Friday Five: tuition fees, mental health, teacher recruitment, and school admissions


5th May 2023

1. The Labour Party scraps pledge to abolish tuition fees – the wrong policy change for the wrong reasons?

Earlier this week, The Labour Party announced that it would be scrapping its proposal to abolish tuition fees. Head of Policy, Baz Ramaiah, offers his analysis –

While the policy was one of Keir Starmer’s pledges he ran on for leadership of the party, it’s mostly unsurprising from a political perspective that this proposal has been scrapped. Tuition fees were introduced by the last Labour government so campaigning against them would require an admission of failure by Labour the last time they were in government. Equally, polls and recent historical tendencies show that Labour can rely on the majority of the votes of 18-25 year olds, making catering policy to them less attractive. This is especially the case given Labour’s general positioning over fiscal discipline and a commitment to free Higher Education potentially signalling the opposite.

The response to the announcement has been mixed. Representative bodies for students (e.g. Labour Students, the NUS etc) have reacted negatively. By contrast, much of the commentariat has reacted positively, arguing (as captured in this thread by UCL’s Centre for Equalising Education Opportunity) that abolishing tuition fees could harm the overall Widening Participation agenda for Higher Education. What this general response neglects is –

  •       The scarcity mindset over funding for education is a political choice not an economic one,  and one that we need not make
  •       Widening participation between young people is not the only issue related to tuition fees – in the present economic climate, the main issue relates to the multidirectional squeeze on young people’s income upon graduation and their consequently diminished ability to contribute to aggregate demand in the economy (inhibiting overall economic growth as young people are more likely to spend than shore up funds in assets)
  •       Debts acquired while obtaining a first degree act as a barrier to further study, which poses a problem when research from the CBI and Learning and Work Institute strongly suggest that career-long upskilling and reskilling will be a central part of maintaining ongoing economic growth in the UK

While none of this by default makes the case for tuition fee abolition, it does show that the debate needs to grapple with more than the mere issue of HE access. For Baz’s money, the Labour Party should be looking to return to its 2019 manifesto commitment of building a National Education Service, a cradle-to-grave, free-at-the-point-of-use system of education. Much like the historic impact of the NHS, such a systemic change would be as much about equity of access as it would be about setting the stage for increased economic productivity and growth.

Read The Guardian’s report on the withdrawal of the pledge here.

2. Delay in mental health support teams for schools

With CAMHS significantly overstretched, young people often have to wait far too long to access the mental health support they need. With this in mind, the government had set out ambitions to put 400 specialist mental health support teams (MHSTs) into schools by the end of April 2023. This was expected to cover just over a third of all young people.

However, the DfE has told TES that it cannot confirm whether this target has been met. Moreover, the evaluation of the Trailblazer scheme, released back in January, found issues with retention due to issues around career progression, workload/intensity, and limitations to the design of the role/approach.

Despite these challenges, Sean Duggan, mental health lead for the NHS Confederation, has called for these MHSTs to be rolled out nationally. However, he also noted that the government had previously said they would use evaluations of trailblazer sites to inform their wider roll-out, but there is no dedicated funding to do so.

Read the article here.

3. Survey reveals how schools are responding to recruitment challenges

In a survey from the National Association of School-Based Teacher Trainers (NASBTT), more than three-quarters of schools report trainee teacher applications being down on last year. 22% gave cost-of-living as a reason for the fall, while 15% cited perceptions of the profession.

As reported in Schools Week, schools are going to great lengths to secure new recruits, including advertising boards, targeting former pupils, and contacting the armed forces to seek referrals for retiring soldiers.

With schools pressed for time and resources, fewer schools are taking on ITT placements. Emma Hollis, NASBTT’s executive director, suggested the Early Career Framework could result in “a placement crisis for providers”, suggesting a short-term fix would be to require schools to take on trainees.

A DfE spokesman said they recognised these recruitment issues and noted that schools were “competing with many other sectors for maths and physics graduates”. Indeed, the financial opportunity costs of going into teaching can be significant for these graduates, who can often earn a lot more elsewhere. While bursaries and scholarships have been introduced to address this issue, we should be mindful of these ‘golden hellos’ and what they mean for teachers’ wider bargaining power, as covered in Friday Five last week.

Read the Schools Week article here.

4. New blog argues for school admissions reform

In a new blog for CEPEO, Jake Anders explores two key issues regarding the large disparities in access to high-quality schools by socio-economic status – distance to school in admissions criteria and grammar schools. Students that are not eligible for free school meals (FSM) are more likely to attend schools that get better academic results.

Analysis of families’ secondary school preferences suggests that differences in how families choose schools are not the main cause of the difference. Moreover, parents and pupils seem to do a good job of choosing schools, with recent research finding that those who get their first choice do better, even when one considers differences in effectiveness between schools. The key difference here is that financially better-off families are more likely to live near good schools and to be able to exercise school choice.

The blog then turns to grammar schools, noting that just 6% of pupils from the most deprived backgrounds attend these selective schools. Even after controlling for attainment at the end of Key Stage 2, those from advantaged backgrounds are far more likely to go on to attend a grammar school. This is significant given that high-attaining pupils in grammar school areas who miss out are less likely to attend HE, attend a high-status university, and achieve a good degree classification.

Anders presents three possible suggestions that may level the playing field:

  • Reduce the importance of distance to school in school admissions
  • Require schools to prioritise applications who are eligible for pupil premium
  • Introduce some random assignment of pupils to schools within certain areas

Read the blog here.

5. New guidance for schools on SEND admissions – pupil need should be prioritised over admissions limits

Staying with the theme of admissions, The Office of the Schools Adjudicator has stated in its annual report that schools should consider the need to accommodate pupils with education, health and care plans over and above the impact it would have on the running of the school, even in cases where this would mean the school exceeds its planned admission numbers.

The watchdog’s report highlights longstanding problems ensuring that pupils with SEND have their EHCPs signed off in time to meet admissions deadlines, which puts pressure on families and schools to plan transfers and integration.

However, headteachers have noted that the report captures the lac of alignment between the increasing number of SEND pupils and the limited resources available to accommodate their needs. Asking schools to increase their roll for pupils with SEND without providing them with the necessary support to do so risks putting substantial challenges on already stretched schools.

Read TES’ reporting on the issue here.