The strange story of the Schools Bill – and the taming of Gove’s education dream

17 Jun

It has been a long time since education really felt like it was at the top of the Government’s agenda. The issue which once seemed the defining issue of Coalition-era Conservatism only warranted a single page in Boris Johnson’s 2019 manifesto.

But even so, the claim levelled by Fraser Nelson in his column last week is extraordinary.

For those of you without a Daily Telegraph subscription, here’s the precis: former education secretaries have been giving the Schools Bill a proper mauling in the House of Lords, because it contains a sweeping power-grab by the centre which threatens to undo all the good work on school autonomy since 2010.

Perhaps more explosively still, Nelson alleges that the reason for this is that Nadhim Zahawi and his team were simply not across the legislation when it was rushed out, allowing civil servants at the DfE to effect a “revenge of the Blob”.

The Education Secretary is widely perceived as one of the stronger members of the current Cabinet; he ranked second in our most recent League Table. If that were truly the grip he had over his own Department, that would not bode well.

So what is actually going on with the Schools Bill? The answer comes in two parts: the legislative side, and the ideological side.

Part 1) The Bill

The common thread running through every version of what happened with the Schools Bill is that Downing Street needed it to go in May – so it went in May, when perhaps it ought not to have done so.

According to Nelson, this meant that it was tabled before Zahawi and his team were properly across its provisions. Sources at the Education Department deny this, and offer if anything a stranger version of events. It goes like this.

There is apparently an internal review currently being carried out by the Department (its membership and terms of reference were not available) about the rationalisation of the regulations governing academies. The plan is that the final form of the Education Bill will enact, more or less, the recommendations of this review.

Yet given the parliamentary timetable, there was not time to have this review conclude before tabling the Schools Bill. Instead, the Secretary of State decided to run the two concurrently.

This meant that the Bill had to be drafted very broadly, which is a big reason it looks so much like a power grab by the centre. But apparently, the plan is what when the review reports, the Government itself will remove most of the objectionable provisions.

Suffice to say, this is an extremely unusual way to proceed with legislation, if indeed that is what happened.

But there are a few gaps in the story. For starters, sources closer to Downing Street report that they thought the Bill was ready to go, and have watched it catch fire on the launchpad with some bemusement.

Nor did anyone do any pitch-rolling with Lords Agnew, Baker, Nash, and the others causing trouble in the Upper House. Whilst Agnew and Nash are apparently now working with the Department to put things right, nobody was able to confirm whether or not this arrangement was in place before they savaged it in debate. One assumes not.

Finally, I wasn’t able to get an answer about what would happen in the event that the review didn’t conclude in time and the Department found itself getting the Schools Bill close to the finish line without having been told which bits to take out. That feels like something that should have been worked out.

Either way, the strategy wasn’t briefed out and so now Zahawi’s clarifications in his speech of yesterday are being written up, perhaps unfairly, as a U-turn in the making.

Part 2) The Policy

So much for how the Bill is coming about. What is it actually doing? At one end of the debate, Nelson claims it is a betrayal of the entire free schools revolution. At the other, it’s merely a tidying-up exercise. Which is it?

As far as we can make out, it’s a bit of both.

The DfE insists that a huge range of the powers the Bill is allegedly ‘taking’ are in fact already exercised by the Secretary of State via the complex and somewhat haphazard arrangements which currently govern academies. The Bill merely moves a lot of these onto a statutory footing.

(However, they do concede that because officials have copied over headlines – “nature and quality of education,” “procedures and criteria for admission,” “suitability of staff” and “the spending of money” – and not the detailed contents, it does make the Bill appear much more sweeping than it is in reality.)

This isn’t an entirely neutral change – Lord Baker, the man behind University Technical Colleges, has raised concerns that it will make it harder for schools to assert their rights than it is under contract law. But it falls short of an “audacious, unannounced counter-reformation”.

Nonetheless, it would be false to describe the Bill as just a rationalisation or tidying-up exercise. There does seem to be an ideological gear-shift underway: towards standardisation.

This doesn’t mean uniformity; DfE sources insist that they intend only to ‘regulate against failure’, not ‘regulate for excellence’. But having allowed a thousand flowers to bloom under Gove, the idea now seems to be taking what has worked best and trying to apply it to the whole system.

Multi-academy trusts (MATs) are viewed as the best way of spreading excellence through the system, so the push is to rationalise the State’s relationship with MATs and regulate them as effectively as possible, including expanding the DfE’s capacity to intervene against trusts which are actually failing or in serious financial difficulty.

Viewed one way, this could be seen as a culmination of the original academy agenda. Zahawi certainly frames it that way.

But it is nonetheless seems to signal a shift away from the original vision of Conservative education reform, which placed a much greater emphasis on individual schools having the freedom to do their own thing.

This point was raised in the Lords, but also seems to have caused some division within the Department. Zahawi apparently blocked efforts to include provisions in the Schools Bill that would have compelled individual free schools or single-academy trusts (SATs) to join MATs.

But given the direction of travel, that feels like a stay of execution. It makes sense from the Department’s point of view  – much easier to do business with a manageable number of national chains than a sprawling system of individual schools. The pressure to move against those will be continual, and not every Secretary of State will resist it.

For all that, however, this sort of active confusion is still preferable to further years of quiet drift. It is far better that Zahawi take an active approach to his brief than keep his head down and consign the Conservative education agenda to yet more years of quiet neglect.

The post The strange story of the Schools Bill – and the taming of Gove’s education dream first appeared on Conservative Home.

Jonathan Gullis and Abi Brown: Why the Lords should move to Stoke

23 May

Jonathan Gullis is MP for Stoke-on-Trent North, and Abi Brown is Leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council

Last week, Michael Gove suggested that whilst restoration and renewal work took place in the Houses of Parliament, that he “would wholeheartedly welcome the relocation of the House of Lords to one of our great cities, and in particular the attractions of the six towns that constitute Stoke-on-Trent”.

