'Expect more ministerial U-turns and apologies: the chaos in the schools system won't end any time soon'

26th April 2016 at 17:16
Crisis in the DfE
Sats, baseline, academisation, the recruitment crisis and the rest: there are many chickens coming home to roost for education ministers, writes the leader of a major teachers' union

As I was idly scrolling through Twitter on Sunday evening I came across a statement by Nick Gibb. Drowsiness banished, I read the schools minister's statement that there would be "no requirement this year for schools to administer the key stage 1 grammar and spelling test, for this year only". Mr Gibb apologised: "This is clearly a regrettable incident and I am sorry for any concern it has caused teachers, parents or pupils."

The reason for the minister’s decision to scrap the test is now well known: the spelling test had been published on the Standards and Testing Agency website and was available for teachers and parents to download and to use for test practice. Even more embarrassing for ministers was the manner in which the STA responded when the KS1 teacher who sounded the alarm on the test’s pre-publication phoned the STA to give them the bad news. She was called back about two hours later because the agency could not locate where the test was on its website. She had to open her computer and guide the STA to the location of the spelling test. And when the government first acknowledged that there had been a serious error, it simply asked anyone who had seen the test not to pass it on….

Mr Gibb is getting used to cancelling tests. It is only a few short weeks since the baseline test sat by four- and five-year-olds starting school was abandoned because, against all advice, ministers had appointed three different providers of the test, from which schools were allowed to choose. Having done this stupid thing in this stupid way, ministers discovered that the baseline test results were not "sufficiently comparable to create a fair starting point" to measure progress from the start of schooling to the end of KS1. (Something ministers were repeatedly warned about, but they went ahead anyway…)

If I were David Cameron (yes, I know it takes a stretch of the imagination, but we all have to go into dark places sometimes), I would be increasingly concerned about whether there is a strong hand on the DfE tiller. Not only is the primary testing in chaos, but there are money problems too. The DfE has just published its accounts for 2014-15, nine months after every other government department. As if this were not enough of an embarrassment, the accounts have, for the second year running, been criticised by the National Audit Office (NAO) because of the "level of misstatement and uncertainty" which means that their truth and fairness cannot be verified.

'Accounting issues'

The problem for the DfE is that it is not able to keep track of academies’ spending. And it raises a key question: if the DfE is unable to account for the current spending of just over 4,500 academies, how will it do so if all of England’s over 20,000 schools become academies? As the NAO concludes: "The department’s policy of autonomy for academies brings with it significant risks if the financial capability of the department and academies are not strengthened."

Which brings me to the next little local difficulty for education secretary Nicky Morgan – the growing unease of Conservative backbench MPs over the government’s White Paper proclamation that every school will become an academy by 2022. If ever there was a case of acting in haste and repenting at leisure, this is it. Announced in a flurry of hyperbole by George Osborne in his Budget speech, this is a policy that began to fall apart as soon as it was announced. It seems absurd, but it is clear that Nick and Nicky failed to mention to their Tory MP colleagues that this announcement was on the way and failed to liaise with the Conservative-led Local Government Association which has run a very strong campaign to demonstrate that local authority schools are performing better than academies. 

I have looked, but I am finding it hard to find anyone apart from Nicky Morgan, Nick Gibb, David Cameron and George Osborne who is prepared to support forced academisation.

And it comes to something when Nick Robinson, on Radio 4’s flagship Today programme, brandishes the DfE’s 2013 statistical paper which acknowledges that academies perform no better than local authority schools, during a ministerial interview with Mr Gibb.  (When broadcasters go to this length to get hold of the evidence, you are in deep trouble.)

Perhaps ministers should be congratulated for blowing apart their own arguments for the superiority of what the DfE press office has called their "turbo-charged" academies policy. Nicky Morgan’s recently promised concession, to allow good local authorities to become a multi-academy trust, demonstrates clearly just how much trouble education ministers are in. I look forward to her appearance, tomorrow afternoon, before the education select committee, to answer MPs’ questions on the White Paper.

There is a saying: if you’re in a hole, stop digging. Education ministers are now fighting on all fronts. They are presiding over a teacher recruitment and retention crisis; a looming pupil places crisis; primary assessment chaos; the late notification of GCSE, AS and A-level qualification specifications; and a forced academy policy which has the potential to provoke a Commons revolt. All of these ministerial problems are a direct result of a reform programme which is wrong-headed, was hastily implemented and is going badly awry.

Expect more U-turns, more ministerial apologies and more climbdowns. The chaos is upon us, and it’s not going away soon….

Dr Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL teaching union. She tweets as @MaryBoustedATL

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