Schools policy challenges after the election

April 30, 2015

I spoke this morning at an IPPR seminar on schools policy challenges after the election. This is a summary of the perspective I offered, seven days out.

Although there are distinct policy and philosophical differences between the two parties on education, in practice there is less difference than in some other areas, for example health. This means we might not expect a radical departure from the current system regardless of who assumes office. This is even more likely when you consider that the biggest immediate challenges in the system will need to be addressed regardless of the party in power.

These are:

– Challenges to school budgets. Although schools have been relatively protected till now, and there are efficiencies that can be made at a system level (both Deloitte and the IFS for example have shown real variation in per pupil spend and how this is very weakly correlated to pupil outcomes), this will be difficult to do at an individual school level in practice.  We should also consider that no head or business manager who has assumed their role since about 2000 will have ever really had to deal with declining budgets. There is a lack of familiarity in the system with how to do this, contra areas such as local government and social care.

– Reform fatigue. A huge amount has happened since 2010 (and will need to be implemented in school throughout the next parliament) including in areas such as curriculum and qualifications. There is a real sense of reservation from the system about the prospect of further change, especially change that is perceived as that done ‘to’ rather than done ‘with’.

– Political instability and legislative gridlock. Whoever forms the next Government, the polls suggest that the results will be tight and Parliament evenly divided – with coalition Government obviously a real possibility. To borrow Russell Hobby’s quip, there is greater within party variation than between party. What that means in practice is that it might be difficult to get legislation through parliament that doesn’t become what is termed in the US a ‘Christmas tree’ bill (lots of bits and pieces all added onto it from backbenchers or minority parties). If the risk of this is too high, government will try to avoid legislating. That means that even relatively small changes – for example Labour’s commitment to tighten the existing law on class sizes – may become difficult to do.

So all in all, there is a possibility of an education system with relatively little change from Whitehall and from the education secretary. At this point, do most people in education breathe a huge sigh of relief? Well, yes and no. The big opportunity for the sector is to start to make talk of a school-led system a reality. If government won’t or can’t address teacher supply, or leadership quality, or financial sustainability of schools, or the gap between poorer pupils and the richer, then the school system can and must take this on. But the downside (as the conversation this morning made clear, most people having indeed breathed the sigh of relief at the prospect of limited government) is that there remain a group of system issues which either only government can address, or where some sort of government action is helpful. I think there are four of these:

1. Funding – only government can make decisions about the quantum, make up, and distribution of school funding. As noted above, budgets will come under pressure regardless of who is in power. The most effective way of making the best use of money that will be available would be to move to a consistent national funding formula; again, something only government can do (though as an aside, such a task would be made immeasurably easier by a self denying ordinance from schools and LAs that will lose out not to squeal about it).

2. System oversight – to what extent a middle tier exists, how that is shaped, what powers of oversight and intervention any central bodies have, are all policy questions. Both Labour and the Conservatives have plans for this, and any changes or evolution must be done by government.

3. Capacity building – if the word of the last five years was autonomy, the word of the next five years should be empowerment. Building the ability of the system to make the changes needed is a huge task. This one is not just for government and ideally not even principally so – but in a slightly circular argument, to allow the system to build capacity you often need an external push. Some central engagement and coordination role would also be helpful.

4. The accountability system – in what way and to what extent this operates is a key question and in practice the behaviours it drives trumps almost all of any focus of the school system. Thinking through how this might evolve and reform is a key task for government.

So there is a positive way forward for schools over the next five years. But it will require a government focused on what it can do, and a school system ready to play its role alongside that.

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