In any sane context the car crash that is Conservative education policy would be enough to bring down a government by itself.
The schools bill before Parliament has been so savaged in the House of Lords that ministers have stripped out 18 of the key clauses, leaving it bereft of its original purpose, yet doing nothing to address issues that matter most to schools and parents.
The National Audit Office (NAO) has just published a review of skills policy saying the government “needs to be much more effective than it has been in the past” in delivering the skills the economy needs.
In higher education, ministers prioritise confected battles about the so-called “woke” agenda, ignoring serious problems for university budgets, student fees or the Brexit-induced crisis for research funding.
Yet all this, and the farce of having three education ministers on three successive days, is eclipsed for the tabloid press by the issue of gender neutral toilets, And for anyone serious, it’s been overshadowed by the genuine crises concerning the climate, household finance and European security.
The contest to become the new Conservative leader seems to offer little hope that developing a sensible education policy will be a priority any time soon, as candidates seek to outbid each other in terms of fantasy tax cuts. It is worth, therefore, highlighting just what a mess we are in.
The changes proposed in the schools bill were a badly thought-out attempt to deal with a problem of the government’s own making. Despite no real evidence that forcing schools to become academies improves their performance, ‘setting schools free’ from local authority control, and their incorporation into multi-academy trusts (MATs) has been a cornerstone of Conservative policy. Late in the day the Department for Education (DfE) has realised that it has no coherent system for regulating the performance of MATs and, having written local authorities out of the script, proposed drastic new powers for the Secretary of State.
These new powers would add to the already highly centralised control of schools by Whitehall. The minister would be able to micro-manage MATs, determining such issues as the length of the school day and fine details of the curriculum. It is not surprising, therefore, that it ran into fierce opposition from both those wanting stronger guarantees of autonomy for individual schools, and those wanting to see a greater role for local communities and governing bodies. With former Conservative Education Secretary, Lord Baker, leading the charge, the DfE has retreated to rethink its whole approach over the summer.
Important as it is to get the issue of MAT governance right, there are other, more pressing problems for schools at the moment. Not least, is how to afford the increased costs they will face from rising inflation, and particularly the leap in energy prices this autumn. Of equal significance is the staffing crisis, exacerbated by Covid-linked absences. Schools are still struggling to help pupils whose progress has been badly affected by the pandemic, with the ‘catch-up’ funding provided by government described by the education select committee as “failing the most disadvantaged.” There are regular reports of a crisis in mental health among pupils, which will further deteriorate as high inflation and stagnant wages push more households into poverty. There is a £1.3 billion black hole in the funding for children with special educational needs. The new ministerial team will have little time to give serious thought to any of these issues before the crises deepen.
Ministers are only too ready to stress the importance of skills to the British economy. As an example, a recent speech (April 2022) from a recent education minister (Alex Burghart) asserted “our ability to nurture high quality skills within our country will be absolutely central to our prosperity.” It’s a plausible statement. Yet surely the minister was aware that for over a decade the trend has been running in the wrong direction.
This month’s NAO report (July 2022) describes a sustained reduction in the number of adults undertaking education or training:
“Adult participation in government-funded further education and skills training has declined significantly, particularly in disadvantaged areas. The number of adult learners fell from 3.2 million in 2010/11 to 1.6 million in 2020/21, a decrease of 48%.” At the same time, despite an increased need for skilled staff and a reduced supply of workers from the EU, “Employers’ investment in workforce training has declined”.
In a similar way, ministers are keen to stress the importance of apprenticeships, but less ready to acknowledge that there are serious problems with their apprenticeship programme. Following reforms in 2017, the numbers starting apprenticeships fell significantly. The fall was particularly sharp for young people and for those in small firms. There has been a trend for those employers who pay the apprenticeship levy to simply rebadge existing training for older existing employees as apprenticeships. More recently there have been serious concerns raised about drop-out with almost half of those starting an apprenticeship failing to complete it.
Current and aspiring government ministers have two proposals for improving the skills system which are recycled endlessly, as if on a loop tape. One is to ‘put employers in the driving seat’. The other is to set up new elite colleges. Years of experience show that they don’t work.
The Conservative approach to higher education (HE) looks less like incompetence than downright hostility. Elements include slashing funding for Arts and Humanities courses, causing some universities to close whole departments, and plans to deny student loans to students who do not achieve prescribed grades in English and maths. There is pressure to remove ‘low value courses’, defined narrowly in terms of dropout rates and graduate earnings.
The central focus of higher education policy at the current time, however, appears to be the promotion of free speech in universities, a problem for which there is remarkably little evidence. As in other areas, government appears more concerned to prosecute so-called ‘culture wars’ rather than deal with the big issues of the day.
Unlike scare stories about cancel culture, the problems of student finance are large and real. The dodgy accounting which made student loans look a bargain for the public finances have now been exposed for the sham that they are. Recent changes to the loan system amount to a stealth tax on students and make a bad scheme even less fair. On top of that students face the same cost of living crisis as the rest of the population, but their means of support have not kept pace.
Problems with research funding are equally real and equally large. Government threats to unilaterally amend the Northern Ireland protocol have led to serious doubts about whether the UK will be able to participate in the EU’s £80 billion ‘Horizon’ programme. Although civil servants and ministers have been desperately seeking to put together a “plan B” to replace the lost funding, the exclusion of UK universities from many Europe wide consortia can only be damaging for ambitions to be a ‘science superpower’.
In terms of overall finance, the HE sector faces rising prices while its major source of income, student fees, remain frozen. Unable to offer pay rises that match the cost of living, universities risk losing not just academics but support staff at all levels. According to a recent report from a leading sector think tank “Unless something politically unlikely happens, the short-to-medium term future of universities is as clear as it is bleak. The real terms income of most universities will drop. Prices, and thus costs, will rise. Salaries will stagnate, and jobs will be lost. Corners will be cut, capacity will be lost.”
Education in the UK faces multiple challenges that would test a competent government at the best of times. Yet these are not the best of times and none of the current contenders for Conservative leader projects competence. There is no sign that the candidates even recognise the problems the education system faces, let alone have a credible plan to tackle them.
Meanwhile, a newly-reshuffled team of ministers in DfE faces a wasted summer, waiting to see who will reshuffle them again. The crises in education will get much worse before they get any better.