In these final days before the election, with party manifestos published, we can reflect on the problems we face and the solutions they offer. We look for improvements, assurances and greater certainties but we must take the opportunity to engage in broader debate and education must be at the forefront of these discussions. With our future so unknown, the education we provide our children is more critically important than ever.
The ideas and promises made by the parties need to be analysed: some sound appealing, some promising, others unrealistic. What really matters is whether or not these pledges actually go any way to solving the most pressing problems, problems like the funding crisis. School budgets are at breaking point. The Greens make broad commitments to fairness and protected funding. The Liberal Democrats claim they will invest nearly £7 billion extra in education, 'introducing a fairer national funding formula': in reality, a fall, claims the IFS (Institute for Fiscal Studies) analysis for the general election, of 4.2%. The Conservatives too claim their new funding formula will ensure fairness, promising to 'increase the overall schools budget by £4 billion by 2022'. These additional funds suggest a late recognition that current funding is insufficient. Worse still, according to the same IFS document, this amounts to a '6.9% real fall in per pupil spending 2015-16 to 2021-22'. However, Labour's pledge to both reverse cuts and ensure fair funding will mean a '1.6% real increase in per pupil spending 2015-16 to 2021-22'.
This funding crisis has exacerbated problems of teacher recruitment and retention. Ironically, at a time when the current shortfall in numbers means we need teachers, some schools have had to make redundancies. Both Labour and the Lib Dems commit to ending the public sector pay cap and tackling unnecessary workloads. The Conservatives' promise to 'provide greater support...in the preparation of lessons and marking' doesn't address the problem of time wasted on unnecessary bureaucracy. The Tories do pledge forgiveness of student loans. However, Labour and Green pledges to scrap tuition fees would do more to support university students in the first place.
Fewer teachers are working as the student population grows in increasingly dilapidated classrooms. The National Audit Office (NAO) claims it would now 'cost £6.7 billion to return all schools to satisfactory or better condition'. Despite the need to invest in existing school infrastructure, the Conservatives pledge to continue with their free school programme, 'building at least a hundred new free schools a year'. Free schools are costlier and not always 'located in the areas of greatest demographic need', according to the NAO. Only Labour pledge to 'invest in new school buildings'.
And it's what's happening in the classrooms themselves. Traditional creative subjects have suffered in recent years. Just the Lib Dem manifesto addresses this, promising to introduce 'a slimmed down core national curriculum', including PSHE (a more concrete position than the one implied in the Department for Education's policy statement released earlier this year). More explicitly, they pledge to 'prevent curriculum narrowing in upper Key Stage 2' and 'protect the availability of arts and creative subjects in the curriculum and act to remove barriers to pupils studying these subjects'. Conversely, the Tories 'expect 75 per cent of pupils to have been entered for the EBacc combination of GCSEs by the end of the next parliament, with 90 per cent of pupils studying this combination of academic GCSEs by 2025', ensuring the curriculum narrowing encouraged by the introduction of the Ebacc continues, albeit at a slower rate.
Today's schools are exam-focussed but exam grades are not the be all and end all of education. Schools must have, not merely the opportunity, but the encouragement to help develop the whole child. The Greens' pledge is simple; to 'abolish SATS'. Labour promises to 'abandon plans to reintroduce baseline assessments and launch a commission to look into curriculum and assessment, starting by reviewing Key Stage 1 and 2 SATs'. A focus on increased testing is, however, evident in the Conservative Manifesto; building 'on the success of the phonics screening test' and implying a return to KS3 SATs, despite their pledge to reduce 'teaching to the test'. If we want our children to achieve greater success in the future, we must encourage them to think more broadly but in this we must lead by example and address the narrow exam focus which runs the risk of choking innovation and preventing all children from achieving their potential.
Promises of 'free universal early education and childcare for all children', 'formal education starting at age 7', extension of '30 free hours to all two year olds' and pledges to help improve children's mental health, reduce class sizes, scrap university tuition fees and better deal with the problems faced by SEND children are similarly important, but elsewhere there is insufficient recognition of the problems, a lack of detail and, in places, significant gaps: real problems brushed aside, whilst appealing, but superfluous alternatives complicate an already confused landscape. New grammar schools are a further distraction from the pressing task of improving education for all. The Conservative Manifesto makes reference to the intake of selective schools, but not to the end result of their re-introduction: a two-tier education system within which different children have access to different opportunities, not the 'Great Meritocracy' claimed. For this election, let's remember what the real problems facing education are and focus on what needs to happen to deliver an education system fit for the 21st century to every child.