Eighteen years ago, the main battle cry of the election was “education, education, education” – with Labour putting it at the forefront of their famous 1997 campaign.
Nearly two decades on, and after five years of a coalition government that has brought unprecedented change and reform to secondary schools – in particular to the curriculum and qualifications – education remains one of the key battlegrounds between the parties seeking power.
Whatever happens, and whoever wins the General Election on May 7, the next five years look set to bring more reform. Here is a taster of what the political parties are each planning for education and for secondary schools.
The Conservative Party
The Tories have promised to protect per-pupil spending in England, although while they claim there will be a real-terms increase in funding, critics have said that this does not take into account increasing school costs due to inflation and rising pension contributions.
Funding for post-16 education will not be ring-fenced, funding will continue at current rates for the Pupil Premium, and £7 billion will be allocated for new school places.
The manifesto pledges that state schools will not be allowed to make a profit.
The academy programme is set to expand, targeting mainly schools deemed by Ofsted to be “coasting” or requiring improvement, and a further 500 free schools will be opened. Existing grammar schools may be allowed to expand and the Tories pledge a University Technical College “within reach of every city”.
The manifesto includes a pledge to reduce the time teachers spend on paperwork and to “reduce the burden of Ofsted”.
Elsewhere, the Tories have said that if children do not meet Level 4 in their key stage 2 tests at the end of primary school, they must resit at secondary school.
They will also require all pupils to take GCSEs towards the English Baccalaureate, which includes English, maths, sciences or computer science, a language, and history or geography.
Notably, the Tories will limit Ofsted ratings to “good” at best for schools that “refuse to teach” the EBacc subjects.
The Conservatives are opposed to giving votes to 16 and 17-year-olds for UK-wide General Elections and local elections in England.
The Labour Party
Labour has said it will “protect the entire education budget, including the early years, schools and post-16 education, so that it rises in line with inflation”. However, schools will again be concerned about increasing pension costs and whether per-pupil funding will be protected.
The party is to make £50 million available to improve careers advice and guidance services.
Under Labour, there will be compulsory sex and relationships education in all schools, and the introduction of a “gold-standard” Technical Baccalaureate for 16 to 18-year-olds.
The party also says it will guarantee an Apprenticeship for every school leaver who attains the grades and will ensure that all young people study English and maths to age 18.
Meanwhile, it will reintroduce rules to ensure that all teachers in state schools are qualified and that key stage 4 students take work experience.
Independent schools will have to show a “meaningful impact” on state schools through a new School Partnership Standard, otherwise they may be refused business rate relief. This might mean sharing staff and assisting in university admissions procedures, for example.
Directors of school standards will be appointed in every area to “drive up standards” and a Master Teacher status will be introduced, as well as a School Leadership Institute to support and improve school leaders.
Labour has long said it will end the free schools programme, and Labour is also committed to extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds in elections across the UK.
The Liberal Democrats
Launching their manifesto, Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg made a point of claiming full credit for the introduction of the Pupil Premium, before pledging to protect the education budget “in real terms”, including funding for early years and colleges and for rising pupil numbers.
Mr Clegg said this amounted to an extra £2.5 billion investment. Again, the manifesto does not tackle the specific issue of increasing costs to schools that commentators have said could rise faster than inflation.
On the Pupil Premium, the manifesto adds: “We will at least protect the schools’ Pupil Premium in real terms, consider carefully the merits of extending the Premium, and introduce a fair National Funding Formula.”
The manifesto also guarantees a qualified teacher in every classroom from September 2016 and promises “rapid support and intervention to help ensure that all schools become good or outstanding”.
The party says it will increase the number of Teaching Schools and an independent Educational Standards Authority would take over responsibility for curriculum changes in the future and report on standards over time. Ofsted will be asked to inspect academy chains too.
There will be compulsory sex and relationships education in all state schools, including academies and free schools, while the party will double the number of businesses hiring apprentices, it says.
The Lib Dems support the lowering of the voting age to 16 in all UK elections.
The Green Party
There will be an end to performance-related pay for teachers and Ofsted would be scrapped and replaced with an independent “National Council for Educational Excellence”.
Existing free schools and academies would be brought into local authority control. All teachers would be “properly qualified”, and the national curriculum would be abolished. The party wants 16 and 17-year-olds to be able to vote in all UK elections.
The party plans to allow existing schools to apply to become grammar schools and will scrap tuition fees for students who take degree courses in medicine and STEM providing that they live, work and pay tax in the UK for five years afterwards. There will be a new Apprenticeship Qualification Option that can be taken instead of four non-core GCSEs and which can be continued at A level. Thirty per cent of school governing boards will have to be parents of children at the school. PHOTO: iStock