The White Paper: Not the Right Paper. Chapter 3: Nonsensical Ideas

Posted on March 23, 2016

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Taking my lead from the DfE’s White Paper, ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’ (EEE), I have written this blogpost in three chapters. The first was all about the ‘big ideas’ in the White Paper. The second was all about what I considered to be the ‘important ideas‘. In this final chapter I want to explain why I think a number of the proposals contained within the document are nonsensical. 

As with the first two post about EEE I want to begin with a somewhat tangential preamble that has a gripe about an aspect of the White Paper that really got up my nose. Yesterday, I drew from the foreword but today I want to take issue with an aspect of the extremely short conclusion (and trust me when I say that short is not an adjective I can use often in relation to this document). 

In the opening sentences there are the obligatory nods to “parents and pupils across the country” and to “hardworking professionals”. All well and good, but then the patrician element kicks in.

“This government won’t shy away from seeking the best for every child, wherever they are.”

Meanwhile school leaders and teachers are not seekers of the best but the people who “deliver those high standards”. Glorified postal workers yet again. All of which leads in to the weaselly words that underpin much of this document: ‘supported autonomy’. What that looks like in practice isn’t ever clearly stated but there is reference to the removal of autonomy when it is not used well so I think that we can all guess at what is to come in a ‘supported autonomy’ system: more and more of the same as ever. 

But my real beef with the conclusion is the assertion that the DfE “will be disciplined in resisting the temptation to make additional requests”. Bearing in mind that this is my third blogpost unpicking the new ideas contained within this paper, plus the fact that we are still working our way through massive curriculum and assessment overhauls renders this sentence meaningless. Tellingly the sentence itself does not say there will be no additional requests, merely that those that arrive with us will have been through a disciplined process of resistance. Yeah right. 

Morgan continues:

“This white paper…promises a focus on stability.”

It’s hard to have sympathy with this position when mass academisation, radical overhaul of initial teacher training, the implementation of a national funding formula and the transfer of powers from the LA to MATs are all a part of that stability. 

But in case we were worried by this unstable stability, the final sentence reminds us (in a series of cliches) that “the prize is worth the challenge”, that “children only get one chance”, that “a good education is not a luxury” but is “an engine for social justice” which “every child and young person deserves”. Thank goodness for that. I was worried that, amidst all this stability, we in the profession had lost sight of that. 

The Nonsensical Ideas

I’m going to wrap up the first three ‘nonsensical ideas’ with a rather bald statement: government’s don’t do ICT infrastructure projects very well in public services. We’ve seen it in education and our fellow professionals in social services, the police and the NHS would probably give a deep sigh at any mention of a ‘portal’ or ‘online tool’ or ‘website’ in their own White Papers. For fun I’m thinking of them as Courageous Caring Constantly,  Perfect Policing Perpetually and Heartfelt Healthcare Habitually. 

The biggest of these nonsensical IT ideas is, for me, the Parent Portal. Without a hint of irony it is proposed at the same time as the White Paper refers to a relaunch of the Ofsted Parent View site. I still remember how that particular portal was going to revolutionise parental engagement with the inspection process and, in doing so, with schools generally. The revolution never occurred. Instead, at best, schools with lots of evaluations have generally garnered them through pushing the more benign families through the process at the end of parents’ evenings in which they have just been told how wonderful their children are. At worst, and for very many schools, there are no evaluations or not enough to warrant any reports about their effectiveness. 

But the Parent Portal will go a whole lot further than this if EEE is to be believed. Real time data on all aspects of their child’s education including “alerting them to the signs that their child is falling behind”. They can then “talk to the child’s teacher and challenge the school if necessary”. Forgive me for thinking that many parents are actually quite good at this using analogue methods, whilst many others are not so good at it through these analogue methods, which rather begs the question why they would suddenly be better through digital technology. The same parents have the capacity to track their Tesco orders, but how many of them do so when the true test of a Tesco order is whether what arrives at their doors is what they were expecting to see? 

A second example of IT nonsense from this White Paper is the creation of a Teaching School online matching portal. Along with the Parent Portal it offers a vision of a highly expensive set-up process followed by a highly intensive maintenance process that will not generate the levels of traffic and ensuing interactions that make the effort worthwhile. Both are premised on the rather dubious notion that electronic points of connection between people within and across networks are more effective and reliable than the human-scale points of connection. It seems to me a fetishisation of the new and I’d love to see Nicky Morgan or Nick Gibb forced into the Dragon’s Den to see whether they could secure any funding for either project through their beloved market economy. I rather think that such a pitch would end up as a bloodbath. 

