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The EPI Manifesto Review: is Labour ready to tackle key challenges in education?

With there likely to be little room for manoeuvre in terms of the education budget following the result of July’s general election, the debate about where and how to focus any spending is well underway.

Ahead of the general election on 4th July, the Education Policy Institute (EPI), funded by the Nuffield Foundation, has published an analysis of the plans for education set out in the manifestos of the main political parties in England.

At the EPI Manifesto Review event yesterday we heard about the main issue ducked in the main party pledges: funding. But as the Nuffield Foundation’s Josh Hillman said in his opening remarks, there are plenty of gaps around other key issues as well – namely disadvantage, teacher training, recruitment and retention, and SEND provision. Here are my key takeaways from the panel and Q&A sessions. 

On curriculum review

According to various sources, we believe the review panel is appointed in principle and ready to start work if Labour wins. The imminent appointment of Kevan Collins as ‘school standards tsar’, as reported by Schools Week, is a further indication of a commitment to action.

On per pupil funding

There is a potential £ 3.5bn shortfall in funding if the government keeps a per pupil funding model because of falling pupil numbers. Otherwise, we would need an annual 1.5% increase to keep funding at the same levels in real terms. At post-16, current funding is 9 or 10% below where it was in 2010, in real terms.

Thoughts from the panel 

Russell Hobby, Teach First: We should be looking at the education system as a whole

There is a lack of commitment to the slow building of long-term policies, beyond a single term of office. Whenever you take one particular educational philosophy or approach to its limits without thinking long-term, you start to see weaknesses emerge, and we are definitely in that zone at the moment. As an example, creating a certain amount of pressure through accountability measures is a good thing,  but too much is destructive and leads to blind spots around education as a system.

One policy from the last fifteen years to hold on to: phonics.

Felicity Gillespie, Kindred squared: Prioritise early intervention over catch-up

Imagine if every child coming into school was developmentally ready. The intervention cost is lowest early on, while later catch-up costs more and is harder, so we should be looking at what’s going on before age 22 months. All the main manifestos lack recognition of the fundamental importance of early years. 

One policy from the last fifteen years to hold on to: academies

David Hughes, Association of Colleges: Assuming Labour win, there are three things I like about their education pledges

  1. A Skills England and post-16 strategy that aims to bring colleges and universities together to offer 16-19-year-olds a coherent system rather than competing elements. 
  2. The reform of the apprenticeship levy. 
  3. A curriculum and assessment review; young people are over-assessed, and examinations in particular favour short-term memory and some skills over others. 

One policy from the last fifteen years to hold on to: the importance of skills 

Anne Longfield, Centre for Young Lives: We won’t build a strong economy without investment in education

I’ve never seen such a dismal outcome for young people as we have with this last parliament. While there isn’t any urgency or detail in the manifestos, we agree with one area that desperately needs to be addressed: building on family hubs and wider service provision from schools. Funded policies to enable the provision of joined-up services are essential to address regional disparity, especially child poverty. 

One policy from the last fifteen years to hold on to: academies 

Jon Coles,  United Learning: The public isn’t prioritising education

We mustn’t be naive about why politicians aren’t focusing on change in education  – the public doesn’t see education as one of the most important issues, and that’s why there’s no focus on it in the manifestos. With a £50bn likely gap in NHS funding by 2029, there are some big choices to make about funding in other areas. Prioritisation will be the big challenge for education.

One policy from the last fifteen years to hold on to: governments overestimate what they can do in five years and underestimate what they can do in 10, so they need to identify the policy with the greatest impact.

On the key issues

SEND and early intervention 

Early support for children and parents makes assessed levels of SEND lower at later stages. For example, where Sure Start enabled early identification of issues and more support for parents to encourage early speech and language practice, assessed levels of SEND later in education fell. The focus should be on early education and care to make sure the very earliest years (0-3) are secure and supported.

Skills England and post-16

David Hughes expects Labour to have an industrial policy and therefore Skills England to fit alongside this; employers are investing far less in apprentices and skills than they did in the recent past, and devolution of funding will help address this. The apprenticeship levy needs reforming so that degree apprenticeships go into the loan system instead, therefore bringing down the cost of the average apprenticeship and focusing more apprenticeship funding on learners who are not studying at degree level.

Local actors or national schemes?

David Hughes: Trust educators more and don’t be Whitehall-driven. If we can make more devolved decisions we might see a shift to focus on inequalities and a more values-driven system. 

Jon Coles: You have to build capacity before you devolve. This is even true of phonics; government action made a big difference but it would have been better if the teaching practice had identified that approach en masse and implemented it, which is a question of capacity. Organisations like the Chartered College of Teachers are the potential answer: they should be completely trusted by ministers and be given the capacity to solve problems and lead change in the system without relying on government policy.