This has caused uproar from some Peers and the Assistant Editor of Conservative Home, William Atkinson.

So, we are here to explain why Stoke-on-Trent would make the perfect home for the House of Lords – albeit temporarily.

Stoke-on-Trent was the beating heart of the industrial revolution; from the engineering genius of James Brindley in creating the Trent-Mersey canal, the pits of Chatterley Whitfield Colliery – the first colliery in the UK to bring up 1 million tonnes of coal in a year – to the potbanks of Wedgwood, Spode and Burgess & Leigh.

Historically, Stoke-on-Trent has also played a major role in this country’s democracy. Outside Swanbank Methodist Church in the Mother Town of Burslem on 16th August 1842, Chartist Josiah Heapy was shot dead, alongside others, as they campaigned for the right to vote. Our most famous Stokie, Josiah Wedgwood, helped end the slave trade in this country, creating the famous anti-slavery medallion to garner public support.

But it’s not only our city’s historical importance that says why we should be taken seriously.

Their Lordships will find getting here easier than they may think. It takes 90 minutes to get here by train from London, which will be down to just 60 minutes with the Handsacre Link from HS2. By road, we are connected with the M6 and A50 corridor, and by air, we have four international airports just over 60 minutes away.

We are in the north Midlands, gatekeepers to the Northern Powerhouse and part of the infamous former red wall. There is no better place geographically for their Lordships to be able to get to, from across our United Kingdom.

But above all else, the most important reason why moving the House of Lords to Stoke-on-Trent makes sense, is because we are the litmus test for the government’s levelling up agenda.

The year 2019 was monumental for our city. In May, despite a very challenging backdrop, we went from seven to 15 elected Conservative councillors, going from junior partners in the coalition first formed in 2015, to being the larger group. Since then, with defections from Labour and the Independents, we now have 22 councillors, and for the first time ever, run the council as a majority group.

In December of that year, the blue wave washed across Stoke-on-Trent, turning all three constituency seats Conservative for the first time in our city’s history.

Since then, the ‘Stoke Mafia’, as we are known by some Ministers, has been jointly making our case why Stoke-on-Trent is the perfect place to invest and prove that levelling up can work.

Since 2015, housebuilding has accelerated, averaging around 1,000 homes per year, with 97% on brownfield land. We are the 8th fastest growing economy in England, having already created 8,000 jobs in the last six years, and it was predicted last week that by the end of 2023, Stoke-on-Trent will be the third best place in the UK for jobs growth, outperforming Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham and London. We are also home to one of the UK’s most successful enterprise zones in the country, the Ceramic Valley.

We have been extremely successful in securing major government investment to Stoke-on-Trent.

There is £56 million of Levelling Up funding to unlock new homes, retail and office space and the city’s first arena, which will have an e-sports specialism – the first of its kind outside of London.

Also, £31 million is going to Bus Back Better, which will mean fairer fares, smarter bus routes and a more reliable service. This is in addition to money from the Restoring Your Railway’s fund to reopen Meir Station, and explore the possibility of reversing the Beeching cuts on the old Stoke to Leek line.

The Department for Education has made us a priority Education Improvement Area (EIA) to improve educational outcomes and skills locally, as well as investing £15 million to refurbish Middlehurst School into a new SEND school.

We are getting millions to pay off debt and expand capacity at the Royal Stoke University Hospital; £18 million towards research and development in advanced ceramics, and lastly, thanks to former Stoke-on-Trent resident Priti Patel, we are getting over 500 new jobs from the Home Office.

Unlike the Labour Party which forgot where Stoke-on-Trent was, believing the only Stoke that existed was Stoke Newington, it is this Prime Minister, this Chancellor, this Home Secretary and this Secretary of State for Levelling Up, who are giving Stoke-on-Trent its rightful recognition.

Their Lordships could find no better place to spend their time. We encourage them to come here and listen to people about why levelling up is so important.

Wherever the Lords ends up, Brexit showed that the Westminster bubble must reconnect with the country. The government is right to move parts of Whitehall out of London. Most of all, we must ensure that we don’t just talk of levelling up, but live it.

Nadhim Zahawi MP: Skills, schools and families are my focus as I carry forward our proud legacy of school reform

1 Apr

Nadhim Zahawi MP is the Secretary of State for Education.

It is a little over six months since Boris Johnson gave me the honour the Secretary of State for Education: the best job in Westminster.

Having made two significant announcements this week, now felt like a good time to take stock and share with ConHome readers the journey that has brought us to this point, both for me and for generations of heroic, reforming Conservative ministers that have held this office before me, and on whose legacy this Government is building.

For me personally, this job begins my third stint in the Department. First, David Cameron made me the apprenticeship tsar – there were lots of tsars in those days – and then Theresa May appointed me as her Children and Families Minister. I have drawn on these experiences in my role, but I have benefited enormously, too, from generations of Conservative educational reformers.

As far back as the Second World War, Rab Butler was bringing in universal secondary education and incorporating church-led schools into the system. These church schools are now leading the charge to help complete the journey to see all schools in a strong family of schools, and I’m grateful to the Church of England’s support for this key concept of interdependence in providing the best outcomes for our children.

When I walk past the wall of photographs of my predecessors as Education Secretary each morning, a certain Margaret Thatcher is among the faces who peer out. It is an honour to follow in her footsteps.

When I first experienced the British school system as an 11-year-old immigrant without a word of English, my mum would remind me that a grocer’s daughter from Grantham had just been elected as Prime Minister and that nothing was impossible in this country. Our reforms will make the limitless ambition Thatcher had for Britain a reality for more and more young people.

Our current educational system still bears many of the hallmarks of the work done by one of her key supporters, that brilliant conservative thinker, Keith Joseph. High-quality qualifications (like the GCSEs he introduced), support for world-leading university research and a focus on bringing parents along on their children’s journey to knowledge have been huge inspirations for me and my brilliant team of ministers at the department.

