Education matters. Even polar opposites on the political spectrum can agree on that, whether they see it as the foundation of future economic success, a means of promoting positive values or the process of ensuring all children fulfill their potential. But even in this ridiculously long election campaign, education hasn’t often been mentioned. We think education should be a high priority for any voter, so we’ve read the manifestos on education and summarised them to highlight the issues at stake.
You don’t have to agree with our conclusion, which is tentative in any case, but it’s offered for the benefit of anyone who would find it useful.
Ensure a good primary school place for your child, with zero tolerance for failure
Turn every failing and coasting secondary school into an academyand deliver free schools for parents and communities that want them
Help teachers to make Britain the best country in the world for developing maths, engineering, science and computing skills
Create 3 million new apprenticeships and make sure there is no cap on university places, so we have aspiration for all
This doesn’t bode well. The first two points are nothing more than doubling down on the current failing system of high stakes inspection in place of supporting improvement. There appears to be no room for the explanation of what will happen when the “failing” school is already an academy, why academies are so superior, or why vast sums of public money should be spent on the people (mostly private businesses and ideologues) who feel like running a free school.
The third point, while aspirational, is notable for what it doesn’t say. There’s more to life than STEM subjects, and this seems to indicate that the modern fetishisation of the Far East isn’t going to go away any time soon. It’s not just the arts that would suffer – so would languages and social sciences, for example. (NB: David Cameron read Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford. Apparently, his kind is of no use to the country.)
Apprenticeships seem to be a popular promise. This one’s hard to take seriously, given this government’s record of rebadging forms of training to cook the unemployment figures. But the prize for brass neck has to go to the pledge not to cap university places “so we have aspiration for all”. This from a party that decided to charge £9,000 per year for university education, even though it saved the exchequer no money at all. Rewrite that as “Aspiration for all, as long as they can afford it.”
The rest of the manifesto offers more of the same, although there are some moments of unintentional humour. “We will back your child’s teachers” is a particularly fine example. This is all mood music for a continuation of Gove by other means, with much macho talk of “tough new standards”. We’ve seen over the last five years where that leads.
Introduce a new gold-standard Technical Baccalaureate for 16 to-18-year olds
Protect the entire education budget from early years through to post-16 education
Guarantee all teachers in state schools will be qualified
Appoint Directors of School Standards to drive up standards in every area
Cap class sizes for five, six and seven-year-olds
Ensure all young people study English and Maths to age 18
This is a much broader manifesto, with some familiar features and some interesting wildcards. Like the Tories, there’s a lot of love for apprenticeships and technical skills. Again, there’s a suspicion that this has only become a hot issue because it offers a way of reducing youth unemployment, but some of the details offer hope that there’s a deeper and more principled commitment. Your opinion on that will no doubt depend on your opinion of the party in general.
The high-profile promises to cap class sizes, reduce tuition fees and require teachers to be qualified are distinctly uninspiring, tinkering around the edge of the Tories’ excesses with policies that sound better than they are. The best aspect of the class size pledge is that the money will be raised by dropping free schools, while the increasing role of teaching assistants and the high number of graduates who will never pay off their debts at either 6 or 9K per year make the other promises slightly insubstantial.
Protecting the total education budget in real terms is all very well, but demand is set to rise substantially, meaning that this will result in a substantial real terms cut per pupil. It’s a sign of the times that this is the sort of thing that would make it as far as a manifesto, but it’s hard to see it as a positive reason to vote for them. The support for Sure Start is welcome, though, and may indicate that they have the right ideas, even if political strategy and expediency limit their stated ambitions.
The pledge that epitomises Labour’s position is the one that appears in their summarised manifesto as “turn around underperforming schools”. Put in those terms, it could come from any of the main parties. It’s the detail – referring to Directors of School Standards (DSS) – that marks it out as Labour. This post was first invented in the Blunkett Review as a way of filling in the accountability gaps left by Gove’s academy mania, but it creates another tier of unelected bureaucrats and is more of a sticking plaster than the major surgery required to deal with the many issues they raise. At best, this is a small step in the right direction, at worst it’s aimless tinkering.
For all the detailed pledges, the one point that raises the most hope is that DSSs will not just monitor schools’ performance, but also encourage them to “work together to improve the quality of education”, or in other places “support them to improve”. It’s depressing to be so excited at a hint of a process that works with schools, rather than against them, but Tristram Hunt’s recent appearances have started to make more noises in this direction, so we hope it really is a significant choice of words.
