The SEA Response to the Government White Paper on Schools

“Our school system is fragmented, opaque, and over-complex – to the detriment of pupils and wider society. Instead of one school system we have several”

Kate Green (CST Conference 2021)

The truth is that the current system is unaccountable, incoherent and unworkable. Commentators from both the left and right now acknowledge this. Whose fault is it? Clearly the Tories as Michael Rosen in his Guardian article points out.

“If you think education needs shaking up that’s because you’re dealing with the last time you guys shook it up. Or the time before that. Or the time before that”

Michael Rosen, Letter from a Curious Parent, Published in The Guardian, Sat 2 April 2022

It would be hard to disagree with Sir Jon Coles CEO of United Learning Trust, currently trying to absorb Holland Park School into his behemoth organisation, either:

Defining accountability, regulation, and the roles and responsibilities of schools, trusts and local authorities appears a long way from teaching children. But a system in which everyone is clear about their role and responsibilities and appropriately accountable is one in which time and energy are not wasted and everyone can give of their best. Without these, a system will be less than the sum of its parts.

The left though has shied away from the debate about shaping the system in the future. The current Labour leadership appears to be sticking to Blair’s ‘standards not structures’ mantra slightly amended to include ‘what happens in the classroom’ as though politicians can somehow control that. Even Blair in his memoir now disowns his mantra saying it was merely ‘a piece of politics’ and that ‘it was bunkum as a piece of policy’. Some on the left and in the trade union movement are commendably critical of MATS and recognise structures have to be part of the debate in the future. Unlike the SEA though, a strategic plan for an incoming Labour or non- Tory government is sadly lacking. 

Academisation is a form of privatisation and deregulation implemented in the name of a free market in the provision of schools. That was the first step. Next was the consolidation of the process in which those with close links to the Tory party, right wing think tanks, or Christian trusts get to run MATS. The suspicion is that this is a forerunner to full scale ‘for profit’ operations in education. In the meantime, MATS generate business opportunities and a feeling of philanthropic wellbeing for their sponsors, as well as astonishingly high salaries for trust CEOs.   This partly explains why the Tories are now about to cut down all the green shoots in the form of stand-alone academies its policy created, as well as put an end to all maintained schools. The LA MAT proposal in the White Paper is a chimera. LAs will not have a majority on the trust boards and will have to allow competing trusts onto its patch. Models like Camden Learning would not be able to function. The Tories have always been adept at finding opportunities for ‘hedge-fund speculators and carpetbaggers’ to fill their pockets, but is there more to the White Paper and its education policy than that? 

A recent article by Professor Gorrard and data research by the NEU both show that the DFE’s claim that MATS perform better than LAs and stand-alone schools is disingenuous. This is not about ‘improving standards’ it is part of the right’s project to change the nature of education itself. The authoritarian strand in the Tory Party has won against the liberal free marketeers. Johnson’s government knows that education is a vital battleground in his culture war. To win control of it they need control of the system.  

Research conducted by James Kanagasooriam in 2018 into what they called the ‘Conservative Loss of Political Ascendancy’ explained that much better educated younger people were far less likely to vote conservative than their older less educated counterparts. State education, with its ‘left wing bias’ (Ester Mcvey 2019), and the massive increase in participation in higher education Labour engineered, were threats to Tory hegemony. The resulting strategy, building on Gove, who borrowed his ideology from the Black Papers of the seventies, involves

  • an assault, now mainly completed, on the curriculum removing black and female writers for example whilst downgrading the arts and vocational courses. It is a one size fits all model where according to OFSTED teachers must adapt methodology to ensure SEND pupils can access it, rather than modify the curriculum itself. This resulted in the absurdity of an MLD school being criticized by OFSTED for not teaching enough phonics when some of their pupils could not speak. 
  • the reintroduction of a highly selective exam-based assessment system which reinforces the attainment gap. Grades are rationed so that exam performance in private and selective schools will always be higher than that in the comprehensive state system. Yet government ministers and even some in the Labour Party, praise those that make it to Oxbridge from the state sector, whilst suggesting the reason why others do not make it is down to schools and teachers who are not good enough. 
  • an accountability/inspection framework which trumpets the new ‘knowledge rich’ approach and dismisses anything else as not based on evidence or simply outdated. Regional Schools Directors will now intervene where ‘trusts are not providing the excellent education we expect’. The relationship between them and OFSTED will be part of a review. 

