Saturday was education day at the Lib Dem conference. Education is dear to the hearts of most Lib Dems, but the party struggles to come up with a clear party line beyond the important policy of Pupil Premium, where state funding of schools is uplifted for those with poorer pupils. This drift was on show yesterday.
There were two motions, one on early years and the other on schools. Both came over as worthy but wishy washy wish lists, with a rather nanny state tendency on show. The most contentious point on the early years motion was support for increasing professionalisation of nursery and childminding provision. This all feels a bit New Labour and not particularly liberal. The idea that this might be a source of jobs for non graduates doesn't seem to have taken hold, which is a pity. It would be nice to think that more jobs would be available to single mothers who have had a disadvantaged start in life. But the focus seems be on pushing graduates into those roles.
There was more contention around the schools motion. There is a body of activists who are upset by the way the party has been handling education policy in government, with very little consultation of the party at large, and seemingly tagging along to a Tory agenda. This boiled over a bit with the recently proposed reform to the GCSE exams, which was presented to the world as the result of negotiations between the Lib Dems and Conservatives. But work done by activists on the subject was ignored. The motion was not about this issue, but there was an attempt to spatula it in, rejected by the Conference Committee, which caused tempers to fray.
The motion itself was the usual worthy fare. An amendment on governance was passed which sought to ensure that no interest group had a majority on state school boards...something which would be an issue for faith schools and sponsored academies. It also had some nanny state stuff about training governors. Interestingly the conference also passed an amendment rejecting the proposal to abolish mandatory external tests at the end of children's primary school careers - SATS. This clearly took the motion's movers quite by surprise, and showed that the conference was taking bit of trouble over the policies it was passing. I supported this amendment, as a school governor I find these tests invaluable as a means of holding the school to account.
But it would be nice if the party could develop something more radical and interesting, to contrast with the emerging Tory/Labour consensus. This will require some strong leadership. David Laws, the new education minister, is the man who should provide it. But though he is widely respected, he does not seem to be good with the gruelling process of consultation and bringing the activists on side. We shall see.