“The Government believes that we need to reform our school system to tackle educational inequality, which has widened in recent years, and to give greater powers to parents and pupils to choose a good school. We want to ensure high standards of discipline in the classroom, robust standards and the highest quality teaching. We also believe that the state should help parents, community groups and others come together to improve the education system by starting new schools.”
The Coalition Agreement
The Coalition’s education policy has arguably been one of the most radical areas of reform since Michael Gove took the reins as Education Secretary in 2010. The Conservative General Election manifesto carried a particular focus on free schools and academies and it was this area in which Conservative education ministers were most swift to act. The Academies Act, 2010 was one of the first crucial pieces of legislation to be given Royal Assent under the current government and it was this that allowed the introduction of free schools in England for the first time.
Although the number of free schools in existence currently remains small, the policy has nevertheless proved divisive and controversial, with the Opposition and unions in particular claiming that this move away from the old Comprehensive model is creating a two-tier state school system. Moreover, moves to increase the number of academies and to allow the best performing schools greater autonomy over teachers’ pay and the curriculum has also led to criticisms from similar groups who believe this will further create disparities in the system – and worst of all, many teachers’ unions believe the Government’s policies are demonising their profession.
The Liberal Democrats’ own manifesto pledge of creating a Pupil Premium was also welcomed by Conservative ministers, and to many Liberal Democrats, the Pupil Premium is one of their proudest achievements to date in government. This policy, which guarantees that money follows pupils from the most disadvantaged backgrounds, aims to boost social mobility and ensure that no child is left behind. The parties share common ground on the need to improve vocational education; and progress is currently being made on the basis of the recommendations made in the Wolf Review.
Conservative backbenchers will particularly welcome Michael Gove’s commitment to overhaul the national curriculum, which, with its focus on traditional learning and subjects, has again been met with resistance by teachers’ unions. However, there are a number of Conservatives who believe the Government could go further with its overhaul of the education system by reintroducing selection based on ability; through building more grammar schools, by allowing free schools and academies to select or by reinstating the assisted places scheme. It is clear that the coalition – or indeed the current Conservative Party leadership – is not in favour of this.
Despite the controversy surrounding Gove’s reforms – which still divide opinion – a fair amount of progress has been made on the Coalition Agreement’s original pledges in schools policy. Education is one Government department in which the coalition partners have worked particularly effectively together, and with the reintroduction of David Laws to the department following his exile from the front bench, it is expected that further progress is set to be made in the lead up to the 2015 General Election. Whatever controversies follow Gove’s reforms of the schools system, many will agree that they feature among the most radical reforms implemented by this Government, alongside health and welfare.
Progress against the Coalition Agreement
Pledge: We will promote the reform of schools in order to ensure that new providers can enter the state school system in response to parental demand; that all schools have greater freedom over the curriculum; and that all schools are held properly to account.
Status: In progress – The Academies Act 2010 enabled new providers to enter the state school system in the form of Free Schools. However, the Government’s attempts to reform the National Curriculum have been dogged by controversy. The draft National Curriculum published in February 2013 has received such vigorous criticism from teachers and educationalists that some elements, particularly in the proposed history curriculum, have already been dropped. The consultation period ended in April 2013.
Pledge: We will fund a significant premium for disadvantaged pupils from outside the schools budget by reductions in spending elsewhere.
Status: Done – The Pupil Premium, introduced in April 2011, is paid to schools at a rate of £623 for every pupil who has received free school meals in the last six years.
Pledge: We will give parents, teachers, charities and local communities the chance to set up new schools, as part of our plans to allow new providers to enter the state school system in response to parental demand.
Status: Done – The Academies Act, 2010 allowed the establishment of Free Schools by parents and other groups. These are state-funded but exist outside of local authority control. To date 80 Free Schools have opened, with another 103 scheduled to open in September 2013.
Pledge: We will support Teach First, create Teach Now to build on the Graduate Teacher Programme, and seek other ways to improve the quality of the teaching profession.
Status: In progress – Although the Government has supported Teach First, it has not built on the Graduate Teacher Programme by creating Teach Now. Instead the DfE has ended the Graduate Teacher Programme and replaced it with the School Direct Training Programme.
Pledge: We will reform the existing rigid national pay and conditions rules to give schools greater freedoms to pay good teachers more and deal with poor performance.
Status: In progress – The Chancellor announced plans to abolish the national salary scheme for teachers in favour of individual school heads setting pay related to performance as part of the Autumn 2012 Statement. Subject to consultation, this could be implemented by September 2013.
Pledge: We will help schools tackle bullying in schools, especially homophobic bullying.
Status: In progress – The Government has affirmed its commitment to tackling homophobic bullying. It has also taken action to make it easier for teachers to deal with bullying, by giving them powers to confiscate banned items and issue same-day detentions, as well as expanding headteachers’ rights to exclude. However, this is an open-ended commitment and campaigning groups such as Stonewall say more can be done.
