The Education White(paper)wash: “Strong schools with great teachers for your child” – as if there aren’t any of those already!

Moving on

When I was a tutor on the PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education) course a few years ago, the topic of the first written assignment we gave our students was ‘Moving on’. I was never very convinced of the appropriacy of this name; the students had to review developments in the teaching of Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) over recent decades and up to the present day. Some went back to the 1950s, others started later. One thing they all discovered, however, is that ‘progress’ in practice meant one step forwards, one – or even two – steps backwards. Such has been the erratic progression of government policy on MFL teaching: hardly ‘moving on’! Our message to our students was that they should take heart from their own enthusiasm, and try to maintain it in spite of government bungling.

The White Paper

So, what about the recent schools White Paper? Well, of course, it was published with the sort of fanfare we have come to expect from this government – all for the consumption of the right-wing press and gullible ‘true-blue’ voters. However, like so much of its output, it is empty verbiage to a large extent, recycles so much that can be considered old hat, and ignores many of the issues which blight our education system. Certain elements of the media have been less than complimentary: The Guardian’s headline was clear: “Zahawi’s English Schools White Paper leaves many in sector underwhelmed”. seems less forthright in condemnation at first, with its heading: “What are the government’s plans for schools?”, but within the article, the reactions of school leaders are significant. Two comments stand out:

“Headteachers have said the White Paper “falls short” on policies likely to make a difference to pupils’ progress.” And, referring to the lack of recognition of societal factors: “It is hard to learn when you are hungry, cold, poorly-clothed and live in inadequate housing.”

Rather than attempt to evaluate it myself, being ‘beyond my sell-by date’ and long-since retired, I shall give the classroom floor, so to speak, to a very experienced and utterly dedicated primary school teacher whom I know quite well. Being in a senior position of responsibility, she has held her school together through the pandemic: teaching online and in the classroom simultaneously during times when the school was closed to all but the children of essential workers; responsible for implementing anti-Covid measures ranging from mask-wearing to ensuring that everything needing to be sanitised was cleaned appropriately, and managing without many of the measures the government promised but never delivered, such as ventilation equipment… and having to deal with the problem of many colleagues being absent with Covid.

The teacher’s assessment

“The 60 pages are a lot of repetition and waffle, but the main points and my comments on them are as follows:-

The government starts by congratulating itself that 86 per cent of schools are now classified by Ofsted as “good or better”, as compared to only 68 per cent in 2010. However, since then, the “satisfactory” judgement has been removed and the gradings changed, as well as removing the need for long periods for “outstanding” schools to be inspected, so it’s not actually comparable data. Plus there’s a massive backlog of schools still waiting to be inspected following the Covid lockdowns …

According to the White Paper, the main aims of the government are by 2030 to:

  • Increase the percentage of primary school leavers attaining the expected level in reading, writing and maths, combined, to 90 per cent (this was at 65 per cent pre-Covid or 70 per cent for each subject individually).
  • Increase national average GCSE grades for English language and maths from grade 4.5 to 5.

The focus on English and maths makes sense in terms of key skills for accessing the curriculum, but in the past year, primary schools have been working incredibly hard on implementing a new “broad and balanced curriculum”, following a change in the Ofsted framework, which has literally doubled everyone’s workload. And now the government wants to put the focus back on English and maths. It proposes having a central bank of wider curriculum lessons for teachers to draw upon because “too many teachers are reinventing the wheel” (this is a direct quote). But why might we be doing this? Because Ofsted have been inspecting schools on their “bespoke broad and balanced curriculum which meets the needs of their individual settings and communities”.

The White Paper also talks a lot about how awful it is that “disadvantaged” children (those in poverty or with an allocated social worker) don’t do as well as their peers, but without acknowledging that the result of Tory policies is that more children are considered disadvantaged than ever before: 17.3 per cent were receiving free school meals in Jan 2020, compared to 21 per cent now (and approximately 35 per cent in my town).

Anyway, the White Paper says the reason for this focus on improving English and maths results is because, per cohort, it will bring in an additional £30bn to the economy; nothing about the health, happiness or quality of life for these children, just an economic figure.

The government says it is going to achieve this by:

  • Retaining and recruiting excellent teachers by ensuring teaching is an “attractive, high-status profession”, increasing the starting salaries to £30,000 and giving teachers and school leaders the biggest pay rise for 15 years. This is great – BUT you can’t recruit graduates if no one can afford to go to university. Plus, does this starting salary offset the increase in graduate loan repayments? Also, if the government wants teaching to become a respected, attractive profession, it probably needs to address the constant teacher-bashing in the media and the endless ridiculous demands of parents who expect teachers to fix everything for them.
  • Introducing new national qualifications for Early Years leaders, English leaders, Classroom Behaviour and Culture specialists etc. This is all very well, but how and when are teachers going to study for these, in addition to their huge workload?
  • Ensuring schools teach for a minimum of 32.5 hours – which most already do. The government says it has an ambition for schools to stay open even longer, but with no direct advice on how or why.
  • Ensuring all children are taught in a “calm, orderly environment, with high expectations for all children” and a big focus on attendance – though you can’t improve school attendance if you’ve just told parents (as the government has) not to test their children for Covid, but just keep them at home for three days whenever they have a cold or any other symptoms.
  • All schools are to join academy trusts by 2030, even though, as far as I’m aware, there’s no evidence that this consistently improves attainment. The government has apparently published an accompanying paper about this, which gives the relevant data, but which I haven’t read. I know schools becoming academies CAN improve attainment, but only in schools which weren’t doing well. It won’t necessarily raise attainment in schools that are already doing well.
  • Schools are to ensure that all parents are given updates about their child’s attainment, and informed of what will be put in place if children fall behind. This is great, but a) most schools already do it, and b) the government is assuming we have the resources in place to do it, even though the system is seriously understaffed and underfunded.
  • The government is going to launch another review of education for Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) children. It does this every couple of years, changes the system, then changes it again. It also says that SEND children will get free holiday clubs so they can do more learning and catch up, which is such an oversimplified view of what SEND children need!
  • Embed tutoring in every school. The National Tutoring Programme has already been a monumental failure, so again, I have no idea how this will work, but I suspect it’s another gimmick like those I’ve seen come and go.
  • Boost the work of the Education Endowment Fund for its research. This is great, as the Fund is really useful, as long as it stays independent and neutral. That remains to be seen.
  • Push for more uptake of the English Baccalaureate (EBACC) subjects, which include MFL. This is my favourite bit:

