DfE to unveil vision for schools, and 4 other things we learned from Gavin Williamson at the Festival of Education

Gavin Williamson reshuffle

Gavin Williamson has pledged to set out a “broader vision” for the school system later this year.

The education secretary this afternoon addressed the Festival of Education, which is taking place virtually over the next two weeks.

He spoke about his wider plans for schools, his regrets over last year’s exams and plans for primary testing in the next academic year.

Here’s what we learned…


1. ‘Broader’ schools vision coming this year

Williamson set out a number of new policies earlier this year to push forward the government’s “vision” for all schools to become academies.

Asked about his plans today, the education secretary said the system would be “moving over time to a fully academised model, with all schools being within a family of schools”.

“That’s one of those key planks, finishing those reforms that were started back in 2010.”

He also said that “later on this year”, the government would be “setting out a broader vision for what our whole school system looks like”.

However, when asked whether this would take the form of a white paper, Williamson said the sector would have to “wait a little bit longer” to find out.


2. Exams algorithm his ‘deepest regret’

Asked if he could do one thing differently, Williamson said “without a shadow a doubt” it would be the government’s approach to grading and assessments last year.

He said there was “no playbook” for dealing with a global pandemic, and that the use of teacher assessments “with moderating element”, was felt to be the “right approach”.

“I think on reflection what we saw is we saw an algorithm that didn’t produce the results and fairness that we expected it to produce. And that was certainly my deepest regret.

“We did go with teacher assessment, but obviously the moderation element that we, as I say all the advice was to have that moderation element at the time. We took that approach but I don’t think on reflection that was the right approach.”


3. DfE ‘right’ to stop ‘arbitrary’ Christmas closures

The government was heavily criticised last year after threatening councils and schools with legal action if they closed early for Christmas in an attempt to stem the tide of the Kent variant of Covid-19.

But Williamson said the government was “absolutely right” to keep schools open, and that it was “right that we took those actions to ensure that schools or local authorities don’t make arbitrary decisions to close”.

He said the decision to close schools “has to be based on the best scientific and medical advice”, and added it was “frankly” better for that advice to come from chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries.

The government’s advisers “actually have an incredibly deep understanding of the situation both nationally and locally, and it’s right that we’re guided by their advice, and that’s what we’ll always be guided by”, he said.


4. Another autumn phonics check, and SATs to return

Williamson confirmed today that the government is continuing to plan for “a full programme of primary assessments in the 2021-22 academic year”.

This will include the introduction of the statutory reception baseline assessment and the multiplication tables check, details about which will be confirmed “in due course”.

The education secretary also announced that as was the case in 2020, the check will be held in the autumn “so that any pupils who need support with phonics are spotted early”.


5. New ‘academy trust handbook’

Williamson told today’s event that the government would “shortly” publish an updated version of the academies financial handbook, which is to be renamed the “academy trust handbook”.

The updated document was published today, and you can read more about the changes here.

The education secretary said it would “not just be a routine annual update”, and would include “significant improvements”, to make it “a manual that brings together the key things that trust boards and leaders need to know”.

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  1. Still pushing New Labour Academy agenda. GW SoS your party members want and T May promised Grammar Schools. Do everyone a favour and be a conservative or indeed a Conservative. Drop the NL Academy agenda. Bring back selective Grammar Schools and challenge the charity privileged private schools. Force them to raise their game or go bust and create: some social mobility. Really level up! Bring back Grammars! Enable social mobility. Deliver on promises. Enough three word slogans?

    • D Spence

      Grammar schools are a complete anachronism and should be abolished. They create social division at a very early age and have become the preserve of the pushy parent brigade who have enough spare cash to fund exorbitant tutoring. That is not a way forward for social mobility.

  2. Janet Downs

    The ‘reforms’ begun in 2010 are the cause of many educational woes in England: a fragmented system; the growth of ‘hard-to-place’ pupils; schools in MATs losing their autonomy. An obsession with tests and league tables has distorted the curriculum. Gove abolished coursework. Had the system of moderated coursework still been in place, the pandemic exam fiasco could have been avoided.