White paper lacks surprise

3rd July 2009 at 01:00
But `licence to teach' delivers a jolt

Few of the policies in Ed Balls's new document are bolts from the blue, but the prospect of five-year `MOTs' will unnerve many teachers

With his slight frame and smiling countenance, he wasn't your stereotypical looking doorman. But that did not make the Department for Children, Schools and Families press officer any less determined as he blocked the exit from the Sanctuary Buildings conference room.

The country's education hacks, desperate to leave to file copy on the Government's latest schools white paper, weren't going anywhere. This was a "lock-in".

The reason for this bizarre scene had been spelt out by Ed Balls earlier that morning. There was no way the details of the policy document, Your Child, Your Schools, Our Future: Building a 21st century schools system, could be made public until he had outlined them to Parliament that afternoon. People would be "surprised" by its contents, the Schools Secretary added.

Strange then that in the preceding days we had read a succession of exceedingly well-informed reports about the Government's plans to - deep breath - give pupils and parents guarantees about what they expect from schools, encourage more federations and chains of schools with higher pay for their heads, threaten to fine parents of misbehaving pupils, introduce school report cards, abolish the national strategies and expand one-to-one tuition.

The feelings of deja vu grew even more intense as journalists were finally able to get their hands on this top secret document. In among the extensively trailed schemes listed above were positively geriatric ideas such as the long standing review of deprivation funding and a negotiating body on school support staff pay and conditions.

Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, summed up the mood, perhaps unintentionally, when she praised the Government for "consolidating policies" and not "trying to find some new big idea or wheeze".

Inaction is possibly not the best selling point for an administration aiming for a last ditch relaunch. So, some of these "consolidating" policies have been given a fresh lick of paint. The idea of offering struggling pupils extra tuition in English and maths is as old as the hills - Gordon Brown dished out money for this virtually every year when he was chancellor.

But now it has been wrapped up in a broader pupil guarantee that will see an entitlement for one-to-one tuition for primary pupils falling behind, extended to those in the same position in their first year of secondary school.

They will then go through a progress check during Year 7, based on teacher assessment, with national sampling to allow government to monitor progress.

That idea was in the final report of the experts group on assessment, which ministers had already said they would accept. So hardly a shocking development.

But Mr Balls did turn out to be as good as his word. There was one big surprise - the plan for all teachers, and heads, to have to obtain a "licence to teach" proving they are up to the job every five years.

Some of the Government's own "social partners", supposed to be deeply involved in the development of teacher pay and conditions, were not expecting that one.

Mick Brookes, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said he only found out about the idea the day before it was announced.

The concept was first proposed in The TES by Keith Bartley, chief executive of the General Teaching Council, in October 2007. That same body will now take charge of hammering out the detail. But the broad outline proposed by the Government this week leaves little doubt that it will alter the nature of the profession.

From September, newly qualified teachers won't really be properly qualified anymore - not until they have proved a year later that they are worthy of their licence to teach.

Some teachers' leaders seem to be clinging to the hopeful notion that this licence will just be about teachers being able to show they have had the required amount of continuous professional development (CPD).

That idea is contentious in itself. Firstly the enormous variation in the amount different schools spend on CPD - between 0.25 and 15 per cent of their budgets according to figures accepted by the Training and Development Agency for Schools - means it will hardly be a level playing field for teachers.

Second the Government has yet to finalise its CPD entitlement for teachers and some warn there is simply not enough good CPD out there.

But the white paper makes it clear that the licence will not just be about professional development. It will: "Place more emphasis on a teacher's recent record of professional practice."

There is still hope for teachers who find that an alarming prospect. They may be lucky enough to work in one of the academies to which The TES has discovered this does not apply.

Failing that, teachers may take comfort in the way government policies can mysteriously evolve from how they were originally portrayed into something completely different.

Take the school report card, another government proposal first revealed in The TES. Originally billed as a serious alternative to league tables, it was confirmed this week that it will be no such thing.

Mr Balls said: "There are some people in the education world who would like me to abolish league tables. I am not going to do that. Even if I wanted, I couldn't - the information is publicly available."

He also said he had chosen to ignore the views of 57 per cent of respondents to government consultation who opposed the overall scores or ratings of schools on report cards to allow the media to "rank schools in order to make comparisons".

"I don't think a fair and easy ranking can be done without a single grade," he said.

But it seems highly unlikely that newspapers will want to give up existing tables that rank schools according to the exact percentage of pupils achieving certain exam results, when the alternative is report card grades where all schools can only be marked A, B, C or D.

The paper says the Government wants to move to a position where the relationship between the DCSF and local authorities mirrors what it wants to see between authorities and schools.

This is slightly ambiguous as local councils have been asked to be light- touch "enablers" when it comes to schools but also to get tough when schools under-perform.

Given that Mr Balls chose the day of the white paper launch to announce he was intervening in Milton Keynes council, with the possibility of action in Leicester, Blackpool and Gloucestershire, it is safe to say he means the latter.

Main points

  • All teachers and heads will need a "licence to teach" based on recent practice and professional development, to be renewed every five years
  • New legally enforceable parent and pupil guarantees that could see schools face judicial review if they fail to provide measures such as catch-up tuition, five hours of sport a week and a fair admissions code
  • End of national strategies and centralised prescription of teaching methods and oversight of literacy and numeracy hours in primary schools
  • Strengthened home-school agreements. Heads able to apply for parenting orders against those who don't comply. Possible pound;1,000 fines if orders are broken
  • Chains of schools run by "accredited schools groups" to be encouraged, with pound;20m fund to help them build capacity
  • Progress checks during Year 7, based on teacher assessment, for pupils who have fallen behind
  • Bigger role for school improvement partners
  • Proposals for overhaul of deprivation funding system due next year
  • School report cards to grade schools on factors including pupil progress, attainment and wellbeing and parental and pupil perceptions of the school.

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