Since we Conservatives returned to Government in 2010, a series of reforms, spearheaded by Michael Gove and Nick Gibb, have led to an explosion of improvements across the school system and proved one of the crowning achievements of the Coalition. These reforms, introducing free schools, and driving academisation, or autonomy from local government to you and me, has been transformational.

The facts speak for themselves: 86 per cent of schools are now rated as Good or Outstanding, versus 68 per cent in 2010. English primary school students are now better at reading than they have ever been, and the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers narrowed by 13 per cent at age 11 and nine per cent at age 16, between 2011 and 2019, before the pandemic struck. We Conservatives should be proud.

And Gavin Williamson, through a laser-like focus on the skills agenda, on T-levels and on quality apprenticeships, helped rebuild that parity of esteem and are turning us once again into a nation that makes and builds things.

The Prime Minister’s commitment to delivering for pupils and parents is total, and we are working in lockstep to deliver the reform that is needed for the next generation to thrive.

And if you had told me back when I was the apprenticeship tsar that we would have a Prime Minister who would put the money behind a transformative policy such as the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, enabling people to retrain and up-skill throughout their life, I would have bitten your hand off!

So, you can see: taking up a mantle of this pedigree is an inspiring, and daunting, one. Truly, I am standing on the shoulder of giants.

My mission as Education Secretary is a simple one: to give every child the outstanding education that so many children are now receiving. It really is about levelling up the standards and quality of our Multi-Academy Trust system right across England. Put simply, excellence should be the expectation, not the exception.

That’s what this week’s announcements – our SEND Review and Schools White Paper – are about. They are about delivering on our promise to level up so that education standards in Blackpool and Bolton, are just as high as they are in Bromley and Barking.

At the moment, only around two thirds of children leave primary school with the expected standard in reading, writing and maths. Our ambition is to hit at least 90 per cent before the decade is out. I have also made a pledge, from me and this Government, to parents across the country; wherever a child falls behind in English or maths, their school will intervene swiftly to deliver the targeted support that is needed to get that child back on track.

And the SEND Review seeks to build a more inclusive system for the most vulnerable children in our country and eliminate the postcode lottery that still exists in some parts of the country, so that no young person in one street, one town, one city – no matter their need – gets a lower standard of education to their friend in the next.

Skills, schools and families are my focus. Building on our announcements this week on skills and schools, tomorrow you will see plans that this Government is delivering support families across this country and help them access crucial services when they need it most.

Family is the most important thing in the world to all of us; we all want to look after the next generation, and to live up to the potential and promise of our predecessors. I have huge shoes to fill, but our children deserve the very best, and our Conservative predecessors have made possible to achieve the best education system in the world.

It is time to finish the job and unleash the unlimited potential of this country.

Will Zahawi’s bid to tidy up the education system betray the original spirit of Gove’s reforms?

29 Mar

When this Government was first elected in 2019, it did not have much to say about education. The relevant section of the manifesto was thin, and little of what it did contain actually referred to new spending.

To judge by the response to the new Education White Paper from this morning’s Times, the same spirit prevails in 2022:

“The commitment that schools will provide no fewer than 32.5 hours a week to pupils does not add up to much, since most do anyway. And the “parent pledge” is platitudinous: “any child that falls behind in English or maths should receive timely and evidence-based support” is all that is offered. 

“The white paper is best treated not as the government’s answer to the challenges the system faces but as the beginning of a discussion about a necessary transformation.”

It is difficult to say how much of this is Nadhim Zahawi’s fault. For example, whether or not the unions are correct about “badly needed additional funding” – and it is hard to envisage circumstances in which they would not call for such – the Education Secretary is clearly facing a Treasury opposed to turning on the spending taps.

Easier to lay at his feet is the fact that the White Paper contains little detail on the mechanisms for how it will hit its ambitious targets for reading and mathematics; the ‘parent pledge’ is a space-filler.

More curious still is what isn’t referenced at all: the entire paper contains not a single reference to grade inflation. Yet in addition to lost learning, the corrosive effects of teacher assessment on qualification standards is one of the biggest challenges facing Zahawi as he tries to put right the damage done by the pandemic.

Instead, on page three of the report he writes: “We have returned rigour to our exams and the qualifications children achieve set them on a path for success.” The use of the past tense is curious: according to Zahawi’s own plan, the goal is to return rigour to exams over the next two years.

The push for universal academisation also raises questions about the old Coalition-era commitment to diversity of provision. Tory MPs are already wondering how selective schools (of which the Education Secretary is a fan) will fit into multi-academy trusts.

And both the drive towards MATs and the minimum requirement of 32.5 hours per week provision seems a step back from the original spirit of free schools, which were supposed to be independent and with great leeway to set their own terms of operation. The Times says that “the plan to turn all schools into academies tidies the system up”, but ‘tidiness’ was not one of the hallmarks of the original vision.

Tim Brighouse: What over one hundred expert witnesses told us about the state of English schools

28 Feb

Tim Brighouse is a former Commissioner for London Schools, and Chief Education Officer for Birmingham and for Oxfordshire.

If civil servants ask for an off-the record discussion about a forthcoming White Paper, I always say ‘yes’. When therefore some DFE officials wanted to talk about a book ‘About Our Schools; Improving on Previous Best’ I had just written with Mick Waters, I didn’t hesitate. And I shall of course respect their confidence.

I could understand their interest because we had interviewed over a hundred witnesses, each for an hour by zoom over lockdown, before arriving at our conclusions of what was preventing our schools from being very much more successful. Among them were 14 secretaries of state, five schools ministers, some spads, heads of Ofsted, senior civil servants (including a couple of Permanent Secretaries) and a wide range of CEOs of multi-academy trusts, headteachers and teachers.

Our book is full of their very frank comments about the successes and failings of the schooling system .

