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Sunday, April 03, 2011

Clegg and the Liberal Democrats forcing social change

According to Matthew D'Ancona in yesterday's Daily Telegraph the formal launch of the Government's Social Mobility Strategy on Tuesday will prove once more the profound influence being exercised by the Liberal Democrats on the UK Coalition Government.

A number of elements of this strategy are already in the public domain including the £430-per-head “pupil premium” given to schools which educate the poorest children and the new “access agreements” for universities which propose to charge tuition fees of more than £6,000 per annum. However, the launch on Tuesday is likely to put all that into context and show what determined action by Government can do:

As a curtain-raiser, it was disclosed last week that the Government is to publish an annual “report card” on seven key indicators, ranging from babies’ body weight and the skills learned by five-year-olds to GCSE results and adult earnings. These, Clegg insists, will not be targets but “a series of dials”, a dashboard used to check on the nation’s social wellbeing and to “trigger a reaction” when things go wrong. Without apology, he makes government sound like a giant Heath Robinson contraption, monitored by ministers in white coats with clipboards. A politician who talks about “dials” can scarcely complain if he is accused of “social engineering”.

Those involved in the formulation of this strategy – Lib Dem and Tory – insist that it will not involve quotas or US-style “affirmative action”. Yet it is hard to escape the conclusion that a line is about to be crossed in social policy. Already, Clegg has made clear to university vice-chancellors that the rules of the game have changed. How they go about broadening their undergraduate intake is for them to decide, in collaboration with the Office for Fair Access. But he wants to see results, especially in the proportion of state school pupils going to the best universities. It is hard to exaggerate the level of unease this has already spawned in Oxford and Cambridge common rooms – which is exactly what Clegg wants. Private school heads seethe about a new era of “differential offers”, in which their pupils will have to clear much higher hurdles than rival candidates from the state sector. Again, Clegg has no problem with parents beginning to doubt that they can buy social advantage for their children by paying exorbitant school fees. The gradualist approach, he believes, has failed, and it is time for a spot of shock and awe. Either the top higher education institutions deliver change, or they will lose the right to charge increased tuition fees.

Mr. D'Ancona concludes: it remains astonishing that Clegg has persuaded a Conservative-dominated Government to undertake this project. Labour MPs whisper their congratulations to Lib Dem ministers, and express justified amazement that a Coalition led by products of Eton, Westminster and St Paul’s has embarked on this social crusade. In 32 days’ time, the nation will go to the polls in the first UK-wide referendum in 36 years and decide whether to adopt a new electoral system. The stakes for Clegg are vertiginously high. But it is the battle he is launching on Tuesday that he really wants to win.

The proof is in the implementation of course but here is further evidence that in terms of fairness and social justice it is the Liberal Democrat tail wagging the dog. This Government could not be further removed from the Tory Governments of the 1980s that protestors and Labour Party activists were comparing it with during demonstrations last week.
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