David Laws: Protect schools from the 'whims of here-today, gone-tomorrow politicians'

The Liberal Democrat Schools Minister said he wanted a brake on the 'corrosive impact' of self-interested political meddling in schools policy

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The Independent Online

Schools should be protected from the "whims of here-today, gone-tomorrow politicians" in deciding on the content of the curriculum and whether standards have improved, David Laws declared yesterday.

The Liberal Democrat Schools Minister said he wanted a brake on the "corrosive impact" of self-interested political meddling in schools policy.

He called for the setting up of an Education Standards Authority staffed by independent education experts which would be given the task of determining curriculum content and measure whether school standards had improved or not.

His call will be interpreted as a thinly veiled criticism of his former boss at the Department for Education, who came under intense criticism from teachers and educationalists for - in particular - his reforms to the English and history curriculum.

"We've had in this Parliament parts of the English and history curriculum decided ... on the whim of here-today, gone-tomorrow politicians down to the level of what works of English literature should be taught," Mr Laws said.

The fiercest criticism was reserved for a decision to concentrate more on British writers in the English GCSE syllabus which led to exam boards withdrawing popular US novelists such as Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mocking Bird, and John Steinbeck, Arthur Miller and F.Scott Fitzgerald from the cuirriculum.  Mr Gove always argued his reforms were never meant to lead to an outright ban on US authors.

On the history curriculum, there was controversy over what was seen as an attempt to concentrate on teaching British history to the detriment of pupils learning about events overseas.

However, criticism of political meddling in the curriculum pre-dates Mr Gove's reign.  When the history curriculum was first drawn up then Education Secretary Kenneth Clarke at one stage ruled that history should end 30 years before the present day - which meant pupils when it was first introduced were taught about the US entering the Vietnam war but not what subsequently happened.

In addition, Labour was criticised for a redrafting of the history curriculum which left Winston Churchill out of the subjects to be studied during lessons on the Second World War.  Ministers argued they believed it was impossible to teach about the war without mentioning Churchill - and so therefore it was unnecessary to include his name specifically.

Mr Laws was giving specific details of the policies which will be pursued by Liberal Democrats during the General Election campaign on the BBC's online news service.

He said that to give politicians control over what was taught in the curriculum was "completely inappropriate" and he added that parents would have more confidence in a system which had less "political interference".

Lib Dems would give a new Education Standards Authority control of curriculum content and measuring whether standards had improved thus avoiding politicians "marking their own homework".

He said there was still a role for politicians in determining an overall strategy but that "ministers float in and out of the department often for quite short periods of time" which created "too much turbulence".

"We don't want decisions over standards and assessments to be made by politicians who are essentially marking their own work," he added.  "We all have a strong incentive to say that the previous government was hopeless and any improvement was down to grade inflation.

"It is much better in the long run (to adopt this system) even if it is uncomfortable for politicians in the short run that these things are informed by real evidence of what is going on.

"We will have a better education system if the degree of political volatility is reduced and policy making is based according to evidence (rather than the interests of the politician in control),".

Mr Laws added the Lib Dems would keep the present academies programme and allow further free schools to open.  "We're not saying we can't have any more free schools," he added.

The party would also have "cradle to college" protection of education budgets "in contrast to the spending plans of the Conservatives which would lave education unprotected and at risk of being cut".

Mr Laws' comments will be welcomed by teachers' leaders and education think-tanks who have called for more evidence based policy decisions - although some will query why he was unable to prevent some of the excesses he appears to admit went on under the current Government.