From education to employment

Promises, Possibilities & Political Futures…

Tristan Arnison Exclusive

Tristan Arnison discusses the main UK parties’ education policies for the upcoming election. While specifics vary, common themes emerge around curriculum reform, skills training, and teacher recruitment. However, the college sector, wary of disruption post-Covid, wants properly costed above-inflation funding and caution regarding defunding applied general qualifications at this juncture.

What kind of vision are the main parties offering colleges?

As yet we await the full detail of election manifestos and the different parties’ precise commitments for colleges and further education. All the indications are that key election priorities will, however, lie elsewhere. ‘Education, education, education’ will not be a war cry that we hear any time soon …

That said, there are clear common themes around curriculum reform, skills and recruitment that emerge when reviewing campaigning content. The key differences lie in how fully articulated the alternatives are, questions of pace and timing and, of course, any commitment to defunding applied general qualification. This has to be set against a sector wary of wholesale changes and desperate for properly costed, above inflation funding.

Curriculum Reform

The Conservatives have promised the creation of an Advanced British Standard which would somehow combine A levels and T levels in a single overarching structure. Exactly what happens with the flagship T level programme is a little unclear but presumably it would involve a degree of tweaking rather than wholesale revision. On the academic front, however, instead of a traditional three A level model, students would study five subject specialisms. It is also promised that English and maths would be core elements until 18.

While Labour and the Liberal Democrats are much less specific, they both also promise a thorough and ‘expert-led’ curriculum and assessment review process. Labour speak in terms of providing a more enriching and broader understanding of the curriculum. The Liberal Democrats identify the International Baccalaureate as an example of best practice to draw on. The overarching lines of thought are, for all the rhetoric, not dissimilar to the Conservatives. The key difference lies in the immediacy of any change and consequent disruption.

Although the press focus has been on Rishi’s love of maths, it is worth pointing out that Keir also highlights the subject’s importance, promising an overall reformed delivery model for maths, as well as to address inequalities in 16-19 education through better support for English and maths. Labour appear to have dropped their 2019 commitment to dropping mandated GCSE retakes, but what ‘better support’ looks like is not exactly clear.


Everyone however agrees on the importance of a skills agenda, albeit with slightly different slants. All agree on digital skills being ‘de rigueur’ but Labour especially highlight the importance of oracy and speaking skills. Labour also promises the creation of Technical Excellence Colleges to address local need, not a million miles away from the current Conservative local skills plans and the associated skills duty for colleges.

Everyone also speaks of apprenticeship reform, with the Conservatives placing an emphasis on redirecting money away from higher education into wider apprenticeship provision and

Labour talking in terms of changing the Apprenticeship Levy to a Growth and Skills Levy to give employers more flexibility in developing their workforce through routes other than apprenticeships. Labour also wish to revive a previous government initiative to provide short traineeships for 18 to 21 year-olds. There is a general agreement on the need to somehow ‘supercharge’ technical education and increase the uptake in training opportunities significantly, addressing the high percentage of young people not in education, employment or training (12.5 to 15 % depending on the measure).


Everyone also agrees on the need to address teacher recruitment shortages and ensure subject specialists are teaching in core subjects. The Conservatives want to achieve this through a bonus scheme in key subjects. Labour promises 6500 more teachers which would be funded through abolishing tax exemptions for independent schools, as well as using financial incentives and a universal ‘Teacher Training Entitlement’ to improve professional retention. The Liberal Democrats promise ‘a teacher workforce strategy’ and a properly independent pay review mechanism with fully funded pay rises each year.

When it comes to the issue of core funding, only the Liberal Democrats are promising a commitment to increasing school and college per pupil funding above the rate of inflation. Labour have also seemingly dropped their 2019 commitment to reintroducing the Educational Maintenance Allowance, but the Liberal Democrats argue for a Young Person’s Premium payment for 16-18 year olds.

SEND, Mental Health and Ofsted …

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats place an emphasis on SEND reform and tackling issues around mental health. They both want an improved system for identifying special educational needs much earlier and more consistently as well as a fairer EHCP process. They both also promise dedicated mental health workers to support education settings in providing for the increase in need. This, however, already fits well within the current government approach of training Mental Health Leads and bolstering mental health support teams, although any real impact has yet to be seen.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats again agree in promising an overhaul of Ofsted and replacing single grade judgements with ‘report cards’. That said, the current indicators suggest that Ofsted are taking a not dissimilar view themselves; everything is, once again, heading in a broadly agreed direction.

Any conclusions?

The devil is, of course, in the detail but, taken overall, there is a surprising level of agreement among the main parties although, no doubt, they would deny this. This puts the focus squarely on a question of trust in the capacity to deliver policy changes skilfully over time without creating uncertainty and disruption.

This brings us back around to the single burning issue of whether to continue defunding applied general qualifications at this juncture. This is not an issue that is highlighted at in

current campaign literature, despite Labour’s assurances on the side, but the ongoing strength of debate over this speaks of a sector that is only ‘just about managing’ and wary of abandoning what is tried and tested.

Rightly or wrongly, the college sector clearly wants attention paid to continuity in a post-Covid context and properly costed funding before lifting a weary gaze to the horizon. It is not about a lack of appetite for change, rather it is more about the clarity, capacity and stakeholder understanding required to support this.

By Tristan Arnison, Assistant Principal for Curriculum and Student Experience at The Henley College

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