It’s all white, but there is a glaring omission

It’s all white, but there is a glaring omission

The Government has issued a white paper setting out the future of education and I broadly welcome it, but there is one important omission.

Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, launched the document with a list of highlights including a minimum school week of 32.5 hours by the start of the next school year.

Other changes include increased inspections, making all schools join academy trusts and incentivising teaching as a profession.

Furthermore, the Secretary of State advocated a register of children not attending school, funding for keeping maths, science and computing staff in disadvantaged schools, and resources for mental health provision.

However, a fundamental problem remains. There is still no effective assessment of children at Key Stage 2 or in Year 6.

The SATs’ marking system is completely unhelpful to parents, primary schools, secondary schools, the government, and the children themselves.

The tests are rigorous, but the problem is in the banding of children’s performance into three broad categories. This gives almost no useful feedback on how a child is doing.

Children in primary school used to be graded from Level 1 right through to Level 6, and each of these levels had three sub-categories of a, b and c.

This meant that in English and Maths there were 18 grades respectively.

A child’s performance could be therefore pinpointed very accurately; for example, a child might be ranked at Level 5b in Maths and 4c in English.

This information is vital for a successful entry into the secondary system, and primary schools can use this system to grade their children as they move from year to year.

We now have a system where children are ‘working below’ (0% to 40%), ‘working at’ (41% to 80%) or ‘working above’ (above 80%) National Level.

The middle band is ridiculous as it groups children who are 39 per cent apart in attainment. I could drive a bus through it.

Most children are in this category and yet there is a vast difference between a child who is achieving around 40% and one who is achieving almost 80%. There are also significant differences in children who are scoring under 40%.

If we are going to identify children with special needs, it’s just not good enough to state they are ‘working below’ National Level.

That is a meaningless statement.

I would want to know by ‘how much below?’. How can interventions be organised if we don’t measure things properly?

I recently assessed a child and the mother discovered for the first time that her eight-year-old was having significant reading problems, which meant she was unable to access most of the curriculum.

The mother was shocked.

These are the kind of things that can happen when there is no proper method of assessment and reporting. Generalities are just not good enough.

And what about children who are doing very well? It is crucial to pick out children who are ‘gifted and talented’.

Again, there is a significant difference in those achieving 80% and those achieving over 90%. We must fully appreciate children’s literary and numeracy skills, and this can only be done if proper means of grading are in place.

We cannot fully help children if we don’t know where they are placed educationally.

This is essential information for everybody involved. Testing isn’t perfect but it is an important tool in being able to assist children who are struggling, as well as those who are doing very well.

The whole of life is about assessing first where we are before we put in the work to solve it. I am disappointed that this crucial element is still missing.

However, the rest of the proposals in the white paper have merit, and to take the highlights in turn:

Ensuring schools offer a minimum of 32.5 hours a week and standardising the teaching hours across the country is deliverable and many schools are doing it anyway.

Inspecting every school by 2025 – including ‘outstanding’ schools – is a fine objective. It is the ‘outstanding’ schools which are likely to rest on their laurels and regular inspections will help them avoid complacency. However, there is a balance to be struck and inspections can be onerous on schools so they shouldn’t happen too often.

The ambition that by 2030 all children will be taught in multi-academy trusts is one I welcome. The linking of schools into academy trusts is a good idea; it can help with resources and training because so much can be shared. It also encourages innovation because schools can work together and share ideas and good practice.

By 2024 the Government wants half a million teacher training opportunities. I welcome this as long as the training is balanced and not just more progressive nonsense. There must be good solid teaching of maths in a structured and traditional way and the teaching of English must include grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax.

To attract and retain the best teachers, £30,000 starting salaries have been proposed. If you want the best you have to pay for them. A sensible suggestion.

The white paper also makes clear the ambition to incentivise science, maths and computer teachers to stay in disadvantaged schools. A good idea – but it wouldn’t be necessary if there were no disadvantaged schools. There are schools in areas of poverty that do brilliantly and because of those teachers want to stay working in them.

Since the pandemic the number of children who have slipped off all school registers has soared. A register of these individuals has been suggested and it is a good and important idea. Parents might think they can teach from home, but it is not easy, and children miss out. There might also be children from different cultures whose parents don’t want them taught in our schools. This is wrong and will negatively impact those children throughout their lives.

Mental health has also been addressed in the white paper and every school is to have access to funded training for a ‘senior mental health lead’. Again, this is an important step and implemented correctly will help many children and allow them to learn more effectively.

There is also a proposal to provide up to six million tutoring courses by 2024. This is something I know about and am an advocate of tutoring as long as it is directed at the children who really need it. It should not be a case of ‘the squeaky wheel gets the oil’ – it should be provided to those who need it most, not just to those whose parents have the sharpest elbows.