The schools white paper is full of noble aims couched in superlatives. The curriculum it advocates is described as ‘strong, broad, ambitious, academic and knowledge-rich’. The lessons to teach this curriculum will be ‘brilliant’. Teaching will be ‘attractive’ and ‘high-status’.
Unfortunately, it takes more than a succession of adjectives to turn objectives into outcomes. And it is here that the government utterly fails to convince.
The white paper rightly recognises that the quality of teaching is the most important in-school factor in improving outcomes for children, especially for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. So it would seem to be sensible, would it not, for the government to acknowledge two obvious facts which directly impact on teacher supply and render it inadequate?
The first is that the government fails, year on year, to recruit enough teachers. That’s particularly true for traditional ‘shortage subjects’ – but this year it also applies to subjects like English which usually recruit strongly.
And the second is that the profession is haemorrhaging teachers. Within ten years of qualification over 40 per cent of teachers leave teaching. The key cause cited by those who leave is excessive workload caused by accountability pressures.
Yet the white paper shamefully attempts to downplay the scale and severity of the teacher workload problem with the caveat ‘where this still exists’, as though teacher exhaustion and stress are not now endemic across schools and throughout the profession. If there is any doubt that this is the case, I refer you to the Independent British Skills and Employment Survey, done every five years since 1992; Its latest study concludes that no other large occupation has shown anything like the degree of work intensification teaching has. In 2017, 85 per cent of teachers reported that they came home from work exhausted – more than double all other professionals put together.
The white paper’s proposed solution of a staff wellbeing charter to tackle excessive workload ‘where it still exists’ is an insult. It is completely inadequate to the scale of the problem and will do little, if anything, to address the stress and burnout created by the combination of a toxic accountability system intensified by the pressures the Covid pandemic.
Disadvantaged children suffer the most harm when there are not enough teachers. But the white paper does not even acknowledge the root cause of inadequate teacher supply – and without this its policy proposals for ‘levelling up’ will not succeed.
The main thrust of the white paper is towards the academisation of all schools by 2030. Here, the rhetoric is matched by shameless misinformation disguised by statistical sleights of hand which should have no place in any serious piece of government policy making. The emphasis throughout is on ‘strong’ multi-academy trusts which are characterised by sharing of evidence-based approaches, quality professional development, robust financial governance and economies of scale.
In particular, it makes the claim that if all schools achieved the performance of the strongest MATs (those ‘performing at the 90th percentile’), then “national performance at key stage 2 would be 14 percentage points higher and 19 percentage points higher for disadvantaged pupils’.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Until you stop to consider that the dramatic improvements described above are predicated on all MATs also performing as well as the top 10 per cent. The reality, that 90 per cent of MATs do not meet the standards of the top 10 per cent is obfuscated by an entirely contrived comparison between MATs and others. So let’s turn the argument on its head: If all children did as badly as pupils in a trust performing in the bottom 90th percentile, national performance at key stage 2 would be 15 percentage points lower and 18 percentage points lower for disadvantaged pupils.
Put that way, the claim is much less impressive, isn’t it?
In its attempt to complete the education revolution of 2010, the white paper ignores and downplays the pressing problems besetting our schools in 2022. It is a wasted opportunity, and the policy at its heart looks more and more like the answer to a question nobody ever asked.