services, adult social care, road maintenance, youth services. Libraries etc.

So what lies ahead? The first challenge for the government and Danny Alexander in the Treasury is to stop the wilful overspending in the DfE. How many years will it take before the ESG for academies is the same as that for schools?

The second and even bigger challenge is to create a national funding formula that will distribute the DSG to LAs (and through them and the EFA to academies too). The roots of the current unfairness date back to the time when local councils decided for themselves how much to spend on their schools. Councils made their own decisions based on their political perspectives and the priority they gave to education. This resulted in massively dissimilar funding for schools depending on their LA. At the time, this dissimilarity was of little consequence because comparisons between LAs were not publicised. However, this all changed when the Conservative Government brought in a national curriculum, national testing, national inspection and the national publication of examination results. The illogicality of schools being judged against national criteria, but being funded on a local basis, soon galvanised Head Teachers into action and, in 1995, the Secondary Heads Association (now the Association of School and College Leaders) called for a national funding formula. Although Government officials were sympathetic to the logic of the argument, it became clear that there was no political appetite for a change that would be highly controversial. This problem has remained unresolved ever since.

The coalition government has returned to this issue and has stated that it wishes to devise a national funding formula that will be 'simple and fair'. The evidence of recent developments, backed up by years of experience from those who have been closely involved in school funding, is that simple is usually unfair and fairness requires complexity. Whether Mr. Gove will listen remains to be seen.

Peter Downes is a Cambridge County Councillor and a Vice President of the Lib Dem Education Association.



[i] Education Act 2002: section 78; Academies Act 2010: section 1(6)

[ii] Education Reform Act 1988

[iii] www.teachingmusic.org.uk

[iv] Hallam et al (2009): Music Education Research 11(2),221-40

[v] Stunell (2007);unpublished PhD thesis

[vi] www.education.gov.uk: National Curriculum for England KS3

[vii] DCMS (2011): Music Education in England

[viii] Ofsted (2012): Music in schools: wider still, and wider

Putting professionals and sustainability at the heart of Lib Dem education policy

Helen Flynn

The news about the abandonment of the EBC (EBacc Certificate) and the EBacc itself are to be welcomed by all interested in a progressive and inclusive education system. Is this beginning of the end of the regular Gove-ian, back of the envelope initiatives, which seem to have little to do with evidence-based, rigorous research and planning, and more to do with a kind of "Tom Brown's Schooldays", personal take on what makes for a good education? Somehow I doubt it. But at least it's a start.

The education world has been suffering from major shock and awe style reforms and promises (threats?) of reform, such as EBCs since Gove got the top job at the DfE. By anyone's reckoning this approach is simply not sustainable, or more importantly, in the best interests of our young people. A new group has formed called the Headteachers' Roundtable (http://headteachersroundtable.wordpress.com), as a direct response to the teaching profession deficit that has figured in all Gove's policy reforms to date. Their five principles make for interesting reading, and there is the old chestnut in there about ridding education of party political tinkering, which is something I have long thought worthy of deeper reflection and action by a party brave enough to consider it.

Maybe we do not need to go that far, but we can, at least, introduce reforms which would temper the effects of Ministers acting more in the interests of being seen to act, and beefing up their personal reputations through their programmes of reform, rather then developing holistic, inclusive and sustainable policy.

So let's consider the three following points, as we warm up to serious Lib Dem manifesto consideration:

1. Why is there not a Chief Education Officer (or more than one) in the DfE to act as a counterpoint to the Minister for Education, who comes from the teaching profession and is ideally, I would suggest, elected by the teaching profession? The model is already there in other Government departments, in roles such as Chief Medical Officer, Chief Scientific Officer, etc. Arguably with such professional heavyweights, initiatives such as the EBC would remain firmly on the back of the envelope and never see the light of day.

