There may be trouble ahead...

Written by: David Laws | Published:
David Laws, former schools minister

From Ofsted to the Spending Review – former schools minister David Laws gives SecEd the inside track on the six challenges facing the education secretary in the year ahead...

The secretary of state for education, Damian Hinds, must have breathed a sigh of relief at the beginning of Parliamentary recess. Just before the August holidays, he managed to deliver the biggest pay rise for teachers for almost a decade and get approval from the Treasury.

Now his department faces the tricky challenge of finding all the money that will be needed to cover the extra costs in schools – no easy task.


But a bigger pay rise for teachers can only help Mr Hinds with his first challenge of the year ahead: recruitment. With pay rises increasing in the private sector, teacher workload high, and secondary school pupil numbers due to climb over the years ahead, attracting enough teachers is becoming a real headache for the education system.
The teacher shortages are particularly acute in subjects where graduates can earn more outside teaching – in maths and science.

Figures show that attracting well qualified teachers can also be more difficult in the most disadvantaged schools – making this a social mobility challenge and not just a general problem for the schools system.

Spending Review

Teacher recruitment and teacher pay is all linked to the second very big challenge for Mr Hinds this year – the 2019 spending review. We don’t know the exact timing of this yet, but it’s likely that the serious work will start in early 2019. The Treasury plans to set departmental budgets for another three years, so getting a good settlement for education is extremely important, not least given the extra financial pressures recently visible in the schools system.

Education is of course competing for cash with other important areas. The NHS has already been guaranteed a big budget rise, so the Treasury will be unenthusiastic about big cash increases for other departments. And at present school funding has dropped down the list of sensitive political issues after the government was forced to inject extra money following the row over funding during the 2017 General Election. The Department for Education (DfE) will need to play its cards carefully if it is to secure a good settlement.

Post-18 education

Linked closely to the spending review is challenge number three – the current review of post-18 education funding. This must deal with the thorny issue of tuition fees but also make recommendations on how to fund technical and vocational education. The review group is likely to report early in 2019, and the government then must carefully consider its response.

There are two difficulties – doing something sensible on university fees while avoiding re-opening the whole debate about abolishing fees; and securing the money which is likely to be needed to raise the quality of technical and vocational education, not least for those who don’t go on to university.

Technical education

Technical education is challenge number four for the DfE. The government had made the new T levels and the three million Apprenticeships target into big high-profile issues. But both seem to involve very big risks – Apprenticeship starts are currently way below the expected levels while the education secretary recently suffered the indignity of being warned by his own top civil servant that the timetable for delivering T levels is too tight.

Successive governments have a poor record of establishing new non-academic qualifications and there are still significant concerns about whether T levels will ever be a success. The government has much to do to get this programme back on track and to build student and parent knowledge and interest.


Challenge number five for the DfE could come from outside the department itself. Ofsted, the powerful schools inspectorate, is currently considering a new inspection framework and one element of the consultation is whether or not it should have a bigger role in inspecting school curriculums. This has many potential attractions and means Ofsted would become more than just a verifier of existing attainment and progress data.

The chief inspector is worried that the pressure on schools to deliver good exam results for accountability reasons is potentially narrowing the curriculum, meaning some students are being entered for unsuitable qualifications. She thinks Ofsted could call out these problems – providing an “accountability solution” to what can be viewed as an accountability problem.

The last education secretary, Justine Greening, was believed to be a big sceptic about these plans. How would Ofsted know what a good curriculum looked like? Would there be consistency between inspectors? Ofsted is in theory independent from the DfE, but it doesn’t quite work that way. The DfE funds Ofsted and takes a very keen interest in its activities. Secretaries of state in practice expect to sign off on any major policy changes.

Social mobility

Challenge number six is social mobility and early intervention. Forty-per-cent of the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and the rest at age 16 has emerged before children arrive in school. If we want to sort out social mobility, it’s not going to happen unless we can intervene early.

Grammar schools are going to make little difference as few poor children make it into such schools given that they can be a full year of learning behind more affluent children at secondary level.

So far governments have focused on providing more low-cost childcare, but the evidence is that what we need is more high-quality early education and family support – focused on the poorest children.

The DfE has signed up to the rhetoric of early intervention but so far there is little practical action that would help the large numbers of poorer children needing support.
A good start would be to raise the skill and pay levels of the early years workforce – an area where England lags well behind many other advanced nations. But this would all cost money – and that is in short supply right now. 

  • David Laws was the schools minister from 2012 to 2015. He is now an advisor to GK Strategy and is also executive chairman of the Education Policy Institute.


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