14th June 2017

Natalie Perera: ‘Priorities for the Secretary of State for Education’

Speculation about the new government is rife, but the challenges facing our education system remain the same – funding needs to be urgently addressed, writes the executive director of the Education Policy Institute

As a new government takes shape, speculation about what this means for public policy and politics continues. As this is relatively new territory, no one can say, with any certainty, how the events of the past week will affect the decision-making processes in Whitehall and beyond.

Nonetheless, whatever arrangements emerge over the coming days and weeks, the challenges facing our education system remain the same. The reality is that the key constraints for this government will be attempting to introduce or amending primary legislation. Without a Conservative majority in the House of Commons, it is almost inevitable that controversial policies requiring legislation will be put on the backburner.

Arguably, however, the most prominent issue facing schools, and the government, remains funding.

Prior to the election, schools were facing an overall funding pressure of around 7 per cent per pupil in real terms by 2019-20. After years of record levels of spending, schools have not been immune to the argument that there is scope to operate more efficiently and within a more modest budget. However, schools themselves argue that a combination of inflation, rising levels of need amongst pupils (which has been magnified due to wider reductions to local authority support services and other grants) and a shortage of teachers means that they are having to make spending decisions affecting frontline teaching and learning.

In their manifesto, the Conservatives committed to spend an additional £4 billion on schools by 2021-2022. It wasn’t, however, clear whether the £4 billion is intended to also pay for other education commitments in the manifesto such as mental health first-aid training or a new curriculum fund. Our estimate is that, even if we assume that the £4 billion is intended for core education only, this still equates to a 3 per cent cut in real terms per pupil spending over the course of the Parliament.

The reality is that we don’t yet know what impact these savings have had or are likely to have on both academic and wellbeing outcomes. But we do know that the sector, led by the trade unions, has run a powerful campaign over recent months, and one which has resonated with the public in an almost unprecedented fashion. This campaign will no doubt continue over the coming years.

The government must also decide how to proceed with the new national funding formula. In practical terms, introducing a new formula is achievable because it doesn’t require primary legislation (although the government would have to maintain local authorities’ role in adjusting the formula, which would be unpopular amongst academies). But in political terms, it is still tricky. Now that the Conservative Party has pledged to protect schools from losing as a result of the formula, it has very little scope to increase funding to schools in areas largely represented by Conservative backbenchers that feel they should benefit more from the new formula.

But even if the government manages to implement a new formula, it won’t (under current plans) change the fact that all schools are still likely to see a real terms, per-pupil cut.

The long tail of underachievement

Another big issue which needs to be high on the list of priorities for Justine Greening is teacher recruitment and retention. England has one of the youngest and least experienced workforces in the developed world. Of those starting teacher training in state schools in 2009, only 72 per cent were still there five years later. Teachers’ relative pay also continues to deteriorate and trails many other professional occupations.

To address this, the Conservative manifesto proposed to forgive student loan repayments for as long as graduates stay in the teaching profession. The manifesto also pledged to reduce teacher workload through better use of ICT and to “bear down on unnecessary paperwork and Ofsted-related burdens”. While it is unclear whether the forgiveness of student loan repayments will act as an incentive for graduates to join and remain in the profession, the latter policies are more evidence-based and respond to concerns raised by teachers themselves.

If the government wants to improve its relationship with the teaching profession, the Department for Education should follow through with these commitments, but work collaboratively with the professional bodies in doing so.

The next big challenge, which has faced successive governments, is the long tail of underachievement in this country.

The Education Police Institute’s research shows that, at age 5, disadvantaged young children are, on average, just over four months behind their peers. By the time children leave primary school, the gap has grown to around 9.5 months and, by the age of 16, disadvantaged young people are, on average, 19 months behind their peers.

This widening of the gap over a child’s life tells us that, unless we have the right mechanisms to intervene early on, we are unlikely to improve social mobility through selection at age 11 or later.

So far, the solution favoured by the prime minister is to lift the ban on new grammar schools. But the evidence is clear that grammar schools don’t provide a solution and that they may well widen the socio-economic gap. And, without a majority, it is highly unlikely that Theresa May will succeed in getting the grammar school ban lifted through primary legislation.

But, as we’ve seen recently, the ban on new grammar schools hasn’t prevented the expansion of existing schools. In September this year, Weald of Kent Grammar School in Tonbridge will open a new “annex”, nine miles away in Sevenoaks. This could well set a precedent for the expansion of selective schools into non-selective areas in such a way that doesn’t require primary legislation.

The government may be better advised to focus on some of the proposals in its manifesto which were less contested, including a review of school admissions, providing new capital funding for nurseries within primary schools, looking at key stage 3 accountability and a review of funding for tertiary education.

If pursued sensibly, all of these proposals have the potential to begin to address some of the challenges we currently face in education.

Natalie Perera is executive director and head of research at the Education Policy Institute. She tweets at @natalieperera1