Do the education manifesto pledges stand up?

It’s the election next week and all the parties have waved their education banners long and hard. But the evidence that any of their policies might work in raising attainment or participation is slight or non-existent

With the general election looming, the three major political parties have all promised to protect the education budget for schools. The Conservatives pledge 500 more free schools in England by 2020, the Labour party want to cut undergraduate tuition fees, while the Liberal Democrats guarantee qualified teachers in all state schools. The evidence that any of these policies work in raising attainment or participation is slight or non-existent.

The House of Commons education sub-committee, Ofsted and academic studies all agree that it is too early to tell whether free schools perform any better than other types of schools. The likelihood is that, once their pupil intake is accounted for, they will produce much the same results as any other school. However, they are already known to have several downsides. They impair the ability of local authorities to plan for new school places. And they are taking so few disadvantaged pupils that they are increasing the clustering of poverty within other schools.

Teaching qualifications themselves are only weak indicators of good teachers

Free schools are, incidentally, by far the biggest employers of unqualified teachers – 19 per cent of their teachers have no recognised training qualification according to the 2014 School Workforce and School Characteristics datasets, compared to less than 3 per cent in local authority schools. However, teaching qualifications themselves are only weak indicators of good teachers. For example, some applicants to teacher-training are being rejected by some institutions for not having the right qualifications, such as high A-level grades in appropriate subjects, while others with worse qualifications are accepted at others.

This means that some highly qualified applicants may not get to be teachers, while those that do may not necessarily be the best. A survey of 2,700 year 11 students found that only 44 per cent of pupils enjoyed school and only 38 per cent said most of their lessons were interesting, while Ofsted has reported that much teaching in England is boring.

Like much policy-making, the proposal to reduce tuition fees for undergraduates sounds plausible. But, like most, it has little to recommend it in practice. It applies only to a minority of young people who, by definition, are already doing quite well in education, and uses money that could have been targeted at those whose path through education has been more challenging. The selective nature of higher education means that most of those qualified to get in already attend and most of those not attending have nowhere near the qualifications needed. The social stratification of university intakes is the stratification of prior school qualification like A-levels. The historical trend of participation, anyway, has been upward, even for under-represented students such as those from the poorest families. And this trend has been largely undisturbed by the introduction of fees, raising fees, deferring fees, and providing bursaries.

What would be better policies?

Make the school system truly national, so that it does not matter where one lives. Make schools more comprehensive, with no specialist schools, no faith-basis, no selection by attainment or aptitude, and no private investment or control of state-funded schools. Apply the same criteria of admissions to all schools. This would be cheaper, more effective and reduce social segregation. It is also likely to lead to a more even distribution of high quality teachers, and of role models for those students hesitant about applying for university.

Make teaching a truly national profession by nationalising the selection and development of professional teachers. Allow the state rather than schools to employ teachers, and deploy them as needed to meet demands. This helps to avoid the situation where schools in desirable areas have the best teachers while schools in poorer areas may have not so good teachers. Focus on inspirational teachers, who motivate and enhance children’s enjoyment of school.

Having fun and interesting lessons, and not better qualified teachers, has been voted the most popular option for improving schools, and it could lead to higher engagement and learning, improving attendance and inclusion in school.

The only sure way to widen participation is to increase the number of available places at universities.

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