In a white paper published late last November, the government set out proposals for radical changes to the education system, some of which are already being debated as part of the 2011 Education Bill. In this article I examine the proposals and their significance for headteachers.

‘This white paper signals a radical reform of our schools… Reforms on this scale are absolutely essential if our children are to get the education they deserve’ (David Cameron and Nick Clegg, white paper foreword).

Many educationalists would agree that it is time for some radical changes to our education system when international comparisons are reviewed. The recent 2009 OECD PISA study reflects very badly on our school system with the results showing the attainment of 15-year-olds in England slipping down the rankings to 25th in reading, 28th in maths and 16th in science, well below most EU and several Far Eastern countries. Finland and South Korea consistently rank at the top of the PISA study, reflecting the success of these education systems. Interestingly enough, in Finland the key factors for success include:

  • high teacher status, with all teachers having a Master’s degree
  • almost all schools being local authority controlled, providing a consistent approach to the provision of schools
  • teachers having considerable autonomy
  • no national system of testing for primary-aged pupils.

In a nutshell
The white paper’s proposals include floor targets for KS2 attainment, further developing the academies agenda and a review of the National Curriculum. For headteachers there will be extensive changes:

  • They will gain wider freedoms to run their schools as long as the school is successful.
  • Accountability will be increased in terms of external tests and exams, modified league tables and the formal requirement to share all data with stakeholders.
  • There will be discussions about the status of many schools, with the issue of ‘academies’ creating pressures and the potential impact of a small number of ‘free schools’ being established in specific local areas.
  • The procedures around the exclusion of pupils will change significantly and while reforming appeal panels, schools will retain the responsibility to ensure that excluded pupils receive appropriate alternative provision.
  • The key changes proposed in the white paper are as follows:

Teaching and leadership
The quality of teaching is the cornerstone of the white paper and there is reference to attracting the best graduates to further improve teaching standards. It is interesting that two of the top-performing countries with regard to educational attainment, South Korea and Finland, recruit their teachers from the top 10% of all graduates.

Effective teachers and teaching is the most important factor in determining how well children do and to respond to this the white paper proposes that funding for initial teacher training will cease for graduates who do not have at least a 2.2 degree. There will also be financial incentives to attract more of the very best students in shortage subjects into teaching.

There is also a proposal to reform initial teacher training to increase the proportion of time trainees spend in the classroom, focusing on the core teaching skills of reading, maths and behaviour management.

There will also be a national network of teaching schools based on the model of teaching hospitals to lead the training and professional development of teachers and heads. This proposal will encourage ‘outstanding’ schools to become ‘teaching schools’ and there will be additional funding to allow these schools to support a local cluster of schools. See further information on teaching schools and their designation criteria.

Associated with these proposals will be a significant reduction in the ‘bureaucracy’ associated with teachers’ pay and conditions. Controversially, there are plans to do away with the national pay and conditions agreement, so as to allow individual schools to vary pay scales to further reward ‘good performance’, and the government will scrap the three-hour limit per year on classroom observations.

Tackling poor behaviour is a significant issue in the white paper. Teachers and schools will be given more discretion on how they tackle poor behaviour and legislation included in the new Education Bill will give them new powers to search pupils. New guidance will contain clearer instructions on the use of force.

Headteachers will be given new powers to maintain discipline beyond the school gates, including improving the exclusion process. A new approach to permanent exclusions will be piloted, giving schools the power, some resources and the responsibility to exclude pupils but also the need to ensure appropriate alternative full-time provision for excluded pupils. Local authorities will be expected to encourage a greater diversity of alternative provision for excluded pupils, including the setting up of new free schools as PRUs (pupil referral units). LAs will continue to retain a duty to ensure there is adequate provision available and to take a lead on quality assurance.

Heads will be expected to take a strong stand against all types of bullying. Ofsted inspections will focus more on pupil behaviour and safety, including bullying, and standards of behaviour will become a major aspect of school inspections.

‘Our planned reforms to school inspections will free Ofsted to focus on schools’ core educational purpose. This includes focusing more strongly on behaviour and safety, which will be one of only four areas that inspectors consider in future’ (paragraph 3.22).

If parents have concerns about behaviour, and feel that the school has not dealt with them properly, they can ask Ofsted to carry out an inspection. How Ofsted respond to possible parental complaints will need to be carefully considered and thought through.

Curriculum and assessment
The white paper proposed a major review of the curriculum which would take away unnecessary prescription, bureaucracy and central control, and this is now underway. The overriding ideology of the coalition government is that: ‘The national curriculum should set out only the essential knowledge and understanding that all children should acquire and leave teachers to decide how to do this most effectively’ (paragraph 4.1).

It is interesting that there is a strong emphasis on the acquisition of essential knowledge. Schools and teachers will be encouraged to take greater control over what is taught in schools. Academy schools, which will have much greater control over the curriculum, will become the norm over time. However, there is an emphasis that there should still be a ‘national benchmark’ to ensure that parents have an understanding of the school curriculum and which will provide a core curriculum for schools that do not want or are unable to achieve academy status.

There is a strong commitment to ensure that the curriculum is linked to appropriate assessment and accountability procedures. To enable this to happen the government will ‘hold an independent review of assessment at the end of primary school to improve the current system so that parents have the information they need and schools can be properly accountable without feeling that they must drill children for tests’ (paragraph 4.6).

There will be an enhanced focus on early literacy and numeracy. This will include the development of the teaching of systematic synthetic phonics and assessment at age six with a new reading test. Unfortunately, the government has decided that schools’ results will be reported publicly and in the RAISEonline database, which will further increase the testing of primary school pupils.

