Main political parties ‘unlikely to deliver’ on education pledges, leading think tank says

Written by Beckie Smith and Eleanor Langford on 6 December 2019 in News
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Further-education plans also come under scrutiny as Labour promises not to be a “top-down micromanager from Whitehall”.

Out of reach: manifesto commitments on education. Photo:  Ben Birchall/PA

None of the major parties are likely to deliver their “bold pledges” on education, a leading think tank has said, as Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives all face criticism for providing too little detail on their plans for post-16 education.

The Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Green Party have all committed to large spending increases if they win the election on 12 December. They have said the funds will reduce opportunity gaps and improve educational attainment – but the policies in their respective manifestos are “unlikely to deliver on these aspirations”, according to the Education Policy Institute.

The warning came the same week as the Institute for Fiscal Studies warned that Labour and the Lib Dems may have underestimated how much their plans for adult education could cost.


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EPI researchers found that polices set out in the Tory manifesto could cause the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils to stagnate or increase, despite a promise to give “every child the same opportunity”.

Under the plans, “half of disadvantaged secondary schools will not be seeing real terms increases in funding next year,'' the report’s lead author Jon Andrews said. 

And, while Labour’s commitments to extra education funding were deemed enough to improve standards, its plans to scrap the regulator Ofsted could “offset the gains” of the funding.

Labour plans to abolish university tuition fees were also dismissed as being “of no benefit to attainment or reducing the disadvantage gap”, according to Mr Andrews. 

The report praised the Lib Dems’ commitment to early years-funding, but EPI added that the party needed a more “carefully phased strategy” to be considered credible.

And both Labour and the Lib Dems may have underestimated the cost of their policies on free school meals, which could lead to them having to cut into other parts of their schools budgets, it added.

Labour has pledged a total of £25bn over three years towards education, as well as plans to cap class sizes to 30 pupils, ensuring qualified teachers and reversing cuts to the Pupil Premium.

The Conservatives have promised a more modest £14bn over three years, including cash for special-needs support, boosting teacher salaries and building more free schools, and to give more powers to Ofsted.

Natalie Perera, EPI's head of research, said: "All of the main parties are united by one thing - bold ambitions to raise attainment and close gaps. However, our analysis shows that while each party has some well-designed and helpful policies, none has a properly evidence-based strategy to meet their ambitions.”

Further education

The think tank also warned that none of the parties had provided enough detail on their plans for further and technical education.

“There is little detail across manifestos on how technical education will be addressed in a new government. Our assumption is that current government policy on reforming qualifications including T-Levels will continue, but there is no detail on what funding will be provided and how quality will be ensured,” the report said.

Nor is there any “clear focus from any party” on the benefits of recruiting younger apprentices or improving the quality of apprenticeships, it added.

All three parties have promised significant funding increases for further education, while Labour and the Liberal Democrats have proposed “extremely large rises in spending and eligibility” for adult education, the IFS said in an analysis this week.

The Labour manifesto promised an annual £3.3bn worth of extra spending and subsidies – a near 90% rise – for adult education up to 2023. The estimate did not include plans to abolish higher-education tuition fees.

The party has also promised to “reverse privatisation” of FE colleges, but shadow education minister Gordon Marsden said this week this would not meaning abolishing private providers, saying a Labour government be an “enabler, not a top-down micromanager from Whitehall”.

The Liberal Democrats costed its plan to offer “skills wallets” worth up to £10,000 for each adult to access life-long learning opportunities at £1.6bn a year by 2024-25 – a 24% increase on existing funding levels.

But the IFS warned both parties faced a risk “that spending might exceed plans if take-up is higher than expected, or even of fraud if the process is not well-regulated”.

By contrast, the Conservative Party has promised to spend £600m extra a year by 2022 on a National Skills Fund.

And while all three parties have pledged large increases to further-education spending, the IFS warned that school sixth forms could lose out under the Conservatives’ plans.

But the IFS said under the Tory plan, school sixth forms would see a fall in spending per student because of growth in student numbers, and because they were unlikely to benefit from the party’s promised extra cash for T-Levels.

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Beckie Smith and Eleanor Langford
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Beckie Smith is a reporter for CSW who tweets @Beckie__SmithEleanor Langford is a reporter for PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared.

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