Pledge: We will simplify the regulation of standards in education and target inspection on areas of failure.
Status: Done – The Ofsted inspection framework has been reduced to four areas and the judgement of ‘satisfactory’ has been abolished. This means that if a school is not judged ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ it will be ‘required to improve’. Schools that are considered as requiring improvement will be inspected more frequently than those performing better.
Pledge: We will give anonymity to teachers accused by pupils and take other measures to protect against false accusations.
Status: Done – The Education Act 2011 gave teachers accused of abuse by pupils the right to anonymity.
Pledge: We will seek to attract more top science and maths graduates to be teachers.
Status: Done – The Government has taken steps to attract science and maths graduates through increased bursaries. Graduates with first class degrees are offered a £20,000 bursary for training in maths, physics and chemistry.
Pledge: We will publish performance data on educational providers, as well as past exam papers.
Status: In progress – The Government has increased the availability and scope of school performance data, to include more on attainment, finance, inspection, workforce, and attendance. It is, however, still developing its proposals on publishing past exam papers.
Pledge: We will create more flexibility in the exams systems so that state schools can offer qualifications like the IGCSE.
Status: Done – The Government enabled state schools to offer IGCSEs in 2010.
The Government underlined its commitment to high-quality vocational and occupational education by announcing a new Technical Baccalaureate measure in April 2013. This will become a league table performance measure in 2017. The success of this initiative will be one to watch.
Pledge: We will reform league tables so that schools are able to focus on, and demonstrate, the progress of children of all abilities.
Status: In progress – Although the Government has already substantially reformed Key Stage 4 league tables so that only GCSEs, iGCSEs, AS levels and ‘valued vocational qualifications’ count, and to measure change in pupil performance and performance amongst poorer pupils, it announced in February 2013 that it would continue to reform league tables.
Pledge: We will give heads and teachers the powers they need to ensure discipline in the classroom and promote good behaviour.
Status: Done – The Education Act 2011 gave teachers and school heads stronger powers to enforce discipline in schools. This included enabling teachers to search pupils suspected of carrying forbidden or dangerous items and to issue same day detentions, and giving heads the right to refuse re-entry to excluded pupils. The Department for Education has also published a checklist on the basics of classroom management, authored by its expert adviser Charlie Taylor.
Pledge: We believe the most vulnerable children deserve the very highest quality of care. We will improve diagnostic assessment for schoolchildren, prevent the unnecessary closure of special schools, and remove the bias towards inclusion.
Status: In progress – In March 2011 the Government published a Green Paper, ‘Support and aspiration: a new approach to special educational needs and disability’, setting out its proposed reform of special needs provision. This includes a single assessment process, and improving choice for parents of children with SEN through personal budgets, individual Health, Education and Care plans and removing the assumption that inclusion is the best option. These proposals have been included in the Children and Families Bill, 2012-2013, which passed second reading on 25 February 2013.
Pledge: We will improve the quality of vocational education, including increasing flexibility for 14–19 year olds and creating new Technical Academies as part of our plans to diversify schools provision.
Status: In progress – Following the 2011 Wolf Review, which considered how vocational education for 14-19 year olds could be improved to promote successful progression into the labour market, the Government accepted its key recommendations. Work is now underway to allow qualified further education lecturers to teach in school classrooms on the same basis as qualified school teachers. In the meantime, the Government has opened five University Technical Colleges and sixteen 14–19 Studio Schools, and approved 28 University Technical Colleges and 16 further Studio Schools for opening in 2013 or beyond.
Pledge: We will keep external assessment, but will review how Key Stage 2 tests operate in future.
Status: Done – The Department for Education commissioned crossbench peer, Lord Bew, to review testing at Key Stage 2 in 2011. Lord Bew reported on 23 June 2011, recommending changes such as replacing the written test with teacher assessment. The Government accepted this, and has now introduced a new spelling, grammar, punctuation and vocabulary test, effective from May 2013.
Pledge: We will ensure that all new Academies follow an inclusive admissions policy. We will work with faith groups to enable more faith schools and facilitate inclusive admissions policies in as many of these schools as possible.
Status: In progress – A revised schools admissions code which enabled popular schools to admit more pupils came into force in February 2013, while Academies and Free Schools have been allowed to prioritise children receiving the Pupil Premium. Faith groups are permitted to establish Free Schools, but cannot select on faith for more than fifty per cent to prevent to promote inclusion.
However, in November 2012 Gove famously intervened in a judicial review on the admissions policy of a faith school in Richmond to argue that the school should be permitted to select almost all of its pupils on the basis of faith – Vince Cable claimed this was ‘in contradiction of the Coalition Agreement in relation to faith schools’. Cable’s campaign to uphold the inclusivity pledge was rejected.