The battles ahead for Nicky Morgan and Jo Johnson’s Tory education reforms

Back to school for Nicky Morgan. The Prime Minister's Office/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

At the annual conference of headteachers just days before the general election, the buzz was clear: Nicky Morgan was making her first appearance at the event as secretary of state for education, and it could be her last.

Now the wholly unexpected Conservative majority, and her subsequent swift reappointment, instead send a clear signal that Morgan is trusted in the brief and has the opportunity to implement the manifesto policies for which her party has gained a mandate.

Morgan is well-suited to the task. Having had a chance to find her feet, she has been a more congenial education secretary to many in the profession than her predecessor Michael Gove, notwithstanding the predictable lament from elements of the Twittersphere.

Morgan has, according to union leaders, at least to some extent drawn out the sting associated with Gove’s fast-paced reforms while still engaging with the profession in a substantive way. That she intends to continue in similar vein was reflected in her initial comments on her reappointment: “it’s about listening

As Steve Besley, head of policy at education company Pearson, has shown, one major challenge facing Morgan will be vocational education and skills policy. Gove made under-appreciated strides in this area, notably enacting the recommendations of the 2011 Wolf Report.

Yet in Besley’s words, the “woeful state of careers advice” has not been appropriately addressed, there remains a “lack of a coherent transition route from school to work or further training” and there is a “lack of support, guidance and opportunities for the most vulnerable”. These are knotty problems which will require significant political investment for Morgan to make headway on – not least with the different categories of institution operating to educate 14 to 19-year-olds.

Tight belts for schools

Another huge challenge will simply be money. Gove – along with colleagues across government – did well to keep education spending at around £90 billion. As the UCL Institute of Education director Chris Husbands has noted, the Conservatives did not opt to guarantee spending for further education and there will be continuing pressure in relation to salaries.

Staffing also remains an issue. The introduction of the School Direct route into teaching and the continuing focus on schools-based initial teacher education did not in itself trigger a recruitment crisis, but “exacerbated” it, in the words of former head of Ofsted, David Bell. Morgan will remain at the forefront of a battle to make the profession more attractive to graduates.

There will also be the question of the Department for Education’s (DfE) relationship with the new College of Teaching. This initiative is intended to raise the status of the profession by giving it a self-governing apparatus which will allow it to “professionalise itself”.

However, some of the pre-election rhetoric emerging from the DfE implied that the college on its own might be enough by itself to raise the status of the teaching profession. The profession remains unconvinced and Morgan has work to do to convince teachers that she is both willing and able to invest political capital in addressing their needs. Particularly at a time when the squeeze, both financially and in terms of personnel, has seldom been tighter.

Jo Johnson new universities minister

Within higher education, turbulent years lie ahead. Jo Johnson, newly-appointed as minister for universities and science, and brother of London mayor Boris, has the credibility within and outside of government to be a success in the post. However, he will have to deal with a sector which already feels bruised after the 2010-2015 coalition.

Jo Johnson takes on the university brief. Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

The government retains high ambitions for higher education (“world-leading” is a phrase that persists in its literature), but its manifesto contained contradictory policies on Europe, immigration and higher education. Johnson will be forced to reconcile these, or steer the choice between them. Given that he has written about the virtues of foreign students and their significance to UK higher education in his past life at the Financial Times, it will be interesting to see how he addresses the ongoing issue of student visas, especially since the manifesto also announced a clampdown on universities elsewhere in the UK opening new campuses in London.

Teaching REF will raise hackles

The commitment to a formal mechanism for assessing teaching quality between institutions – in parallel to the Research Excellence Framework for research quality – is likely to generate significant resistance. This is primarily due to the existence of the annual National Student Survey which already drives teaching quality assessment in many, if not most, institutions.

Academic staff are now routinely appraised on teaching quality, and subjected to regular questionnaires and focus group feedback to senior management from students. Capability procedures on issues of performance are also increasingly favoured across the sector. So the idea of a teaching REF in addition to the existing one will likely be met with fury – and will pose a challenge not just to the minister but to the lecturers’ own union, UCU.

The new government’s policy in higher education represents the continuing purchase of “marketisation”. As my colleague Roger Brown notes, this has ensured that even as the state has nominally-withdrawn it has gained yet more power over the priorities of the sector through “steering” mechanisms.

The privatisation of the Quality Assurance Agency, slated for 2017, will now go ahead, and it may be that its successor is rather more like Ofsted. The Social Market Foundation, a right-leaning think-tank has also called for universities to be subject to exam boards. If, as Husbands claims, the Cameron years will leave Britain with a school system unlike many others in the world, this will be still more true of higher education.

Tuition fee question still looms

The biggest question remains: will a Conservative government allow fees to rise above £9,000, a natural evolution of marketisation in this area? Under pressure from vice-chancellors, it’s likely that such plans will remain under consideration. What the journalist Andrew McGettigan calls the “great university gamble” seems set to continue.

Across education, the coalition achieved a great deal in purely policy terms, though opinion differs on its legacy. The Conservatives’ majority now offers them the opportunity to pursue their ambitions further in the sector – but ministers will need to build bridges with both the schools and higher education sectors if they are to achieve their aims in the new parliament.

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