UK Education policy-watch
18 November 2022 | Applicable law: England and Wales
Recent months have seen seismic changes in Westminster which have made it unusually difficult to plan for key policy and other developments in the education sector. This article draws out some of the key current talking points in this shifting landscape.
New Education Secretary
Gillian Keegan has replaced Kit Malthouse as the new Education Secretary. She was educated at a comprehensive secondary school in Merseyside and left school at age 16. She was an apprentice at Delco Electronics and sponsored to study at Liverpool John Moores University before going on to a Masters degree at the London Business School.
Early indications suggest she will not be pursuing Liz Truss’s interest in promoting Grammar Schools and is more focused on the comprehensive offering. She has, historically, indicated that she finds unions overly powerful, which may be relevant for her relationship with the teaching unions.
Large academy trusts
While the Schools Bill (which set out substantial reforms for the academy sector) seems on the back burner for now, the Government’s stated aim remains to move struggling groups of schools collectively into large academy trusts, and to have all schools in ‘strong’ academy trusts by 2030.
There were 1215 double ‘requires improvement’ schools as of December 2021, these are the schools primarily being focused on within these plans.
The Government expects all trusts to have or be working towards having at least 10 schools by 2030.
Oxbridge barriers to entry
Recent figures suggest Oxbridge demands higher grades from UK private school pupils than state school pupils.
Entry grades for 76 per cent of private school pupils were three As or above, only 40 per cent of state school pupils were subject to the same grade requirements.
Analysis of Oxford and Cambridge offer rates to 50 independent schools (with the most applications in the previous year) shows that the likelihood of pupils receiving an offer has fallen from 39 per cent to 26.5 per cent in five years.
The Telegraph has revealed that state school pupils are more likely than private school pupils to be admitted to the University of Cambridge for the first time.
Barnaby Lenon, chairman of the Independent Schools Council states that ‘contextual admissions is only a fair system if applied fairly – which means looking at the individual pupil and their circumstances, not the type of school they go to.’
New Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wants to reform post-16 education by introducing a ‘British Baccalaureate’.
Under this new programme, pupils would study Maths and English up to 18 years of age. The programme would replace A-Levels and BTECs.
The plan has its difficulties, with the Government already struggling to recruit a sufficient number of maths teachers, together with funding cuts to the education sector.
It is believed that ‘vocational schooling’ will be at the forefront of the policy. As noted above, Gillian Keegan left school at 16 to complete an apprenticeship so will be well acquainted with the benefits of vocational schooling for the young population.
Nick Gibb, current Minister of State for School Standards, is a traditional education advocate who may be unlikely to support a more ‘vocational schooling’ approach.
Labour party leader Sir Keir Starmer has repeatedly pledged to remove independent schools’ charitable status on policy grounds and to increase tax revenue (as they will no longer be subject to the beneficial tax treatment enjoyed by charities).
Withdrawing charitable status and the current VAT exemption, it is claimed, would raise around £1.7 billion, with this money being earmarked for Labour’s other education sector commitments.
Some of the money raised from taxing independent schools would likely be spent on filling teacher vacancies and gaps across state schools, and also to create a ‘National Excellence Programme’ which aims to boost the number of ‘outstanding schools’ in all areas of the country.
Given the significant increase in popularity of the Labour Party in recent political polls and the relative proximity of the next general election, we recommend independent schools have a plan in place to ensure they would be able to cope financially if these policies are implemented.
The Government response
UK Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has disregarded calls to impose VAT on independent schools.
Hunt has vowed to focus on investment, proposing to invest an extra £2.3 billion per year into state schools over the next two years in a bid to “raise the skill level of our school leavers”.
In explaining the refusal to impose VAT, Hunt referenced a 2018 report commissioned by the Independent Schools Council which estimates up to 90,000 children from the independent sector may have to switch to state schools if VAT was charged. The report also suggested that imposing VAT on independent schools would cause many of them to close.
Minister for Higher Education
This role has had six different titles in the last twelve years, amongst them ‘Minister of State for Higher and Further Education’ and ‘Minister of State for Universities’. As of 8 November 2022, Robert Halfon is the ‘Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education’.
Halfon’s primary focus seems to be to ensure ‘the ladder of opportunity’ is extended to everyone, and he will work to deliver social justice through education.
Free speech and cancel culture
The University of Cambridge plans to provide free-speech training to its students in order to address “cancel culture” on campus.
This move follows warnings from the University Watchdog that free speech is being suppressed on campus after a record number of proposed speakers and events were rejected in 2021.
Arif Ahmed, a Cambridge philosophy professor is due to host these new training sessions. He wishes to establish tolerance for a wide range of views, even those views which are considered shocking or offensive.
These plans have not been met entirely with approval, with policy adviser Andrew Boggs suggesting that an upcoming Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill (which compels universities to promote free speech rather than merely uphold it) may only exacerbate tensions with existing laws on extremism and hate speech.
Mental health of university students
New figures released show that in the year 2020/2021, a record number of nearly 210,000 requests for help regarding mental health were made by university students.
This amounts to an average of 2,032 students at each UK university (based on two-thirds of the 134 universities who contributed to this request for information) who sought support for their mental health, almost three times as many as a decade ago – 715 students on average.
The statistics suggest an increased willingness in students to both acknowledge their mental health problems and to seek help.
It also acts as a stark reminder that university students are struggling, perhaps especially in light of the difficulties resulting from the Covid pandemic, combined with pressure to continue performing academically.
Christ Church, Oxford
On 10 November 2022, the Charity Commission issued an official warning to Christ Church, Oxford.
The Commission found that the trustees had failed to act on its previous advice given between 2019-2020, to continue to have “close oversight of costs” in relation to an ongoing dispute involving its former Dean. In roughly three and a half years, over £6.6 million had been spent on legal and public relation fees in actions related to the former Dean.
In failing to keep a close oversight of costs, the Commission determined that these failures and omissions amounted to misconduct and/or mismanagement in the charity’s administration. The official warning sets out the actions that the Commission considers should be taken by the charity to rectify the misconduct.
This acts as a lesson to all governors on the pitfalls of ratifying significant expenditure after it has been spent, keeping an eye on spiralling costs during a crisis, and ensuring that the accounting of those costs is accurate.