1. Background

In its 2019 general election manifesto, the Conservative Party pledged that a Conservative government would invest in schools, “level up Britain’s skills” by investing in more technical qualifications and apprenticeships, and maintain and strengthen the country’s “global position in higher education”.[1]

During the 2021–22 parliamentary session, the government sought to address the impact of Covid-19. The 2021 Queen’s Speech included pledges to develop a long-term plan for education and address learning lost during the pandemic. In addition, there were commitments to legislate to support a lifetime skills guarantee and to strengthen freedom of speech and academic freedom in higher education.[2]The 2022 Queen’s Speech included government commitments to both a schools bill and a higher education bill.[3] The government said that this legislation would “help every child fulfil their potential wherever they live, raising standards and improving the quality of schools and higher education”. The sections below focus on areas of education where potential legislation from government might be expected.

1.1 Schools Bill

The Schools Bill was introduced into the House of Lords on 11 May 2022. Most of the commitments in the bill had been included in the government white paper on schools ‘Opportunity for all: Strong schools with great teachers for your child’, published in March 2022. The bill included clauses changing the structure and regulation of academies, implementing a direct funding formula, introducing a register for children not in school, increasing Ofsted’s power to inspect non-registered schools, and strengthening the current teacher misconduct regime.

Reaction to the bill was mixed. Elements such as plans to introduce a register of children not in schools were welcomed by the National Education Union (NEU) and the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT).[4] The Local Government Association was positive about plans to increase Ofsted’s powers to inspect schools operating illegally, without registration.[5] However, the NAHT also noted that the government’s ambition to reform school structures outlined in the schools white paper was “likely to be controversial”.[6]

When the bill was debated in the House of Lords, several of the contributions expressed concern about provisions on academies, and in particular the government’s powers over academy standards. Speaking for the Labour Party, Baroness Chapman of Darlington argued that the bill sought “to confer unprecedented powers on the education secretary” and stated that “this could be described as a power grab”.[7] Former education secretary Lord Baker of Dorking (Conservative) described the increase in powers to the secretary of state and the Department for Education as “a real grab for power”.[8] These concerns were shared by several other peers from across the House.

On 30 June 2022, the government announced that 18 clauses dealing with the regulation of academies and trusts would be removed.[9] Subsequently, when giving evidence to the House of Commons Education Committee on 7 December 2022, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan confirmed that the bill as a whole would not progress:

[…] the need to provide economic stability and tackle the cost of living means that the parliamentary time has definitely been reprioritised on that […] However, we do remain committed to the very many important objectives that underpinned the bill, and we will be prioritising some aspects of the bill as well to see what we can do.[10]

Elements of the bill which the government has indicated it may prioritise are outlined in further detail in section 2.

1.2 Higher education bill

The 2022 Queen’s Speech included proposals for a higher education bill. It was intended that the bill would introduce a ‘lifelong loan entitlement’ (LLE) to “ensure that our post-18 education system promotes real social mobility” by supporting individuals to “get the skills they need throughout their life”.[11] In addition, the government argued that the bill would fulfil “the manifesto commitment to tackle uncontrolled growth of low-quality courses”.

The Lifelong Learning (Higher Education Fee Limits) Act 2023 received royal assent on 18 September 2023. It introduced a new method of calculating the maximum tuition fees for higher education courses in England based on a measurement of learning time known as ‘credits’. The changes sought to ensure that a learner who wanted to study a course module by module would pay the same as someone who wanted to study the same course in one go. The government has said it wants to support learners to access education flexibly throughout their working lives. The act formed part of the government’s wider plans to reform post-18 education in England. The introduction of a credit-based system made by the act seeks to support the introduction of the government’s LLE from 2025.

The other commitment from the 2022 Queen’s Speech was to tackle uncontrolled growth of low-quality courses. In July 2023, the government published the outcome of its higher education reform consultation.[12] Part of the consultation examined whether sector-wide controls on student numbers in England should be introduced where courses “do not deliver the high-quality employment prospects and the long-term economic returns students should expect”. In the consultation response, the government announced that it would issue statutory guidance to the Office for Students setting out that it should impose recruitment limits where provision was not delivering positive outcomes for students on higher education courses.[13]

1.3 Continuing impacts of Covid-19

Concerns regarding the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on children and their schooling continue to be voiced by many commentators. In June 2023, research from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and University College London’s Institute of Education showed that nearly half of parents (47%) reported that their child’s social and emotional skills had worsened during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic.[14]

In the same month, the Nuffield Foundation published research on ‘The longer-term impact of Covid-19 on pupil attainment and well-being’. The research argued that attainment in a number of subjects was behind pre-pandemic attainment levels. It also pointed to a large disadvantage gap between attainment of children eligible for pupil premium funding and their peers for all subjects and in all year groups.

