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Completed educational essay on my reaction to the White Paper

Future Development of Schools | DfE White Paper March 2022 - Action to Level up Education?

By David McCarthy

On 28 March 2022, the Government published the ‘Opportunity for all: Strong schools with great teachers for your child’ White Paper on the Future Development of Schools.  The White Paper sets out proposed reforms to the education system focused on providing an excellent teacher for every child, delivering high standards of curriculum, behaviour and attendance, targeted support for every child who needs it and a stronger and fairer school system. 

It has been published against a backdrop of pandemic disruption, concerns around learning losses, and a movement towards learning online, digital learning and an emerging model of the global classroom driven by K12 Online Schools, online homeschooling and virtual schools.  

Never before has a consideration of the Future Development of Schools been more critical.   But are the actions outlined all they designed to be?  Here is an outline of some of its key proposals which have been met with mixed opinions.

Future Development of Schools - Will they be open for longer?

There is currently no minimum or maximum length for a school day in England, although maintained schools must provide education for 380 sessions per year – or 190 days. However, in consideration for the Future Development of Schools, the white paper expects that all mainstream state-funded schools are open for a minimum of 32.5 hours per week by September 2023. This equates to six hours and 30 minutes per day, on average. Currently about 49% of primary schools and 40% of senior maintained schools in England fall below this level.  However, when you break this down 92% of primary schools teach six hours and 15 minutes per day, on average; whilst 95% of senior maintained schools teach six hours and 15 minutes per day, on average.  So, in the long run, extending the day by another 15 minutes, I believe, will make very little difference to the performance of the students. While enforcing a 32.5-hour week may bring consistency to the sector, the idea that it will boost teaching time to any meaningful degree seems questionable.

Future Development of School - Standards and curriculum, testing and targets

1. A parent pledge whereby all schools will give parents information if their child is falling behind in English and maths, and tailored support. I am in total agreement with this. In consideration of the Future Development of Schools, I believe that any school, whether private or maintained, should be totally transparent.

2. The retention of teachers as part of the future development of schools, with new and pre-announced measures including:

  • Increased starting salaries for newly qualified teachers of £30,000.
  • The ‘Levelling Up Premium’ for eligible maths, physics, chemistry andcomputing teachers in the first five years of their career, and who choose to work in disadvantaged schools. This is worth up to £3,000 per annum, tax-free.

Again, I am all in favour of this. However, there is a huge shortage of maths and science graduates going into teaching and this is critical to address in regards to the future development of schools. They can earn a great deal more elsewhere and teachers are seeking more flexible working arrangements and remote working opportunities which online schools in UK are able to provide.

The simple truth that whilst a pay rise is an incentive, it is not the real reason why now 1 in 6 teachers in England now quit the classroom after a year. One of the key reasons is the huge workload that is expected from teachers today. Full-time lower secondary teachers in England reported working, on average, 49.3 hours a week. This was above the OECD average of 41 hours a week. Full-time primary teachers in England reported working 52.1 hours a week. This was more than in any other participating country except Japan. 53% of primary teachers and 57% of lower-secondary school teachers felt that their workload was unmanageable. Extending the school day, where teachers have to work even longer hours, will certainly not help and are certain to make virtual schools and online schools in UK attractive workplaces for teachers who are driven by digital learning and learning online.

New national professional qualifications (NPQs) in leading early years, and leading literacy – with 150,000 scholarships for NPQs as a whole during this Parliament.
Developing an Institute of Teaching (alongside the EEF), and measures to strengthen ITT.

Again, these are very commendable. However, it is not clear what impact these initiatives will have in students’ education across England in the future development of schools.

3. An emphasis on English and Maths.

Whilst none can deny the importance of these two core subjects, it appears that the Government is focussing too much of its attention to these subjects, at the cost of all the other subjects in the curriculum. It has the danger of becoming a very narrow curriculum, especially in primary schools, which have the added pressures of having 90% of their students achieving the expected standards in English (reading and writing) and in Mathematics. The ASCL commented:

“A truly ambitious white paper should have greater ambition for the whole curriculum. The current curriculum is crowded and lacks coherence between early years, primary and secondary education. Some of the government’s school performance measures have driven subjects such as Design and Technology and the creative arts to the margins. This white paper fails to grasp any of these issues.”

Future Development of Schools - Higher standards in English and Maths

By 2030, the Government wants have 90% of children to achieve expected standards in English reading, writing and maths by the end of primary school.

Children in Year Six (aged 10 or 11) are tested and assessed on these subjects via SATs. In 2019 (the last year when SATs took place, owing to the pandemic) 65% of pupils achieved the expected standard. So primary schools across the UK would be under ever increasing pressure to reach this significant increase (a 25% rise). Whilst I believe that raising the standards in education is a good thing – it must be realistic. I just cannot see schools achieving this, especially given the pandemic-related disruption to education over the last two years.

One of my great fears, especially with these ambitious targets and the importance of League tables, is that this will come at the expense of all the other subjects in the curriculum that will either be watered down or have their time allocation shaved off the timetable. Even prior to this announcement, many primary schools across the country were almost purely concentrating on these two subjects at the expense of the others, as heads and teachers were pressurised. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has warned that a focus on English and maths could narrow the curriculum, and that setting a target would not tackle under-performance, unless the causes were adequately addressed. Indeed, nearly a third of children in the UK live in poverty and they have constantly underperformed (for obvious reasons) in all exams. Successive governments for decades have tried to tackle this problem with very little to show for it.

