Election 2015

Why education matters in this election

Classroom Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The political parties are dividing on how schools should be run and funding levels

Who should be in charge of England's state schools, including academies and free schools? Should protecting school budgets be a funding priority? And how much should students have to pay in tuition fees? These are some of the big questions for education in England.

Education is a devolved power in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

What's at stake?

Tuition fees in England have been a turbulent topic and this election will decide how much students, or government, will pay for an expanding university system.

Universities have warned that such plans need to be clearly funded if more people are going to be able to get a degree.

For schools, the choice will be whether the next government rolls back the changes to how schools are run and major reforms to qualifications and exams. Or else whether this process of more academies, free schools and autonomy is accelerated.

Who oversees schools, in a more fragmented system with less local authority oversight, has been ticking away as a challenge for any incoming government.

The scrutiny of schools in an autonomous academy system was one of the big questions that emerged from the Trojan Horse claims about radicalisation in schools in Birmingham.

What are the numbers?

  • £100bn is the government's projected amount of outstanding student loans by 2018
  • 400 free schools opened
  • 880,000 more school places will be needed in the next eight years to keep up with a rising population
  • 163 grammar schools are left in England

What won't the politicians be saying?

The Liberal Democrats are unlikely to want to be reminded of their big promise at the last election, that they oppose any increase in tuition fees. This ditching of a pledge is going to be particularly difficult with student voters.

The Conservatives are likely to be accused of cutting school funding - as their commitment is to maintain funding in cash terms, while Labour and the Liberal Democrats are offering to protect budgets against rises in inflation.

Labour might face difficulties in explaining their support for academies and opposition to free schools, when the two types of school are so similar. Former education secretary Michael Gove said Labour's policy on free schools was so "tortured they should send in the UN to end the suffering".

And whatever the competing ideological ambitions, in practice much of any extra spending on schools is going to be consumed by coping with the population boom and the need for more school places and teachers.

What has happened since 2010?

  • Tuition fees in England increased to up to £9,000, prompting violent protests
  • University applications dipped as fees rose, recovered and now running at highest ever levels
  • Academies rapidly expanded, becoming majority among secondary schools. Rise of academy chains, groups running many schools
  • Curriculum re-written. Government said this would provide rigour and stronger grasp of information and facts. Teachers' union attacked it as a "pub quiz" curriculum
  • GCSEs and A-levels re-designed, with less coursework and modules and more emphasis on written exams. GCSEs are going to be graded by numbers, with nine the highest
  • Changes to the curriculum and qualifications in England and the tuition fee policy created a much greater separation within the devolved education systems in the UK. Areas of overlap have reduced substantially
  • Record numbers of schools rated as good or outstanding
  • Pisa tests, the international benchmark of tests taken every three years, showed once again UK's education systems no better than middle-ranking

What do the experts say?

"We call on this and future governments to stop using education as a political football" - Brian Lightman, leader of the ASCL teachers' union.

"Improving standards to match the best in Europe could add one percentage point onto growth in the UK each year" - Katja Hall, CBI deputy director general

"The debate over structures has, frankly, become sterile. What's important is what happens in a school or college to make it successful or what doesn't happen to prevent it being so." - Sir Michael Wilshaw, Ofsted chief inspector