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by Jamie Cater 9th September, 2016

What Justine should do next… What is top of new education secretary’s in-tray?

This article originally appeared in the September 2016 edition of Education Investor – http://www.educationinvestor.co.uk/ShowArticle.aspx?ID=5613

England’s post-Brexit education secretary has an extended brief and many challenges to overcome. What is at the top of her in-tray, asks Jamie Cater of GK Strategy

Vote Leave, take back control’ was the victorious slogan in June as the British public elected to leave the European Union, yet British politics has rarely felt less under control than since that momentous decision was made. From David Cameron’s regretful resignation on that clear Friday morning, and Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s sheepish address to the public, to Theresa May’s installation as Prime Minister and Labour’s own leadership quarrels, it has been an unprecedented few months in the Westminster village.

The House of Cards-style melodrama that ensued has been well-documented, but the apparent chaos in the corridors of power has disguised some degree of continuity in policy terms from the Cameron administration. The speedy resolution to the Conservative leadership race has undoubtedly provided some stability and certainty to investors shell-shocked by the unexpected vote for Brexit. However, it does mean that we have been deprived of the chance to hear Theresa May set out her policy stall during a leadership campaign over the summer. What we do know from her early pronouncements is that the new Prime Minister is committed to implementing the Conservative manifesto, meaning that the big picture agenda that has emerged in sectors like education over the last 12 months is almost certain to remain largely in place.

Special advisers

Moving forward, the key to understanding where Theresa May’s policy programme may differ is not the people who make up her cabinet, but the appointments she has made to her office in Number 10. Her joint chiefs of staff, Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, are both former Home Office special advisers and close to the Prime Minister, both personally and politically. Timothy, in particular, should be expected to be influential when it comes to education policy; a former director of the New Schools Network, he is a strong advocate of the government’s free schools programme as well as a supporter of opening new grammar schools, something that Mrs May – a grammar school alumna herself – has been rumoured to be considering since she moved into Downing Street. The recent decision not to appoint a special adviser for education in the Prime Minister’s office further points towards Timothy calling the shots in this area.

The post-Brexit reshuffle also ushered in a new era for the Department for Education (DfE), which has assumed full responsibility for further education & skills and higher education, alongside its previous remit for schools, early years and 16-18 vocational. It remains to be seen exactly how the balance of power between the Prime Minister’s office and the DfE shifts, but with new secretary of state Justine Greening a party loyalist and May apparently keen for Downing Street to take greater charge of policy, the influence of Theresa May and her team on education policy looks set to grow.

Higher education

The new-look DfE could make some of its most significant changes in higher education (HE), in keeping with long-term Conservative ambitions in this area. The Higher Education and Research Bill are intended to move further towards parity between HEFCE-funded and alternative providers; those in HE will remember the promises of a ‘more level playing field’ that have lasted since the days of David Willetts. That Jo Johnson keeps his place as universities minister will have provided comfort to the independent sector, and is a firm demonstration of the new government’s commitment to removing barriers to entry for alternative providers (APs). Given the level of support from the Conservative backbenches in this aim and the weak opposition provided by Labour, there should be few obstacles to the bill’s passage through Parliament over the coming months.

What may disconcert those in the HE sector is how immigration policy takes shape over the same period in light of Brexit. May has already indicated her unwillingness to back down on the previous government’s net migration target, and it appears likely that tier 4 visas will be the prime target for achieving the necessary reduction in numbers. This is another area in which the influence of Timothy and Hill can be seen clearly; the former is known to have urged May to clamp down further on international student visas. With no-one in the Cabinet now actively making the case for removing international students from the net migration figures, this may mitigate some of the attractiveness of the sector that will come from the HE bill.

Schools

Where there is some uncertainty over continuity in education policy is with regard to school reform. Since Nicky Morgan’s ignominious U-turn over compulsory academisation, ministers have been rather quiet about the Educational Excellence Everywhere White Paper and the Education for All Bill, still yet to be laid before the House of Commons. While it is notable that Nick Gibb has been given explicit responsibility for the White Paper in his slightly revamped role as School Standards Minister, there appears to be little enthusiasm about the bill at the DfE.

The only one of its proposals that have been touched upon, in one of Greening’s very first moves as education secretary, is the national funding formula, which is to be delayed by 12 months. While Labour’s Sadiq Khan – arguably the only senior politician in the party consistently making constructive interventions on policy issues – may seek to oppose the measure if schools in London are set to suffer, businesses exposed to the schools sector will await the publication of the second phase of the consultation on the formula, expected in the autumn, to discover precisely what the impact will be. The second phase will include details of the minimum funding guarantee, the key issue for areas such as London who may stand to lose from the new arrangements.

Funding aside, it is clear that academisation across all schools, especially in the primary sector, will continue as a policy aim. Justine Greening should not be expected to backtrack on this or the free school’s programme, particularly in light of the strong support the policy will have from within Number 10. It is doubtful that we will see any drastic rowing back on any of the reforms planned in the White Paper. Reforms around recruitment included in the White Paper – an important issue for the sector that the DfE continues to play down – are unlikely to be delayed, but will also pose little threat to recruitment agencies in schools.

Something that was not included in the White Paper but is firmly on the agenda is a primary assessment. Following the recent decision to keep the early year’s foundation stage profile in place for a further year after the earlier U-turn on the reception baseline assessment, those with an interest in the assessment space will be waiting with anticipation to see how these issues are resolved. While it may not constitute an immediate policy priority for Greening and Gibb, this will be an important item in their in-trays.

Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships, now exclusively the domain of the DfE, will continue to be one of the government’s highest priorities. The appointment of Rob Halfon as skills minister will encourage those in the sector who want to see space continue to figure in the Government’s priorities. He was the first member of the House of Commons to take on an apprentice in their parliamentary office and a long-term supporter of the goal of parity of esteem between academic and vocational education. We can be certain that the overarching aim of three million new apprenticeships by 2020 is here to stay.

There will also be no diminishing in the support among ministers or parliamentarians for the apprenticeship levy. While there remain concerns over the implementation of the digital voucher system, as well as fears over the amount the levy may raise in the event of an economic downturn following Brexit, the principle of the levy is now more or less set in stone. The long-awaited announcement regarding mandatory contributions from non-levy payers in August has led to some worries over SME participation in apprenticeships, but we are unlikely to see any reversal of policy.

The levy aside, the biggest uncertainty for some training providers in the post-Brexit environment will be over the European Social Fund and whether this will be replaced on a like-for-like basis. However, there may be some opportunities too, not least through an absence of European procurement regulations.

As education investors come to terms with Brexit, there should be considerable comfort from relative stability in education policy. While there are some risks as a direct result of leaving the EU, there will continue to be opportunities for nimble investors arising from the continuing programme of domestic reform with a government that will put few barriers in their way.

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