As for the key witnesses, the ministers, we were naturally curious about their approach to the job. Did they start with a ‘to do list’ from the Prime Minister? What was the role of the special advisers? Who else influenced them? What were they most proud of? Did they regret anything? (In fact, few regretted sins of commission although quite a few things they hadn’t managed to do.)

Finally – relevant to a White Paper – what would they do now if they were still Secretary of State?

All saw spads as crucial – indeed, those who didn’t stay long and achieved little put it down partly to the failure to get them in-post quickly enough. All four secretaries of state who had the most influence emphasised spads’ vital contribution.

These were Kenneth Baker (delegated budgets to schools and National Curriculum), David Blunkett (school Improvement and Urban Education), Ed Balls (bringing education and children’s services together under the ‘Every Child Matters’ agenda) and Michael Gove (Ebac, and narrowing the curriculum to the basics).

Nor was it simply the SpAds which explained their success. They were all unusually well-prepared for the role with a ready-made agenda. In the cases of Blunkett (1992-2001) and Gove (2010-2014) there was a long period of being shadow spokesman prior to a general election. The other two, Baker (1986-1989) and Balls (2007-2010) had put their toes into schools’ policy from a different position in government.

Baker from the Business Department had pioneered computers in schools and run the Technical Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) before arriving at DFE, and Balls from working on Sure Start and other matters with Gordon Brown at the Treasury.

The rest had less than 24 hours’ notice before taking the role, inherited a huge in-tray from their predecessor, and stayed for just a couple of years or less. No wonder their regrets were uniformly of things they wished they had more time to do in a job for which, with two exceptions, they had no previous experience apart from long-ago life as a school pupil.

The two exceptions, Gillian Shephard and Estelle Morris ,had both been teachers – in Shephard’s case she had also been an LEA Officer and adviser as well as Chair of the Norfolk Education Committee – and each showed in their interviews a deep empathy with the teacher’s role done well.

Charles Clarke, one of a select band of short-stayers who was called to greater offices of state, drew our attention to his fascinating book The Too Difficult Box, with cross-party contributions on topics (none as it turns out educational) which contributors saw as having been put aside as being too hot to handle because the short-term consequences were politically unpalatable.

With his book in mind therefore, when the DFE officials invited me to suggest what from the more than 40 recommendations in our book would be appropriate for the forthcoming White Paper, I didn’t mention A Levels even though many former ministers conceded that various previous attempts to grasp that nettle should have been taken.

Nor would it have been a good use of time to raise a wholesale change to Ofsted, which all ministers, irrespective of party, thought fine and fit for purpose – even though most of expert witnesses, including Sir Michael Wilshaw, former Head of Ofsted, thought it needed radical reform. As Wilshaw said:

“Deep down I knew they (critics) were right… about the inconsistency of judgements… the problem was (in moving away from data) you have to rely on the personal judgements of inspectors who may lack the personal experience or wisdom to come to the right conclusions.”

Instead, I thought the White Paper will want to deal with the governance of schools with its bewildering and confusing mix of school types – Aided, Voluntary Controlled, Community, Studio, Foundation, Trust, Stand-alone Academy, Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) and Free School to name a few.

Despite at first a stream but now a trickle of examples of unscrupulous and dishonest MAT behaviours, at its best the MAT model, committed to school improvement through schools working together, is a good one and is rooted in the transformation of performance in London’s schools. All it needs now is attention to their regulation and inspection and an ‘observer status’ local authority representative on each Trust Board.

My second suggestion was to encourage, on the back of the huge expansion of digital lessons during Covid, the creation of an Open School to which all pupils can belong as well as being a member of their local school. It should be independent of DFE and the Secretary of State, who between them have more powers leading to the most centrally directed schooling system outside North Korea.

In our book we suggest ways of dealing with that too, as well as how to reduce what others call the ‘English Disease’: the fact that for every child permanently excluded in Scottish schools (five in 2018/19) 1,500 are excluded from English Schools (7,894 in 2018/19). Gove called exclusion a ’necessary evil’. Well maybe, but surely not that frequently necessary? What are the Scots doing that we could learn from?

Small wonder that it’s not just our book drawing attention to the need for a new age in schooling- one of hope, ambition, and collaborative partnerships. The Times Education Commission will report in the summer, and their analysis mirrors our own. And there are many reports from CBI, the Select Committee, and others outlining the matters we need to fix, if our pupils are to be equipped to solve the formidable social environmental and economic problems we have bequeathed them.

Take 20% off ‘About Our Schools’ using code SCHOOLS20 at www.crownhouse.co.uk/about-our-schools until 30th April 2022.

Khadeem Duncan-Banerjee: School reform. Why we need more and better multi-academy trusts.

14 Feb

Khadeem Duncan-Banerjee is Founding CEO of Amadeus Learning Partnership and a Board Director at Nene Education Trust (NET).

The Department for Education has released the latest Consolidated Annual Report and Accounts for the Academies sector in England. One of the significant risks to the Academies policy sighted in the report is “a risk of there being an insufficient number of high-quality sponsors and MATs (multi-academy trusts) available, in the right geographical areas, to support underperforming LA (local authority) schools, and to take on underperforming academies that are transferred from their previous trusts”.

I believe this risk is going to increase greatly as we continue to see an astonishing number of schools across the country dropping two or even three Ofsted inspection grades under the new education inspection framework.

Combine this with growing issues about headteacher recruitment and retention, the effects of Covid-19 and the need for many MATs to focus on improving the challenging schools they already have in their flock, and you have something of a perfect storm.

The department has tried to mitigate these risks. The report draws our attention to credible interventions such as the Trust Capacity Fund (TCaF), encouraging more good and outstanding schools to become sponsors (though the reality is many of these schools may not be Outstanding for much longer), and providing leadership and development for MAT Leaders.

I feel however that in order to find solutions for the future, it would be wise to review and learn from successes in our past; and to consider how we can render these to help solve challenges coming over the horizon.