2. Why is there not a body in the DfE, similar in function to the Independent Reconfiguration Panel in the NHS, which would act an an independent expert on proposed service and structural changes? In the NHS, this panel provides advice to the Secretary of State on disputed proposals for changes to the NHS in England, amongst other functions.

3. Finally, as has been proposed in so many other areas in the political policy arena, why can't we agree that education is surely the area where there should be cross-party support for major initiatives, to ensure stability and sustainability? The one basic and fundamental reason behind the much documented and evidenced success of progressive education policies in Finland has been because of political party consensus on the basic structures and direction of educational reform over decades since the 1970s. That's over 40 years-just imagine that! I leave you with a quote from Pasi Sahlberg of the Finnish Education Ministry, from his book, "Finnish Lessons":

"The success of Finnish education is not the result of any major education reform per se. Instead, education development in Finland has been based on the continual adjustment of schooling to the basic needs of individuals and society....The basic values and main vision of education as a public service have remained unchanged since the 1970s. Governments from the political left and right have respected education as the key public service for all citizens and maintained their belief that only a highly and widely educated nation will be successful in world markets."

Amen to that.

Helen Flynn is a Harrogate Borough Councillor, Lib Dem Federal Policy Committee member, and member of the executive committee of the LDEA.

New curriculum not a threat but rather an opportunity

John Howson

When I first saw that the humanities curriculum would feature a return to a hero and heroine approach to history, and a 'Capes and Bays' knowledge of geography my heart sank. Here was a return to Victorian values championed by a Secretary of State anxious to enhance his credibility with the Tory right wing. However, his espousal of modern technology allows me to consider how the two might be put together to good effect.

Take a lesson on the movers and shakers of British history. Half a century ago a teacher would have stood at the front of their classroom and lectured the class about whoever they thought was important. Probably at the primary stage, this would have featured, for example, Alfred the Great, Nelson, Florence Nightingale and a few others where the tale to tell was inspiring enough to capture the attention of the class. As the school wouldn't have a library, and the children's section of public libraries were few and far apart, there was little alternative. Perhaps, some children would read comics or come from homes where books like Arthur Mee's Children's Encyclopedia could be found that would have widened their knowledge, as would the daily newspaper that many households still read.

The first decade of this century provides a very different picture. If anything, it is one of information overload. As Mr Gove also wants debating and public speaking to be a part of schooling to improve self-confidence, I can see a Key Stage 2 humanities programme following a unit something like this:

Teacher: our topics this week is heroes and heroines. Firstly, how do we define what is meant by such a person? Then pick both a period on the timeline and a card from the pack containing terms like military, arts, invention, politics, religion, business, education, law and so on and go away and find someone who meets the criteria you have selected. Come back prepared to put forward the case as to why the class should vote for your candidate, and to cross-examine everyone else on why you should vote for their candidate.

If some key candidates aren't covered, the next lesson can be about testing those well known individuals against the ones selected in order to see who has stood the test of time, and, more importantly, why.

The same approach can work with geography. You can play a game of 'fill in the blanks' for rivers, mountains, volcanoes, countries, towns or whatever. I am sure that most schools used the Olympics to increase their pupils' knowledge of the world, and how to find out about the other lands they see every day on their televisions. And that is the other great change from Mr Gove's view of the world. School is not longer the only, and probably not the main, supplier of knowledge about history and geography to the modern generation.

However, we can all agree that access to knowledge remains the key to power, so the vital necessity of success in the early years is still paramount. Rather than worrying just about how England fares in PISA tables (and it should do better next time because of the better staffing of all schools with qualified teachers than when the tests were last collated), the aim should be to focus on under-performance against expectations, and to be ruthless in eradicating its causes.

All political parties pay lip service to the link between deprivation and under-achievement or even failure at schools. The real test is whether the coalition government can do something to break this cycle. The Pupil Premium is a good start, but success cannot be bought by money alone.

Professor John Howson is a Vice President of the LDEA and a former parliamentary candidate.

