Prior to the General Election, this seemed a much easier question to answer.
Parliament was expected to be pre-occupied with pushing through major education Bills, should the election have gone the way the polls had predicted. The creation of new grammar schools and the scrapping of school meals for infants, for example, might by now be making good progress through the House. Not surprisingly, however, the Prime Minister has since had no choice but to drop these flagship policies, given her weakened position in Parliament, allowing for a welcome period of respite for the sector.
Crucially, the Government can now focus on policy areas that don’t require legislation, free from the distraction of major Acts of Parliament having to be passed. And the fact that education was all but absent from the Queen’s Speech in June need not be perceived entirely negatively by the sector.
An opportunity therefore presents itself for schools, colleges and universities to lobby on the smaller, perhaps less high profile, reforms that can be implemented without Parliament’s approval.
A little perspective, please
It’s always worth remembering that Michael Gove’s educational reforms were the most radical in a generation. Controversially for many, he weakened local authority control over education in pursuit of the rapid expansion and promotion of the Academies Programme. There was also the introduction of curriculum changes that emphasised academic excellence above all else, and arguably to the detriment of vocational qualifications for post-16-year-olds. These reforms didn’t end with Gove of course. Nicky Morgan, or “continuity Gove” as she referred to herself, was equally intent on seeing full and proper implementation of her predecessor’s reforms.
When compared to the controversy surrounding May’s plans to allow new grammar schools to open, Gove and Morgan’s reforms pale into insignificance, but finally, a period of calm has ensued for the sector in light of May’s lost majority.
Her scaled-back legislative programme has meant sticking only to Bills which will pass safely through both Houses. This isn’t to say that the selection argument is off the table, for example, because it isn’t. There remains a proportion of the public still in favour of grammar schools but, for now at least, the plans have been shelved.
Legislation isn’t everything
And so the sector has just as much to gain from engaging with what is on the table for education, as it does from anticipating what the Government might return to legislate on in two years’ time.
After all, much of what really matters in education today depends on things outside of Parliament’s approval. Arguably, issues such as school governance, management, the delegation of powers, Ofsted, league tables, teacher recruitment and retention and student attainment are far more important on a day-to-day basis than what’s being legislated on for education in Parliament.
Opportunities for the sector to influence remain plentiful: the potential removal of the faith cap; a review into school admissions; and the encouraging of universities to set up new free schools still need to be addressed. A response to the second consultation on the new Fairer Funding Formula (expected in September) is also needed. And what about the Government’s response to its consultation on making 90% of pupils take the English Baccalaureate? This was originally scheduled for spring 2016 but still nothing has been seen.
We also await the launch of the Government’s promised consultation on the framework for Personal, Social, Health and Economic education (PSHE) following an amendment passed in the Children and Social Work Act in the last Parliament, as well as the expected consultation in the area of entitlement for publicly-funded adult digital skills training. Consultation for free school transport for low-income pupils at selective schools and the revised EU school milk scheme will also need to be addressed at some point over the next two years.
We shouldn’t forget the latest on the National Funding Formula for schools either, announced just before Christmas to resolve "unfair" and "inconsistent" funding levels. Justine Greening announced last month an additional £1.3 billion per year for schools over the next two years from “efficiency savings”. However, several questions still remain unanswered and the additional granting of monies to the core schools budget doesn’t address the more salient concern of how exactly that funding will be allocated. Schools will have to wait until the autumn for promised details of an updated version of the formula in their budgets. In the meantime, they have nothing to lose in keeping pressure on the Government in order to prevent any U-turns, subtle reshuffling of existing budgets or sleight of hand at the next Budget.
A “low priority” sector
The reality is that nothing has changed in this sense: education remains a low priority sector, low down on the list of areas requiring support in post-Brexit Britain. But the sector shouldn’t let this detract from the fact that it still needs help in addressing key issues, particularly within higher education. With Brexit talks well underway, the re-confirming of rights to reside in the UK for those working or studying in higher education remains to be seen, as does the ability to collaborate flexibly with European partners in delivering research excellence. May has previously ruled out the removal of foreign students in higher education from the immigration figures, but this means little now given the election result combined with the fact that several senior Cabinet Ministers have come out in favour of excluding them from the figures.
There’ll also be the implementation of the Higher Education and Research Act. Ensuring an effective transition to the new system will be essential, as will making the most of the opportunities for input over the next 12 months.
The extent to which education remains a low priority sector is dependent on the sector’s campaigning efforts, but it should welcome this period of respite. With the summer holidays and recess in mind, the key for the sector now will be to use this chance to get ahead and set its own agenda ahead of Parliament’s return.