Pre-2010, Sponsored Academies were a major policy of the Blair Government. A successor to City Technology Colleges (CTCs), they were first established in 2002 to transform education outcomes for schools in areas of high disadvantage with historic underperformance.

As alluded to in the name, these schools were sponsored by a range of individuals and organisations including philanthropists, businesses, charities, education foundations, independent schools, universities, etc. There was a requirement for the sponsor to commit up to £2 million towards their project, but this was waived in 2009 to encourage more potential sponsors to come forward. Schools could either be sponsored individually or in groups (then known as ‘academy federations’). Many of our strongest and most successful Multi-Academy Trusts began their journey in this way including ARK, Harris Federation, Dixons Academies Trust, United Learning and many others.

The expertise and support brought to the table by sponsors, combined with excellent academy leadership and governance, resulted in incredible improvements in school standards, educational attainment and proved to be very popular with parents.

Sponsors helped to drive innovation, and developed a culture and ethos of high aspiration and achievement which permeated every aspect of the school and its community. Sponsored Academies also had subject specialisms, which enabled greater opportunity for them to work with their sponsoring individual/organisation to develop a highly unique and industr- led curriculum that could be underpinned with real investment in facilities and opportunities for learners.

Considering performance data from this era, a DfE publication in 2007 concluded that “the proportion of pupils getting five good GCSEs including English and Maths in [Sponsored] Academies rose by 6.2 percentage points in one year – six times the national improvement rate” and “the proportion of pupils in [Sponsored] Academies getting five or more good GCSE passes has doubled, compared to their predecessor schools five years ago (an increase from 21 per cent to 42 per cent)”.

report from the National Audit Office in the same year found Sponsored Academies admitted “higher proportions of deprived children than live in their immediate area, and nonetheless are improving at a faster rate than schools nationally”; that Sponsored Academies were “popular with parents and staff”, and that “taking account of both pupils’ personal circumstances and prior attainment, on average, [Sponsored] Academies are improving performance at GCSE and national tests substantially better than other schools”.

The programme had its challenges. Progress was not always uniformly seen across the board, and some schools took longer to improve than they perhaps should have done, considering the investment and resources they were in receipt of.

However, on balance this policy was a major success, and was further expanded and developed by the Coalition Government in 2010 under Michael Gove.

So what can we learn and how can we use it to support our efforts in the future? My recommendations to policy makers are that they should explore how we can utilise the expertise, innovation, ambition and potential opportunity for investment from such sponsors as philanthropists, businesses, charities, education foundations, independent schools, universities, etc to establish new multi-academy trusts that can turnround schools in challenging circumstances that have suffered from historic underperformance.

This should be done through sponsors working with local highly successful educationalists to form new MATs which, through their leadership personnel and governance arrangements, can demonstrate to the department how it will ensure the transformation of the schools within the trust.

A sponsor could also identify an already established strong school or Academy Trust to work with that can bring school improvement capacity to support transformation. Either way, I believe that looking beyond our sector to work collaboratively with credible individuals and organisations that want to give back to their communities, improve social mobility and help shape the workforce of the future can only be a good thing in our mission to transform the life chances of every child and young person in our country.

Robert Halfon: The Government’s education recovery funding has created another North-South divide

9 Feb

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Almost £5 billion has been spent on education recovery by the Government. This spending is welcome, but I worry this funding is not reaching the most vulnerable children in our communities.

The National Tutoring Programme (NTP), currently contracted to Randstad, has the potential to be one of the great interventions made to date to support young people’s recovery from the impact of the pandemic. And yet, despite significant investment, it is falling far short of its targets and it’s not going far enough or happening quickly enough.

Over 524,000 children were supposed to start tutoring this year but only eight per cent have actually begun.

The Education Policy Institute has found there has been a marked disparity in the take-up of the NTP between the North and the South. In the South, upwards of 96 per cent of schools were engaging with the programme compared to just 50 per cent of schools in the North. Recently, headteachers and tutoring groups described to us the inaccessibility of the hub and the lack of quality assurance about the tutors on offer.

Perhaps most importantly of all, the Department for Education’s own annual report, published in December, evidenced that the risk of the catch-up programme failing to recover lost learning is critical or very likely.

The Government must look again at the contract with Randstad and seriously consider enacting the break clause. If Randstad cannot up its game, it is time to say goodbye.

The ghost children

A recent report published by the Centre for Social Justice, Lost but not forgotten, highlighted that 758 schools across the country are missing almost an entire class worth of children. Indeed, around 500 children are missing in about half of all local authorities and over 13,000 children in critical exam years are likely to be severely absent.

The effects of persistent absence go well beyond just academic progress. It also means these children are at risk for safeguarding concerns such as domestic abuse or county line gangs. The tragic cases of Arthur Labinjo-Hughes and Star Hobson are an all too poignant reminder of this risk.

The Department’s recent announcements to tackle the postcode lottery of avoidable absence are a positive start, but more urgent action is needed. Prioritisation must be given to collecting real-time data about who and where these children are and the Government should use the underspend from the NTP to fund an additional two thousand attendance advisers to work on the ground to help find these children and get them safely back into school.

Charles Dickens wrote of: “so many things forgotten, and so many more which might have been repaired”.

If we are to save the Oliver Twist generation of “ghost children”, we must act now. If we do nothing, we will be haunted by them forever.

The exam conundrum

I welcome the Government’s plan to move back to regular examinations. Given that so many children missed school over the course of the pandemic due to school closures, it is understandable that Ofqual has decided to give pupils advanced information about some aspects of the topics that will be assessed to help support their revision.

But there are two elephants in the room. The first being that essentially, all students will now be running a 50m sprint, instead of a 100m race, yet they will all be starting from the same point. This may seem fair, but for disadvantaged pupils who learned the least during the pandemic, they will now be pitted directly against their better-off peers who were able to continue their learning at home.

