EPI: Parties fail to address ‘most important’ education challenges

Election analysis finds 'striking' lack of funding commitments and warns apprenticeships will fall under Labour

Election analysis finds 'striking' lack of funding commitments and warns apprenticeships will fall under Labour

There is a “genuine risk” that the most pressing challenges facing education will not be addressed with “sufficient urgency” by the next government, analysis of party manifesto commitments suggests.

The Education Policy Institute has delved into each party’s election pledges to provide an independent, evidence-based assessment of their education plans.

Here’s what the think tank found for FE.

Striking lack of funding commitments

EPI said the “wider situation of government finances”, and a position from the main parties not to increase personal taxes has resulted in a policy offer that is “exceedingly limited and does not address the challenges that schools and colleges are facing”.

The commitments to funding for sixth forms and further education colleges – as opposed to specific policy interventions in the phase – are “even more limited”, with no commitment from the Conservative Party or Labour. 

The Liberal Democrats do pledge to increase per-student funding in real terms, but there is “nothing to suggest that this will be of the scale needed to reverse long-term cuts”. However, the EPI does welcome the Liberal Democrat proposal to introduce a post-16 student premium.

Elsewhere, the Green Party said it would increase funding for sixth-form education by £3 billion over the course of the next parliament.

Beyond this, none of the parties have made specific commitments to changes to how FE revenue funding is allocated.

EPI’s report reminds readers that over the last decade, 16 to 19 funding has fallen in real terms while participation in full-time education has been on the rise. Cuts in 16 to 19 education have been at twice the rate of those in other school phases.

Expected boost for higher technical education

Parties have increasingly focused on technical and vocational education in efforts to up- and re-skill workers in the economy. 

The Conservatives and Labour have indicated that they will continue with the lifelong learning entitlement if elected, while the Liberal Democrats have said they would provide every adult with £5,000 for lifelong education and training. 

Labour would also establish Skills England and introduce a set of coordinated policies that will support local skills development. 

Assuming successful implementation, these policies are likely to increase take-up of higher technical qualifications, EPI said. However, comparatively little has been said about increasing the take up of level 2 and level 3 qualifications amongst adults.

Widening disadvantage 16-19 gap not addressed

There has also been “little attention” paid by parties to the disadvantage gap amongst 16- to 19-year-olds, except the Liberal Democrats who have proposed a “young people’s” premium.

The attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their peers was stable before the pandemic, but the gap has widened by nearly a third of a grade since 2019, EPI said.

Its report added: “Even more concerningly, the gap for persistently disadvantaged students widened even further, and was an entire grade wider than the main disadvantage measure, with disadvantaged students 4.5 grades behind non-disadvantaged students in 2022.”

EPI praised the Conservatives’ plans to implement the Advanced British Standard to broaden the 16 to 19 curriculum and increase the offering of maths and English until age 18.

But to “guarantee the success” of the ABS, there will need to be “significant changes to the workforce and more detail on whether students will have the flexibility to study at different levels”.

The think tank pointed out that Labour has offered to conduct a curriculum review but did not specifically address the narrowing of post-16 choices nor how to improve basic skills amongst young people.

Labour’s apprenticeships plan won’t reverse falling starts

On apprenticeships, the Conservatives have proposed increasing starts and funding this by cutting some degree courses, while Labour and the Liberal Democrats have proposed increasing the flexibility of the apprenticeship levy so it can be used more widely for skills and training.

Labour plans to create a growth and skills levy that would allow employers to use up to 50 per cent of the levy to fund approved training courses besides apprenticeships.

A concern of this proposal, according to EPI, is that the additional funding for other training will divert funding away from apprenticeships, which have already fallen dramatically amongst under-19s.

Additional funding for apprenticeships will be necessary if the Labour Party intends to maintain or increase apprenticeship starts.

The think tank added that increasing the flexibility of the levy increases the possibility for “deadweight” where employers use the levy to fund training which they would have originally funded themselves, but now subsidised by the taxpayer.

Labour has proposed introducing an approved list of training courses to partially address this concern.

What about teacher pay?

Despite issues of teacher pay, recruitment, and teacher-pupil ratios all appearing in headlines over the past two years, this election has “not seen the scale of these challenges meaningfully addressed in party manifestos”, EPI said.

No party has pledged to improve pay rates for teachers or support staff and address the real terms pay cut that the profession has seen over the last decade, particularly for “senior staff” and further education teachers. 

“Stronger commitments on pay are required to ensure teaching remains competitive in both schools and colleges”, EPI concluded.

The pay gap between FE and school teachers is currently £9,000. 

The verdict

Conservatives: Few commitments that seek to address the key challenges facing education and a number of commitments that are largely unnecessary distractions and unlikely to have any real impact on improving outcomes or tackling inequalities.

Labour: Seeks to tackle more of the immediate challenges facing the system. But there are key omissions, particularly around school and college funding.

Liberal Democrats: Have the most number of commitments that are rooted in evidence, but lack detailed plans on how these commitments will be funded and delivered.

Greens: Made substantial commitments for additional funding, but their proposals for ending formal assessments and abolishing Ofsted are not supported by research evidence and may lead to falling standards overall and widening attainment gaps.

Reform: Education-related commitments are limited in nature and do not address the challenges in the education system today in any substantial way.

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One comment

  1. Critical Thinker

    Why not extend the lifelong learning entitlement to schools? (i.e. every child pays for their own education by way of a loan).

    And why stop there, why not apply it to health, policing, defence, environment.

    For administrative ease, it could all be bundled together and to make it fair it could be levied as a proportion of earnings. It could be called (and this is just off the top of my head) an income tax. I wonder if that type of system exists anywhere?

    Or I suppose we could just accept our future government will give us an ‘entitlement’ and ignore the fact it is a loan. Just take the marketing at face value and gloss over that it’s an inflation linked government backed stealth tax, where your debt can be sold off to institutional investors and underwritten by the public purse. No need to worry about the outstanding student loan debt of over £200bn (quadrupling every decade), it’s totally sustainable, move along please, nothing to see here, just tick that box there please…

    If you had a mind to, you could consider it an ‘aspiration tax’. A system that bakes in wealth inequality by ensuring the affluent have the option of avoiding the ‘entitlement’, whereas the less affluent can’t if they want to progress.

    Let’s see if this comment gets through the moderators!