NPQs: What’s working well and what needs to change?

Uptake of the new NPQs has been impressive, writes Gareth Conyard, but there are some big pitfalls ahead

Uptake of the new NPQs has been impressive, writes Gareth Conyard, but there are some big pitfalls ahead

1 Jul 2023, 5:00

While plenty has been written and said recently about the successes and challenges of the early career framework (ECF),  the next phase of the ‘golden thread’ has had less attention. And yet, the reformed national professional qualifications (NPQs) were heralded by the DfE with much fanfare as part of the wider programme of support for education recovery post-pandemic

With two full cohorts of participants who have completed their specialist NPQs and received their results and the first cohort on the leadership NPQs waiting to discover theirs, the most obvious headline is that NPQ take-up has not met expectations. The DfE set an ambitious target of delivering 150,000 NPQs in a three-year period, but only a little over 51,500 NPQs were started in the first 18 months. This leaves an unlikely figure of nearly 100,000 starts in the second 18 months. Nobody thinks the DfE will reach this.

However, this headline figure hides a significant success story. These 51,000 NPQ starts in under two years are in sharp contrast with a total of around 33,500 for the four years from 2017/18 to 2020/21. That’s a growth from an average of around 8,000 a year to well over 30,000 a year – an impressive testament to the policy and its execution, regardless of any arbitrary target and especially against the backdrop of the post-pandemic challenges in schools.

The fact that so many have already engaged in the new NPQs suggests a significant success for the ‘golden thread’ – not least because of its participant satisfaction rates, which would make a North Korean dictator blush. 

Understandably, the DfE is keen to build on the approach with the expansion of the NPQ suite. Leading literacy and Early years leadership have been added this year, and NPQs in primary maths and SEND will follow.  This is welcome, but it should not be done without considering areas that could be improved. 

The DfE has pledged to review the NPQ frameworks in due course – just as it is currently doing with the ECF – but three areas already stand out:

First, funding needs to be confirmed for the future, as soon as possible. The growth in NPQ numbers would not have been possible without the investment made by the DfE and the treasury to make NPQs free. If the money disappears, take-up will suffer, especially as schools continue to find their budgets stretched. 

Too much is too similar across the current frameworks

DfE funding isn’t guaranteed beyond those starting in the 2023-24 academic year, and it’s hard for schools and delivery partners to plan for the future amid this uncertainty.  The kind of mobilisation that has been needed to expand NPQs needs long-term security to really become embedded. The DfE should commit to it, and the Labour Party should be considering it as it draws up its manifesto.

Second, we need to take a clearsighted look at how teachers will progress through their careers.  There are already well-publicised concerns about repetition between ITT and the ECF. As new teachers start NPQs and more experienced teachers move from specialist NPQs to leadership NPQs, there is a real risk that the consistency of the ‘golden thread’ becomes unhelpfully repetitive.  Too much is too similar across the current frameworks and the underpinning evidence base, which could undermine NPQs’ role in supporting progression.

Third, any review must engage with teachers and leaders to ensure that the NPQ frameworks fully equip them for the challenges they face. Recent work by organisations like Education Support shows the time teachers and leaders are spending on what we might refer to as ‘non-teaching’ activities (like supporting the mental health of students and their families who are struggling to access specialist help), and a rise in behaviour issues that do not appear to improve with established approaches.  If NPQs don’t reflect the job as it is, fail to adapt to new information and fixate on protecting an increasingly irrelevant evidence base, they will not hold their value.

Everybody involved in the reformed NPQs should be proud of what has been achieved, but there is room for improvement if we want to ensure they remain relevant and valuable.

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