David Laws: You Ask The Questions

The Liberal Democrat spokesman for Children, Schools, and Families answers your questions, such as 'What is the point of education?' and 'As an ex-banker, do you feel guilty?'
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The Independent Online

What exactly is the difference between your schools policy and that of Michael Gove? They strike me as remarkably similar. So much so that maybe you should be a Tory. Janet Richmond, London

Look again! First, the Liberal Democrats are the only Party committed to investing more in schools, with a pupil premium, to raise the funding of the most disadvantaged pupils to the level of private schools. This will be extra funding for schools, paid for by reducing tax credits payments to those on higher incomes. The Tories say they can't even guarantee the existing level of schools funding. A pupil premium without extra money would be undeliverable or ineffective. Second, the Liberal Democrats are committed to cutting infant class sizes; the Tories oppose this.

Third, the Liberal Democrats genuinely believe in giving more freedom to schools and parents. We would create an independent Educational Standards Authority, and reduce ministers' powers to meddle. The Tories still believe in central diktat: they would be as bad as Ed Balls, just with a new set of schemes and gimmicks.

Finally, the Liberal Democrats want a curriculum which serves all pupils. Michael Gove has just announced extraordinary plans to exclude all vocational qualifications from league tables. This is a daft and deeply regressive policy, suggesting that the usual Tory instincts are still lurking underneath all the cuddly Cameron gloss.

What's the difference between the pupil premium and vouchers in education? What evidence do you have for thinking that the former works? Simeon Kettle, Manchester

A pupil premium would be extra money allocated for the most disadvantaged pupils, those from poor backgrounds and with special educational needs. It would follow the pupil to whichever school he or she attended. At present, half of the most disadvantaged pupils do not attend schools which attract significant money to tackle this disadvantage. Evidence shows that money spent on the most disadvantaged pupils has the highest impact. This is different from a voucher, because it is not transferable into the private sector. It would not be fair to fund only pupils from poor families to exit state education for expensive private schools, while those just above the pupil premium level were unable to do this.

What's your problem with grammar schools, given they're rather good at giving poor people a proper education? Anne Doyle, Stoke

Grammar schools educate very few poor children . Fifteen per cent of English children are entitled to free school meals, but only 2 per cent of children (3,000) at all grammar schools are on free meals. Grammar schools are bound to deliver good results because they select the most academically able children. But they leave other schools in their areas struggling to perform with less academically able pupils; and they create rigid barriers within education, based on a few tests taken at a very early age.

What's the purpose of public education? Kevin Larkman, Grantham

It is to provide all children with the skills they need to succeed in life, to think critically, use their talents creatively, make well-balanced decisions, live happily, and pursue their own goals.

Your party leader once said on a plane that you weren't comfortable in your present brief. How did that make you feel? And is it true? Andrea Sylvain, Dudley

Ah . That is not what he said. Or rather, the journalist sitting behind him and trying to listen in to his conversation got it wrong. I love the education brief, and it is something I am very passionate about. I love going into schools and colleges. I am in politics because I am passionate about all children having the types of chances which I have had. There are only three jobs in Nick's shadow cabinet that I would want to do. Education is one. Work and Pensions is another; that was my last job. I will leave you to guess the third, though there is definitely no vacancy there at present.

When did the Tory Party first approach you about crossing the floor of the House of Commons? Maria Shrewton, Bury

Once only, in September 2006. It is now on the public record that George Osborne came to see me in my Commons office. George is a charming person, who is very witty and politically astute. But I am not a Conservative, which is what I told George. I could not support a party which can find money to cut inheritance tax for the .005 per cent of the richest people in Britain, but who will not allocate extra money to pay for a pupil premium which would benefit the poorest one million children.

Labour is in disarray and many people are unconvinced by the Tories. So why are you 18 points behind the Tories in the polls? Ruth Timms, East Renfrewshire

People are fed up with Labour, and a lot of people automatically think of voting for the "other lot". But people are presently much more anti-Labour than pro-Tory. The key issue is what type of change we get in Britain after the General Election. I think if the Tories get back in we will eventually see a Britain which is less fair, less green, less free, and with less good public services. We have six months to hammer home the message that the Liberal Democrats are not just a force for change, but a change for the better.

Given you were an investment banker, have you spent the past two years feeling guilty about your flirtation with that sinister industry? Arvind Premjeet, Stevenage

No. My time in the City gave me the financial backing to get involved in politics. Without this, I would have struggled to live in London on my researcher salary of £14,000 per year (it amuses me when people claim that all MPs go into politics for the money). Investment banking is not a "sinister" industry; it is a necessary part of a market economy, which helps businesses to raise capital. It is for businesses and regulators to ensure that risk is properly managed.

Have you slept with up to 30 women? Harry O'Hanlon, London

Are you Piers Morgan in disguise? Thank you for your interest, but I have a vague recollection that this question has been asked before, and is best left unanswered.

Isn't it obvious that your best chance of getting into power is to form a coalition with the Labour Party? Anita Cressingham, Oxford

My starting point isn't getting into power; it's making Britain a more liberal place. I hope that will soon mean Liberal Democrats in government. It doesn't look very likely that the next General Election will allow Labour to form a coalition with anyone.

In the Orange Book, you lauded free markets and deregulation. You're a champion capitalist. Hasn't the crisis made you feel a bit ashamed of that? Devon Hermal, Kilmarnock

Not remotely. I believe in free markets, choice, and competition. I want every citizen empowered. I don't believe that the state is the answer to all our problems, and I am sorry to disappoint you, but socialism isn't on the way back. I believe in economic, social and personal liberalism, and there is nothing in this philosophy that prevents sensible regulation. Our future will be a liberal, free- market one, in which people demand more control for themselves. Politicians – local and national – should stop trying to hoard power. But the challenge is to reconcile a free society with a fair one, in which every person has a chance. That is where the UK and US models have so far failed to deliver. For me, it is the greatest challenge of politics.

Which economic thinkers most influenced you as an undergraduate? And which economic thinkers most influence you now? Marcus Townsend, London

I was an undergraduate in the aftermath of the deep recession of the 1980s, at King's College, Cambridge; my room in College was opposite those of the late John Maynard Keynes. So it won't surprise you that I will mention Keynes, whose big impact on economics was in confronting classical economics with the reality of the 1930s slump. In King's, in 1984, Milton Friedman was, of course, regarded as the Anti-Christ, and pure monetarism was tested literally to destruction by Mrs Thatcher. But Friedman's insights into monetary economics are important, and his Capitalism and Freedom has much to commend it. Friedman's big mistake was to believe that a free society would automatically be fair; the US and UK examples show that without government intervention that is an illusion.

If the Liberal Democrats were an illegal drug, which would it be? Thomas Printer, London

I've no idea, but I would expect Nick Clegg's speech on Wednesday to leave the delegates in a state of ecstasy!