- Protect early years, school, sixth form and college budgets – investment from nursery to 19 to raise standards for all
Parents’ Guarantee: core curriculum in every school andevery child taught by qualified teachers
End illiteracy and innumeracy by 2025, with action in nurseries to get all 4 year olds ready for school by 2020
Extend free school meals to all primary pupils
Double the numbers of businesses hiring apprentices, and give young people aged 16–21 a discount bus pass to cut the cost of travel
A curious mix of Labour and Conservative policies, with the occasional distinctively Lib Dem one thrown in. The rhetoric about driving up standards and more “Good” schools than ever before could have been written by Conservative HQ, while the emphasis on teachers’ qualifications is an established Labour policy. But there are some baffling sections setting out rational proposals which are directly opposed to Tory policy that was propped up by the party without a peep of protest for the last five years. Requiring a clear need for additional places when setting up any new schools and removing the requirement for them to be free schools or academies is a sensible policy, but the party’s record calls their will or ability to enact such a policy into question.
The Free School Meals pledge follows through on the one big Lib Dem headline policy, but the small print states that this will be done “as resources allow and following a full evaluation of free meals for infants.” The original policy was a wasteful gimmick aimed towards the middle classes at a time of savage cuts and closures of Sure Start centres (of which there is no mention), but given that the party won’t be governing on its own, this leaves a lot of loopholes and excuses even if you consider that extending the programme would be a positive development.
Through all this the Lib Dems are haunted by twin spectres. First is their broken pledge on tuition fees – their headline promise last time, broken so that fees not only remained but were trebled, and apparently made in the first place despite believing it couldn’t be done. For all the excuses around the nature of coalitions, this is a bitter pill to swallow. The second, closely related, is the Lib Dems’ record in government, enabling the very Tory policies they now promise to reverse. This is a shame, because taken in isolation, the manifesto offers a coherent and balanced education policy. Removing certain decisions from political influence, avoiding policy changes that take effect in the middle of a key stage and promising fair Ofsted inspections (among others) all sound like steps in the right direction, but all bets are off once they start negotiating the price for ministerial places.
In this context, the party’s publicly stated “red lines” are worth a mention. They have added a non-negotiable demand for more education funding than is promised by either Labour or Tories, even while searching for further spending cuts elsewhere and income tax giveaways. Taken with the attention to detail of their education offering in general, understandable given their Whig heritage, it’s easy to see why the Lib Dems used to have such a strong following among teachers and students. But based on the last five years, it’s also hard to take what they say at face value.
- Education must be responsive to individual needs
- Good teachers are paramount
- The importance of primary education
So, UKIP. They don’t really go in for key pledges, but this statement of principles is hard to argue with. In particular, and against our expectations, an urgency to reduce teacher workloads and a commitment to abolishing KS1 SATs are prominent and get a rousing cheer from us, more than could be said of the careful, triangulated offerings of the other parties. The “no sex education please, we’re British” vibe is disappointing, but the detail is less dramatic than the rhetoric of the party or its opponents would suggest, with a strong hint that primary children would receive appropriate guidance on online safety and private body parts, even if the S.E.X. word is avoided.
On Ofsted, there’s some common sense but also some alarms. They promise an independent body to investigate complaints about Ofsted inspections, removing the watchdog’s ability to investigate itself, and would prioritise the recruitment of experienced teachers as inspectors. Inspections would be more transparent (good), streamlined (yeees…) and shorter – what? Shorter than two days? That appeals body is likely to be very busy. The commitment to “combatting extremism and radicalisation, rather than criticising widely-held Judaeo-Christian beliefs” is also strange and alarming. This looks very much like a dog whistle for “we’ll let you say nasty things about gay people”, but it would be nice to be proved wrong.
Surely UKIP’s most widely publicised policy is the reintroduction of grammar schools, consistent with the party’s general incoherent nostalgia for a sepia-tinted golden age somewhere around the 1950s. This makes an appearance here, setting the party apart as champions of this particular form of education and promising “UKIP will give existing secondary schools the opportunity to become grammar schools” and “ultimately, UKIP wants to see a grammar school in every town.” How this would be achieved is anyone’s guess. Will other schools ask to become secondary moderns, for example, or will it happen regardless for any school at the back of the grammar queue? There’s a laudable recognition that the 11+ was “not perfect”, but their answer is additional entrance streams, rather than reconsideration of this dated and flawed model of education.
If there’s one theme that comes through strongly, it’s parent choice – choice of grammars, choice of free schools, choice to ask for more Ofsted inspections of a school. Parents must be given what they want, even when those needs are mutually exclusive. It’s pretty much what you’d expect from a populist party, but it’s also disappointing. Read as a whole document, you can’t escape the sense that this manifesto only hits the target by accident, when popular sentiment and rational evidence-based policy happen to be in alignment. It’s a shame, because parts of it are surprisingly good, and the demolition of coalition policy on tuition fees is very effective. But the bad parts are awful, and the lack of clear underpinning principles, combined with the inconsistency of the few that are mentioned with the rhetoric of the party and its members, leaves you nervous about what the reality might look like.