The White Paper therefore mainly addresses two areas of the Tory education strategy which remain unfinished business. One is school structures and the other is the nature of teaching itself, hence the title:-   ‘Strong Schools with Great Teachers for Your Child’. On schools, the intention is clear. All must join a MAT by 2030. We have already witnessed the growth of these, to the point where some are larger than most LAs used to be with over 50 mainly secondary schools. The paper uses highly selective data to claim wrongly that schools perform better in MATS. Some MATS have a shocking record. This is not the point though. The government envisages a system of competing MATS where some will do better than others. It is the nature of competition. The diet MATS provide though, will essentially be the same. Supermarkets are a great analogy. Different branding, tweaks on the products available may distinguish them to a degree but the way they are organised and what they sell is essentially the same. The future the paper envisages is each town with its Harris, Star and Outwood alongside its Tesco. Morrisons and Sainsbury’s. However, whereas supermarkets can try out new products and respond to consumer trends, MATS will be strongly policed. It is not enough that most of them have leaders which support or helped  to design the new strategy, uniformity will be policed by OFSTED and new beefed up regional directors.

Equally important in the paper is the attack on teaching itself. ‘We know that excellent teachers and school leaders are made, not born’ it proclaims in rare Tory support for nature in the nature/nurture debate. In 2015 OFSTED said that teaching in 90% of primary schools was good or outstanding and in 78% of secondaries. The picture shows excellent quality of teaching across the country with small pockets of poor practice which needed tackling. Why then does teaching all of a sudden need to be improved and become more ‘evidence based’ across the board? The reason is that what constitutes ‘great’ teaching has changed in the new approach. It is set out in the ‘Core Content Framework’ which emphasises teacher subject knowledge, behaviour management plus the retention and retrieval of facts from the long-term memory.  There is a similar story in teacher education. ITT providers will be responsible for among other things, ’the delivery of new, cutting edge, intensive training and practice activity’, whatever that means. Adhering to the new ‘Core Content Framework’ and its companion the ‘Early Career Framework’ is certainly essential. This strongly instructional view of teaching does not reference child development and social context at all. Suddenly Initial Teacher Training too now appears to be in crisis despite being overwhelmingly good or outstanding in the past. In 2021 OFSTED judged 53% of providers to be inadequate or requiring improvement. This is because providers have not emphasised the new orthodoxy enough in their programmes. Goal posts have moved and Oxford and Cambridge institutes of education and many others are opposing  the new approach, with Cambridge probably withdrawing altogether from ITT. 

The government is not concerned. The circle has been squared. MATS who will be in control of schools anyway including special schools and alternative provision, are taking over teacher education. A conglomerate of them including Harris, Oasis, Star and Outwood look favourites to win a large slice. However, they have relied on the COVID pandemic to recruit graduates into teaching, and are finding out that few want to commit to this drudgery. Recruitment was 23% down last year.

“The government is …right that the only available single system now is one based fully on academy trusts. Even those who would prefer a maintained school system recognise there is no realistic way back to that.”

Sir John Coles

In the SEA, through our Give Us Back Our Schools Campaign (GUBOS), we believe in collaboration and a partnership of schools run democratically for the learners in the community. In 1988 the Thatcherite education act promoted a vision of autonomous schools with powerful heads in line with the English public-school tradition. We agree with the Tories that this is no longer the way forward, if it ever was. Indeed, the child Q debacle and the Holland Park bullying scandal are examples of what happens when too much unaccountable power is in the hands of one person.  We believe that schools working together under the aegis of a democratic authority can deliver a high-quality education experience for its learners and cater for their individual needs and ambitions. This is not revolutionary. It exists in high performing jurisdictions in Canada and Finland for example. It even exists in the UK in Wales and Scotland. Local education authorities should be reinvented to include local councillors, parents, staff and stakeholders. The White Paper proposals will result in the end of school governance as we know it without any replacement. Schools too should have input from governors elected from staff, parents and others. 

Furthermore, teaching must be recognised as a profession again, and should not be subject to ideological micro-management. The DFE has taken the instructional view of pedagogy, which is one of many, and proclaimed it as an approach which is based on evidence and new research. This is simply untrue. Teachers must be given access to all theories of pedagogy, and new research so they can make their own judgment on what works well. They must be able to work together to try out new ideas together and compare notes. Instead of the dead hand of MATS pushing the government’s agenda, education departments in universities should be working with schools and their teachers on methodology through excellent teacher education which has been shown to be the preferred model for graduates. There are also very successful undergraduate routes threatened by the market review. HE institutions still service networks of providers offering strong and responsive professional development. Labour should commit to replacing the Core Content Framework, handing back ITE to higher education providers and developing strong partnership between HE, Local Education Authorities and Schools to drive innovation and improvement. 

James Whiting
SEA General Secretary

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