Reflections on 2017

This has been an interesting year in education. 2017 started with great anxiety over the proposed new common funding formula for schools. The government’s original version left many rural and small schools out of pocket and losing actual cash. The revised version just left them out of pocket. Indeed, from government data released in December, it seems secondary schools have been dipping into their reserves for the past three years; many primary schools are now having to do so as well.

The other key topic of interest a year ago, the creation of new selective schools, has fallen victim to the unexpected outcome of the general election. Apart from Brexit, it seems any contentious reform is not now being contemplated.

Selection as a topic has been replaced by social mobility as the key goal of government. Unfortunately for many areas, the funds are largely being targeted at key ‘opportunity areas’ that look suspiciously like the Education Action Zones once championed by the Blair government in the 1990s. Smaller pockets of deprivation, as can be found in many parts of the country, seem less likely to attract much if any additional funding above the Pupil Premium and free school meals.

There are worrying signs, including in the Report of the Chief Inspector, that some schools may be actually frustrating social mobility by offering challenging pupils the opportunity to be home educated or on a reduced timetable. Many of the parents do not have the background to challenge these decisions that can blight a child’s possible future almost as much as the alternative of a permanent exclusion.

Although there have been changes in the junior ministerial ranks, the Secretary of State has served throughout the year and is now approaching the point in her tenure when she is in the zone where many politicians find themselves either changing jobs or being removed from office in a reshuffle.

Teacher workload, pay and recruitment have once again dominated the teacher associations concerns during the year that has also seen the creation of a new association, with the coming together of the NUT and ATL.

The dead hand of the revolution initiated by Mr Gove, when he was Secretary of State, still affects schools, especially in the design of the curriculum and examinations where reforms take several years to reach full implementation.

The most worrying outcome of 2017 for schools was that following the general election spat between Labour and the Tories over university tuition fees, some £800 million appeared in the budget Red Book for student fee initiatives. That’s money that could have been spent in schools, FE or early years now diverted to the already most highly funded part of our education system.

So, what of 2018? Might we see a resolution of the academy and maintained school divide? Will the DfE really launch a free vacancy service in time for September 2018 and what will be the response of existing players if they do? How will the DfE save money to pay for social mobility programmes?

Above all, will the teacher supply crisis reach its zenith in 2018 and will the depressing numbers entering teacher preparation courses in September 2017, coupled with increases in school rolls, create a real sense of urgency to do something about the problem?  Perhaps the pressure on school budgets will finally mean secondary schools are really forced to cut teaching posts and the shortage of trainees won’t matter. Time will tell.

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Notable during 2013

Education politician of the year

Graham Stuart, chair of the Select Committee at Westminster. He has returned strongly to his role after a serious accident. His rebuke to David Laws for being late and taking off his jacket without permission, and his interchanges with the Secretary of State, notably over careers education, stamped his authority on a Committee where often he has had to rely upon the terrier like support of the Labour members in evidence sessions.

PR coup of the year

Nick Clegg’s announcement, on the Tuesday of his Party Conference, that all 5-7 year olds would receive free school lunches. This was a closely kept secret up to that point, known only to a few. Had it been announced as part of his Leader’s speech it wouldn’t have had the same impact. In the 2015 Manifesto the Lib Dems can suggest extending free meals to all primary school pupils at some point in the future. Honourable mention must go to the DfE for the announcement in early December of the new role of School Commissioners through the jobs pages of the TES. Seemingly even the TES didn’t pick up on the implications. Hopefully, that is not a return to the bad old days when journalists at the TES didn’t know what interesting news stories were appearing in the classified pages of their own paper. Finally, but not in the running for coup of the year, was the Labour Party’s well researched press release issued on Christmas Eve highlighting the government’s failures in recruitment to teacher training courses. Whoever at Labour HQ thought education journalists would be working in the run up to Christmas needs some re-education, especially when these journalists have to work throughout the Easter holidays attending the professional association conferences. This was a waste of a good opportunity.

Export of the year

The TES, to a USA company: will the profits from all that recruitment advertising now flow overseas.

