In retrospect, it seems that both Justine Greening and Nick Gibb were gearing up for the election treadmill leading up to Easter.
The Secretary of State spoke at length at the end of March about social mobility being the driving focus for the DfE, with three core priorities: tackling geographic disadvantage; investing in long-term capacity in the system; and making sure young people and adults are prepared for career success.
In Sydney, Minister of State for School Standards, Nick Gibb, gave a timely self-evaluation of the government’s education record since 2010. Before boarding the plane he took the opportunity yet again to share his education philosophy and beliefs about direct learning and a knowledge-based curriculum.
As I have written in previous blogs, the government’s education policy lacks cohesion, and often a strong evidence base, but it’s unarguably bold and creates some catchy soundbites.
The week before Easter, Shadow Education Secretary, Angela Rayner admitted that Labour’s education policy (or lack of it) kept her awake at night, but that she is fully behind proposals for a national education service; a sort of NHS for education. She’s just not sure yet what that will look like.
The Labour Stance on Education
Jeremy Corbyn appears to be much more comfortable with opposition politics and fighting the causes of overlooked and under-represented stakeholders than he is with developing a vision for education in the future. Unfortunately when the election was called, the Labour Party was in the middle of a Consultation seeking views on how to take forward education, amongst other things, and is refusing to say more about their plans until they publish their manifesto.
Free School Meals in Primary Schools
Labour did, however, have the foresight to reveal its biggest education idea to date just before Easter. If elected, it will levy 20% VAT on school fees in order to pay for free school meals for all primary pupils. It has been generally well-received and is difficult for the Tories to argue against, but is it a good policy?
Well it passes the first test in that it is evidence-based. In 2010 the DfE commissioned an evaluation of a pilot scheme in two LAs providing all children with a free school meal. The evaluation found a ‘significant positive effect’ on attainment with average gains of two months. The question is whether this is the best way to spend the £1.5bn that will be raised from putting 20% VAT on school fees or whether it would be better spent plugging the pending funding shortfall?
Either way, it offers challenge to the prime minister who is determined to expand free schools and spread grammars despite the lack of evidence that they raise standards, and despite their own data apparently showing that ordinary families won’t get access to them.
Reducing Class Sizes
Another idea which has trickled out this week is that Labour will reduce class sizes or at least stop pupils being taught in larger classes. Labour analysis of DfE figures suggests 40,000 primary pupils are being taught in classes of more than 36 pupils and 16,600 are now in class sizes of 40 and above (source: The Guardian). This policy is not as well-conceived. It is costly, and the impact on outcomes of reducing class size is not particularly large or clear, unless class size is reduced substantially, such as to below 20 or even below 15 pupils (EEF).
So will anything really change after the election?
The likelihood of any real change in education policy seems remote. If current polls are to be believed, Labour has little chance of standing its ground in the election, let alone winning.
So will a large Conservative majority make any difference to the current status quo? Probably not. The Prime Minister will likely use an increased majority to give her a mandate for her grammar schools programme and she will carry on with renewed vigour. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Prime Minister is tempted to find a rather more convincing Secretary of State than Justine Greening to champion her cause but otherwise, business as usual.
If you are interested in education policy-making and research, sign up to receive our upcoming report from the CMRE ‘Optimising autonomy: a blueprint for system reform’.