The evolving landscape of education policy

Insights from Caroline Doherty at Ark on the current education landscape.
Time to read
4 mins

Last month, we invited Caroline Doherty from Ark into the office to share her insights on the evolving landscape of education policy. With her extensive experience at the intersection of policy and practice, she provided valuable insights into the current state and future direction of the sector.

Here we share highlights of her fascinating talk and what this means for the sector looking forward, to give you an overview of the key trends, statistics and concerns many schools are facing in 2024. 

The current context of education policy 

In recent years, Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) have become a significant force in shaping education policy with policymakers increasingly relying on trust leaders to develop and implement their plans. This means that for many schools whether in a MAT or not, education policy is being shaped by the needs of MATs. 

Additionally, in our wider political context, the public focus remains on the economy and the NHS, with education featuring less prominently in the public concern as it did 2 decades ago. With an election set for July, many will be hoping to get education higher on the agenda and we will have to wait and see how the results will influence upcoming policy-making. 

Financial trends and progress towards equity 

When we look to financial trends in education, spending as a percentage of GDP peaked in 2009 but has since been on the decline. Despite this, the past 20 years have seen notable strides in educational equity achieved. More comprehensive school pupils are progressing to further education and prestigious universities than before. However, there remains much to be done to close the equity gap fully and following the pandemic, the attainment gap has widened and could take 10 years to return to pre-pandemic levels. 

Key statistics for the sector

Several critical statistics highlight the current state of education:

  • Disadvantage gap: After a significant reduction in the disadvantage gap following the coalition government due to better funding and initiatives by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF), the gap began to widen again even. It's important to remember that this was before the COVID-19 pandemic. 
     
  • Poverty measurement: Caroline spoke to how the education system's measurement of poverty is inadequate. We can look at statistics such as, 23.8% of pupils are eligible for Free School Meals (FSM) and 20.2% have English as an Additional Language (EAL), but the system does not capture the full extent of economic hardship. An estimated 1 million children are in "destitution," lacking basic needs such as food and heating. 
     
  • Workforce dynamics: The education sector employs nearly 1 million people, including 468,000 teachers. Annually, around 48,000 new employees enter the sector, while 43,000 leave, indicating a significant turnover rate. 

These statistics indicate some of the challenges the sector faces, from attainment to teacher supply issues. These are all issues that we're sure teachers and school leaders are well versed in. 

The role and challenges of MATs 

MATs are crucial in the current educational landscape but face varying degrees of enthusiasm for expansion. While 73% of MATs anticipate growth in the next two years, this is a decrease from 92% in the previous year. Centralisation within trusts is increasing, with 61% fully centralised and 32% pooling General Annual Grant (GAG) funding.

Small trusts tend to align more closely with individual school operations, whereas larger trusts focus on broader change management and innovation, such as integrating AI and promoting flexible working. Despite the lack of a dedicated accountability system for MATs—oversight remains at the school level—larger trusts generally achieve better outcomes for disadvantaged pupils, although they also have higher exclusion rates.

What's the key focus for pupils and teachers? 

There are many key areas of focus for pupils and teachers, for example: 

  • Pupil wellbeing: According to the FFT Datalab report, 28% of Year 11 students are persistently absent. Mental health issues are prevalent, with an estimated 18% of 7-16 year-olds experiencing concerns. Hospital admissions for eating disorders have risen by 40% over the past two years, underscoring the growing mental health crisis.
     
  • Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND): The system lacks sufficient funding and specialist capacity for SEND pupils. Local authorities often delay support by refusing Education, Health, and Care Plans (EHCPs), forcing parents to win support through tribunals, which is not sustainable.
     
  • Teacher demographics and retention: The teaching workforce is predominantly female (77%), yet women are underrepresented in leadership roles, and there is a significant pay gap. The workforce is young, with 50% under 40, but retaining teachers who wish to settle down is challenging. Notably, half of the physics teachers recruited last year were from abroad, highlighting recruitment difficulties. Teachers prioritise work-life balance over higher pay, according to Education Support's statistics.

These are all areas that we know schools are working to support and we hope that the government prioritises both teacher and pupil health and wellbeing in policymaking. 

Looking ahead: policy and strategic considerations

As we know, future policies are likely to diverge between political parties. In the upcoming election, Labour is expected to emphasise family support and educational standards, while the Conservatives view education as a key solution, or ‘silver bullet’, to societal issues. However, engaging parents and pupils remains a challenge, particularly in communities where school attendance is undervalued and has been affected by the pandemic. 

Given the increasing pressure on teachers and the need for discretionary time to cover vacancies, focussing on trusts with capacity could be a strategic approach. Ensuring that these trusts can support their schools effectively will be crucial for future educational success.

Understanding these political and sector dynamics is essential for navigating the complexities of education policy and making informed decisions to support students, teachers, and the broader educational community. We hope that this additional context helps school leaders and teachers navigate the July election and evolving landscape for schools in 2024. 

Thank you to Caroline for speaking with us and providing highly relevant and contextual information on the sector. 

Recommended resources and further reading: 

 

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