The one digital project that I would dearly love to see succeed, but which I think would fail just as badly (although for very different reasons), is the free national teacher vacancy website. It is one of those proposals that causes a whoop of joy one minute followed by a deep sigh of despair the next. Quite simply put I think it would take on vested interests with so much to lose that it will never wash with some in the party in power. Given the rather poor experience that schools and universities have had of the free online process for recruiting those entering initial teacher training I’m not even sure that the government could get it right anyway. Of all the things I hope to be proven wrong about, though, this is it. 

The final three of my ‘nonsensical ideas’ also have something in common. They all – and I should probably whisper this – remind me of the policy pronouncements put out in the latter years of the New Labour administration. Indeed, the more I think about ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’ the more it seems to me that it is a step back in time to a Blair/Blunkett or Brown/Balls way of doing educational policy rather than a completion of the Cameron/Gove project. 

Take, for example, the proposed re-design of the NPQ programmes contained in this White Paper. Gove couldn’t jettison them quickly enough and even managed to make a few bucks flogging them on EBay to people who still thought they were worth something (mostly the people involved in writing them). Perhaps Morgan has been tasked with raising some extra funds for the DfE and is thinking that the same ‘Slipping Jimmy’ scam will work a second time around. If it does then the new licensees might be left with a “fool me once, shame on you – fool me twice, shame on me” look on their faces. But if they are a serious proposal then it rather takes us back to the early-2000s, doesn’t it. 

A second New Labour-esque proposal is the creation of a three-lettered acronym designed to reduce geographical variations in achievement, the ‘Achieving Excellence Areas’. Anyone who has been in this game as long as I have will be forgiven for thinking ‘Excellence in Cities’ (EiCs) and ‘Education Action Zones’ (EAZs), both of which are better named and, if the White Paper contains the sum total of thinking so far, better conceptualised than the soon-to-be AEAs (three vowels just don’t work for me because they just make you sound a bit thick when you say them aloud). 

The final of my ‘nonsensical ideas’ to revive the Rasputin-like corpse of Blairism is the proposed creation of MAT league tables. Once again, the sledgehammer of an accountability measure (so many of them and so little time with the inspectorate these days) to crack the walnut of interactions between schools within federations. I have no idea about how these could ever be made to work with MATs that have children from a range of key stages within them, or how they could be used to usefully compare the apples of major chains such as Harris and Ark with the pears of small-scale MATs. Surely it would have been far easier and far more useful to an emerging MAT system of education to engage Ofsted or the RSCs in overseeing a qualitative process of quality assurance than to add another layer of validity-free data to our bloated accountability system. 

Conclusion

And so there you have it, my personal view of the White Paper. It is a curate’s egg of a document, without necessarily being wholeheartedly good in any of its parts. It feels both rushed and overworked in equal measure (a reflection perhaps on what it will do to school staff should all the ideas within it come to pass). It uses some of the same crusading language of the New Labour era without convincing me that it means it whilst, at the same time, promising a completion of the Govean revolution that I don’t think it can actually deliver. 

All in all, my fear is that ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’ is all about pushing and pulling at the same tired old government levers for educational reform just the time when we need a new approach that realises that the twin perils of ‘perverse incentives’ and ‘unintended consequences’ are everywhere to be seen. School funding cannot be salami-sliced for the entirety of this parliament without it having an impact on student outcomes. Rampant accountability cannot continue to be accelerated for the entirety of this parliament without it having an impact on the actions of school leaders. Terms and conditions of employment cannot continue to be degraded, deregulated and disregarded for the entirety of this parliament without it having an impact on the already fraught recruitment and retention of all those who make the dreams of children within our education system become reality. 

This White Paper has masses of ideas in it – big ones, interesting ones and nonsensical ones – but it doesn’t have many, or perhaps even any, answers to the most pertinent questions being asked of our education system after years of relentless reforms that have become increasingly detached from the locus of the real business of teaching and learning. Unless someone comes up with something better soon I have grave concerns where this will all end up, and little confidence that this White Paper will lead to educational excellence everywhere. 

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