Layla opened with two all important words…
Thank you, conference.
It is such an honour, and still slightly unreal, to be addressing you for the first time today as the Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Oxford West and Abingdon.
I’d like to start as I always do. By saying thank you.
Thank you to each and every one of you who helped me get to this point – I cannot thank you enough.
.. and then continued on to what got her involved in politics…
Education is the issue that inspired me to get involved in politics.
It is my burning passion.
As a young teacher I was frustrated by the terrible mismanagement of our schools by Tory and Labour Governments alike, but it was the issue of educational inequality that made me angry.
And that anger led to action.
And that action led to me deciding, 10 years ago now, to join the one Party whose evidence-based policy would actually make a difference to the lives of children, and to work towards be an MP.
…and she shared her experience of the House of Commons as a first-time MP…
You may have seen I was jeered at PMQs when asking a question about the 30hrs free childcare policy. They were so loud the speaker had to tell them off and it made the papers.
Fear not! My skin is thick. But I tell you, I have to regularly suppress my inner teacher very hard. Detention! All of you!
Punch and Judy politics is alive and well. As is the constant fear of saying ‘you’ to a minister and being told off by the speaker for not speaking in the third person. As I said. Bonkers.
But most bonkers of all are the complacent, often white, often, male MPs who only ever play Party politics.
The ones who are so obviously out of touch with their constituents, and who, worst of all, can get away with it under our voting system.
Their only burning passion is themselves.
…Layla then surveyed the state of education in England under this Government…
The very foundation of our comprehensive school system is a belief that every child should be able to access a high-quality education – free.
Having to ask people to chip in a little bit here, and a little bit there –undermines that basic principle.
What kind of country are we becoming where schools have to rely on handouts to provide the very basics?
To paint the walls of classrooms or repair a broken window.
To buy books or take their pupils on a trip?
I heard recently of a school in my area that had asked a local food bank to help it provide lunches.
In my county of Oxfordshire, head teachers are warning that “there is nowhere else to cut without seriously damaging provision”.
That’s code for, ‘the next thing to go are teachers’.
And things we take for granted: that students will be taught for a full school day, by a qualified teacher, in a reasonably sized class, are now under threat.
…and the Government’s lacklustre response to the challenges facing education…
The Government’s only response is to plough on with the same obviously flawed approach.
Millions wasted on free schools in areas that don’t need the places.
Allowing private schools tax breaks, but breaking their promise to ensure the taxpayer benefits too.
A curriculum that excludes the arts and languages.
League tables that encourage cheating.
A teacher recruitment and retention crisis.
Record number of teachers off sick.
A disjointed admission systems.
I could go on and on and on.
Make no mistake – if this approach continues to go effectively unchallenged, the catastrophic impacts of this will play out for decades to the detriment of us all.
When this Government happily goes about playing politics with the education system, they fail to appreciate that this isn’t a trial or an experiment for the children concerned. This is their one shot.
…and laid down a challenge to our party to do better…
Conference, today, I would like to set down a challenge. That we should – and can – provide that visionary leadership and become the Party of Education once more.
We need to raise our sights and re-imagine what our education system could and should look like.
Rather than tinker with a fundamentally flawed system let’s explore what a truly modern, forward thinking education system, fit for the 21st century, actually looks like.
We are the Party to do it because Education is built into our Liberal DNA.
…Layla also challenged policies at the heart of this Government’s education agenda, including grammar schools…
My father was the first in his family to go to university. He was selected at 11 into the local grammar. His brother, didn’t make it. Their relationship suffered for years as a result.
But my uncle went on to university too and ended up doing very well indeed.
That policy served no purpose in my family except to tear brothers apart.
And what does it teach children at a critical age?
That some people are ‘better’ than others – when in fact that isn’t true at all.
Is that really a lesson we are comfortable with?
So why do we teach it then?
… and league tables…
What good comes of encouraging needless competition between schools to look like they have the best grades?
What have we done to create a system where a school felt it needed to exclude pupils because they didn’t get the required 3 Bs in their mock A-levels?
…and challenged us all to make lifelong learning more available…
One of my heroes is a woman who I lived with when I did my masters.
Christine grew up on a council estate in London. In her 30s she decided, being a single mum, she was going to educate herself and make a different life for her kids than she had.
She got her A-levels, then did her first degree part time, then her PGCE. When I met her we were embarking on a course in comparative education.
All the while she had to keep working to pay for it and support her children.
Just because Christine came to education later in life, she had to pay for all of it, when others who’d had easier childhoods had it for free.
… and tackled an elephant in the room…
I believe education is a public good and should be freely accessible.
But I also believe that only supporting the 40% of people who decide early enough that’s the path for them is fundamentally unfair.
What about the Christines of this world, don’t they deserve help too?
What about those who need to study part time? Or need to retrain? Or want to embark on a vocational course, but have family responsibilities and can’t make ends meet?
What if, we found a way for the state to help people access further education at any point in their lives?
Many would choose to go to University at 18, but equally they could do it via a different route, later.
At a time that is right for them, in a way that suits them, not just when and how the state dictates they should.
… and Layla finished with a challenge to the party.
I believe only the Liberal Democrats have the imagination and gall to challenge our education system from the bottom up.
It’s time for us to be radical. It’s time to be bold.
It’s time to be brave.
For the sake of our prosperity and our economy.
For the sake of building a more understanding, more peaceful world.
For the sake of not just our future, but the future of generations to come.
Now is the time enter a new era.
It’s time we threw off the shackles of coalition and channel our energy into our creativity.
And reclaim our place not just as the Party of Education, but also the party of opportunity, equality and freedom for all.