Theme: Public Policy | Content Type: Blog

Squandered Opportunity: Inertia in Education Policy in Post-Covid England

Françoise Granoulhac



| 7 mins read

In a fantasy piece entitled ‘The wild blue yonder…’, based on a book he co-authored with Mick Waters, educationalist Tim Brighouse imagines the future of education after the watershed year 2022. He views the post-Covid years as a time of disillusion and doubt, until finally, at the end of the decade, a cross-party consensus emerges to change direction and put forward new proposals. We do not know whether events will prove him right. But what is visible now, in real world England and four years after the start of the pandemic, is the absence of any medium to long-term strategy in response to the multiple issues highlighted by the health crisis. Inertia has prevailed over the policy reset needed to address concerns about pupil welfare, increasing inequalities in outcomes and opportunities and the many failings of the school system.

So, what has happened to the government’s ‘build back better’ pledge?

Disillusion and the demise of ‘build back better’

Back in 2021, Prime Minister Boris Johnson had seemed to recognise the need for a step change, stating: ‘The legacy issue for me is education’. However, this new awareness was followed, a few months later, by the Treasury’s rejection of the recovery package recommended by the government’s own commissioner and by a scaled-down spending commitment mostly targeted at academic catch-up. This early contradiction sent a clear signal that the political will to live up to the promise of ‘building back better’ was lacking.

One can’t help but contrast the post-war efforts to build a more egalitarian school system, albeit with remaining divisions along class lines – with the current status quo. What should have been a beacon of change – the first White Paper published after the pandemic – reads like a perfect example of policy avoidance and, ironically, missed opportunity. Apart from a few tweaks to the reforms carried out in previous years, the White Paper Opportunities for all: strong schools with great teachers for your child (2022) emphasised continuity with objectives that have been at the top of the policy agenda for decades: the completion of the academies programme, improvement of teacher training and development, raising standards, with a more recent focus on the attainment gap. Issues which are critical to building a ‘better and fairer school system’, such as disparities in school funding, inequalities in admissions criteria or target-driven assessment are either ignored or glossed over. Likewise, it is significant that the only mention of education in Rishi Sunak’s 2023 ‘Better future’ speech should be to underline continuity with policies implemented since 2010 and to announce a renewed focus on numeracy. And despite short-lived measures to support disadvantaged families during the pandemic, there has been a consistent avoidance of longer-term comprehensive strategies aiming to tackle child poverty or housing problems, in other words, to link education policy with wider social objectives.

How inertia plays out in education

Of course, political instability, inflationary pressures and a high turnover of education secretaries have not helped. In troubled times, civil servants and policy-makers will tend to rely on well-trodden paths and avoid politically damaging decisions. But inertia in education policy does not only depend on political cycles. It is also a product of the contradictions between a market-based education model promoting a meritocratic, individualistic culture and the collective efforts, redistributive investment and wider social policy changes a more equitable model would require. Those who benefit from the system, among whom are powerful multi-academy chains and some education services providers, have no incentives to disrupt the status quo.

In such conditions, isolated measures, however welcome they may be, are unlikely to bring lasting change, especially when schools increasingly struggle to balance their books, let alone face deficits. Finding the resources to provide mental health support, for instance, cannot be left to individual schools – 65% % of which, in 2023, still did not benefit from the Mental Health Support Teams programme set up in 2018.

As regards levelling up, it seems unrealistic to expect a dramatic overall improvement to attainment by 2030, as set out in the White Paper, when one considers the level of per-pupil funding for Education Investment Areas, the freeze on the Pupil Premium rate and the choice of a strategy based on the expansion of Multi Academy Trusts. This last point offers an additional illustration of how inertia plays out in a more subtle way, through the unobtrusive growth of academies and MATs. As this trend reaches a tipping point, there will soon be no other option for local authority-maintained schools than join a Trust. The long-running academisation project will then be completed – effortlessly.

As argued in the Social Mobility Commission’s 2021 State of the Nation report, ‘small funding packages on the margins will have marginal impact’. Worse still, the piecemeal, reactive response – or promise to respond - to a long list of new or recurrent problems (teacher shortages, pupil absenteeism, behaviour problems), contributes to the ‘fake it until you make it’ culture exposed by Colin Crouch in his article The Dark Heart of Today’s Conservative Party. ‘Building back better’ then becomes nothing more than an empty pledge that will never be honoured.

Is change possible?

This may look like a bleak and deterministic account of current developments. So, could a new Labour government put an end to the status quo? How radical would those reforms need to be? Ongoing conversations in education and academic research outline some first steps towards a better and fairer school system: less rigid forms of assessment of pupil performance, a redefinition of the role of Ofsted, a reform of school accountability decoupling it from testing and pupil performance, fairer admissions procedures and fairer access to university, with possible pathways between further and higher education. Funding will be key, as any form of improvement will involve recruiting and retaining teachers and specialised staff, a serious financial challenge in a context of economic stagnation or recession. But a consensus should be sought and priorities defined, drawing on local and regional experience and on the knowledge gained by local actors during the pandemic. It may take some time to change direction, as Tim Brighouse anticipated, but past experience at home and abroad has shown us that it is possible to break the cycle of inertia.