The Government also wants the average grade in English language and maths GCSE to rise to 5, a ‘strong pass’, by 2030– according to the Department for Education (DfE), it was 4.5 in 2019 (the last year in which exams were held because of Covid 19). Under the new numeric grading system for GCSEs in England introduced for pupils taking exams from summer 2017, 9 is the highest grade, and 1, the lowest. This is a much more realistic target, especially as by now the students have got used to the new GCSE system and the curricula in Key Stage 3 have adapted to the key changes at GCSE.

Future Development of Schools - Funding to support the proposals for the future development of schools in the UK

  • The White Paper notes that Spending Review 2021 provided an additional £7bn for schools by 2024-25. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) estimates that this will take per-pupil real-terms spending in 2024, back to around 2010 levels. There is also around £5 billion in total for education recovery from the pandemic.
  • The NTP currently has three strands: school-led tutoring, tuition partners and academic mentors. The last two are currently administered by a contractor, Randstad, but there are real concerns about low uptake and administrative issues to such an extent that they have currently lost the contract from the Department of Education.

No one would disagree with the ambition that every child should be supported to achieve their full potential. I am pleased that the White Paper matches the ambition long shared by every teacher and school leader in the country. However, to be honest, no one will shed a tear that Ranstad has lost its NTP contract. It has been beset with problems, and the Government should take part of the blame for this. Indeed, many wonder how effective the NTP has been and whether it was a waste of tax payers’ money. The Education Policy Institute (EPI) was contracted by the DofE to undertake research on the pandemic’s impact on pupils’ learning. Responding to the white paper, EPI said:

“Since the pandemic started, children have fallen behind in their learning, and the data published so far shows that there has been little catch up for secondary pupils and much bigger losses for the disadvantaged and those in the so-called levelling up areas of the North and Midlands. Our analysis shows that the government’s catch-up programme is not well funded enough to make good these learning losses and get the disadvantage gap closing”.

There is also not much reference to the role that good emotional wellbeing and mental health plays in ensuring that children and young people are able to thrive in education. There is, however, a mention of mental health support teams helping students – this is a step in the right direction. On the negative side, this ambition is limited in only rolling out to 35 per cent of schools by 2023 leaving the majority of children and young people without access to essential support.

Future Development of Schools - Every school an academy?

The White Paper is pushing for all maintained state schools to become academies. Some see this as being very controversial, with detractors often arguing there is very little evidence of an ‘academy effect’ on school performance across a period of time. Others believe that academisation risks fragmenting the system and that it removes democratic oversights and control from the system.

However, others argue that the increased independence that is offered to the academies help support school-to-school collaboration and a self-improving school system. They also believe that fresh leadership and swift intervention can transform schools that have underperformed for long periods of time.

Truth be told, there is not enough evidence to fully justify that all future maintained schools should turn into academies. The current Government, however, believes this should be the case.

Future Development of Schools - Attendance, absence, and behaviour

Subject to the outcome of consultation in some cases, the White Paper promises:

  • Legislation to introduce statutory guidance on attendance, and new statutory expectations for local authority attendance services.
  • A new national data solution to record and track attendance.
  • A new register of children not in school.  These children may be students at Virtual Schools, K12 Online School or taking part in Home School or Online Homeschooling 
  • Revised statutory guidance on temporary and permanent exclusions from school, and revised behaviour guidance.
  • A new annual national behaviour survey.

Again, trying to improve the behaviour of children at school and trying to improve school attendance is welcome, as these factors do have an impact on student progress. The proposal to introduce a duty on parents to register home-schooled children with their local council, in response to concerns expressed by the LGA and our members over a number of years, is also welcome.

In conclusion, whilst the Department of Education has tried to tackle some key educational issues in this White Paper, I believe it still leaves the educational system as fragmented as ever. Education is crying out for a curriculum that is fit for the 21st century, which embraces digital learning, enables flexibility through online learning and will enable future students to thrive in the job market whilst having ‘fun’ studying. It does not really put out a strong argument on why anyone would want to be a teacher these days with their huge workloads (one of the highest in the world), sheer volume of bureaucracy to deal with and the ever-increasing levels of stress. It is not surprising that 1 in 6 teachers leave after their first year of teaching. 

The Government is going to have to offer a great deal more if they are to retain their teachers; paying them a bit more is not the solution: as an example, a first-year teacher in Australia works fewer hours and is paid close to £15,000 more a year than the proposed starting salary for an English teacher in the U.K. 

What teachers want is more of a balance between their private lives and their work life.   They want the same opportunities for remote working afforded to wider professions from corporate working to professions including healthcare, medicine and law.    The rise of K12 Online Schools has not only opened the door to global classrooms, but also an emerging sector of teachers seeking digital learning opportunities and learning online at virtual schools offering online homeschooling for students.  

The White Paper does not really address the economic divide in England. It is crying out for a coherent policy to close the inequalities in education between the rich and the poor; something that successive governments have really failed to address since the Second World War. I tend to agree with Dr Mary Bousted, joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, who sees the White Paper as a lost opportunity to make a real change for good.

“It is fantasy thinking to focus on structures and top-down reforms as the route out of a health pandemic. This isn’t the way to support better outcomes for young people, address inequality, close gaps in learning or engage and motivate the teaching profession.”


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