The Lib Dems are giving a higher priority to education than the other parties. “Opportunity for every child” is the very first pledge on the cover page of the manifesto and is the item the BBC news coverage led with. The manifesto highlights the roles of education in supporting social fairness and in producing the skills for a productive economy.
The schools policies proposed in the manifesto are sensible and coherent, and in many cases a development of the current policies. There are, however, a number of significant changes of direction.
Schools funding is emphasised in the manifesto, and the Lib Dems are distinctive in offering more funding than the other main parties (though not more than the Greens). The pledges of Labour and the Conservatives imply cuts of around 9-10% in real per-pupil terms, but the Lib Dem pledge implies a lower cut or even zero cuts over the parliament as a whole, though higher funding is weighted towards the second half of the parliament. Still on funding, the Lib Dems also emphasise the pupil premium which they championed over the past five years, and also promise to introduce a National Funding Formula.
Turning to the other aspects of the schools policies, there are some sound ideas albeit lacking detail. How do we improve failing schools? The Lib Dems promise “rapid support and intervention” to ensure schools are rated at least “Good”, but do not explain how this might work. They will also ensure a “middle tier” of accountability and support – definitely necessary –- but again this is left unspecified, other than their being locally elected. This is not the same as the coalition’s Regional School Commissioners, the Lib Dems will abolish them. There is insufficient detail to see if they are similar to Labour’s Director of School Standards. Still on accountability, they will open up academy chains to inspection by Ofsted, which is a welcome development.
The free school programme will be effectively abolished, and new places only funded where there are shortages of places. This is obviously a major departure from current policy, and a welcome departure, as the evidence shows that the original hopes for free schools are not being fulfilled.
The Lib Dems propose a number of changes on the curriculum. A “core curriculum” will be taught in all state-funded schools; that is to say, academy schools will have to follow this, reversing one of the academy freedoms. The manifesto emphasises maths and English but the core curriculum goes beyond that to also include things such as “financial literacy, first aid and emergency lifesaving skills”, while nevertheless being slimmed down. Having introduced their changes, power over the curriculum will pass to an external authority.
The Lib Dems want all teachers to be qualified or working towards qualification, as Labour does. This is unlikely to make much of a difference to pupil attainment. Unlike Labour, however, they will not require teachers to re-certify through their careers. The Lib Dems will also raise the entry requirement into the profession in terms of GCSE maths and English; this is not supported by the bulk of the evidence, which finds little correlation between a person’s own academic record and her/his own effectiveness as a teacher.
The Conversation’s Manifesto Check deploys academic expertise to scrutinise the parties’ plans.