Year in review

What we need now is consolidation, not upheaval

We can be grateful 2022 ends with more stability and fewer financial pressures, writes Katharine Birbalsingh. Now let’s focus on what we agree on and deliver

We can be grateful 2022 ends with more stability and fewer financial pressures, writes Katharine Birbalsingh. Now let’s focus on what we agree on and deliver

11 Dec 2022, 5:00

As teachers, we tend to think in terms of school years, not calendar years. But the holiday season and the inevitable outbreak of New Year’s resolution-making in January should give us all cause to reflect. This was the year that we were finally able to get back to normal in schools. Finally able to get on with the task of educating the future generation without the constant threat of more lockdowns and exam cancellations.

We all know how hard the years 2020 and 2021 were for teachers. We had to go above and beyond to move lessons online and provide critical pastoral care to the most vulnerable children. But 2022 brought its own challenges. Pupils returning to school were behind in their learning and needed extra support to catch up. Rising costs squeezed school budgets even further.

Some people have seen Covid and the recent disruption as an opportunity to argue for wholesale change to the education system. But I believe now is a time for consolidation, not more upheaval. Students need routine and predictability. So do staff and school leaders. We need to do more of what works.

Some of the evidence coming through suggests that there has been a widening of the divide because of Covid. Then there is the question regarding what schools can do about it.

The Social Mobility Commission, which I chair, is taking a look at the evidence of what works generally, looking at a range of successful schools in different circumstances and seeing what they have in common. And given the grammar schools debate reared its head again this year, we’ll be reviewing the strengths and weaknesses of different schools admissions policies – rather than the flawed 11+.

We are also looking at the evidence of what works for families: what do families do that has real success in helping their children be more socially mobile?

We need to do more of what works

I mentioned the cost of living crisis, and the squeeze on school budgets. So it was good to see additional funding announced in the autumn statement. Readers know as well as I do that it will not offset all of schools’ challenges (teachers’ pay, recruitment and retention spring to mind) – and it is disappointing that early years and further education received nothing – but for schools, this is at least likely to mitigate some of the most difficult pressures caused by rising costs.  

But we need to be grateful. After a year of tumult, and no fewer than five education secretaries gracing the halls of DfE, the revolving door of politics may now have settled and there’s a chance of someone actually getting on with the job. It is interesting to have someone with first-hand experience of the apprenticeship system like Gillian Keegan in the role. It is also a delight to see Nick Gibb return, who has had so much experience in his previous ministerial positions.

The question, as always, is how to know what works and then how to get it happening more often. If children can access the right sort of support at home and at school and are then encouraged to pursue work channels that will allow them to maximise their talents and find fulfilment, then we enable more social mobility. 

So many of us want the same things. We might disagree on which is the most important, but does it really matter? For example, encouraging reading in the home is surely a good thing. It isn’t the only thing, but any teacher will tell you how hard it is to catch children up in the skill of reading, which begins at home long before children get to school. In 2023, I hope we can focus more on what we agree on and deliver those things for young people.

I recently hosted my full board of social mobility commissioners at Michaela to think about what we want to achieve. We talked about how we’re all driven to make a difference, and how hard work and determination can’t fix everything, but they can really speed you on your way. Now wouldn’t that be a good new year’s message to give our children?

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