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Budget 2016: short-term gains but (possible) long-term pains

By 18.03.16

After ruminating for a couple of days on this week’s Budget announcement, one might come to the conclusion that this year’s is a mixed bag for professional bodies. A bit like the former England football team manager Sven-Goran Eriksson’s perennial summing up of his team’s performances: first half good, second half not so good. There are some announcements that will surely be welcomed by the professional body sector, but equally, looming over the horizon are some potentially dark clouds for the UK science workforce.

First, the good news

Advocates for lifelong learning will have been smiling on Wednesday as the Chancellor announced that adults will be given greater opportunities to retrain and up-skill. The government will review the existing gaps in support for lifetime learning, including for those taking on flexible and part-time study.

Lifelong learning

There will be direct government support for all adults wishing to study at any qualification level, from basic skills right the way up to PhD. Over the course of this parliament, loans will be introduced for Level 3 to 6 training in further education, part-time second degrees in STEM, and postgraduate taught master’s courses.

Student loans

Staying with loans, from 2018-19 up to £25,000 will be made available to English doctoral students studying at a UK university. Masters loans will also be extended to include three-year part-time courses with no full-time equivalent.

Review of maths education

Another positive is the review of 16 to 18 maths education to be led by Professor Steve Smith, former President of the Royal Statistical Society. The review is long overdue and the Science Council will look to contribute where it can.

Parental leave

Finally, it is a particularly welcome announcement that the government is looking to extend shared parental leave and pay to working grandparents. It is not breaking news to say that women take on the greater burden of caring responsibilities. A more flexible system of shared caring responsibilities will, hopefully, provide many parents and carers with the confidence and security they need to easily return to the science workforce if they so wish.

Now the (potentially) bad news

Trailed before the Budget and in the Education White Paper published the day after, the government’s intention to make every public school an academy by 2020 has raised some eyebrows.

The expectation is that, from 2020, all schools will become academies. Herein lies the potential bad news, and one that we have raised before. Currently, academy schools are not required to follow the national curriculum. As science subjects tend to be more costly to teach than other subjects, it is entirely possible that large numbers of academies will not be teaching science post-2020. This could lead to pockets of the country where young people have no access to science education.

Even if all academies are mandated to continue to teach science subjects, it does not mean that all will be well. Academies are currently not required to appoint qualified teachers. So the fate of the future science workforce will be in the hands of people who are not sufficiently equipped with the skills and knowledge to teach. While this is all in the future, there is a more immediate concern over the current shortage of qualified science teachers.

All this makes the House of Commons Education Select Committee inquiry into multi-academy trusts announced at the beginning of the week even more prescient.

Hopefully the government’s deeds will match its words on the good news, while they will think again on the (potentially) bad.