The quality and accountability of Ofsted

Rebecca Hanson

What do schools, local authorities or councillors do when decisions made by Ofsted seem to be wrong or to be leading to consequences which are not in the best interests of children?

In a workshop at the recent LDEA/LGA conference held in Nottingham in February 2013, Liberal Democrats explored their concerns that schools, which have had good reason to challenge Ofsted's decisions, have found that there exists no effective legal framework they can use. This means that Ofsted can get away with poor quality practice which can damage education. It also means that that Ofsted can be used by the Secretary of State for Education as a tool to force schools and local authorities to accept policy on which there has not been proper consultation, and which they believe is not in the interests of the children they educate.

The workshop considered a motion to pass an order to the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act obligating Ofsted to it for all its regulatory activity (it is already obligated to it for its work with public and private organisations). This motion was unanimously supported by the Lib Dem northwest region's autumn conference. The workshop agreed that it should be put forward to the Federal Autumn Conference, for full debate by the party.

The legal structure being considered would give schools and local authorities the right to challenge Ofsted's decisions. In cases where Ofsted was found to be acting in ways which were not consistent, transparent, proportionate or targeted, and also to be using practice which was not consistent with the Regulators' Code, it could be forced, through the process of judicial review, to comply with the this Code.

This Government promised to give greater professional freedom to head teachers and teachers to base their teaching around what works rather than around central government diktat. The Regulators' Code was designed to ensure the best regulatory practice is used which drives improvement while also respecting the professional freedom of organisations. If we want to claim with any credibility that we have achieved our stated objective we need to ensure this reform goes through before the next election.

Rebecca Hanson MA (cantab), MEd, FRSA, is a member of the Executive Committee of the LDEA.

The Children & Families Bill: some great stuff, pity about one of the adoption reforms….

Janet Grauberg

One of the themes of 2013 will be discussions on the Government's Children & Families Bill. This Bill is likely to receive cross-party support, and has much for Liberal Democrats to welcome. The Bill (which mostly covers England and Wales) enacts the wide-ranging SEN Reforms developed by Sarah Teather, introduces the flexible parental leave championed by Ed Davey in his previous role, and gives the Children's Commissioner for England a duty to "protect and promote the rights of children", making progress on a campaign led by Baroness Walmsley for the Government to meet its responsibilities under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

It also puts into legislation many of the changes led by the Secretary of State for Education to speed up adoption. This includes implementation of the Family Justice Review recommendations to improve the speed of decision-making in the Family Court system, and makes it easier for foster carers to adopt children who are placed with them. Some of the measures, such as removing the explicit need for social workers to take account a child's ethnic background, are felt to be unnecessary, but generally the Government's focus on adoption has been warmly welcomed.

However, there is one measure that was sprung on us two weeks before the Bill was published, was not subject to consultation, and has been met with opposition from virtually everyone currently delivering adoption services. Clause 3 gives the Secretary of State power to give directions to local authorities to make arrangements for their adopter recruitment, assessment and approval functions to be carried out by an adoption agency. These directions can be applied to: a) one or more councils, b) a type of council, or c) all councils in England. In other words, the Secretary of State can now strip councils of any role in recruiting and approving adopters.

The Government's intention is to threaten local authorities to improve their performance in recruiting, so that there are enough approved adopters to address the "backlog" of children waiting for adoption. The Clause is framed as what is known as a "sunrise clause" ie it does not have a commencement date; as one Director of Children's Services put it - it is a sword of Damocles. The implication of (c) is that, irrespective of the performance of your local authority, or indeed, irrespective of actual progress across the care and court system, the Secretary of State can indiscriminately remove those powers from every single local authority and transfer them to voluntary adoption agencies.

I personally don't have any objection to a market approach in children's services. However, on this occasion it is a flawed approach.

First, international law prevents agencies from making a profit out of adoption (rightly so - this mitigates against "baby-snatching" across international borders). So a simple market - in which new entrants are enticed to come into the market because of the opportunity to make money, is not possible.

