The White Paper: A Response

The White Paper’s overall ambition for every child to succeed with the aim of achieving 90% expected standards at reading, writing, and maths in KS2 and moving average attainment in English and maths at GCSE from 4.5 to 5 is laudable but hardly backed up by the plans within.

The focus on excellent teaching, curriculum, behaviour and attendance, targeted support, and a stronger and fairer school system is not wrong, but what sits underneath shows limited ability to get to grips with the real issues.

Profession out of charge

Take excellent teaching – the ‘golden thread’ of ITT, ECF and NPQs (including a few new ones to be added) is fine but already announced and into implementation (albeit with more to follow over the rest of this parliament). Financial incentives for recruitment, continuing to emphasise wellbeing, and reducing workload are also ok (though schools will almost certainly have to fund the £30k starting salaries and other increases), but this doesn’t get to the heart of building a profession that has autonomy and respect. Imagine lawyers, doctors or other comparable professions still having practice dictated to them from Whitehall, rather than driving it as the leaders of a highly skilled profession. There is almost a fear of getting to the heart of, or putting the profession in charge of, what excellence is in terms of pedagogy. For a profession dedicated to learning, this is a sad irony.

Small steps for the curriculum

On the curriculum, putting Oak Academy on a sound footing to co-create free digital resources is useful, but hardly a game changer. The same can be said for increasing the use of data and introducing an annual behaviour survey. Defining a minimum length of the school week, on the other hand, is a total irrelevance. From our perspective in HEP, working with Christine Counsell and Steve Mastin to introduce a knowledge rich humanities curriculum and Brenda Hayles to develop a science curriculum at Key Stage 2, or working with The Black Curriculum to review Key Stage 3 English, history, and science has been much more transformational than any of these measures.

Superficial or substantive support?

When we reach the section on supporting those falling behind, it is unclear how a vaguely defined Parent Pledge will add anything. Tutoring and SEND support may help if they are effective, but again, the most disadvantaged are not covered here. What about the children who don’t fall behind at school but are already furthest behind with the greatest support needs? Addressing systemic racism; building the knowledge and vocabulary for disadvantaged pupils; excellence in SEND provision and the resources to match – these are what is really needed.

The case, or lack thereof, for MATs

The Government’s riposte might be that MATs will drive school improvement and lead the profession. And this is where the real meat of the White Paper sits, providing a direction of travel toward all schools joining MATs (rather than the limbo of parallel systems currently in place), supported by a much stronger and clearer regulatory approach (which is still forthcoming). Tidying this up and placing the same duties of collaboration and inclusion expected of local authorities on MATs is sorely needed.

Fundamentally, though, the case is weak – despite having a whole Appendix dedicated to arguing that MATs represent the best way forward. It is hardly compelling when the best that is offered are non-sequiturs such as: “if all children did as well as pupils in a trust performing at the 90th percentile, national performance at key stage 2 would be 14 percentage points higher and 19 percentage points higher for disadvantaged pupils.” It stands to reason that if every child did as well as those with the best results, then everyone would be doing better!

The reason for this is inevitably that governance of schools is not fundamentally the answer to the challenges posed in the first three chapters. At HEP, we are agnostic as to whether a school is an academy or maintained in our search for excellence. We focus on great teaching and learning and the school and system leadership that supports this.

The importance of place

The biggest piece that is missing in the White Paper is about place. Future local authorities are intended to be champions for inclusion and support for children and young people locally, and are being given greater powers to fill that role. However, school improvement at its best should also be area based. Being a member of HEP is signing up to being part of a family of schools (a term we have used from the beginning) which takes collective responsibility for the communities we serve and works collaboratively in pursuit of excellence.

Time is on our side

There is much still to be clarified going forward. It is unclear whether schools will be forced to join a MAT in 2030 if it is against their wishes. Similarly, it is left vague what exactly a local authority-led MAT might look like and how it might operate. These questions are going to matter to schools considering their options. But one thing is key: there is no rush. 2030 is a political lifetime away – who knows where we’ll be by the end of the next parliament and there don’t appear to be any great carrots or sticks to enforce this direction of travel.

Overall, then, this feels like direction-setting without really getting to grips with the questions that matter most about fostering a self-confident profession with the tools and resources to achieve the goals everyone shares for all our children and young people to achieve and have opportunities in life. With all of the other pressures on schools in terms of budgets, exams, staffing, Covid, and Ofsted, to name just a few, leaders might be forgiven for not rushing to read through all 68 pages.

About the Author:

James Page

James is Chief Executive of HEP. He was previously joint Assistant Director for schools and learning in Haringey Council and has worked in DfE and extensively in central government and consultancy. He is also a parent governor in the Borough.

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