The White Paper: Not the Right Paper – Chapter 1: Big Ideas

Posted on March 21, 2016

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It has taken me four days to get through the DfE’s White Paper, ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’. And when I say four days, I actually mean many, many hours. Far too many for a 128-page document. The last thing I read before it was Zola’s Thérèse Raquin and that took me less time despite weighing in at more than double the length. 

I wasn’t expecting it to be poetic, but this document lived down to its title and failed to even muster prosaic. I’ve never used the phrase “wading through treacle” before, but I have now. At one point I even went back to Michael Gove’s 2010 White Paper to check if it was anywhere near as bad. It wasn’t. By comparison it was beautiful. And much, much quicker to read. And it didn’t have any literary pretensions (the use of chapters in the 2016 White Paper was the only thing to annoy me more than the assonance in title). 

The best part of the Gove paper is the extraordinary helpful ‘executive summary’. The Morgan paper has, instead a horribly bloated 18 page ‘chapter’ 1 that says it is “our vision for educational excellence everywhere” (from now on to be shortened to EEE).  Apart from the fact that no vision should take 18 pages to explain, the main problem with the first ‘chapter’ is that it kind of is an executive summary but kind of isn’t, thus making every ‘chapter’ that follows feel mind-numbingly repetitive, even when it’s saying something new. 

But I’m through Nicky Morgan’s White Paper now, am wearing the medal I’ve awarded myself for reaching the surprisingly pithy conclusion and am ready to see beyond the style (of which there is none) to the substance, if there is any, of the paper itself. To help this, as I was grinding my way through EEE, I made  notes about which changes are big, which ones are interesting and which ones are nonsensical. By big I mean ones that will have a massive impact on schools and the system. By interesting I mean ones that I think might be on to something but about which I wish to hear more. By nonsensical I mean either that they are utterly irrelevant or utterly unachievable. I have roughly equal numbers of each but quite a few could well move categories.

Big Ideas from EEE

The biggest of the big ideas, so big in fact that it was commandeered as a sleight of hand trick by the Chancellor on Budget Day, is the mass academisation of all remaining maintained schools. Related to this was the explicitly expressed big idea that local authorities will also lose their school improvement functions and the implicitly (and notably unstated) big idea that the scale, scope and numbers of Regional Schools Commissioners will increase significantly. 

I have mass academisation as a big idea but time may well prove David Blunkett, who said today that it might be a huge step too far, right. I predicted that wholesale academisation would happen this parliament but, when it wasn’t in the Conservative manifesto, I had thought they had settled on a more evolutionary course. Instead they’ve gone for a full-on revolution. After years of education ministers talking about “academy freedoms” it now appears that the freedom not to be an academy is not included. 

Having been a Deputy Head of a school that became an academy in 2011 I’m not convinced that the system has the capacity to fulfill all of the logistical challenges to make it so, or at least not without some pretty grim collateral damage along the way. The legal processes themselves in the transfer of land, employment rights, pensions and liability are huge. The idea that there are enough MATs out there to take on the unwilling converters with any sense of assured sustainability is surely more in hope than expectation. And even if these challenges are overcome, the fact that these tens of thousands of schools will be instantly responsible for all procurement, HR, premises management, financial audits and suchlike is surely an accident waiting to happen. The possible unintended consequences are legion. 

Another big idea is the ‘fairer’ National Funding Formula but, having already waded my way through a consultation document on that (surprisingly a much easier read than EEE) there was nothing new in the White Paper. And I’m not altogether convinced that it’s going to be quite the big idea people are expecting and (in some parts of the country) hoping for. After all, most school funding is ‘per pupil’ anyway and that which isn’t is linked to contextual factors such as prior attainment and geographical disparities in pay such as the London and fringe allowances. The NFF will, by necessity, contain contextual factors and pay disparities and all that will be changing is the local decisions about how these are weighted. There will be winners and losers, of course, but maybe not as many (and not as significantly so) as many people think. A lot will depend upon the factor values that come in the second round if this is to genuinely be a big idea. 

The proposed reforms to ITT are another big idea in this White Paper, or at least they should be. Standing as we do, though, at the precipice of a recruitment Grand Canyon it rather has the feel of someone rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. I don’t agree with the idea that School Direct is inherently worse than university-led PGCE courses and I think there’s a lot to like about the extended career entry qualification, validated by professionals, as a replacement for QTS. I just don’t see how any of it will ensure that the routinely missed recruitment targets, the shambolic mis-coordination of teacher supply and the Wilshaw-identified ‘brain drain’ can be addressed through a change to QTS. Quality should always be our focus but at a time when there just won’t be enough new teachers coming through, quantity might just have to be the focus for a while. On that issue, the White Paper has no big ideas (although later on I’ll mention their nonsensical idea in this area). 

The College of Teaching is another big idea for this White Paper that has, like a National Funding Formula, already been well trailed. There isn’t a lot of detail in Morgan’s EEE vision, which is understandable and perhaps hopeful given the CoT’s independence of government, but the new educational research journal for teachers appears to be an area that the College will lead on. Time will tell us more about the CoT but probably not the next five years, unless it’s for the wrong reasons. 

The final thing that I think is a big idea in this White Paper are the possible tweaks to Ofsted’s remit. I like the notion of an ‘improvement period’ for people taking over challenging schools, but I’ve heard that kind of talk before and yet seen the opposite in reality. And I really like the possibility that teaching, learning and assessment judgments will be stripped out of the inspection process. There may even be the chance for more streamlining and that would be very much welcomed by me. This recent post gives my take on how the inspection process might work better. 

Of course, if the real vision for RSCs was left unsaid over the course of the 128 pages of Educational Excellence Everywhere then the real vision for Ofsted might also be missing. There are only eight more months left of Wilshaw at the helm and whoever replaces him is going to be a very interesting choice. Only then will we know what the DfE really wants from the inspection service, and only then will we know if Wilshaw was really as bad as his worst critics think. 

And that’s it. Only a handful of big ideas in the White Paper for me and not one of them unequivocally a guaranteed big idea, let along a good one. Tomorrow I’ll publish Chapter 2: Interesting Ideas in which I’ll give my take on the things that are in EEE that I think could have or should have been the big ideas. 

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