So whether you like or loath them the Conservatives have been re-elected to lead the UK Government. But what does this mean for education? This insight post aims to provide an overview of the Conservative education manifesto detailing the key headlines. A full report and comparison with other party manifestos can be read here.
Education is a Pubic Priority
High quality education is consistently a public priority in opinion polls. The quality of education is also a key driver of productivity and economic success, as well as social mobility and inclusion. All the main parties make aspirational statements to improve education in their manifestos.
The Conservative manifesto notes that: “Talent and genius are uniformly distributed throughout the country. Opportunity is not. Now is the time to close that gap… Every child should have the same opportunity to express their talents and make the most of their lives…”
The Labour manifesto promises a National Education Service to “nurture every child and adult to find a path that’s right for them”.
And the Liberal Democrats pledge to “give every child the best start in life, no matter their ability or background”.
While there are some notable differences in the policies of each main party, all are promising a more generous funding settlement for education than has been the case since 2010. But the parties are proposing to spend different amounts of money on different phases of education and targeted in different ways.
None of the parties make reference to how they plan to secure value for money from the additional investment in schools or to support schools to make efficiency savings where needed. In the case of each party, spending commitments are contingent on higher taxes, savings or other revenue sources.
With all parties, it is unclear how education spending plans would be altered if revenues prove less robust than planned.
The Conservative Party
The Conservative Party’s manifesto section on education is notably shorter than in 2017. This indicates that much of current government policy will continue. The manifesto contains some key policies which could support improved education standards – including a commitment to retain the current framework of accountability (although there are no new commitments to address the flaws in the current system) and the introduction of higher pay for newly qualified teachers, to boost recruitment and retention. A new National Skills Fund aims to improve skills and training in the workplace.
There are, however, a number of areas where the proposed policy agenda is unlikely to support the very boldly stated aspirations which the Conservative government has set out for raising attainment and ensuring greater equality of opportunity.
Despite around 40 per cent of the disadvantage gap at age 16 already being present at age 5, the Conservative manifesto has little to say about improved early years education. Policy in this area seems largely focused on childcare, to help parents who want to return to or remain in employment. England has a relatively low funded, poorly paid and under-qualified early years workforce, and some of the existing entitlement policy (such as the 30 hour policy) excludes many poorer children. The Conservative manifesto does nothing to address these issues, and it is therefore difficult to see any significant reduction in the early years gap under the Conservative approach.
On school funding, the planned rise in real terms funding could help make teacher pay more competitive (particularly for newly qualified teachers) and so improve retention. But the extent of these gains will be limited, as the planned real terms rise (of 7.4 per cent) is modest and will leave per pupil funding in 2022-23 at the same level in real terms as in 2009-10 – and with schools needing to bear the cost of increases in pay and pensions.
There is also no Conservative commitment to uprate the Pupil Premium for inflation – this would mean that, over the period from 2014-15 to 2022-23, the Pupil Premium would decline by 15 per cent in real terms. The risk is that the Conservative commitment to ‘level-up’ funding could, combined with real terms cuts to the Pupil Premium, actually widen the attainment gap.
There is also no commitment to further increases in funding for pupils with SEND after 2020-21, suggesting that this will continue to be an area that will suffer from funding pressures and where funding will fall significantly short of the £1bn recommended by the Education Select Committee.
Funding for 16-19 education will increase under Conservative plans but there is only a commitment for one year and it is unclear whether funding for this phase will be increased or held steady over the rest of the Parliament. The 16-19 per-pupil funding rate proposed by the Conservative party is lower than that proposed by Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
There are some major policy challenges which the Conservative manifesto appears to have no proposals to address, including the large number of unexplained exits from school (disproportionately affecting more vulnerable pupils), the uneven access to top performing state 9 schools across the country and the relative shortage of subject qualified teachers in more disadvantaged schools.
Finally, the manifesto section on higher education is surprisingly short of new policies, given that the government commissioned an independent review into the issue in February 2018 and received a detailed set of proposals from the review team earlier this year.
On funding, the only pledge appears to be to reduce the interest rate on student loans. While popular with students, the gains from this policy would go disproportionately to higher earning graduates and would have little or no impact on educational attainment or the disadvantage gap. In spite of the strong statement Conservative commitment to closing the gap and giving “each child the same opportunity”, the assessment is that the Conservative manifesto proposals are unlikely to deliver on these aspirations. In the last few years the reduction in the disadvantage gap appears to be stalling and while the Conservatives now plan an end to real terms school cuts, the measures set out in the Conservative manifesto are unlikely to have a significant impact on closing the disadvantage gap over the coming years.
More of the same
So in short, it appears whilst there is a new Conservative education headline statement the policies presented are unlikely to make significant progress in closing the opportunity gap. This is a somewhat disappointing vision for the next cycle of education reform. But having said that we do have a renewed opportunity to address the issues facing students and teachers in education.