Brexit stage left: expect reforms to be put on hold

1st July 2016 at 00:00
Jonathan Simons, head of education at thinktank Policy Exchange, writes weekly about policy and education

It felt like pathetic fallacy. As the rain poured down amid the Victorian surrounds of Wellington College, many of the attendees at the Festival of Education felt decidedly uncelebratory as they pondered what the EU referendum vote might mean for schools.

Last week, I said that many key personnel would depart following a leave vote, and that’s already proving to be true. Shadow education secretary Lucy Powell has resigned, and NiMo has indicated that she’ll be running for Tory leader. Even if that doesn’t come about, she’ll surely move elsewhere. Although junior ministers may nominally remain for now, we are in lame-duck mode until at least September, pending the appointment of a new prime minister and, probably, an election shortly afterwards.

So what else might we see in this unusual period?

1. Some important things won’t happen. The schools White Paper will very quickly fall away, as any new education secretary will want to put their own stamp on the Department for Education. Some big things in it – initial teacher training reform, multi-academy trust accountability metrics, and, painfully for many schools, a national funding formula – are unlikely to happen any time soon.

2. Some other policies might slip off the agenda. A new education secretary coming in – and certainly a new manifesto – is a chance to drop more unpopular commitments. I suspect the Year 7 resits will never see light of day. We may get a shift on the English Baccalaureate.

3. The DfE will slow right down. We should see a new Department for Brexit (or, at a minimum, a huge increase in personnel at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Foreign Office and the Cabinet Office). Finding several thousand civil servants at short notice is tough. The DfE is the Whitehall department least exposed to a lot of EU matters. If you were ruthless, you could strip it back to the absolute essentials (funding schools and dealing with basic-need places via the Education Funding Agency, some performance monitoring of existing academies, initial teacher training allocations) and free up a lot of staff for quick redeployment.

4. Teacher numbers will be more volatile. We may see a decline in EU-national staff, who may avoid the UK or choose to return home, even if they don’t need to. On the flip side, we may see more UK graduates entering teaching if the economy slows. Movement of UK staff outside the EU may increase, but could just as easily decrease.

5. There will be more uncertainty. Much like businesses delaying investment decisions, schools may put strategic calls on hold. Thinking of becoming a MAT? Or building a new building? Considering a big change to your teacher training or curriculum? Proposing to buy some new technology kit? Very tempting to hold fire and see what happens.

But don’t get too used to peace. By next spring I expect we’ll have a new education secretary and team, a new shadow team and a new prime minister (and leader of the opposition) holding – probably – a five-year mandate from a new election that will include new education commitments. Much like at Wellington, things will start pouring down on teachers again.

Jonathan Simons is a former head of education in the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit under Gordon Brown and David Cameron

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