What are the big decisions Justine Greening must make as education secretary?

A new education secretary, Justine Greening, has been appointed. So, what now? Natalie Perera describes what awaits at the department for education.

History suggests that a new Education Secretary will almost certainly want to make her mark on the Department, the sector, and the profession.

Each has come with their own unique agenda for reform; for Michael Gove it was the academies and free schools programme; for Nicky Morgan, it was character building, resilience and trying to build bridges with the profession.

Justine Greening will be no different. Putting any personal agendas aside, urgent issues remain in education which are as important now as they were on the 23rd June.

1. The future of the academies programme

Although Nicky Morgan reversed a government decision taken earlier this year to force all schools to academies, questions still remain over whether the government will continue its ambition to create a fully academised system. It also faces the challenge of how it plans to address multi-academy trusts, and individual academies, that are under-performing whilst building the system capacity required to take on failing schools.

The future of the Education for All bill, which was due to be debated this autumn, remains uncertain.

2. School Funding Reform

Over the past few months, the Education Policy Institute has been pressing for clarity and certainty over the Department’s plans to introduce a new national funding formula from April 2017. While there is broad consensus that the current system is out of date and unfair on many areas whose circumstances have changed over recent decades, the issue now is how the schools budget will be redistributed and what effect this might have on schools that are set to lose money.

The timetable for implementation in 2017 is becoming increasingly unachievable because of the lead in time required to issue a second consultation, amend secondary legislation and calculate new budgets for over 20,000 state-funded schools across the country. But the urgency is this; those who have been historically underfunded will, in the lack of reform, continue to suffer from cost pressures that are not acknowledged by their current budgets. Those set to lose funding through the new formula may well breathe a sigh of relief, but as inflationary pressures build (and EPI’s analysis suggests that this could be around 11 per cent by 2021), delaying cuts to later on in this Parliament will limit the ability of those schools to manage the combination of reduced cash funding and rising costs.

3. Teacher recruitment 

Teacher recruitment and retention continues to represent a significant challenge, with the proportion of state funded school teachers leaving the profession rising again in 2015. Four fifths now leave before retirement age and many blame this on working hours – high by international standards – and working conditions that have been made challenging by sweeping reforms to school curricula and an increasingly challenging environment of accountability. With 11-15 year old pupil numbers expected to grow over the next 5 years, increasing Initial Teacher Training recruitment levels will be crucial.

4. Leadership capacity

As with classroom teachers, there are increasing concerns about the difficulty in recruiting to leadership positions and that challenge is often most acutely felt in areas with poor results where strong leadership could have the greatest impact. The EPI’s Annual Report highlighted the vast regional differences in attainment across the country, particularly in parts of the North and in isolated coastal communities.

Government funding for centralised or local authority led school improvement support is diminishing, being replaced instead with encouragement of a ‘school led system’. But, as the White Paper highlighted, support in the shape of Teaching Schools and NLEs is not in abundance everywhere.

Where school leaders are in place they face a number of challenges. As funding pressures continue to grow many leaders will be embarking on strategic decisions that they will not have faced before. They will also need to adapt to reform to the curriculum and accountability whilst the management structures above them change along with academisation.

 Plus all the other education challenges

These are not, of course, the only priorities and challenges Justine Greening will face: access to high quality early years education; implementing the new GCSE reforms; and, with the expansion of the DfE, the reforms to Higher Education and the forthcoming bill planned for September are also in need of urgent scrutiny and focus. All in all, a significant task for a new Secretary of State with an even bigger department.

Natalie Perera is Executive Director at Education Policy Institute

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  1. I think Natalie’s point about the funding formula is the most powerful and therefore the most urgent decision she has to take. Rebalancing the formula needs to happen now – I know of schools in the traditionally underfunded areas and the money really is beginning to run out. In practical terms this will begin to bite into staffing levels which will ultimately hit standards. So while the decision around where we go with academies is fundamental to the sort of system we want – funding or not dealing with the funding issue threatens the very foundations of that system……

  2. Andy Leslie

    Perhaps the solution to teacher retention and recruitment is not to train more teachers who will then leave the profession but to address the root cause of the problem. Workload, excessive scrutiny, punitive performance targets and year on year effective pay cuts?