Education in 2018: the Department for Education strategy

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Education in 2018 looks set to be turbulent. The Department of Education has steered its way through an uncertain political environment and arrived at a new social mobility strategy. However, with Justine Greening leaving the building that is now under threat. Hopefully, her legacy will be creating a clear set of ambitions for her successor to stick to.

The government’s new strategy document ‘Unlocking Talent, Unleashing Potential’ was relatively warmly received in education circles. This reflected the Secretary’s relationship building over the last year – one of only two provisos in the introduction’s ‘Ways of Working’ section, was to work ‘in partnership’ with education and others. From a low point in 2013, this signalled a new tone in the relationship between education professionals and the Department which pleased many. Few will want a return to the confrontation between Gove and much of the teaching profession – Damian Hinds would do well to learn from Greening’s approach.

Even the structure and graphics of the document heralded change; the notion of measurable goals at key stages in a child’s life were highly reminiscent of the Fair Education Alliance’s goals and report cards. The moves on exclusions showed that Greening heard the concerns coming from the press and key stakeholders over the outcomes for particular groups of students. With success on sex and relationship education under her belt, there was a real sense of hope that this social mobility strategy could be more than just words. Here are the commitments we can hope the new Secretary of State, Damian Hinds, sticks to:

Ambition 1: Early years.

The budget was a big disappointment for early years so the news of renewed focus in this area was welcome. In particular, the investment of £5 million in the North East assuaged fears that this area was going to be left behind when it emerged it would have no Opportunity Area. The other announcements focussed heavily on sharing best practice and tailored support in areas of disadvantage; no sight of new tests or increase in accountability. The Department seems to be making a refreshing effort to look at how it can improve outcomes through inputs instead of just measure them and pointing the fingers at practitioners. This approach should be maintained.

Ambition 2: Schools.

The government did praise itself in questionable terms in this section. It proudly pointed to the fact that “1.9 million pupils are in good or outstanding schools since 2010” without mentioning that these schools have become concentrated in affluent areas. Who remembers when they claimed that the day would come when there would be “money following the poorest pupils so that they, at last, get to go to the best schools, no the worst”? That would be from the Coalition agreement, seven years ago now. The document lauds the introduction of the Pupil Premium in the last Parliament but it might be worthwhile to remember that overall investment in education fallen by £3.6 billion in real terms in that time.

The Department, however, did show a real responsiveness here to problems emerging in the education system. The text recognises that accountability is deterring teachers from working challenging environments and sets out clear steps to stop this. There is also a commitment to a full external review of the exclusions crisis that emerged this year – one that saw permanent exclusions go up by 300% in places. Clearly, the IPPR report on the cost of rising exclusions and ‘hidden’ exclusions had a clear impact. What happens after this review is now key to testing the new Secretary’s commitment to this issue. If the direction is a positive one, expect to start hearing the language of ‘Children In Need’ more often. This is a population of young people well understood in social services contexts but less talked about in schools – this document is the first time they have been discussed substantively in a high profile education policy text from government. They could emerge as a formal group in the way that Pupil Premium students have if the social mobility strategy survives the change of leadership.

Ambition 3: post-16 provision.

A few of the announcements here were a repetition of what we were told in the budget. There are some welcome signals here are that technical education is being seriously looked at by the government and that the FE, which suffered badly under the previous government who focused on schools, will received some investment. Time will tell if the new ‘T Levels’ will achieve the aim of reducing the prevalence of ‘low value’ technical qualifications and be perceived as ‘rigorous’. Slightly shakier is the new idea of a ‘transition year’ for students who need longer to move on from GCSEs. This is extremely well intentioned but could end up stigmatizing those students in the way that ‘repeating’ years has done in education systems across the world, with little benefit in terms of attainment.

Ambition 4: Careers.

This section was striking in that, firstly, it was a section at all – normally this subject has been shoe-horned into school policy or FE. Secondly, it outlines a range of very specific ways – with specific partners – that government will partner with business to solve problems around access to good careers. Here, the language of partnership comes into its own, acting as a recognition of the CBI’s call for collaboration between business and education. Thirdly, this section stands out for its mention of adults. Ever since rebranding to the ‘Department for Education’, the government has publicly presented a limited definition of the Department’s work. The policies here around re-training adults point to a Department happier to foreground work that goes beyond the traditional conception of an education department. It would be surprising if it did, but this could develop into a much more radical shift in tackling social mobility outside the confines of the classroom.

If there can be one clear legacy of Greening’s time at the Department for Education it could be this: she set down the ambitions for the Department, can the new Secretary of State meet them?


Jane Cahill is an English Teacher and education blogger living and working in London. You can read more from her blog here:

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