All the main parties pledge to increase funding for education — but with radically different plans for how they would spend the money. It is set to be one of the main issues of the election.
Why does devolution matter for education?
Simply, almost all education policy and funding is devolved to the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
So, when UK national party leaders make speeches about education policy, they almost always only mean education in England. The confusion is compounded by the misnaming of the Whitehall department — the Department for Education really only concerns itself with education in England.
The same applies to the numbers. Whenever you see statistics about spending per pupil, total spending, exam success rates and so on, they are nearly always just about England. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own systems and statistics.
The figures in our chart above are only for England, as are most of the comments below.
So, what are the big issues in England?
Funding. After nine years of austerity and real falls in spending on schools, the main parties are engaged in a bidding war about how much extra they will put into schools, both for running costs and for repairs and rebuilding.
The Conservatives appear to have pledged an extra £7 billion, the Liberal Democrats £10 billion. Labour is expected to outbid both, but there is no firm figure yet.
There may also be issues about the formula used for distributing funding to schools.
What about the organisation of schools?
Labour also proposes a drastic re-organisation of schools in England to bring them back under public control, abolishing academies and free schools. Labour wants a national education service, something like the National Health Service, providing education free at the point of use throughout life. It’s not clear how this will relate to local government.
There are a number of other potentially explosive organisational issues — the abolition of private schools; the creation of more grammar schools, and the question of abolishing OFSTED (the schools inspectors).
Will a slice of PISA prove too much to swallow?
On Tuesday 3 December, the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results will be released. This is a three-year survey of pupil attainment at the age of 15. It is a big deal.
It will show how the UK as a whole, and the separate four countries within it, ranked against about 65 other nations.
The last time the PISA results were released in 2016, it was highly controversial. Although the UK as a whole was slightly above average, it was widely seen as a poor result.
Even more contentious were the results for Wales, which showed them performing well below average and lower than the other UK countries.
What about student loans for fees and maintenance?
The debate about university fees and maintenance loans is a fierce one. This is mainly because of the decision to triple fees and then to abolish maintenance grants and replace them with loans, under the coalition government in 2010.
Those decisions sparked widespread anger and protest, and have since left a residue of resentment amongst university students and their parents.
Labour has promised to scrap tuition fees and reinstate free maintenance grants,
The Tories pledged to reduce fees in 2017, down from £9,300 to £7,500 but recent reports suggest this promise is to be scrapped in Boris Johnson’s manifesto.
Any promise to put more money into universities, however much, is seen by some as giving resources to middle-class students and further unbalancing post-school funding away from those who don’t go to university.
And what about the non-university sector?
Whilst nearly everyone seems to agree it is important to address the educational needs of those who don’t go to university — more than half of the age group — concrete proposals to radically change the situation are lacking.
Our chart shows funding per student in universities is almost double that for each student at college. And many post-18-year-olds don’t go to college at all.
The example of non-university education and training in countries like Germany is often mentioned as desirable, but no-one seems to know how the UK — or rather England — could get there…
This briefing is produced by The Day in association with ENGAGE Public Policy.
- Should education be the main issue in this election?
- If your school had an extra £1 million, how would you like it to be spent? (All money has to be used to make it a better school.)
- Having had powers transferred from a higher to lower level, especially from central government to local or regional administration.
- Made something worse.
- Today, refers to the main administrative offices of government, such as the Treasury. Originally, it was Henry VIII’s Palace of Whitehall, a building with over 1,500 rooms, linked to the serious business of government. In Henry VIII’s time, it boasted a tennis court, a bowling green and a cock-fighting pit. It burned down in 1698.
- Difficult economic conditions created by government to reduce public spending.
- Public control
- Run by the Government.
- Free schools
- Non-profit-making, independent, state-funded schools, that aren’t controlled by local authorities so they can teach their own curriculum. They are free to attend.
- Free at the point of use
- Free of charge for the user.
- Likely to cause an argument.
- Maintenance grants
- Money to help with living costs, that doesn’t have to be paid back.