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What does the General Election promise on Education?

What does the General Election promise on Education?

What does the General Election promise on Education?

With the general election just over two weeks away, the political parties have now published their manifestos, their pledges to the voters that, if elected to form the next government, those statements of intent will be implemented.

Although there are differences across the political spectrum on principle and policies, there are similarities in policies when it comes to education. Other than the economy and the NHS, education is, arguably, the most important issue in the General Election on the 4th July, as it affects all of our lives, irrespective of whether we have children.

The last 10 years in Education

Before considering the manifestoes of the political parties it is helpful to understand what has been happening in education over the last 10 years or so.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies published a report at the beginning of June, which addressed school spending in England, designed to be a guide to the general election debate. The key findings from the report are that between 2010 and 2019, total school spending in England rose by 1%, in real terms. That increase in school spending needs to be considered against the backdrop of total pupil numbers growing by 11% during the same period, with school spending falling by a dramatic 9%.  Under the Conservative government elected in 2019 there has been a £6 billion, or 11%, real terms increase in total spending, which has resulted in spending per pupil returning to 2010 levels.

On public spending the report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies reports, no real terms growth in school spending per pupil over 14 years. This is historically unusual. Over the last 50 years the average growth spend has varied between 2% per annum, to 5-6% per annum, in real terms. It is clear there needs to be substantial investment in our school children and in universities.

An interesting fact as we prepare for, what is likely to be, a Labour government, is that the birth-rate has fallen with the consequence that pupil numbers are expected to fall by over 5%, or 400,000, between 2024 and 2028. That fact will help the incoming government as it faces difficult choices in public spending with competing demands, particularly from the NHS, transport and Defence.

Difficult decisions in education

Whatever decisions are taken by the next government they will face difficult choices on education, ranging from repairs to school buildings (including RAAC), teachers’ pay and special educational needs of our children. At IBB we are regularly asked to help families of children who require support in obtaining special educational needs (SEN) provision, ensuring that the promised provision is maintained and that care plans are reviewed to ensure children continue to receive the support they require to access the full curriculum.

Increase in those assessed for Education, Health and Care Plans

Our day to day experience, as education specialists at IBB Law, reflects the increase in those children requiring special educational needs. The number of pupils assessed with the highest level of need, being those who receive an education, health and care plan (EHCP), increased by over 60%, from about 220,000 in 2015, to about 360,000 in 2022. These figures are driven by what is described as a near doubling in the number of pupils with autistic spectrum disorders, speech and language needs, and social, emotional and mental health needs. Schools and local authorities do their very best to meet the needs of all children, but they are not given sufficient resources to meet the need of every child, or even to process the applications for Education, Health and Care plans in a timely manner. The Institute of Fiscal Studies reports that the £3.5 billion increase in the special educational needs budget since 2015 has taken up nearly half of the £7.6 billion increase in school spending since 2015.

What will the Politicians do for our children?

Thankfully, the major political parties all recognise the challenges of special educational needs children and the need to improve financial provision.  Although there will only be one winner emerging from the general election on 4 July, a consideration of four of the political parties’ manifestos is worthwhile. Policy decisions by the new government may be influenced by what the other political parties have proposed, along with their own manifestos. It is for that reason there is merit in considering the manifestos of the Green Party, Liberal Democrats, Labour and Conservative.

All the manifestoes set out what the political parties say they will do, but there is a considerable lack of detail and information about how this will be achieved. The Liberal Democrats talk of, “a fair deal where every child can go to a good school and have real opportunities to fulfil their potential”.    They also promise the expansion of extra curricular activities, starting with a new free entitlement for disadvantaged children. There is a pledge to “tackle the crisis in special educational needs provision”, with the establishment of a new special educational and disability body, to fund support for children with very high needs. We can applaud those pledges and hope action will be taken to implement them, even though there is no realistic prospect of the Liberal Democrats forming the next government. There must be a reasonable expectation that which ever party is declared the winner on the 5th July, the victor will take account of their rivals policies, where they are in line with their own philosophy.

Improving special education needs provision

As there is a consensus across the political divide that action needs to be taken to improve special educational provision, there must be realistic hope that positive steps will be taken with agreement from all politicians, irrespective of the colour of their rosette. The Conservative party are, arguably, less ambitious on special educational needs in our schools, pledging 15 new free schools for children with special educational needs. The Green party are more ambitious, stating they will push for £5 billion to be invested in special needs provision within mainstream schools.

