Issue 129 - 2023 Autumn term
Julie McCulloch on how ASCL is working on your behalf to influence government policy.

ASCL influence - Autumn 2023

Julie McCulloch
ASCL Director of Policy
Working on your behalf to influence government policy

Ah, autumn. Season of mists, mellow fruitfulness and ministers setting out their stalls at party conferences. As usual, ASCL attended the conferences – hosting our own fringe events, speaking on panels and meeting with MPs, councillors, advisers and other organisations.  
 
Wherever possible, we aimed to focus these discussions on the priorities in our own manifesto for the upcoming general election – most likely to take place next autumn – which General Secretary Geoff Barton has talked about in his article on page 4. We were heartened by how much these proposals appeared to resonate with many of the people we spoke to. Our key messages – about the recruitment and retention crisis, the widening disadvantage gap and the ever-expanding expectations on schools and colleges – are cutting through.  
 
The proof, of course, is in the pudding. To what extent are the major parties picking up on these priorities and including them in their own emerging plans for government?  
 
In truth, the picture is varied. Below, I set out some thoughts on our policy ‘wins’ last year with the government and the opposition, some of the biggest challenges to achieving these and some key pieces of work the policy team will be undertaking this year.  
 

Achievements with the current government

The last twelve months haven’t been the easiest of periods in which to influence government policy. The ministerial merry-go-round this time last year was somewhat farcical, with our welcome letters in some cases barely landing on minsters’ desks before they were reshuffled into a different role. Even once we had a more stable ministerial team in place, their ability to enact significant change was stymied by their position in a government mired in economic crisis, with an ever-diminishing amount of time before they have to go to the polls.  
 
Nevertheless, we succeeded in maintaining cordial and constructive relationships with ministers, advisers and civil servants, and managed to achieve a number of important policy wins. Chief among these, of course, was the successful resolution of the industrial dispute, and the resulting pay increases for teachers and leaders. But we also achieved, among other things, the following:  
  • an additional £4.6 billion for schools over two years in last year’s autumn statement; this is far from enough – and we know it’s being spent several times over – but it was certainly better than the alternative at the time, which we thought might be a reduction in the overall education budget  
  • some of the short-term reforms we called for in our paper, The Future of Inspection, including returning more quickly to schools that fail inspections on safeguarding alone, and improvements to the complaints process  
  • the fall of the Schools Bill, including the incredibly prescriptive proposed new ‘academy standards’  
  • some mitigations to 2023 exams, particularly the grading ‘safety net’ that ensured that, overall, grades didn’t fall below 2019 levels  
It’s fair to say, though, that the flagship policies announced at the Conservative Party conference have done little to convince us that the government recognises – and is prepared to act upon – the three key challenges in our manifesto. The Prime Minister’s proposed new Advanced British Standard qualification is an interesting idea, but not one that is remotely going to address the most pressing problems facing our education system. And the Secretary of State’s big announcement of some updated non-statutory guidance on the use of mobile phones in schools, is hardly the stuff of revolution.  
 

Achievements with Labour  

It’s probably inevitable that a party in opposition, which the polls indicate is increasingly likely to form the next government, will be more receptive to new ideas than one coming towards the end of a long and difficult term of office. This certainly feels the case at the moment. While we’re not convinced by every idea being put forward, we’re increasingly pleased by the extent to which ASCL’s priorities and proposals are being reflected in Labour’s policies.  
 
These include:  
  • an increasing recognition of the scale of the recruitment and retention challenge, and the inclusion in the party’s ‘opportunity mission’ of a number of interesting – if so far fairly small-scale – proposals to address this
  • a major reform of inspection, including a commitment to implement some of the key longer-term recommendations in our paper on The Future of Inspection – most notably replacing headline grades with ‘report cards’  
  • a commitment to a full review of curriculum and assessment – after which all state schools would be required to teach the National Curriculum (both of which were key proposals in our Blueprint for a Fairer Education System)  
  • a commitment to ‘pause and review’ the current government’s plans to defund applied general qualifications  
 
Labour’s biggest challenge will be its determination to enact change without increasing the current public service spending envelope. Some of its proposed changes will cost very little money, but it’s hard to see how the party can really address recruitment and retention, or the state of school and college buildings or our woefully underfunded special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) system, without increased spending.  
 

ASCL’s role  

The role of the ASCL policy team is to hold policymakers to account for the promises they make, and – now more than ever – to help them to develop plans that will genuinely lead to the changes we most need. We’ll be spending the coming months adding more flesh to the bones of some of the key proposals in our manifesto, including what an accountability dashboard/school report card might look like in practice, an update to our work a few years ago on the true cost of education and what changes school and college leaders want to see on curriculum and assessment (and what they’d like any incoming government to leave well alone).  
 
We’ve started to work on all of these projects with ASCL Council in order to provide the next government of whatever colour with ready-to-implement plans for how to deliver them. This is where ASCL can make the biggest difference – by drawing on the expertise of our members to inform constructive, non-partisan engagement with policymakers. This approach has never been more important.  

Your Association
We think it is important at this time of year to report back to you as members on what your membership fees pay for and what we’ve been doing on your behalf. Read about what has been a seismic year for the Association and our members as we’ve fought for a better settlement for education, and about the services and support we provide. Wherever you are, whatever your context, ASCL is working on your behalf.

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