David Laws: ‘The quality of education policymaking is poor’

The Guardian reports that politicians tend to make decisions based on ideology, says the former minister – especially his old boss Michael Gove. Now he hopes to change things via his thinktank.

David Laws has had three careers. In the first, lasting seven years after he left Cambridge University with a double first in economics, he worked in the City of London as an investment banker, getting very rich as bankers do. In the second, lasting 21 years, he was a Liberal Democrat politician, aspiring to high office as politicians do. The prize came in 2010 when the party went into coalition with the Tories and Laws became Treasury chief secretary, the chancellor’s number two, with a cabinet seat. Alas, after 17 days, the discovery that his parliamentary expenses claims involved “serious breaches of the rules”compelled his resignation. He returned to office two years later in the humbler role of schools minister under Michael Gove.

Now, aged 51, having lost his parliamentary seat in 2015, he has started a third career: as head of the Education Policy Institute (EPI), a thinktank launched last year that aspires to the august role that the Institute for Fiscal Studies plays in economic policy.

Like the IFS, Laws’s institute will, he tells me, be “data-driven, influencing debate by the quality of its analysis and its quantitative skills”. The quality of education policymaking is poor, Laws argues, and the institute wants to make it better.

Was policymaking poor when he was schools minister? “Yes. A lot of decision-making is not based on evidence but on hunch. I had little coming to me from civil servants that presented the latest academic evidence. Too often, they just serve up practical advice about how the minister can do what he or she wants. But politicians are prone to make decisions based on ideology and personal experience.”

Laws names several areas where he believes the institute, barely a year after launch, has already made a difference. A report on grammar schools found that, contrary to the prime minister’s views, they had no significant impact on social mobility and, if they were expanded as Theresa May wished, children from poor homes would lose. “I’ve spoken to quite a few Tory MPs who read our research and were influenced in their views,” Laws says.

I ask what he is most proud of from his period as schools minister. He immediately mentions the pupil premium, though he wasn’t in office when it was introduced: “I negotiated it into the coalition agreement and I insisted on it being in our 2010 manifesto.” From his own work, he picks out Progress 8, a quintessentially Laws policy, heavy with data, much of it beyond the grasp of ordinary mortals. “It incentivises schools to help every single pupil instead of prioritising just a few on the [GCSE] C/D borderline.”

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