The Government’s reply to this will be that the catch-up programme is designed to alleviate this problem, but as described above, despite the 524,000 target set by the NTP, it is currently only reaching eight per cent of pupils.

The second elephant, also referenced to above, is that according to the Centre for Social Justice, we know that over 13,000 children in exam years have not returned to school for the most part. So a system has been created where advantaged pupils will feel the benefit of the advanced notice, but their worse-off peers will struggle. Furthermore, we risk ignoring the 13,000 pupils in A-Level and GCSE year groups who have not returned to school at all.

Mental health

This week is Children’s Mental Health Week – a timely reminder about the need to address the challenges surrounding children’s mental health.

The statistics we are confronted with are pretty grim.

Just last year, 17.4 per cent of children aged 6-16 are reported to have a probable mental health disorder (up from 11.6 per cent in 2017). Eating disorders among young girls have risen by 46 per cent. The number of young people being referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services have been steadily rising to 538,564 in 2020, representing an increase of 35 per cent from 2019, and 60 per cent from 2018.

The Government must rocket boost its proposals to put mental health professionals in every school. But interventions to support mental health must not be seen as crutches, but should be designed to teach resilience to prevent more serious escalation.

Work must also be done to tackle the wrecking ball of social media on young people’s mental health.

In 2021, 16.7 per cent of 11 to 16 year olds using social media agreed that the number of likes, comments and shares they received had an impact on their mood. Half agreed that they spent more time on social media than they meant to and one in three girls said they were unhappy with their personal appearance by the age of fourteen.

Companies like TikTok, which, whilst providing some entertaining, are sadly acting as a trojan horse for sexualised content and negative body image thereby perpetuating eating disorders which have increased by 400 per cent among young girls during lockdown. As with other social media platforms, TikTok algorithms are like “crack for kids”.

We know that half of all mental health problems manifest by the age of 14, and 75 per cent by the age of 24. With the clear links between using social media platforms and poor mental health, why are the tech giants not stepping up to do more?

The Treasury should introduce a two per cent levy on the estimated £4.8 billion of profits generated by the big firms. This levy could generate a funding pot of around £100 million which could be distributed to schools to improve mental health support and to provide digital skills training to help support children’s resilience online.

Given the scale of the mental health challenges facing our young people, action has to be taken now to prevent it becoming an epidemic.

Michelle Donelan: This government will ensure universities deliver real social mobility

24 Nov

Michelle Donelan MP is Minister of State for Higher and Further Education.

During my time as a Minister in the Department for Education I have spoken a great deal about what I call ‘real social mobility’ – the idea that a blind drive to get bums on seats in university helps no one.

What does help students is ensuring they have the information to make informed decisions, in order to get on to courses with good outcomes and actually complete their course.

That is why I am ensuring universities change their focus to getting on rather than just getting in.

Because getting in, is in reality, just the first rung on the ladder. What moves people up that ladder is a system that supports them the whole way up, rung-by-rung if necessary, until they get to where their talent and ambition can take them.

The ladder also has to be leading somewhere – it is unacceptable that at 25 higher education providers, and on many more individual courses, fewer than 50 per cent of those who start end up in graduate employment or further study. We must also not forget that those who suffer the most are from disadvantaged backgrounds – data from the Office for Students (OfS) shows clearly that disadvantaged entrants are less likely to continue after year one; less likely to achieve a first or upper second-degree classification; and less likely to progress into highly skilled employment or study.

So today, I am announcing that we are refocusing the entire Access and Participation Regime to shift its measure of success in social mobility from intakes to outcomes – real social mobility. As Conservatives we all believe in a meritocracy – my own conservatism is based on a strong belief in the individual: that if you give them the tools they need then they will flourish. Sadly, some courses don’t give students the tools they need to get skilled work or the support they need to help them complete – and that’s not real social mobility. I will always defend university autonomy but I will not stand by and let some of our young fail to reach their full potential. After all, real social mobility is at the heart of levelling up.

As of today, we have appointed a new Director for Fair Access and Participation at the Office for Students, John Blake – an experienced educationalist from one of our top Multi-Academy Trusts. His task will be to embed the culture of good outcomes and high standards that have transformed opportunity within our school system since 2010 into our university sector. The first thing that I have asked John to do is to rewrite the national targets on Access and Participation, to ensure they properly reflect our levelling up ambitions, including a greater focus on addressing regional disparities and promoting degree apprenticeships. The OfS will then be asking every university to in turn revise and resubmit their Access and Participation Plans to refocus them on equality of opportunity, raising aspirations and standards in education.

This change will mean universities spend more time delivering for students – whether that is raising standards in local schools, delivering high quality teaching or supporting disadvantaged students into real, worthwhile careers. We are ending the need for novel-like plans – which require massive university resources to develop. Plans should be accessible for a student, parent or teacher who wants to pick them up and see. They should not take large teams endless hours to produce.

All access and participation work will need to be demonstrably aimed at helping students achieve the highest possible grades, and provide a path for them to walk after. We do not just need universities to accept students from local schools, we need them to actively work with and support their local schools to raise aspiration and attainment so that local students who arrive every year have the abilities, the skills and the confidence they need to excel in their courses.

There should be a shift away from marketing activities that benefit universities but let down students – and toward tangible results for students. That means every university working with schools and Further Education colleges in their area to improve attainment – and better transparency, too, so that students can make really informed choices. I am also making sure there is a real focus on the expansion of degree apprenticeships which offer students the chance to learn and earn debt-free, whilst gaining tangible work experience. We do already have some world-class degree apprenticeships on offer but the choice is limited and it is time we changed this.

Gone will be the days where universities recruit students onto courses that lead to dropping out, frustration and unemployment. A student’s outcome after university needs to be as important as a student’s grades before university.

