Tory election manifesto pledges could increase attainment gap for poorer pupils, report suggests

Eleanor Busby
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Tory manifesto pledges could increase the attainment gap between pupils from poor and better-off families, a think tank has warned.

An analysis by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) suggests the Conservative Party’s plans for education – including Boris Johnson’s funding boost – may in fact widen the disadvantage gap.

None of the political parties are likely to deliver pledges on reducing opportunity gaps and raising attainment through their general election manifesto policies, researchers found.

Half of the most disadvantaged secondary schools outside London will not experience real-terms funding increases next year despite the spending pledge from the Tories, the analysis suggests.

It adds that there are no “convincing” policies from the Conservatives to narrow the “large pre-school disadvantage gaps”.

The report – which looks at the education plans in the election manifestos of the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens and the Brexit Party – says the policies seem to focus on improving childcare for employment and cost of living reasons, rather than focusing on high-quality early years education.

Researchers also say plans by Labour and the Liberal Democrats to scrap primary tests and move to lower-stakes inspections could damage attainment among disadvantaged children.

It adds that both Labour and the Lib Dems may have also underestimated the cost of their policies on free school meals, which could require funding to be diverted from other parts of the schools budget.

A separate analysis from Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) researchers on Thursday said it was unclear whether the free school meals policy from either party would have large additional benefits for children’s attainment.

Jon Andrews, deputy head of research at EPI and the report’s lead author, said: “EPI’s analysis highlights that no party has produced a robust, evidence based, set of policies across the board which would be likely to significantly increase attainment and reduce the current, large disadvantaged gaps.”

He added: “All of the parties have proposed significant extra spending, but people shouldn’t simply be blinded by the large numbers in the manifestos.

“In practice, the Conservative plans mean that as many as half of disadvantaged secondary schools will not be seeing real-terms increases in funding next year. Labour’s largest funding pledge, to abolish university tuition fees, will be of no benefit to attainment or reducing the disadvantage gap.”

Natalie Perera, executive director and head of research at EPI, said: “All of the main parties are united by one thing – bold ambitions to raise attainment and close gaps.

“However, our analysis shows that while each party has some well-designed and helpful policies, none has a properly evidence-based strategy to meet their ambitions.”

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “It is right to highlight the inequitable nature of education in England and to scrutinise the ways in which the parties aim to address it. The judgment that ‘the measures set out in the Conservative manifesto are unlikely to have a significant impact on closing the disadvantage gap’ is shared by the union.”

Angela Rayner, shadow education secretary for Labour, said: “As this report points out, the Conservative manifesto does not even mention the pupil premium, which will leave many school leaders concerned that it could be cut or abolished altogether.”

She added: “Labour will radically improve the life chances of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds at every stage of their education.

“From free, high-quality early years education and restoring the pupil premium, to bringing back the Education Maintenance Allowance and maintenance grants.”

The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have been approached for comment.

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