Schools funding, or the lack of it, was identified as a liability for
the Conservatives at the 2017 general election. A poll conducted by Survation
found that 750,000 voters cited schools funding as the reason they
switched parties, ahead of the economy and tuition fees, and equal to
terrorism. Only the performance of the party leaders, Brexit and
social care policy were more influential.
Schools funding still an issue?
No wonder Boris Johnson took swift action to give schools a real
terms increase - £4.4 billion over three years - with minimum levels
of per-pupil funding. The opposition parties are now under pressure to
better that. Up until a few weeks ago Labour and the Liberal Democrats
spoke of reversing the cuts and providing a real terms increase for
schools. That’s already been achieved by Johnson. Schools are likely
to gain a large slice of Labour’s proposed £150 billion Social
Transformation (capital) Fund; going by their 2017 manifesto at
least £20 billion. The Liberal Democrats say
they would spend an extra £10 billion a year on schools and would
recruit an extra 20,000 teachers, but we have no details on what this
covers and by when it will be achieved. So we must await publication
of the manifestos to fully assess the situation.
Ideological battle over schools standards
By providing the extra cash, Boris Johnson’s political aim was to
take schools funding off the table or least neutralise the issue
before he went before the country. But a series of announcements made
by Labour at their party conference, in September, to abolish Ofsted,
league tables and SATs and to attack independent schools by taking
away their charitable status and their tax breaks - all measures also
proposed by the Liberal Democrats, which we can expect in feature
their manifestos - has put schools on the election agenda by Johnson
himself. In his conference speech in October Johnson highlighted the
abolition of Ofsted as an example of Labour being weak on education
standards and he did so again in front of No.10 in launching his
There is logical behind the criticisms of those policies for instance
shadow education secretary Angela Rayner maintains that Ofsted is not
only failing to give parents an accurate account of schools standards,
but is also fuelling a crisis in teacher recruitment. Layla Moran, the
Lib Dems’ education spokesperson, has spoken about the over-emphasis
on ‘high-stakes’ testing which means that other elements of child
development continue to be overlooked.
Much of that critique has come from the teaching profession and from
the National Education Union, but commentators (see for example from
have suggested that Labour may have misjudged the strength of the
Ofsted brand, and how popular league tables and testing are with
parents. They go as far as suggesting that, by insisting that Ofsted
itself must go, Labour has ensured that Johnson’s line of attack on
standards will play just as well with parents of school-age kids as
the funding cuts did in 2017.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats also want the halt further academies
and free schools, and put them under local authority oversight, with
powers over admissions and places planning returned to councils.
We can expect that the Conservative manifesto to double-down on the
Michael Give reforms on academies and free schools and well as
parental choice and accountability. What is not so clear is whether
these will be significantly extended. There has been speculation free
schools will be back centre stage, the assisted places scheme brought
back, a big push for selection through specialist maths sixth form
schools and building more new, and not just expanding existing,
Further education overshadowing higher education?
At recent elections university tuition fees has been at the fore;
here again there is a similar ideological divide given that Labour
wants to scrap them. However there is a sense that the political focus
has shifted away from higher to further education and to those young
people who don’t go to university, as well as addressing the very real
need for life-long learning to address structural skills deficits,
which is holding back productivity, wages and living standards.
Here we already have manifesto proposals from the Liberal Democrats
for all adults to be provided with a £10,000 skills
wallet and from Labour
on free further and higher education and life-long learning from
levels 3 to 6 with maintenance grants reintroduced for those on low
incomes. Both parties are also likely to pledge at the very least that
16-19 education funding levels are brought into line with those for
The Conservatives are unlikely to compete on tuition fees, but might
freeze them, and focus instead on technical skills below degree level.
At the Conservative Party Conference, Education Secretary, Gavin
Williamson promised a “revolution in technical education” vowing to
“super-charge further education”. He now needs to make that not only
more tangible to the electorate, but also credible given his party has
been in power for nine years. The question is how, particularly given
that the centrepieces from their 2017 campaign either have a low
profile (T-levels), have run into trouble (apprenticeship levy), been
slow to get off the ground (Institutes of Technology) or look
underpowered when compared with the task (National Retraining Scheme).
The answer perhaps lies within the Augar
report on post-18 education which recommended improved funding,
a better student maintenance offer and a more coherent suit of higher
technical and professional qualifications. Augar also recommended
significant capital investment into the sector, and indeed the
Conservatives have now pledged
to do just that, with £2 billion invested in a college rebuilding
programme over a five year period, on top of the extra £400 million in
revenue for next year which was already announced in SR2019.
Then there is apprenticeships, all three main parties support them,
and support them being employer-led and funded. But the levy has had
troubled beginnings and is heading for an overspend despite starts
falling by a fifth since its introduction, as employers have opted for
higher-level, more expensive apprenticeships benefiting existing and
executive employees. There is a growing sense that the future of the
levy could well be up for grabs even with a new Conservative
Government, given that its architects, George Osborne and Nick Boles,
have parted the political scene. The business sector has repeatedly
called for the levy to be made available for different types of
training, not just apprenticeships; both Labour and the Liberal
Democrats have already indicated that they may back that, with Labour
also wanting to see a pre-apprenticeship trainee programme funded by
the levy. Other options include ring-fencing a proportion of the levy
for young people and, as recommended by Augar restricting funding for
Level 6 and above apprenticeships to those apprentices who have
not previously undertaken a publicly-supported degree.
Any more hours for free childcare?
As one could have predicted the election campaign began with another
bidding war between the parties over the amount of free childcare on
offer, and to whom. Labour has pledged to extend the existing 30 hours
to all 2 to 4 year olds. The Liberal
Democrats went further with 35 hours, 48 weeks a year, with the
offer extended to children aged between 9 and 24 months where their
parents are in work. Labour has also promised to spend £1 billion to
open 1,000 new Sure Start centres in England reversing the recent cuts
Will anyone talk about child social care?
The dog that hasn’t barked, again, is children’s social care and
special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). No formal election
pledges have yet been made. This is despite the enormous strain
these services are under.
The Conservatives’ plan to provide £700 million for SEND over the
next three years as part of the schools’ funding package, and an
additional £410 million in 2019/20 for adults and children’s
social care; but the consensus this is just a stop-gap.
Labour have announced
a ‘Healthy Young Minds’ plan investing an additional £845 million a
year in a network of mental health hubs to enable 300,000 more
children to access support and the recruitment of almost 3,000
qualified on-site secondary school counsellors. The Liberal Democrats
will invest £11 billion into mental health services, including child
and adolescent mental health; but there are no funding specifics for
Rather the focus has been on youth services, and knife crime, with
the Conservatives announcing before the campaign a £500m Youth
Investment Fund to build new and refurbished youth centres on
top of the £200 million Youth Endowment Fund to support interventions
which steer young people away from becoming serious offenders. Labour
and the Liberal
Democrats are proposing to make youth services a statutory service
to protect them from further cuts, and to provide local authorities
with dedicated funds to provide universal local services; the Liberal
Democrats have pledged £500 million, which will also promote a public
health approach to tackling youth violence.
Where are the manifestos?
We can expect the political parties to publish their manifestos over
the next two weeks. Labour most probably in week beginning 18 November
and the Conservatives later. They should fill in the gaps. A word of
warning, these may not be substantial documents as they have
been in the past. Watch this space.
Mark Upton, is a freelance policy and public affairs consultant,