What must the new education secretary's priorities be?

After the surprising election result, what should the new education secretary's priorities be? Geoff Barton offers some suggestions

Empty chair, in spotlight

Well, we didn’t see that result coming.

And as the various recriminations, post-mortems and celebrations kick in, let’s think about the opportunities a whopping government majority gives to whoever is appointed (or reappointed) as education secretary.

Because it may just be, at last, time to get things done. And in education, there’s lots to do.

So what should be the top priorities in the secretary of state’s in-tray? Here are my five suggestions.

1. More funding

Let’s take it as read that more money is needed for schools and colleges. The money currently in the government spending plans is what was promised by Boris Johnson before the general election was called. It’s a good start but it isn’t enough.

Even with this extra funding, many schools will have to make more cuts next year because they are in line for only an inflationary increase when school costs are actually rising above the rate of inflation. In particular, more funding for children with special educational needs and for 16-19 education is desperately needed over and above what has been allocated so far.

2. Teacher supply

Another obvious priority is teacher supply. The situation is dire already. Recent statistics show that secondary teacher training targets have been missed for the seventh year in a row.

And it will get worse as demand for teachers increases to cope with a demographic surge in secondary pupil numbers. The planned introduction of £30,000 starting salaries for newly qualified teachers is great – as long as it is properly funded by the government so that schools are able to afford the costs involved.

But we have to do something about our overbearing school accountability system, which drives far too many people out of the profession. And we must get on with implementing the teacher recruitment and retention strategy that we all welcomed not so long ago.

3. Accountability

Talking about accountability, it must be clear to whoever is in the education hot-seat that the current system doesn’t work.

Our school performance tables drive competition, narrow the curriculum, penalise schools which have the greatest degree of challenge, and are built on esoteric methodologies.

Negative Ofsted judgements stigmatise schools, making it harder to secure sustainable improvement. We need an accountability system which rewards inclusion and collaboration, and which is more supportive and less punitive.

4. Testing

Then there are tests and exams. We have to stop telling children that they have not reached an "expected standard" at the age of 11, and we have to stop consigning a third of 16-year-olds to a sense of failure in GCSE English and maths.

New approaches are needed. And the fact that the Sutton Trust recently reported that the attainment gap had widened since GCSEs were made deliberately more difficult must be the trigger for a review of the current specifications.

5. Qualifications

On the subject of qualifications, let’s not sacrifice BTECs and other applied general qualifications in order to clear the path for T levels in the review of post-16 qualifications.

Applied generals are an excellent option for many students and serve them well. Whoever is in the education hot-seat must focus on making T levels a success in their own right. And work is needed on that front. The requirements on learning hours and industry placements are very demanding and need to be looked at again. If these qualifications are to be a success they require careful nurturing rather than government hype.

We need a national strategy

Finally, let’s start right at the outset by looking at the long term too. One thing that has been painfully clear over the course of the general election campaign is the lack of a coherent, evidence-based national strategy for education. In an analysis of the party manifestos, the Education Policy Institute concluded:

“Although all parties have made bold pledges about reducing opportunity gaps and raising educational attainment, the policies in their manifestos are unlikely to deliver on these aspirations.” It’s hardly the most ringing endorsement.

Now is the time to bring together people from the worlds of government, education and industry, drawing on the best evidence available, to map out the key priorities for education, together with costings and timescales. It would give us a national plan which could be used to guide effective and realistic policy-making, as well as providing the public with a benchmark against which to assess the pledges of political parties at election time.

We have a good education system in this country but we spend too much time changing course according to the latest political hobby horse. If we are going to become a world leader in education it won’t be because of an obsession with arcane performance measures; endless structural reforms; or bits and pieces of policy tourism. Neither will it be because we scrap Ofsted or Sats without being clear what will replace them. We will develop a great education system by having a clear, deliverable strategy, underpinned by the evidence of what works and sufficient resources, and which we then stay true to and refresh over time.

That is obviously something that we can’t do overnight; but the education secretary should get started from Monday.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He tweets as @RealGeoffBarton

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