The year is finishing with a horrible sense of déjà vu, with schools once again having to pull out the plans for closure and online teaching.
It is impossible to know quite how bad the Omicron wave of Covid-19 is going to be but it’s hard to see how the start of next term won’t be seriously disrupted with significant pupil and staff absences.
The only positive is this wave is likely to be quick and hopefully has little chance of prolonged school closures until March, as we saw this year. Ministers are also desperate to avoid another year with no standardised exams, so I would expect them to go ahead unless we’re in a worst-case scenario. The year ahead It’s difficult to focus on anything else when the Covid news is this grim, but this wave will pass and it is worth considering what else 2022 has in store for those working in education. After years dominated by Brexit and then the pandemic, the Department for Education is planning a major blitz of policy announcements in the spring that could set the direction for the system for some time to come. First up – we’re promised by Easter – is the long-awaited SEND review that was initially due to be published in 2019. The delays are not surprising given the extent of the challenge. There are now almost twice as many pupils on education, health and care plans (EHCPs) as there were on Statements in 2014, and that is with local authorities significantly suppressing demand by refusing plans that they should be agreeing to (95 per cent of cases that go to tribunal are won by parents). This rate of growth is not financially sustainable so I’d expect the DfE to be exploring mechanisms to provide some support to schools for pupils who have less severe special educational needs or disabilities that is not as extensive as an EHCP. One way or another a significant overhaul is needed, tweaking things at the margins won’t help. The new White Paper Then, possibly in May, we’re expecting the first schools’ White Paper since 2016. These tend to form the basis of new legislation and are supposed to set a broad direction for the system – something that is sorely needed. The focus is likely to be on standards and school improvement, with (hopefully) a more coherent approach to curriculum support and accountability. Perhaps the most important question, though, is how ministers choose to tackle the issues surrounding academisation and structural reform. Half of all schools and 80 per cent of secondaries are now academies. Most are in a multi-academy trust (MAT) – the average size of which has slowly grown year on year. Local authorities are increasingly unviable, and underfunded, and yet the majority of primaries are still maintained by them. The DfE will likely reassert their ambition to have all schools in a MAT eventually, but the bigger question is how do we ensure such a system will be successful? At the moment there are no clear expectations on MATs and they are not held accountable to any educational standard. This will need to change if they are to become our primary method of school improvement. And if local authorities are going to continue to be held responsible for supporting the most vulnerable young people, such as those who are at risk of abuse or have been excluded from mainstream education, they need to be given the powers and resources to do so properly. Exam issues ahead Beyond these big set-piece policy announcements, some other issues will likely need a serious response from the DfE. Assuming exams do go ahead in the summer, we are guaranteed the first ever substantial year-on-year drop in results, especially for A levels. It is hard to tell what the reaction to this will be, but it seems likely to add to the pressure for wider assessment reform. A number of high profile independent commissions will report during the year, recommending substantial changes to GCSEs and A levels. Ministers are not supportive at the moment, but it will get harder for them to say nothing on the topic. Recruitment woes We are also likely to see a substantial drop in teacher recruitment next year as the UK labour market continues to show record levels of employment, with wages rising higher than those in teaching. This is likely to start hitting schools harder in the autumn of 2022 and there will be pressure for the department to increase bursaries and other incentives to join the profession. We may see similar pressure around senior leadership roles as the difficulties of the past few years take their toll on headteachers. We can only pray that the end of next year feels a lot more positive than this one and that we have finally found a way to get on top of the pandemic. Similarly, we have to hope the new DfE team can set a clear direction for schools and then give them the space to deliver. Sam Freedman is a former senior policy adviser at the Department for Education and a senior fellow at the Institute of Government