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by GK Strategy 16th April, 2015
3 min read

Education Back on Agenda in Election Campaign

Until yesterday, education has featured little in the general election campaign. Rows over housing, funding for the NHS and the parties’ spending plans have dominated the two and a half weeks since Parliament was dissolved, but Nick Clegg’s promise of an extra £2.5 billion for schools has caught the eye. Launching his party’s manifesto, Clegg re-committed the Liberal Democrats to protecting the whole of the education budget ‘from cradle to college’ in real terms between 2015 and 2020, with the additional money accommodating the large increase in the number of pupils starting school over the next five years.

The pledge sets the Lib Dems apart from the other two main parties, both of whom have promised – in one form or another – to protect spending on schools if they form the next government. The Conservatives have set out plans for flat cash per pupil – that is, the overall schools budget will not be protected in real terms, but on a per pupil basis. Labour, meanwhile, has promised to protect the overall education budget in real terms, but not on a per pupil basis – their plans do not appear to take into account any rise in pupil numbers. According to both the Institute for Fiscal Studies and former Conservative special adviser Sam Freedman, both parties’ plans amount to a significant cut in schools spending during the next parliament.

The Lib Dems’ pledge of additional funding is aimed at addressing this. Under their plans, the overall budget would be protected in real terms, with sufficient cash to ensure that spending per pupil also rises. However, even given this promise, it is likely that schools will continue to face financial pressure, whatever the composition of the next government. The ever-growing demands for additional money for the NHS mean that protecting schools and education may be less of a priority for the new government than it was for the last one. Also, in addition to growth in pupil numbers, there is also the increasing cost of teachers’ salaries, national insurance and pension contributions, which is expected to make up a significant part of the cost pressures facing schools in the coming years.

Aside from the funding question, much of the sector is relieved that none of the main parties is proposing a radical overhaul of the education system. After four years of upheaval under the unpopular Michael Gove, all of the parties are committed to a period of relative stability in education, including Labour, who have promised not to unpick the majority of the coalition government’s reforms. Gove’s replacement as Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, has sought to reassure teachers that there will be no drastic changes under a future Conservative government, and David Laws, the Lib Dems’ education spokesman and Schools Minister, has repeatedly called for an end to ‘politicians’ whims’ deciding education policy. In this regard, at least, those in the education sector appear to have little to fear from a change of government.

Whatever happens on 7th May, and whatever promises the parties have made, it seems that schools may not have quite such a comfortable ride financially as they have compared with much of the public sector over the last few years, even if they are not subject to the same torrent of reforms as under the coalition.

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