The Labour Party commit to taking a communitywide approach, improving inclusivity and expertise in mainstream schools, as well as ensuring special schools cater to those with children with the most complex needs. The Labour Party also pledge to make sure admission decisions account for the needs of communities, requiring all schools to cooperate with their local authority on school admissions, special educational and disability inclusion, and place planning.

End to VAT exemption for independent schools

Whilst there is consensus to improve provision for special educational needs children, there is a clear distinction on independent schools. The Labour Party made clear before their manifesto was published, they would end the VAT exemption and business rate relief for private schools, investing the money generated in the state school system.  This policy pledge is echoed by the Green party. It is argued that this policy will be counter-productive, increasing the burden on state schools when some parents remove their children from independent schools.

The Green party will argue for protecting the provision of free school breakfast clubs to all primary school pupils, which is echoed by the Labour Party in their manifesto.

The Labour Party is committed to enhancing the OFSTED inspection regime, by replacing a single headline grade with a new report card system, informing parents, clearly, how schools are performing. This is likely to be welcomed by schools, teachers and parents.

Safeguarding Children at School

The political parties make a variety of pledges around safeguarding children at school, with the Liberal Democrats committed to tackling bullying in schools by promoting Pastoral leadership in schools, as well as delivering high quality relationships and sex education. The Green party are committed to retaining a full, evidence-based and age-appropriate programme of relationships, sex and health education, including LGBTIQA+ content and resources.

The Green party also intend to fully restore the role of the school nurse. The Labour Party promise to provide access to specialist mental health practitioners in every school. Action to combat mental health difficulties for our children is essential if they are to grow into mature adults, equipped for the world. The Covid pandemic had a significantly detrimental impact upon the welfare of children. Covid -19 drove a substantial worsening in girls’ mental health. In 2022-23, 30% of girls aged 10-15 met the threshold for abnormally high emotional and behavioural difficulties, an increase of 5% since 2019-20. The Conservative party manifesto pledge to ban the use of mobile phones during the school day may assist, but there does need to be a comprehensive review, to improve the mental health of our young people, improve the support available and to ensure the safety of children at school.

Statutory duty of care for universities to protect students welfare

There has been much debate around the Conservative manifesto commitment to introducing mandatory national service. Also making headlines, is their decision to close university courses in England with the worst outcomes for their students. That policy is not shared by other political parties who focus on improving the existing establishment.

The Liberal Democrats promise to impose higher education institutions with a statutory duty of care for their students.  This policy commitment may arise from recent cases reported in the media, where students have suffered with poor health during their university studies. In one published case, the student committed suicide.  At IBB we are regularly approached to assist university students who are suffering with mental health issues because they are not given support by their universities. This must change.

The ambition of the Liberal Democrats may become law if they can persuade either a Labour government or a Conservative government. A new statutory duty of care on universities requiring them to protecting the mental health of university students will have a significant and positive impact on young people. This needs to be a priority, whichever political party comes to power. We see too many undergraduates falling short of their potential because they are not supported when facing mental health issues.

Abolishing university tuition fees

The Liberal Democrats are no longer trumpeting the abolition of student fees although the Green party have taken up the baton, seeking to fully fund every higher education student, restoring maintenance grants, and scrapping undergraduate tuition fees. Their long-term plan includes cancelling the “injustice of graduate debt”.

Time to Vote

When voting on 4 July you will make your decision based on many factors, particularly the economy and NHS. I hope the placing of your X on the ballot paper will take account of the full manifestos from our main political parties.

As I began, whilst there are significant policy differences on some issues, there is a broad consensus on education. That consensus is for an improvement in the well-being of our school pupils, the receipt of a world-class education from more  teachers, much improved special educational needs provision, as well as safeguarding the future of our world leading universities and well-being of every student.

The choice is yours. See you on the other side, when I review the king’s Speech and particularly the legislative changes the new government will introduce into law.

Get in touch with our Education Solicitors

For specific guidance relevant to your situation and to arrange an initial fixed fee education law consultation with one of our lawyers, please contact our education law senior administrator, Rachael, on 01895 207230 or email educationteam@ibblaw.co.uk.