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Four concerns about schools at the top of the election agenda

Counting up the costs ahead of the election. Hopscotch via Joanna Stankiewicz-Witek/

With education policy set to play an important part in the May general election campaign, debates around the future direction of the school system will take place against the backdrop of fast-paced reforms made during the coalition’s time in office.

These four key issues are likely to face scrutiny when it comes to schools policy.

1. How the UK measures up

Comparisons with Finland, Singapore and Korea abound. The UK continues to perform at about the OECD average in international rankings of pupil achievement, with an unchanged performance over the last decade.

The most high-profile international test is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), a survey of the educational achievement of 15-year-olds organised by the OECD. In the last round of tests in 2012, out of 65 participating countries, the UK ranked 26th place for maths (just behind France) and 23rd place for reading (just ahead of the US).

Given current relatively weak performance – and the difficulty in shifting performance – the aspirations of the secretary of state for education, Nicky Morgan, for England to be among the top five countries of PISA in 2020 is most probably unattainable. South Korea, currently ranked fifth, is well ahead of the UK in PISA – 59 points on maths and 36 points on reading. This translates to British 15-year-olds being between one and one and a half school years behind their peers in the top five countries. That’s an extremely large gap to bridge by 2020.

2. Academies

The academies programme represents the largest shake-up of the English education system for many years. Under the coalition government, half of secondary schools have become academies: schools that are more autonomous and funded directly by central government rather than through local authorities.

The academies programme started under Labour, targeting low-performing schools that were taken over by a sponsor. Research suggests that under Labour, there was a large improvement in the first 100 or so schools to become “city academies” within four years of their conversion.

But generalising from these early academies is difficult because the schools that have converted since 2010 have very different characteristics. While the early academies were set up in disadvantaged areas whereas some of the current 4,403 academies have relatively advantaged pupils in schools formerly rated as “outstanding”.

There appears to be political consensus behind the continuation of the academies programme – Labour has said it would still allow the best schools to convert – yet important issues still need to be addressed about the future expansion of the programme. It’s unclear whether academies will work in the smaller and much more numerous primary schools – of which so far around 10% are academies; and whether primary heads and governors have the breadth of expertise and the time to take on the responsibilities of greater autonomy.

Other concerns include what will happen to the community role that used to be performed by local education authorities in relation to badly-behaved pupils or pupils with special educational needs. There may be more of a danger that vulnerable pupils will slip through the net.

The much more divisive free schools programme will also be a key area of debate in the election, particularly given the prime minister’s pledge to expand it. But there are concerns about whether schools are being set up in the areas of greatest need.

Cash and school places will get voters’ attention. Peter Byrne/PA Wire

3. School budgets

The Conservatives and Labour have made explicit commitments on what they will do with school expenditure over the next parliament. The Conservative party says it would protect school expenditure in cash terms per pupil, whereas Labour says it would protect school expenditure in real terms.

While protecting the schools budget is to be welcomed, political parties have not made an explicit commitment to protect school expenditure in either the early years or post-16. Since both phases are important – and students now have to be in some form of education up until the age of 18 – politicians need to be quizzed about this.

A recent review by the Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) found positive effects of increased school resources on attainment, although there is a wide range of estimates about the exact magnitude of the effect.

CEP’s own work on English primary schools finds effects at the upper end of the range. About a 30% increase in average expenditure per pupil (over four years, between age seven and 11) is expected to produce an increase in achievement of a level equivalent to 25-30 points on the PISA scale.

Increases in resources are usually more effective for disadvantaged schools and pupils. If this indicates that disadvantaged pupils are genuinely more responsive to resource-based interventions, then targeting resources at these pupils will lead to higher average achievement, as well as more equitable outcomes.

4. Helping disadvantaged children

Targeted resources bode well for the “pupil premium” policy, which provides additional resources for disadvantaged pupils who are eligible for free school meals. The pupil premium started at £430 per pupil per year in 2010-11 (approximately £450 in 2009 prices) and rose to £1,300 in 2014-15 (approximately £1,150 in 2009 prices). But free school meals pupils make up only 17% of pupils nationally.

Since the pupil premium is simply additional funding for some schools, and is not necessarily used for resources targeted specifically at children on free school meals, it amounted to additional income of at best about £100 per pupil initially, rising to £200 by 2014-15 (again at 2009 prices).

According to estimates, an additional £200 per student per year could be expected to raise achievement by around five points on the PISA scale. If the premium is spent on pupils eligible for free school meals in schools with high proportion of them, the effects could be substantially higher and the pupil premium could go some way to closing the large attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils.

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