Parties accused of failing to address schools inequality

Children from disadvantaged backgrounds are unlikely to see their educational opportunities improve under the next government if election pledges made by any of Britain’s main political parties are implemented.

A review of manifesto promises by the Education Policy Institute, a think-tank, found that Conservative plans to “level up” funding per pupil between different parts of the country would shift money away from more disadvantaged regions, while its focus on childcare was insufficiently targeted at effective programmes offering early childhood education.

The Institute added that the Labour party’s focus on scrapping university tuition fees amounted to a regressive subsidy that benefited better off young people at the expense of early years’ education.

“Although all parties have made bold pledges about reducing opportunity gaps and raising education attainment, the policies in their manifestos are unlikely to deliver on these aspirations,” the EPI concluded in its review, which was funded by the Nuffield Foundation, a charity.

Natalie Perera, EPI’s executive director, said around 40 per cent of the gap in attainment among disadvantaged students at the age of 16 was already present by the age of 5. “If there is any chance of tackling disadvantage at age 16, we need to crack it at age 5,” she said.

Jon Andrews, deputy head of research at EPI, said plans by Labour and the Liberal Democrats to scrap Ofsted, the school inspectorate, would undermine efforts to improve attainment, especially in poorly performing schools.

“We know from international evidence that inspections and testing raises standards, especially for schools with poorly performing children. The concept of inspection should help,” he said.

He said plans by the two parties to weaken the role of academies were a “distraction” from reforms to improve standards because there was “no real evidence” that “structural reforms” to school management improved attainment.

The review found that while the Liberal Democrats’ had proposed ambitious plans for funding for early years education — the party pledged to provide free childcare to all two-four year olds for 35 hours a week — there was insufficient focus on ensuring high quality provision. It was “very unlikely that such enormous increases in spending could be managed effectively while delivering value for money”, said EPI.

“All the political parties are focusing on the wrong things,” said Tom Middlehurst, head of policy at the Schools, Students and Teachers’ Network, an association of those working and studying in schools.

Speaking at the network’s national conference in Birmingham this week, he said: “The single biggest factor in closing the gap between the disadvantaged and their wealthier peers is the teacher. We need to focus on quality teaching first. All the parties’ education manifestos are a distraction from that.”

Gary Moore, head of Regent High School in London, said the parties should focus on improved funding and making teaching more attractive as a profession. He cautioned against the reallocation of money to less disadvantaged communities. “Do not push us down to bring them up,” he said.


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