All quiet on the education front – for now, at least…

15th July 2016 at 00:00
The country has a new prime minister. But what will Theresa May mean for schools? A former minister predicts what the future could hold for English education

There has rarely been a period like this in UK post-war political history: a shock referendum decision to leave the European Union; the possible break-up of the United Kingdom; the resignation of the prime minister; total and utter chaos in the Labour party, with three shadow education secretaries in a week; the Tory favourite for our next PM standing down before nominations had even closed and Andrea Leadsom bowing out of her battle with Theresa May. Dare anyone predict what will come next? Well, I have been asked to do precisely that. So, here it goes…

The first conclusion is that – for the next couple of months at least – schools can, for once, expect a little quiet on the policy front. No 10, under the leadership of Theresa May, will be focused on immediate priorities relating to Europe and the economy. Domestic policy decisions will, where possible, be delayed or kicked into the very long grass.

The second prediction is that, by the time this goes to print, it will be all change in Whitehall and Westminster. David Cameron disliked reshuffling his ministerial team – generally preferring stability. But Theresa May will be likely to carry out a sweeping reorganisation.

At the time of writing, the odds favoured a new education secretary, and a (mostly) new team of ministers at the Department for Education. There is likely to be a new chancellor as well – with new tax and spending priorities.

Who a new education secretary might be is really anyone’s guess. But even if we are looking at just a new set of junior ministers, they are likely to be keen to set some new directions and priorities – so expect some policies to be dumped and other new directions to be set. So, I’m afraid, the odds favour longer-term policy hyper-activity, after a few months of blessed relief from change.

The third prediction is that – following the possible economic shock of Brexit, including the conceivably inflationary consequences of a lower pound – the education sector is more likely to face tighter budgets ahead, rather than an easing up in austerity. And if the new PM and her team decide to review education funding levels, then a number of key programmes could be at risk – the Liberal Democratinspired pupil premium and free school meals, to name two, as well as the commitment to more generous childcare provision.

What about a national fair funding formula? The PM’s demise seems likely to delay this by at least a year, and the appetite for reform will depend on how a new education secretary and PM see the politics of redistributing money – creating winners and losers. There is a real risk that long overdue change in this area is again delayed. May has been supportive about a fair funding formula, but whether that support will last in the face of the reality of significant redistribution is another issue.

The fourth prediction is that the likely steps to reduce immigration could stem the flow of much needed teachers from overseas. This could risk exacerbating the recruitment problems being experienced, and might make the drive to increase take-up of foreign languages more difficult. Perhaps that could prompt a much needed reconsideration of flexibility around the EBacc?

On the academy front, less uncertainty seems likely. Total academisation appears unlikely to be imposed after the political backlash from the recent proposals, but it is improbable that any new team would want to row back from the strategy of forced conversion of very weak schools and incentives for higher performers to group into multi-academy trusts (MATs). So the present policy direction seems like it will continue. My organisation – the Education Policy Institute – published full and detailed accountability tables for MATs and local authorities last week, nudging the DfE to publish their own similar tables, albeit ones that were solely focused on MATs.

So, in one sense, everything is changing – the PM and her Cabinet, possibly the education secretary, ministers, and the contents of the White Paper. But, in another sense, schools will detect a great deal of continuity – the same slowly tightening budgets; the same generally unwanted tendency towards change; the same strategy on structural reform; and the same focus on raising standards in schools and geographies that are lagging behind.

So while the civil servants will sit impatiently, wondering what the new world will usher in, my main advice to those at the sharp end of education is to ignore the Westminster antics and to focus on existing priorities. They won’t be all that different once the dust settles.

David Laws is executive chairman of the Education Policy Institute and was schools minister until 2015

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