Manifesto Check: UKIP’s controversial take on education

UKIP wants a grammar school in every town. Barry Batchelor/PA

In many respects, UKIP’s education manifesto pledges are unremarkable, and their broad approach is similar to that taken by a number of the other parties. For example, UKIP pledges the need for education that is responsive to each child’s needs, emphasises the importance of high quality, well supported teachers who have high status in society, and stresses the importance of primary education in particular.

The party is correct in saying that these are all important elements of a high quality education system. But their proposals on grammar schools and higher education are, by contrast, much more controversial.

Hard-working British teachers

There is good empirical evidence that high quality teachers and good teaching is a critically important influence on children’s achievement. One recent study for England found that being taught by a high quality teacher adds about a half a GCSE point per subject, compared to being taught by a low quality one. This is consistent with further evidence from a recent review by the Sutton Trust.

There is little doubt that to achieve a high quality education system, we should be focusing as much on teachers as on other elements of the system, such as school structures. It is also true that in many countries with high quality education systems, teachers have particularly high status in society relative to other occupations. Finland is one such example. But how we achieve that improvement of teacher status in society is left unsaid.

The big pledge in the UKIP manifesto is their aim to reduce class sizes to 25 pupils. Smaller class sizes can bring about improvements in pupil achievement but largely in the primary years, and only with quite large reductions in class size. So this policy is unlikely to significantly improve pupil achievement.

But then, UKIP is not claiming that reducing class sizes will improve pupil achievement. Instead, the party argues that the reductions will ease teacher workloads and alleviate parental concerns. The costs of reducing class sizes by one sixth would – other things equal – increase the costs per pupil by a similar amount. This is money that might be used to do other things, so it’s critically important to know where this additional funding comes from, in order to understand the impact of this particular pledge.

UKIP also makes a specific pledge that may appeal to teachers, and that is to decrease the amount of paperwork that teachers have to deal with. They even mention specific examples of excess paper work, such as requirements for overly detailed individual lesson plans. Here again, the party is correct that workload does appear to be an issue. There is good evidence that teachers’ working hours are longer in the UK than in some other countries.

A recent OECD report found that on average, teachers in England work around 46 hours per week – nine hours more than the average for all the countries surveyed. Yet the survey also indicated that face-to-face teaching time in England is similar to that in other countries, at 20 hours per week. So it follows that teachers in England are busy doing things other than face to face teaching, including many of the tasks identified by the UKIP manifesto as “unnecessary paperwork”. Though the impact of such a policy on pupil achievement is unknown, it is likely to be beneficial to teacher well-being, which may in turn impact on teacher quality.

UKIP also pledges to abolish performance-related pay for teachers. On this issue, UKIP may be premature. The most recent reforms to link teacher performance to pay have not been in place long enough for a full evaluation. Earlier evidence on the impact of the previous English performance pay scheme for teachers suggested a positive impact on pupil achievement. However, the evidence from the US is not so definitive, and the precise nature of the performance-related pay scheme is important in determining whether it works or not, and certainly not all do. Hence evaluating the current arrangements is an essential first step.

Grammar school controversy

UKIP, along with many of the other political parties, is correct to stress the importance of primary education, and there is strong evidence that the early years are critical for children’s development. Indeed we know that poor children fall behind their wealthier counterparts as early as age three, so there is no doubt that the earliest years and primary education are very important.

It is less clear from research that UKIP’s proposals to abolish key stage one tests in primary school and appoint science coordinators will really improve children’s academic achievement, increase the uptake of science at secondary level and reduce the gender gap in science subjects. The latter pledges on science are too vague to determine whether they will have a positive effect, and the gender gap in science take up at secondary is linked to many issues that a science coordinator is unlikely to solve.

There is one obvious stand out policy from UKIP: the desire to “see a grammar school in every town”. Whether or not grammar schools are beneficial has been the subject of vitriolic debate since the 1960s, and there is now a substantial, though controversial, evidence base on which we can draw. Broadly, research indicates that having a grammar school system tends to benefit the high achievers, but to the detriment of lower achievers.

There is a long-standing belief that the grammar school system enabled poor but bright children to succeed, but the research findings suggest that this has not been the case on average, and that poor students have a very low chance of attending grammar schools. International evidence also indicates that the move to a comprehensive system seems to be broadly beneficial, particularly for students from lower socio-economic groups. UKIP does propose a reformed grammar system with adequate funding for secondary moderns and lots of opportunities to move into grammars at ages beyond 11. But overall, there is little evidence to support such a policy, and the upheaval to the system would be substantial.

Unnecessary upheaval

UKIP has a number of curriculum proposals, but without knowing more detail it is impossible to say whether policies like providing first aid training to students will be beneficial, or take time out of other subjects and reduce achievement. Nor is it possible to tell if proposals to reverse some recent reforms to GCSEs and AS levels will be positive. But one thing is clear: many feel that the relentless pace of change in terms of curriculum reform is putting the education system at serious risk, and all politicians would do well to let changes bed in.

On Ofsted, UKIP appears to acknowledge teachers’ criticisms of the system. Some of the party’s proposals may be welcomed, for example that complaints against Ofsted will get investigated independently, and that inspections will only be undertaken by well-qualified former teachers. UKIP also stresses the need for short and focused inspections, addressing the quality of teaching and learning in the classroom and avoiding tick box approaches. There is little detail in the manifesto about how this would be achieved in practice, but there is no doubt that many in the sector would welcome reform.

Further and higher education

UKIP also wishes to see the development of vocational schools and colleges, as well as apprenticeships taken at age 16. One problem with this is that the evidence indicates that employers currently tend to value higher rather than lower level apprenticeships. If students are offered a low level apprenticeship route, there is a danger that students would end up entering the labour market without sufficiently high levels of literacy, numeracy and other essential skills.

One of the key challenges with the current apprenticeship system is persuading employers to take on apprentices in the first place. Since employers are currently reluctant to hire 16-19 year old school leavers, it is not clear how UKIP will persuade sufficient numbers of employers to participate in this endeavour, or indeed whether this policy is at all feasible.

On higher education, UKIP argues that tuition fees have been disastrous for young people’s prospects and that we have too many graduates leading to many having to take up low skilled jobs. Its solution is to cap the number of students going into higher education and try to increase the incentive for them to take economically valuable subjects in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. They say nothing about what they would do about the level of fees.

While deeply unpopular, the income contingent nature of the students’ loans does in fact protect them, so that they only repay if they are earning above the threshold. Indeed, there is evidence that tuition fees have not put off students from going to university, although the long term impact of having fees at £9,000 remains unknown.

On the other hand, UKIP is right in saying many graduates end up doing non graduate jobs, and that many STEM degrees appear to be more highly valued by employers.

So the party’s proposal to make STEM degrees free if the individual goes on to work in a STEM occupation is interesting. It would be extremely difficult to implement in practice. There would be massive temptation to game the system, with companies rebranding jobs as STEM regardless of their content, and universities providing low level sciences courses, which may not be of much economic value. But UKIP is almost certainly right in saying that such a radical policy would alter students’ subject choices.

It is likely that this policy would come at substantial net cost. And it remains to be seen whether UKIP’s proposal to abolish tuition fee loans for EEA students could raise enough revenue for the government to pay the STEM tuition fee bill.

The Conversation’s Manifesto Check deploys academic expertise to scrutinise the parties’ plans.

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