A leaked government document offers a glimpse at what the new education secretary wants for schools, but there’s no guarantee he’ll get it, writes Freddie Whittaker.
Yesterday, the Guardian published a story based on a leaked document outlining the new government’s proposals for the school system, including plans for a funding boost, a renewed push on academies and a supposed clampdown on behaviour.
But what does the document – described by Department for Education insiders as little more than a “wishlist” drawn up by new boss Gavin Williamson – actually mean for schools? The answer: very little.
The most important figure in the document is £2.8 billion. That’s what the DfE is asking the Treasury for in terms of a funding uplift for pre-16 education. There’s talk of another £800 million for post-16 education, but there seems to be less certainty about that.
We also know that the £2.8 billion proposal includes £800 million specifically for the education of pupils with special educational needs and disabilities.
However, we don’t know whether ministers will also seek to address wider problems with the high needs funding system, such as a requirement for mainstream schools to stump up the first £6,000 of funding for a pupil’s provision themselves.
It’s important to note here that these figures are not what’s been approved. Williamson will have aimed high in his bid to the Treasury, and will expect his actual settlement to be lower.
Also, next week’s spending review will only cover the next year. Everything after that depends on what happens in any upcoming election (or constitutional crisis, whichever happens sooner).
2. Teacher pay
The leaked document also reveals an ambition to raise teachers’ starting salaries to £30,000 by 2022.
In 2017-18, the starting salary for a qualified teacher outside London was £23,720. Based on the teacher pay deal announced in July, that should rise to over £24,300 next year, and if the same rise was applied in future years, it will reach over £26,400 by 2022-23.
So on the face of it, the £30k pledge looks like a healthy rise for new teachers – but at what cost?
Worryingly, the leaked document talks of further cuts to support staff numbers – already devastated by almost a decade of funding pressures – and there will be a concern that more experienced teachers could lose out.
Also, as Aditya Chakrabortty points out in the Guardian, a pledge for something so far in the future when we don’t even know if Boris Johnson will still be prime minister next year is pretty unreliable.
The document also stipulates that the extra money handed to schools next year will allow for an average increase in teacher pay of 3 per cent.
Whether that’s what is actually recommended by the school teachers’ review body and accepted by ministers next year is another matter.
It’s no surprise that a government on an election footing wants to talk about behaviour. The issue is important to parents, and they make up a huge chunk of the electorate.
However, what little detail there is in the document doesn’t actually suggest anything new will happen.
In the paper, the government says it will back heads “to use powers to promote good behaviour including sanctions and rewards, using reasonable force, to search and confiscate items from pupils (including mobile phones), impose same-day detentions, suspend and expel pupils, ban mobile phones”.
To those outside the schools community, this will sound like a punitive clampdown. In reality, it’s a list of things heads are already allowed to do.
Existing guidance on behaviour already permits, among other things, the use of reasonable force “to prevent pupils committing an offence, injuring themselves or others, or damaging property, and to maintain good order and discipline in the classroom”. Suspension and expulsion are also in the gift of headteachers, and it is already up to leaders whether they ban mobile phones.
There’s also mention of an “ambitious reform programme” to provide schools with “tools and support” to drive improvements in behaviour, which we hear may include some extension of the recently-announced behaviour hub program, but there’s little further detail.
In short, the government is hoping that emphasising its existing policy on behaviour will make it look tough in the run-up to an election.
Williamson has already named free schools as one of his top three priorities in government, so it’s no surprise the leaked document includes a renewed commitment to the academies programme.
However, a new wave of free schools was always going to be inevitable under a Conservative government, given we need more schools and free schools is pretty much the only mechanism to open them.
The pledge of extra money to help successful trusts expand is also nothing new. Expansion funding has existed in one shape or form for years. In fact, a new “trust capacity fund” was launched just last month.
There’s also mention of a £24,000 “incentive” for trusts to take over struggling schools. I suspect this is in response to concerns about orphan schools or “schools no-one wants” – academies that get stuck without a sponsor willing to take them on.
At present, sponsors receive a £25,000 support grant to establish an academy, but only if they are converting from a local authority maintained school. There are various other grants available for sponsored academies – inadequate schools forced to convert – but again these have traditionally only been paid to trusts converting schools into academies, not taking on existing ones.
One of the policies in the document that seems more likely to come to fruition is the removal of the current inspection exemption handed to outstanding schools.
At present, schools given the top grade by Ofsted are then left alone by the inspectorate, which only returns if safeguarding concerns are raised, or if outcomes data shows something is amiss.
However, the current system has left some schools uninspected for over a decade, and hundreds of schools visited as part of a recent, limited clampdown have been downgraded by inspectors.
Amanda Spielman, the chief inspector of schools, has been lobbying the government for a change to the rules for some time, and it seems ministers have finally listened. However, it is not yet confirmed whether Ofsted will receive much-needed additional funding to pay for the additional inspections.