In addition, Department for Education statistics for the 2021/22 academic year show an absence rate of 7.6% (8.5% when combining absence with not attending due to Covid-19 circumstances). While this figure is lower than the previous academic year, which was heavily impacted by the pandemic, the absence rate is higher than that seen in the years prior to the pandemic where absence was typically around 4–5%. The persistent absence rate, where a person is absent more than 10% of the time, was 22.5%. This is an increase from around 10–12% in previous years, including pre-pandemic.[15]

A number of commentators have expressed concern about the figures. In March 2023, the Centre for Social Justice’s report ‘Lost and not found: How severe absence became endemic in England’s schools’, drew attention to the high rates of persistent absence during the 2021/22 academic year. It noted that severe absence, where a person is absent more than 50% of the time, was at an all-time high.

On 27 September 2023, the House of Commons Education Committee published a report into ‘Persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils’. The committee highlighted the significant increases in the rates of absence since the Covid-19 pandemic, expressing concern that these did not appear to be returning to pre-pandemic levels. The committee’s recommendations included: making the use of the data dashboard known as the ‘pupil attendance dashboard’ mandatory for schools; a cross-government assessment, led by the Department for Education, of the scale of mental health difficulties; implementing statutory guidance on school attendance to be applicable from September 2024; and introducing a register for children not in school, to be fully operational by the 2024/25 academic year.

The government has drawn attention to non-statutory guidance, published in May 2022, which it said would “help schools, academy trusts, governing bodies and local authorities maintain high levels of school attendance”.[16] In addition, it has pointed to a number of other measures, such as the £2.32mn attendance mentor pilot, which aims to deliver intensive one-to-one support to persistently and severely absent pupils in five priority education investment areas.[17]

2. Potential legislation

2.1 Register of children not in school

One of the elements of the original schools white paper which the government has indicated it will progress is legislating for a register of children not in school. In her evidence to the House of Commons Education Committee, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan noted:

We do know that there has been an impact on attendance for some children post-pandemic and we are focused every day on those who have not returned to school. We definitely remain committed to legislating for children who are not on the school register […] I cannot commit to dates or times because there is a process that has to be gone through and I do not have full control of it, but this is as much of a commitment and a priority for me as it is for the committee.[18]

The commitment to a statutory local authority register of children not in school was reiterated on 17 July 2023, with Gillian Keegan stating that this would be achieved “at the next suitable legislative opportunity when parliamentary time allows”.[19] In May 2023, the Department for Education published a consultation on ‘Improving support for children missing education’. The report included questions on the identification by local authorities of unsuitable elective home education and how to improve upon it. The consultation closed in July 2023. A response has yet to be published.

2.2 British baccalaureate

On 4 October 2023, the prime minister used his party conference speech to announce plans to replace A-levels and T-levels with the ‘Advanced British Standard’ (ABS). A Department for Education policy paper on the topic, ‘A world-class education system: The Advanced British Standard’, provided further details. It argued that the ABS would take the best of A‑levels and T-levels bringing them together into one unified qualification, removing the “artificial separation” between technical and academic qualifications and delivering parity of esteem between the two. In addition, the government would:

  • Increase the number of taught hours by an extra 15% for most 16–19 students, against the current average funded time, moving England closer to international norms and helping more children to succeed.
  • Ensure every young person studies some form of English and maths to age 18, raising the floor of attainment and bringing England into line with international peers.
  • Increase the number of subjects that students take, to provide greater breadth. Students would choose a combination of bigger and smaller subjects—called majors and minors—from both technical and academic options, and would typically study a minimum of five subjects.

The paper also highlighted plans to make changes to the current GCSE system. The government said it would be looking at all elements of the system to ensure that GCSEs “prepare students well for their post-16 education”. As part of this, the government would consider reducing the number and length of exam papers that children sit, and examine whether digital solutions, such as on-screen assessment, could be adopted.

The government has said that it will consult extensively over the coming months and publish a white paper next year outlining its plans for delivery. A government press release, also released on 4 October 2023, stated that pupils starting primary school this term (autumn term of 2023/24) are expected to be the first cohort to take the new qualification.[20]

2.3 Guidance

The government has also announced that it will issue guidance for schools on policies to support transgender pupils and on the use of mobile phones in schools.

2.4 Policies for transgender pupils

In England, Wales and Scotland, the Equality Act 2010 prohibits discrimination against transgender children in all schools. In May 2014, the Department for Education published non-statutory guidance to help schools in England to understand how the Equality Act 2010 affects them and how to fulfil their duties under the act.[21]

In 2018, the government committed to updating guidance to schools about how to apply the Equality Act 2010. In addition, it said it would work with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to publish comprehensive guidance for schools on how to support transgender pupils.[22] It reiterated this commitment in a progress report on the LGBT action plan, published in July 2019, noting that the EHRC was also developing guidance for schools on supporting transgender pupils, which would be released “in due course”.

