Nadhim Zahawi is a minister with a reputation for getting things done, thanks in large part to his involvement in the rollout of the Covid vaccine programme. But the education secretary’s long-awaited schools white paper, published on Monday after months of speculation, left many in the sector feeling underwhelmed.
After exams mayhem and mishaps overseen by Zahawi’s predecessor, Gavin Williamson, and damage done by the pandemic, hopes were high for Zahawi’s first big outing, but immediate reaction to the 60-page white paper setting out the government’s vision for schools for the next eight years was muted.
“Inoffensive,” said one commentator. “I’d give it a C-minus, or a GCSE grade 4,” said another. “It’s a pass, but not a good one.” Not much to object to, little to inspire, and inadequate funding to achieve any of its stated ambitions.
The document, entitled “Opportunity for all: strong schools with great teachers for your child”, did include at least one key measure that could significantly change the education landscape.
The single most impactful announcement was the promise that all schools in England would either be in a multi-academy trust or in the process of joining one by 2030, with a single regulatory approach.
Six years ago, Nicky Morgan was forced to do an embarrassing U-turn on a similar pledge as education secretary after backbench Conservative rebels rejected the idea of already high-performing schools being forced to become academies.
While most of the 3,500 secondary schools in England are now already academies, the great majority of the 16,800 primaries in the sector are not, with only 44% of mainstream schools in England having made the switch. “There is some logic to all schools becoming academies,” said one commentator. “We know the current system is fragmented. It’s logical to bring schools under the same regulatory framework.”
Critics, however, warn that joining an academy trust does not necessarily lead to higher attainment and that making all schools academies will be fraught with difficulties. Zahawi has sweetened the pill by offering local authorities with successful schools the chance to set up their own multiple-academy trusts. Faced with government pressure to academise, it remains to be seen whether schools, unions and local communities still have the energy for a fight.
Otherwise, the white paper covers familiar territory – the new and widely welcomed national register for children not in school, the use of data to modernise and improve tracking of attendance, the £30,000 starting salary for teachers, plus more and better teacher training.
The requirement for all schools to offer a minimum school week of 32.5 hours will have limited impact because most schools already do so, and the “parent pledge” that a school will provide evidence-based support if your child falls behind in English and maths and keep you informed of their progress has been dismissed as a gimmick.
On attainment, the government had already set a target in its levelling paper for 90% of children to leave primary school with the expected standard in reading, writing and maths, up from 65% currently. To this, the white paper added a companion ambition, to increase the national GCSE average grade in both English language and maths from 4.5 in 2019 to 5 by 2030.
Both will be challenging to achieve against a backdrop of pandemic learning loss, continuing Covid disruption and a funding squeeze started by the government’s austerity policies, now exacerbated by rising inflation.