With the 2015 General Election edging ever so close, what would a win for each of these parties mean for education? Some of the ideas put forward from the parties include the introduction of more ‘free schools’, change in the University tuition fees and extra childcare.
With fewer young people voting than ever* and the NHS taking priority this election season, education seems to have been a little neglected by the political agenda. This isn’t fair! Education is vital to the next generation and the future of the country and cannot be sidelined.
So what do some of the parties propose? We review some of their pledged policies here:
Under their commitment to secure a good school for every child, the Tories pledge to built at least another 500 ‘Free Schools’. These schools are state-funded but run by interested parents and third parties in addition to teachers and are outside council control. On one hand, the argument can be made that these offer more variety, add extra school places and create a competitive atmosphere urging all schools to compete to better themselves. On the other hand, there has been much criticism over such schools being run by perhaps well-meaning, but possibly untrained parents. As in the Trojan Horse case, where several schools were investigated for teaching extremist ideologies,‘Free Schools’ also raise the issue of too much power being given to the schools. And in a country where many schools are already concerned with league tables, often at the expense of other ways of improving and measuring, do we really need more competition between schools?
These extra ‘Free Schools’ will be added to the mix of Academies (schools rated as ‘requiring improvement’ or ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted which are given new leadership) and possibly extensions of existing Grammar schools (the Prime Minister has hinted). The former comes in light of a zero tolerance policy towards failure of schools and immediate support to turn such schools around. While this variety of schools could offer more options suited to individual students’ needs, it is all a bit confusing and there is little evidence to suggest that diversity in the system results in better outcomes for young people.
There is also a promise to create 3 million apprenticeships by the end of the next Parliament so that young people can reach their full potential without going down the University route. In a job market where employers lament the mismatch between education and required workplace skills, this could be a welcome policy. However, despite the government’s efforts, these apprenticeships have had little take-up. So one questions the impact they really have. In aiming for numbers, there have been concerns over the quality of some of our apprenticeships in comparison to other countries.
Overall, in real terms, the Tories do admit that the school spending per pupil could fall. Clearly the ‘strong economic plan’ and recovery is the priority for this party and they are not afraid to make hard decisions with the budget due to this. While they do have some innovative ways to impact education despite these decisions (such as the free schools), as we have seen, some of these ways could be questionable.
Here are some of their proposed changes:
- While existing free schools will remain open if Labour comes into power, they would be subject greater oversight from local authorities and no new free schools would be opened.
- Independent directors of school standards would be used to encourage better results in certain areas, and also take into account the views of parents as well.
- Labour would however, also allow the creation of some new schools called "parent-led academies", not free schools in areas where more school places are needed.
Sounds like even more of a confused mess than the Tories’ (free schools, Academies and Grammar school extensions) mix. On one hand the independence of free schools will be curbed (more standardisation may not be an entirely bad thing if it helps with controlling the quality but schools still need to retain the power to make decisions that are the best for their students) but on the other hand, more power will be given to parents through the independent directors - sounds like a paradox. And changing the name of the ‘free schools’ to ‘parent-led academies’ surely doesn’t count as a real change? What real effect would that have?
Giving education a little more priority on the political agenda, Labour would also increase the education spending in line with inflation at the very least. While this may sound great, this clearly will have an impact on the budget and the plan to reduce the deficit. This idea of a rise in education spending is also seen through the policy to cut the maximum University tuition fees cap from £9000 to £6000. Again, sounds fantastic but there is evidence that shows that the current system is actually seeing a record number of University applications from students, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds.** Besides, the financial feasibility of this plan has been seen as questionable at best. It could reduce the stability for universities and increase the costs to the government in the long run.*** Given these risks, perhaps instead of reducing fees at University level, the extra funding could be focussed on other educational issues at younger ages.
Sitting somewhere in between the Conservatives and Labour and with a desire to claw back some credibility in the education arena given their burned bridges with students over the lack of zero tuition fees, the Lib Dems are promising to maintain the existing budget. They will not increase the budget like Labour is promising but also won’t let it fall like the Tories admit it could. Their aim in protecting the budget from 2 to 19 year olds is to raise standards. Part of raising standards is also guaranteeing fully qualified teachers, all in a bid to end child illiteracy by 2025. They also pledge up to 20 hours a week free childcare from the end of paid maternity leave.
While their inability to deliver on the University tuition fee abolition may cast some shadows upon their credibility, their achievements in the current coalition have included a £2.5 billion Pupil Premium fund which enables more money to be directed towards targeted students who need the extra support to reach the same standards and be given the same life chances as their more privileged peers. So perhaps they are not to be dismissed completely given this achievement. Besides, if the critiques of the financial feasibility of Labour’s proposed £6000 fees are to be believed, would zero tuition fees even have worked? If we are not sure about this, how can we trust the feasibility of their other promised policies?
*Democratic Audit UK, 2015
**The Guardian, ‘Labour would cut top level university tuition fees’, 2015
***Public Finance, ‘Labour pledges to cut university tuition fees to 6000’, 2015
So what are your thoughts on these policies? Based purely on the education policies of these parties, who would you vote for?