In March 2023, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that schools would receive guidance on policies for transgender pupils for the summer term of the 2022/23 school year.[23] However, in a statement in July 2023, Gillian Keegan confirmed that guidance would be delayed, allowing more time to speak to teachers, parents, lawyers and other stakeholders “in order to ensure the guidance meets the high expectations that these groups rightly have for it”. In the meantime, she urged schools to:

[…] proceed with extreme caution. They should always involve parents in decisions relating to their child and should not agree to any changes that they are not absolutely confident are in the best interests of that child and their peers. They should prioritise safeguarding by meeting their existing legal duties to protect single sex spaces and maintain safety and fairness in single sex sport.[24]

The Times newspaper has reported that Attorney-General Victoria Prentis has raised concerns regarding whether some of the proposed changes, particularly regarding social transitioning, were compatible with protections in the Equality Act 2010. It said that the attorney-general had advised the cabinet that guidance would have to be put on a statutory footing if the government wanted to go further. The paper noted that “several cabinet ministers support this approach”.[25]

2.5 Mobile phones in schools

In October 2023, Gillian Keegan announced that mobile phones should be banned in schools in England to improve behaviour. The government said that new guidance will be produced by the Department for Education and will back head teachers:

[…] in banning mobile phone use throughout the school day, including at break times, to tackle disruptive behaviour and online bullying while boosting attention during lessons. It aims to support the wider work the government is doing to raise standards in schools by increasing students’ focus and reducing distractions.[26]

It argued the changes would bring England in line with other countries, such as France, Portugal and Italy, which have already implemented a ban. The Department for Education has stated that if schools do not implement the guidance “the government will consider legislating in the future to make the guidance statutory”.

3. Read more

Cover image by 14995841 from Pixabay.


  1. Conservative Party, ‘Conservative Party manifesto 2019’, pp 36–7. Return to text
  2. Prime Minister’s Office, ‘Queen’s Speech 2021’, 11 May 2021. Return to text
  3. Prime Minister’s Office, ‘Queen’s Speech 2022’, 10 May 2022. Return to text
  4. House of Lords Library, ‘Schools Bill [HL]’, 19 May 2022. Return to text
  5. Local Government Association, ‘LGA statement on Queen’s Speech: Schools Bill’, 10 May 2022. Return to text
  6. National Association of Head Teachers, ‘Schools white paper “full of ambition but falls short on support”, say school leaders’, 28 March 2022. Return to text
  7. HL Hansard, 23 May 2022, cols 670–71. Return to text
  8. HL Hansard, 23 May 2022, col 689–90. Return to text
  9. Department for Education, ‘Letter from Baroness Barran to all peers regarding Schools Bill amendments for report’, 30 June 2022, DEP2022-0554. Return to text
  10. House of Commons Education Committee, ‘Oral evidence: Accountability hearings’, 7 December 2022, HC 58 of session 2022–23, Q237. Return to text
  11. Prime Minister’s Office, ‘Queen’s Speech 2022: Background notes’, 10 May 2022, p 63. Return to text
  12. Department for Education, ‘Higher education policy statement and reform’, 17 July 2023. Return to text
  13. As above, p 9. Return to text
  14. Institute for Fiscal Studies, ‘Almost half of children saw their social and emotional skills worsen during the pandemic—and economic turbulence played a role’, 1 August 2023. Return to text
  15. Department for Education, ‘Pupil absence in schools in England: Academic year 2021/22’, 16 March 2023. Return to text
  16. Department for Education, ‘Working together to improve school attendance’, 6 May 2022. Return to text
  17. House of Commons, ‘Written question: Schools: Absenteeism (199592)’, 26 September 2023. Return to text
  18. House of Commons Education Committee, ‘Oral evidence: Accountability hearings’, 7 December 2022, HC 58 of session 2022–23, Q246. Return to text
  19. HC Hansard, 17 July 2023, col 603. Return to text
  20. Prime Minister’s Office, ‘New qualifications to deliver world class education for all’, 4 October 2023. Return to text
  21. Department for Education, ‘The Equality Act 2010 and schools’, May 2014, pp 17–18. Return to text
  22. Government Equalities Office, ‘LGBT action plan’, July 2018, p 12. Return to text
  23. BBC News, ‘PM pledges trans guidance for schools for summer term’, 30 March 2023. Return to text
  24. House of Commons, ‘Written statement: Schools update (HCWS983)’, 20 July 2023. Return to text
  25. Steven Swinford and Nicola Woolcock, ‘Transgender guidance for schools: Cabinet ministers want PM to legislate’, Times (£), 20 July 2023. Return to text
  26. Department for Education, ‘Mobile phone use to be banned in schools in England’, 2 October 2023. Return to text