The Department for Education: 2018 in review.

I’m a core member of the parent campaign group Rescue our Schools. We campaign for changes in our education system so that our children can be equipped with the skills and attributes necessary for life in the 21st century, and their schools and teachers have the resources and respect required for this to happen. We have a six-point manifesto for change in our education system, and I spent a couple of days this week reviewing just how the Department for Education has fared against these in the last year. Caution: it makes for unhappy reading. But it is also a call to action. 2019 is the year we must see positive change for our schools, our children and our future.

  1. Invest in all our futures

Requires improvement. The Department began the year with a new Education Secretary, Damian Hinds. Unlike his predecessor, Justine Greening, he came as a supporter of grammar schools  (presumably one of the reasons he was appointed). Other than occasional announcements like the recent ones that children should climb trees (there’s an idea we’d never have thought of!) and that schools should reduce single-use plastics (they have, after all, nothing else to do), little else has changed. Education policy continues to be dominated by three things: a refusal to acknowledge that schools and early years settings need more funding to do the job asked of them, the desire to push testing to extremes and in doing so prioritise the able over the less able, and the continued marketisation of schools achieved by the ongoing push of schools away from local authorities and into academy chains. The recruitment and retention of staffing in schools, meanwhile, remains at crisis point.

Our Christmas message in 2017 focused on funding and the rising pressures on schools seeking to accommodate the increase in cost pressures affecting our schools. How depressing, then, to still be leading on this a year later. And this despite the unprecedented sight, in September, of 2000 headteachers protesting ‘relentlessly reasonably’ on Whitehall, followed in October by a campaign organised by our sister campaign group Save our Schools in which pupils directly addressed MPs in parliament.   After months of campaigning there was, in December, one important and welcome announcement: an increase in high needs funding for children with special educational needs and disabilities. This will help some children, but it isn’t enough. And it doesn’t begin to address the core funding problems facing schools across the country, many of which are having to ask parents to fund pencils and paper (the kind of thing Philip Hammond presumably had in mind when he talked about schools needing those ‘little extras’!).

2. Promote inclusive education for all

Fail. Changes to funding for local authorities, combined with funding pressures on school budgets, have made it extremely difficult for schools to meet the needs of children with special education needs – a situation which not only discriminates against children with additional needs and their families; it potentially harms all children. Yet the level of need is clear; as of this year, 14.6%  of pupils are on the SEN register. They are failed not only by inadequate levels of support (cost pressures reducing access to teaching assistants, for example), but also by the increased focus on exams and testing. Our own survey  about the new GCSEs highlighted the punitive and emotionally devastating impact of the new exam regime for pupils with special educational needs such as autism.  Meanwhile some parents are having to crowd-fund legal action in order to secure the required specialist support for their children from local authorities. The playing field is now so far from level that it is ceasing to offer many children an opportunity to play at all.

3. Promote education over exam factories

Hard to know where to start, in the year that pupils sat the new GCSEs and A levels which are based almost exclusively on exams designed to favour those with good memories and high literacy skills, and in which primary schools started piloting baseline testing in reception.  RoS had a busy summer surveying parents and teachers about the impact of the new GCSEs, and in ongoing campaigning with fellow organisations as part of More than a Score, seeking to reform SATs and end the link between test results and school accountability. (Have a look at this video about the #BigSATsSitIn – you can also sample the tests for yourself!) The impact of testing on pupil wellbeing has been questioned over and over again, in a year which also saw independent evidence of the rise of mental ill-health and poor emotional wellbeing in children and young people. RoS’ petition to address this was endorsed by Natasha Devon,  former government mental health champion, amongst others.  As the year drew to a close, the former head of the civil service added his voice to those concerned about the long-term impact on our children’s wellbeing. We will continue to campaign loudly and vigorously on this in 2019.

4. Develop Creativity in all its forms

Another fail. Not surprisingly, given the pressure on resources and the perpetual drive from ministers to prioritise testing in traditional academic subjects (in SATs and by use of the Ebacc) over giving pupils a broad educational experience. Over the year, we have been able to highlight on social media work done in some of the most creative – and successful – schools bucking the trend, both in terms of access to arts subjects and activities, and creative approaches to teaching and learning overall.

The UK has traditionally excelled in the creative industries. Yet 2018 saw another year-on-year reduction in access to arts subjects throughout the curriculum, in GCSE entries for subjects such as music, drama, art, design technology and more, and consequently in employment of teachers in these subjects. In 2019 we need your help to promote this message all the more, before the situation becomes irreversible.

5. Let expert evidence inform policy

No progress. There are many experts. There are many policy makers. But the one rarely seems to inform the other, except occasionally when referring to evidence that supports ideas currently in fashion in the DfE (those that support the use of synthetic phonics, for example).

One of the areas in which the evidence is overwhelming clear is that grammar schools do not improve attainment overall. Yet this year we have seen funding prioritised to expand grammar schools  on the grounds that these schools will justify the increase in funding by widening access to pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. Meanwhile, organisations such as the Education Policy Institute have published more evidence on the attainment gap for pupils on free school meals, and NHS research documented an increase in mental ill-health in young people  While the government prioritises resources on pursuing a grammar school agenda not backed up by evidence, some schools are having to team up with local charities to provide breakfast clubs for children in poverty.

6. Ensure local accountability for all schools

Again, there have been no shortage of concerns and failures in Multi Academy Chains, and both the Parliamentary Accounts Committee and the Education Select Committee have been increasingly critical of the problems with the Academies model. Stories range from the failure of a whole MAT, the rise of fixed-term exclusions, prescriptive teaching, high levels of executive pay, and significant concerns about misuse of funds. Thanks to BBC’s Panorama programme, the pitfalls of the Multi Academy Trust model and its associated lack of oversight are now much better understood. We will continue to provide a platform on social media for local campaigns fighting forced academisation. But we also must acknowledge that local authorities are now considerably under-resourced to support schools, even where those schools remain in LEA control.

As the new year approaches, so does a new Ofsted accountability framework  The headlines suggest they want to change the current focus on data, involve teachers and assess the breadth and substance of the curriculum in schools. We at RoS are parents – we understand the value of meaningful, robust and consistent assessment of how schools are meeting our children’s needs, and want to be sure our teachers and school leaders are appropriately supported. But changing the framework alone doesn’t give schools the resources, creative freedom and evidence they need to develop the education Ofsted claims to want to evaluate. Moreover there are worrying signs that the inspectorate may be moving towards directing schools ‘how‘ to teach – with an emphasis on memorising rather than acquisition of skills. Such a narrow view of education would only let children down and, if introduced, must be emphatically resisted. As we have done with previous consultations, RoS will be asking for your thoughts to inform our response when the consultation on the new framework is published in early 2019.

Overall Assessment

Throughout the year, the Department for Education has plunged deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, in a constant bid to find its own alternate reality universe in which school budgets really are at a record high and standards really have been raised equitably with a meaningful impact on pupils’ futures. Whilst it has being doing this, the UK Statistics Authority has found cause to write to the DfE no fewer than FOUR times in 2018 about misleading use of education statistics. With all government stagnating due to Brexit, the DfE appears to find its own version of the Mad Hatters tea party quite a comforting place to be. But schools, pupils and parents do not.

Our Rescue our Schools message for 2019 is clear: the children and young people in school now cannot afford to wait another year for the government to wake up to its own responsibilities. We must join together, and act.

 

 

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