Political parties’ manifestos fall short of addressing the biggest challenges facing education, says EPI 

Ahead of the general election on 4 July, the Education Policy Institute (EPI), funded by the Nuffield Foundation, has published an analysis of the plans for education set out in the manifestos of the main political parties in England.

The report provides an independent, evidence-based assessment of the extent to which each of the main parties have committed to addressing the biggest challenges facing education in England.

Overall, EPI’s analysis finds that:

There have been proposals put forward by all the main parties that address some of the challenges facing the education system. In particular, pledges by Labour and the Liberal Democrats to reform school accountability and tackle the rising issue of children’s mental health are welcome, as are pledges by the Liberal Democrats to target funding to disadvantaged children in the early years and between the ages of 16-19. A greater focus from all parties on boosting vocational education and skills is also a positive step.

However, the EPI said there is a striking lack of clear commitments to school and college funding, with neither of the two main parties committing to increasing school funding over the next Parliament. Coupled with an absence of specific pledges to better target funding towards disadvantaged children and young people, this could lead to rising inequalities.

Commitments in the early years and in post-16 education also lack a focus on improving quality and targeting support to the most disadvantaged children and young people. All parties have committed to rolling out free early years entitlements (and Labour’s pledge to create over 3,000 nurseries in schools could help to raise quality), but there is little focus on improving access for the most disadvantaged and rebuilding early intervention services.

The EPI said that overall, the manifesto commitments do not go far enough towards addressing the key challenges facing the education system. All parties should have been clearer on how they would: tackle the soaring costs of provision for children with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), recruit and retain the education workforce our system needs (beyond headline pledges of commitments to new teachers) and address the widening disadvantage gaps across all phases, through targeted interventions and funding.

Jon Andrews, head of analysis at the Education Policy Institute, said: “Following the pandemic’s disruption and over a decade of austerity, the education system in England faces significant challenges in the years ahead, which will have to be addressed by any incoming government.

“Positive proposals have been made to reform school accountability and improve absence and pupil wellbeing, as well as a welcome emphasis on improving vocational education and boosting apprenticeships.

“However, some of the proposed measures lack an evidence-based focus on improving the quality of provision, with a lack of clarity on how they will be funded or how support will be targeted to the most disadvantaged.

“Our analysis raises serious questions about whether the plans set out in the manifestos of the main parties will deliver the action that is required to support our education system. With a lack of clear funding commitments made by the two main parties, there is a genuine risk that policies will fall short in key areas of need.”

Natalie Perera, chief executive of the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said: “An evidence-based education reform and investment strategy must be a top priority for any incoming government. The gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers continues to widen, whilst schools and colleges across the country face a shortage of teachers and increasing funding pressures.

“There remains a genuine risk that the most important challenges facing education will not be addressed with sufficient urgency, given the wider economic issues and demands on public services that an incoming government will face.

“Our independent and evidence-based assessment of the party manifestos provides an opportunity for policymakers to reflect, in the run-up to the general election and beyond, on how they can best work with the sector to implement their priorities and create a world-class education system, which delivers the best possible outcomes for children and young people.”

You can read the full report here.

Detailed findings from the EPI

The report examines the pledges made in the manifestos of the main political parties in England across five key priority areas: the early years; school organisation and outcomes; post-16 and higher education; school and college funding; and education workforce.

The early years

The issues of retention and recruitment of the early years workforce have been poorly addressed by all parties.

All parties have committed to matching or extending the extension of funded childcare entitlements to 30 hours a week, but set out limited details on how they will deliver this through expanded capacity and improving the availability of early childhood education and care (ECEC).

Labour’s proposal to create 3,000 new school-based nurseries by utilising capacity from falling rolls in primary schools is a positive move towards tackling the shortage of affordable high-quality ECEC in areas currently underserved by provision. However, it is not clear how the party will ensure these new nurseries are staffed by qualified early years professionals given the declining size of the early years workforce.

The Liberal Democrats have proposed to increase the early years pupil premium to £1,000, almost triple its current value, a welcome step towards targeting funding towards the most disadvantaged children.

School organisation and outcomes

Positive steps have been proposed to reform school accountability, such as plans by Labour and the Liberal Democrats to introduce report cards which focus on a wider set of performance measures. These changes could help to reset the relationship with the profession and provide a broader view of school performance.

Pledges made to expand mental health provision in schools, through dedicated mental health professionals and the continued roll-out of mental health support teams are welcome, but this support must be accompanied by a focus on the drivers of worsening mental health.