Secondly, the development of the English baccalaureate for secondary schools will, I believe, have an impact on the primary school curriculum as secondary schools are now going to be judged on the achievement of A*-C grades in five core GCSEs including, along with maths, English, history or geography and sciences, a modern foreign language. This new measure will give a much needed boost to MFL teaching in all secondary schools and indirectly support its teaching in primary schools, as secondary schools will now want their Y7 pupils to have had a good grounding in MFL: ‘The introduction of the English baccalaureate will encourage many more schools to focus more strongly on ensuring every student has the chance to pursue foreign language learning to the age of 16′ (paragraph 4.23).

The status of schools
This is an important part of the coalition government’s educational philosophy and they seem determined to create a mixed and diverse system of schools based on a free market approach. The white paper makes it very clear that the aspiration is eventually for academy status to be the norm for all schools and the new Education Bill takes forward proposals making it easier for schools to convert: ‘There is great scope for us to extend autonomy and freedom for schools in England. It is our ambition that academy status should be the norm for all state schools, with schools enjoying direct funding and full independence from central and local bureaucracy’ (paragraph 5.6).

The second strand of policy in this area is the active support and promotion of so-called ‘free schools’ in response to parental demand. The philosophy for this policy is based on the networks of charter schools in the USA and the free schools in Sweden. Varying interest groups including parents, faith organisations, charities and teachers will be able to propose such a school. These free schools will be given a variety of additional freedoms to help them establish primarily in areas of disadvantage. In mid-February, nine schools including several primaries had had their business plans approved and were expected to open in September. Free schools will also be outside some of the statutory requirements regarding appropriate school facilities and premises and the need to have qualified teachers. There is the potential for vested interest groups to establish a particular type of school which will have an impact on existing LA schools. If this policy is successful, there will be a very diverse system of schools in England, with the potential for a two-tiered education system.

Alongside reducing bureaucracy and creating a more autonomous school system, there will be increased public accountability. The government’s philosophy is to increase parents’ ability to make choices about where to send their children to school. The changes are at present very general, more in terms of principle rather than in any specific detail. In the future:

  • there will be more information about schools which will be easily accessible to parents
  • performance tables will be retained, in a changed format
  • both attainment and progress measures will be included in any new performance tables. Interestingly, the progress of pupils will receive a greater emphasis in any new performance tables. Over time, there will be a focus on how the new pupil premium funding has been used to help schools to specifically raise the achievement of eligible pupils
  • Ofsted will refocus inspections to look at core educational purpose and behaviour and will take outstanding schools out of all routine inspections. The new revised Ofsted (subject to consultation and to be introduced in September 2011) will have a clear focus on only four areas (pupil achievement, quality of teaching, leadership and management and behaviour and safety of pupils), instead of the present 27 headings
  • there will be changes to governing bodies with extended flexibility to reduce their size.

Central accountability will be significantly changed, with the abolition of LA target-setting, SIPs and the requirement of schools to complete a SEF.

School improvement
‘Our aim should be to create a school system which is effectively self-improving’ (paragraph 7.4).

School improvement will be focused on individual schools and groups of schools rather than being centrally based. There will be a network of training schools which will support school-based improvement. Individual schools will set their own improvement priorities. A key question will be who will provide appropriate school improvement support. This does not seem to have been thought out in any detail. The white paper states that there will be a new market of school improvement services with a much wider range of providers and services available for schools to choose from. There seems to be a belief that there will be a ‘market approach’ to school improvement. Local authorities will be free to offer school improvement as a traded service but this will depend on whether they will have sufficient resources to offer a comprehensive school improvement service. The initial impression is that many LAs will not have the capacity to offer such services. Devolved school improvement will be an experiment that will need further consideration and some additional resource.

School funding
The white paper acknowledges that the present funding arrangements are unsatisfactory and that there needs to be major changes. This area will be a big challenge to the coalition bearing in mind the difficult national financial picture. There is a commitment for a fairer national funding formula. This will be subject to consultation due to commence in Spring 2011. The revised funding formula will operate in conjunction with the new pupil premium (to be around £430 per pupil entitled to free school meals).

There is an indication that the pupil premium will increase in future years, with a commitment for the total funding to reach £2.5bn by the end of the spending review period. This is in line with the principle that extra funding should clearly follow those pupils who might need extra help and support: ‘The pupil premium for disadvantage will provide additional funding specifically linked to disadvantaged pupils, with the primary objective of boosting their attainment’ (paragraph 8.6).

However, in line with the overall principle of this government, the money will not be ringfenced and schools will decide how to use this extra funding.

There is also an aspiration for the maximum possible funding to be devolved directly to schools on a transparent basis, showing how much money each school receives and how they spend these funds. The white paper gives further bad news regarding capital spending, with the overall amount reduced by 60% over the next four years. There will, however, still be £15.8bn available for overall capital spending, although the allocation of this funding will be subject to further review which should be completed by the end of 2011.

In conclusion
It should be remembered that the white paper contains proposals which are subject to consultation and parliamentary approval, with a number of its proposals included in the 2011 Education Bill, and I would urge all headteachers to get involved in the various consultations and to contact politicians regarding aspects of the proposals which they consider need revision and further thought. However, there is a considerable ideological basis to the white paper which may make it difficult to change some of the more controversial plans regarding the status of schools and issues around accountability. This is an agenda of dramatic change which will have a significant impact on every school and teacher in England.

Dave Weston is a school improvement partner