Lib Dem Conference: Round-up of education policy offers

If this weekend’s Liberal Democrat spring conference taught us anything, it’s that education rises up the agenda when the coalition gloves are off.

This partnership between the Lib Dems and the Conservatives is finished in all but name. They have to continue to govern, but no more legislation will pass once the dark cloud of Purdah is upon us on March 30.

And nowhere was that more obvious than at the ACC in Liverpool, when the Lib Dems went into full attack mode against their coalition parties, with education getting more than just a brief mention.

A clear Lib Dem strategy has emerged when it comes to education, and particularly the schools agenda, and that strategy is a sensible one – to constantly point out how much worse it could have been for schools if the Tories had been “allowed” to govern alone.

Although he saved the most savage attacks for his own speech, it’s clear Nick Clegg has a footsoldier to help him sling this particular mud, and David Laws does his job very well.

At both Fringe events where I saw Laws speak last night, he sought to emphasise the gap in thinking between the yellows and the blues in an academic and thoughtful way. Of course, among the party faithful, he doesn’t need to win friends and influence people, but his message will be passed on by them on the doorstep like some weird game of Chinese Whispers, so it’s important to get it right at the source.

In most cases, their examples are anecdotal, but not hard to believe, or in many cases, prove. In his speech, Nick Clegg spoke about the success his party has had in preventing the Tories from “cutting the school budget in real terms”, “bringing back the old-fashioned two-tier education system” and “letting free schools be run for profit”.

The language is clever here, because all we’d need to find is one Tory who wanted to do each of those (which wouldn’t be hard) and we could substantiate his claims.

However, conversations with people on the inside reveal that there is a lot of truth to what Clegg and Laws say. Insiders paint a picture of an education department where the Lib Dem minister is much more active due to a particular personal interest of his party leader. You don’t just hear it from Lib Dems – think of how many times former Gove SpAd Dom Cummings has slammed Clegg for interfering during his former boss’s tenure.

What’s clear, despite the fact the image of the Lib Dems as the protectors of all things education definitely works on the party faithful, is that they will have a tougher job convincing the electorate to look past the cuts they have effectively enabled whilst in government, and whether what they managed to prevent is enough to exonerate them. I suspect it won’t be.


Freddie Whittaker is a political reporter at Schools Week

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