Stagnant incomes, falling output and rising inflation could mean a tougher time for private schools, and with no Education Bill in the Queens Speech what is likely to happen in the broader education sector?
The minority government and the re-shuffle that never was means that Theresa May now has little freedom of movement. So what might this mean for education policy? It seems rash in this climate to make firm predictions, but here goes.
We know that May had planned no real terms increase in per capita funding for schools. If pre-election policies stick, there will be a decrease of around 3-6% over this parliament unless the government really is wedded to less austerity, as implied by our new environment secretary Michael Gove. The increase in pupil numbers will place pressure on schools both primary and secondary. Some further marginal cost savings and efficiencies might be squeezed out of schools but for many, probably most, there is no wriggle room left. Also, bear in mind inflation is close to 3% and rising. If more funding is not available and Greening wants more there will be two consequences.
Firstly, the curriculum offer will be narrowed, as teachers and assistants are lost, pastoral support reduced and some school days shortened. Secondly, more schools will be tempted to join chains to afford some protection against cuts, although there may be limited capacity and few incentives for those running chains for this to happen at scale. My guess is there will have to be some adjustment in schools funding, to ease the burden, but it will not be as much as headteachers want and feel they need.
As for the free schools and academies programme, the programme remains the main delivery mechanism for much needed additional school places, regardless of the government’s stance on grammars and increased selection, which will be radically scaled back or probably dropped altogether. Graham Brady, chair of the influential 1922 backbench committee, has suggested that there might be pilots on increased selection but that seems the best that the pro-selection lobby can expect. But even that is a big ask.
And, as far as the much vaunted new school funding formula is concerned, this will be placed, yet again, on the backburner. Clearly a new fairer formula is needed as the current system is unfair. Indeed, Nick Gibb has already suggested that a funding formula will be pushed through but as any new formula will create winners and losers, a minority government just cannot afford to upset even a minority of its backbenchers. So, frankly I doubt that the new formula will be presented any time soon.
Teacher recruitment and retention remains a big challenge. Getting enough leaders identified, trained, supported and deployed where they are most needed, is becoming a major priority and that will be Nick Gibb’s responsibility. Efforts to date have proved disjointed and piecemeal. And we are losing far too many experienced Heads. There is currently no sustained pipeline of good heads, although a new leadership college may be in the wings, with bids already in to run it. So, watch this space.
On the skills front there will be efforts to improve the quality and scope of apprenticeships as well as promoting higher degree apprenticeships and alternative routes into employment, beyond traditional degrees. Disappointingly, for the guidance sector, junior minister Robert Halfon was sacked. One of his main tasks had been to present a new careers strategy, which would be welcomed by all parties and employers particularly if informed by all the so called ‘Gatsby benchmarks’, but this may be delayed further.
In higher education (HE), the new Higher Education and Research Act will be implemented, whether universities like it or not, they will be in a more competitive and accountable environment. The new Teaching Excellence Framework embarrassed one or two leading universities strong on research but whose teaching quality was found to be wanting. The TEF will be reviewed of course and the metrics scrutinized but its here to stay in one form or another. With increasing numbers of students feeling they don’t get value from money for their courses, and destination measures being published, as well as future earnings, the age of increased accountability in the HE sector is upon us. And that must be a good thing
May’s hard-nosed attitude to international students and tightening up visas will undoubtedly come under renewed attack and she is likely to have to concede ground under pressure from businesses, the research community and vice-chancellors, as UK universities slip down international league tables and Indian students, among others, no longer feel welcomed. Significantly the Indian government has made it pretty clear that the UK will not secure any bi-lateral trade deal unless it eases restrictions on Indian students.
Labour’s popular offer of no more tuition fees, which helped secure the support of the young vote, means that university funding will be back on the agenda. Expect think tanks and conferences to focus in on this issue over the coming months .
The findings of the Sainsbury Review, which proposed the creation of T-levels and 15 technical routes for vocational and technical education, had been met with wide support both inside and outside the skills sector. While there are still crucial details about the implementation of the reforms, notably the content and progression routes around the proposed “transition year”, the spirit and substance of the reforms have been broadly welcomed. Institutes of technology should be up and running in this parliament, employer-led, with a STEM focus and operating on a hub and spoke model.
As far as the private sector is concerned, stagnant incomes, falling output and rising inflation could mean a tougher time for private schools. Demand from domestic consumers will probably remain at best, flat. But it’s always been a resilient sector that has weathered many other storms and will continue to attract international students and open satellite schools abroad to support its income streams. The biggest worry is obviously the prospect of a future Corbyn-led government that would threaten a school’s charity status and tax breaks. The higher education reforms mean more opportunities for private, alternative providers to enter the sector, and more two year degrees are in the pipeline, offering more choice to all students, and less debt. This could be attractive to the private sector but don’t expect a mad rush. It will be incremental.
The University of Buckingham, which was the first fully fledged private, non-profit university to be established 40 years ago, is expanding, and has seen an increased number of applications this year, so the private sector is not all gloom and doom. More competition, choice, new market entrants, better accountability and information for students is all good. Vice chancellors are even now scouring the horizon for new opportunities outside Europe and the UK education brand remains a strong card to play, in spite of sharper global competition.
The elephant in the room of course is Brexit. We have been remarkably slow off the mark in starting negotiations. But there is a real sense of urgency now in the education sector over looking at the threats and opportunities, looking outwards. Many worry profoundly about Brexit and the uncertainty it brings, and its possible impact on research funding and collaboration, , international students, knowledge exchange , staff and skills shortages. But it is also true that there is still business to be done in setting up satellite schools and campuses abroad in forging new partnerships with other institutions , in research, innovation and enterprise, which will open up new opportunities for the most enterprising institutions.
But with all this, there is a huge caveat attached. Minority governments rarely last long. And don’t have a great back story. May, as leader, is much diminished, with limited freedom to act. There is likely to be a leadership contest within months. If the DUP arrangement doesn’t hold, and there is no guarantee that it will, we will have another general election and possibly by the end of the year. But the world still turns and there are still new opportunities out there.