So, just as the Russell Group has become used to having to set ambitious targets for recruiting state school pupils in order for its plans to be accepted, from now on universities with poor outcomes will have to set ambitious targets for reducing drop-out rates or improving progression to graduate employment. If the targets are not ambitious enough, then the plan will not be accepted by the Office for Students, meaning the university will not be permitted to charge full tuition fees – and if a university makes a plan but does not keep to it, the Office for Students will be able to impose sanctions, including fines.

We often hear how university is the springboard to social mobility and it can be – but right now, for too many people, it isn’t. Further education and apprenticeships can be an equally good choice.

However, we need to focus on the fact that it matters what you study and where. When young people go to university they make a substantial commitment of both time and money – they deserve to have the information to make informed choices, to have the confidence that they will be supported to complete their course, and a good chance of getting a skilled job at the end of it. This Conservative Government is a government that is focused on actions, rather than words. That is why I have set out these reforms today, to deliver real social mobility and to level up opportunity across our whole nation.

Robert Halfon: Reshuffles. The soreness of being sacked. And how to bounce back.

22 Sep

The Guillotine

I remember well, when just a few days after the election in 2017, I was called to the Commons Office of the then Prime Minister, Theresa May. I was told by her and Gavin Barwell that I had reached the end of the road in my role as Skills Minister.

She said I should go back to campaigning on the backbenches, where I guess she felt my abilities best lay. By the time I had got back to my own Commons Office, the Department for Education Civil Servants had returned my belongings, taken back the DfE laptop and changed the nameplates on the office door to make way for the new incumbent.

When you are called to the Commons Office of the Prime Minister you know it is over. Just like the condemned man walking to the guillotine waiting for his head to be defenestrated. Instead of the crowds baying for blood watching Robespierre’s latest victim, you have the reporters in the Commons corridors and on social media salivating at the latest beheading.

During last week’s reshuffle, journalists were waiting around a set of lifts located near the Prime Minister’s Commons Office. As I was pressing the button for the elevator, one reporter asked me courteously if I would mind standing at the back of the Speaker’s Chair (also located by the Prime Minister’s Commons rooms) and text over the names of any Ministers who were walking through to see him. I, also politely, declined. I explained saying I had better things I could do with my life!

Initially, getting the heave-ho is a pretty bruising experience. You feel sore and ask yourself: why? You have to explain to all of your family, friends and constituents that you are not really useless, and that it is simply the nature of politics. In truth, I was initially incredibly dispirited. I loved the job and I had wanted to be Skills Minister for a long time before my appointment. I had worked especially hard to bring the FE and Technical Education Bill successfully through Parliament in the nine months in the run-up to the election.

But, after a few days, I just dusted myself down and I thought, well, I’ve had a good innings. I had previously attended Cabinet, been Party Deputy Chairman, been made a Privy Councillor and I had just been re-elected MP for the best town in England. Que sera, sera.

I made the decision to stand for election to chair the House of the Commons Education Select Committee, so I could continue to work on education and skills – my passion in politics. Being elected in 2017, against five other candidates and having to canvas votes across all parties, was a special moment in my political life.

As a Committee Chair, you can campaign for the things you believe in, speak to the media more freely and still get things done, albeit in a poacher rather than a gamekeeper kind of way. You are also freed from the tyranny of the phone call from the Number 10 switchboard, which says the Prime Minister would like to see you in his Commons Office…

The ex-Ministers Roll of Honour

I recount all this because I have huge sympathy for those who got the chop last week. Nick Gibb for example, who, whatever my disagreements with him about technical and vocational education (sometimes played out and debated on the pages of Conservative Home), is a man of authenticity and conviction.

He did much to improve standards across our schools, especially literacy. Gavin Williamson, who pushed FE, skills and apprenticeships higher up the political agenda, culminating in the Skills Bill, currently before Parliament.

Robert Jenrick, who understood that our country desperately needed more houses and tried to face off the Nimbys.

Robert Buckland, who did much to strengthen the justice system and toughen legislation for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Yes, politics is a blood sport, but these few examples show, whatever had gone wrong in these Departments, much good was done as well.

Mangoes in the Antarctic, Brussels Sprouts in the Desert.

As far as education goes, the appointment of Nadhim Zahawi as Education Secretary is good news. When asked, I once said to Andrew Gimson (of this Parish) that Zahawi is such a brilliant organiser, that he could find mangoes in the Antarctic and Brussels sprouts in the desert. His previous and extraordinary work as Vaccines Minister is a testament to that.

I am sure Nadhim will shake a few trees (much needed) in the DfE and bring both passion and policy to his new brief – especially when it comes to Apprenticeships and Vocational Education. He was previously not just Children’s Minister, but Apprenticeships Ambassador for the Government and did much to improve Apprenticeship take up from big business. All power to his elbow.

Nick Gibb: My advice to my successors at Education. Don’t scrap GCSEs or ease up on standards.

20 Sep

Nick Gibb is MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, and was the Minister of State for School Standards until last week’s Government reshuffle.

Just before the 2010 general election, I visited a school in north London to see children being taught to read. One nine year-old girl was unable to read a single word unaided. Her reading book had words in it such as “Tyrannosaurus” and yet she struggled to read the word “even”. It was clear that she was expected to learn by sight and repetition rather than through decoding words by sounding out the letters. It wasn’t clear to me that she even knew the sounds of the alphabet and yet she was being expected to read this children’s book to the teacher.

It broke my heart to see a child just a couple of years from secondary school so far away from developing even the basic skills of reading – let alone a love of the written word that would sustain her throughout her adult life.

The memory of that young girl stayed fresh in my mind every day during my nearly ten years as an Education minister. It was experiences like this that led us, when we came into office in 2010, to place a greater emphasis on phonics teaching, strengthening its primacy in the National Curriculum.

In 2012 we introduced the Phonics Check for six year-olds to make sure they were on track to becoming fluent readers. This enabled schools to identify and support those children who were falling behind, because the evidence is clear that reading is within the grasp of almost every child.

When the test was introduced, just 58 per cent of six year-olds reached the expected standard. As a result of schools improving the teaching of reading through the adoption of systematic phonics, 82 per cent were at or above the expected standard by 2019 .