Secondly, that means that if you strip out the public and private sector, the only possible providers are voluntary adoption agencies, or charities. But charities are independent bodies with their priorities set by their trustees. There is no guarantee that enough charities will decide to increase their role in adoption to fill the gap left by the local authorities. They might, out of the goodness of their heart, or they might not.

Thirdly, local authorities currently recruit about 80% of the adopters. It appears to be perverse that the answer to increasing adopter supply should be to remove 80% of that supply from the pipeline.

Fourthly, and most significantly, implementing this measure would be likely to be extremely disruptive in the short- to medium-term. It could take five or ten years for the capacity of the voluntary sector to adjust to the new environment; it could take much longer than that for new relationships of trust to be built up between the voluntary organisations holding lists of potential adopters, and local authorities holding lists of children needing adoption.

Everyone agrees that more could and should be done to speed up the adoption process. It isn't right that there are 4,000 children waiting on average two and a half years to be adopted. Everyone agrees that more must be done to work across boundaries when recruiting adoptive parents - it isn't right that a couple approved for adoption by one authority can wait for years to be matched with a child, even though a neighbouring authority has a child who could be perfect for them.

But with Clause 3c, the Secretary of State risks letting his frustration cloud his judgment. He risks pursuing a market ideology in an environment where a market cannot function; and he risks causing years of instability and delay - which is precisely the opposite of what he - and so many of us -- actually want for children.

Janet Grauberg is a former Lead Member for Children's Services and is now Director of Strategy for Barnardo's. She is a member of the LDEA.

Minimising failure in education

Andrew Bridgwater

As the compulsory age for staying in education and training gradually rises to 18 over the next few years, the LDEA/LGA Conference recently held in Nottingham started to look at the options for reviewing the exam structure that arises from this positive change.

First and foremost, tackling the literacy and numeracy agenda, not dealt with fully in English and Maths GCSEs, was seen as essential so that access to future education and training from 14 could be assured.

I then started wondering why one of the purposes of exam testing is to fail some students and pass others. What is the point of failure and how do we address it? Surely it must be to determine how we support young people to achieve future success.

My extensive experience in the governance of Special Schools taught me one issue very early on, that every student has individual needs and has strengths as well as weaknesses. Putting them all, regardless of their abilities, through exams at fixed ages, with "Gove-ian" rigour, so that we label only the "Gove-ian" elite as successful is self defeating both for the individual and society.

At Nottingham we pursued the concept of non-age related examinations. In other words, when the relevant teacher or lecturer determined with the individual student that they were ready to take a particular GCSE or AS, A Level or vocational qualification, they should only then be entered for it. This would lead to more successful outcomes and reduce failure rates. Further those exams not taken by the age of 18 could be pursued voluntarily at a later date.

In addition we should make available appropriate modular and/or practical options together with variable course work options to suit individual student aptitudes.

By humanising education and training, stress will be reduced and mental health improved. Surely a worthwhile aspiration for Liberal Democrats?

Andrew Bridgwater is Chair of LDEA and is the Lib Dem candidate for the seat of Totnes Rural in Devon County Council in May 2013.

Secure Childrens' Homes - future financing

Colin Wilsdon

At a time of tight local authority budgets, expensive optional activities come under close scrutiny. Yet these activities are often of critical importance for the people they serve and in addition have the potential to save large sums from the public purse. One such example is the provision of Secure Children's Homes (SCUs). The numbers of SCUs has dropped dramatically in recent years and in 2012 there were only 16 (in a minority of local authority areas). Currently there are 108 beds available nationally. The homes cost an enormous amount to run - in West Sussex it is typically around £5,000 per place per week. This cost falls on the county council (or other LA) providing the home, mitigated by fees charged to other LAs. If the home is full it contributes significantly to the county income largely because most of the children will be from other authorities. If it is not full, it is a considerable drain on resources. This uncertainty at a time of cut-backs makes their future uncertain.

