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Eleven odd things about the education White Paper

The new White Paper is filled with illogicalities, contradictions and implausibilities, according to the former general secretary of a heads' union

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  1. The main recommendation in the White Paper was announced not by the secretary of state for education, but by George Osborne in the Budget. A possible explanation for this odd procedure could be that, by leaking it 24 hours in advance, this item topped the news bulletin and filled newspaper front pages, thus diverting attention away from bad economic news and Europe for 24 hours. Surely not!
  2. The academisation policy is based on the fiction that local authorities control schools, a calumny repeated so often that most people probably believe it. In fact, local authorities haven’t controlled schools for at least 25 years and, even then, confident schools got on fine without asking permission from County Hall.
  3. The most successful schools in the present mixed system are not exclusively academies. On Newsnight on 17 March, schools minister Nick Gibb, who was trumpeting the success of the present system, struggled to explain why the government is insisting that successful maintained schools must change status. He was floored by the interviewer’s “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” remark.
    I once asked Michael Gove why, if he believed so strongly in academy status, he didn’t make all schools change. His reply was that, because many schools didn’t have sufficient leadership capacity to run an academy, it wouldn’t work. Six years on, I am not convinced that the situation is very different. An all-academy system may look neater than a mixed system, but it won’t work unless schools have the capacity to make it work.
  4. More responsibility is being placed on school leaders, yet the National College for School Leadership was fatally weakened when it was merged with the Teacher Development Agency and became an executive arm of the Department. Given that NCSL was a world-class body, respected across many countries, and “a more autonomous school-led system is even more dependent on strong educational leaders” (White Paper section 3.4, p.41), this was a retrograde step. Hopefully, the College will be reinvented as the Foundation for Leadership, proposed by the school leader and governor associations and supported in the White Paper.
  5. A new teacher recruitment campaign is proposed, yet the TDA, which ran very effective campaigns, was mortally incapacitated when it was merged with NCSL and became an executive arm of the government. The teacher shortage has been caused by many factors, which surely include the lack of a TDA-style campaign, the lack of national or regional planning of teacher numbers, and the rejection of the benefits of school-university partnerships to deliver initial teacher training. Nothing in the White Paper convinces me that the government has cracked this problem.
  6. Primary school sport is to be boosted through the proceeds of the sugar tax, yet the excellent school-sports partnerships were abolished in 2010 and the superb work of the Youth Sports Trust was critically undermined.
  7. A quarter of secondary schools are to be funded to have a longer day. When the Labour government funded an extended day, this caused few problems for secondary schools, most of which already had a good range of after-school activities. Funding some activities, but not others, can cause more problems than it solves.
  8. There will be more than 20,000 separate admission authorities, which is surely a recipe for chaos, and is likely to be very unpopular with the large number of voters whose children are coming up to secondary-school age.
  9. Government education policy appears to be based on ideology rather than education evidence, yet the successful evidence-based Education Endowment Foundation is to be expanded. Surely greater evidence-based policymaking should be the starting point for this welcome expansion.
  10. Parent governors are to be scrapped, yet the government frequently says that it wants parents to be more involved in the work of schools.
  11. And, finally, the all-academy policy is unlikely to happen. According to the National Audit Office, the Department for Education is not the most efficient of government departments, so there isn’t much chance that it will be able to administer the transfer to academy status – a long, complicated and expensive process – of the remaining 15,000 schools in six years.
    If any school leaders want to compete with Geoff Barton, of King Edward VI School in Bury St Edmunds, to be the last head dragged kicking and screaming into the new system, just hang in there. Unless, of course, the conversion process is outsourced to Capita…

John Dunford is chair of Whole Education, as well as a former secondary head, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders and national pupil premium champion

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