Both Labour and the Lib Dems have made some pre-manifesto pledges on further education, but these should all be taken with a pinch of salt, says Gemma Gathercole

The opening salvos of the election campaign have been fired and now we’re getting to the good stuff – well, at least for policy geeks like me.

The messages from Labour and the Liberal Democrats in their pre-manifesto – and leaked draft manifesto – pledges on education will, I’m sure, be welcomed by the sector.

FE features in the headline promises from both parties, although the pledges made by the Labour party go further to address the needs of the whole sector. Though the Conservatives are yet to release any commitments on education, it will be interesting to see their pledges.

One of my favourite quotes from the epic US political TV show ‘the West Wing’ is about campaigning: you preach to the choir, “because that’s how you get them to sing”. I wonder how much of these early indicators are designed to appeal to natural party voters and how much will actually cut through to the general public.

It’s good to see the ‘Save Our Adult Education’ campaign

Labour’s key pledges for education cover the full spectrum of the sector: there are promises affecting schools, colleges and universities – announcements that I’m sure will be welcomed broadly.

For the FE sector, there is a promise to restore the education maintenance allowance and an increase for the adult skills budget.

The increase to the adult skills budget is sizeable: an extra £1.5 billion over the course of the parliament, to create a system of free lifelong learning.

The announcement talks about providing courses for adults wanting to upskill and reskill. It’s good to see that the shadow skills minister’s contributions to the ‘Save Our Adult Education’ campaign have translated into election pledges.

In the announcement, the pledges were said to be funded by reversing the Conservative government’s cuts to corporation tax, a figure it places at £20 billion. However, totting up the announcements in Labour’s press release, I get a figure closer to £30 billion. It will be interesting to see the full breakdown in the manifesto when released.

The announcements from the Liberal Democrats focus on some familiar areas, including the protection of the pupil premium that they championed in the coalition government. However, their pledges focus much more on the schools sector rather than full breadth of education.

A single pledge is made for FE; a promise to protect FE funding per pupil in real terms. While a welcome promise for a sector that has seen the impact of significant cuts in very recent memory, it is essentially a focus on 16- to 19-year-olds.

It remains to be seen what the Lib Dems propose regarding adult education or apprenticeships, which is also missing from these pledges. It seems as though we’ll have to wait for the manifesto…

As with all pre-election pledges, they need to be taken with a pinch of salt; after all, the promises are made during a campaign, designed to win votes and more importantly, get people to the ballot box to allow them to take power.

But the hard part is that delivery needs to happen when in government and the fantastic thing about a forecast, as my accountant sister reminds me, is that it’s only accurate until it’s written down. It’s quickly out of date, either for positive or negative reasons, as the economy is that it doesn’t always perform as expected.

The actual policies that follow will be largely dependent on how the economy performs and/or how much a future government can or will borrow to meet their promises. After all, while “you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose”.

Of course, much of the detailed analysis of the affordability of any of these proposals can only come when we have the full manifestos so the full set of promises can be costed. I for one will be eagerly awaiting them, albeit from my sunbed on holiday.


Gemma Gathercole is head of funding and assessment at Lsect

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