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No holding back on higher standards for all

The work of the recently-disbanded government unit lives on so it would be wrong to lament its passing, writes David Normington

In this newspaper two weeks ago Conor Ryan criticised changes in the Department for Education and Skills' organisation and in the Excellence in Cities programme. He implied that this meant we were somehow pulling back from our determination to raise school standards. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The article said, first, that the department's standards and effectiveness unit is being "axed". This gives entirely the wrong impression. The SEU has, I believe, transformed the way the DfES does its work and had a major impact on the whole education system.

It has brought frontline experience into our policy development and delivery, championed excellent teaching and learning and led to huge improvements in primary and secondary school standards.

Far from scrapping that, we are putting the key elements of the unit at the heart of a new primary and secondary delivery group within the DfES to ensure a single focus on school improvement. Professor David Hopkins will continue to take his work forward in his new role as chief adviser on school standards.

This will ensure that the drive for standards will live on, not in a separate unit, but at the heart of our work to support and develop primary and secondary schools. And there is no going back on our commitment to develop a greater diversity of experience in the DfES and to involving frontline practitioners in our work. The SEU led the way. But that is now the universal approach across the department.

Conor Ryan also suggested that Excellence in Cities is to be scrapped. This is not correct. Excellence in Cities has brought extra resources and focus to education in cities. And exam results in EiC areas have improved at three times the rate of the rest of the country. There is no way we would want to put this at risk. What we are planning is a reduction in controls, ring-fenced budgets, performance indicators which imply a one-size-fits-all approach, and over-prescription of the recipe for improvement. In other words, still a focus on standards in schools - and the resources to back it up; still a framework which holds schools accountable for the most important pupil-related outcomes; still intervention when schools are failing. But also trusting schools more to identify key priorities and to develop local solutions to meet local needs and giving them more flexibility and discretion to do this.

This is part of a wider drive to reduce central prescription, to simplify systems of funding and accountability and to free up schools to innovate and lead reform. It involves a new relationship with schools, announced last week, with plans to cut the numbers of initiatives, improve information systems and introduce shorter, lighter touch inspections. It means also a cut of 31 per cent in the staff of the DfES and a concerted effort across all the bodies operating in the education system to cut costs and reduce the burden on schools. The full picture will be set out in the Government's five-year strategy for education and skills which will be launched later this month.

These are big changes and they will challenge the way we in the DfES have thought about and sought to lead education reform in the past few years.

There will be lots of people who agree with the direction of travel, but argue for a ring-fenced budget here and separate initiative there. But that is the path to the overburdened and over-prescriptive system which we are seeking to reform.

Centrally-prescribed reform has got us a long way. But this is the moment when we need to trust those in schools who have shown what is possible in the past few years in raising standards. Far from a pulling back, this is the way we will ensure together that we build on the progress so far and deliver everywhere the Government's commitment to higher standards for every child.

David Normington is the permanent secretary at the Department for Education and Skills

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