- Compulsory education age raised to 7, with voluntary LA-run free childcare until that age
- All teachers qualified, with specialist knowledge for early years, but parents encouraged to assist
- A comprehensive education system, with free schools and academies integrated into LEAs, charitable status removed from private schools, and faith schools phased out
- Abolition of SATs and league tables, with Ofsted replaced by evaluation by parents, teachers and the community
- An end to marketisation and outsourcing
- Class sizes reduced to a maximum of 20
- Free school lunches for all, and no requirement for parents to pay extra for necessary equipment or school trips
- End the anomaly that sixth form colleges and further education colleges are unable to reclaim VAT
- End tuition fees, cancel student debt held by the government
- Reinstate government duty to offer apprenticeships to all qualified people aged 16-19 who want one
This is a manifesto that’s different from the others, from a party that’s different from the others. More space is taken up with promises than with general commentary or explanations of how they would be paid for, and the above is a summary of the most notable of many. It’s tempting to go through the list and simply write it up in the form of an invoice, but Green policies are part of a general move to completely reimagine society from the bottom up, and this will tend to confound such an approach. For the purposes of this review, the only way of comparing the Greens with other parties is to assume that the money can be found (opinions will differ on the plausibility of this assumption), and focus on the themes and principles underlying them.
One of the few things that doesn’t seem to have been directly converted into a promise, but is underlined in additional text, is the party’s scorn for the current over-assessment and teaching to the test. It’s notable that this sees them standing alongside UKIP and in opposition to the other parties, and goes a long way towards explaining their appeal to both teachers and parents who have seen their children ground down by endless SATs revision. It’s certainly clear that they offer a much-needed corrective to the prevailing orthodoxy, with the iniquities of massively centralised authority and the academy agenda rightly rejected out of hand. But there are also problems here.
The abolition of Ofsted is a positive sign, although substantial reform might be a better approach. But the suggestion of parent, teacher and community evaluation instead is more than a little disturbing. We’ve probably all known people who have bees in their bonnets about some aspect of education or other. Parents who don’t like the head for reasons that are never fully explained, teachers who insist on peculiar pedagogical approaches, local worthies who just like to throw their weight around. We’d never mourn Ofsted’s demise, but replacing it with a system that relies on specialist knowledge and consistent good sense from the general public is hardly a solution.
Everyone loves apprenticeships, it seems, and the Greens are no exception. Although it’s pretty much a universal policy, this area is one where the Greens do well, because they have genuinely detailed policies and clearly believe in them. But in general, even allowing for their broad brush idealism and aspiration to reimagine everything from the ground up, there are a significant number of alarms about the prospect of this manifesto being implemented. It’s a bold manifesto, and parts of it are very badly needed, but it doesn’t instill confidence that it’s grounded in a coherent vision and awareness of potential pitfalls.
At the end of all this, it comes back to the question posed at the top of the page – who to vote for. This is always a sensitive subject, and not one we’re particularly keen to get involved in, but there are important issues at stake.
After five years of Gove and Continuity Gove, it’s clear what the Tories think of education, and it’s equally clear that theirs is a destructive, aggressive agenda favouring private companies and special interests, with teachers, communities and even children seen as expendable. Five more years of this would be disastrous. Likewise, although the Lib Dems often seem to have the right ideas, their record in coalition is appalling. Having failed to do anything to curtail extreme and expensive Tory policies, they need to spend some time on the opposition benches, getting back to their roots. On past evidence, they would be more likely to have a positive impact on education policy from there than in government.
It would be far more comforting if Labour’s policy marked a clear, decisive break from the idea that success is always one more test away, and any flaws can be masked with yet more choice between unwanted options. But their own record in government offers little hope of that, and in opposition, they’ve been ineffectual in challenging the coalition’s abuses. Still, their manifesto is at least an improvement, and recent comments by Tristram Hunt offer a glimmer of hope that there may be more to come. It’s weak sauce, but better than the alternatives.
We can’t seriously entertain a vote for UKIP, however good some of their policies sound on paper, because there’s a lot of dross as well, and there’s too great a gulf between words and deeds. Even leaving aside their other policy priorities, which is a big ask, they’ve done nothing to demonstrate that this is more than a hastily assembled assortment of crowdpleasing ideas.
As for the Greens, it’s hard to hate much of what they stand for, but it’s also hard to imagine the impact of the many changes they propose. Where Labour offer too little to generate much enthusiasm, the Greens offer too much. A more stripped-down manifesto dealing with the high-priority quick wins would be considerably easier to get behind than this attempt to change everything overnight. It would be good to see more of them, and proper discussion of their policies, but for now, it’s hard to believe they offer any coherent answers.
With a certain amount of reluctance, and disappointment at their uninspiring policies, we believe a vote for Labour is currently the best one (or possibly the “least worst”) for the future of education. This is as much down to the need to keep the Tories from going any further with their policies as any enthusiasm for Labour themselves. However, Labour themselves need to be pulled towards bolder rejection of marketisation and management by endless testing, and the greatest priority is to prevent the Tories from being allowed to continue Gove’s work, so we recommend and endorse the use of tactical voting to those ends.