White Paper: ‘Control freakery to the left of me, neglect to the right’

Education Excellence Everywhere is the title of the government’s education White Paper published today. Although it lacks the excitement promised by Enid Blyton’s The Naughtiest Girl in the School, there are similarities.

Nicky Morgan’s introduction states that in 2010 the Conservatives “inherited an education system where one in three young people left primary school unable to read, write and add up properly”, although she was criticised by the UK Statistics Agency when she originally made this statement. It is not true, and its reiteration at the start of this White Paper does not bode well for what follows.

A search reveals an extensive use of the word “great” as the adjective of choice in the White Paper. The reader is exhorted to look forward to a great education system, with great leaders and great teachers.

The uncomfortable truth for education ministers is that we are not attracting or retaining teachers, great or otherwise, in anything like the numbers needed, and the supply line from teachers to middle leaders to school leaders is fractured because of a great teacher exodus.

More than 50,000 teachers left the profession, before retirement age, last year. If the government really is to achieve “education excellence everywhere” it must do something serious about teachers leaving. But the initiatives to boost the supply of teachers, such as a national teacher vacancy website, and developing the new National Teaching Service, are inadequate to meet the scale of the problem and are another instance of ministers fiddling while teacher supply and retention burns.

Proposals to replace qualified teacher status with “stronger, more challenging” accreditation are fraught with difficulty. It is hard to see how making it harder to become a qualified teacher is going to encourage more people to apply, particularly when the National Audit Office says the plethora of current routes into teacher training are confusing.

The danger is that, faced with school budgets falling by an average of 8 per cent during the course of this parliament, school leaders will look to extend trainee teachers’ qualification periods to save money.

I hope this does not happen, but if my hopes are dashed, expect the number of applications to teach to take a further nosedive from their present, perilous position where, in 2015, 14 out of 17 secondary subjects had unfilled training places.

And while any move to extend the support available to new teachers is welcome, the capacity of schools to give this support at a time of government induced curriculum and qualification chaos is highly questionable.

There are challenges for Ofsted in the White Paper. Ofsted is to consult on removing the separated graded judgments on the quality of teaching, learning and assessment to help clarify that the focus of inspection is now on outcomes, not processes.

This is the end of a long road for the agency which has not been able to withstand the weight of evidence which shows that judgments of teaching quality based on lesson observation are highly unreliable. However, a focus on school outcomes is likely to make it more difficult for schools in challenging circumstances, with disadvantaged pupils, to demonstrate how they are achieving above the odds.

Much of the White Paper lists numerous initiatives designed to improve this and that. In no particular order there will be a new, voluntary National Professional Qualification for each level of leadership which will “better prepare” leaders. An Excellence in Leadership fund will “better prepare” more leaders and the National College for Teaching and Leadership will be reformed.

The problem with all these bright ideas is that they are too little, too late. School leaders need nationally organised, well- funded support to meet the challenge of educational change. Piecemeal initiatives will not provide what is needed.

All in all the White Paper is a strange document. It gives the impression of a hive of government activity, but the reality is that the direction of travel to a fractured, fragmented English education system, with a government wavering between control freakery on the one hand, and blatant neglect on the other, is unchanged.


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