On the Politics Show, Sunday 04 March 2007, Jon Sopel interviewed David Willetts MP
David Willetts MP, Conservative Party Education Spokesman
JON SOPEL: Now it's not a big surprise that poorer kids do worse at school but what's alarming is that the gap between inner city schools and the rest, has actually got wider by some margin in the last few years.
Well, is there anything that can be done to improve the worse inner city schools.
Well the Conservatives think they have the answers and I'm joined by their Education Spokesman David Willetts.
David Willetts first of all welcome to the Politics Show, do you accept that this class divide has got wider.
DAVID WILLETTS: Yes and if you follow through what happens to the poorest children, the children on free school meals, then they start off at the age of five behind the kids who don't need free school meals and we've got new evidence that tracking them through the age of seven, eleven, sixteen that gap gets wider and wider and in a good society with effective schools, schools should be able to overcome disadvantage, when it looks as if by the time they've finished at school they are further behind the kids who don't need free school meals than they were when they started and that is a national scandal.
JON SOPEL: Okay, well you're going to unveil proposals I think tomorrow or some ideas on this thinking, where have you got to?
DAVID WILLETTS: Well one of the first things is that it's strong and effective Heads who can turn round the schools in some of our toughest areas, where sadly some of our weakest performing schools are; so we want to give power and authority to Heads and one area but not the only area, one area that is very important is their ability to exclude pupils whose behaviour is so bad that it's threatening the chances and the opportunity to learn of the rest of the kids in the classroom.
JON SOPEL: But then you have kids excluded who are hanging around on street corners committing muggings, burglaries whatever else.
DAVID WILLETTS: Yeah there's quite an important distinction here though. If they are suspended, if they are temporarily suspended which is what the government is encouraging Head Teachers to do, then there's no obligation to educate them anywhere else and they are as you say hanging around on street corners.
If instead they are excluded and the local authority has to take the responsibility of finding some alternative provision for them, at the moment - in these pupil referral units - some of them are good but a lot of them aren't good enough and David Cameron and I have seen some great projects run by social enterprises, which we believe can do a much better job at helping these teenage kids who've been excluded from school, getting back into the habit of learning.
JON SOPEL: So more misbehaving children excluded from school on a semi-permanent basis, not just referral units but also that they should go to voluntary-run organisations.
DAVID WILLETTS: We have seen some at close quarters, David saw one in Bradford and I saw a great project in Keighley there are some very effective projects because you see, if you've got a fourteen year old or a fifteen year old whose behaviour is a bit, is getting the way of the rest of the class learning, he shouldn't stay in that classroom till he has learnt how he should behave along side other schoolmates, and we think that sometimes these pupil referral units are not tackling the problem.
Sadly a very high percentage of the kids who are excluded and go to pupil referral units at the moment they are leaving school with no qualifications and they are then the people who are on long term benefits which is what ... (interjection)
JON SOPEL: (overlaps) Isn't there a lot of evidence though to suggest that actually if you exclude disturbed children from mainstream education, that's possibly the worst thing that can happen to them?
DAVID WILLETTS: No I think the opposite, I mean the trouble is that we've had this ideology of inclusion and that children with special needs and in fact the special needs kids have a big overlap with these kids with behavioural problems and although they are supposedly included in mainstream education, their behaviour, their special needs is such that they don't really learn and are will just disrupt the education of others.
We shouldn't be embarrassed about saying there are some kids who need special provision outside mainstream school, it may be because of disabilities, it may because they've got behavioural problems and we're at the moment letting them down and letting other kids down by trying to keep them in mainstream schooling when it's not working for them.
JON SOPEL: Okay what about the idea that they've come up with in Brighton and Hove to end the class divide that essentially you say, actually, if it's a sought after school you have a lottery for who gets in and not just the people who've managed to buy an expensive house next to the playground.
DAVID WILLETTS: The trouble is that when you get into a lottery you break a school's links with the local community, you're going to have kids being bussed all around Brighton - this isn't what parents want.
The fundamental problem in Brighton and elsewhere is that it looks as if there's only two out of eight secondary schools in Brighton that parents really want to get their kids to, you've got to raise standards in the other schools.
You need more good school places and there's no point getting bogged down in the argument, exactly how you allocate a small number of good school places - the kind of reforms we are proposing will mean that parents will feel more confident in the quality of the education at the other schools.
JON SOPEL: Can you just clear up one other thing for us that's been lingering this week and that is your proposals for some kind of married person's tax relief. Does it apply to all married people whether you have children, don't' have children, married but you may be separated, because it has looked very, very confusing would you accept.
DAVID WILLETTS: David Cameron has made it clear throughout that what we believe in is recognising marriage in the tax system, exactly how that's done, whether it should be through a transferable allowance or a married couples' allowance, how that should be done is something that we are still looking at but the principle is clear and I think it's the principle that people understand and value.
JON SOPEL: Ok David Willetts do stay with us because I'd like you to comment on the next story which I know you take a close interest in.
JON SOPEL: Because if half a million Poles can come to Britain and find work, there must be jobs out there. So how come, 28% of Britons of working age, aren't in employment.
Tomorrow the government will publish a report by the Banker, Sir David Freud, in to getting more people back in to work.
Politicians of all parties are increasingly convinced that both carrot and stick are needed to break people out of the cycle of welfare dependence, as Gill Dummigan reports:
JON SOPEL: Do you think the government policy will work.
DAVID WILLETTS: I've heard Tony Blair and Tony Benn even, talking about welfare reform in the past and the fact is, we have to wait and see whether Tony Blair is serious about it this time. This is a report that was commissioned only ten weeks ago. If the ideas make sense, if it can be made to work, then of course we'll look at it sympathetically.
