The in-tray of the Secretary of State for Education

31 Dec

The new government that we have in the UK is likely to be the one we will have for the next five years.  It will be a time of significant change as we exit the European Union (EU).  The education team of Ministers, however, which could be reshuffled in February 2020 is comprised of the following members.

  • Mr Gavin Williamson – Secretary of State for Education
  • Mr Nick Gibb – Minister of State for School Standards
  • Mr Chris Skidmore – Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation
  • Ms Kemi Badenoch – Minister of State for Children and Families (currently on maternity leave)
  • Ms Michelle Donelan – Minister for Children and Families (providing maternity cover for Ms Badenoch)
  • Lord Agnew – Minister for the School System

Our politicians and civil servants will be so busy recreating the machinery to propel us into a go-it-alone future, that many fear other services, with the National Health Services being an exception, could be forgotten.   It is apposite, consequently, to remind ourselves of the educational promises of the prime minister, following his Boris bounce on 12 December 2019.

I        The Conservative Manifesto for Education

In the run-up to the 12 December 2019 elections, the Conservative manifesto set out the plan for education, which, was as follows.

  1. The starting salary for a teacher is to be £30,000 annually.
  2. School funding is to increase by £14 billion – although this equates to £7.1 billion extra by 2022-23 – because of double counting.
  3. Altogether, £780 million is to be allocated for Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) to create additional school places for pupils with additional needs.
  4. Per-pupil funding levels are to be raised to £5,000 per secondary pupil and £4,000 per primary pupil.
  5. A national skills fund of £3 billion is to be made available for people to retrain.
  6. Legislation will be enacted to enable headteachers to exclude more easily pupils who are problematic.
  7. Ofsted will be strongly supported because the inspectorate “serves a valuable purpose”.
  8. An arts premium for secondary schools will be created.
  9. The number of places in alternative schools – i.e. Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) – for pupils who have been excluded will be increased.
  10. Teachers are to be given more support to tackle bullying, including homophobic bullying.
  11. Measures will be taken to intervene in schools and academies where there is “entrenched under-performance”.
  12. More free schools will be built to support innovation through specialist mathematics.
  13. More funding is to be pumped into primary schools and academies to promote Physical Education. (PE).
  14. The government is to invest in arts, music and sport with an “arts premium” for enrichment in secondary schools and academies and better PE teaching in primaries.
  15. Last, but by no means the least, the new government plans to build its own Massachusetts Information of Technology (MIT) in Northern England. MIT in Boston has spawned 96 Nobel laureates, helped to create the web, computer games, spreadsheets, fax machines, Global Positioning System (GPS) and disposables razors. The government is determined to fashion its own version of the MIT in the north to boost the region’s economy.

According to The Sunday Times, Jake Berry, the Northern Powerhouse Minister, was discussing the project with potential stakeholders with a view to generating opportunities for future James Dysons to invent products for a global market.  Leeds will be a possible location.  He said: “MIT in Boston is one of the world’s most dynamic universities and provides its region with a significant boost to its economy. We want to set up a world-leading institution in the north to rival Oxford and Cambridge, where the best and brightest will base themselves to create new ideas and sell them.”

According to Conservative sources, money will be made available for entrepreneurs to start the ball rolling. Universities outside the “golden triangle” of London-Oxford-Cambridge are regarded as underperforming in academic research which translates into practical business ideas.

II       Reflections

When Boris Johnson became Prime Minister on 23 July 2019, he promised to reverse in part budget cuts on schools and academies.  But at the time of writing, schools and academies continue to shrink their (staffing) establishments, reduce the curriculum and postpone building repairs.  Many governors and headteachers have sent begging letters to parents for voluntary contributions to help their institutions make ends meet.   Voluntary aided faith schools and academies ask for even larger donations to cover the Religious Studies curriculum.    To add to the perennial financial shortfall, increased pupil numbers work their way up from primary to secondary schools and academies.

But there is an even more serious problem facing schools.  New graduates appear less attracted than ever into a career in teaching, and those who opt for it often leave after a few years. The recruitment and retention crisis is most keenly felt in secondary schools and academies. This means that more teachers are taking classes without the relevant degrees.  Sciences, maths and languages, especially, are feeling the effects and schools in the poorest areas are suffering more than most.

The new government must grasp the nettle and consider generous pay rises and an overhaul of the profession to attract young people.

Universities are waiting anxiously to see what will become of tuition fees, with many having borrowed and expanded in the hope that a steady flow of income will accrue.  The Conservatives ducked the issue in their manifesto so have yet formally to respond to the review of tuition fees by the banker, Philip Augar, which they set up. He had recommended a cut in fees from £9,250 to £7,500 per student a year.  He also wanted a rebalancing of budgets from well-heeled universities to further education, which has been underfunded for decades.

The government will have to make some tough decisions on the apprenticeship levy. The levy has too often been used to train existing staff, many of them middle managers.

During his campaign, the Prime Minister’s mantra was “get Brexit done” by 31 January 2020.  He also announced that the government would deliver an extra 50,000 nurses and provide nursing students with an annual grant of £5,000 to 8,000.   Currently, the NHS is struggling with 100,000 vacancies.  Altogether, 40,000 are for nurses.

According to The Guardian, “It is understood that 19,000 nurses” were to be “retained”.   These are nurses who would otherwise have left.  There was little other mention of schooling or education. In a speech on the eve of the elections, Boris Johnson made two fleeting references to education, first promising “record spending on schools”, adding that “superb education, superb infrastructure and technology” would help unite the country.

Meanwhile, it may be of interest to readers to learn about the gender balance and educational background of the new parliament.

(1)      There are now 220 women MPs out of a total of 650 in parliament – up from 208 in 2017.

(2)      There are as many Old Etonian MPs (11) as Liberal Democrats.

(3)      At least 10 MPs studied philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford University.

(4)      Altogether, 29% of MPs were privately educated compared with 7% of young people educated in private schools.

(5)      Overall, 54% of MPs went to comprehensive schools – up by 2% on 2017.

(6)      Of the intake of 155 new MPs, 62% were educated at comprehensives, 22% at independent and 14% in grammar schools.

(7)      According to The Times, 64 took their first degree at Oxford and 40 at Cambridge. Seven went to Manchester, seven to Leeds and eight to Glasgow.

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