With a general election looking likely in 2024, we are beginning to see the political manoeuvring and machinations of each party as they look to position themselves to the electorate.
Having been in power for 13 years, the Conservatives are trailing heavily in the polls and look set for an overwhelming defeat. Further, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been fuelled by recent by-election victories and look set to pounce on both new and old Conservative seats.
With polling by YouGov showing Labour leading the Conservatives by over 20 points on the party to be most trusted on education, despite being an area which the Government can point to clear improvements since 2010, this is a battleground that is worth watching.
Across England, whether it be free childcare, education pathways and vocational skills or teacher pay, we are already seeing policies beginning to form, some with cross-party consensus. Let’s run through what each of the three biggest parties are saying on key areas for the sector and its future.
The first 1001 days are vital for a child’s development, so where best to start than on early years policy. The Government made early years a key point in their Spring Budget earlier this year, with a £4 billion investment announced in order to reduce costs, alongside an increase in the hours of free childcare, with more hours for children down to the age of nine months.
For Labour, the party announced in October 2023 that Sir David Bell, a former Ofsted Chief Inspector, would be leading a major review to help shape Labour’s policy in this area. With its findings due for early next year, Sir David will no doubt receive ample evidence from an industry that has been fighting for funding for years.
For the Liberal Democrats, their 2019 manifesto set out the clear goal of completely reforming the sector. Through a new policy paper, the party is now proposing policies including further free hours for disadvantaged children as well as doubling the current statutory rate of paid parental leave to 46 weeks in order to help alleviate pressures.
Famously at this year’s party conference, the Prime Minister announced the launch of the Advanced British Standard (ABS), a proposed new qualification that would replace A-Levels and T-Levels (despite having just been launched). The ABS is similar in style to the International Baccalaureate and sees students take around five subjects in a major/minor format and compulsory maths and English study. Despite the media coverage this announcement gained, it is unlikely the Government will have the opportunity to enact this change.
For Labour, they have said that they want to make changes to academy rules, ensuring that all schools follow the national curriculum. Whilst the party does not seek to bring in any new qualifications, as of yet, they want to look at reforming the existing national curriculum.
Taking similar inspiration from the International Baccalaureate, as well as a desire to reform the curriculum, the Lib Dems would see to commission a long-term consensus between parties and teachers to broaden the curriculum and make qualifications fit for now.
Furthermore, both Labour and Lib Dems have said that they want to reform Ofsted, to include a role in school improvement, as well as do away with the current grading system.
Teacher Retention and Pay
As part of the ABS proposals, new teachers will receive a tax-free £30,000 bonus spread over five years. The bonus would only be applicable for those who are new and in subject areas where a shortage exists. This comes after widespread industrial action earlier this year over pay disputes, as well as a wider crisis for recruitment and retention.
Earlier this year, Labour announced that under its retention scheme it would pay newly qualified teachers £2,400 should they remain in post for two years, as well as a promise to reduce payments to teaching agencies. It comes as industry figures say that Labour must do much more, but with the party saying that current policy is funded by charging private schools VAT, another measure that separates the two main parties. Shadow Secretary Bridget Phillipson has said that any further investment would be reliant on the economy growing again.
The Lib Dems have said that they would make the School Teachers’ Review Body fully independent and able to recommend pay rises for teachers (and that the party would also fully fund said increased every year).
AI and Technology
Given the rise of tools such as ChatGPT and the transformative effect of AI on education, digital skills and understanding has never been more crucial. As schools look to prepare young people for a changing world, this is a vital policy to get right. For the Conservatives, the Government recently announced £2 million to enhance and expand AI-powered teaching tools for the Oak National Academy, created during Covid-19. This is part of wider action from the Government in hearing from the industry and education leaders on the best course moving forward.
For Labour, they have noted that their new curriculum will embed digital literacy and skills throughout a child’s education, as well as the need to work across the education sector and explore the improvements that AI and EdTech can make for students, including those with SEND.
The Lib Dems are yet to make an announcement in their policy papers on education and AI, but have previously noted the impact that AI and similar technologies will have on the future workforce and the need to help prepare children for this.
This is a small snapshot of just some of the areas in education that the parties are looking to grapple, and as we get closer to an election, and more reviews and inquiries take place, we will know more on what each party is specifically looking to achieve.