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General Election 2019: Where do the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems stand on education?

Dominic Wyse, BERA President, UCL Institute of Education

What can we expect from the three main UK political parties if elected to government? I have compared the education sections of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos. (All direct quotes in this piece are taken from these manifestos.)

Conservatives

Schools have increasingly faced unacceptable problems with finance, so the Conservative pledge for ‘an extra £14 billion in funding for schools’ is belated but welcome. Likewise, the raise in starting salaries for teachers is an attractive proposition.

Unfortunately there is no explicit mention of extra funding for early years provision (early years is mentioned just once, on page 14 of the manifesto). We need a fully funded state system of early years provision for every child.

The ‘primary reading check’ is mentioned in passing – presumably this means the phonics test? As work by BERA has shown, there are some significant problems with national assessments in England, so the lack of radical attention to this area is disappointing.

The Conservatives claim,

‘over the last nine years we have made real improvements in maths, English and science, and given more children access to a rich academic curriculum’.

An alternative interpretation is that an over-narrow focus on a particular view of literacy and numeracy has resulted in a lack of breadth and balance in the curriculum. The pledge for an ‘arts premium’ for secondary schools that will benefit some children and young people is welcome, but where is the similar premium for arts in primary schools and early years?

Labour

The Labour manifesto, unlike the Conservatives’, puts early years provision first and foremost. The pledge to ‘reverse cuts to Sure Start and create a new service, Sure Start Plus’ is attractive. So are the plans to extend free preschool education provision and to ultimately ensure that the early years workforce is a graduate-led one.

Voters comparing Conservative and Labour plans in relation to national assessments in England could not be faced with a starker choice: ‘Labour will end the “high stakes” testing culture of schools by scrapping Key Stage 1 and 2 SATs and baseline assessments, and refocussing assessment on supporting pupil progress’.

Furthermore, in relation to the national curriculum Labour’s plans are necessarily bold: they will review the national curriculum and, in so doing,

‘introduce an Arts Pupil Premium to fund arts education for every primary school child. [They] will review the curriculum to ensure that it enriches students and covers subjects such as black history and continues to teach issues like the Holocaust.’

Liberal Democrats

The early years are also first and foremost in the Liberal Democrats’ plans for education.

‘We will start with a bold offer of free childcare from the of age nine months (the end of paid parental leave), transforming the opportunities for early years education and helping parents who want to combine caring and working.’

The Lib Dems’ more detailed plans – to, for example, offer free, high-quality child care, and to increase funding overall – point the direction in which, in my view, all political parties should be travelling.

And, like Labour, on assessment they have plans to ‘end… teaching to the test by scrapping mandatory SATs, and replacing existing government performance tables (“league tables”) of schools with a broader set of indicators’.

Perhaps the Liberal Democrat plan that is most relevant to BERA is the following one.

‘Establish an independent body of education experts who will use the most up-to-date educational evidence to oversee any future curriculum changes. It would take these decisions out of the hands of politicians and put an end to unnecessary and often politically motivated changes, which disrupt children’s learning and place an extra burden on teachers.’

Given BERA’s ongoing work with the British Academy and the Royal Society in relation to a proposed Office for Education Research, the idea that education experts might have more influence on education policy is particularly interesting. Not only is this, in my view, vital for future curriculum development, but it arguably should be applied to other areas of education policy.

***

The Conservatives’ plans for education, after a near-decade of austerity measures, seem to lack a radical agenda. This is no doubt in part because of their overriding focus on Brexit. However, on key areas such as early years provision, the curriculum and national assessments, the Labour and Liberal Democrat manifestos offer a strong contrast to the Conservative one.

Overall, I hope that more people will read the manifestos and make a principled choice of who to vote for on the basis of what is proposed. I fear, however, that both Brexit and personality politics will dominate voting in this election, and that this will have profound consequences for all, including our children and their education.


Bibliography

Labour party (2019). It’s Time for Real Change: The Labour Party Manifesto 2019. Retrieved from https://labour.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/11/Real-Change-Labour-Manifesto-2019.pdf

Conservative and Unionist Party (2019). Get Brexit Done: Unleash Britain’s Potential. The Conservative and Unionist Party Manifesto 2019. Retrieved from https://assets global.website-files.com/5da42e2cae7ebd3f8bde353c/5dda924905da587992a064ba_Conservative%202019%20Manifesto.pdf

Liberal Democrats (2019). Stop Brexit: Build a Brighter Future: Manifesto 2019. Retrieved from: https://d3n8a8pro7vhmx.cloudfront.net/libdems/pages/57307/attachments/original/1574876236/Stop_Brexit_and_Build_a_Brighter_Future.pdf?1574876236

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