As I look back on 2023, it feels like one of those years where so much has happened, yet little has changed. As I write this in mid-December, there have already been four pieces of sobering news this month alone that both epitomise the challenges of the past 12 months and cement the priorities for policy making in 2024.
Earlier this month, we saw the publication of the latest PISA results, where the UK has risen up the rankings and given the government some cause for celebration. But we must be cautious in interpreting these results given that, like most other countries, our results fell considerably as a result of the Covid pandemic. The picture it draws of our young people’s mental health is also concerning.
While PISA continued to shed light on the impact of the pandemic, one piece of good news from this year is that EPI’s analysis of assessment data found that pupils had largely caught up in reading by the end of 2022, a testament to the work of schools across the country.
Science, however, continues to be a cause for concern with the PISA results showing England’s performance has been declining consistently since 2012. It’s going to be very difficult for any government to address this decline as, according to the latest initial teacher training statistics also published this month, only 46 per cent of the government’s recruitment target was met across all three sciences.
Pay, workload and accountability form a complex set of issues for the government to resolve in addressing the teacher recruitment and retention challenges. Following a series of strikes in the first half of this year, there was some light as the government and unions finally agreed a settlement on teacher pay. But as we edge closer towards the end of the year with Gillian Keegan already pre-empting more industrial action by promising to introduce minimum service levels, the unions are already putting pressure on her to issue her remit letter to the STRB without further delay.
We know that it’s not only pay that matters for a healthy workforce. December also saw the verdict by the senior coroner of the inquest into the death of Ruth Perry, which concluded that her suicide was “contributed to by an Ofsted inspection”.
While we cannot begin to understand the complexities surrounding this particular case, what is clear is the strength of feeling among the sector and public more widely that the implications of the accountability system need to be given more consideration.
As a starting point, Ofsted should commission an independent review into how it can learn lessons. Then it must be genuinely open to engaging with its findings. The government also needs to review the accountability system overall, ensuring that it strikes a fairer balance between delivering high educational standards and acknowledging the wider and increasing pressures facing the workforce.
December also saw the publication of the IFS’s annual report on education spending which confirmed that in the early years and pre-16 sectors, the proportion of funding targeted to disadvantaged children has reduced. At a time when poverty and inequalities are rising, the report authors sum this approach up quite perfectly as “particularly illogical”.
So December signals the end of a fairly tumultuous year for the DfE.
In better news there has, at least, been some stability this year. Although the sector bade farewell to DfE stalwart, Nick Gibb, Gillian Keegan has been in post longer than her four predecessors combined.
We don’t know who will be in government this time next year, but any incoming government must have a laser focus on tackling the challenges facing the education system and doing so in an evidence-based way. More than that, policy-making in 2024 needs to avoid being a set of disjointed policies and set out a clear vision for the sector.
We cannot escape the fact that poverty and a dearth of early intervention services are making the job of educators unspeakably difficult. We must recognise the complex interdependencies between destitution and educational outcomes, and develop a plan to tackle both.