Swotting up on education policy

Tom Morrison, Head of Rollits' Education Team was recently approached by Lexis Nexis for comment on developments in education - including the appointment of the new Secretary of State for Education, the impact of the reorganisation of Government Departments and the national shortage of school places.  The interview was published by Lexis Nexis on 20 July 2017.


Local Government analysis: July has brought the education system back into the spotlight - a new Secretary of State for Education, a huge ten-year forecast for school places, and problems surrounding the appointment of a new Ofsted chief inspector, to name but a few.  Tom Morrison, partner and head of the education team at Rollits LLP, considers the challenging landscape in education.

What impact if any do you think the new Secretary of State for Education will have on the White Paper on academies?

Justine Greening has said publicly that she has not been in the role long enough to comment in detail on education policy and to some extent I have some time-limited sympathy for that. Having said that, the country is looking to her to start to make some decisions -or potentially even row back from some of her predecessor's decisions - and any sympathy will evaporate very quickly. She is known for having a special interest in education, most particular in the context of education as a tool for social mobility. If that is her guiding light, then the question is does she think that the government's position as set out in the White Paper contributes to achieving the social mobility objective?

To some extent, Nicky Morgan did the unpopular bit.  She moved the boundary forwards, building on Michael Gove's work before that. Justine Greening may feel able to soften policy at the edges, indeed some may say Nicky Morgan did a little bit already, but I am not at all convinced that there has been a U-turn on 'academisation' in substantive terms and nor do I expect there will be. The collision between politics and education has long been a source of frustration - he small yet powerful Conservative Party majority in Parliament was largely appeased by the apparent concessions on forced academisation, so why would Justine Greening now feel a need to row back much further? In terms of voter unrest, I think SATs are arguably higher up the agenda than academisation at this moment.

Do you anticipate the new cabinet to implement any major changes in policy to cope with the extra 750,000 school places needed in England by 2025 as forecasted by Department for Education (DfE) projections?

The need for more school places has been known for some time.  The government's answer to this so far has been academisation and, in particular, the creation of new free schools. The policy was clearly driven for-ward by the former Prime Minister and Justine Greening's predecessors, but this is a Conservative policy and is consistent with the overall manifesto commitments the new Prime Minister seems intent on delivering. Also let's not forget that the current Secretary of State for Education is the former Secretary of State for International Development - ie part of the Cabinet which backed these policies. So a push for yet more academies, free schools and university technical colleges seems likely. Interestingly, it looks like she is also considering whether to pick up the hot potato of allowing new grammar schools.

What impact do you think the transfer of responsibility for higher education and universities from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) to DfE will have on future policy and the Higher Education and Research Bill?

This is an interesting one.  There is a lot to think about here. Again social mobility plays a role here - broadening the range of providers able to offer degrees being a key issue.  Having said that, the associated White Paper made scant mention of the successful role of colleges in widening participation in higher education.  The move of universities from BIS to DfE will not in itself make a big difference in that regard - if anything there is maybe a greater chance of joined-up thinking in having the whole sector under one department.  The flip side though is that there is a risk that there is a loss of focus on each part of the sector individually.  I am hearing a lot about schools and universities, but colleges play an absolutely critical role in social mobility and preparing the country's future workforce.  So far, for me, there has not been enough comment coming out of the new government on what the future holds for further education.

The link between universities and BIS is not wholly eradicated.  Jo Johnson retains his university ministerial role, but is also with BIS in a science capacity (much as the former Skills Minister Nick Boles sat between BIS and DfE for colleges).  With the retention of the same minister (one of the few) there may have been a feeling of business as usual were it not for the huge issue of Brexit.  Universities in particular are extraordinarily (and understandably) concerned for a number of reasons, including:

  • grants (will the government ensure that an equivalent amount of UK funds is provided com-pared with the amount currently provided through the EU route?)
  • overseas students (who are attractive to UK universities for a number of reasons, including financial)   
  • overseas staff (will the brightest and best from overseas want to come and work for a UK university when we are no longer in the EU?), and
  • loss of staff (will current staff, British and others, be poached by overseas universities if our universities are seen to be under pressure following Brexit?)

In light of the opposition to the appointment of the new Ofsted chief inspector, should there be a change to the way that public appointments such as this are made?

The Chief Inspector of Education, Children's Services and Skills Order 2016, SI 2016/748

The role of chief inspector has been a key one since Ofsted's inception.  Every chief has attracted criticism one way or another and the outgoing chief has some very controversial views - particularly comments about the role of colleges which were quickly disowned as the chief's personal opinions rather than policy based on evidence from Ofsted. The new appointment flies in the face of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee's view and the Grimstone review highlights the tension we saw at play between the government's ability to govern and wider involvement in such appointments.  There is a point of view which is that the government has been elected and so it has a mandate. Clearly that argument can only be taken so far, but the question is should it go so far as to allow public appointments to be made by a minister against a countervailing view within wider Parliament. I personally have no doubt that a senior public appointment such as this would benefit from having wider support - it gives the appointee a stronger power base when making unpopular decisions if (in this case) she has support which extends beyond 'just' the government. I would feel uneasy though about shackling any incumbent government too much otherwise we risk being paralysed by even greater political machinations and bargaining to win favour, with a loss of focus on what the job is really about.

Tom Morrison was interviewed by Janine Isenegger.

The views expressed by the Legal Analysis interviewees are not necessarily those of the proprietor.

Posted on: 20/07/2016

This article is for general guidance only. It provides useful information in a concise form. Action should not be taken without obtaining specific legal advice.

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