Issue 131 - 2024 Summer term
General Secretary Pepe Di’Iasio gazes into the future to see what the next five years may have in store for education.

Spirit of optimism

Pepe Di’Iasio
ASCL General Secretary
In business, it’s common practice to have a five-year plan outlining your goals. In education, it often feels difficult to produce a five-month plan, such are the shifting sands of finances and government policies.

However, at the risk of embarking on a fool’s errand, I’m going to use my first Leader article as General Secretary to gaze into the future and see what the next five years may have in store. I’m doing this, as you’ll see, in the spirit of optimism.

The trouble is that we don’t know at this point who will be in power over the next five years. That, of course, depends on the outcome of the General Election. We think it’ll be Labour because the party is so far ahead in the opinion polls.

But until the country votes on 4 July, there is a Schrödinger's cat situation – two alternate futures for education that are both possible until the election takes place.

And, of course, those alternate futures apply only to England, with the governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland setting their own course.
Happily, we’ve a pretty good outline of what Labour would do in England. The party has published a summary on its website. It includes free breakfast clubs in every primary school, mental health support in schools and communities, and improving the sharing of data to pick up special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) earlier.

Labour will end single-word Ofsted judgements and bring in report cards with annual checks on safeguarding and attendance, recruit 6,500 more teachers in schools, and commission an independent curriculum and assessment review.

There’s a lot to like about these plans – indeed ASCL has proposed several of them in our own policy work – but not a lot of detail. Most notably, there’s little about the all-important issue of funding.

Labour is, of course, proposing to impose a VAT charge on independent school fees to help pay for these plans. We’ve asked for – and so far, not received – a clearer sense of what Labour believes the impact of this policy might be on pupils in both the independent and state sectors.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) estimates this would raise a “net gain” of £1.5 billion at most, but it could be much less, and this is any case a long way short of the £12 billion needed just to restore school funding – that is revenue, capital and SEND – to 2010 levels.

So, there’s a conundrum for Labour to solve in tight financial circumstances, which boils down to that familiar political problem – where’s the money going to come from?
The current government – the architect of the country’s straitened finances – doesn’t have an answer to that question either. In fact, it’s busily trumpeted the claim that school funding is at a record high. This is what the IFS says on that:
“Such claims are, to put it mildly, unhelpful to public debate. Prior to 2010, school funding per pupil was at a record high almost every year. The fact that this has not been the case since 2010 just reflects the fact that we saw a historically high real-terms cut in school spending per pupil of 9% between 2010 and 2019.”
At the time of writing, the Conservatives don’t have a lot to say about their future plans for education in general. There is the Advanced British Standard, and that’s pretty much it.
One possible clue to the likely direction of travel is the government’s 2022 white paper – Opportunity for all: Strong schools with great teachers for your child. There’s some confusion about whether this is still the plan or not because the associated legislative bill was withdrawn, but the white paper is actually much broader than the bill was. So, given that a new Conservative government would likely look to build on, rather than overturn, its approach over the last few years, the white paper may continue to provide useful hints.
It contained a target that, by 2030, 90% of children will leave primary school having achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and maths, and to increase the national GCSE average grade in English language and maths to 5.
You may recall that it also said that, by 2030, all children will be taught in a school in “a strong multi-academy trust or with plans to join or form one”, although the government appears to have softened this ambition as 2030 moves closer.

There was much else besides. The biggest problem with that white paper was a certain amount of vagueness about how any of this would be achieved. The primary attainment target, for example, would require an enormous injection of investment to reduce class sizes, introduce more teachers and teaching assistants, and fund more individualised and specialist support for children with additional needs.

Your biggest issues
So, all of this leaves us with a hazy outline at best of what may lie in store for education over the next five years.

What ASCL would like to see is set out in our General Election Manifesto, which focuses on what you – our members – tell us are the biggest issues you currently face:
  • To address the recruitment and retention crisis, we call for investment to improve pay, and action to reduce workload and the pressure of accountability.
  • To narrow the disadvantage gap, we urge the next government to improve school and college funding, and implement and build on current plans to reform the SEND system.
  • To enable schools and colleges to focus on teaching and learning, we call for meaningful action to end child poverty and re-invest in children’s services.
Which brings me back to my earlier point about the spirit of optimism. Because I do believe that with the right political will, we can make huge progress over the next five years. It’ll require a real sense of ambition from policymakers backed up with sufficient investment in schools, colleges, and children’s services.

But what makes it possible is that – despite all the challenges – we have a good education system, staffed by excellent people with a strong sense of moral purpose, that could easily be a great education system.

Who knows, we may even get to a position in the future where we have the sort of long-term vision for education that the profession has long called for. It may even be possible that we’ll one day be able to produce five-year plans confident that they will not be blown off course by uncertainty over budgets or a change in government policy.

That would be quite a day to celebrate.

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