In the latest PIRLS international study of the reading ability of 9-year-olds, England had its highest ever score, rising from joint tenth in 2011 to joint eighth place out of 50 countries in 2016. The rise was attributed to improved reading by boys and lower-performing children, and the report acknowledged the close association between children’s Phonics Check results and their performance in PIRLS.

I use the example of phonics because being able to read is of fundamental importance for every child’s education and life chances. But phonics also exemplifies the battles we have waged since 2010 against the ideologically-driven bad practice that has bedevilled the education system since the 1950s.

For the first time, a Conservative Government systematically challenged the so-called “progressive” approach – an ideology which downgraded the importance of knowledge and academic rigour and which argued that children learn better through projects and through self-discovery (‘finding out’ as the Plowden Report termed it in 1960) than by teacher-led teaching. This philosophy decries exams and dismisses the importance of committing knowledge to memory. It is a philosophy which was failing – and in some schools, despite the huge improvements we’ve made, is still failing – generations of children.

So, in 2010, we started the process of revising the curriculum – restoring the centrality of knowledge. With the help of teachers, we re-wrote the Primary Curriculum, with maths based on the highly successful Singapore curriculum, and with English focused on developing fluent and accomplished readers and which emphasised the love and habit of reading.

For secondary schools, we improved the quality of GCSEs and A levels, putting them on a par with qualifications in countries with the highest performing education systems – aware as we were that future generations will be competing with the world’s best educated populations.

And I urge my successors to resist the siren voices of those who call for GCSEs to be abolished. Nothing would widen the attainment gap more than such a dismal and unambitious policy. For a large minority of people, GCSEs are the last academic qualification they will take. Remove them, and that group lose any valid certification of a broad education. GCSEs also serve to define a demanding curriculum and they help hold schools to account. Remove them and weaker schools will grow weaker still.

As we undertook these reforms, I was struck by how often the most articulate and passionate proponents of a knowledge-based curriculum were not always natural Conservatives. In fact, many saw themselves as on the left of politics.

But we were united in our dismay at the number of schools that were simply not providing the quality of education or standards of behaviour that parents expected and which our country needed. These schools were unpopular but, for a want of places elsewhere, were filled by children who, as a consequence, were destined not to live up to their promise – another cause of heartbreak.

With the Government’s focus on driving up standards and despite raising the bar for what qualifies as a good school, over the last 10 years the number of schools judged by Ofsted to be outstanding rose from 68 per cent in 2010 to 86 per cent in 2019.

But there is clearly more to do. I worry about the 14 per cent of schools that are still judged as inadequate or needing to improve. Too often, these failing schools are in areas of deprivation, serving communities that more than anywhere else deserve and need the highest quality schools not the worst schools.

My plea to the new team at the Education Department is simple: don’t listen to those who excuse failing standards and who argue that schools in deprived areas cannot succeed. President George W Bush was right to dismiss such arguments as the “soft bigotry of low expectations”. Our ambition must not be limited by such arguments.

Thanks to the huge success of the academies and free schools programme – which unshackled schools from the cloying control of local authority bureaucracies – there are now schools serving the most disadvantaged parts of the country that are delivering a standard of education that rival or exceed the best in the country – state or independent.

Schools like Michaela in Brent with 41 per cent of pupils qualifying for free school meals, Dixons Trinity Academy in Bradford (30 per cent), or Eden Boys School in Birmingham (40 per cent) – but all achieving GCSE progress scores that put them at the very top of the national performance table.

These are schools that take a strong approach to behaviour, that emphasise the importance of a knowledge-rich academic curriculum (at least to the age of 16), and which have very high expectations for their pupils regardless of their background. If these schools can achieve the standards they do in the most disadvantaged parts of the country, then it is clear that poverty never needs to be a reason for poor educational outcomes. What we need is a Michaela or a Dixons Trinity or an Eden Boys in every city and town serving those communities that have been let down for generations.

What these schools also have in common is a high proportion of their pupils being entered for the EBacc combination of core academic GCSEs – English, maths, at least two sciences, a humanity and a foreign language. These are the subjects that more affluent families will expect their children to study because they give young people the greatest opportunities and options for their future. If it’s right for these children, it’s right for all children regardless of their background. That’s why it is so important that the EBacc remains as a key metric by which we hold schools to account.

As we emerge from the Covid pandemic and 18 months of disrupted education, the £3 billion of catch-up funding is crucial. But building and opening new free schools will be just as important in helping ensure that children in the most deprived areas catch-up.

Ultimately, the life chances of children are enhanced by exceptional teaching – and this is especially true for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. It’s why in 2010 I was so keen that our first White Paper should be called The Importance of Teaching.

Over the last 10 years in Government, and the five years prior to that in Opposition, I have visited hundreds of schools throughout England. Wherever I went, despite varying standards, all the teachers I met were conscientious, energetic and committed to their pupils. The huge expansion of the Teach First programme since 2010 has brought new graduates into the profession; many have stayed in teaching and are becoming headteachers.

Teaching is an important and fulfilling vocation. It has the power to change and shape lives. We owe all our teachers a huge debt of gratitude. But they need better support, especially in the first years of their career, so we have set about ensuring their initial training is based firmly on evidence and have set higher expectations of teacher training institutions.

I am delighted that my friend, Nadhim Zahawi, has been appointed to deliver the next phase of our reforms. Much has been achieved since 2010, but there is still much more to do. If I were to give the newly reshuffled team at the DfE one piece of advice it would be this: remember that reform must be a continuous process, the speed can change but momentum must not stop.

If we let up our concentration on standards, on what evidence tells us works; if we stop pushing forward the knowledge-based curriculum or abandon changes to teacher training, the tide will turn. It’s hard work, but the progressive ideology has not gone away. It would be a tragedy for future generations if we gave in and settled for an easier life.