Last week’s topic in the pre-election debate was schools. The Conservative party announced that it would protect spending on schools in cash terms, but not keep pace with inflation. It would also convert more schools to Academies, including those adjudged ‘requiring improvement’ by Ofsted. Labour retaliated by accusing the Coalition of failing to tackle educational inequalities and damaging the education system by allowing Academies to employ unqualified teachers. Here Professor Ruth Lupton analyses the coalitions performance in secondary education.
Today, Stephanie Thomson and I publish our independent assessment of the Coalition’s record on schools – part of a suite of reports on different aspects of the Coalition’ social policies funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, Nuffield Foundation and Trust for London. The aim our paper is to provide voters with the facts and figures they need to interpret these claims and counter claims.
One thing that people will note is that the Coalition did stick to its promise to protect school spending in this parliament. In 2009/10 prices, school spending rose from £46.1bn in 2009/10 to £46.6bn in 2013/14 – a real increase of about one per cent. We also show that the Pupil Premium did represent extra money for schools, at least from 2013/14, and that it did shift funding to schools with more disadvantaged pupils. Excluding Academies and using data to 2012/13 (the latest available) our analysis shows that secondary schools with the highest proportions of students from low income families had an extra 4.3 per cent funding compared with 2009/10, while the least deprived lost 2.5 per cent. All types of primary schools gained, especially the most deprived. By maintaining funding, the Coalition also, broadly speaking, maintained staffing levels. The vast majority of teachers, still, are qualified.
While maintaining spending on schools seems like a good thing, there are some difficult underlying decisions ahead for the new government. Within the schools budget, capital spending will be an issue. Under the Coalition, current spending on schools was increased, but capital spending fell by 57 per cent between 2009/10 and 2013/14. A new administration will need to think about how far it can let investment in new school buildings and technology drift, and also how capital spending should be prioritised. Labour’s Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme intended to upgrade the whole secondary school building stock, starting with schools in disadvantaged areas. It intended that new school buildings would represent hope and renewal and support community regeneration as well as providing the highest quality learning experiences. The Coalition has prioritised meeting demand for new classrooms and replacing the buildings in worst physical condition, rather than targeting disadvantage. More widely, it is evident that, in the context of overall deficit reduction targets and a reluctance to raise taxes, protecting schools has come at a cost. Budgets for the under-fives and for 18-year olds in colleges have been cut, as have benefits to families with children. I have argued elsewhere that social policy goals are more likely to be achieved by more strategic interventions across the lifecourse, rather than crude departmental cuts, that appeal to voters’ sentiments about protecting our schools and our NHS.
The next government’s most immediate priority is likely to be improving the accountability of Academies and Free Schools. The National Audit Office, House of Commons Education Committee and House of Commons Education Committee have all recently concluded that the Coalition’s rapid expansion of the Academy programme has left large gaps both in financial oversight and oversight of the quality of teaching and learning. There is no evidence that Academies as a whole are either better or worse than the schools they replaced. Reviews illuminate a patchy system, with some excellent Academies and chains alongside much weaker organisations and some high profile cases of mismanagement. Although the proportion of good and outstanding schools has increased, so too has the proportion of schools rated inadequate, especially in disadvantaged areas. Remembering that ‘requires improvement’ schools were regarded as ‘satisfactory’ just two years ago, many will be surprised that the Conservatives are emphasising the further expansion of the already difficult-to-govern Academy system to incorporate these schools, rather than stabilising the existing system and targeting struggling schools in the most disadvantaged areas.
And what about results? As we highlighted in our blog last week, the 2014 GCSE results contain some worrying developments. Overall, while attainment has increased for primary school children and the Coalition’s reforms to assessment and curriculum seem barely to have affected higher attainers at GCSE, the results of lower attainers seem to have got worse and this especially seems to have affected those from poorer families. There are multiple possible explanations, including rising family poverty, or some schools trying to ‘game’ the new system. Alternatively it might be due to the removal of previously available vocational qualifications, coursework and multiple attempts at qualifications, which provided the most disadvantaged students with routes to genuine success. The Pupil Premium does not appear to have offset these effects.
In the spirit of an independent assessment, we hold back from giving the government a grade. But whoever is elected in May will find a system in flux and a widening socio-economic gap in achievement for lower attaining students, not to mention a disgruntled teaching profession and warnings of a teacher supply crisis. This is the outcome of a period in which spending was protected. Dealing with these challenges in a more constrained fiscal environment, should this occur, is not going to be straightforward.