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5 big schools policy hurdles for the next government

An incoming Labour government faces getting “bogged down” in Ofsted reform, “very difficult” immediate discussions on teacher pay and will have no choice but to clarify its academy stance, sector leaders have said.

Politics guru Sam Freedman and Ark Schools academy trust boss Lucy Heller outlined key hurdles for the next government at the Festival of Education today.

Here’s what you need to know…

1. ‘Difficult’ teacher pay decision ahead

The DfE’s financial blackhole is set to cloud funding discussions over teacher pay rises and school buildings – as Labour inherits budgets that have been cut to the bone. 

Freedman, who worked in the department under Michael Gove, stated that “the scale of the challenge” the new government faces is “significantly harder” than 14 years ago.

The DfE’s financial position is “much worse than it was then”, having seen budgets “cut to the point where they have a big blackhole”.

He thinks incoming education ministers will be trying to negotiate with the Treasury on a planned one-year spending review “straight away”.

“And it’s very, very difficult conversations about teacher pay, about capital for school buildings, all of those kinds of things, from a position where the DfE are in a lot of financial trouble at the moment.”

Pointing to commitments over childcare for one- and two-year-olds and university funding issues he noted that even within the DfE, “schools might not feel like the most immediate, burning platform priority”.

Freedman argued the government will “have to” accept the teacher pay body’s recommendations.

“But do they fund it properly? What does funding it properly look like? And will the Treasury agree to that? That’s very connected to recruitment and the money they have for things like bursaries.”

While he thinks unions won’t ballot for strikes over pay this year, Freedman thinks “over time the [National Education Union] will become more oppositional to the Labour government and use that as a kind of recruitment tool”.

2. Ofsted reform could get ‘bogged down’

Labour could become “bogged down” in “painful” conversations if it goes ahead with plans to scrap Ofsted’s current grading system, the pair argued.

The party has vowed to replace headline grades with a new “report card” offering parents information on a school’s performance.

But Freedman said the change could leave the new government stuck in complicated talks about what will be included in the scorecards and the weight they will be given.

“I kind of get the feeling [they will be] bogged down over the next year [with it], because they’re going to have to do it, they’ve promised to do it.

“You’re going to get into a very detailed and quite painful conversation on this scorecard. And then you’ve got a whole set of questions about … who in the DfE is responsible for interpreting that scorecard.”

Bridget Phillipson, Labour’s shadow education secretary, has said the move would be subject to consultation with both teachers and parents.

Until now, the party has provided few details of what the scorecard would look like.

But Heller said that current reports often have the “juices squeezed out. I often think if I blanked out the names on Ofsted reports, I wouldn’t be able to tell one school from another.”

3. Less concrete policies, more consultations

Freedman described the “loss of any sense of relationship between the school system and the wider children system” as the “the biggest problem” of the last 14 years.

He said that when the Conservatives took over, a decision was made to leave schools to focus on education with other parts of the system left to handle wider young people’s issues.

But due to underfunding and cuts to pastoral services, these have been “eaten away” with “far more children with mental health issues, far more children in poverty”, which has had a knock-on impact on schools.

But he doesn’t think Labour “are coming in the way Michael Gove did, with very clear ideas of exactly what he wants to do”.

Instead they have “a set of beliefs…[with] a lot of space in which to fit and there’ll be a lot more consultation and opportunity for organisations to input into that”. 

4. Labour’s academy silence won’t hold

The new government will have to answer questions over how far it wants the academy agenda to go over the next Parliament.

When asked about Labour’s “agnostic” stance on the growth of trusts, Freedman noted the party would have to clarify its position.

“There’s no way you can write a white paper without getting into these structural questions,” he said.

“The big question is, how far would they want to go? Whether that is a different way of organising trusts, whether that’s a different way of doing oversight and thinking there’s more involved with oversight? There’s lots of things you could do.”

Heller believes that “with the majority of schools” now in trusts, “greater consolidation” of academies is likely to happen “naturally, almost regardless of policy”.

Currently, Ofsted judgements can also trigger Department for Education intervention measures to rebroker academies, or move local authority schools into trusts.

Freedman noted this would be a “challenge” in the “second half” of Labour’s Ofsted programme.

“It is a very crude way of doing it. But if you don’t do it that way, in a very centralized system, such as the one that we have, how do you do it?”

5. ‘Radically reform SEND’

Radical reform of special needs funding is needed to undo changes that have “made it worse for schools in the most disadvantaged areas”.

Heller made the case for the “vast bulk of children with special needs, they need to be dealt with in mainstream schools”.

“We need to end the effective arms race that we’ve created for parents where they feel to get the support that their child needs, they have to go and sort of fight for it. It’s an absurd system.”

She also warned that recent funding changes have “made it worse for schools in the most disadvantaged areas rather than better”.

Freedman argued for a differentiation in the “way we deal with different conditions” and a way “to push funding towards schools in a way that isn’t through education, health and care plans”.

Otherwise it’s “all or nothing for both the child, the parents, and the school”.

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