The White Paper: A chance wasted

Written by: Mike Short | Published:
There are 3.9 million children living in poverty in the UK – eight in a classroom of 30. And yet the White Paper fails to address the deep inequalities that have been exacerbated by Covid

Despite having a new education secretary, we are stuck with the same tired ideological blinkers. The education White Paper ignores crucial issues such as poverty and the attainment gap, says Mike Short


The education White Paper offered the education secretary a genuine opportunity to share a compelling vision for the future of an education system that has been battered by Covid-19.

It was a chance to offer new ideas and the investment to back them up. There is no shortage of work to be done: the pandemic shone a light on the deep inequalities that prevent young people from reaching their potential, from access to digital technology at home to simply being confident of getting three nutritious meals a day.

But this chance to tackle the educational backlog, reduce attainment gaps between the poorest children and those from better off backgrounds, and to recognise the huge efforts and sacrifices made by school staff throughout the pandemic, has been wasted.

Rather than properly addressing any of these issues, the government has chosen to restart its drive for academisation, with a target of a “fully trust-led system” by 2030.

Yet again, schools are being forced to academise regardless of whether it is the right choice for their pupils. Our members in schools know from their daily experience of academisation that removing schools from the control of elected bodies is not a magic route to excellence. Previous research by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) has found little difference between attainment outcomes of academies and local authority-maintained schools (Andrews & Perera, 2017).

As well as knowing what doesn’t work, we also know what does: investing in school staff is the key to pushing up standards. Despite this, school support staff are barely mentioned in the White Paper. Similarly, the SEND Green Paper contains no more than a passing reference to teaching assistants or other support staff.

Schools can’t function without the dedication of support staff. These roles make up half of the school workforce and teachers, pupils and parents rely on them to ensure schools are a clean, safe learning environment, that school finances stay on track, that every child can have a hot meal at lunchtime, to provide tailored one-to-one learning and to cover staffing gaps created by Covid-19.

The White Paper focuses heavily on training – both for teachers and school leaders. The SEND Green Paper too puts emphasis on further training for trainee teachers, early career teachers and experienced teachers to better support pupils with SEND. But neither set out how it will train and support the other half of the school workforce.

The research is clear about just how much teaching assistants can influence and impact on pupil progress – but their full potential can only be realised when they are trained to deliver well-planned interventions and support.

And despite the importance of early years in closing the attainment gap, there is little extra support there either – simply a new leadership qualification.

Underpinning all of this is the context in which the White and Green Papers have been published. Schools are not a vacuum – and the cost-of-living crisis is impacting students and staff alike.

According to government data, there were 3.9 million children living in poverty in the UK in 2020/21 – which is 27% of children, or eight in a classroom of 30.

More than a fifth of school children are eligible for free school meals, which equates to around one million primary pupils and 660,000 secondary students (Julius & Ghosh, 2022) – a figure that is likely to grow as inflation continues to rise and the country faces the biggest income squeeze in 50 years.

And let’s not forget that 36% of all school-aged children in poverty in the UK are not entitled to a free meal at school (Patrick et al, 2021).

According to the New Economics Foundation, 48% of children face living in households unable to meet the cost of basic necessities (NEF, 2022).

And this crisis impacts staff too, especially school support staff. Despite their crucial role, these staff are often the lowest paid. The cost-of-living crisis will affect lower income households the most as a greater proportion of their salaries are already spent on the essentials.

But while the White Paper rightly mentions the need to increase teachers’ starting salaries, there is no mention of teaching assistants and other school support staff.

Many have put their lives at risk to continue going into schools during the pandemic, ensuring vulnerable pupils and the children of key workers could carry on learning.

And as Covid continues to create staffing challenges for schools, teaching assistants, admin staff, technicians, cleaners and site staff are taking on more and more responsibilities.

The growing pay divide will inevitably affect support staff recruitment and retention. In fact, in our recent survey of school support staff, more

than two-fifths (42%) said they were actively looking for better paid work elsewhere (UNISON, 2021).

But by not mentioning support staff or addressing the issue of low pay or the cost-of-living crisis, ministers have shown that helping schools and pupils to bounce back as quickly as possible is not their priority.

Instead, they’re wasting vital time and energy pushing through unnecessary programmes to create more academies.

  • Mike Short is acting head of local government and education at UNISON.


Further information & resources

  • Andrews & Perera: The impact of academies on educational outcomes, July 2017: https://bit.ly/35EQRJc
  • DfE: Policy paper: Opportunity for all: strong schools with great teachers for your child (White Paper), March 2022: https://bit.ly/3qLTqQX
  • DfE: Open consultation: SEND review: right support, right place, right time (Green Paper), March 2022 (closes July 1, 2022): https://bit.ly/36XJ61l
  • Julius & Ghosh: Investigating the changing landscape of pupil disadvantage, NFER, January 2022: https://bit.ly/3tFUbx1
  • NEF: Spring statement leaves 48% of all children living in families that have to make sacrifices on essentials this spring, like putting food on the table or replacing clothes and shoes, March 2022: https://bit.ly/36M2S04
  • Patrick et al: Fixing Lunch: The case for expanding free school meals, CPAG, 2021: https://bit.ly/38vHZn2
  • UNISON: School support staff pay survey, November 2021: https://bit.ly/3rm2VaE


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