Jon Andrews looks at how each of the three main parties proposes to tackle some of the main challenges facing education

In every general election, education ranks with the economy, national security, and the NHS as a priority of swing voters. This election, although sitting alongside Brexit, is no different. Each of the three main parties in England has now published its manifesto and the Education Policy Institute (EPI) has analysed how each – Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats – proposes to tackle some of the main challenges facing education.

School funding has played a prominent role in much of the discussion. The reality, accepted by all parties, is that schools are facing increasing cost pressures. The EPI analysis suggests that under the government’s proposals for a national funding formula (NFF), cost pressures will leave every school seeing a real-terms cut to per-pupil spending over the coming years. We estimate that half of schools will see cuts of between 6 and 11 per cent.

All the main parties have now pledged to deliver an NFF in which no school would lose out because of the formula, costing about £335 million a year.

Addressing the inflation pressures by offering real-terms funding protection across all pupils is much more expensive. The Conservatives’ seemingly generous pledge to increase expenditure by £4 billion still implies a reduction in per pupil funding in real terms of about 3 per cent over the next parliament.

We are a giant step closer to seeing new grammars open

Despite the overwhelming evidence against the idea, the proposal to open a wave of new grammar schools makes it to the Conservative manifesto, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats pledging to maintain the current ban. The Conservatives offer no real detail about how this expansion might work in practice. The proposal to allow children to join at different ages may worsen the representation of poorer children in grammars as the attainment gaps evident at age 11 continue to widen during secondary school.

So, in policy terms, we have not moved on from September’s grammar school consultation, but in political terms we are a giant step closer to seeing these schools open. With a manifesto commitment, Conservative backbenchers will feel less able to vote against the government, and the Lords are unlikely to block it because of what’s known as the Salisbury Convention.

The proposal is part of a wider wish from the Conservatives to prioritise children from “ordinary working families”. However, it is notable that the educational outcomes for this group are actually slightly above average. This group is distinct from the pupil premium group, which is economically and educationally disadvantaged. It is unclear on what basis and how this group should be targeted for additional support, and whether this would draw away focus from the most disadvantaged, whose educational outcomes most obviously lag behind.

If we are to address that gap it needs to happen in the early years: 40 per cent of the gap at age 16 is present by age 5. So it is good to see all three parties acknowledge the importance of the early years but there is a clear need to establish what actually improves child outcomes.

Amongst other proposals, Labour and the Lib Dems want to extend free childcare – this is ambitious and costly. A significant challenge to delivering these commitments is ensuring that there is sufficient capacity, in terms of capital investment and investment in upskilling the existing workforce.

Academisation has fallen down the agenda with the parties perhaps now adopting a more pragmatic approach. On free schools the Conservatives remain committed to opening more, but at essentially the same rate as now, Labour wouldn’t open any, while the Lib Dems would end the presumption that all new schools will be free schools.

The presence of free schools provides capacity and competition in the sector so it is unclear which party’s policy is justified from this perspective.

While a significant proportion of free schools have been built where there wasn’t the demand for places, free school proposers have the potential to offer good quality school places. Dismissing that potential out of hand seems misguided.

 

Jon Andrews is deputy head of research at the Education Policy Institute