“From 2023, we will establish a network of MFL hubs and introduce more effective Continuing Professional Development (CPD) for language teachers.”

How will this happen, post-Brexit, when so few people are studying languages and there are no cultural exchanges or proper replacement for the Erasmus scheme etc?

An important factor is that the expected attainment level at the end of primary school now is the equivalent of the year 8/9 level prior to 2014. Who’s to say that 90 per cent children can attain this? And 90 per cent is the target nationally, but schools will be aiming for that national average too. What about schools like mine which have lots of SEND children (20 per cent in mine)? I am really concerned about what this expectation means for SEND children, whose targets need to be things like “dress themselves” or “learn to use a knife and fork”. Are they just going to get constant ‘hot-housing’ (particularly via those ‘holiday clubs’, a proposal which sounds alarm bells) until they reach the expected level in reading, writing and maths?  

The impression I get is that the government is going to expect schools to “turn children’s lives around” in order for these children to bring financial benefit to the country – but without the funding for all the services that work alongside schools. One statistic quoted, which apparently schools are going to change, is that currently “90 per cent of young offenders are persistently absent from school”; but there is no explanation as to why these children are offending, and what other services might need to be involved (police, probation, social services, mental health support, drug/alcohol support – all of which are underfunded); just an expectation that schools will fix the problem.

The summary states that “the children of this country will be taking the next steps in their education equipped with the tools they need to make a success of the next phase” … How, when university is only going to be affordable for the children of the wealthy?

Overall, there are some decent ideas within the White Paper, and some good points, but they are all wrapped up in total ignorance of the fact that it is this government which has created the situations it is now seeking to rectify.

When I started work – under a Labour government – I definitely felt that teaching was an “attractive, high status” profession; it’s only in the Tory years since, that I’ve felt it isn’t. And all these wonderful ideas are no good if you’re also faced with the biggest exodus of teachers and school leaders that I’ve ever known. So, it’s a huge number of additional policies for an already overstretched and exhausted profession to take on.”

The pressing issues

As our correspondent says, the government expects all this to be implemented by “an already overstretched and exhausted profession”, which has to cope with “the constant teacher-bashing in the media and the endless ridiculous demands of parents who expect teachers to fix everything for them”. There has been a recent series of articles in the press, covering many aspects of a teacher’s working life, which can only serve to demotivate and demoralise the profession. Here is a sample of the factors reported in the press in recent weeks, in each case summarised briefly, but with the link to the full article:

44 per cent of teachers in England plan to quit within five years because of ‘unmanageable’ workloads, stress and low levels of trust in teachers from public and government 

7 in 10 teachers have thought of leaving in the past year, citing pay as a key factor.

The financial situation of a newly-qualified teacher on a relatively meagre starting salary will be hit hard by having to find £30,000 more to repay the student loan, which will cost more from next year.

The attitude of many parents is often very aggressive towards their children’s teachers, adding to the already high stress levels of teachers; this has become worse since the start of the Covid pandemic.

Polls have demonstrated that 70 per cent of female teachers have faced misogyny in UK schools, and even sexual harassment in classrooms.

Teachers are having to cope with increasingly stressed pupils: the major cause of this stress and the consequent deterioration of their mental health being the government’s introduction of ‘reformed’ GCSEs, with more weight on final exams and less on coursework.

Government ministers delight in interfering in education, criticising teachers’ political views and telling them what they should teach.

Really moving on… or whitewash?

All this adds up to more and more pressure on teachers at a time when they seem only to receive less and less support from government. Small wonder that so many teachers are demotivated, and many considering leaving the classroom, including our correspondent; hardly in the right state to pull out even more stops and work even harder. Instead, all too often they are made the scapegoats for problems caused by government, and expected to ‘mop up’ its failures. Granted, ‘twas ever thus; indeed, I found the drop-out rate from teacher-training very worrying a decade and a half ago; even more shocking was the statistic of successful trainees who left the profession within 4 years of qualifying as teachers.

A member of my family said recently,

“The government has no interest in retaining teachers, because teachers pay for their own training in the UK, in university costs, tuition fees and so on. If the government paid them to train, it would want them to stick around to get a return on its investment, but instead it’s happy to churn through them as an easily replaceable commodity. And this focus on ‘more training for teachers’ implies that the reason results aren’t high enough is because teachers aren’t good enough. Then politicians wonder why teachers don’t feel valued!”

I think most people would agree with the logic – on both counts.

So, what about this White Paper: does it improve matters? ‘Moving on’? Hardly, and it devotes more effort to conning voters into thinking that the government is taking the right action, than it does to supporting teachers in what they already do.

Truly, an Education Whitewash Paper.