GE 2015: Schools manifestos: how do they compare?

Simon Burgess,
Professor of Economics

We now have the education policies of all the main parties in this election. Some of them have been summarised for The Conversation: Tories, Labour, Lib Dems, Greens, and Plaid Cymru. How do they compare? Which policies, if any, provide the best hope for better schools?

A full comparison of all the policy components is obviously not possible in about 600 words, so I have picked three key aspects here: school funding, school turnaround, and teachers. This leaves out admissions, accountability, curriculum and qualifications, pay, provision for the 16-19 age bracket and many other important issues.

In most public services, perhaps the key issue is the level of funding. In schools, that over-riding emphasis is absent. The basic facts are that Labour and Tories promise about the same, around a 9% – 10% cut in real per-pupil terms over the parliament. The Lib Dems promise a bit more funding , and the Greens a whole lot more. Does money matter for schools? In one sense, obviously it does – people’s jobs are at risk with budget cuts, and tight budgets make life a lot harder for Headteachers. And yet whether money matters for pupil attainment is much less clear. While there is evidence on both sides, possibly the majority of researchers in this field would agree that increases in a school’s resources are unlikely to have a major effect on attainment. So some difference in policy but maybe not much that will hugely affect attainment.

How should we deal with failing, or ‘coasting’, schools. (‘Coasting’ is the new ‘failing’). The Coalition set up Regional Schools Commissioners  (RSCs) to deal with this for academies. Their role is to intervene to deal with poor performance, but is limited to academies and free schools. The Tories stick with RSCs and plan to dramatically increase the number of schools at risk of forced academisation. Labour propose an alternative: Directors of School Standards (DSS).

There are similarities but also a number of important differences.

Similarities: the number one remit of a DSS is school turnaround: “facilitate intervention to drive up performance – including in coasting and ‘fragile’ schools”.  The first and most important difference is that a DSS will cover all schools in her/his area. This will be achieved by essentially giving to all schools the freedoms that academies enjoy. It seems more coherent and efficient to take all schools under a single umbrella. A second difference is that there will be many more DSSs than RSCs: there are 8 RSCs and suggestions of perhaps ten times that many DSSs. This is also an improvement –taken seriously, this is a big job. The Lib Dems will abolish the unelected RSCs but promise unspecified “rapid support and intervention” to ensure schools are rated at least “Good”.

Teachers: research shows that teacher effectiveness is hugely important for pupil attainment, much more so than class size, IT in the classroom, or any of the other policies that politicians typically reach for. Teacher effectiveness is about pupil attainment; teachers do many things for their pupils but policy should surely be focussed first on attainment.

The Conservatives have allowed unqualified teachers, and UKIP support this. Labour say that they would require that all teachers hold or are working towards Qualified Teacher Status (QTS), and the Lib Dems support that. To me, it seems unlikely that this is a first order issue for pupil attainment. While there is no specific evidence linking robust estimates of effectiveness with QTS status, in general the bulk of the international evidence shows that there is little relationship between the individual’s own academic career and her/his effectiveness as a teacher.

An idea with much more potential is another item in the Labour manifesto, the pledge to require teachers to “keep their skills and knowledge up to date” throughout their careers “as a condition of remaining in the classroom”. This is potentially a very important proposal and if pursued vigorously could make a significant difference to average teacher effectiveness. The key questions will be about practical implementation, but this does have the chance of really being a game-changer.

The views expressed here are personal views and do not reflect the views of the funders of our research.