Education policy under Con/Lib Dem coalition
12 May 2010
So what might a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition be able to agree on in the area of education policy?
The most obvious is the idea of a “pupil premium”, which was in both their manifestos.
However this may not be such a difficult policy to achieve, as a premium for pupils from poor homes already exists in the current funding mechanism, even though it is not labelled as such.
However, the key question will be whether they can agree on the £2.5 billion price tag put on the policy by the Lib Dem manifesto and on their promise that it will be 'additional' to existing budgets.
Both parties will be happy to see the premium used to create smaller class sizes, an aim mentioned in both manifestos.
The coalition partners should also be able to reach agreement easily on plans to expand 'Teach First' and to reduce the content of the national curriculum.
The Conservatives say they want less curriculum direction from the centre and this could fit with the Lib Dem idea of a “minimum curriculum entitlement”.
They should also be able to agree on cutting back on the running costs of some of the big education quangos, such as the QCDA and Becta.
On university policy, there can be easy agreement on scrapping the 50% participation target for Higher Education, as both regard that as an artificial, centrally imposed target.
After that, though, agreement on policy gets more difficult.
The Conservatives want many more schools to become Academies, with an accelerated transition for both excellent schools and “failing” schools. By contrast, the Lib Dems want a greater role for local councils, with plans to turn Academies into “sponsor managed schools”, with closer ties to Town Halls.
On student tuition fees, there could be a real impasse. The Lib Dems campaigned for the outright abolition of student fees in England. That is a very expensive option, with a price tag of £1.8 billion.
The Tories will not support that, not least because of the cost. That will not surprise Nick Clegg, as he tried – without success- to get his party to drop the commitment to abolition.
Instead, the Conservatives will be hoping that they can get their coalition partners to buy into whatever the independent Browne Review recommends when it reports in July or August.
The most likely outcome of the Browne Review is either higher fees or a real rate of interest on student loans. Or quite possibly both. Getting the Lib Dems to sign up for that is a tall order.
The highlight of the Tory plans, of course, was the creation of independent, state-funded schools under the Swedish model. This may not be such a huge stumbling block, as initially at least the numbers are unlikely to be that big.
The Lib Dems may find it possible to see this policy as in keeping with their aim of reducing political interference in the day-to-day running of schools. However, they would be concerned if the policy meant reducing funding for existing schools.
Areas where the Lib Dems will have problems supporting Tory plans include ending the right of appeal over school exclusions and requiring trainee teachers to have at least a lower second class degree.
There are also likely to be disagreements over the extent of cuts to the overall education budget.
Equally, it is hard to see the Conservatives agreeing to the Lib Dem idea for an independent Education Standards Authority, comprised of the great and the good in education. Conservatives will see that as another costly quango.
However, there is scope for the coalition to come up with ideas for a number of other common aims: reforming league tables, reducing the burden of assessment, and remodelling the new diplomas.
Finding agreement with head teachers over the national curriculum tests in England will be an important first test.
Both coalition parties are open to reforming the tests, although it remains to be seen whether the Tories can share the Lib Dems enthusiasm for greater emphasis on teacher assessment.
It is going to be a fascinating time in education politics. However, schools, colleges and universities may take some reassurance form the fact that every policy will have to win the support of both coalition partners, turning some of the more radical plans into non-runners.