Today saw the launch of the Department for Education’s long-awaited schools white paper “Opportunity for all: strong schools with great teachers for your child”, alongside some accompanying documents which are well worth reading, especially “The Case for a Fully Trust-Led System”. This post collects some initial thoughts on the content published today. I will focus here on the specific future plans laid out, what they’re trying to achieve, and some elements of what’s missing. I will not engage deeply with areas I know little about such as teacher training, and my reading will of course be biased to my interests in school improvement.
A Fully Trust-Led System by 2030
The paper sets out the Government’s plan for all schools to be in multi-academy trusts within a single regulatory system by 2030 and makes clear that LAs will be allowed to establish MATs as part of this process (a sensible idea, if we’re going down the all-MAT route). I am slightly worried by the wording that LAs will be able to establish MATs “where too few strong trusts exist” – I don’t think special conditions should be placed on this ability. A small capacity fund of £86m has been put aside to help expand MATs – it is not clear from the paper whether LAs can bid for access to this fund too, or how this budget was arrived at.
The white paper calls for a clear role for every part of the school system (LAs, MATs, ESFA, DfE, etc.) but is rather unclear on what it sees these roles as being. I blogged about my own views on this last month (here and here), and Sam Freedman gives his view in an Institute for Government report also last month.
The paper begins to flesh out the government’s idea of what a good MAT looks like. Firstly, on size: “We know that trusts typically start to develop central capacity when they have more than 10 schools … We expect that most trusts will be on a trajectory to either serve a minimum of 7,500 pupils or run at least 10 schools.” They also provide a list of features of a strong trust, as previously discussed in the CST’s useful discussion paper setting out their view.
I welcome the moves to address the isolation of some schools, especially those stuck in a single academy trust model: “Many of our best schools operate alone, and not enough attention has been paid to harnessing the expertise already in the system”. I blogged about some problems with SATs in one of my February posts and last year the government published views of SATs who had joined MATs, citing improved governance, leadership, sense of direction, and ability to direct financial resources where they are needed.
So how will all schools end up in MATs? Clearly the government would like them to choose to join. For those that don’t and are graded inadequate by Ofsted, there is already the expectation in the RSC guidance that they will be (re-)brokered into strong MATs. It seems that these powers are likely to be strengthened: “We will shortly be consulting on moving schools that have received two consecutive below ‘Good’ judgements from Ofsted into strong trusts to tackle underperformance.”
Whatever our views on the relative merits of MATs, the government’s reports make “interesting” use of statistics: “If all children did as well as pupils in a trust performing at the 90th percentile, national performance at key stage 2 would be 14 percentage points higher and 19 percentage points higher for disadvantaged pupils”. Here, “higher” seems to refer to a baseline of the national average rather than of the 90th percentile of LA maintained schools (say) – quite a bizarre use of statistics.
Curriculum and Assessment
The government is proposing to create a new arms-length curriculum body, building on Oak National Academy. This could be of value, but could also see a de-professionalisation of teachers: the devil will be in the implementation. I for one would love to see university engagement with this body, and will try to engage enthusiastically if possible.
I’m disappointed that “we will maintain our current system of primary assessment and world-class GCSEs and A levels”. If there’s some things that the pandemic has brought into sharp relief, they certainly include some of the more unsuitable aspects of our exam system, its lack of robustness to disruption, its reliance on norm referencing and on a huge number of GCSE grades that are of limited reliability even in the best of times.
Much is made of a “parent pledge” that schools will provide evidence-based support “if your child falls behind in English or maths”. But behind in what sense? In attainment compared to year expectations (in which case how does this address the claim to support ‘the most able’) or in progress — but if so, compared to what benchmark? And how will this be identified in any uniform way across schools? This will, apparently, be via “robust assessment” — further guidance will be issued in partnership with Ofsted in due course.
The DfE hopes to increase to 90% the proportion of children achieving expected standard in reading, writing and mathematics at primary, and to increase the national average GCSE grade in English and maths to grade 5, both by 2030. These are consistent with “Mission 5” outlined in the previously-published Levelling-up the UK technical annex. As they note in that annex, it’s important to try to understand the level of ambition embedded in this objective. Unfortunately, despite the annex including a section “Is this mission ambitious, specific and achievable?” the section doesn’t actually provide an argument that it is at an appropriate level of ambition. The best I could find in the white paper is a citation to Slater et al. to argue that significant GCSE grade improvements can come from good teachers, but the same paper also says:
We now finally explore whether any of the few observable teacher characteristics that we have are correlated with estimated teaching effectiveness: gender, age, experience and education…. In fact, none of these variables play any statistically significant role in explaining teacher effectiveness, other than very low levels of experience showing a negative effect.Helen Slater, Neil M. Davies, Simon Burgess, Do Teachers Matter? Measuring the Variation in Teacher Effectiveness in England
In other words, students gain significantly from good teachers, but spotting good teachers before the event — rather than as a backward-looking explanation — is hard to do. So this seems to support the idea that retention of good teachers and a focus on quality teacher CPD and mentoring is key.
Quite a lot of information appears to be ‘to follow’. Some examples:
- On governance. “So that trusts continue to be responsive to parents and local communities, all trusts should have local governance arrangements for their schools. We will discuss how to implement this with the sector.”
- On MAT inspection. “We will launch a regulatory review in May 2022 looking at accountability and regulation – including how we will hold trusts to account through inspection in the future.”
- On achieving full academisation. “We … will engage with the sector on how best to achieve a fully trust led system.”
- On new collaboration expectations. “we will introduce a new collaborative standard – one of the new statutory academy trust standards – requiring that trusts work constructively with each other, their local authorities and the wider public and third sectors. We will engage with the sector, through the wider regulatory review, as we develop the detail.”
In addition, there are several other aspects that I had hoped would be better addressed within the white paper:
- Teacher retention. There is a focus on mechanisms to attract new teachers, e.g. with the previously-announced £30,000 starting salary, but very little to retain existing good teachers. I believe this is short-sighted.
- Teacher time. Funding for greater time ‘off timetable’ to engage in the all-important CPD, peer observation, lesson study, etc. has the potential to retain excellent staff as well as improve practice.
- Capital. We know that many of our schools are in bad shape physically. Now we also know the huge impact that fresh air can have on the health of our staff and students alike, I would like to see a one-off significant cash injection to bring all our schools up to the high standard of ventilation we should expect for a healthy future for our school communities.
I will be following future developments with interest.