UK Discussion Group: The State of English Education

CC Isaactret

This post explores key issues facing the English school system, which was the topic of conversation during on session of the UK Discussion Group last semester. The students in this group looked at four significant challenges facing the English school system over the remainder of the parliament: grammar schools and social mobility, academisation, funding, and skills policy.

Read other posts in the UK discussion group series.

By Simon Johnson

Improving school outcomes is a goal for countries around the world, and England is no exception. England has experienced a decade of major reforms in education (discussed in an early session of this group last year) but, with change of political leadership last summer, new priorities have come to the fore.

The UK Discussion Group looked at four significant challenges facing the English school system over the remainder of the parliament: grammar schools and social mobility, academisation, funding, and skills policy.

1. Grammar schools and social mobility

Grammar schools are state (public) secondary schools, open only to children who pass an academically selective entrance test, normally at the age of 11. Grammar schools were once a central feature of the British education system, serving around 25% of the secondary school cohort, but were gradually phased out during the 1960s and 70s. Today, they educate 5% of pupils, concentrated in certain areas of the country.

Grammar schools are controversial because the available places are primarily taken by children from middle class backgrounds. Research by both the Sutton Trust and the Institute for Fiscal Studies concludes that children on free school meals are significantly less likely to go to grammar schools.

Free-school meal eligible pupils who do attend go on to achieve slightly better academic results than counterparts at other schools — although analysis using the National Pupil Database indicates that those who are left behind, who are not selected for admission, do significantly worse than they would otherwise have done, due to the lack of positive peer-effects.

Despite this evidence, Theresa May and key figures in her government are committed to expanding the number of grammar schools again. This support is based on the belief that grammar schools are the only available means to provide social mobility for high-performing low-income students. Whether this goal could ever be realized — despite the costs to others — would rely on (a) a design for grammar school placement that ensured they were located in areas that serve low-income students and (b) entry rules that ensure schools take significant proportions of low-income students. Detailed proposals on both these fronts have yet to appear.

2. Academisation

In 2015, the Conservative government sent a shockwave through the English school system by announcing a goal to convert every school in the country into an Academy: a publically funded, independently managed school, similar to a U.S. charter school.

Quickly, however, the government had to back away from the goal of 100% “academisation”: problems arose about the number of providers willing to create “multi-Academy trusts” (MATs) and many communities were resistant to the conversion of their schools.

Today, it is our belief that no one in central government believes full academisation will occur any time soon, and official policy has gone silent on the matter.

The challenge now, however, is that many local authorities [school districts] have seen half or more of their schools convert to independent academies, taking their funding with them, and thus authorities are struggling to provide high quality school improvement services.

The question of school improvement — and what form of “middle tier” is the most appropriate governance structure- will continue to rumble on over this parliament.

3. School funding

Compared to the U.S., England has a fairly equal school funding system, with funding broadly allocated on a per-pupil basis (with some additional funding for children with special educational needs or from a disadvantaged background).

However, the overall picture is less positive. Funding for schools has been protected ‘in cash terms’ over this parliament, which means that the absolute amount of money spent on schools will remain the same, even if, as is forecast, pupil numbers rise significantly. Schools will have to meet the reduction in funding by unit-savings economies in their budget. This will be compounded by some unavoidable increases in costs that schools face — including a teacher pay rise that the government promised, but did not fund — as well as the move to a single national formula for allocating funding to schools which, whilst it will remove some of the inequities present in the current funding formulae which are designed by local governmen, will mean that 50% of schools will suffer a reduction in their per pupil budget. In total, these changes amount to a 10–12% reduction in the average school’s per-pupil budget — real, painful and painful reductions for schools to deliver.

Schools are likely to meet the challenge in three ways. First, they will defer unnecessary investments — especially in building maintenance and new technologies — which, while they may not imminently impact student learning, will store up larger costs for the future. Second, we will likely see greater hiring of younger, less experienced teachers — who are significantly cheaper for schools. Finally, schools are starting to experiment with greater use of teaching assistants, perhaps sharing one teacher across two classes amongst younger age groups. We expect to see much more of ‘innovations’ like this — and associated criticism in the press.

4. Skills policy (post 2016)

In England, vocational education — typically called Career and Technical Education (CTE) in the U.S. — has long been the neglected policy area in the Department for Education, the focus of a small team cut off from other areas. Despite that fact that the majority of young people at 16 do not follow the “traditional” academic path of studying three “A Levels,” post 16 vocational provision has always been patchy and prone to sporadic policy initiatives that do not last past a change of government (for a great history that also includes the U.S., try Alison Wolf’s Does Education Matter?).

In the wake of Brexit, however, vocational education has had a boost. A preview of the budget promises an extra £500 million for vocational and technical education, to support the creation of 15 new sets of qualifications linked to different technical occupations — an announcement made several years ago that has been stuck in limbo while it was unclear if it would ever be properly funded. These new resources will do something to remedy the historic under-funding of vocational education in England, particularly in comparison to the rest of Europe. An outstanding challenge is whether any of these funds will go towards the large numbers of students (between a quarter and a third of the cohort at age 16) who do not have the GCSE grades to move onto “Level 3” courses: the focus of the new technical routes. Provision for this group remains neglected

Looking ahead

This is a time of significant uncertainty for school leaders in England. Already struggling to deliver the Gove-era reforms — especially the new secondary examinations, which are causing real day-to-day disruption for schools — schools now face, for the first time in a generation, significant financial pressure. Compounded by uncertainty about the future of the academy’s programme and no clear sense of what the government’s grammar school plans will amount to, we see headteachers struggling to cope with a tremendous amount of change and uncertainty. They will need support from all parties — government, unions, academia, parents — to manage the next few years of change and to preserve a focus on improving the outcomes of the children they serve.

Simon Johnson is a student in the Education Policy and Management course at the Graduate School of Education. He was previously part of the strategy and delivery team at the Department for Education.