In 1997, New Labour’s campaign pledge card included the commitment to cap class sizes for 5 to 7 years olds at 30 pupils; fast forward 18 years, and Ed Miliband pledged to do just that.
So, what went wrong with this first time around? Since 1998, all state schools in England have had to recognise a statutory limit of 30 pupils in their infant classes, but the number of exemptions to the rule has grown. This includes admitting children of armed forces personnel, care-leavers, those with special needs who require a place part-way through the year, twins, and those who have won a place on appeal. This leads into the Conservative counter attack; Labour is denying school places to those who need them through an overly prescriptive approach. Expect further attacks on Labour’s “box-ticking culture”.
A further parallel to 1997 is Labour’s plan for funding the pledge. Back then, abolition of the Conservatives’ assisted places scheme was earmarked to fulfil the pledge; today, abolishing the policy of opening free schools in areas with spare school places, funnelling the money into reducing class sizes, is the target instead.
Politically, Labour’s clarity in paying for a policy by abolishing an existing one is important, as it delivers credibility at a time when every Labour pledge is attacked on the grounds of affordability, another lesson learnt in ’97.
The second, equally contentious, announcement was on school funding. Miliband pledged that a Labour Government would “ensure that spending on our schools rises by at least as much as inflation”. In reality, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies points out, there is little different between Conservative and Labour policies on this. The Conservatives will maintain the flat cash spend on each pupil, which takes into account an expected rise in the number of pupils, whereas Labour does not.
The interest comes in Miliband’s wider spending commitment. He states that Labour would “protect the overall education budget”, including early years and further education. The Conservative offer is for school funding only. Leaping on the common truism that what politicians don’t mention will be cut, Miliband infers that Conservatives would cut the wider education budget in order to protect schools.
Outside the headlines on funding and school places, Miliband reiterated further changes Labour would bring in. On standards and accountability, Miliband pledged to give all head teachers the powers currently given to academy heads and new Directors of School Standards would be charged with improving standards in every local school.
On teacher training, Miliband confirmed Labour’s policy to ensure that all teachers are trained, that they have to re-certify over time and that a new status of Master Teacher would be created.
Labour’s adopting a back to basics approach by tapping into a real concern in local communities – school places. It hopes that a clear pledge, easily conveyed and understood on the doorstep, will help it gain an advantage over the Conservatives. As parties make policy announcements, it is fair to determine that those not mentioned will come under greater fiscal restraint. Welfare again will take on significant cuts. The election so far is about this great unsaid: where the cuts will come.