Jonathan Jones

Clegg goes mobile

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Just as David Cameron is trying to move on from a tough few weeks by returning to themes that worked for him earlier in his leadership, Nick Clegg is also focusing on familiar territory. He’s given a speech this morning on the pupil premium — which he made a key component of his Lib Dem leadership bid back in 2007. And today’s speech marks the start of a two-week push on a key Clegg concern: social mobility.

It’s not as if Clegg’s been silent on the topic recently, but this is the first time it’s been at the top of his agenda since he launched the government’s social mobility strategy last year.

In a way, Clegg’s speech was set up nicely by Michael Gove’s forceful words on Thursday. Both ministers railed against the inequality in our school system — in Clegg’s words, ‘How can it be that in a modern, open society like ours a child’s destiny is still determined by their background?’ But their focuses were slightly different. Whereas Gove’s emphasis was on the gulf between private and state education, Clegg’s was on the related gap between poor and rich kids.

Hence the pupil premium, which aims not just to improve state schools generally, but to deliver the greatest improvements for the poorest pupils. As Clegg put it in the Q&A session after his speech, it’s about matching need and excellence — giving the best teachers the incentive to take on the biggest challenges.

In fact, the emphasis on social mobility isn’t the only thing that marks the pupil premium policy out as distinctly Cleggish. While he used the terms ‘fair’, ‘fairness’ ‘social mobility’ and ‘socially mobile’ once each in his speech, the Deputy Prime Minister also used ‘freedom’ six times. ‘The coalition has no desire to micromanage schools,’ he said. ‘We all remember the worst excesses of that approach’. So the pupil premium cash won’t come with requirements on how it is spent: ‘Use it as you see fit’, Clegg tells schools. But he’s clear that schools will be judged on how well they manage to close the gap between pupils on free school meals and the other pupils, with extra cash for the best and extra Ofsted oversight for the worst. ‘There’s only one freedom we’re not giving to schools’, Clegg said. ‘The freedom to fail.’