Education secretary Gillian Keegan faced her first education committee grilling today.
She answered questions about government school reforms, impending strikes, teacher recruitment, SEND and grammar schools.
Here’s what we learned…
1. The schools bill is dead, long live the schools bill
Confirming Schools Week’s exclusive story from earlier this year, Keegan said the schools bill would not progress in its current form, but said certain elements would be prioritised as the government considers its legislative programme.
Priorities include the bill’s proposal for a register of children not in school, and a law change needed to make it easier for faith schools to keep their status when joining academy trusts.
Keegan told MPs today that the DfE “remains committed to the objectives” that underpinned the schools bill.
“We will be prioritising some aspects… of the bill as well to see what we can do.”
2. DfE drawing up strike contingency plans
The National Education Union, teaching union NASUWT and headteachers’ union the NAHT are all currently balloting members for potential strike action in the new year, while leaders’ union ASCL is holding an indicative ballot.
Keegan was asked today whether the DfE would adopt an approach used in the pandemic – when schools remained open for the most vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers – to mitigate the impact of any strikes.
She said there was “a lot of planning going on across government to mitigate the impact of harmful strike action”.
“That is of course one of the factors we’re looking at – how we can do that relying on various other pools of people and staff, so yes that’s something that’s part of the planning.
“Whilst hopeful that teachers won’t vote for strike action, we are planning to make sure that we have some mitigations in place.”
3. Keegan mulls physics and maths teacher apprenticeship
DfE officials have been tasked with looking into the feasibility of undergraduate apprenticeships for physics and maths teachers, Keegan revealed today.
Although a postgraduate teaching apprenticeship exists, discussions about an apprenticeship route for those without a degree have had little success.
One of the key barriers has been how subject specialism for secondary teachers could be factored-in to an apprenticeship course.
But Keegan today suggested the department is now looking at separate frameworks for certain shortage subjects.
“I’m always keen to look at what more we can do, and I believe that we could potentially, well I want them to look at maybe an apprenticeship for undergraduates…a maths and physics teaching apprenticeship.
“I’ve asked the department to look into that. Is that something we could develop? Would that broaden the pipeline?”
4. Grammars have ‘stubbornly low’ disadvantage
Unlike her predecessor, Keegan has made it clear the government won’t pursue the lifting of the ban on new grammar schools on her watch.
She told MPs today that existing grammars were “safe in my hands” and do a “fantastic job”, but while the government will continue to allow expansion, it would focus on “making sure everybody has a fantastic comprehensive state school education”.
Pressed on why new grammars were not a priority, Keegan warned the proportion of disadvantaged children in selective schools “does remain stubbornly low”.
She said the latest data showed 7.9 per cent of grammar pupils are disadvantaged this year, compared to 26.6 per cent in all mainstream schools.
“So as an engine for social mobility, I don’t know what they were like years ago, but I know that many of our colleagues, it was their life chance and they absolutely loved the fact they got to go to a grammar school… but I would imagine that the figures were probably different then.
“They have become much smaller as a contribution to that social mobility, to help disadvantaged kids.”
5. The attendance alliance continues
Last year, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi launched a 17-member “attendance alliance” which was tasked with working to reduce absence from schools.
Last week, Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman said the alliance had been “helpful” but had not met since the reshuffle in the summer.
But Keegan said today that reports of its death were greatly exaggerated.
“I don’t think it has been discontinued. In fact I think I’m attending one early next year.”
6. DfE expects ‘many schools’ to fund tutoring with pupil premium
Keegan was pressed about falling government subsidies for tutoring. Schools will have to fund 75 per cent of the costs themselves from next year before subsidies taper off completely in 2024-25.
But she insisted schools had found tutoring to be a “good addition to the landscape”, adding that pupil premium funding “really has the flexibility to be able to use that money” to support things like tutoring.
“I do believe that many schools will continue it in one way, shape or form using pupil premium funding.”
7. Councils wanting to withhold SEND rise must meet ‘very high bar’
The government has announced that £400 million of the £2 billion funding increase announced at the autumn statement is for high needs.
But fears have been expressed that the money may not reach special schools, with councils expected to meet a minimum funding guarantee of a 3 per cent rise, but allowed to apply to exclude “some or all” of their schools from this.
Acland-Hood said today that it was “true there’s a process that allows local authorities to ask for that, and that’s part of some of the response to the challenge that we see on high needs pressure”.
“But it’s very much the exception and we would want local authorities to meet a very high bar in explaining why that was the only thing they could possibly do to manage their funding.”
Keegan added that the government was “making sure that we set out the expectation that that goes directly to schools”.
“So there is more funding to come, it will be allocated, and we will do our very best to set the expectation that local authorities pass that on.”
8. British Baccalaureate: Ministers eye post-16 maths boost
Prime minister Rishi Sunak set out plans in the summer for a “British Baccalaureate”, potentially involving a requirement for all pupils to study core subjects in sixth forms.
But further details have not been released.
Keegan said today that discussions were “focused around maths to 18”.
“We know that maths is a key foundation for many pathways but particularly STEM and others as well.
“We’ve done a lot of work to make sure that there is better maths teaching, people going further with maths, and I think A-level maths is the most popular now.
“Clearly there’s scope to go further to improve and look at that, so they’re the kind of discussions in that space. What more should we be doing to really look at how we can increase the proportion of young people who study maths post-16.”