What coalition might mean for education

08 May 2010

 In his 'big, open and comprehensive offer' to the Liberal Democrats, David Cameron stressed - amongst other things - the potential agreements on education policy, specifically the pupil premium.

But how much do Tory and Liberal Democrat education policies have in common? Let's start with the pupil premium.

Yes, both parties want to direct a larger share of school spending to areas of deprivation. But the difference is that the Liberal Democrats have costed their pupil premium and said where the money would come from. The Conservatives have not.

So would David Cameron be willing to fund the extra £2.5 billion that the Liberal Democrats scheme would cost? And if he did, would he take it from elsewhere in the education budget?

 The truth is, of course, that a pupil premium already exists. It just isn't called that. So by highlighting this area of agreement, David Cameron is not really agreeing to much.

So what about other areas? The most obvious difference is on the parties' plans for university tuition fees. The Liberal Democrats would take the expensive option of abolishing them. Although the Tory line is to wait and see what comes out of the independent Browne  Review, it is hard to see a Tory party willing to give up other spending areas (or abandoning tax reductions) to abolish fees.

Nick Clegg, of course, has history on this issue. He tried to persuade his party to drop its commitment to abolishing fees. But he failed. So, while he may be happy to do a deal on student fees with Cameron, his party may not let him.

There are many other areas where Lib Dem and Tory policy is diametrically opposed. The Tories want more Academies; the Lib Dems want local council 'sponsored' schools.

On the curriculum there is potential for common approaches, since both want a minimal curriculum with less government prescription. The Conservatives might be persuaded to support the Lib Dem idea of an Education Freedom Act, to prevent politicians meddling in the daily running of schools. However they are unlikely to support the idea of an Education Standards Authority, a new quango of the great and good in education. 

 In approach to teaching methods and styles, there is a gulf between what most Liberal Democrats want and the things that Tory spokesman, Michael Gove, says he wants to see happening in schools, namely more phonics and more traditional teaching.

The Liberal Democrats also favour a new General Diploma, whereas the Tories are lukewarm about even the existing diplomas and seem unlikely to favour any new ones.

So is there more common ground for a Liberal Democrat-Labour coalition? Probably not.  They are likely to be far apart on student fees and on the spread of Academies.  However they may be closer on a commitment to make school spending a priority, as Labour promised an above inflation rise in school budgets and the Lib Dems say their pupil premium would be additional to the money already spent on schools.

Whatever sort of coalition or partnership we end up with, there will have to be plenty of horse-trading on education policies.


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