Published on: 21 Jul 2017

One thing can be said with some degree of certainty, however, there’s never a dull moment in education

All’s well that ends well? A year in review - 2016/17

Cast your mind back to September 2016. A confident new Prime Minister, buoyed by her successful leadership bid, outlines her vision for the future of education reform in England; the creation of a ‘great meritocracy’ – placing social mobility at the heart of education reform in England. This set the framework for the ‘Schools that Work for Everyone’ green paper, containing several key goals, namely:

  • The intention to introduce a National Funding Formula (NFF) as a fair funding platform for all pupils, redressing the balance and eradicating the 152 different local authority funding formulae currently in place.
  • The expectation of independent schools and universities to earn their charitable tax status and higher fees, respectively, by sponsoring or establishing new free schools.
  • Providing assistance and removing restrictions to expand and enable the establishment of new selective schools in England.
  • Allowing faith schools to select up to 100% of pupils based on their faith, under the proviso that pupils from different backgrounds were not overlooked.

Following on from this publication, plans for the ‘Education for All Bill’ were shelved in October creating a new era in education policy and fully cementing Justine Greening’s tenure as Secretary of State for Education. The scrapping of this bill meant that schools in underperforming LAs would no longer suffer a punitive conversion to academy status, although ‘coasting schools’ could still face interventions or academisation by RSCs to help drive school improvement.

Both TIMSS and PISA results were announced in December and while the OECD averages for the PISA test fell, England’s results for science, maths, and reading remained by and large unchanged for the best part of a decade. Primary education was awarded the Sir Michael Wilshaw gold star in December after achieving year-on-year progress. Over the past five years the number of good and outstanding primary schools has risen from 69% to 90%, which was further underlined in the Annual Ofsted report as an essential measure to boost social mobility in England. The report was ultimately Sir Michael’s swansong as the New Year saw the arrival of a new Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, who would later in the year reiterate her commitment to focus on the substance of the curriculum. In particular, her assertion that there was more to education than merely preparing for exams in struck a chord with education practitioners.

Many commentators were hoping for Chancellor Philip Hammond to pull a rabbit (or even something larger, perhaps the Easter Bunny) out of the budget box as he announced the Spring Budget on 8 March, much to their disappointment there was no further core funding for schools. Additional funding was ring-fenced to boost the creation of new free schools and to refurbish existing school buildings. Although commentators agreed that this was needed to help with ever increasing pupil numbers, they pointed out that issues like teacher retention were just as pertinent. From this point onwards, the need for further funding remained top of the agenda for schools and unions alike.

As summer approached, the heat turned up and there was an improvement in SATs results with 61% of pupils reaching the expected standard, up from 53% last year. In May, more than half a million 10 and 11 year olds took the tests in reading, writing, maths, and SPAG – the last of which saw 77% of pupils reach the expected standard. After the improved results were announced Russell Hobby warned parents to err on the side of caution when judging schools just on their position in a league table.

Secondary schools faced their own set of challenges with new numerical GCSE grades, from 9 -1. The DfE stated earlier on in the year that both grade 4 and 5 are the equivalent of achieving a C grade in   previous years, with grade 4 being deemed a “standard” pass and grade 5 a “strong” pass. Despite the clarification there was still much confusion in the build up to the exams with Tes reporting that less than a third of businesses understand the new GCSE grades.

It wasn’t just school pupils who were being tested this summer. Theresa May called a snap election in a bid to bolster a greater majority for her party. Only the canny amongst us were able to accurately predict the outcome of the 2017 General Election. The Government were unable to return the increased majority they were hoping for; a potential dampening down of manifesto plans immediately ensued. Furthermore, the ministerial merry-go-round whirred one more time, as Robert Goodwill and Anne Milton replaced the unseated Edward Timpson and the incumbent Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, Robert Halfon – who later became the new chair of the Education Select Committee. 2017 wasn’t just a year of ministerial change either, with both ASCL and NAHT securing new leaders in the form of Geoff Barton and Paul Whiteman.

As another school year draws towards its close, Justine Greening wasn’t quite finished, making a surprise announcement this week that £1.3bn of DfE spending would be reallocated over the next two years as we transition towards the NFF. The detail of the £1.3bn efficiency savings isn’t clear yet; however, it’s likely that savings will be made from the schools improvement fund and healthy pupils capital funding. This addition to core school funding would ensure per pupil funding is frozen over the next couple of years, which of course, is welcome news but what the future holds for budgets and education reform after this year’s election remains somewhat uncertain. One thing can be said with some degree of certainty, however, there’s never a dull moment in education.

By Shane Rae, Head of Publishing at GL Assessment

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