Liz Truss has been announced as the new Prime Minister. Our Director of Research and Policy, Carl Cullinane, takes a look at some of the challenges she and her new cabinet face.
Back in July this year, which already feels like several years ago, Liz Truss pitched herself as the “education prime minister”. While the escalating cost of living crisis is sure to define her first 100 days , education can provide a more lasting legacy. However, in education, like many government departments, the Truss premiership begins in the context of huge challenges and unresolved questions.
After 3 disrupted school years since the pandemic, how can we best support children in our schools to recover their educational footing and give them the best chance of success in life? How do we prevent the impacts of the cost of living crisis, in terms of material deprivation and household stress, from seeping into young people’s education and compounding upon the disruption of the pandemic to scar their long term prospects even further? How do we balance making a university education accessible to those from all backgrounds with an equitable sharing of the costs, while ensuring that those who do not attend university have high quality alternative pathways?
The new Prime Minister will be the first in almost a century to have attended a non-selective state secondary school, something to be welcomed. However, those working in comprehensive schools may not be encouraged by the framing of her leadership campaign, where she used the supposedly poor education she received as a basis for decrying the ‘low expectations’ of the state system. The challenges facing schools right now are rather more tangible. How to pay energy bills without compromising the education of their pupils, how to address the growing attainment gap due to the pandemic – as revealed in new Key Stage 2 data published today – how to attract and retain the best teachers, how to level up standards in numeracy and literacy.
There are also bigger picture structural questions inherited from the previous cabinet on academisation and the role of central government, with the schools white paper requiring a redraft. While a promise to reinvigorate the free school programme may address drift in the area of a key Conservative policy, the reintroduction of the grammar schools debate may not prove to be a productive one. Creating new grammar schools is a heavy lift, both legislatively and logistically, and serves mainly to raise questions as to whether that energy is best directed at the 90% of children who attend comprehensives.
On early education and childcare, a focus on cutting costs by relaxing ratios is unlikely to deliver on either of the two key goals of the sector: providing affordable childcare for families from all backgrounds; and providing a high quality foundation for children’s education. If we want early education to deliver for parents and children, it is vital we focus on widening access for less well-off families and improving quality across the system.
Perhaps the most eye-catching of the education policies trailed in July was that of offering Oxbridge interviews automatically to those achieving certain grades. While correctly diagnosing the problem of lack of access to our most prestigious institutions, the solution has been widely criticised as impractible, misguided, or both. The policy would require a wholesale restructuring of the admissions process and indeed of the university timetable to a January start of term. It would also likely benefit a very small number of highly attaining students, many of whom would probably be going to other highly rated universities anyway. As the Trust’s work has shown, there are more effective ways to improve access to top universities, whether by improving information, advice and guidance to those who lack support networks, contextualising admissions to recognise the additional barriers faced by applicants from certain backgrounds, or indeed narrowing the school attainment gap that lies at the foundation of so many inequalities in both higher education and the workplace.
The balance between academic and vocational pathways after the age of 18 is something that both of the last two prime ministers have battled with, and the next seems no different. Her pledge to address the funding gap between higher education and further education routes is, on the face of it, an encouraging one. FE has suffered from chronic underfunding over the last decade and more, while HE benefited from the trebling of tuition fees in 2011. If we are to genuinely make FE routes more attractive, it is vital that students benefit from comparable levels of financial support to university, including both course fees and maintenance.
However, it would be a mistake to leverage this disparity to weaken the university sector. As our landmark research last year showed, university is still the surest route to social mobility, and aiming for broad improvements in opportunity and mobility will involve building upon the university sector, not subtracting from it. If, as proposed, student number controls are introduced, this is likely to have a negative effect on access. A much more productive approach would be to improve the quality of university alternatives, including apprenticeships, rather than building new barriers to prevent some from getting in.
Both Liz Truss and her soon-to-be-announced Secretary of State for Education face substantial challenges to making the education system work for all young people. Theresa May’s social mobility agenda morphed into Boris Johnson’s levelling up programme. But regardless of what the Truss government calls it, what is vital is that equity, opportunity and facilitating social mobility should be at the heart of the new government’s agenda, if it is going to weather the coming storm and deliver a lasting legacy for the next generation.