With an election looming, the new education secretary will need some quick announcements up his sleeve that will actually help schools, says Ollie Lane.
The education views of the new secretary of state, Gavin Williamson, are not widely known and many are wondering what his priorities might be.
But as a true politician, and part of a government gearing up for an autumn election, his priorities will be less around his educational philosophy and more about finding announcements that can be made quickly, underline the success of the reforms since 2010, win positive headlines and are popular with teachers and parents – all of them voters, of course.
They also need to have genuine positive impact, be gimmick-free and avoid accusations of tokenism, and will have to be in line with the over-arching Conservative education message of the last nine years – high standards – while not rowing back or u-turning on the reforms implemented since 2010.
Here are six announcements which could fit the bill.
Though many academy trusts and schools are hugely efficient and run their organisations brilliantly, even they would appreciate more money.
A confirmation of the £4.6 billion extra funding for schools pledged by Boris Johnson during the Conservative leadership contest would be very well-received and Williamson should make it his own, very personal gift to schools.
2. Widen the EBacc and adjust Progress 8 accordingly
Williamson could announce that a number of subjects (art and design, music, drama, design and technology, and religious studies), will count in the EBacc and for the Progress 8 measure.
Thought would need to be given to ensure there wasn’t a reduction in take-up of existing EBacc subjects – for instance, a new “arts bucket” could be introduced, or a requirement to do a humanities or an arts subject – and to avoid the risk that this is seen as a u-turn as the DfE has resisted multiple calls for the EBacc to be widened. Williamson can present this as a pro-Brexit story: the need for more designers and the backing of the creative industries, the UK’s fastest growing sector.
Adding religious studies can be presented as supporting fundamental British values – to promote understanding of different religions and beliefs, and the world we live in, and celebrating the UK’s diversity.
3. Add functional skills to the post-16 English and maths requirement
It is right that young people who do not achieve a grade 4 or better in their English or maths GCSEs should continue studying the subjects, but a shortage of post-16 maths and English teachers and the fact some students end up resitting GCSEs again and again has left it open to criticism.
Funding functional skills in maths and English as an alternative to GCSEs would help children achieve a qualification in these key subjects.
4. Drop the outstanding schools inspection exemption
The introduction of the new inspection framework from September gives Williamson scope to make a change there is widespread support for.
Some schools rated outstanding haven’t been inspected for more than 10 years, making it difficult for parents to judge their effectiveness.
5. Bring FE funding in line with schools
This would not be cheap and would need Treasury agreement but it would underline a commitment to the further education sector that is long overdue – and would surprise those who think Conservatives naturally see FE as “for other people’s children”.
In fact, more than 50 per cent of children who take A-levels do so in an FE college, with the remainder on vocational subjects. Parity of funding would give parity of esteem to academic and vocational subjects and parity to the two sectors.
6. Keep backing academies
This is less an announcement, more about tone. The academies system, through collaboration and self-improvement, has been at the forefront of the huge improvement in England’s state education system the last nine years, and deserves more explicit support from the centre.
Williamson should also adopt the recent language that academy trusts are education charities running state schools like any other state school – free to attend, inspected by the same regulator, and their children take the same tests and exams.
Finally – one area Williamson should leave well alone: don’t add demands to schools.