4 September 2023

Back to school checklist – five things to watch out for this academic year


Ah, back-to-school time. That lovely feeling of new shoes and stationery. The excitement of fresh starts. The smell of new exercise books and whiteboard pens.

Recent times have seen some new things added to the season. Heated debates about what pupils should and shouldn’t be taught about contested topics. Teacher pay and industrial action. Reform of the struggling special education needs and children social care systems. Sky-high pupil absence. Oh, and crumbling school buildings…

Last year was genuinely tough on everyone working in the education sector, suffering as it is from a kind of systemic long Covid. Would staff have gone on strike in our schools, colleges and universities if the covid-caused inflationary spike hadn’t happened? Would things feel so difficult in our schools if pupil attendance and behaviour hadn’t been decimated by lockdowns and closures? Would SEND and social care reforms be so behind?

I really hope that 2023-24 sees education get back to normal. However, there are some significant issues that need to be dealt with in order for this to happen. So here’s five issues to watch out for that I think will determine how the year goes overall.

The state of the estate

We’re all rapidly becoming experts in structural engineering and Reinforced Autoclaved Aerated Concrete [RAAC]. The honest truth is that lots of the public sector estate has been rebuilt or refurbished in recent years, and is in pretty good nick – but also that there are large parts of it that haven’t been and really do need to be. RAAC is dominating the headlines now, but the debate is quickly becoming about the wider issue of investment (or lack of) in the capital stock. We’ve probably not spent enough on this for decades, but it’s something that occurred across political parties and the nations of the UK, so can’t be completely blamed on ‘evil Tories’.

Now that the issue has cut through to public consciousness, I predict that all the parties will go into the next election promising to up the amount spent upgrading schools’n’hospitals and the like. Where the money for this comes from will be interesting to see.

Funding and industrial action

Just before the summer holidays the teaching unions voted to accept a record breaking pay rise of 6.5%. There’s no two ways about it: last year’s strikes and the threat of more this autumn worked. It was a victory for the outgoing joint General Secretaries of the National Education Union, Kevin Courtney and Mary Bousted. Their hardline stance led to huge growth in membership numbers, and the other teaching unions adopting much more militant positions than they might otherwise have done.

But if anyone thinks disputes about pay and funding are over, they’re very much mistaken. The new head of the NEU makes Kevin and Mary look like centrists. He’s been clear that the campaign for more money continues and that action will be taken to achieve this. The temptation to play politics as an election looms will be too strong to resist, and the influx of strike-supporting members means that any future ballots are highly likely to back this. With the traditionally more moderate NASUWT union asking its members to limit their working time from 18 September, I fear it’s going to be another tempestuous year.

And if they succeed in gaining even more cash for the schools budget, what will it mean for the wider education sector? Will money have to come from elsewhere, or will the Treasury have to find extra? I can’t see it coming from the already-depleted capital budget given the RAAC crisis.

Reform of SEND and Children Social Care systems

I’ve written before that schools are actually pretty well funded and that it’s the dysfunction of other parts of the sector that are creating many of the pressures that they’re experiencing. How children with significant special educational and health needs are supported, and that support funded, is a mess, as is children’s social care. This leaves schools to pick up the pieces before they can even get on with the bread and butter business of teaching.

There are serious plans to sort things out, but they are complex, require money and legislation. In addition there have been no fewer than nine ministers responsible for this portfolio since 2017, so it’s been hard to sustain the momentum and focus needed.

Hopefully the latest minister will be left in post when the anticipated ‘big’ reshuffle comes this autumn, but how far they can push reforms before the election remains to be seen.

Pupil absence

Attendance has fallen off a cliff since Covid, and it’s now proving extremely hard to get a major proportion of children to attend school regularly. One in six primary aged pupils and nearly 30% of secondary, missed 10% or more school days last year.

We’ve not seen anything like this level of absence ever. The knock on impacts of this ripple right across a school, affecting everything from behaviour, the smooth teaching of lessons, assessment, extra curricular activities, and of course educational standards too! It’s a real tragedy for those children, and somehow we’ve got to crack it this year – but I’m not quite sure how it will be achieved.

Trans and sex ed guidance

Another outstanding action rolling over from last year, and one that needs to be sorted ASAP, is that of guidance for schools on two highly charged and contested topics: sex education, and how to address transgender issues. 

The trans guidance has been promised for ages now, was supposed to arrive before the summer, but was then pulled at the last minute, apparently by No 10. Rumours abound about people wanting to completely ban schools from ‘socially transitioning pupils, and there being a debate about if this can be done under existing legislation or if changes are needed. Either way, schools need to know what they should and shouldn’t be doing now – it’s become a real challenge on the front line, and schools are even more stuck in the middle than they were before the guidance was announced.

It’s similar for sex education. Endless horror stories about explicit and inappropriate lessons in schools have emerged, and a planned review of ‘Relationship and Sex Education’ was brought forward to get on top of stuff. An independent panel of experts was set up, and new guidance released early this term. Let’s see what it contains. However it comes out, it will be controversial, with some wanting even more, and more explicit sex ed for all, and others wanting it to be toned down and constrained.

Fun times ahead for everyone. And that’s even without mentioning the core business of, um, educating kids…

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Mark Lehain is Head of Education at the Centre for Policy Studies.