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Three Things To Look Out For In Education Policy In 2017

2016 will be remembered as a year when established certainties fell victim to the arrival of a brave new world. In the UK, Brexit was clearly the greatest of these disruptions; yet the undercurrent pulling against the status quo was demonstrated just as strongly, at a smaller scale, by the Government's intention to overturn nearly twenty years of academic and political consensus and allow for a return to academically selective secondary education.

As one of the few tangible major policy announcements made by the May Government thus far, it was natural that this move would receive significant scrutiny. Add to this the emotive nature of the topic under discussion - nothing less than the life chances of the nation's youth, as well as questions of entrenched advantage versus social mobility - and the subsequent blanket coverage is hardly surprising.

A consultation on the Government's proposals closed earlier this month, ensuring this debate will roll over and continue to dominate discussions for just as much of next year. But 2017 is shaping up to be a year when education policy hits the headlines for more reasons than one.

Indeed, just as housing shot up the political agenda a couple of years ago, so 2017 may be the year education comes to the fore in the public and media mind. Alongside the ongoing grammars debate, the following three areas are worth watching as they come to a head over the next 12 months:

1) Free childcare entitlement: The Government will, from September 2017, double the free childcare allowance for working parents of three and four year olds from 15 to 30 hours per week. The policy aims to help parents to take up work, or to allow those already in employment to work more hours. However, many nurseries consider themselves to be at risk of closure due to the costs associated with this increase in hours, which they feel are not adequately offset by the extra funding Government has pledged. Research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies has found moreover that the policy's effect on parental employment is likely to be slight, raising questions over its effectiveness and value for money.

The Government may also face criticism for not making the most of the opportunity this policy presents to close the school readiness gap. Children from low-income families are estimated to be over a year and a half behind more advantaged peers in their development by age 5, and high quality early years education is widely seen as an effective, if incomplete, remedy to this divide. However, concerns have already been raised that there is insufficient funding to ensure that the additional 15 hours will contribute positively to children's early education, and that this early development gap could be widened even further for children from the very lowest income families, whose income from employment falls below the threshold necessary to access the extra childcare provision.

2) Teacher recruitment: There are currently more teachers than ever before working in UK schools, but almost one in ten of those teachers left the profession in 2015, meaning that the recruitment need is also unprecedented. This is hardly a new concern, though 2016 saw the pressure on the Government raised a few notches further with the revelation that its new recruitment system, designed to prevent over-recruitment, had in fact failed to fill the number of allocated training places (required to hit the Government's recruitment targets) in many subjects.

This situation cannot continue indefinitely. Yet with the Government focused on implementing other already announced policies, and no obvious off-the-shelf solution to the problem, it seems unlikely that 2017 will be the year this issue is put to bed. That doesn't mean Government will be ignoring the problem - expect to see additional support and incentives for career changers or talented graduates in deprived areas of the country to enter the profession - but it's unlikely these will amount to much more than running to stay still.

3) Fairer funding: The long-awaited National Funding Formula (NFF) for schools emerged earlier this month, with resources being reallocated from London and some other urban centres to schools in other parts of the country, in order to equalise per-pupil funding across schools with similar intakes. However, on the very same day, the National Audit Office published analysis which found that schools across England will see a funding gap of £3 billion by 2019/20, and are facing budget cuts equivalent to a real terms reduction in per-pupil funding of 8%.

School and union leaders had hoped to see fairer funding achieved via an injection of additional funding into the system, rather than a redistribution of existing resources. The losers from the NFF are facing budget cuts of more than the baseline 8% figure noted above, while even the biggest winners are barely making a net gain. Government has however offered further targeted support for deprived areas through programmes such as its Opportunity Areas scheme. More detail on the Prime Minister's social reform agenda is expected to emerge during 2017; this debate is likely to feature prominently in that discussion.

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