Conor Ryan on the evidence behind the parties’ election proposals for education
While much of the policy noise of the election campaign has focused on social care and the winter heating allowance, there is quite a lot of educational policy in the parties’ statements of intent. Polling over the weekend showed it particularly important with parents and young voters.
Despite the narrowing of the polls as Thursday’s ballot approaches, the likelihood is still that a Conservative government will be re-elected. So, it is worth examining what they say – and do not say – in some detail. A lot of the attention has focused on two policies – grammar schools and free school meals – but there were also other important proposals there too.
Free school meals have become a surprising issue. Just as Theresa May has been keen to show she’s been making tough choices with pensioners’ spending, she is also planning to remove the relatively recent universal nature of free school meals for infants and return to linking them to poverty. Instead, less costly breakfasts will be provided to all.
When free school meals were made universal, much was made of the impact on educational standards. At the time, I looked at the detailed NatCen evaluation and argued that universal school meals may make some impact on attainment, but seem likely to do a lot more for diet and socialisation in school. Delivering 1-2 months’ progress, it had less impact than other less costly options.
The EEF’s evaluation of Magic Breakfast suggested a two month gain over a year. The results suggest that for pupils in relatively disadvantaged schools it is attending the breakfast club, not just eating breakfast, which leads to academic improvements. This could be due to the nutritional benefits of the breakfast itself, or the social or educational benefits of the breakfast club environment.
So, shifting to breakfasts on the face of it looks like a less costly way of delivering results – even allowing for the forensic work on costs by Becky Allen and Datalab. However, neither study focused as much on the nutritional benefits which is what has exercised Jamie Oliver and other celebrity chefs most. There’s also the very real issue of cost for those parents whose incomes are just above the FSM eligibility threshold and who will lose most in this change. By contrast Labour and the Liberal Democrats want to extend free meals throughout primary school, though this feels like a costly commitment when school budgets face so many other pressures.
Labour has made its most expensive and eye-catching promise in higher education, promising to axe tuition fees and restore maintenance grants. In doing so, it has cited the £44,000 average debt figure first calculated for the Sutton Trust by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Sutton Trust research has also shown student debts in England are the highest in the English-speaking world.
However, it is questionable that the answer is ending all tuition fees. University students are far more likely to come from better off backgrounds – so there is a massive deadweight costs if this is intended to improve access – and the evidence suggests that participation among poorer students has continued to rise since tuition fees increased. Nevertheless, there are still substantial gaps – the latest UCAS research using a multiple equality measure across demographic quintiles suggests that 13.6% of young people from backgrounds with the lowest rate of entry to enter higher education went to university in 2016, compared with 52.1% from the highest entry or richest areas, almost a four-fold gap, and this gap rises to ten times in the top universities. There has also been a substantial reduction in part-time students, which seems to have accelerated since the £9000 fees were introduced, despite the introduction of loans for part-timers.
A more cost-effective and targeted approach would have restored maintenance grants for poorer students – which the Liberal Democrats also propose – but also means-tested tuition fees so poorer students borrowed less, though proponents of fees would point out that repayments are equitable given that they are linked to earnings. The problem has been that size of borrowing, and the high interest rates now charged, means that barely a quarter of graduates are likely to repay their loans in full.
In other policies, the Conservatives have maintained their commitment to lifting the ban preventing new grammar schools, justifying the policy by referring to its new calculation of ‘ordinary working families’ – roughly the middle third of families based on income – though all the evidence, including that published by the Sutton Trust, shows that poorer students and those just above FSM eligibility are much less likely to get admitted. The manifesto does not detail what measures are proposed to address this gap or the income-related gradient in who gets in.
As importantly, perhaps, the party has also proposed a review of school admissions more generally, though pointedly ruling out ‘mandatory’ lotteries. That doesn’t mean there could not be more encouragement of both random allocation and banding, both of which could provide a proportion of places in popular urban schools, and are the only realistic way to end the ‘selection by postcode’ criticised by Theresa May early in her premiership. The plan for more accountability at Key Stage 3 could fill a gap that has been there since those tests were scrapped in the late noughties.
Labour, meanwhile, has pledged to outlaw unpaid internships, something that is gaining traction as an issue across the political spectrum. Since our 2014 research estimating that an unpaid intern in London would need to £926 a month to make ends meet, there has been a growing clamour for change matched by a growing number of companies changing practice. It requires proper enforcement of minimum wage legislation matched by open and fair recruitment practices.
In Scotland, the Global Gaps report that we published in February has been much quoted over concerns about the income-related attainment and university access gaps in Scottish schools. The SNP manifesto was less focused on education issues that are a matter for Holyrood but there they have been strengthening their work on attainment gaps and accountability amidst opposition criticism of a dip in standards over recent years.
But for all the education policy promises, the biggest challenge facing a new government will be in school budgets and teacher recruitment. The Conservatives, mindful of a backbench revolt, have promised that no school will lose in cash terms from its new funding formula. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are promising to restore budget cuts in real terms too. But whoever gets elected on June 8, the likelihood is that schools will still face challenges getting the teachers they need in a world of rising pupil numbers.