Schools should not be shaped by the whims of government

Non-academic pupils shouldn't be excluded from the system. All children should be allowed to show progression, says Emma Hardy

Potter turning pot on wheel

The controversy over Michael Gove’s legacy continues.

In one corner stand those who supported him and who continue to highlight the “increased number of good and outstanding schools”.

In the other stand those who highlight the increasing number of children no longer able to fit into the mainstream school system. The forgotten children, the children with special needs and disabilities, and the ever-increasing number of children who are off-rolled because of an unforgiving school accountability system bent on punishing schools that genuinely try to be inclusive. 

As Tom Middlehurst of the SSAT schools network states, “Although it’s impossible to attribute the rising rates of exclusions to the new national curriculum and assessment arrangements, the rise does coincide with these changes... Our members tell us that a push for 100 per cent Ebacc entry has led to a narrowing of the curriculum, and therefore disengagement from some of the most vulnerable learners.” 

Green shoots of change

But there are green shoots of change. Ofsted’s new inspection handbook has pushed back against the narrowing of the curriculum by insisting schools need to be “broad and balanced”.

The inspectorate has repeatedly stated that schools will not be judged solely on results and instead will be judged more holistically. They argue this will “de-intensify the inspection focus on performance data and place more emphasis on the substance of education and what matters most to learners and practitioners.” 

However, these green shoots could easily be killed off. So long as Nick Gibb remains as schools minister, it is impossible to believe there will be a real change of direction, or a recognition that the last decade’s reforms have been anything other than a roaring success. 

Ever-narrowing curriculum

Instead, I fear we could end up with more of the same: the attainment bar might continue to rise and an ever-narrower curriculum would be the price to pay – all in pursuit of a politicised definition of “knowledge”

Meanwhile, continued underfunding of education risks resulting in ever more children being home-educated, more pupils being off-rolled and a spiralling demand for specialist SEND provision. 

A better future for education and young people is possible. When Edward Timpson gave evidence to us at the education select committee, he suggested a different way of measuring achievement for children who are returning to mainstream after being expelled. 

This was not just about academic results. Instead, it would take into account a wider range of achievements.

Like me, he acknowledged that the “new Ofsted framework is moving in that direction”, but he recognised that it was an argument that still needed winning. Although many schools try to do the best by every child, he said, too often they have to act “despite the current accountability measures rather than because of it”. 

Over the next decade, I therefore hope we will devise an accountability system that enables all children to show progression in a wide variety of fields. I would like all our schools to be shaped around the individual, rather than the whims of government, and for our schools to have the resources required to meet every child’s needs. 

Only then will all our children and young people thrive in, and beyond our schools, wherever they are in the country. 

Emma Hardy is Labour MP for Hull West and Hessle and a member of the House of Commons’ education select committee. 

This essay first appeared in A Decade in the Making: What next for young people in England?, a collection of essays published to mark the tenth anniversary and rebrand of the Centre for Education and Youth

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