Why should we want to lock up children? It runs counter to all our deep-seated liberal instincts. The very idea creates difficulties for magistrates who may see it as their duty to make a court order to a secure unit as short as possible. It creates difficulties for some in the health service for whom patients' rights are paramount and who may find it difficult to operate in the context of a child under a secure order.

The children who receive secure orders for welfare reasons are seen as being at serious risk for all sorts of reasons: sexual exploitation, drug addiction, absconding, living rough, self harm, exploitation by gangs, etc. Almost always they have a background of abuse of one sort or another leading to dysfunctional behaviour and self harm. Sometimes there are underlying mental health problems. A secure order is seen as a last resort when all else has been tried.

As an elected member of West Sussex County Council, acting as a corporate parent, I have been a regular visitor to our local SCU for seven years. I have been left with two very strong impressions. First, that the children are in many ways just ordinary young people whose lives have been blighted by all sorts of experiences, leading to their current problems. Secondly, of highly skilled, dedicated staff who are doing their best to help them overcome their background and move on to fulfilling lives.

Keeping a child locked up, even if it is for their own good, is a challenging environment in which to try and help them. Over the years however I have seen how it has enabled children to separate themselves from damaging influences and to develop trust and self-confidence that gives them a chance of moving on to a more normal life. It takes a while to do this, probably several months. There is a natural desire on the part of some to minimise the time spent in secure accommodation but this is not necessarily in the child's best interests. Children are often so damaged that there is no such thing as a quick fix solution.

Children in secure units have often fallen behind badly in education and this will dog them for the rest of their lives if nothing is done to correct it. One really encouraging piece of research published on the Secure Children's Homes website has shown that educational progress within secure units is very marked and much higher than in outside schools. For example, young people resident for 2-8 weeks improved their reading age by an average of one year. The research "shows rates of progress three times greater than the national expectations of good progress within the first six months".

The challenge for society is to accept the high cost of helping these children in the knowledge that it will avoid higher costs in the future. The problem is that the demand for these services will not support one home in every local authority and consequently a minority of local authorities are carrying the financial risk.

There needs to be a new way of financing SCUs without losing the local link. One way could be to provide a financial buffer from central funds or for central government to commission local authorities to provide these services.

Colin Wilsdon is a West Sussex county councillor. He previously taught physics and operational research at the University of Brighton. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the LDEA.

Children's homes: new developments from a Stockport perspective

Paul Porgess

For its size, Stockport has a large number (54) of children's homes of which 40 are privately owned, 12 run by charities and two by the council. Many of the children in the care homes come from outside the borough, some from other parts of greater Manchester, but others from distant parts of the country. The privately run homes are largely concentrated in one part of the borough containing large Victorian houses and this brings issues for local residents, the police and local services.

We are therefore looking at the relationships between the council and the privately run homes. We have questioned the involvement of the virtual school, the safeguarding children's unit, the youth offending service and the police. We have also considered the Ofsted inspection framework and the reports of the All-Party Parliamentary Group's (APPG) report on children running away. The co-chair of the APPG is Ann Coffey, one of the borough's MPs, and she gave a presentation to our review panel. This investigation has not yet been completed but the following is a summary of our findings so far.

Our virtual school monitors all looked after children (LAC) in schools in the borough, but do not have the resources to fully monitor those housed here from outside the borough. The sending authority still has care responsibilities for these, but the Local Safeguarding Children's Board has a responsibility for safeguarding all children in the borough, irrespective of their origin. The support provided by the sending authorities is inconsistent. It is also difficult for a school to establish strong relationships with a care home; some are proactive but there can be changes of care staff. We have concerns that Ofsted, who inspect children's homes, do not set a minimum level of training for care home staff. Furthermore, Ofsted inspection reports are sent to the sending authorities, but not to the host authority. There is no legal duty for the private children's home to liaise with the host authority.

