26th May 2017

Natalie Perera: ‘Conservatives, Labour, and Lib Dems have much to say on education policy’

Today the Education Policy Institute publishes a detailed assessment of the English education policies of the three main political parties. The good news is that all parties have much to say about education — it is clearly a priority for all three.

There are many constructive policy proposals, and all three parties have united around a plan to introduce fairer school funding but without imposing cash cuts on any schools. This will make the reform plan more likely to gain political backing.

But where are the big dividing lines, and what are their implications?

The Conservatives are offering the least generous education funding settlement and we estimate that, taking projected inflation into account, real per-pupil school spending will still decline slightly by around 3 per cent over the coming parliament under their plans.

They also propose utilising existing high-performing institutions to raise standards in schools by seeking to harness the experience of faith schools, private schools and universities. However, there is currently little evidence to suggest such reforms will necessarily work.

There is more evidence relating to another Conservative plan — to expand the number of grammar schools. However, this evidence suggests that while pupils who get in to grammar schools do a little better in their GCSEs, by around one third of a grade per subject, this appears to be at a cost to those who do not gain access.

Grammars are not an effective route to more social mobility. The number of poor children who gain access to them is pitifully low and, in areas where there are large numbers of grammar school places, there is an attainment penalty for those who do not get in. Therefore, grammar schools redistribute educational attainment rather than raise it over all.

The Conservatives also need to be clearer which group their education policies are designed to target. Their manifesto suggests that the children of “ordinary working families” might be a priority. However, the government’s own data suggests that this group already does better than average. It is the poorest quarter of children whose attainment is lagging behind.

The Labour Party and Liberal Democrats both plan to spend more than the Conservatives on education, and both plan to scrap the one per cent public sector pay cap, which might improve teacher recruitment and retention.

Labour has the most generous education offer by far, with plans for an increase of more than £25 billion by 2021/22. But the criticism of Labour might well be the mirror opposite of the Conservatives. Labour plans big spending but with less evidence of new thinking about how spending might deliver better outcomes.

Abolishing tuition fees, capping class sizes, expanding free lunch provision and massively increasing free childcare hours are all likely to be popular with varying groups. But all have in common a highly uncertain impact on attainment and social mobility. Indeed, in many cases this appears not even to be the main policy priority.

Arguably, more attention needs to be given by all parties to developing the quality of teaching and leadership, and tackling the social class attainment gap at its early years source.

Money, and reform without a strong evidence base, are unlikely by themselves to give Britain the world class education system that all politicians seem to want.

Natalie Perera is executive director of the Education Policy Institute