by Lord Jim Knight, former cabinet Minister and Chief Education and External Officer at TES
The first half of this year has seen the publication of a series of important policies by the Department for Education, culminating in a Schools Bill that has begun its journey through Parliament.
The first schools white paper1 for six years followed February’s “levelling up” white paper2. The trinity was then complete when the more consultative special educational needs and disability (SEND) green paper3 was published. The House of Commons Library briefings on all three are excellent for background understanding, but what does it mean for organisations trying to fill the gaps in the curriculum?
At one level, it looks a lot like the Government doubling down on policy from the last twelve years: every school an academy; a ruthless focus on English, maths and science; raising the bar on accountability; action on school attendance; and more initiatives to support better teaching. At first glance, none of this looks terribly useful or interesting for those promoting the “missing layer of learning”.
However, there are some chinks of light:
- It has been really difficult to get a message out to a confusion of different types of schools ever since the role of local authorities as the intermediaries was eroded. The commitment is now for every school to be in a “strong” multi academy trust (MAT) by 2030. This means we can look forward to moving from needing direct relationships with 25,000 schools to relationships with just 2,500 MATs, organised by nine regions across England.
- The Schools White Paper wants all schools to have a “richer, longer” school day. Whilst the reality is that this adds no more than an extra 75 minutes a week on average, this is potentially time for life skills and the rest of the “missing learning layer” – including the new Natural History GCSE much heralded by the Secretary of State.
- The Levelling Up White Paper identifies 55 Education Investment Areas, and within them 24 areas for additional resource for local interventions, especially around attendance. Many school and MAT leaders may be persuadable that pupils will be more likely to turn up if lessons relate more strongly to their real world and are not just more English and maths. Content that reflects the real problems they experience in their day to day lives will be more engaging and thereby help solve a problem.
- This sense that schools may have to do things differently is underscored by the SEND green paper. The analysis of the problems for parents of navigating the system, poor outcomes and unsustainable cost are clear. The answer is earlier intervention in mainstream schools, better local partnerships and changes to alternative provision. Again, this is an opportunity for schools to move away from a one size fits all approach, to more diversity of teaching and curriculum.
There is no hiding that this raft of policy announcement is underwhelming given the appetite for more radical change, and for more of a focus on fixing a growing mental health crisis in our children. But there are opportunities here, and certainly new talking points.