Fiddling while Rome burns

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Blunt accountability measures, a gimmicky Parents’ Pledge, continuing denial over school budgets, and a heavily criticised Schools Bill – it feels like the government is fiddling while Rome burns, says Geoff Barton

The finishing line is in sight after another tumultuous year in education, and now is a good time to reflect on what education staff and pupils have achieved during that time.

Sadly, they have not been helped by a government which seems wholly out-of-touch with the sector and the challenges it faces. More of that later.

But first let’s look back at the past academic year. Because in that time schools and colleges have had to deal with huge disruption caused by Covid even while the government was declaring the pandemic to be over.

Large numbers of pupils and staff have been ill with the virus at various times, further compounding the upheaval of the previous two years, and making exam preparation and education recovery work all the more difficult.

And a deeper problem with pupil absence seems to have emerged beyond the direct impact of Covid.

Statistics suggest that more young people have become disengaged with education as an indirect result of the pandemic – some suffering from poor mental health, some in families anxious about health vulnerabilities, others simply falling out of the normal routines of education.

National data for June 9 (DfE, 2022) – when one would assume that Covid disruption is much less of a factor than earlier in the academic year – still shows 8.5% of pupils were absent. In pre-pandemic 2018/19 the absence rate was 4.7%. The figures aren’t directly comparable – there’s some complicated differences in methodology.

Nevertheless, pupil absence has emerged as a key concern and it is clear that what the sector needs is a much more settled 2022/23 academic year, hopefully less disrupted by Covid, that allows the normal routines of school life to return.

In this context, a return to public exams after two years of them being cancelled because of Covid has been particularly challenging. High levels of stress and anxiety among exam students, and difficulties in recruiting sufficient numbers of invigilators, were reported ahead of exams beginning (ASCL, 2022).

It is to the great credit of schools, colleges and teachers that despite all this the exams themselves appear to have gone relatively smoothly. It is clear that pupils have been brilliantly supported in what were surely the most inauspicious circumstances there have ever been for a set of public exams.

Which brings us back to the unhelpfulness of the government which – despite these circumstances and the uneven impact of the pandemic on schools and colleges – remains determined to publish performance data based on exam results.

We have worked hard to win some concessions on how it presents this data in order to reduce the likelihood of unfair comparisons being made between schools and colleges – see the “Changes to the compare school and college website” section within the recently updated Secondary accountability measures document (DfE, 2022b). But it would clearly be simpler and fairer to suspend performance tables for a further year.

And for good measure the government has decided to introduce at the 11th hour another de facto league table – on schools’ take-up of the troubled National Tutoring Programme, despite the mess it has made of the programme and the fact that delivery is dependent on school finances because it is only partially subsidised.

Then there is its Schools White Paper which, as well as introducing some arbitrary attainment targets and a gimmicky Parents’ Pledge, is backed up with a Schools Bill that centralises enormous power in the hands of the education secretary and has already run into a volley of criticism in the House of Lords.

In the meantime, the government is proposing a pay award which is significantly below the rate of inflation for many teachers and leaders despite signs that there are severe teacher shortages caused by difficulties in attracting enough recruits into teaching and then retaining them in the profession.

And, regardless of the soaring cost of energy and other inflationary pressures, the government remains in a state of permanent denial about the strain on school and college budgets and the insufficiency of the funding it provides to them.

It feels increasingly like the government is in danger of fiddling while Rome burns. The only thing which stops the conflagration is the superb professionalism of education staff despite the lack of support and the nonsense that emanates from Whitehall.

It is a sorry state of affairs. Schools and colleges, teachers and leaders, children and families, all deserve much better.

  • Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Read his previous articles for SecEd, via

Further information

  • ASCL: Stress and anxiety among exam students is higher than pre-pandemic, say most heads, May 2022:
  • DfE: Week 24: Attendance in education and early years settings during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic, June 2022a:
  • DfE: Secondary accountability measures – update: Measures for the 2021 to 2022 academic year, June 2022b:


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