Budget 2017: Four talking points for the education sector

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

by Alex Collinson

No surprises. That was seemingly the main theme of this year’s spring budget when it came to education. Most of the announcements made today have been announced previously, and many were included in Theresa May’s article in yesterday’s Telegraph about how the budget would give education a “huge boost”.

Despite lacking any shock announcements, Philip Hammond’s budget speech added detail to some of the things we’ve been hearing about for a while; grammar schools, technical education, the scrapping of last year’s white paper. Below, we look at four of the key talking points from the spring budget.

£320 million for new free schools

The headline figure that’s going to grab most of the attention is the one-off £320 million payment for 110 new free schools. This is in addition to the 500 free schools previously announced under the last government.

This alone is quite a talking point, but it attracts more attention due to the potential for this to lead to the opening of new grammar schools. In his speech, Philip Hammond made it clear that an upcoming new schools white paper would lead to lifting the ban on grammar schools. It’d be quite a surprise if a substantial number of the new free schools weren’t selective.

Could this funding be better used?

At a time when existing schools are facing real-term cuts in funding and the majority of school leaders are worrying about their budgets, a decision to put extra money into new free schools is contentious. While David Cameron claimed that the free school programme is the “most successful schools programme in recent British history“, such a favourable view isn’t shared by everybody.

Any hostility towards extra free schools is likely to be amplified due to the reintroduction of grammar schools being so unpopular with some. For those school leaders struggling to decide how to manage their own budget, extra funding for an unpopular project might not go down well.

Hammond has tried to pacify complaints from existing schools by providing £216 million of extra investment in improving school buildings. However, this is much less than the predicted cost of restoring existing school buildings to a satisfactory condition. It also only addresses one of the many rising costs facing schools.

Educational Excellence Everywhere RIP

It feels like only yesterday that the alliteratively-titled white paper Educational Excellence Everywhere made a surprise appearance in our lives. Published in March 2016, it intended to set out the incumbent government’s plans for the next five years. In reality, the white paper barely survived five months.

The Educational for All Bill was designed to bring certain elements of the white paper, such as requirements for more schools to become academies, into force. However, it was shelved by Justine Greening in October 2016 . Greening, who replaced Nicky Morgan as education secretary in the new post-Brexit government, simply said that the legislation wouldn’t be introduced within the current parliamentary session.

It’s been barely mentioned since, and the announcement of a new schools white paper in this budget implies that this has turned from an indefinite shelving into a definite scrapping.

While the government could still put some elements of the old white paper into the new, this seems unlikely. Expect the latest white paper to come out in the next few weeks. It’ll cover the grammar school plans, as well as objectives for encouraging universities and private schools to sponsor academies.

Removing the stigma of technical education

In Theresa May’s article to build hype around the spring budget, she made the government’s commitment to technical education clear:

Tomorrow this government will set out the biggest overhaul of post-16 education in 70 years with a multi-billion pound drive to improve technical training, including new technical versions of A levels and 900 hours of teaching each year.

In his speech, Philip Hammond reiterated this view and explained that investing in skills and education is “the key to inclusive growth”. He spoke about the concerns that the current generation of children will not have the skills required for the workplaces of the future and the “jobs of tomorrow”.

He added that while Britain has a good record in academic education, it languishes in comparison to other developed economies when it comes to technical education. To solve this, the government plans to end any stigma around technical education.

This will be done by introducing T-Levels, a new clear system of career-focused technical education. Those taking part in technical training will have only 15 courses to choose from, rather than the thousands of qualifications currently on offer. These courses will involve 50% more teaching hours each year, as well as three-month work placements. Maintenance loans will also be provided for those taking higher technical courses in further education.

The aim of all this is to give a “parity of esteem” between academic and technical education. This isn’t a new announcement and has been in the pipeline for a while. Regardless of how new it is, it could prove to be one of the more popular announcements from the budget.

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