Education has played a minimal role in the election campaign so far, in particular the televised debates. So the party manifestos have been eagerly awaited to start filling in some of the gaps in what the parties have planned. The Liberal Democrats were first out of the starting blocks this week, metaphorically, though disappointingly for Ed Davey, not literally. But when it comes to education policy, there’s a lot in there to welcome.

Early Years

For the early years, the standout pledges are to give disadvantaged children aged three and four an extra five free hours a week (making it 20), to be extended to two-year-olds ‘when the public finances allow’, triple the Early Years Pupil Premium to £1,000 a year, and develop a career strategy for nursery staff, with the aim that the majority of those working with children aged two to four have a relevant qualification.

While the pledge to increase the hours provided to disadvantaged children falls short of equalising provision, which the Sutton Trust has long called for to end the current two-tier system, it would at least go some way towards it. The Sutton Trust has also called for the Early Years Pupil Premium to be increased to the level in schools. This would mean settings can offer better targeted and individualised support to children from disadvantaged backgrounds, and would be incentivised to apply for the funding and recruit eligible children. And to ensure quality of provision, we have called for an early years workforce strategy, with minimum qualification levels specified. In 2023, 1 in 5 early years staff members were unqualified (did not have a relevant GCSE/level 2 qualification), up from 1 in 7 in 2018.


The commitments outlined for schools are wide-ranging, with many geared towards tackling the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. Above inflation annual school and college funding increases would benefit all pupils, and start to redress the stagnation of school funding we’ve seen over the last decade. The ‘Tutoring Guarantee’ shows recognition of the huge impact this intervention can have in tackling the attainment gap when targeted to disadvantaged pupils, though it is unclear whether this would be accompanied by ring-fenced funding. Giving local authorities responsibility for administering school admissions could help to ensure all children have an equal chance of attending the best schools in their area, thereby tackling the social selection we currently see in high performing comprehensive schools.

The pledge for all secondary school pupils to be taught by a specialist teacher in their subject is an ambitious one, given existing shortages across a range of subjects, particularly in the most deprived areas of the country. Extending financial incentives for teachers to work in these areas could go some way to delivering this ambition. The Trust has also recommended broadening the curriculum with a greater emphasis on building essential life skills, which can be just as important as academic learning for success in life. It’s great to see this reflected in the Lib Dems’ manifesto.

Looking beyond their immediate teaching and learning requirements, there is increasing recognition that schools are at the front line of broader health and social issues, such as growing mental health problems and the huge impact that hunger is having on learning in this cost of living crisis. It’s therefore welcome to see commitments in this manifesto for expansion of free school meals to all those in poverty (current FSM eligibility locks out 1.7 million children in families eligible for universal credit) and a qualified mental health professional in every school. More broadly, the pledge to remove the two-child cap on child benefits could have a major impact on tackling disadvantage and poverty.

And while not typically the focus of election period announcements, it’s positive to see a focus on young people’s transitions out of school and into further education and employment. The pledge to extend Pupil Premium funding to 16-18 year-olds is sensible and reflects that disadvantage doesn’t end once a young person reaches 17. The commitment to strengthen careers advice and links with employers in schools and colleges recognises the importance of good careers advice and guidance for young people to make informed choices about their future.

Apprenticeships and Higher Education

The headline policy to reinstate maintenance grants for disadvantaged students ‘immediately’, to make sure that living costs are not a barrier to studying at university, is absolutely right. However that should also be accompanied with a rise in the overall amount, to make sure students have more money in their pockets. Our research has shown that students are increasingly skipping meals and taking on extra paid work at the expense of their studies to make ends meet. The poorest students also graduate with the highest levels of debt – a barrier for some wishing to go on to higher education. This must be a priority for the next government and the Sutton Trust has proposed a cost-neutral way for the Treasury and DfE to implement this, through a more progressive repayment system.

The pledge to ensure all universities work to widen participation by disadvantaged groups is also important. Higher education is the surest route to social mobility but socio-economic background and family circumstances impact grades. Contextual admissions – where the background of a university applicant is taken into account as part of the admissions process – is a crucial tool for widening access to higher education. An ambitious sector-wide approach in England could be transformational.

Apprenticeships are increasingly talked about as being on par with university as a route into high quality employment for young people. However, as things stand, the supply of apprenticeship opportunities is not keeping up with demand, and those that exist are often not accessible to the young people who would most benefit most from them. The Lib Dems say they would replace the apprenticeship levy with a broader and more flexible skills and training levy. This would need careful consideration to ensure that it doesn’t further reduce the opportunities available, if limited funding currently ringfenced for apprenticeships is instead used to cover employers’ learning and development for current staff. Paying the National Minimum Wage to apprentices would help to remove the major barrier of affordability for those undertaking apprenticeships who cannot rely on their families for financial support. However, given the potential for this to restrict the number of opportunities available, further support for employers, particularly Small and Medium Enterprises, should be considered.

Overall the Lib Dems’ manifesto signifies a prioritisation of education and recognition of its importance in driving growth for the country as well as the transformational impact it can have for individuals’ social mobility. With a sensible, well-evidenced set of policies, the Lib Dems have thrown down the gauntlet for the other parties to show where education and young people sit in their priority list.

Source: suttontrust.com


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