21 December 2022

End of year report: what’s changed in UK education in 2022?


Well, it’s been far from dull in EduLand this year.

We’ve had five – yes, five – Secretaries of State, plus Baroness Barran as de facto SoS for a matter of hours during the July chaos. And who knows how many junior ministers alongside these. For a sector so dependent on clear political direction this has been, shall we say, sub-optimal.

That’s not to say things have stood still. Much has changed, and much of it has been for the better. However, some critical issues have stagnated or even gone backwards, meaning that even more is going to be required of politicians and the various education and family sectors in 2023 and beyond.

So let’s have a quick look at a few of the key things that have and haven’t changed during 2022.

CHANGED – Covid measures & and masks

Twelve months ago, with Omicron raging, there was much discussion about lockdowns or having to close schools again. Fortunately these didn’t come to pass, but secondary schools were asked to mask up once again in January.

Nadhim Zahawi – the ‘evidence-led Education Secretary’ – insisted that the research in support of that decision was published, which was a novel move at the time. The general consensus was that the evidence around the benefits was weak, and more recent research has flagged the drawbacks of masking pupils. 

A year later and schools are still dealing with the virus hangover in the form of lower pupil and staff attendance, gaps in learning, labour-market shortages, and so on. But I think it’s safe to say that masks won’t be coming back to schools any time soon.

CHANGED – Exams are back

The anti-exam lobby hoped that the cancellations of 2020 and 2021 would provide the evidence they needed to move away from high-stakes terminal assessments in GCSEs and A-levels.

Instead we saw the gap between state and private schools, and disadvantaged kids and their more affluent peers, open up like crazy. (This was exactly what supporters of exams said would happen.) Under the steady leadership of Ofqual’s Dr Jo Saxton, exams returned this summer. With some tweaks to make them less daunting and more Covid-proof, things ran smoothly, and the reversal of grade inflation was started. How long it will take to reduce the massive attainment gap will be fascinating to see.

CHANGED – Political issues in schools became politically pertinent

There have long been concerns about what schools are teaching kids on contested issues like gender identity, critical race theory, or sex education, but 2022 saw the issue of political impartiality become a mainstream concern

February saw the Department for Education publish guidance on the issue, and not long after that it was announced that how schools taught and handled transgender issues was going to be addressed for the first time with official guidance. The summer saw a pretty explosive speech by the then Attorney General on what the law does and doesn’t require of schools.

Given the political sensitivity of such issues, it’s no surprise that the ministerial turnover has held up progress. However, Gillian Keegan’s recent announcement of a delay to new trans guidance means that when it is eventually published for consultation it will be even more under the microscope by parent groups and activists of all flavours. And this is before the promised review of relationship and sex education guidance starts later next year. 

NOT CHANGED – Special Needs provision is still a mess

Unless you work in or around schools, or have a child with significant special education needs yourself, you probably won’t be aware how dysfunctional the process for assessing and supporting children with SEND is.

Rightly, a huge amount of time and money is allocated for this – the ‘High Needs budget’ is £9.1bn this financial year, and going up over 10% next year. However, in spite of a great deal of effort over the years, the whole set-up is a mess, and this money is nowhere near enough.

The end result is an adversarial system that pits parents against schools and local authorities, with terrible outcomes, and councils undermined financially to the point of going broke.

This spring saw the publication of a pretty thorough plan to improve things, the catchily titled SEND Review – right support, right place, right time. It had, and still has, substantial support from all the right people and organisations, but like so many other things, it has been held up by the political musical chairs. 

2023 will need to see this change, if only because more councils will need bailouts if reforms don’t start soon.

NOT CHANGED – sky-high childcare costs

The cost and scarcity of convenient childcare has been a burning issue for some time. Politicians of all flavours over the years have had grand plans to address this. Completely unrelated to the fact that he had two young kids of his own, Boris Johnson wanted to make progress on this front, before events took over.

So, we end the year still with no firm plans to make childcare more affordable or accessible, and nearly everyone who’s interested very frustrated by it all. And this is with a huge amount of public cash invested in it every year – around £6bn all in.

It’s such a pertinent topic now, with multiple organisations looking at how to change stuff, and Labour going big on it, that surely 2023 will see progress made…Here’s hoping.

I’m sure you could have picked a whole bunch of other things that 2022 saw the education sector grapple and progress (or not) with. It just demonstrates the huge range of activity and challenges youngsters and those working with them face, and the impacts that political turmoil can have. 

However, step away from the Westminster bubble and you see that the vast majority of people are getting on with their day jobs in spite of the politics. Millions of pupils and students go to school, college or university every day, and get a pretty good education. Teachers support kids and grapple with sensitive issues effectively. Families somehow find childcare they like and can afford, and so on, and so on. 

Perhaps it all goes to show that the challenge for politicians is to know when to get out of the way, and when to give a clear steer. Let’s see how Gillian Keegan and her team can do that in 2023.

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

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.