Schools funding, or the lack of it, was identified as a liability for the Conservatives at the 2017 general election. A poll conducted by Survation found that 750,000 voters cited schools funding as the reason they switched parties, ahead of the economy and tuition fees, and equal to terrorism. Only the performance of the party leaders, Brexit and social care policy were more influential.
Schools funding still an issue?
No wonder Boris Johnson took swift action to give schools a real terms increase - £4.4 billion over three years - with minimum levels of per-pupil funding. The opposition parties are now under pressure to better that. Up until a few weeks ago Labour and the Liberal Democrats spoke of reversing the cuts and providing a real terms increase for schools. That’s already been achieved by Johnson. Schools are likely to gain a large slice of Labour’s proposed £150 billion Social Transformation (capital) Fund; going by their 2017 manifesto at least £20 billion. The Liberal Democrats say they would spend an extra £10 billion a year on schools and would recruit an extra 20,000 teachers, but we have no details on what this covers and by when it will be achieved. So we must await publication of the manifestos to fully assess the situation.
Ideological battle over schools standards
By providing the extra cash, Boris Johnson’s political aim was to take schools funding off the table or least neutralise the issue before he went before the country. But a series of announcements made by Labour at their party conference, in September, to abolish Ofsted, league tables and SATs and to attack independent schools by taking away their charitable status and their tax breaks - all measures also proposed by the Liberal Democrats, which we can expect in feature their manifestos - has put schools on the election agenda by Johnson himself. In his conference speech in October Johnson highlighted the abolition of Ofsted as an example of Labour being weak on education standards and he did so again in front of No.10 in launching his election campaign.
There is logical behind the criticisms of those policies for instance shadow education secretary Angela Rayner maintains that Ofsted is not only failing to give parents an accurate account of schools standards, but is also fuelling a crisis in teacher recruitment. Layla Moran, the Lib Dems’ education spokesperson, has spoken about the over-emphasis on ‘high-stakes’ testing which means that other elements of child development continue to be overlooked.
Much of that critique has come from the teaching profession and from the National Education Union, but commentators (see for example from TES) have suggested that Labour may have misjudged the strength of the Ofsted brand, and how popular league tables and testing are with parents. They go as far as suggesting that, by insisting that Ofsted itself must go, Labour has ensured that Johnson’s line of attack on standards will play just as well with parents of school-age kids as the funding cuts did in 2017.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats also want the halt further academies and free schools, and put them under local authority oversight, with powers over admissions and places planning returned to councils.
We can expect that the Conservative manifesto to double-down on the Michael Give reforms on academies and free schools and well as parental choice and accountability. What is not so clear is whether these will be significantly extended. There has been speculation free schools will be back centre stage, the assisted places scheme brought back, a big push for selection through specialist maths sixth form schools and building more new, and not just expanding existing, Grammar schools.
Further education overshadowing higher education?
At recent elections university tuition fees has been at the fore; here again there is a similar ideological divide given that Labour wants to scrap them. However there is a sense that the political focus has shifted away from higher to further education and to those young people who don’t go to university, as well as addressing the very real need for life-long learning to address structural skills deficits, which is holding back productivity, wages and living standards.
Here we already have manifesto proposals from the Liberal Democrats for all adults to be provided with a £10,000 skills wallet and from Labour on free further and higher education and life-long learning from levels 3 to 6 with maintenance grants reintroduced for those on low incomes. Both parties are also likely to pledge at the very least that 16-19 education funding levels are brought into line with those for secondary education.
The Conservatives are unlikely to compete on tuition fees, but might freeze them, and focus instead on technical skills below degree level. At the Conservative Party Conference, Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson promised a “revolution in technical education” vowing to “super-charge further education”. He now needs to make that not only more tangible to the electorate, but also credible given his party has been in power for nine years. The question is how, particularly given that the centrepieces from their 2017 campaign either have a low profile (T-levels), have run into trouble (apprenticeship levy), been slow to get off the ground (Institutes of Technology) or look underpowered when compared with the task (National Retraining Scheme).
The answer perhaps lies within the Augar report on post-18 education which recommended improved funding, a better student maintenance offer and a more coherent suit of higher technical and professional qualifications. Augar also recommended significant capital investment into the sector, and indeed the Conservatives have now pledged to do just that, with £2 billion invested in a college rebuilding programme over a five year period, on top of the extra £400 million in revenue for next year which was already announced in SR2019.
Then there is apprenticeships, all three main parties support them, and support them being employer-led and funded. But the levy has had troubled beginnings and is heading for an overspend despite starts falling by a fifth since its introduction, as employers have opted for higher-level, more expensive apprenticeships benefiting existing and executive employees. There is a growing sense that the future of the levy could well be up for grabs even with a new Conservative Government, given that its architects, George Osborne and Nick Boles, have parted the political scene. The business sector has repeatedly called for the levy to be made available for different types of training, not just apprenticeships; both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have already indicated that they may back that, with Labour also wanting to see a pre-apprenticeship trainee programme funded by the levy. Other options include ring-fencing a proportion of the levy for young people and, as recommended by Augar restricting funding for Level 6 and above apprenticeships to those apprentices who have not previously undertaken a publicly-supported degree.
Any more hours for free childcare?
As one could have predicted the election campaign began with another bidding war between the parties over the amount of free childcare on offer, and to whom. Labour has pledged to extend the existing 30 hours to all 2 to 4 year olds. The Liberal Democrats went further with 35 hours, 48 weeks a year, with the offer extended to children aged between 9 and 24 months where their parents are in work. Labour has also promised to spend £1 billion to open 1,000 new Sure Start centres in England reversing the recent cuts in provision.
Will anyone talk about child social care?
The dog that hasn’t barked, again, is children’s social care and special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). No formal election pledges have yet been made. This is despite the enormous strain these services are under.
The Conservatives’ plan to provide £700 million for SEND over the next three years as part of the schools’ funding package, and an additional £410 million in 2019/20 for adults and children’s social care; but the consensus this is just a stop-gap.
Labour have announced a ‘Healthy Young Minds’ plan investing an additional £845 million a year in a network of mental health hubs to enable 300,000 more children to access support and the recruitment of almost 3,000 qualified on-site secondary school counsellors. The Liberal Democrats will invest £11 billion into mental health services, including child and adolescent mental health; but there are no funding specifics for children’s health.
Rather the focus has been on youth services, and knife crime, with the Conservatives announcing before the campaign a £500m Youth Investment Fund to build new and refurbished youth centres on top of the £200 million Youth Endowment Fund to support interventions which steer young people away from becoming serious offenders. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are proposing to make youth services a statutory service to protect them from further cuts, and to provide local authorities with dedicated funds to provide universal local services; the Liberal Democrats have pledged £500 million, which will also promote a public health approach to tackling youth violence.
Where are the manifestos?
We can expect the political parties to publish their manifestos over the next two weeks. Labour most probably in week beginning 18 November and the Conservatives later. They should fill in the gaps. A word of warning, these may not be substantial documents as they have been in the past. Watch this space.
Mark Upton, is a freelance policy and public affairs consultant, https://www.linkedin.com/in/mark-upton-698b5639/