The landscape after the landslide

Boris Johnson Swept back into power with a landslide majority, decimating the opposition parties and setting himself and his party up for 5 more years in government. Education is frequently a battleground during election campaigns, so now the dust has settled it seems appropriate to ask how (English) schools will fare under a Conservative government that’s in a strong position to implement its manifesto commitments.

This post examines some of the pre-election promises in an attempt to gaze into the crystal ball of future education policies: what can our schools expect?

Although much of the Conservative manifesto signalled a business as usual approach to education policy, there was the big promise of £14 billion extra funding for schools – though this was a reaffirmation of a pledge made by the prime minister, Boris Johnson, in August. This funding will be delivered over the next three years: £2.6 billion in 2020-21, increasing to £4.8 billion in 2021-22 and £7.1 billion in 2022-23. According to some commentators, this should bring real-terms funding per pupil back to 2010 levels – when funding was at its highest (for more on school funding problems, see my piece in The Conversation 2018).

On the steps of Number 10, the morning after the election, Johnson once again promised “more money for schools”. But with increasing costs and rising pupil numbers this may not amount to a real-terms increase for schools.

More money, fewer teachers?

Alongside the funding boost also comes the threat of higher expenditure, in particular for new teachers with promises of starting salaries of £30,000 a year. Again here, the manifesto restates an earlier promise. And what a promise! For some newly qualified teachers this would be a 20% boost on their current salary. While my own research reassuringly suggest that the vast majority of trainees enter the teaching profession for reasons other than money, a starting salary that takes them above the national average would undoubtedly appeal, and provide some recompense for the pressures and stress of the job.

There’s no indication of whether there would be comparable or knock-on uplifts for more experienced teachers, though Gavin Williamson, secretary of state for education, suggested that “flatter pay progression” structures in schools will be encouraged. Flat pay structures can be attractive, but for some they represent fewer career progression opportunities, so they may be a mixed blessing.

School leaders will be agonising over the question of whether the funding injection, estimated at 7.5% by the The Institute for Fiscal Studies, will be sufficient to cover the additional costs (including the pension costs) of highly paid new teachers. If not, a promise that ought to attract more into the profession may actually lead to fewer teachers in schools.

The government is also promising an additional £780 million package to support children with special educational needs. This money, distributed through local authorities, will go some way towards mitigating the £1.2 billion shortfall projected by a recent official Education Committee report, but wider change will need to happen for this to be effective. Indeed, a further report from the same committee highlighted how additional funding will make little difference to the lives of young people unless there is a “systemic cultural shift” in the way special needs education is managed in schools.

Pupil premium payments, for those children who have been in care, or have qualified for free school meals in the previous 6 years, are not highlighted in the manifesto. Unless an alternative funding stream is introduced to reduce inequalities in terms of outcomes between “disadvantaged” children and their peers, it is hard to imagine how this money could be removed–schools very much need it, though there is scant evidence that it has closed the gap on a national scale.

Reforming the systems

It’s not just funding that has been promised by the Conservatives, but further reform to school systems too. More places in special schools, for those with the most complex needs, alongside an expansion of alternative provision, for children who are at risk of, or have suffered, permanent exclusion. These may be needed if the Conservatives’ plan to crackdown on behaviour and back headteachers to use exclusions more widely is to be implemented: we could see more “zero tolerance” behaviour policies and a continuation of the growing numbers of children not in mainstream schools.

In line with previous governments, there are also commitments to seeing more Free Schools opened. We have not yet heard anything explicit about a 100% academised system, but don’t be surprised if that particular line re-emerges in Whitehall thinking. There is mention of “innovative” schools with specialisms – a possible hark back to the specialist schools movement instigated under former prime minister John Major, and enthusiastically maintained by New Labour, before dying a death under the coalition government 10 years ago.

It’s also very likely that a richer curriculum will be developed in schools. This may be in response to the new Ofsted inspection framework, which looks for an ambitious and comprehensive curriculum. But it will also be a result of new funding for a new premium to provide money for art, music and sport, as well as more PE in primary schools. For many pupils and parents this will be welcome, after a decade of narrowing curriculum driven by too much emphasis on performance data – this according to the chief inspector of schools.

But this doesn’t mean the Ofsted inspection regime has gone soft. The government has promised to revisit no-notice inspections – where teams simply turn up at schools unannounced, and in theory see what the school looks like on a normal day. It will also provide extra funding for Ofsted to allow for longer inspections in bigger schools.

This, along with revisiting outstanding schools, may seem fairer, but it won’t take away much of the stress caused by Ofsted – which is identified as in issue in its own research – nor will it give the support that struggling schools need. While the manifesto promises to intervene in schools with “entrenched underperformance” it’s not clear what form that intervention would take.

More choice for parents

The neoliberal commitment to the invisible hand of market forces remains at the centre of ongoing reforms, with the promise that parents will be able to choose the school that best suits their children. This concept of “choice”  has led to secondary schools becoming larger and fewer in number – with government policy producing not more schools but an increase in different types of schools. For parents, this made choices at once more limited, but also more complicated and confusing – and it looks like this is set to continue.

In the end, the story is of more of the same, but with more power to the elbow of the Department for Education. Strong accountability measures, centralised funding and an apparent back to basics approach to a knowledge rich curriculum look set to continue. A large majority in parliament means that legislative changes can be made almost without scrutiny (though many changes in the educational world don’t require legislation anyway). Over time we may see the general direction of travel unchanging, though the pace may become more rapid, and the destination may look more extreme.

So it would appear that the landslide has hardly changed the landscape of education, merely consolidated its shape and substance. Seismic shifts in terms of direction are not anticipated, though in 5 years time we may look back and wonder how we arrived in our brave new world.

Chris Rolph

[this is a longer version of an article published in The Conversation, December 2019]

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