How politics changed education in 2016

What would have seemed more likely at the start of the year, asks Natalie Perera. Brexit, more grammars or a new prime minister? Twelve months on and you’ve got the lot.

It’s been a tumultuous year in politics. In generations to come, GCSE (or whatever the equivalent will be) students will be sitting exams and writing essays on how 2016 transformed domestic and international politics, policy and society. There will be dissertations on how and why such a transformation occurred over just 365 days.

Education policy has not been unaffected by the reverberations of these sharp changes. This time last year, if we (researchers, the sector, perhaps even the Department for Education) had been asked which of the following was most likely: i) the UK voting to leave the EU; ii) Cameron and Osborne no longer resident at Nos 10 and 11, or iii) the government proposing on how, not whether, to remove the ban on new grammar schools; the first two would perhaps have seemed the most likely of a radical set of options.

No government would want to open that can of worms

Yet, the first led to a domino effect that resulted in the final becoming a reality. In fact, when we at EPI toyed with the idea of doing new research on grammar schools last year, we quickly dismissed it. Surely no current or relatively future government would want to “open up that can of worms”.

Twelve months, two ground-breaking research reports on selective education, one consultation response and countless lost hours of sleep later, proved we were wrong.

But how have education policies been affected by the leadership changes both at No 10 and the Department for Education?

As 2016 dawned, the political debate was largely focused on forced academisation. The 2015 Autumn Statement announced plans to end the role of local authorities in running schools and we braced ourselves for a radical white paper and a consultation on a new national funding formula (NFF).

We weren’t disappointed. As predicted, the DfE published its consultation on the NFF in early March, closely followed by the Educational Excellence Everywhere white paper, which set out plans to force all schools to become academies by 2020. It also committed to place up to 1,500 teachers and middle leaders into under-performing schools through the national teaching service. Nicky Morgan, once seen as the antithesis to ideological reformer Michael Gove, began to emerge as an even more radical politician about to change the school landscape for ever.

In response, many parts of the sector, along with parent groups, galvanised and revolted. On May 6, Morgan made a u-turn, promising that schools would not be forced to become academies unless it became locally unviable for them not to do so or if the local authority was found to be under-performing.

Her climbdown was welcomed by many unions and other education groups, but pressure was building over primary assessments and the lack of further information on the NFF (the former exacerbated by the accidental uploading of a key stage 2 test to a secure website the day before it was administered to year 6 pupils).

For several weeks after the Brexit vote of June 23, business at the DfE seemingly continued as usual. In a decision that was not without controversy, Amanda Spielman was appointed to take over from the formidable Sir Michael Wilshaw as chief inspector next year.

Nicky Morgan emerged a radical politican

But as the new prime minister made radical changes to her Cabinet, there was almost an inevitability that Nicky Morgan’s time in Sanctuary Buildings was drawing to a close. Not only had Morgan already set out her own blueprint for the future of schools, she was also an ally of Cameron and a moderate Remainer – leaving her vulnerable to a new administration seeking to mark their own territory on education policy.

Against the backdrop of No 10 on July 13, Theresa May spoke of the burning injustices of poverty and inequality of opportunity – shifting the political focus definitively to families who are “just about managing”. The following day, Justine Greening was appointed as the new education secretary.

While her boss’s support of lifting the ban on grammar schools was widely understood, Greening was clear in those middle days of summer that she was considering a range of opportunities to improve social mobility. However, on September 12, the DfE published a seemingly hurried consultation document that included controversial proposals on how, not whether, to allow new grammar schools to open and to lift the 50 per cent cap on faith-based admissions in faith schools. The DfE was widely criticised for putting out a document entitled Schools that Work for Everyone, while making not a single reference to children with special educational needs.

Once again, the education sector almost unanimously galvanised in protest against the consultation document with evidence pouring out of organisations, including mine. So far, the DfE has stood its ground and has even been chastised by the Office for National Statistics for putting out misleading statistics.

As the year drew to a close, yet more of Morgan’s legacy, the Education for All bill and the national teaching service were canned. But, now that the Schools that Work for Everyone consultation has closed, it remains to be seen whether Greening and her team will, like Nicky Morgan, concede to the mounting pressure from the sector or whether they will implement their plans and prepare to take a precarious and controversial bill through parliament.


Natalie Perera is executive director and head of research at the Education Policy Institute

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