Year in review

As ministers hokey cokeyed, schools took the lead again

A year characterised by an in, out, in out, shake it all about of people and policy ends with a merited ‘rah rah rah’ from teachers, writes Diana Ohene-Darko

A year characterised by an in, out, in out, shake it all about of people and policy ends with a merited ‘rah rah rah’ from teachers, writes Diana Ohene-Darko

11 Dec 2022, 5:00

This year might best be summarised by a rendition of the hokey cokey, and not just because it’s delivered three prime ministers and five education secretaries.

January started (again) with a dramatic number of staff and pupil out of the classroom, as the Omicron strain brought another wave of illness, compounding the pandemic’s effect on education and causing schools to look again at their post-Covid (is it post- yet?) provision. Retired teachers were called to arms as we saw unprecedented levels of decline in teacher recruitment and retention. Few came in.

In February, the NAHT’s report, Fixing the Leadership Crisis: Time for Change revealed stark figures about low levels of aspiration for leadership, or even for staying in the profession. Unsurprisingly, 80 per cent of respondents felt that the 12-year pay cut in real terms had negatively impacted their morale. A lack of agency, autonomy and indeed credibility from government had left them feeling they were at the bottom of the barrel compared to other frontline services.

And then came the war in Ukraine, and in spite of everything schools responded by placing Ukrainian refugees into classrooms – many with no English or even a home to reside in. Sadly, the DfE seems to have been too distracted by the governmental musical chairs to thank them.

In March, racism was out. The Sewell report disregarded the lived experiences of those who have been subjected to overt and covert racism and argued that there is no institutional or structural racism in Britain. Thankfully, it didn’t stop schools from taking the lead (again) with designing curricular work and rethinking their inclusive practices.

In April, sustainability was in as the DfE published its climate change strategy in response to COP26. Schools had hoped for more, and so they delivered more. It’s unusual to find a primary without a green curriculum woven throughout its subjects; Biodiversity projects and Eco-Warriors are as commonplace as school councils. So it made little difference when Rishi Sunak said he was out of COP27. Then back in.

Ministers seem to have been too distracted to thank teachers

Meanwhile, energy prices are making investment in more sustainable alternatives inevitable. Some support beyond a strategy document would make that faster and more equitable. But then it took until September to bring support with bills in. And by next April, it’ll be out again.

By May, racism was back in as the NFER published its Racial equality in the workforce report, showing the very clear and present racism affecting every part of the profession from ITT to leadership. Still, schools’ unaltered course to improve equality, diversity and inclusion was at least revealed as a good investment.

Then in June, the much-vaunted schools bill was in, then out again as several clauses were stripped out by the Lords. Even those who were supposed to be its proponents pushed back against what they saw as a DfE power grab hidden among Zahawi’s attempt to push through a legal route to full academisation.

Things are a blur after that. Zahawi himself was quickly out, replaced by Michelle Donelan who was in and out in 36 hours. Then it was the turn of Kit Mathouse, under whose watch in September a £43 million kitty was set aside for Oak National Academy. The ‘independent’ curriculum publishing quango was in the money. But a judicial review launched this month means it’s also in the courts. So that idea might be out of the DfE window even before the help with bills runs out.

And as if to ensure the hilarity doesn’t boost morale too much, Ofsted published a report this month revealing that since inspectors have gone back in, 80 per cent of previously exempt ‘Outstanding’ schools are out of that category.  

Given this state of affairs – without even considering pay rises announced in July for which additional funding was out of the question, until it was introduced as a surprise ‘thank you’ by Jeremy Hunt in October – it can be no surprise education unions are ending the year by balloting for strike action and action short of strike. Constant underestimation of how much they put in was always going to lead to them thinking about walking out.

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