Manifesto Check: Greens put ideology over evidence on education

The Green Party were clearly optimistic when doing their sums. from www.shutterstock.com

Welcome to The Conversation’s Manifesto Check, where academics from across the UK subject each party’s manifesto to unbiased, expert scrutiny.

Schools

Simon Burgess, Professor of Economics at University of Bristol

The Green Party’s education policies appear to be designed to model the principles of the party, rather than reflect the research about what works well in raising pupil attainment. There are a number of radical and eye-catching policies; but many of these seem unlikely to have positive effects. The total cost of implementing these policies is also a major issue.

The Greens seem to have moved away from a long-standing principle of school policy: that education can act against inequalities in family background to help give poorer pupils a fighting chance. Natalie Bennett said: “We have to get away from the idea that schools can somehow make up for the incredible levels of child poverty.”

Yet many experts including Harvard Professor Roland Fryer passionately argue that education has a significant role to play in overcoming inequality. Bennett is right that education policy cannot create an equal society on its own, but it is far too powerful a tool to give up altogether.

The policies themselves focus specifically on school accountability, class size, and on the permissible types of school.

The Greens propose to abolish school league tables, SATs and OFSTED, to remove independent accountability entirely. There are two points to be made here: one on principle, and one on evidence. Schools are given two resources: the future of our children and around £40 billion a year of public money (the former being far more valuable than the latter). As a matter of principle, schools should be properly accountable for both of these.

We do not need to guess at the results of such a policy, since the first Welsh Assembly government abolished league tables as one of its first acts. The evidence shows that this move reduced average attainment and widened inequality. A decade later, the change was reversed, and Wales adopted a banding system to identify schools in need of support.

The Green Party also pledges to reduce class sizes from 30 to 20 students. This will be very expensive; experienced commentators think it’s likely to be much more expensive than the £1.5 billion over five years, which the Greens estimate. But also it is unlikely to be effective. The Education Endowment Foundation tookit describes such policies as “low impact for very high cost, based on moderate evidence.” A review of the major policy change in California doing just this found little evidence of improvements in pupil attainment, a decline in average teacher quality (as measured by their qualifications) and a less equitable distribution of teacher talent.

The Greens manifesto is clear on what sorts of schools the party does not like, but is imprecise on some of the mechanisms to eliminate them. Academies and Free schools are to be “integrated” into the local authority system. This might mean giving schools the same sorts of capabilities as academies (as Labour proposes) or removing those capabilities from academies, which is unfeasible and undesirable. Grammar schools are also to be “integrated” (“abolished”), which is a positive step as it will eliminate one source of inequality.

Faith schools are to be stripped of public funds. While there are certainly issues about admissions to faith schools (such as “cream skimming” the local area), which need to be addressed, this abolition seems to run against the Greens’ drive for local devolution on schools – apparently, cities can decide on the schooling they want, but faith communities cannot.

Finally, private schools would lose the state subsidy from their charitable status, which is worth tens of millions. Having tax-payers subsidise these already well-funded institutions seems unnecessary, so this would be a positive step.

Early Years

Daniel Muijs, Professor of Education at University of Southampton

The Green education manifesto proposes some radical changes to the current educational landscape. But the measures proposed do not come cheap; and this holds true for schools, early years, and further education alike.

Based on my calculations, the costed elements of these three parts of the manifesto add up to more than £19 billion of extra spending a year. This represents an increase of almost 20% to this year’s education budget, which stood at £98 billion. What’s more, the uncosted reforms are likely to add a significant amount on top of that.

The manifesto rightly emphasises the importance of early years provision, proposing the creation of universal, high quality pre-school provision, with children’s centres for the very young, and early years education for children from one year of age, all led by qualified teachers with expertise in early years. The importance placed on early years is based on sound research, and it appears that the Green Party is aware of some recent studies in this area. This research also shows that the Green Party is on firm ground in emphasising the need for quality of provision and encouraging settings that have a mixed intake.

Further education and skills training

Daniel Muijs, Professor of Education at University of Southampton

A central element of the Green Party’s further education policy is the restoration of Local Authority control over providers – just as they intend with schools. Under this policy, all colleges would return to the control of local authorities, which would in effect mean an end to the move towards more diversity within the system. This is part of a strong ideological opposition against privatisation, which runs throughout the manifesto. In contrast, the evidence tends to show that devolving management to schools leads to better outcomes.

The Green Party aims to increase participation of disadvantaged groups by reinstating the Education Maintenance Allowance, a policy that paid up to £30 a week to children from poorer families who remain in post-16 education. The policy was originally piloted by the Labour government in 1999, and introduced nationwide in 2004. It was abolished by the coalition in 2010.

The effectiveness of the policy has been disputed. The evidence shows greater levels of participation in areas where the scheme was introduced during the pilot phase. But the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which conducted the study, has also suggested that the extent of the increase did not justify the expense of the policy.

The Green Party also promise that any young person between 16 and 25 will have the right to an apprenticeship, encourage LAs to provide adult education, and increase finding for the FE sector by £1.5 billion each year. A final important and valuable policy – which seems like a small detail at first – is the ending of the differentiated VAT regime for school and colleges, which unfairly disadvantages the latter.

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