The manifestos cover a range of topics, from admissions and accountability to curriculum and qualifications. I have focused on three key aspects: school funding, school turnaround, and teachers. Looking at these, questions are raised about which policies provide the best hope for better schools.
In most public services, perhaps the key issue is the level of funding. In schools, that over-riding emphasis is absent. The basic facts are that Labour and Tories promise about the same: a cut of around 9% to 10% in real per-pupil terms over the parliament. The Lib Dems promise a bit more, and the Greens a whole lot more. In one sense, money obviously matters for schools – people’s jobs are endangered by budget cuts, and tight budgets make life a lot harder for headteachers.
But whether money matters for pupil attainment is much less clear. While there is evidence on both sides, it seems likely the majority of researchers in this field would agree that increases in a school’s resources are unlikely to have a major effect on attainment. For example, the Education Endowment Foundation toolkit concludes that reducing class size (the usual aim of higher budgets) is “low impact for very high cost, based on moderate evidence.” So some difference in policy but maybe not much that will hugely affect attainment.
Solving poor performance
How should we deal with failing or coasting (“coasting” is the new “failing”) schools? The coalition set up Regional Schools Commissioners to deal with this. Their role is to intervene to deal with poor performance, but is limited to academies and free schools. The Tories stick with RSCs and plan to dramatically increase the number of schools at risk of forced academisation. Labour proposes an alternative: Directors of School Standards (DSS).
There are similarities but also a number of important differences. One similarity is that the number one remit of a DSS is school turnaround: “facilitate intervention to drive up performance – including in coasting and ‘fragile’ schools”. The first and most important difference is that a DSS will cover all schools in their area. This will be achieved by essentially giving to all schools the freedoms that academies enjoy. It seems more coherent and efficient to take all schools under a single umbrella.
A second difference is that there will be many more DSSs than RSCs: there are eight RSCs and suggestions of perhaps ten times that many DSSs. This is also an improvement – taken seriously, this is a big job. The Lib Dems will abolish the unelected RSCs but promise unspecified “rapid support and intervention” to ensure schools are rated at least “Good”.
Qualification equals quality?
Research shows that teacher effectiveness is hugely important for pupil attainment. Much more so than class size, IT in the classroom, or any of the other policies that politicians typically reach for. Teacher effectiveness is about pupil attainment; teachers do many things for their pupils but policy should surely be focused first on attainment.
The Conservatives have allowed unqualified teachers, and UKIP supports this. Labour says that it would require that all teachers hold or are working towards Qualified Teacher Status (QTS), and the Lib Dems support that. It seems unlikely that this is a first order issue for pupil attainment. While there is no specific evidence relating robust estimates of effectiveness with QTS status, in general the bulk of the international evidence shows that there is little relationship between the individual’s own academic career and her/his effectiveness as a teacher.
An idea with much more potential is another item in the Labour manifesto, the pledge to require teachers to “keep their skills and knowledge up to date” throughout their careers “as a condition of remaining in the classroom”. This is potentially a very important proposal, and if pursued vigorously could make a significant difference to average teacher effectiveness. The key questions will be about practical implementation, but this does have the chance to be a real game-changer.
The Conversation’s Manifesto Check deploys academic expertise to scrutinise the parties’ plans.