How did politics influence education in 2017?

It’s been a less eventful year for education than 2016, but according to Natalie Perera it’s the same old story: we need more money to back the policies

Last year, my review of 2016 reflected on the political transformation that brought us the Brexit vote, a new prime minister and education secretary, a new chief inspector, and a debate on grammar schools. While there have been fewer leadership changes this year, the political context still continues to influence education policy.

At the beginning of the year, grammar schools were still firmly on the government’s agenda, despite two EPI reports and countless other experts explaining how bad it would be for social mobility, and there was no planned increase to the schools budget, despite fears of a funding crisis.

The collapse of two multi-academy trusts this year was a reminder that school autonomy can lead to bad decisions as much as it can innovation

All of that quickly changed, however, after the general election in June. The Tories’ loss of their majority meant that the prime minister had to abandon plans to create more grammar schools, while a concerted school funding campaign meant that Justine Greening soon announced an additional £1.3 billion would be added to the core schools budget over the next two years.

Rather than quieting their funding cries, the unions called for a five-per-cent pay increase for teachers ahead of last month’s budget. While those of us with less ambitious expectations might instead have predicted more money to support the government’s forthcoming social mobility action plan, the chancellor actually announced new incentives to boost take up of post-16 maths (a subject which isn’t particularly suffering from a lack of entrants).

The collapse of two multi-academy trusts this year was a reminder that school autonomy can lead to bad decisions as much as it can innovation, especially when a MAT grows too rapidly. The role and effectiveness of regional school commissioners is also still up for debate. There is little difference in performance between MATs and local authorities, but we’ve seen no appetite from the DfE to allow Ofsted to inspect MATs.

While much of the department’s energy this year seems to have been spent fire-fighting, some good policies have emerged from Sanctuary Buildings.

We will have a national funding formula for schools from April 2018, something which no other government or secretary of state has been able to address. The careful architecture of the new formula bears the hallmarks of Justine Greening’s accountancy background.

Extra funding for teacher training and professional development in underperforming schools, and the recently announced new funding for mental health training in schools, are also welcome. The new green paper on this issue represents a real step-change in how we think about young people’s mental health. But we also need to guard against throwing new responsibilities at schools with modest, disparate pots of money. Schools aren’t equipped to run as mini local authorities.

And what of the social mobility action plan? We can expect more free schools in underperforming areas, and confirmation of initiatives announced earlier this year including funding for literacy hubs and parenting support. It’s unlikely that we will see any new opportunity areas announced though, despite there being none in the north-east as yet.

The political context will, inevitably, shape public policy, irrespective of who is in government. But the balance between reactive announcements of poorly thought-through initiatives and evidence-led, intelligent policymaking needs to shift if the government is going to make real progress in improving educational outcomes across the country. The resignation of the entire Social Mobility Commission was a sad but predictable end to the year, and it remains to be seen whether the government will appoint new and credible commissioners.

Natalie Perera, head of research, Education Policy Institute

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  1. How many SchoolsWeek experts are actually experts in the proper sense of the term?

    The worry is that those not in the know willl think that the think-tankers and social media gurus, in particular, are the equals of those who’ve earned advanced qualifications in Education and who do in fact possess expertise in their areas. They may well know a great deal about their area of interest, these so-called experts, but that’s very different to putting your ideas to the test in the academic arena.

    If they do possess such things, why not include it in their personal intros? It would add weight to their views.

    (And how many of these experts are connected to the education privatisation movement?)