On the 28th March 2022, the UK Government’s Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, presented to Parliament the first Schools White Paper in six years.
This paper set out the Department for Education’s vision for education on the back of the government’s ‘Levelling Up’ report, which was released in early February and reviewed by Whizz Education here.
The Schools White Paper focussed upon four key areas for levelling up, including the quality of teaching, the monitoring of behaviour and attendance, the response to children who fall behind with their learning and the ways in which schools, trusts and local authorities are to collaborate.
But following calls to ‘build back better’ in the wake of the pandemic, is this White Paper an ambitious look toward the future or a disappointing rehash of past promises? Whizz Education measures the success of this latest report against the five parameters of our manifesto for Education 2030 to draw conclusions about the strengths, weaknesses, achievability and longevity of its goals.
On Familiar Ground
In Parliament, every expression of wholehearted support, the suggestion of ‘welcome’ arrival and note of thanks for the Schools White Paper was succeeded by a question about how transformative the report would be in practice.
Schools White Papers have been published in 1943, 1974, 1985, 1992 and then, on average, every 2.5 years since 1997 but none have arrived in the wake of extended school absences caused by a pandemic.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the title of this report – ‘Opportunity for all: Strong schools with great teachers for your child’ – addresses parents as the likely readers, places emphasis on a return to school buildings with teachers in situ and focusses on the learning of ‘all’ children after a period of disrupted learning.
Previous White Papers have introduced grammar schools, revolutionised the curriculum, created Ofsted and increased the school leaving age but the general feel of this year’s addition is one of conservatism and of recovery, without grand upset where it can be helped.
As a result, the paper has been described as ‘underwhelming’ and ‘familiar’ even. Laura McInerney draws parallels between Zahawi’s ‘Parent Pledge’ and 2009’s ‘Parent Guarantee’. And, in an almost exact echo of Lisa Nandy in response to the Levelling Up report, Munira Wilson asked of the White Paper: ‘Where is the ambition in this?’.
Some do wonder about the ability of the proposed policies to elevate student outcomes. However, many propound the ‘common-sense approach’ of the report; they simply question whether it takes advantage of the lessons learned during the pandemic to adapt to a new educational landscape and to exploit new possibilities for learning.
So, where do we think the report excels and underwhelms?
Chance for Innovation: the SWP and Whizz Education’s Manifesto for Education 2030
Whizz Education collaborate with multiple stakeholders to work to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and to provide access to basic education for all by 2030. In order to do so, we focus upon solving educational challenges such as the need for measurement and accountability, strong partnerships, equity and equality, quality teaching and sustainable systems. We assess the Schools White Paper in light of its response to these challenges.
Measurement and Accountability
Whizz Education’s Maths-Whizz virtual tutor uses continuous assessment and real-time data feedback to allow for immediate course correction in a unique approach to Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning (MEL). Hence, we support types of assessment and uses of evidence that prioritise student outcomes, rather than holding teachers to ransom for end-of-year results.
As a result, we feel that the choice to continue to fund the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is a triumph of the White Paper. Running trials of well-evidenced education initiatives prioritises learning outcomes as a measure of success.
The White Paper sets out targets to have 90% of students meeting the expected standard of reading, writing and maths by key stage 2 and to increase the percentage of students achieving this level in the worst-performing areas by one third (p.11). In Parliament, Mohammad Yasin, Labour MP for Bedford, suggested that more targets increase stress and drive teachers from the profession. This kind of broad-brush measure also fails to view the importance of the learning of every single child.
The continuation of a Phonics Screening Check and the introduction of a Multiplication Tables Check at aged 7 is a positive step towards the kind of continuous testing that ensures the mastering of fluency skills before moving on to higher-order problem solving. Our research demonstrates the importance of this kind of assurance of ability in helping children to keep pace with the curriculum.
In all, it is regrettable that the curriculum and examination procedure remain unchanged though the paper promises to ‘set out further guidance on… the use of effective assessment in due course’ (p.37). The paper fails to recognise the stress caused by accountability to targets and the benefits of continuous assessment, though their commitment to using evidence to drive progress is compelling.
Whizz Education knows the importance of building relationships between educational parties and stakeholders. Chapter 4 of the Schools White Paper focuses exclusively on the need to build strong relationships between local councils, schools, academy trusts and the government. The Local Government Association for one has welcomed the opportunity to build collaborative trusts.
However, the pleading introduction of a ‘collaborative standard’ (p.11) has been described by Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), as a ‘tidying up’ policy.
Indeed, a study by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) noted high levels of variability in the efficacy of MATs in raising school standards.
In Parliament, Bridget Phillipson (Labour Houghton and Sunderland South MP) called for a focus on what happens within the classroom instead of the ‘name above the door’ and Steve Brine (Conservative Winchester MP) questioned whether ‘strong multi-academy trusts will be the answer for small rural primary schools’.
