DUP-Tory government: What would it mean for education?

Grammar school plans could be out the window, and school leaders are hopeful for a reassessment of spending budgets

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The Independent Online

Grammars are out

The DUP is very much pro grammar, and schools in Northern Ireland are intrinsically selective – with a structure that’s closer to the pre-Blair system that was long the standard in the rest of the UK.

But the Conservative Party is left in such a weak position that, even if they form a government with the DUP, ministers will in no way be able to push forward with the much contested selective school proposals outlaid in their election manifesto.

Only seven Conservative ministers need to oppose such a bill, and we know there are around 15 who are outspokenly opposed to grammar schools specifically.

As a source close to Number 10 reportedly put it to TES early on Friday morning, grammar school plans are “f***ed” – something that will come as a relief to campaigners who have voiced opposition over Theresa May’s plans for months.

Free school expansions will continue

The minority result may also have come as a blow to New Schools Network head and free schools advocate, Toby Young, who has championed Theresa May’s plans to build at least 100 new free schools – including selective grammars – each year.

Everyone can more or less agree that new school places are needed – especially given the forecasted population increase – and this has been Mr Young’s strongest argument in favour of free schools expansion. 

But they remain something of a contentious issue, with some arguing free schools are too costly and unaccountable, receiving huge budgets while local authority schools are neglected.

As director of NSN, Mr Young was tasked with helping to deliver the new free schools, which are autonomous from local authority.

Speaking to The Independent on Friday, he remained positive the plans would go through, stating that the free schools programme remains the main delivery mechanism for much needed school places, regardless of the stance on grammars.

“It remains to be seen what impact the election result will have on individual education policies, but I expect the free schools programme to continue,” he said. 

“Free schools are more popular with parents than council-run schools, more likely to be rated Outstanding by Ofsted and get better results. They also remain the most cost effective way of providing much-needed new school places.”

 

Responding to the outcome on Friday morning, Kevin Courtney, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “The Conservative party was hugely divided over grammar schools. 

“The initiative for them came directly from Theresa May and her advisor Nick Timothy – perhaps only introduced in a misguided attempt to gain voters from Ukip. 

“This policy can’t possibly survive this calamitous election. Government education policy now needs to urgently concentrate on and address school funding cuts.”

School funding will have to be readdressed

Schools are already facing very real and immediate consequences as a result of the squeeze on school funding. 

We’ve heard and read stories about schools closing half an hour early to save money, parents being sent begging letters asking for donations, and teachers buying art materials and textbooks using money from their own pocket.

Speaking on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour in the run-up to election day, Home Secretary Amber Rudd admitted that a Conservative government would not increase per pupil funding in England – a disclosure union leaders said confirmed their worst fears.

The future of school funding now hangs in the air: Voters have undoubtedly reacted against the Conservative’s real terms cuts of 7 per cent per pupil, as well as the much criticised plans to scrap universal free lunches for infants.

By comparison, Labour pledged to increase school spending per pupil by 6 per cent compared with present levels, and the Liberal Democrat plan would protect spending in real terms at the 2017-18 level.

In its party manifesto, the DUP highlights that Northern Ireland’s direct spending by schools is the lowest in the UK – something it endeavours to change.

The party also states it wants to “empower” its schools principles and governors to “end the top-down culture of the Department for Education” by giving control over budgets and resources back to schools.

Interestingly, the DUP makes far more mention of special needs schools and SEND (special educational needs and disabilities) diagnosis than the Conservatives.

“Schools and universities are in comparatively good places,” said Sir Anthony Seldon, vice chancellor of the University of Buckingham.

“What they absolutely don’t need is any more initiatives from governments from the left or the right which will only damage the direction in which they are going.

“That said, the cuts to the school programme needs to be urgently eased out, or the quality of education will really suffer.”

Research published on the School Cuts website shows that, in reality, 93 per cent of schools will experience real-terms cuts by 2022 under the current plans.

The NUT and ATL unions warned that if the Government decides to press ahead with these cuts, “campaigns will intensify over the coming weeks and months” – so we could see some more strike action.

Funding for universities and further education remains unclear

While schools have made headlines for their financial struggles, top UK universities have been slipping down the ranks of recent global league tables – an issue experts have blamed on cuts to funding within higher education.

Despite this, Universities Minister Jo Johnson appears to remain in favour, with vice chancellors, including Sir Anthony, commending his efforts to pilot new university legislation, including the Teaching Excellence Framework.

“Dropping him would be folly and dangerous,” the Buckingham head warned. 

2017 General Election in numbers

Now, it seems, is the time for industry leaders to place increasing pressure on ministers to protect the rights of overseas students by allowing free movement following Brexit, and by discounting them from UK migration statistics.

The government needs to start welcoming and celebrating overseas students, not deterring them, and it needs to ensure the softest of soft Brexit’s that will not inflict significant damage on British higher education and science.   

The University and College Union, which represents higher and further education institutions across the UK, said the next government must prioritise investment in further and higher education and act swiftly to end the uncertainty over the position of EU nationals.

It could be good news for international students

Responding to early indications of high youth turnout, UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, said: “It is encouraging to see that a positive message, particularly after the unpleasant Brexit campaign last year, can still inspire voters. 

“Theresa May called this election expecting to secure a mandate for a hard Brexit. She has signally failed to achieve that and the next government must bring some stability in these chaotic times. 

“We believe an important first step is to now guarantee the rights of EU citizens currently in the UK, including thousands of university and college staff and students who contribute so much to our economy and society.”

The outgoing president of the National Union of Students, Malia Bouattia, added: “Students have influenced the outcome right across the country and in key university towns. There have been claims that this can be attributed solely to the issue of tuition fees, but doing so is disingenuous and only tells part of the story. 

“Students want a government that recognises the importance of education and properly invests in it, rather than consistently cuts it. Over the last seven years, funding for both further and higher education has radically reduced; colleges have closed, adult education budgets have been slashed and student debt has continued to rise. This can’t continue.”

Theresa May’s refusal to guarantee the rights of EU citizens, the impact of leaving the European Union and regressive Home Office policies have made the UK a less attractive place to study, she warned, but surveys show the vast majority of students believe the loss of international students would have a negative impact their university experience.

One positive view is that the DUP is keen to avoid a hard border with Ireland, and is therefore unlikely to want to jeopardise the UK’s intake of international students post-Brexit.

It remains to be seen whether Theresa May will back down on her insistence for international students to be included within migration figures.

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