Plans to introduce VAT on independent school fees could result in up to 40,000 pupils moving to the state-funded sector. But this represents just 0.5 per cent of the school population and is dwarfed by the expected fall in pupil rolls over the next parliament.

The Liberal Democrats and Conservatives have pledged to tackle the issue of persistent school absence by legislating to create a register of children not in school. This would be a welcome step, which has previously been recommended by EPI.

Labour has also pledged to improve data sharing across services, with a single unique identifier, prevent children and families falling through the cracks in the system.

The Liberal Democrats have proposed a Tutoring Guarantee for disadvantaged pupils who need further support. One-to-one and small-group tuition can be highly effective in supporting learning and targeting disadvantaged pupils, but there is little detail about the form that the guarantee will take and how it will be delivered or funded.

Post-16 and higher education

Manifestos have a significant focus on increasing technical and vocational education, falling apprenticeship starts, and employer investment in training. The emphasis placed by major parties on boosting apprenticeships and improving technical education to re-skill the economy, is welcome.

Parties have offered various plans to reform apprenticeships. The Conservatives have proposed diverting funding away from higher education, while Labour and the Liberal Democrats have proposed increasing the flexibility of the apprenticeship levy and using it more widely for skills and training. Increasing flexibility however is unlikely to reverse the trend of falling starts, and underscores the need for a more targeted intervention for apprentices aged under 19.

Parties have paid little attention to the growing disadvantage gap in the 16-19 phase, with the exception of the Liberal Democrats, who have proposed the introduction of a 16-19 version of the pupil premium, previously recommended by EPI.

The Conservatives’ plans for an ‘Advanced British Standard’ and to extend compulsory English and maths to 18 are a welcome strategy to combat narrowing post-16 choices. The Liberal Democrats have also pledged a review of post-16 education. Labour has committed to keeping T-levels, but has not proposed specific plans to address falling basic literacy and numeracy skills amongst young people.

Labour has pledged to tackle the increasing NEET rate amongst 16-24 year-olds. The party plans to hire 1,000 new careers advisers, guarantee two weeks of work experience, and ensure that every young person between 18 and 21 is in an apprenticeship, training, or employment.

The main parties, in particular Labour and the Conservatives, have committed relatively little to addressing issues in higher education. Neither party has plans to try to sort out the unstable higher education finances, nor any detailed plans to widen participation at a time when the gap in progression to HE between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged students is widening.

School and college funding

The wider situation of government finances, and a position from the main parties not to increase some of the main taxes has resulted in policies that do not address the scale of funding challenges that schools and colleges are facing. Labour have made no commitment on school funding. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats make pledges on a per pupil basis, but with pupil numbers set to fall, these still leave the possibility of cuts to school budgets.

The main parties have made limited commitments on changes to high needs funding, despite this being a pressing issue. The current system is unsustainable, failing to reflect the level of need or the true cost of provision to address those needs. Schools, local authorities and some of the country’s most vulnerable children are at risk if the current situation is not addressed.

There has been a lack of specific commitments made by parties to change how funding is allocated, apart from a pledge by the Liberal Democrats to introduce a post-16 variant of the pupil premium. Research suggests that commitments to expand the provision of breakfast clubs and free school meals could also help, but the benefits of universal roll-out are less clear. If funding for schools and colleges remains tight, an incoming government must consider how resources can be better targeted towards disadvantaged young people.

The education workforce

None of the parties have made any firm commitments on school teacher pay. This is a concern given how pay is particularly uncompetitive in shortage subjects and is likely to be a factor in addressing recruitment challenges.

The Conservatives’ offering of a £30,000 tax-free bonus spread over five years to new teachers in key areas and shortage subjects is welcome, given evidence that such incentives are an effective way to improve recruitment. However, clear funding will be crucial to enable this policy to be implemented.

Labour’s pledge to recruit 6,500 new teachers, costing £450 million, is achievable but falls well short of the number of teachers required to meet demand.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats have proposed further funding towards continuous professional development (CPD) for teachers, a welcome step towards increasing the quality of the workforce, which research suggests has positive effects on both pupil outcomes and staff retention.

Pledges made by Labour and the Liberal Democrats for a specialist mental health officer in every school are welcome, given the increasing demand for children’s mental health services since the pandemic.

This is the second report published by EPI on education in the general election, following the institute’s report last July in which it set out the challenges facing the education system in England and made a number of calls on any incoming government.

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