Getting the facts straight on education

By Karen Wespieser

Friday 19 May 2017

Four weeks have passed since Theresa May called a snap general election. Through this time, we have been waiting for the manifestos to be published and speculating how much focus education and evidence would receive.

This week the main manifestos were published, and the first televised debate took place, so we finally have an insight into coverage of education in the 2017 General Election. And actually it looks quite promising.

The Conservatives have the shortest manifesto at 88 pages, of which five pages (or six percent) is dedicated to education. The Labour manifesto is longest at 125 pages with ten pages (eight per cent) on education. The Liberal Democrats’ sits neatly in the middle at 100 pages, with 10 pages (10 per cent) on education. Obviously, quantity is not the issue when it comes to manifesto content, but other places – most notably SchoolsWeek – have done an admirable job in covering the detail of the policies.

Each manifesto covers (from its own perspective) the key issues in education at the moment: funding, teacher supply, skills in a post-Brexit Britain, plus an interesting range of other ideas. They don’t necessarily cite the evidence for these proposals, but then again a manifesto is not a place for evidence, it is a place for ideas.

With opposing parties throwing out different stats, what then becomes important is checking their accuracy.

But evidence was widely cited in the first televised debate. It was heartening to see a teacher asking the panellists for their views on education. In addition, the party leaders (excluding Labour and the Conservative Party who chose not to be represented) highlighted education issues when responding to other questions, e.g. thinking about the implications of Brexit in relation to university research funding, or tuition fees in relation to helping ‘the next generation’. What was even better, though, to my research-attuned ears, was the citation of evidence… evidence on class sizes, evidence on selection, evidence on teacher retention and evidence on free school lunches vs free school breakfasts.

With opposing parties throwing out different stats, what then becomes important is checking their accuracy. NFER is proud that in both 2015 and 2017 we have been the education partner for Full Fact. This mean we were on hand during the debate to substantiate claims by Tim Farron that two-thirds of secondary school headteachers said they had cut back on teaching staff and to inform viewers that you need to cut class sizes below 15-20 to see a clear difference in educational outcomes.

There still remain some areas that deserve more coverage than they have received so far. There was less focus (in the debate, although they are included to various degrees in the manifestos) on early years education and care, NEETs, and providing high quality technical and professional education post-16. All important issues to explore further over the next three weeks.

So far, the main parties are broadly aligned on the big education issues, all are pledging more money and more teachers. That means that the details will be important, and making sure the details are accurate will be the most important job of all.

You can follow all of NFER’s General Election 2017 commentary using the hashtag #GE17nfer on Twitter.