It is for this reason that Zahawi has been ironically (and perhaps cruelly) dubbed ‘the evidence-led secretary’. The Sutton Trust more diplomatically suggests that forging partnerships should not distract from the need to train and retain teachers. Whizz Education agree.
Equality and Equity
The Schools White Paper is particularly encouraging in its claim to be directing extra funds towards disadvantaged students through Education Investment Areas (EIAs), the new National Funding Formula (NFF) and the Pupil Premium (PP) to give all students a fighting chance.
A ‘Parent Pledge’ ensures that any student who falls behind will be provided with targeted support. A focus on early years and landmark interventions is important as Professor Lee Elliot Major makes clear: those who fall behind often never catch up. Some 80% of students who do not achieve the expected requirements at key stage 2 go on to miss important markers in key stage 4 (p.6). It is essential that gaps are identified, lessons are scaffolded and a mastery of early concepts is achieved, as is the pedagogical model of the Maths-Whizz programme.
A promise to deploy ‘6 million tutoring courses by 2024’ and to ‘cement one-to-one and small group tuition as a permanent feature of our school system’ (p.9) to ‘deliver for every child, parent and family’ (@nadhimzahawi tweet 7:29 am 28 March 2022) is an admirable investment in ‘what works’. However, the policy should not be met with pollyannaish expectation after the National Tutoring Programme (NTP) failed to be scaled effectively to match all students in need with a tutor.
Cheaper, scalable and equally-effective alternatives exist in virtual tutors, which should be considered a valid option to increase the viability of this brilliant pledge.
Quality of Learning and Teaching
Whizz Education’s Teaching Academy (TA) demonstrates that upskilling teachers is vital in producing learning outcomes whatever the context. It is pleasing to see the SWP address what we considered to be a lack of concern shown for teacher training in the Levelling Up report.
This paper includes a proper acknowledgement that ‘improving the quality of teaching is the single most important in-school factor in improving outcomes for children’ (p.8). The government promises to introduce ‘a reformed Initial teacher Training provider market’, to deliver half a million funded courses by 2024, and to invest £36 million in a ‘new system of higher-quality training provider partnerships’ (p.18).
However, a more robust report of just how and by whom this training is to be delivered is needed, along with an idea of which aptitudes will be developed among the plethora that are touted as important; including anti-racism coaching, sensitivity training, mental health expertise, literacy specialisms, the development of a green curriculum and proficiency with educational technology.
Perhaps where the SWP struggles the most is in its perceived inability to produce lasting, sustainable change.
Increasing salaries, providing relocation loans and bettering training still does not tackle issues with teacher workload which three-quarters of teachers say make them unhappy. In fact a mandatory school week of 32.5 hours (p.29) and the failure to reinstate classroom support teachers noted by Janet Darby (Labour Lewisham East MP), lead some to believe that recruitment and retention issues will go unresolved as 40% leave the profession within a decade.
Natalie Perera, Chief Executive of the Education Policy Institute, suggests that the paper overlooks poverty as a driving cause of the disadvantage gap, which tutoring cannot entirely counteract. Miriam Cates (Conservative Penistone and Stocksbridge MP) also reminded Parliament of the importance of a child’s home environment in determining outcomes.
While right to focus on literacy and numeracy as foundational skills, a narrowing of the curriculum to tested subjects predicts a crisis for the health and wellbeing of young people.
Finally, Kate Green, Karyn Smith and Clive Efford questioned the level of funding in Parliament. While big figures can be blinding, spending on education is lower than in 2010. There is perhaps enough money to stay afloat and recover, but this is certainly not an investment in innovations that will pay educational dividends in the future.
What Next? What More? What Tech?
The report focussed on much of what is important to the educational sector in the current climate, but the DfE must look to invest more inventively in the long-term.
Technology, for all its promise, was mentioned only eight times within the report and in the last seven bullet-points, at that.
The SWP proves weak in understanding the role that edtech could play in nailing the objectives they set out to achieve, such as providing virtual tutoring at a fraction of the cost of human tutoring, cutting teacher workloads and freeing time for training, guaranteeing learning outcomes and providing a service that adapts to the individual needs of each child by signalling when extra support is needed.
The pandemic showed us greater possibilities than shared resources, digital registers and online homework setting and submissions.
Whizz Education’s evidence, the outcomes of EEF studies and the necessitation of continued spells of remote learning mean that even investment in technology, teacher training and the removal of barriers to learning would achieve government targets most effectively.
We cling to the promise held within the phrase: ‘Every school in the country should have the right infrastructure to allow them to make the most of modern digital technology for their children, including the high-quality tools provided by England’s flourishing EdTech market.’ (p.59)
The UK education system should ‘build back better’, not from square one based on at least one tired proposition in order not to rock the boat. Keen to complete the ambitions of the 2010 paper, the SWP falls short in creating a fitting agenda for 2022 and beyond.