Why now is the time for the DfE to prove its worth

After almost two years of chaos, confusion and distrust, the DfE has an opportunity to start afresh, says Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

The appointment of new education secretary Nadhim Zahawi is an opportunity for the DfE, says ASCL leader Geoff Barton

We begin with a timely question: what is the point of the Department for Education?

I’m being serious here rather than merely provocative. After all, the heart of any education system is the schools, colleges and universities that educate children and young people, rather than the arcane workings of a Whitehall department.

It must be that the Department for Education therefore adds distinctive value to that system. If that’s not what it does, what purpose does it serve?

It is a question worth posing in a week that has seen the departure of Gavin Williamson, his replacement as education secretary by Nadhim Zahawi, and, more surprisingly, given his long tenure at the department, the departure of school standards minister Nick Gibb.

Many in education will doubtlessly feel the department does not always add value to the education system, and it often seems merely a conduit for the latest policy wheezes of politicians, or a remote authority desperately trying to micromanage schools and colleges through ever-more stringent accountability mechanisms.

Over the past 18 months of the coronavirus pandemic it has clearly struggled, producing reams of impenetrable guidance, appearing flat-footed on issues ranging from free school meals to exam contingencies to laptop provision, and even resorting to issuing legal threats to schools over their arrangements at the end of the autumn term last year.

All of this has felt like the very opposite of adding value.

Cabinet reshuffleGavin Williamson leaves post as education secretary

New education secretary: Nadhim Zahawi appointed

Covid: How pandemic response will define Williamson's time in office

Faced with a crisis of such magnitude, there were bound to be difficulties, of course.

But it is hard to escape the conclusion that this was exacerbated by a lack of clear strategic direction and a history that has been firmly one of top-down management of the system. When the crisis came, the instinct was to direct rather than work with the education sector.

So, if ever there was a time for a recalibration, an intense focus on how the Department for Education adds value, then this is that time.

And you sense that it is not only schools and colleges that would rejoice at such a renewed sense of purpose, but the civil servants at the DfE, too, who must sometimes feel at their wit’s end trying to make sense of so much muddle.

Enter, stage left, Nadhim Zahawi, who clearly has both an opportunity and a challenge.

The challenges ahead for Nadhim Zahawi 

So what does adding value look like? In the simplest of terms, it is surely about supporting the work of schools, colleges and universities, and providing a strategic direction that is clear, logical and supported by the sector.

That doesn’t mean abandoning all accountability measures and ushering in some kind of educational free-for-all. It’s about working collaboratively with the shared aim of improving the life chances of children, of knowing which levers to pull to make a good education system into an excellent one.

And there are some quick hits in this. A good starting point would be to rethink quickly the risky plans to defund Btecs and other applied general qualifications, and not be too hasty to overhaul teacher training. Both moves are a source of concern to the vast majority of the sector, not because the sector is being difficult but because the policies are flawed.

The first will deprive many young people of a proven pathway to apprenticeships, careers and higher education; the second puts at risk the teacher supply line on which schools, and ultimately children, depend.

Then there is the ongoing threat of disruption posed by Covid and the question of a more meaningful education recovery plan.

Three simple steps to manage Covid disruption to schools

On the former, three simple and practical steps that the government could take would be:

  • A public information campaign to encourage twice-weekly home Covid testing.
  • Funding for ventilation systems in education settings.
  • A commitment to provide schools and colleges with more support for any on-site Covid testing if this is directed under the contingency framework.

And on education recovery, there’s an off-the-shelf plan prepared and ready to go, with the right political will. You can read about it here from ASCL.

In the longer term, there is the long-standing and obdurate issue of the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their peers.

It has been the source of endless debate and agonising over the course of many years and yet closing that gap is still at least 500 years away. It isn’t acceptable that this is the case in a wealthy nation like ours.

This week ASCL published our Blueprint for a Fairer Education System with a series of proposals about how to close that gap.

What we hope it demonstrates is a sense of ambition from within the education sector itself to take a system that is already good and to make it world-class. We map out the "what" as well as the "how".

But none of the above can be done without the leadership and support of Mr Zahawi and the Department for Education.

We don’t expect him simply to accept all our proposals, of course.

But we hope that he will work with all of us in our various roles across all kinds of settings with our one shared aim: to transform the lives of children and young people – especially those in the most disadvantaged circumstances – and to do it through the power of great education.

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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