We are concerned that, as a large host authority, we are not funded for the extra work; there is a lack of funding from the placing authority, and this restricts the ability to provide the same level of service as is given to our own children in care. However, Ann Coffey told us that the APPG has been advised that other host authorities do not want to receive money from the sending authorities as that would cost too much to collect.

The young people can be placed in a succession of children's homes; there can be frequent changes of social workers; disrupted education; and different specialist agencies called in. The sending authority has its relationship with the care home, but the receiving authority is not consulted or informed of placements. The young people can be criminalised while in care for offences that would probably would not have gone to court had they been living at home. A significant number go missing. Although 'host' youth offending teams work with out of area young people, their budgets do not reflect this, so says a report by the Probation Service and Ofsted. In Stockport, the Youth Offending Service (YOS) tries to avoid unnecessary criminalisation, and they ask homes to consider restorative approaches to young people's challenging behaviour. Where restorative approaches are not carried out, the YOS workers will approach the court to have the case withdrawn.

Greater Manchester police (GMP) recorded over 1,100 incidents in care homes in Stockport in seven months, amounting to a large expense for the police. Following the sexual exploitation of children in Rochdale and the number of call outs in Stockport, GMP are piloting in these two authorities new ways of working. Officers in the neighbourhood police teams (NPT) are being specifically trained in visiting children's homes, understanding the regulations that children's homes must follow, checking that care plans are being adhered to. This started in October 2012. Advice is given regarding a local agreement with home managers. It is the home manager who should deal with incidents that are not serious and which do not require immediate response. Tthe home manager should also follow the national care home standard No.3 - promoting positive behaviour and relationships.

In addition, if a child is missing from care, staff should work with the police where appropriate. Written records must be kept by the home, and care plans updated. Should the care home refuse to collect the missing child, the police will notify the local authority and Ofsted. If the NPT home liaison officers have concerns regarding safeguarding, then Stockport's safeguarding unit is informed.

It is hoped that this new way of working will relieve the work of the police and also reduce the risk of criminalising the child. These new procedures should also improve the flow of information with the 'host' authority, which previously was lacking. Meetings are now taking place between care home managers and GMP staff. As a consequence, the number of calls from homes has dropped sharply, but, more importantly, vulnerable children are safeguarded better and there is greater assurance that homes meet their parental responsibilities.

Councillor Paul Porgess is Vice-Chair of the Children & Young People Scrutiny Committee in Stockport, and Lead of scrutiny panel examining the council relationship with privately run children's care homes. He is a member of the Executive Committee of the LDEA.

Is the DfE doing enough to help children speak their mother tongues well?

Nick Russell

As Michael Gove has now dropped the original EBacc criteria, can we lobby for him not just to allow students to qualify in their mother tongue language, but to celebrate it? For most of the life of the EBacc, the DfE has argued that speaking in the mother tongue should not qualify, as it doesn't show application and school learning. This should stop.

The DfE guidance on Modern Foreign Languages continues to reflect the private school and Western European bias in our curriculum. It explicitly encourages Italian, spoken basically only by Italians, while ignoring Portuguese, spoken by 215 million native speakers. Portuguese is the third most spoken European language, not French.

Mandarin is feted because "it is vital for the economic future of our country and…. introduces people to the concept that not all languages use Roman script". Maybe the DfE hasn't visited schools in London or Leicester or Bradford where most of the pupils start out speaking a language not in a Roman script - though they may not write it fluently as they have never been taught it?

Funny that Hindi, Bengali and Urdu are not mentioned as Modern Foreign Languages when some 7.5% of British children probably grow up speaking one of them at home - particularly when India is also seen as a 21st century economic powerhouse.

I maintain there are three arguments for encouraging GCSE qualifications in all mother tongues. I summarise them as: skill, rigour and example.

Shouldn't we always be seeking to acclaim skills and achievements among children, whatever the speciality? Young people who can switch readily between two languages, and often do so for their parents and grandparents in schools, hospitals and other official settings, have developed a real dexterity that we should celebrate. Whatever Brussels thinks, those children may well have more and better career opportunities if they exploit their native bilingualism rather than resort to their stumbling EU languages or Mandarin.