Most challenged local authority of the year

There are two main contenders: Norfolk and the Isle of Wight. This proves that size has nothing to do with success. Both were effectively issued with notices to improve by Ofsted. Interestingly, both are experiencing the effects of a move from a 9-13 three tier system to a break at 11+. Oxford City, whose schools at Key Stage 1 were once the worst in the country also experienced such a system change. It is worth looking to see whether sufficient attention was paid to CPD when these changes take place. Unlike Oxford, both Norfolk and the Isle of Wight also have many coastal communities, one of the vogue terms of the year.

Technology of the year

Tablets: these electronic successors to slates seem likely to put the learning firmly in the hands of the learners even more than laptops did. And, for the first time the software to make really useful is starting to emerge. Whether teachers have been trained to make the best use of new technology, or even old technology like interactive whiteboards is another whole debate.

Still waiting at the bus stop award

The DfE pulled guidance on school transport during the early summer, promising a revised set of rules by the autumn. At the year-end this is still awaited. Perhaps the problems in the Prime Minister’s own backyard may be causing some re-thinking. One overdue change is to increase the age for free transport to 18 now the participation age has been raised. This is a real issue for less well off families living in rural areas, including Mr Cameron’s own constituency, as the audience of around 100 at a recent turbulent meeting at Burford School made clear.

Tectonic Plate award

The notion of combining children’s social services with education into a single department looks increasingly passé. With child protection issues taking up more and more of many Director’s time, and schools policy no longer run by councillors or even authorities but School Forums, the idea of marrying all services for children into one department will undoubtedly come under scrutiny as local government cuts begin to really hurt. For many authorities, schooling is now little more than a regulatory activity and an oversight of standards. For that reason it might now better live in the Chief Executive’s domain in many authorities, along with Trading Standards and the lawyers.

Personality of the year

Like him or loath him, it must be the Secretary of State. Although the Chief Inspector made a brave run on the inside rail late in the year nobody else came close to Mr Gove as the public face of education change. However, the run up to the 2015 general election may prove more of a challenge if other Free Schools follow the Discovery School into closure, and his School Direct training route for teachers proves less than a resounding success. However, his Achilles heel is undoubtedly a lack of feeling for numbers. When the Chancellor was accepting the needs of rural areas, including specifically mentioning schools, at his recent visit to the Treasury Select Committee, Mr Gove was continuing a policy of per pupil funding regardless of where the pupils live. This may drive some Tory voters towards UKIP in 2015 if they think their former Party is favouring urban areas.

And finally, in no especial order, the Parliamentary Education debate of the year award

This goes to the debate where the differences between the coalition partners over teacher training were first written into the Order Paper for all to see.

This afternoon the Labour Party at Westminster have an opposition day debate in the main chamber around the topic. This is the sort of debate that normally passes relatively without comment, but what is interesting is the amendment put down by the government in the names of the prime minister and his deputy; and Michael Gove and David Laws. I have reproduced it below with the key section underlined:

Line 1, leave out from ‘House’ to end and add ‘notes that this Coalition Government is raising the quality of teaching by quadrupling Teach First, increasing bursaries to attract top graduates into teaching, training more teachers in the classroom through School Direct and providing extra funding for disadvantaged pupils through the pupil premium which schools can use to attract and reward great teachers; notes that the part of the Coalition led by the Deputy Prime Minister believes all schools should employ teachers with Qualified Teacher Status, and the part of the Coalition led by the Prime Minister believes free schools and academies should retain the freedom to hire teachers without Qualified Teacher Status; further notes that funding agreements with academies and free schools will not be altered in relation to Qualified Teacher Status prior to the next election; and regrets the findings of the recent OECD skills report which revealed that those young people educated almost entirely under the previous administration have some of the worst levels of literacy and numeracy in the developed world, underlining the need for radical schools reform and demonstrating why nobody can trust the Opposition to protect education standards.’

For the full write up read the blog entry for the 30th October 2013.

So, what will 2014 bring? But, perhaps that’s best left to another post.