Oak National Academy

A scaled-back Oak could have had the whole sector’s support

Judicial review is a measure of last resort but the government's actions have left us no choice to protect our sector and teachers' autonomy, writes Louis Coiffait-Gunn

Judicial review is a measure of last resort but the government's actions have left us no choice to protect our sector and teachers' autonomy, writes Louis Coiffait-Gunn

7 Dec 2022, 17:00

Our education publishing sector is world-class. For years, publishers have engaged learners at every age through compelling and evidence-informed content – from textbooks and apps, to lesson guides, and other curriculum materials. This rich range of creative and inclusive resources gives each teacher the ability to choose what and how they teach in their classrooms.

Freedom of choice is key for teachers when it comes to creatively planning and delivering lessons. They are the experts and know that no two learners are the same. Publishers are passionate about ensuring that the materials they create serve teachers’ diverse needs and result in the best outcomes for their pupils. This is a highly competitive market, and up to now that competition has been on a fair and level playing field. 

Throughout the pandemic, publishers provided £43 million of free resources to help schools continue to deliver through lockdowns. They were avid supporters of Oak National Academy in this initial phase, and provided it with free content as they saw it as a laudable national endeavour. It is a shame then, that decisions taken by ministers from that point on have not taken the wider education sector along with Oak’s evolution. 

The DfE pressed on with its plans to take over Oak and convert it to a new arm’s length body (ALB), bringing it completely under government control on 1 September. The Publishers Association remained positive about this development and hopeful that the new quango would be able to enhance and not replace existing curriculum provision.

That model could have included the body providing “exemplification” materials, showcasing existing high-quality content, and allowing all current providers to continue to thrive while uplifting curriculum skills and supporting teachers. This would have allowed Oak to become a curriculum body that delivered where most needed, safeguarding investment in our thriving education resources market. Unfortunately, the government did not take that model forward.

Oak’s scope has widened hugely from its pandemic remit

Instead, Oak’s scope has widened hugely from its pandemic remit. It has now been charged with producing “full curriculum packages” in almost every subject up to and including GCSE. None of the schools groups, publishers, teachers, authors, tech innovators and others who already produce materials can compete fairly with this ‘free’ government-endorsed curriculum. Moreover, because of Oak, some publishers are already having to stop creating jobs and investing in resources across the country.

Critically, the DfE’s proposed review of Oak’s impact in two years will be too late. Over time, its offer will become the only set of curriculum resources available, in a move which can only level down outcomes. With others across the school system, we have attempted to engage with DfE throughout. Each time, it has been impossible to reach any kind of middle ground.

Oak can still be a force for good, but not in its current form, which gives ministers of the day unprecedented power over what and how teachers teach.

This is why we have joined the Society of Authors and BESA, and the National Education Union as an interested party, to launch a judicial review of DfE’s current plans for Oak and the process it has followed. This is a regrettable, last-resort option, but it is the only means left available to us to challenge the lawfulness and rationality of the government’s decisions, based upon glaring gaps and faulty logic in its much-delayed business case.

Our evidence indicates that this intervention into the resources market is something teachers neither need nor want. In research we conducted earlier this year, 79 per cent of teachers said they would rather have the freedom to choose from a range of free and paid for resources. Instead of government-picked resources, teachers are calling for more investment in schools and training, and smaller class sizes.

The government should see teachers as the experts in what their pupils need, rather than progressing with an expensive, unevidenced, unwanted, and probably unsuccessful project like Oak in its current form.

We continue to hope that the government will reconsider its plans and choose to work with all those who are concerned about Oak’s current direction. As things stand, it is growing too fast, without proper evidence or consultation, and requires urgent scaling back. Just some of the £43 million they have committed to it would go a long way in supporting schools to make their own curriculum choices.

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