And if British children are speaking a language other than English at home, shouldn't we encourage them to do it correctly and understand its inflections, agreements and vocabulary? It is true that many households will speak a vernacular that observes none of the rules of the language and is so colloquial that it has no rigour. Shouldn't we encourage students to speak their language correctly, for its sake and theirs - and to show that we respect its provenance and homeland?

Finally, any attempt to acquire a second language suddenly throws one's mother tongue into relief. Its structure and syntax come to life as the tenses, genders and conjugations of the foreign language exemplify the building blocks that underpin all languages. So learning that the mother tongue has many elements makes it easier to understand the role of those elements in other languages. Why not build on the pupil's pre-existing knowledge as a specific example of general rules?

Nick Russell is a former Camden councillor and vice-chair of governors at Haverstock School, known as "the Labour Eton". He is a member of the LDEA.

Update on Children and Young People issues

Liz Green

It has been a busy time for me as the Local Government Association (LGA) Lib Dem Lead on the Children and Families Board. New initiatives and changes seem to come out daily from the Department for Education and it's a challenge for our Children and Young People (CYP) leads and spokespeople in councils up and down the country. We try to make sure that information is shared and Liberal Democrat views put into LGA responses, as well as helping keep tabs on what our Ministers are doing!

One of the biggest areas for work has been the council role in education, particularly around school improvement, place planning and vulnerable children. I've worked with David Laws and James Kempton to collect the examples and put forward the reasoning for the need for local authorities to be involved. Devolved schools simply cannot do everything for themselves and Whitehall cannot run all 25,000 schools. David Laws completely understands this and supports our role as a middle tier. Unfortunately, Gove simply did not want to listen, or maybe he was listening too much to the Academy chains and those who believe all councils are holding back children's education!

Ofsted has now announced it is stepping in to inspect all council school improvement services. However, what is not yet clear is what will happen about other school improvement providers such as Academy chains, etc? Also, how are those who are not seen to be improving after a second inspection to be dealt with? I am pressing for sector-led improvement. School to school support is always hailed as the best answer (with councils arranging such support), but when a council needs additional support, it is often seen that the top down approach is used. We are fortunate in the party to have many experts in school improvement, both currently sitting as councillors in administration and opposition, and I believe we should be able use this expertise, via the LGA.

Funding is always top of the list of controversial subjects and in education we have seen many changes over the last couple of years: from the additional money given to Academies (National Audit Office says over £1 billion so far), to the kicking into the long grass of the national funding formula for schools; from the reduction in Early Intervention Grant, to the still too high LACSEG calculations. On all these fronts, we have been attacking Michael Gove.

Early intervention and prevention is particularly difficult for many councils at the moment with reducing budgets. Whilst those of us lucky enough to be in administration struggle with our own authority's finances, we must always remember those who are not protecting society's most vulnerable. This is the worst kind of politics and through information sharing we can show it for what it really is - political point scoring.

Of course, it isn't all bad, and personally I am really pleased, in particular, with the free places for vulnerable two-year-olds. I think this is one of the best policies we have got into legislation and one which will make a real difference to our society, and we are there to help any councillors wanting to make sure their council is ready.

There's been a myriad of other consultations, enquiries and dissemination of information: adoption, looked-after children, rising age of participation, sector-led safeguarding improvements, and free schools. All this, as well as working with other Lib Dem leads at the LGA on projects such as the hidden talents campaign for reducing youth unemployment, and the changes to structures and troubled families programme.

The pace of change at the Department of Education, pushed along by Gove, doesn't show any signs of waning, so LGA will continue to ensure local government views are represented and I'll carry on making sure that our Liberal Democrat voices are heard.

Councillor Liz Green is the Liberal Democrat Deputy Chair of the Children and Young People's Board of the Local Government Association.