On the face of it, there appears to be much agreement between the three main UK parties on education policy: they all propose the creation of new schools or academies, and all plan to introduce a 'pupil premium' that is intended to provide more funds to schools with disadvantaged pupils. On closer examination, however, this apparent consensus fades away - there are real and significant differences between the parties' approaches to the education system. Moreover, in many cases the details of their proposals remain decidedly vague. Today, the IFS launches an election briefing note examining Labour's record on education policy and the manifesto proposals of the three main parties.
The last thirteen years have seen a surge in education spending, with annual increases more than twice as generous as under the Conservatives. However, given the fragile state of the public finances, the years of munificent public spending increases are almost certainly behind us. The two key questions for voters, then, are: Did we get our money's worth, and what should we change in the future?
The government can certainly point to some concrete results from its largesse. From the expansion of free nursery places and the introduction of Sure Start, to the refurbishment of England's schools and the overall rise in higher education enrolment, the education system today is broader in scope and richer in resources than it was when Labour came to power. We have also seen a clear shift in funding priorities towards younger children, with the UK becoming one of the developed world's biggest spenders on early years programmes. This shift in emphasis continues higher up the education system: public spending on school-age children has caught up with (and is set to overtake) spending on college and university students. There appears to be a consensus on the importance of early years investment among all three main political parties.
However, the Government's progress should not be judged on the inputs to the system, but rather on the outputs - a population of skilled, literate and numerate children. Here Labour's record is mixed. Despite the introduction of national literacy and numeracy strategies, improvements in results have been slower than the government would have liked - as a slew of missed national targets attest. International comparisons suggest that England's pupils perform about as well as their peers in much of the developed world - providing little cause for panic, but also little cause for celebration.
Some of the parties' most radical manifesto proposals relate to England's school system, though for the moment these plans remain 'radically vague': they have potentially far-reaching consequences but frustratingly little detail. All parties propose a 'pupil premium' for the funding system, for example, yet only the Liberal Democrats have made clear how theirs would be structured and funded. All parties propose to expand and/or reform the Academies programme, but this apparent consensus disguises widely differing approaches. Liberal Democrat plans to return academies to local authority control could mark the effective abolition of the Academies programme (or at least the removal of one of its defining characteristics); Conservative plans to turn ever more schools into academies, and encourage parents to open academies in their area, could mark the effective abolition of local education authorities. Yet how these new schools' start-up costs would be funded, where the money would come from, and whether this would mark the end of collective wage-bargaining for teachers, has not been made clear.
Turning to higher education, Labour's time in office has seen an increase in participation (without reaching the infamous '50% of young people' participation target), as well as the introduction of the controversial top-up fees. Whether - and, if so, how - higher education funding will be reformed in future is a hugely important question, yet one which has received little discussion in the election debate. The Liberal Democrats have again proposed to scrap tuition fees; beyond that, however, all the parties are effectively 'waiting for the Browne review' before deciding further policy. In our view, this is unfortunate. An issue as important as university funding should be part of the electoral debate, not kicked into the long grass.
The next parliament may see some of the most radical reforms to the education system in decades. Despite (or perhaps because of) the enormous pressure on the public finances, virtually all aspects of England's education system could, in theory, see changes - from early years provision to the structure and funding of the school system, to higher education funding. But, with the possible exception of the Liberal Democrats, the parties' manifesto proposals are short of detail in certain key areas on what exactly they intend to do. On an issue of such fundamental importance to our nation's future prosperity, this is unfortunate.
Read more in our election briefing note no. 11, Education Policy