'Scrap phonics checks, ditch performance-related pay and streamline Ofsted: quick wins for the next education secretary'

Stephen Tierney

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I sense the next five years are going to be quite a challenge for schools. We’ve been through hard times before and no doubt we’ll go through them again. With the General Election now upon us, a new Secretary of State for Education will shortly be in post.

None of the above

The election doesn’t seem to have set the education world on fire, with many teachers seemingly undecided on who would be the best party to form a government for the next five years. I thought the incoming education secretary might benefit from a few ideas provided by the profession on how to get us out of the mess we are arguably in, including the titanic struggle for teacher supply that is expected in the next Parliament due to the current climate within schools.

If you were Secretary of State for Education, what changes would be at the top of your agenda to make schools fairer, better and more appealing places to work? I’ve used a variety of sources to collect together a number of #QuickWins a new Secretary of State could make. They don’t need any legislative changes and none of them would do any harm to children, in fact, they may improve things significantly. They are all aimed at abandonment, rather than adding anything more to the workload of already-overburdened teachers and school leaders. 

Have a read of the options I've outlined below, then vote for your favourite in the poll at the end, which closes at 10pm today. I’ll blog out the results and copy it to the incoming Secretary of State for Education. Hopefully, the new incumbent will be more willing to listen to the combined wisdom of the profession and work with teachers, instead of against them

1. Keep grading system the same for all GCSEs


Acknowledgement: SSAT(UK) Building on Consensus

There are new GCSEs in English and maths this September, with the first pupils sitting the exam in summer 2017, and students, schools, parents and employers will find themselves with two different grading systems. The familiar A*-G (8 points) and the new 1-9 (9 points). The problem is that this will lead to a change in the points awarded between 2016 and 2017 – disproportionately affecting schools with lower-attaining students. Better to either retain the old A*-G or move all GCSEs to 1-9 grades in 2017.

Short inspections for all

The pernicious nature of our accountability system is having a hugely negative impact on schools. Removing Ofsted will require legislative change, but moving all schools to the new short one-day inspection doesn’t. This short inspection has no grades and a simple letter issued to the schools. The letter should be formative and concentrate on development, with no triggering of Section 5 inspections permitted.

Scrap the Year 1 Phonics Screening Check

The screening is considered by many to be a ridiculous waste of time and energy, as the test only checks decoding skills rather than actually what a child reads and understands. It is in place to ensure that schools deliver synthetic phonics as the primary way of delivery of the teaching of reading. It does not greatly enhance the teaching of reading, just the teaching of decoding skills. For more able children, going over the laborious sounding out and blending actually detracts from the meaning, whereas children with specific special educational needs, such as children with Down's Syndrome, do not learn to read by the synthetic phonics methodology.

Quadruple funds for a child with an Education, Health and Care Plan (EHCP)

Concerns have been raised about some schools skewing their intake against students with special educational needs. This has a significant impact on other nearby schools that may then have a disproportionately high number of students with special educational needs. Quadrupling the funds such students received would mean funding of £14-18k for children with EHCP delivered via the Pupil Premium funding route. The extra resources must be used to meet the child’s needs and may be a win:win in the austere times ahead.

Delay A-level changes until 2017 and 2018


New A-level courses will be introduced for most subjects at the same time as the introduction of new GCSEs. This will create a massive workload problem for teachers in 11-18 schools. It will also mean that the students sixth-form colleges receive will have studied different GCSE curriculums and have variable knowledge for years to come. Students will be studying new A-level content having not covered it in the new GCSEs. Delay A-level reforms until the new GCSEs have been introduced and studied by the first cohort of students.

Automatically identify children eligible for Pupil Premium funding

Getting families to self-declare their eligibility for Pupil Premium funding is placing an unnecessary burden on schools. With the introduction of Universal Free School Meals for all infants, there is no benefit to any family to inform the primary school, so vital Pupil Premium funding may be lost. Schools are spending time chasing up families asking them to register. The government should have all the data required and inform schools of children’s eligibility rather than vice versa.

Scrap the EBac as a performance measure

The EBac was retrospectively introduced by Michael Gove when he was education secretary. The call to scrap the EBac would still leave the EBac subjects as an element of the Progress and Attainment 8 measures, but would free up the curriculum for lots of children in secondary schools. Too many schools are chasing the performance measure rather than meeting the needs of their students.

Ditch performance-related pay

We all know we’re accountable, but within a profession like teaching identifying an individual’s contribution to students’ outcomes is very complex. In addition, performance-related pay in a time of increasing austerity is more likely to be linked to funds available than actual performance of a teacher – no matter what the metric. There is little to be gained by keeping it and too much upset and distress caused by its imposition.

Cancel university tuition fees for graduates who stay in the teaching profession

The teacher supply issue is already hitting schools, as evidenced by the increasing number of anecdotes exchanged when headteachers and senior leaders meet. Teachers should no longer be required to repay their university tuition loans – instead, half the loans should be cancelled after ten years and the other half after twenty years of a graduate being employed as a teacher in a maintained school or academy. These time scales could be halved for teachers working in a school in challenging circumstances.

Complaints about Ofsted should be investigated by an independent panel of school leaders 

As a matter of course at the end of an inspection, Ofsted must release all inspectors’ notes to the school prior to leaving the premises to ensure their evidence base and judgements are open to scrutiny. Any complaint about an Ofsted Inspector or the outcome of an inspection should be investigated by an independent panel of school leaders. Any report should not be released until the investigation has been completed.

Have your say on which of the #QuickWins you'd like to see the new government implement by taking the poll.

This post has been reposted with permission from an original piece on Stephen Tierney's blog, leadinglearner.me

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Stephen Tierney

Stephen Tierney is a headteacher who blogs at leadinglearner.me and tweets @LeadingLearner

Find me on Twitter @LeadingLearner

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