13/06/2017 08:40 BST | Updated 13/06/2017 08:40 BST

Where To Now With Education?


Talk of selective education, crumbling infrastructure, exam factories, insufficient funding for schools and requests for parents to contribute financially have all served to bring education to the fore of political debate. The final Ipsos MORI/Economist Issues Index released before the election revealed that concerns regarding education reached their highest level for over ten years, becoming the third most important issue, ahead, even, of the economy. This prominence is welcome progress and something we must capitalise on if we are to achieve the best education for all, but who will the key players be in this new political landscape and what effects might they have?

The first remains Theresa May, now with new political partners the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), for as long as she remains Prime Minister. Her first Downing Street statement following the election suggested continuity, but the reality cannot be business as usual. For the PM, grammar schools have always been at the heart of her plans for Britain to become 'the great meritocracy'. Academic selection matters to her, as it does to the DUP, who expressed their resounding support for it in their election manifesto, under the (ironic) title 'giving every child the chance to succeed'. The new kingmakers are her natural allies here, but the chance of their combined strength succeeding in pushing the selective education agenda seems unlikely. There is simply no mandate for grammars. One must also hope that the intention to improve PSHE provision announced by the Department for Education earlier this year will not be limited by her 'friends and allies'.

Justine Greening's majority may have been drastically cut from over 10,000 to 1,554, but with her post currently secure and May's own position so vulnerable, Greening can hopefully feel more emboldened in the role, especially given she is rumoured not to be a champion of selective education. Schools minister Nick Gibb's election success suggests he will likely stay in post. Under his stewardship, reform of both assessment and the curriculum has been frequent and sweeping, but it would be hugely beneficial for schools and students if Greening and Gibb can strike a different path. For too long, the insistence that we have never had more teachers and how funding is at its highest level on record have obfuscated the fact that whilst both those points may have some truth, rising pupil numbers, more teachers leaving the profession and financial inability for schools to deal with the plethora of problems they face have not been solved and repetition of such related facts only divert attention, rather than provide adequate solutions. Those politically involved in education must recognise and help to solve the real challenges meeting schools more than has been the case thus far. It is imperative they come to some consensus on a fair way to allocate funding to our schools sooner, rather than later.

And what about the other parties? May is in power at present but were things to change and Labour lead a coalition, what might it mean? Certainly, Labour's election slogan ('For the many, not the few') and manifesto suggest we can assume neither grammars, nor the new funding formula would see the light of day. The Lib Dem funding pledge, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, would have seen a decrease in funding, but we must hope that should the other parties come together, they engage in real debate on how to meet the needs of schools. At a more local level, how will academisation fare without a Conservative juggernaut behind it? It seems unlikely the government will want to risk a show down with local authorities.

The key players across the education spectrum won't just be politicians. Whilst not the only region facing financial difficulties in terms of education funding, headteachers, teachers, parents and supporters across West Sussex have had the most visible campaign to urge the government to rethink the new funding formula. In the weeks leading up to the election, Save Our Schools (SOS) West Sussex campaigners once again called for a protected education budget, claiming the new funding formula fails to recognise inflationary cost pressures, themselves echoing the views expressed by head teachers across the country in March. Despite the majority of constituencies across Sussex as a whole remaining Conservative, there has been a swing from the party, with gains for Labour in Kemp Town and the Lib Dems in Eastbourne. With this and greater public awareness of the issues facing education than ever before, campaigners in Sussex and beyond now have an arguably greater opportunity for their voices to be heard and hopefully improve educational opportunities for young people.

We should perhaps, as a nation, feel some pride in our young people and how they mobilised themselves into an effective political force. The NME's exit poll claimed a 12% increase on the number of young people who voted in 2015. Voting in such large numbers signifies a huge shift in politics. No longer will political parties be able to aim their policies at an older generation they think more likely to vote. Hopefully, this will be another reason for politicians to perhaps realign their parties' positions.

We can't foresee the future with absolute certainty. Politically, the situation is arguably more chaotic now than many thought it would be. Nevertheless, we must prepare as best we can. Education needs better, fairer funding. It needs stability, not change for its own sake and increased uncertainty. It needs recognition of actual problems and innovative thinking in solving them. This can only happen if channels of communication between all those who have a stake in the education community are kept open. Whoever is in office, we must make sure that the education debate continues.