The verdict on the Conservative's education pledges? Could do better
(29 April 2015)
Stephen Gorard, Professor of Education and Well-being at the School of Education, uses his knowledge of research evidence to assess the Conservative Party’s manifesto pledges on education.
The Conservative plans are not radical, but for the most part, neither are they tried and tested. They assume the continuation of existing monitoring, regulation and assessment systems, and plan to maintain school budgets proportionately. They are focused on initial education and seem to completely ignore adult, catch-up and continuing provision.
Promising developments in education were made by the Coalition government – including the pupil premium policy and the creation of the Educational Endowment Foundation – and there are some encouraging proposals in the Conservative’s manifesto. More free child-care for eligible families, and a promised three million new apprenticeships are hard to argue with. Perhaps most pertinently, they are planning to remove any cap on the provision of university places. Historically, the simple step of increasing the number of university places has done more to widen participation for disadvantaged sections of society than all other strategies combined. It will be more effective than raising aspirations or lowering tuition fees, for example.
However, most of the remaining proposals fly in the face of current evidence and may actually do more harm than good to the education system as a whole.
Free schools and academies (started by the previous Labour government) lie at the heart of their schools policy. If schools are deemed to be failing they will be turned into academies. This policy not only ignores the spectacular recent failures of some free schools and academies, it does not specify what will happen to failing academies themselves.
Where new school places are needed, and many will be needed in the next decade, they propose that free schools are given the first chance, followed by academies, and only then can the local authority intervene with their own plans. This means that local authorities have a continuing responsibility to plan for new school places and an increasing inability to do so efficiently.
The Conservatives promise at least 500 new free schools in the next five years, in addition to the new academies who have opted to convert or are forced to because of failure. However it is not clear why. Supporting autonomous free schools and academies only makes sense if they are known to be better than other schools run by the local authority. But if they truly are better, then all schools should have been converted to academies from the beginning. It would not be fair in a national tax-payer funded system for only some children to have access to the ‘better’ schools.
In fact, there is no evidence that such schools are any better in general than local authority schools. There is probably more variation within each type than between the two sectors on average. This makes the policy one without a purpose. Worse than that, it is a policy with real dangers.
As already mentioned, the independence of free schools coupled with the priority they are given in law when providing new schools places, hinders planning at a time of rising school demand. Their use of unqualified teachers is about eight times as high as local authority schools. Their independence from the national curriculum belies Conservative support for that important equalising entitlement. Several free schools have failed and some have already been closed perhaps because they have been set up by pressure groups or individuals antithetic to genuine education. And probably most importantly, the overall pupil intake to these state-funded free schools is so far very privileged with some new schools opening without a single child eligible for free school meals. This inevitably increases local social segregation between school sectors.
Could do better.