Education under the Coalition

In this article Anthony Heath and Anna Mountford-Zimdars summarise the evidence on the effects of Coalition policies on education. They find that, while the government implemented its core policies – the pupil premium and the promotion of academies and free schools – it is not clear whether its reforms have had any effect in raising educational standards and reducing class inequalities. Their earlier assessment of education under the Labour government, 1997-2010, is included in the special journal edition which is free to download until the election.

  1. Introduction

In their 2010 manifesto the Conservatives had emphasized raising school standards and closing the attainment gap between pupils from the richest and poorest backgrounds, two themes which had also been present in the previous Labour manifestos. Their partner in the coalition, the Liberal Democrats, had rather different emphases, focussing on cutting class sizes in schools and famously promising to scrap ‘unfair university tuition fees’. In the coalition agreement, the key elements became:

  • To fund a significant premium for disadvantaged pupils from outside the schools budget by reductions in spending elsewhere.
  • To promote the reform of schools in order to ensure that new providers can enter the state school system in response to parental demand.

There followed a major programme of reform, not all of which had actually figured in the coalition agreement. The most eye-catching reforms which the coalition undertook in office were to encourage private providers to establish Free Schools and to extend the Academies programme . There were also, later in the life of the coalition, major reforms to GCSEs intended to strengthen standards and make them ‘more challenging’, notably by ending the modular system and moving to assessment at the end of the course, changing subject content, and restricting the number of ‘equivalent’ qualifications which count towards school performance tables.

In some respects these were continuations of Labour policy, particularly the emphasis on school choice and extending Labour’s Academies programme, although the GCSE reforms diverged from previous Labour policy. It is also worth emphasizing that these reforms applied to England, since education is a devolved responsibility.

In the case of further and higher education, the Coalition’s principal reforms were:

  • Abolition of Labour’s Education Maintenance Allowance and replacement by a 16-19 Bursary Fund (with a much lower level of funding)
  • Implementation of Labour’s policy of Raising the Participation Age (RPA) to 17 (from 2013) and 18 (from 2015)
  • Extension and reform of apprenticeships
  • Increasing the fee cap in higher education to £9000 for full-time students

A detailed analysis of both inputs and outcomes for schools has been carried out by Ruth Lupton and Stephanie Thomson (2015), and for further and higher education by Ruth Lupton, Lorna Urwin and Stephanie Thomson (2015). We summarize some of their key findings below.

  1. Inputs

The Coalition protected school spending in real terms. Current spending on schools in England increased from £39.5bn in 2009/10 to £43.8bn in 2013/14, although capital spending decreased from £6.5bn to £2.8bn. The pupil premium directed more money to schools with ‘poor’ intakes (judged by Free School Meal eligibility). Among primary schools the least deprived schools saw a small (real) increase in grant funding of around 1.1%, while the most deprived saw a larger increase of around 7%. Among secondary schools, the least deprived saw a loss of around 2.5%, while more deprived schools had increases of about 4.3%.

There was also a major expansion of the Academies programme. In January 2010, just over half of state-funded secondary schools were community schools overseen by local authorities with only 6% being academies independent of LAs. By January 2014 the proportion of secondary schools overseen by LAs had fallen to around one fifth, and over half were now academies (in which Free Schools are technically included). Among primary schools, changes were less dramatic. The percentage of Academies increased from 0% to 11%, almost wholly at the expense of community schools rather than of voluntary-aided or voluntary-controlled primary schools.

Despite the protection of school spending in real terms, and the use of the pupil premium to help primary schools, class sizes in primary schools began to increase (largely due to demographic pressures).   After declining considerably under the Labour governments between 1997 and 2009, class sizes increased from an average of 26.2 pupils per class in 2009 to 26.9 in 2014 (Neve, 2015). The average hides differences between classes for different age groups; the average class size for 5-7 year-olds grew by 7% from 2007 to 2014 (from 25.6 to 27.4), while average class sizes for 7-11 year-olds remained constant throughout the period. Meanwhile, average secondary school class sizes fell steadily from 21.7 in 1998 to 20.6 in 2009 and to 20.1 in 2014.

