One week on and the dust is still settling on the General Election. As Theresa May forms a government and prepares for her first parliamentary test in the Queen’s Speech next week, those of us who spent the election period wondering what a new government would mean for education are still left wondering.
What hasn’t changed are the challenges facing the school system, which remain as difficult as they were at the start of the campaign. Before the election was called, virtually all schools were faced with the prospect of a real-terms reduction in per-pupil funding over the coming years. In fact, our analysis suggested that around half would be facing cuts of between 6 and 11 per cent by 2020. Funding quickly became a prominent issue, reaching far beyond education circles and achieving impact with the electorate at large. This is despite record levels of funding up until 2015.
Each of the main parties responded with spending commitments to plug the gap. The Conservative pledge to provide an additional £4bn still amounts to a real-terms reduction in per-pupil funding of around 7 per cent between the start of the last parliament and 2022. Without committing more public money, it is inevitable that the vocal, and so far successful, campaign led by the trade unions to increase funding will continue.
National funding formula
And what of the separate, but inevitably connected, issue of the proposed national funding formula for schools? The proposals put forward earlier this year had already stirred opposition from the government backbenches.
Many MPs who thought their constituencies were set to gain, were left disappointed by the scale of those increases. Under the proposed formula money would be redistributed from the most deprived areas to less deprived areas. However, by setting the disadvantage weighting as they did, the government protected disadvantaged urban areas that tend to be represented by Labour MPs from even greater falls.
Now, with a manifesto commitment that no school will lose out in cash terms as a result of the formula, the government will find it even harder to find bigger gains for the winners. The long held ambition to address the inconsistencies in how schools are funded may have to remain an ambition for a while yet.
There is also a continued need for an expansion in the number of school places.
Although the government has returned without a majority, the free schools programme is likely to continue as planned. They will still face opposition. Labour will continue to argue that some free schools are being built where there isn’t a need for new places.
While that’s true, and while there is, as yet, little convincing evidence about the impact of free schools on attainment, the government can reasonably argue that the presence of free schools nevertheless provides both capacity and competition in the sector and free school proposers have the potential to offer good quality school places. So we shouldn’t expect any major change in direction.
Faith schools cap
Faith schools are another area where the government might be able to proceed as planned. The proposal to lift the cap that limits faith based admissions to 50 per cent is a policy decision for ministers and does not require a change of legislation.
But it is not without risk or opposition. The Education Policy Institute found that the higher performance of faith schools is largely explained by the characteristics of pupils that attend them, and they are on average more socially selective than other schools. Any small benefits in terms of pupil outcomes comes at the risk of increased social segregation.
Faith schools are not alone in being socially selective. Indeed, our research shows that there are many comprehensive schools that have far fewer pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds than you would expect given their surrounding areas.
Inclusive school admissions policy
The Conservatives also committed to a review of school admissions policies – the evidence certainly indicates this is a good idea and necessary. If we want a school system that genuinely works for everyone then the government also needs to consider provision for those with special educational needs and disabilities: a group not mentioned in the Conservative manifesto.
End of the road for grammars?
Finally, is it the end for that most controversial of proposals? There is growing consensus that plans for an expansion in the number of grammar schools will now be dropped.
We had assumed – as had many – that with an increased majority, and a commitment in the manifesto, the government would be successful in passing the necessary legislation. This is despite the evidence being clear that an expansion in academic selection would hamper social mobility.
The political make-up of the new parliament means it is highly unlikely that any controversial legislation will be introduced. Ministers may well be grateful to have more time focusing on those things that will genuinely help address the challenges our schools face.