What now for education policy following the election?
The phrase, ‘well, I didn’t see that coming!’ was uttered up and down the land earlier this month, when the snap General Election, called by the Conservative government, spectacularly backfired on the party. The late Labour surge succeeded in massively derailing Theresa May’s plans to crush her opponents and drive through her agenda, unfettered by her previously slim majority. A majority about which she can now only wistfully dream.
My favourite joke doing the rounds on Twitter after the election? This one:
It seems that there is no end to the hubris of our recent prime ministers; one gambling with a generation’s future in Europe and the other gambling that UKIP was dead and Labour unelectable. Although the latter gamble was half right, the half that wasn’t right has proved a personal disaster for Mrs May.
The question for those of us in education is: what will this all mean for the government’s education policy? The effective defeat of the Tory majority and a hung Parliament will probably be a mixed blessing. Economically, uncertainty is rarely a good thing. Politically, May’s embarrassment will probably blunt the edge of the hard Brexiteers. This should hopefully mean more consensus and sanity over the European divorce negotiations, so it may not be all bad after all.
Perhaps education will also benefit. As we saw throughout the Election campaign, Labour appears to have benefitted as the school funding crisis was increasingly discussed.
In fact a poll by Survation claims that concerns about school funding during the campaign influenced more than 750,000 voters, causing them to change the party they had originally intended to support. The results saw almost a quarter of voters – 22.6% switch party. Of these, 10.4% cited school funding policy as the reason – ahead of the economy and tuition fees, and equal to terrorism. It claims that only the performance of the party leaders, Brexit and social care policy were more influential.
Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn raised the issue of school funding throughout the campaign, while the party’s manifesto pledged a real-terms increase in per-pupil funding. In contrast, while the Conservatives promised a £4 billion boost to the schools budget, the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies calculated this would mean a real-terms 2.8% per-pupil cut over the course of the parliament.
Since the election, a number of Conservative MPs and candidates have highlighted school funding cuts as one of the reasons for their party’s poor performance. The TES also ran a story after the election, claiming that Justine Greening had wanted the Tory manifesto to protect real-terms per-pupil funding, but was overruled. It quotes a ‘DfE source’ who states that ministers are now considering “all the options” on increasing school funding.
The TES also revealed that Ms Greening was not consulted about the controversial part of the Tory manifesto dedicated to replacing free school lunches for all infants with free school breakfasts for all primary school pupils.
But that’s in the past. Now Theresa May is reportedly telling Conservative MPs that the age of austerity is over. This, in turn, is leading to speculation that schools could see their budgets increased, as ministers look to neutralise the issue.
So, funding seems likely to be an area where there is some respite. The iconic and ideologic white elephant that is grammar schools will also now disappear. But what of free schools? There is a still a shortage of school places so new schools are clearly going to be needed but it’s unlikely that there will be a change in the way they are rolled out during a hung parliament.
Unfortunately, the same is probably true of the loathed primary assessment framework, with its many bugbears. These are close to the heart of our local constituency MP and reappointed schools minister, Nick Gibb. Teacher assessment, SPAG, phonics and an effective narrowing of the curriculum are all things the education sector would dearly like to see reviewed, but this is unlikely with Mr Gibb in post.
Finally, what of the academy policy? Since the ‘z-turn’ over a year ago under Nicky Morgan, we have seen no great encouragement for schools to consider becoming academies. This too seems unlikely to change in the near future, and the muddle of the ‘mixed economy’ of academies and maintained schools is set to continue.
We are in for a fascinating second half of 2017, that’s for sure.