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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 September, 2004, 09:56 GMT 10:56 UK
Interview: Phil Willis
Interview
Hannah Goff
BBC News Online Politics Staff in Bournemouth

As the Liberal Democrat frontbencher with perhaps the most crowd-pleasing policy to espouse - it's not surprising Phil Willis has a huge smile on his face.

The jolly education spokesman is as well known for his humorous interjections in the Commons as the Lib Dems are for opposing all university fees and pledging to bring back the maintenance grant.

Lib Dem education spokesman Phil Willis
Mr Willis says he's in politics to 'get things done'
Perhaps that's why he's appearing at 14 different fringe events at this week's party conference in Bournemouth.

"I've always thought politics should be fun. Some people say it's a life and death issue and quite frankly it isn't.

"Politics is very much the stage on which things happen," he says.

"There are some people in Westminster who take themselves far too seriously, you have to be able to laugh at yourself. If it's not fun, I say, why on earth are you bothering?"

But although Mr Willis enjoys a laugh, he takes his job seriously.

After 20 years as a head-teacher in a large comprehensive school, education is his life, he says. "It's what my wife and I do."

'Rolls-Royce' service

And like every dedicated teacher, nothing pleases him more than getting results - even as an opposition politician.

"Our party says things which are unpopular and then it comes to pass as mainstream thinking.

"People get angry and say - 'they've stolen our clothes' but I don't mind that. I find it quite exciting - I am in politics to get things done."

He points to Lib Dem campaigns for nursery education for all three and four-year-olds, which is now government policy, and calls for an end to tests for seven-year-olds which the education secretary has just said will be replaced with informal assessments.

"When you look at schools and the whole area of choice, it's amazing how quickly choice moved off the agenda. It was exposed as hypocritical.

"People want choice because what's there isn't good enough. The choice people face on the ground is finding a place in a good school for their child," Mr Willis argues.

It's cheaper to send 'looked after' children to top public schools than to keep them in social services care - that's the daftness of it at the end of the day
Phil Willis

But for Mr Willis, the real challenge is providing educational opportunities to the most vulnerable members of society: fostered or adopted children, those in care, and young offenders.

"We really have to provide a 'Rolls-Royce' service for these youngsters."

He thinks private boarding schools should take in children who would otherwise be in care.

"It's cheaper to send 'looked after' children to top public schools than to keep them in social services care - that's the daftness of it at the end of the day," he says.

The Lib Dems also want to keep offenders under the age of 14 in the education and social services systems rather than the criminal justice system. They also want to see prison sentences phased out for 15 to17-year-olds.

Pupils at school
Mr Willis would like to see pupils learning a tailor-made curriculum

"Eighty per cent of the people in our prisons do not have anything beyond a level one qualification and the vast majority of our prisoners are functionally illiterate," Mr Willis says.

Lib Dem home affairs spokesman Mark Oaten has said he wants to see an educational element as part of an offenders' sentence.

"Prison needn't be a university for criminality, it can be a university for educating prisoners," Mr Willis says.

"When prisoners are sentenced we would like to see an education and skills assessment of them. Then instead of just getting out early for good behaviour they get out for addressing their skills (gap).

"People said this was a soft option - but it's not a soft option because for people who have failed schooling - this is anathema to them," he adds.

'Virtual universities'

The Lib Dems' draft manifesto presents the case of Simon, a 16-year-old who "hates school and dislikes authority".

Because of their plans to offer vocational skills at 14 through schools, it says, he would not be "forced through the strait-jacket of the present secondary curriculum."

Instead he would be able to "choose a part-time apprenticeship course, learning a real job," it says.

This isn't about creating "sheep pens" of children at the age of 14, as the 11-plus exam did, Mr Willis says, adding that vocational training is not just about training plumbers and electricians.

"But we need to have higher vocational aspirations. We need to be able to say to youngsters at the age of 14 are they looking for a career in science or do they want to be a plumber?"

Either way, he argues, vocational training is required. And the Lib Dems aim to allow children from the age of 14 to build their own curriculum that would contain vocational elements.

If we as a nation believe that education is the key that unlocks personal freedom how can we put a tax on it?
Phil Willis

And then there's higher education and the Lib Dems' much-trumpeted opposition to any kind of charges for university education.

They claim it has won them huge support from students in every university town in England and Wales as well as backing from former Labour Party members disillusioned with the government on the issue.

The party says it will fund its commitment to end tuition fees, axe top up fees and bring in a 2,000 a year maintenance grant from the revenue gained by increasing to 50% the tax rate earnings above 100,000 a year.

This, the Lib Dems say, is fully costed and would allow them to match planned government investment in higher education until 2009.

But Mr Willis says it is not enough simply to match what the government is doing.

"I am much more interested in totally reengineering the higher education system, creating a much more US-style system - but for free."

'Fundamental principle'

He envisages a more flexible approach with young people earning and learning at the same time, students taking longer to complete their courses and many more part-time and satellite courses.

He would also make use of the internet to create "virtual universities".

But it is the party's opposition to university fees that will win Mr Willis the most applause when he stands up to give his speech at the party's conference on Tuesday.

"There's a fundamental principle that tuition should be free. If we as a nation believe that education is the key that unlocks personal freedom how can we put a tax on it?"


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