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”. These themes were echoed in the 2019 Queen’s Speech, and background briefing notes which accompanied it, with pledges to increase funding for schools, those with complex special educational needs and for education for 16–19 year-olds. In addition, the creation of a national skills fund of £3 billion over the course of the Parliament was announced.

The Government has recently confirmed that the Department for Education is undertaking reviews in several areas, notably:

  • the review of post-16 qualifications at level 3 and call for evidence at level 2 and below;
  • the independent review of children’s social care;
  • the review of provisions for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities; and
  • the initial teacher training market review.

In addition, the Secretary of State for Education has asked Ofsted to undertake an immediate review into sexual abuse across state and independent schools.

However, a large part of the recent focus in education policy has been the question of how to alleviate and adapt to the short and long-term impacts of Covid-19. Schools and universities were forced to close and face-to-face learning restricted for most students for large parts of 2020 and early 2021. Key exams were cancelled in both 2020 and 2021.

Schools

On 18 March 2020, the Department for Education announced that, as part of the country’s ongoing response to Covid-19, schools in England would close from 23 March 2020 and would remain closed “until further notice”, except for children of key workers and vulnerable children. In addition, primary school assessments and secondary exams would not go ahead. Schools reopened to all pupils for several months in the 2020/21 academic year, but again closed to all but vulnerable children and children of key workers between January and March 2021. In January 2021, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that exams for 2021 would also be cancelled, stating it was “not possible or fair for all exams to go ahead this summer as normal”.

Schools have now reopened again (from 8 March 2021), but the prime minister has described helping children catch up on lost learning as the Government’s “single biggest priority”. He said “we’ve got to work flat out now as a country, as a society, to remedy the loss of learning that kids have had”. An interim report from the Department for Education published research that showed learning losses in both reading and mathematics for the 2020/21 academic year; the research also highlighted regional disparities in the level of learning loss and in schools with high levels of disadvantage.

The Sutton Trust has also drawn attention to the uneven impact of the pandemic on learning. According to its research, 84% of teachers think the Covid-19 lockdown will increase the attainment gap between better off and more deprived pupils. These findings tally with research carried out by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and the Nuffield Foundation. The NFER research suggests that pupils were, on average, three months behind where they would be expected to be at the start of the 2020/21 academic year. The Nuffield Foundation study concluded that almost half of pupils are in need of intensive catch-up support. Those from the most deprived schools and the schools with the highest proportions of pupils from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds are in greatest need.

On 24 February 2021, the Department for Education announced a “new £700 million package, focusing on an expansion of one-to-one and small group tutoring programmes, as well as supporting the development of disadvantaged children in early years settings, and summer provision for those pupils who need it the most”. Outlining the details of the package in the House of Commons, the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, said:

Schools will be able to target individual pupils’ needs. The package will build on the £1 billion catch-up package that we announced just a few months ago and forms part of a wider response to help pupils to make up on the lost learning that they have suffered.

Earlier in the month, on 3 February 2021, the prime minister appointed Sir Kevan Collins as the Government’s education recovery commissioner, saying he would “oversee a comprehensive programme of catch-up aimed at young people who have lost out on learning due to the pandemic”. The post’s terms of reference require that he advises both the secretary of state and the prime minister on the most effective potential interventions to support education catch up from autumn term 2021 onwards. The commissioner will not have a role in the process of teacher-assessed grades for qualifications in the academic year 2020/21.

The Government has said that Sir Kevan would “engage with parents, pupils and teachers” when developing proposals. It said it was “considering all options” to ensure the impact of Covid-19 was comprehensively addressed. Asked about potential changes to term times and the school day, the Minister of State for School Standards, Nick Gibb, noted that term dates for the current and next academic year have already been set and published by local authorities, governing bodies, and academy trusts, although schools were free to offer summer activities to pupils.

Exams

Exams for both GCSEs and A levels were cancelled in summer 2020. A process involving a statistical model to standardise results took their place. There was strong criticism of the outcomes it produced. In August 2020, following what was described as a “distressing time for students”, the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) announced that GCSE, AS and A levels students for 2020 would be awarded the grade that a pupil’s school or college estimated that they would have achieved in their exam.

On 4 January 2021, Boris Johnson announced that exams for 2021 would also be cancelled, stating that “the Education Secretary will work with Ofqual to put in place alternative arrangements”. In the same month, the Department for Education and Ofqual began a joint consultation on proposals for awarding GCSEs, AS and A levels and vocational and technical qualifications. The consultation results were published in February 2021. GCSEs, AS and A levels will be awarded on the basis of teacher assessment, while the awarding of grades for vocational and technical qualifications would depend on the nature of the qualification.

The Minister for School Standards, Nick Gibb, has argued that “students can be assured that grades will be as fair and consistent as possible”. Questioned on arrangements for future assessments, he reiterated his belief that “exams are the fairest method of assessment”, but that “we will monitor the position regarding 2022 and we will make a statement then”.

Universities

Impact of Covid-19

March 2020 also saw the closure of colleges and university campuses due to coronavirus, with teaching moved online. In September 2020, the Government published guidance on how students could move back to campuses for the start of the 2020/21 academic year.

In November 2020, the Government published guidance for students to travel home from campuses at the end of the term “while controlling COVID-19 transmission risk”. However, plans for students to return following the Christmas holidays were revised in late December/early January. Face-to-face learning was restricted to a small number of courses in areas such as medicine, education and social work.

Latest government guidance states that in-person teaching and learning can resume for all remaining students from 17 May (at the earliest).

During the pandemic, concerns have been raised about several issues, including:

  • potential refunds for accommodation costs incurred by students not able to use accommodation due to lockdown;
  • potential refunds of university tuition fees;
  • the return date to campus for universities in England; and
  • the possible impact of the pandemic on the funding of universities.

The Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, has drawn attention to the work of the Higher Education (HE) Taskforce. Convened in August 2020, it includes groups from the higher education sector. It is tasked with identifying emerging issues in the sector linked to Covid-19. Ms Donelan argued that a return to university should be “cautious” and “guided by data and not dates”. She emphasised that:

HE providers are autonomous institutions responsible for their own teaching and assessment but should be delivering teaching in line with the latest HE guidance and public health advice. The government’s clear and stated expectation is that universities should maintain the quality and quantity of tuition and seek to ensure that all students regardless of their background have the resources to study remotely.

What government plans may be subject to future legislation?

Free speech and academic freedom

In February 2021, the Government published a policy paper, Higher Education: Free Speech and Academic Freedom. This set out plans “to strengthen protections for free speech and academic freedom in higher education, increase the rights of redress for those who are wronged and establish a new free speech champion in the Office for Students”. In detail, the proposals include plans to:

  • legislate for a free speech and academic freedom champion, with a remit to champion free speech, investigate infringements of free speech in higher education and recommend redress;
  • legislate to require the Office for Students, the higher education regulator in England, to introduce a new registration condition on free speech and academic freedom, with the power to impose sanctions for breaches;
  • strengthen the free speech duty under section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 to include a duty for HE providers to ‘actively promote’ freedom of speech;
  • extend the free speech duty to apply directly to student unions;
  • introduce a statutory tort for breach of the free speech duty, enabling individuals to seek legal redress for the loss they have suffered as a result of a breach;
  • widen and enhance academic freedom protections, including extending protections so that recruitment and promotion are also covered; and
  • work with HE providers to set minimum standards for free speech codes of practice (required under the legislation), making sure high standards become the norm across the sector.

Further education

The further education sector has also been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, with uncertainty over exams and loss of learning for the 2020/21 academic year. Previous announcements have included increases to the funding of education for 16–19 year olds and the creation of a National Skills Fund. A number of further proposals for the sector, including a “lifetime skills guarantee” and digital skills bootcamps (both part of the National Skills Fund), were announced in September 2020.

On 21 January 2021, the Government published Skills for Jobs: Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth. Described by the secretary of state as a “blueprint for the future”, the white paper seeks to deliver on the “lifetime skills guarantee” announced by the prime minister in September 2020 and reinforce the “pivotal role” of further and technical education. The paper includes proposals to:

  • increase employers’ involvement to ensure education and training leads to jobs that can improve productivity and fill skills gaps;
  • invest in higher-level technical qualifications that provide a valuable alternative to a university degree;
  • ensure people can access training and learning flexibly throughout their lives and are well-informed about what is on offer through careers support;
  • reform funding and accountability for providers; and
  • support teaching in further education.

The Government is currently analysing feedback from the second stage consultations examining post-16 technical and academic qualifications at level 3. A response to the initial consultation on this subject was published in October 2020. A call for evidence on study and qualifications at level 2 and below, for students aged 16 and above, has recently closed.

Government reviews

Ofsted review of sexual abuse in schools

The Government has asked Ofsted to undertake an immediate review of safeguarding policies in state and independent schools in relation to sexual abuse. The review will conclude by May 2021. The review follows numerous allegations of sexual abuse, harassment and misogyny which were posted on the Everyone’s Invited website. The accounts came from students of all ages, ranging from university-age students to children as young as nine, and in some instances identified the school where the alleged events took place.

The review will examine:

  • the strength of the current safeguarding framework and guidance;
  • how well safeguarding guidance and processes are understood and working; and
  • ensuring schools and colleges have appropriate processes in place to allow pupils to report sexual abuse concerns freely, knowing these will be taken seriously and dealt with swiftly and appropriately.

Children’s social care

In January 2021, the Government announced an independent review of children’s social care, chaired by former teacher Josh MacAlister. The review “will take a fundamental look at the needs, experiences and outcomes of the children it supports, and what is needed to make a real difference”.

Alongside the review of children’s social care, the Government also announced that it would be holding a consultation about children being placed with “unregulated providers” of children’s social care. Unregulated provision is allowed in law. It relates to establishments that provide accommodation to young people but which do not meet the criteria of a children’s home and are not therefore regulated by Ofsted. For example, they may be used when children (usually over the age of 16) need support to live independently, rather than full time care.

The consultation closed in June 2020 and the Government published its response to the consultation in February 2021. The response included proposals to ban the use of unregulated settings for children under 16. In addition, the Government said it would legislate to give Ofsted new powers to take enforcement action against illegal unregistered providers. Unregistered provision is when a child who is being provided with some form of ‘care’ is living somewhere that is not registered with Ofsted; this is illegal.

Special educational needs

On 6 September 2019, the Government announced a review into support for children with special educational needs:

Five years on from reforms introduced to better support children and young people with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), the review aims to improve the services available to families who need support, equip staff in schools and colleges to respond effectively to their needs as well as ending the ‘postcode lottery’ they often face

The Government intends to publish proposals for wider public consultation before the summer of 2021. The review will cover children and young people from birth to the age of 25 and will focus on “improving lifelong outcomes”.

Initial teacher training market

In the teacher recruitment and retention strategy, the Government announced it would review the initial teacher training (ITT) market to support it to work “more efficiently and effectively”. Although the review was delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic, work has now resumed, and it is expected to report in summer 2021.

The stated aims of the review are to ensure:

  • all trainees receive high-quality training;
  • the ITT market maintains the capacity to deliver enough trainees and is accessible to candidates; and
  • the ITT system benefits all schools.

Cover image from gov.uk.