Friday Five: Minimum Service Levels, Ofsted, Mental Health Pilot in Ireland, Post-16 Policy, Education and Voting Preferences


1st December 2023

Friday Five: Minimum Service Levels, Ofsted, Mental Health Pilot in Ireland, Post-16 Policy, Education and Voting Preferences

  1. Government announces plans to require striking unions to keep schools open

Striking unions could be forced to keep schools open on strike days under new plans proposed by the government. The proposal forms the latest development in ongoing disputes between education unions and the government in 2023, a year in which 10 days of strike action closed schools across England.

A variety of plans have been proposed by the government in a consultation that was launched on Tuesday. In one plan, unions could be required to keep schools open for vulnerable children, those due to take exams, children of critical workers, and primary school pupils. The BBC claims this would account for 74% of all pupils in England. Other plans include the introduction of rotas for strikes lasting for more than five days, or priority attendance for vulnerable pupils.

Back in October, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan suggested minimum service levels for striking unions could be introduced on a voluntary basis, and acknowledged that many schools already provide support for vulnerable pupils on strike days. However, following the passage of the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act earlier this year, the government has the power to compel striking unions to provide some level of service on strike days.

The proposals have been met with frustration and anger by all four of the education unions currently in talks with the government. The proposals were branded “shameful” by the National Education Union general secretary Daniel Kebede, while Paul Whiteman of the National Association of Head Teachers suggested that the government entered into talks with unions on minimum service levels in “incredibly bad faith.”

You can read the full BBC report here.

2. Ofsted head claims parents are becoming increasingly willing to challenge school rules

Ofsted has released its annual report that finds a broadly positive picture, with notable improvements in the education and care sectors since the pandemic. However, it also draws particular attention to what it calls a ‘troubling shift in behaviour, attendance and attitudes’. Amanda Spielman, the head of Ofsted, says that the “unwritten agreement” that ensures families take their children to school in return for a good education has been fractured. 

In the year 2022-2033, the rate of persistent absence of pupils increased to 22.3% as compared to a little over 10% in the previous year. She ascribed the absence to an increase in mental health issues as well as families becoming more relaxed about bending the school policies on attendance. The report also raises concerns about an increase in part-time timetables and warns of limiting their use to exceptional circumstances. She also says that a delay in assessments for “school refusal” or SEND is partly responsible for the drop in attendance rates. 

The death of head teacher Ruth Perry by suicide has stirred up debate around how the watchdog operates, how much central control it has over school policies and whether its single-word grading system needs to be replaced with a narrative judgement. Ms Spielman says that funding for school inspections is about a quarter of what it was 20 years ago, meaning “school inspections are necessarily shorter and more intense and reports are necessarily briefer”. Head-teachers’ unions have welcomed the report’s findings, and at the same time called for a “fundamental reform” of Ofsted.

Read the BBC article here and the Ofsted report here.

3. Pilot scheme in Ireland to provide counselling for primary school students

Following the admission that state services cannot meet the growing need for child and adolescent mental health support, a €5 million project has been proposed in Ireland, which will provide counselling services in primary schools. 

For the first time, this scheme will make counselling available in primary schools across the counties of Cavan, Laois, Leitrim, Longford, Mayo, Monaghan and Tipperary. The pilot will reach an estimated 4,000-4,500 children. The National Education Psychological Service (Neps) has established panels of pre-approved private counsellors for each county. Schools will be asked to identify children who seem distracted from their schooling or emotionally overwhelmed, who will then be offered up to six counselling sessions. Parents must approve this counselling, and two of the six sessions offered will include the parents of the child or young person.

This scheme aims to tackle the growing crisis in child and adolescent mental health and wellbeing, identified by the Irish Department of Education. As the Irish Times reports, the latest figures show that HSE’s CAMHS reported a 40% increase in the number of children on waiting lists to be seen. CfEY’s recent work with Minds Ahead has also highlighted this issue in English schools, promoting greater mental health professional development for school-based staff – our summary and report can be found here

The full article is available here.

4. HEPI publishes a report calling for a new approach to post-16 and tertiary education policy

The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) published a new report last week recommending the development of a new skills strategy and a more joined-up post-16 education system with clearly defined roles for sixth forms, colleges and universities. 

The report offered these key findings:

  • There is a current failure in the education sector to effectively produce the skills which learners and employers need: an estimated nine million adults in England have low basic skills.
  • The current post-16 system lacks a strategic framework and fails to cultivate effective partnerships between different actors in the educational landscape, partly due to competition for students.
  • Regulation of tertiary education is over-complicated, resulting in a weaker offer for learners and employers.

The report suggests that by allowing institutions such as sixth forms, colleges, and universities to specialise (focusing either on progression to HE or on technical and specialist skills) without financially penalising them for doing so, the education system would be more able to offer the skills provision needed for a modern workforce. The report stresses the need for increased collaboration between different education pathways, rather than competition, supported by a holistic cross-governmental skills strategy. CfEY founder Loic Menzies also discusses these tensions in the schooling system in his IPPR evidence review supported by Big Change and they are summarised in a blog for CfEY here.

The full report by HEPI can be found here.

5. SMF publishes new research exploring the growing divide between graduates and school leavers

The Social Market Foundation has shared a new report from Professor Robert Ford exploring the growing electoral divide between graduates and school leavers. The report explores the changing relationship between education and voter preference since the 2016 Brexit referendum and considers the implications for the UK’s major political parties.

The report finds that education is now a stronger predictor of general election voting preferences than any other demographic or economic factor.  Education was the strongest predictor of Brexit voting preferences in 2016, and its importance has only increased in the following years. While before 2016 school leavers were more likely to have voted Labour than Conservative in every election since 1979, the Conservatives’ increased vote share in 2019 was driven by a near-doubling in support from school leavers compared with 2015-2019. Alongside this, education is now an increasingly strong predictor of voters’ social values. Ford found that school leavers overwhelmingly identify as working-class and associate with local or national identities, while graduates are much more likely to see themselves as middle-class and European. Similarly, school leavers tend to hold more authoritarian values compared to the more liberal values of graduates.

The increasing percentage of the electorate who are graduates puts new choices in front of political parties, and winning the graduate vote is becoming an increasingly important consideration. Ford argues that the growing graduate constituency provides opportunities for Labour and the Liberal Democrats to build new supporter bases in traditionally Conservative ‘blue wall’ seats in the South East of England, for instance.

The full report is available here.

That’s all for this week! If you found this blog useful, please be sure to share/tweet it and follow @theCfEY, and @Barristotle for future editions.