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UK education: Policy Exchange conference to define debate ahead of 2015 election campaign

Education matters. Whether you are one of the 7 million children and young people in school in the UK, or their parents, or one of the 2 million people who work in the wider education and children’s services sector, an employer depending on a flow of qualified staff, or indeed anyone using goods or services that depend on an educated population. Arguably, nothing matters more, and for this reason what political parties say on education in an election campaign also matters, writes Jonathan Simons.

Exactly 11 months before the date of the next election, Policy Exchange is delighted to be hosting a major conference on education in the 2015 campaign. The event couldn’t be more timely – straight off the back of the local and European elections, and just a few short months away from the party conferences where the election campaign proper will begin, the stage is set for both Education Secretary Michael Gove and Shadow Secretary Tristram Hunt – both of whom are giving keynote addresses – to start to float proposals that will be formally pledged later down the line.

There is no shortage of policy for our speakers and expert panellists to get their teeth into. One of the big debates will be on early years provision that is affordable, accessible, and high quality. The Coalition have pledged new tax-free childcare amounts for working parents, and free childcare for all three and four-year-olds and, most recently, the poorest two-year-olds. The Liberal Democrats are considering expansion of the two-year-old offer and maybe one-year-olds for the next Parliament, the Conservatives are keen on more schools opening nurseries and keeping them open for longer hours, whilst Labour have pledged to expand free childcare from 15 hours a week to 25. The future of Sure Start Children’s Centres – formally a near universal service, now coming under increasing budgetary strain from local government – will also be a hot topic.

Changing structures of schools with academies and free schools; changes to funding; relaxations on the school workforce (the requirement to be a qualified teacher and teach in an academy or free school has been removed, so graduates without a teaching qualification can now teach in those schools if heads choose to appoint them); significant changes forthcoming to curriculum and assessment; school building programmes halted; school sport protected….it seems there has barely been an area of schools policy not affected by the current government. How Labour responds to both the specific announcements but also the general trend of reform – greater autonomy to schools but with sharp accountability, and competition between schools – will be a key battleground. And how will the Liberal Democrats position themselves in relation to this agenda which is so strongly associated with the Conservative Education Secretary?  Schools are also the education issue which generates most interest among– whether it is a shortage of primary school places,  General Certificate of Secondary Education and Advanced level exam scores, behaviour and bullying, or total levels of school spending.

The future of wider children’s services will come under the microscope as well, especially given that it is so dependent on local government funds. There have been major reforms to special education needs with more to come, as well as continued changes to adoption and children in care. Youth services are coming under financial pressure. And it is in this area that services for the most vulnerable children in society are delivered. While not always top of the media or political interest, poor provision here is arguably more damaging than anywhere else. All parties talk warm words about spending on prevention rather than cure, on intervening early, on joining up services and supporting multi agency working. What will this look like in practice?

Tony Blair once claimed he could declare war with Iran in the middle of a speech on further education and no one would notice. Often (unfairly) described as the Cinderella service, further education and skills occupies a crucial part of the education landscape, and is used to describe (amongst others) 14-year-olds on traineeships; young adults on vocational courses; A-levels or a mixture of the two; adults doing the same; adults in employment undertaking specific work related training courses; any and all adults and young people on apprenticeships; migrants learning English as a second (or third) language; individuals signing up for evening courses for their own pleasure; distance learning; and adults with very basic skills who are in and out of the welfare system. The skills system has also undergone perpetual change, and there is little sign of this stopping. All parties are committed to a continual increase in apprenticeships and improvement in quality, with funding dedicated to individuals and employers rather than further education colleges. Labour have talked extensively about ‘the forgotten 50%’ and recreating high quality technical and vocational pathways for young people aged 14-19, and adults. The Conservative focus will be on stripping out lower value qualifications (following the Wolf review) and greater simplification. The future of the much maligned area of careers guidance is also up for debate.

A Parliament that started with much controversy over tuition fees may end it rather silent on the issue, but big questions lie beneath the surface. In particular, the issue of fees and financing for higher education are live, following the government figures that the current system of higher tuition fees and reduced government spending may end up costing the taxpayer as much if not more. Labour may formally pledge to cap fees at £6,000 (around Euro 7,400) a year, whilst the Conservatives and Lib Dems will likely stay silent on this issue but will need a plan for how to finance continued expansion of student numbers (as promised by the Chancellor in the last Budget). The issue of international students and their eligibility or not to come to the UK and study, and remain here, will continue to rumble. And the Conservatives may make greater moves towards allowing new providers into the higher education marketplace to provide more competition and diversity, and lower prices.

So much to discuss, and a great time to do it. The conference itself is completely full, but the whole event will be covered by Neil Stewart Associates, who will be producing films and podcasts of the major speeches for later dissemination. They will also be broadcasting the entire conference live here. So if you have an interest in education – professional or personal – and you want to join the debate, please participate in the conference via the live stream and on Twitter using the hashtag #PXed2015.

Jonathan Simons is head of education at the Policy Exchange think tank in the UK. You can follow him on Twitter @PXEducation or email him: jonathan.simons@policyexchange.org.uk

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