The policies and people set to shape schools policy
Last week saw what is one of the most fraught days in the education calendar, dreaded by parents around the country – national primary school offer day. There is no more emotive subject than education and no policy area most likely to be meddled with by politicians.
So what do the main parties have in store for us (and our children)?
For the Conservatives, it’s carry on as you were. Their commitments focus on increasing choice and improving standards, including creating a further 500 free schools in the next parliament and training more maths and physics teachers. There are also promises to turn ‘failing and coasting’ state secondaries into academies and to parachute in new head teachers to any schools classed as ‘requiring improvement’.
Their most important pledge is to maintain per-pupil funding in cash terms at its current level. In theory this will be more generous than the Labour offer to protect the education budget in real terms, although given inflation, both are likely to result in a cut for schools.
Where Labour really set out their stall is in planning to dismantle the free schools programme. Labour has promised to ‘end the wasteful free schools programme’, guarantee all state school teachers are fully qualified and potentially most radically, establish regional directors of school standards to provide oversight to academies which are outside of local government control. This last point signals a very strong departure from the Blairite model, which had sought to drive up standards in part by freeing academies from local bureaucracy. Labour also wants local authorities to be able to resume control of place planning, which is a significant issue in many urban (and often Labour) areas.
It is in these areas that the differences between the individuals shaping education policy can really be understood. While Nicky Morgan is the Education Secretary going into the election, Conservative education policy remains true to the ideals expressed by Michael Gove and his former special adviser Dominic Cummings. Their reforming zeal was rarely matched in other government departments, and they came to define what the Coalition (at least the Conservative side of it) represented.
By contrast Tristram Hunt has made it clear that what he sees as the chaos of free schools will be ended under Labour. His critique is that, far from improving choice for parents and improving education for children, free schools have skewed resources away from areas of genuine need. After a few years of fudging their response to free schools, Labour has settled on a clear dividing line.
So where does this leave the Lib Dems? While their manifesto was lauded as being focused solely on education, its policies for primary and secondary schools seem mainly designed to signal their ability to go into coalition with Labour or the Conservatives. There is a strong argument that it was in education policy – with the pupil premium – that the Lib Dems had the strongest impact on coalition policy, so one perhaps could have expected a more robust offer.
With Labour, they agree that schools should only have qualified teachers and that local authorities should have responsibility for place-planning. But they also (like the Conservatives) want to retain free schools.
They also appear to match both main parties funding pledges, agreeing with the Labour proposal to protect school budgets against inflation and with the per-pupil cash commitment from the Conservatives. The manifesto also includes a pledge to extend one of the party’s other ‘greatest hits’ in education – extending free school meals from years three to six.
If the policies reflect the person in charge, it makes sense that the Lib Dem education lead is David Laws, always popular across party benches even when disgraced. In fact, he chaired the whole manifesto process for the Lib Dems. His practical approach to policy making would suggest an ability to work with either side and make it work.
That said, Laws recently criticised political meddling in schools, warning that the chop and change policies of different political parties were damaging schools. Sadly, all those working in education know that is exactly what they will always get…