  1. Outcomes

Changes in assessment procedures make it difficult to evaluate changes over time in school attainment. However Lupton and Thomson (2015) report that KS2 reading and mathematics attainment both improved. At KS4 (GCSE) the DfE released two sets of headline data in 2014, the official results using the new qualification rules and an adjusted set following the old qualification rules (intended to enable comparison on a like for like basis over time). The trends over time also differ according to whether one uses the criterion of 5 or more GCSEs at grades A* to C, or the more challenging criterion which requires passes at both English and Maths among the 5 subjects (5 A*-CEM).   The most positive story from the Coalition’s point of view was that the percentage obtaining 5 A*-CEM was slightly higher in 2014 than it had been in 2010.

There remain considerable doubts, however, whatever rules or criterion one takes, whether percentages obtaining GCSEs (or expected standards at KS2) actually give valid measures of changes over time in the skills and competencies of school children. Independent measures conducted as part of cross-national programmes, such as that of OECD, suggest that changes over time have been much smaller than the changes shown by government data on attainment at KS2 or KS4. Between 2009 and 2012 (the latest year available), scores on the OECD’s PISA tests (taken around age 15), for example, showed only small improvements for reading, small declines for maths, and stability in science (Wiertz 2015).

In addition it is not clear yet whether Academies actually do improve educational standards. The House of Commons Education Committee concluded in January 2015 that “it is too early to judge whether academies raise standards overall or for disadvantaged children”.   There have also been concerns expressed about the governance and financial control of Academies. In October 2014 the National Audit Office concluded that the DfE and other oversight bodies had not demonstrated the effectiveness of their interventions. “The NAO finds that the DfE and others, such as the Education Funding Agency and local authorities, have not tackled underperformance consistently. The spending watchdog, therefore, cannot conclude that the oversight system for maintained schools and academies is achieving value for money.”

Lupton and Thomson also examine trends in socio-economic inequalities, using so-called Eligibility for Free School Meals as the proxy for socio-economic background (a criterion which also appears to be the main one currently used by government). (Eligibility is in fact a misnomer, since families have to apply in order for their eligibility to be approved by the local authority. Possibly many ‘eligible’ families do not apply in the first place.) Lupton and Thomson found that socio-economic inequalities at GCSE declined up until 2013 but then widened sharply in 2014 when the new qualification rules were introduced.

Academic research (Mills 2015) using the standard ONS socio-economic classification (NS-SEC) has also shown a slight narrowing of the inequalities up until 2013 at GCSE (based on data from the Labour Force Survey) but data for 2014 are not yet available. The narrowing of class inequalities, however, had begun before 2010 and may well not be due to reforms undertaken by the Coalition (which might in any event take a longer time to bear fruit).

In the case of 16-19 education there were modest increases in proportions of 16, 17 and 18 year olds in full-time education or training, although it is clear that not all 16 year olds are as yet participating despite the RPA. There has also been a decline in the proportion not in education, employment or training (NEET) which had declined to its lowest level since 1997 by the end of 2013. Lupton et al (2015), however, show that the increase in participation is a continuation of longer-term trends and is unlikely to be explained solely by the Coalition’s reforms.

With respect to higher education, applications fell sharply in 2012 with the introduction of the new fee regime. This was almost certainly because many students had decided to apply in the previous year, rather than taking a gap year, in order to avoid the increase in fees.  Applications recovered by 2014.   The application rate for students domiciled in England rose from 31.3% in 2010 to 33.2% in 2014, again a continuation of longer-term trends.

However, there was a dramatic drop in mature students’ participation in higher education. The number of mature undergraduate entrants to universities fell by 40% between 2007-8 and 2012-13. Universities UK have attributed this to increased fees and the switch to loans in 2012, although as Lupton et al (2015) point out, the economic downturn and reductions in employer funding may also have been contributory factors.

  1. Conclusions

The coalition clearly did implement the two central planks of the coalition agreement on the pupil premium and new providers. However, it is not as yet clear whether these reforms have had any effect either on educational standards or on reducing class inequalities. Class inequalities at GCSE (although not perhaps at higher levels of education) have been slowly declining, but it is far from clear that this has been due to the coalition’s reforms.

The absence of independent and up-to-date evidence on students’ skills continues to be a major obstacle to monitoring the effectiveness of government policy in raising standards, just as we reported in our previous article on education under New Labour (Heath et al 2013). The whole area is bedevilled by the paucity of authoritative, independent assessment and is largely reliant on administrative statistics, with all the pitfalls to which they have long been known to be prey.

At present, the most that can be said is that the jury is still out on the question of whether the Coalition’s reforms actually made any difference to either standards or socio-economic inequalities.



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