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The future of education policy: analysing post-election language

Tom-Middlehurst-finalTom Middlehurst sorts the meaningful statements from the blather

Following the election result in June and the subsequent minority government, what can we expect from Sanctuary Buildings over the coming months? The mainstream press has been quick to point out that many of the Tory educational manifesto pledges were dropped from the Queen’s Speech – noticeably new grammar schools and scrapping infant free school meals for wealthier families – but arguably it’s not quite so simple.

In the main body of the Queen’s Speech, only two sentences were afforded to education – highlighting three policy areas – ‘good schools’ for every child, ‘fairer funding’ for schools, and a ‘major reform of technical education’.

So what can we tell about what was in the speech, and moreover, what wasn’t?

Good schools – free schools

The government have reiterated their aim of opening new schools in order to create more school places, through the free school programme. Toby Young, chief executive of the New Schools Network, which advocates the development of free schools, has upped the target of new schools from 500 to 750 by 2020. And the prime minister, weak though her position may be, has been championing the concept of free schools since as early as 2001, when she was shadow education secretary.

More school places are needed, but whether opening new schools is the most efficient way of creating more system capacity is debatable. The principle of MATs with good and outstanding schools opening new schools is likely to be continued by this government.

… and grammars

So what of the future of new grammars? On the one hand, they were noticeably absent in the Queen’s Speech. Even with DUP support (Northern Ireland is fully selective), enough Tory MPs have publicly spoken out against grammars (including ex-SoS Nicky Morgan) that the government would struggle to get legislation through the Commons.

Yet in the policy document that accompanies the Queen’s Speech and gives more detail about the policies, the language is interesting – and familiar. When talking about good school places for all, the document describes a ‘great meritocracy’ in which ‘everyone has a fair chance to go as far as their talent and their hard work will allow’. This is the language of the previous green paper, Schools that work for everyone – and does not feel like a departure from the ambition for increased selection. Indeed, the green paper talks about new ‘centres of excellence’ within MATs, which – although not operating exactly as grammars do – could bring in new grammar-style schools without primary legislation.

A report released in June by social research institute NatCen showed that just over half (53%) of the public support the expansion of grammars. Therefore a policy that would not require legislation to get through a (tricky) parliament, but that is supported by most of the electorate, would be an attractive proposition for the government.

The reaction from MATs has been mixed; with some already trialing centres of excellence, some coming out firmly against the ideas, and others in a Cold War situation of not acting first, but feeling pressured to if one opens in their area. So the future of increased selection may lie less in the hands of policymakers, and more in the hands of those leading the academy system.

Funding

It has been widely acknowledged that the joint campaign for sufficient school funding – started in West Sussex and supported by (among others) SSAT, the Heads’ Roundtable and the unions – has been a great success in raising public awareness and making school budget cuts a key issue in the election. Tory campaigners reported difficult questions on the doorsteps about education spending, with the party line of ‘more money than ever before’ unconvincing in areas where teaching assistants have lost their jobs, parents are increasingly asked for contributions, and schools are threatening one-day closures.

There is therefore a widespread belief that the government will increase school spending. However, again the language used in the policy document is telling: ‘since 2010 the schools budget has been protected in real terms. This government has committed to increase the school budget further.’ There is no concession that flat cash per pupil has meant real term cuts.

So what does the government’s ‘commitment’ mean in reality? The Tory manifesto pledged £4bn to schools – but it remains unclear where this will come from and where it will be allocated. Under a new funding formula, this will likely be used to cushion schools losing out, meaning that no school will actually lose cash – but it is unlikely to plug the gaps already there or meet future costs. By some estimates, with costs continuing to rise, this would lead to cuts in real terms of 3% between 2017 and 2022.

And what of fairer funding? The government are committed to introducing the new formula, but with the election delaying the response to the consultation; it remains to be seen how this will look. While there is much to celebrate about the success of the campaigns so far, we must not allow complacency, or for discussions of ‘fairer’ funding to replace a focus on sufficient funding for all.

Technical education

With schools policy relatively light in the policy document, the largest sector for reform is likely to be the skills and technical sector. The government will be keen to look at the most successful UTCs and encourage more schools to work in partnership to raise the status and profile of technical education. We will also have implementation of the Sainsbury Review and the introduction of T-levels.

Any technical education reform should be linked to a new industrial strategy, with courses that meet the requirements of local and national employment opportunities.

However, as the government is also championing the Ebacc for all (although not as a formal target), a cohesive approach to technical education may prove difficult. The impact of Ebacc subject entries will gradually begin to affect A-level and T-level choices. If performance measures discourage secondary schools from offering a range of technical GCSEs, how can we increase their take-up post-16? As with grammar schools, the government will need to think through how these two different focuses work.

A period of calm and stability?

As we have often pointed out at SSAT, just last academic year the then secretary of state Nicky Morgan promised headteachers ‘a period of calm and stability’ in educational policy. I think we can all agree this hasn’t happened …But might the absence of new education legislation actually bring in this period now?

So much about the future remains uncertain. But right now, we have: a government which can’t bring about legislation that doesn’t attract a broad majority; no primary legislation on education for two years; an education secretary who was largely welcomed back by the profession for her focus on school improvement; and an inspectorate keen to dispel myths about inspection, thereby empowering school leaders to make autonomous decisions aimed at improving their schools and the education system.

The time has never been better for the profession itself to really lead the direction of travel, to have its demands met by central government, and to make the school-led system a reality.


Tom Middlehurst is head of policy and public affairs at SSAT. He regularly gives policy updates in person to groups of headteachers, governors, senior and middle leaders. To book, please email Tom on tom.middlehurst@ssatuk.co.uk.

Tom also facilitates various SSAT member headteacher, principal and senior leaders’ collaborative email forums. To sign yourself and your staff up the forums, please email your SSAT relationship manager or RMTeam@ssatuk.co.uk.


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