JON SOPEL: What do you make of what they're proposing. Is it the right sort of approach?
DAVID WILLETTS: Well, I've certainly seen voluntary groups that can do a good job helping people in to work and one of the problems with the way the government introduced the New Deal originally, was they used official government agencies to do it all, rather than the voluntary sector and that's why the number of young people who are not in education or employment or in training, is actually higher now, 1.2 million, than it was when Labour came to office, so it is about time they started tackling this problem.
JON SOPEL: Sounds like you're trying, fumbling to say, yes, this is a good idea.
DAVID WILLETTS: Well we will look at it and I think if, if it helps, if it passes the crucial test of helping getting people in to work, more effectively than the old bureaucratic systems have done, then yeah, we'd give it a sympathetic hearing.
End of Interview with David Willetts
NB: These transcripts were typed from a recording and not copied from an original script. Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for their accuracy.
Interview with Ed Davey MP
Sir Menzies Campbell?s Chief of Staff, Ed Davey MP
JON SOPEL: In the meantime I'm joined from there by Ming Campbell's, Chief of Staff, Ed Davey. Interesting bit to be joining the interview, the speech there because a year on, are we clear what the reason would be to vote for Menzies Campbell as Prime Minister, as opposed to David Cameron or Gordon Brown.
ED DAVEY: We're a lot clearer, but we don't know what Gordon Brown stand for. We haven't heard what he's going to do as Prime Minister and David Cameron keeps making lots of photo opportunities, but no policy pronouncement.
Since Ming has been the Leader, we've had a very clear position on the environment, where we want to cut national income tax for twenty eight million people, Liberal Democrats cutting national income tax for twenty eight million people but making up the difference from taxes on the very very wealthy and on pollution; so we're taxing pollution not people, that's very specific detailed policy and yesterday, we had a very clear position on disarmament, where Ming led the debate and won the debate, I think single handedly. That's strong leadership, that's clear positioning and you haven't got it from the others.
JON SOPEL: Well hang on, I heard some of your activists on a radio programme last night, talking about the real problem of definitions. They were saying that at the last election, you know, in university towns we did very well because of our opposition to tuition fees and Iraq, well those issues have gone away. You had a plan for local income tax, I think that's been quietly shelved, so they were saying, what do we stand for now.
ED DAVEY: Well I think you're completely wrong on what you've just said. We still oppose student tuition fees and campaigning on that in university campuses up and down the country. We still want to scrap the unfair council tax. Labour and Tories want to keep it; so those haven't changed since General Election and under Ming, what we have done is have even stronger policies on the environment.
Liberal Democrats have been consistent for decades, leading the campaign on the environment, we're delighted that Labour and the Tories are beginning to try to catch us up, I just wish they'd go a lot faster. We had only last week, David Miliband shelving the Climate Change Bill. We can't wait for new measures to tackle climate change and Ming has made that very clear.
JON SOPEL: But you're going to go in to the next election with both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, speaking about Green issues, so that goes. Tuition fees isn't as potent as it once was, Iraq isn't as potent as it once was. I just wonder whether there is an issue of definition here, that your activists seem to think is a real issue.
ED DAVEY: Well there may be, the other parties may be talking about the environment, they're not actually doing any - they've got to propose solutions. It's only the Liberal Democrats who've proposed solutions. But let me give you a feel for the sorts of areas of distinction. Take civil liberties, both the Conservatives and Labour seem to agree that we want more authoritarian rule, Liberal Democrats actually want to break away from the, what's happened over the last decade or two, to actually allow people more freedom in this country.
Let's take the issue of public services, only the Liberal Democrats want to devolve power, so we have stronger local democracy, stronger local government and Labour has centralized power, particularly under Gordon Brown, and it's only Liberal Democrats who want a foreign policy that's free from Washington, that's not controlled by Washington. I'm afraid, both Mr Cameron and Mr Brown seem to want to pay tribute to whoever is in the White House; we don't think that's the right way for Britain.
JON SOPEL: ... I listened carefully to that list of things that you gave about where you distinguish yourself. I always thought there were two other things where you sought to distinguish yourself - one was in Europe, that you take us in to the Euro and the other was on PR and the fact that you'd introduced electoral reform and you don't mention either of those two.
ED DAVEY: Listen, I could mention a long, long list of policies because Liberal Democrats have policies on a whole range of things; on crime ... (interjection) ...
JON SOPEL: And we won't ... sorry to interrupt you, we wouldn't have time for that really long list, but what about us joining the Euro.
ED DAVEY: But you're, hold on Jon, hold on. A minute ago, you said we didn't have policies, now you agree we've got a long list of policies. I'm glad you admit that the Liberal Democrats have got a distinctive position.
JON SOPEL: I just wanted to hear on those two particular issues that you don't seem to talk about any more.
ED DAVEY: Absolute nonsense. This May, in Scotland, we're having local elections for - by proportional representation on the mainland of Britain for the first time - Why. Because Liberal Democrats in government in Scotland have delivered on proportional representation, we don't just talk about the need for fair votes, so every vote counts, we've delivered it, in government, in Scotland and that's what we'll do if we're given a chance for government in Britain.
JON SOPEL: Okay, Ed Davey we must leave it there. Thanks ever so much for being with us live there in Harrogate.
ED DAVEY: Thank you.
END OF INTERVIEW
Please note BBC Politics Show must be credited if any part of these transcripts are used.
NB:These transcripts were typed from a recording and not copied from original scripts.
Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for their accuracy.
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The Politics Show Sunday 04 March 2007 at 12:00 GMT on BBC One.
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