IF 2024 manifesto audit 1: education

With less than a week to go until the 2024 General Election, Toby Whelton, IF researcher, gives a whistle-stop tour of what the different parties are offering on education – from pre-school childcare through to further and higher education finance as part of IF’s general election audit.


In the current cost-of-living crisis, the vast majority of families with young children are reliant on a dual income just to make ends meet. According to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), in 2021, 75.6% of mothers with dependent children were in employment – the highest number since records began. Despite this, there are a record number of children in poverty with 4.3 million children living in low-income households, which is 30% of all UK households with children.

Affordable childcare is therefore essential for many parents, and particularly mothers, in order for them to be able to participate in the labour force and contribute to the household income. So what are the different political parties’ offerings?

Childcare features in all the main parties’ manifestos, yet the approaches vary. The Conservatives plan to stick to their current expansion of free childcare, committing to giving working parents 30 hours of free childcare a week for children between 9 months and starting school, saving eligible families on average £6,900 a year. This is coupled with a promise to deliver 75 Family Hubs to support families from childhood to adulthood.

Labour’s approach is to create 3,000 new primary school-based nurseries. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats (LibDems) have chosen to focus on parental pay and rights by promising to double statutory maternity and shared parental pay to £350 a week. Under the LibDems, entitlement to parental pay and leave will become a day-one right, extending to the self-employed. In addition, the Early Years Pupil Premium (additional funding to disadvantaged children’s education providers from the ages of 3−4) will be tripled to £1,000 per eligible child.

The Greens will extend the Conservative’s offer of free childcare from 30 to 35 hours a week. This will be coupled with an investment of £1.4 billion to revive Sure Start centres.

Reform’s only offering is a less detailed pledge to frontload the child benefits system for children aged 1−4 years. While this age group should no doubt have greater funding, it is not intergenerationally fair for this to be at the expense of other children.


Most parties’ policies relating to schools commit to more funding in some form. In general, increasing the resources given to children’s education is intergenerationally just.

The Conservatives claim that they will deliver 60,000 more school places and 15 new free schools for children with Special Educational Needs (SEN). Labour’s flagship education policy is the recruitment of 6,500 new teachers. The LibDems will commit to raising school funding above inflation every year and introduce a ‘”Tutoring Guarantee” for every disadvantaged pupil who needs it. The Greens have promised the highest expenditure out of all the parties, planning an increase in school funding of £8 billion with £2 billion going towards a teacher pay rise, an additional £2.5 billion to tackle the RAAC concrete scandal and another £5 billion toward SEN provisions.

Other policies plan to tackle child poverty and offer childcare, such as Labour’s guarantee of providing free breakfast clubs in every primary school and the LibDem’s aim to extend free school meals to all children in poverty.

Policies such as scrapping the VAT exemption for private schools proposed by Labour and the Greens or Reform’s plans to give 20%  tax relief to independent (private) education are more intra-generational issues than inter-generational issues.

Further education

Compared to the 2019 General Election, there has been increasing attention given to apprenticeships by the main parties, which is welcomed. The Conservatives have promised to create 100,000 more high-quality apprenticeships while Labour will replace the Apprenticeship Levy with a more flexible Growth and Skills Levy. Reform to the Apprenticeship Levy is indeed needed; since its introduction in 2017, apprenticeships have fallen by an estimated 31%.

Both main political parties focus on technical skills is further seen in the Conservative plan to replace A-levels with a new Advanced British Standard that will bridge the divide between academic and technical learning and make Maths and English compulsory for every student up until the age of 18. Labour plans to transform further education colleges into Technical Excellences Colleges.

The other political parties have given little mention to further education, beyond the Greens promising an investment of £3 billion to sixth forms and the LibDem plans to extend the Pupil Premium to disadvantaged 16−18 year-olds.

Higher education

Higher education is in desperate need of reform with: total student debt now running at more than £200 billion; the interest rate of repayment at a record high of 7.9%; and the majority of the  burden of funding higher education falling on students more than any time throughout history. Add to that the current “cost of learning” crisis with sky-rocketing student rent swallowing up shrinking maintenance loans and many students have been left destitute and forced to work excessive hours during term time.

Unfortunately, it seems that both Labour’s and the Conservative’s focus on apprenticeships has come at the price of any serious discussion of higher education. Labour have offered no actual policies instead promising a review of the current system. The party has stated that the “higher education funding settlement does not work for the taxpayer, universities, staff or students.”

Meanwhile, the Conservatives plan to close universities in England that have the worst student outcomes. They also plan to remove international students’ ability to bring dependents to the United Kingdom in an attempt to deter immigration. The question of the pros and cons of international students is not necessarily an issue of intergenerational fairness. However, the truth is that the sector’s finances are dependent on these students and the shortfall created by the loss of their fees will most likely be placed at the feet of students by either higher tuition fees or declining teaching standards without policy reform.

The LibDems intend to reintroduce maintenance grants for disadvantaged students. This is a welcome proposal given that the poorest students graduate with the most debt. Their other offering is the lifelong skills grant worth £5,000. This would be given to all adults to spend on training and education throughout their lives. The Greens have planned to invest £12 billion into a similar scheme. While the retraining and reskilling of workers is undoubtedly key, it is hard to justify it as a priority above alleviating the current financial burden placed on students and graduates.

The most intergenerationally fair policies on higher education comes from the Greens, who call for the scrapping of tuition fees. Their long-term plan is to cancel student debt. Reform’s policy of scrapping interest rates on student loans would mean student debt would act more like the intended loan, as opposed to the reality of an effective graduate tax, which seems sensible. That said, plans to cut funding to universities that “undermine free speech”, are less so.

Where does this leave the political parties on intergenerational fairness grounds?

In the full IF Manifesto Audit, we have applied a traffic light system to signal how intergenerationally fair we consider the various policy offers to be. We grade intergenerationally fair pledges as: “green”; “yellow” if intergenerationally neutral; “orange” if some progress has been made but more needs to be done; and “red” if intergenerationally unfair.

All political parties seem to recognise the importance of childcare to enable parents to participate in the labour force. At a time where young families disproportionally feel the brunt of the cost of living, it is more important than ever that families are supported in having a dual income. All political parties received a “green” light, except Reform, which argues that greater childcare spending will come at the expense of other child benefits.

Similarly, the Conservatives, Labour, the LibDems and the Greens have all pledged more funding and improvements to primary and secondary schools, and this should be applauded.

Labour and the Conservatives show promising signs in giving more focus towards apprenticeships and are awarded a “green” light for their direction of travel. Apprenticeships remain a blind spot for both the Greens and the LibDems.

Higher education is the most mixed bag. The Greens have the most intergenerationally fair offering with the scrapping of tuition fees and future plans of cancelling student debt. The LibDems are right to advocate for maintenance grants, yet without further action on student finance this is not enough to advance beyond a “yellow” light. While Reform’s proposal to scrap interest rates on student debt would be intergenerationally fair, this is countered by proposals to restrict places and withdraw funding.

Most disappointing are the Labour and Conservative offers, both of which give little mention of higher education. This scores them an “orange” due to the lack of policy proposals in the face of the mounting financial crises facing students and graduates.

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