Papers and Bills: A missed opportunity

Written by: Geoff Barton | Published:
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Whatever your view on academies, one thing is clear: the government’s obsession with structural reform will not on its own transform an education system. Geoff Barton on the unambitious plans of the DfE.

The annual pageant of the Queen’s Speech – sadly minus the Queen on this occasion – contained an underwhelming Schools Bill (DfE, 2022).

This is, essentiality, the bits of the recent White Paper which require legislative underpinning. It is a mixed bag of measures ranging from boosted (and welcome) powers for Ofsted to investigate illegal schools, to a register of children not in school (also welcome), and some fairly technical stuff around the move for all schools to be in multi-academy trusts.

Let’s park that last – rather controversial – plan to one side for the moment and go back to the main thrust of the White Paper.

With grinding inevitability, it is laced with the empty rhetoric of “levelling up” and its centrepiece is the “ambition” for 90% of primary school children to reach the expected standard in reading, writing and maths by 2030.

Various government statements claim this ambition will be supported by the other centrepiece – the aforementioned plan for all schools to be part of multi-academy trusts.

However, this is a complete non-sequitur. The academisation agenda is more about the government wanting to deal with what it regards as unfinished business, rather than a strategy which will magically produce the 90% ambition.

And that ambition is in danger of being a pipedream without an absolutely huge increase in resources. To achieve 90% (the figure is currently 65%) would require a massive focus on individualised support for children with SEN and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. It is very difficult to see how this could be achieved within the current funding constraints.

In truth, the even bigger problem is that the scope of the White Paper is itself so unambitious. It simply represents another target from a government that defaults to targets in lieu of meaningful policies.

There is nothing about the curriculum and whether it works well enough for all young people and for a digital age when technology and jobs are constantly evolving. There is nothing about our overbearing exam system which is focused so heavily on traditional academic subjects and a huge number of terminal exams. The government talks a lot about a revolution in technical education – but it seems that this can only start after the age of 16.

There is surely an argument for a system which plays better to the strengths of all learners and creates genuine parity between academic and technical routes by making the pre-16 exams system a great deal more flexible.

There is nothing either about an accountability system which simply does not work very well, serving too often to stigmatise schools which face the greatest challenges and making it harder for them to secure the improvement needed by their students and communities.

It is perfectly clear that the inspection system is not trusted by most school and college leaders. They do not think that it consistently, fairly and accurately judges performance. The chief inspector and government may bullishly insist that all is well and plough on regardless, but it is surely a serious problem when the profession believes that the system for overseeing standards in a public service is fundamentally flawed. For how much longer can it be acceptable for ministers to bury their heads in the sand over this issue?

Then there is the problem of what we have termed the “forgotten third” of young people who leave secondary education at the age of 16 without achieving at least a Grade 4 GCSE pass in English and maths. A lot of this is to do with the nature of the exam system itself – the very high stakes attached to qualifications which represent a cliff-edge for young people and where grading is guided by the system of comparable outcomes. This leaves little room for change in the proportion of young people affected from one year to the next.

All these things (and more) would surely be good subjects for a bold, visionary and ambitious government to take on in order to secure genuine improvement – to take our good education system forward the next step and make it world class.

Which brings us back – sort of – to that controversial topic of full academisation and every school being part of a multi-academy trust. There will be a range of views on this. But what seems obvious is that structural reform is simply not enough on its own.

Any system, however formed, must be accompanied by fresh thinking – something which is not evident in the White Paper or Schools Bill. It is, sadly, another missed opportunity.

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

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