Blue, red, yellow, green, purple: they are bright colours. There is a reason why political parties choose them – to stand out, to be unmistakable. So too, do the election manifestos provide us with the parties’ views of education in a sort of heightened sense – the world of Mary Poppins after Mary and the Banks children jump into the pavement.
As one might expect, the Conservatives offer more of the same: academies, free schools and university technical colleges (all, we hope, better directed to areas in need of places), more focus on literacy and numeracy standards, more EBacc, more parachuting in of new school leadership.
The Conservatives have appropriated the Pupil Premium policy that the Lib Dems claim as their own, and promise more of that. There is implied recognition of the looming teacher supply crisis, with ambitious targets to train an additional 17,500 maths and physics teachers over five years: this would almost double the numbers training every year – a very expensive financial stretch. Teachers can still be unqualified, but will have to complete training on behaviour management. Even more would be piled on to Ofsted’s shoulders; the inspectorate would effectively be enforcing the EBacc policy as well as being responsible for identifying coasting schools that should have new leaders.
The manifesto is silent on the revolving door of academies and free schools facing challenge, where new sponsors lack the resource and support to make the required difference. Greater marketisation would be introduced through removing caps on student recruitment – among “good” schools (including grammar schools) and universities. The manifesto also pledges more Apprenticeships, including degree-level Apprenticeships – underestimating the challenge of providing these at scale to any level of quality.
Labour’s manifesto shows evidence of the party’s previous penchant for national initiatives. It pledges national schemes in relation to teacher career pathways (Master Teachers), leadership (School Leadership Institute), children’s access to creative education, sport, sex and relationships education, character education, and revamped citizenship education.
They aim to reinvent the local authority role in relation to standards and place-planning in the form of new Directors of School Standards. This plan treads a little on the toes of Ofsted, which is noticeable by its absence from the manifesto. Implicitly, Labour seems to be committed to at least reshaping the inspectorate.
The commitment to all teachers having QTS is there and teacher training on special needs is specifically flagged. Initial training would be followed by mandatory CPD – a stipulation that was made for further education teachers under the previous Labour administration but not implemented successfully.
Labour promises an end to free schools, but not to academies. The manifesto attempts to address the private school issue, through threats to their business rate relief unless they set up “meaningful partnerships” with state schools. Essentially this is lip-service, but electorally probably about as far as they could go.
Labour’s promises focus more sharply when it comes to transition to work, and they commit to introducing the Technical Baccalaureate, delivered through national centres of excellence. Like the Conservatives, Labour wants to see more flexible higher education. But while Labour flags part-time study, the Conservatives propose two-year degrees; Labour offers “vocational routes to degree”, as opposed to the Conservatives’ “degree-level Apprenticeships”.
The Liberal Democrat manifesto is, at 158 pages, substantially the longest, and education is a bigger story, based around a narrative of opportunity. They make stronger commitments to maintain education funding, including the Pupil Premium.
The Lib Dems are more explicit than Labour about reinvigorating the middle tier (local government), reflecting where their political base lies. As with Labour, the Lib Dems would abolish Regional School Commissioners, though this time to replace them with Headteacher Boards, Ofsted inspection of local authorities and academy chains, and more Teaching Schools as centres of excellence. Local authority place-planning would take precedence over more academies and free schools.
There is a commitment to QTS for all teachers, but CPD is positioned as an entitlement – and this is arguably more in line with the direction of travel on teacher professionalism that has been established over the past five years than Labour’s prescription. Interestingly, the manifesto revisits a previous suggestion that teachers should achieve a grade B at GCSE in English and maths. The Lib Dems pledge to “maximise the number of secondary school teachers who have a degree in the subjects they teach”. The careful wording alludes to the scale of this task – which begs the question why include it as a pledge?
They want an equivalent to the Office for Budget Responsibility for curriculum and exams. Getting politics out of these aspects of the education system would be a step forward, but history has shown politicians’ inability to keep out for long, and, under a Lib Dem government any such body would have a fairly restricted role anyway, since they propose replacing the national curriculum with a “minimum curriculum entitlement”.
So there you have it: three different views. The Tories, while ruling out for-profit state schooling, offer a more marketised school system with limited local planning, Labour offer national strategies and stronger routes into the Labour market, and the Lib Dems offer reinvigorated local co-ordination.
All three parties propose a new College of Teaching for the profession, as well as the expansion of Teach First without a real sense of what its limits to growth might be. All three focus on the importance of careers advice – a recognition of the failure of coalition policies in this area. All three look to strengthen vocational preparation through improved vocational routes and vocational degree equivalents.
However, none really get to grips with the challenges of teacher supply and of the real pressure on providing additional school places given the constraints on public funding.
Professor Chris Husbands is director of the Institute of Education at University College London.