In one of the most politically eventful years of recent times, 2016 gave us a new Prime Minister and Cabinet, set us on a course out of the European Union and saw some of the country’s most controversial education policy debates being re-opened. But, can we expect more of the same in 2017?
Mid-term years are, arguably, the trickiest for any government. There are inevitably still difficult decisions to make, but that precious lead-in time before the next general election is slowly diminishing and the buoyancy from any popular initial decisions may be fading away.
But this mid-term year isn’t typical. Theresa May began 2017 having been Prime Minister for less than six months. In that short space of time she has carefully positioned herself on a number of key policy areas, ready to use these next two years to bring home her reform programme.
So, if 2016 was the time for political positioning and distancing the current administration from the previous, then 2017 will be the time to deliver, one way or another.
Let’s start with the ‘Schools that work for everyone’ consultation document. It’s no state secret that the Department for Education expected to receive thousands of responses to the consultation, given that they issued a tender for a third-party to analyse all the responses. Once those responses are processed, the DfE will need to consider carefully how to proceed on grammar schools in particular. While most professional/research opinion is opposed to lifting the ban on new grammar schools, it is important to remember that the Department consulted on how, not whether, to lift it.
So, unless No 10 is suddenly swayed by the generally unfavourable reception for this proposal (and it is also important to remember that many parents in parts of the country are in favour of more grammar schools), we can expect it to form part of the Queen’s Speech in May. That doesn’t mean it is a done deal – some backbench and opposition MPs, as well as those in the House of Lords, are likely to resist or at least moderate government plans, meaning that this Bill cannot be expect to sail unaltered through parliament.
National funding formula
Another reform that is likely to feature in the Queen’s Speech is the national funding formula (NFF). While the formula itself doesn’t require primary legislation, the removal of local authorities’ role in setting budgets for schools (which is set to come into effect from 2019-20) does.
And while the Department has now published further details of the NFF, including indicative two-year budgets for schools, there is still a lot more work to be done. Schools that are set to lose under the new formula will, understandably, want to know whether they are headed for a steep downward trajectory following the two-year transition period. Combined with mounting inflation and pension costs, the Department is going to have a challenging time convincing ‘losing’ schools that these cuts are manageable. We can expect some lobby groups, including those representing London for example, to put up a fight during the consultation period and beyond.
A less controversial announcement that came in 2016 was the decision to review primary assessment arrangements. Justine Greening committed to consulting on primary assessments ‘in the new year’, to the considerable relief of the sector. At the same time, the Education Select Committee is continuing its inquiry into primary assessment, giving the issue further prominence and profile. Now that the government has promised not to introduce any new primary tests until 2018/19, pending the outcome of the consultation, it should consider this an area where there is real scope to listen to the sector and academics and develop new arrangements in collaboration with them.
And how will the role of Ofsted evolve under its new chief inspector, Amanda Spielman? She will undoubtedly want to make her mark on the organisation, in her trademark analytical and measured style, but Ministers may also want to review elements of Ofsted’s role, having sought to avoid any confrontation with Sir Michael Wilshaw towards the end of his tenure. The Education Policy Institute shed light last year on some apparent inconsistencies in Ofsted judgements, which has given the DfE, and indeed Ofsted themselves, some food for thought.
Of course, the DfE is not going to escape from having to consider the implications of Brexit, particularly now that it has higher education within its remit. The status of thousands of teachers and university students hangs in the balance while negotiations take place. The potential decline of EU students would represent a considerable potential blow to universities, who are already fighting to retain non-EU students by keeping them out of the government’s net migration figures. The knock-on effects of Brexit on the teaching workforce and the sustainability of universities remain unclear, but it is almost certainly on Justine Greening’s ‘to-do list’ for 2017.
While 2017 is likely to be the year for detail and delivery, politics and education go hand in hand and so we might expect one or two new policy announcements. It doesn’t seem as though the DfE are quite finished with their ‘schools that work for everyone’ programme and so reforms to school admission arrangements and more public / private partnerships could also be on the table for 2017. Today’s announcement on children’s mental health is both timely and welcome. Last year, the EPI found that a quarter of young people suffering from mental health conditions were turned away by specialist services. Schools can play a vital role in providing early intervention and identification, but they need adequate resourcing to do so – another challenge for Justine Greening and her team.
The DfE can also be expected to work hard to turn its plan on opportunity areas from a vision to a reality that is both clear and will deliver better results in very challenging areas. Neither is straightforward.
Natalie Perera is executive director and head of research at the Education Policy Institute