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The first schools white paper in six years

March 2022’s schools white paper for England is the first in six years. It’s set against a backdrop of pandemic disruption and ‘learning loss’ for many, especially disadvantaged and vulnerable children.

The policy paper, Opportunity for all: strong schools with great teachers for your child, is wide-ranging, proposing changes to how schools are managed and run, the length of the school week, the standards pupils should achieve in English and maths, and many other areas.

The final step toward a full academy system?

Just over half of all pupils now attend academies rather than maintained schools. Academies are independent but state-funded schools outside of council control. A much higher proportion of secondary schools have made the switch to academy status, than primaries.  

Multi-academy trusts (MATs) are groups of academies, varying in size. According to the white paper, the Government now wants all schools to be part of a “strong trust” by 2030, or be in the process of forming, or joining one, by then. Given current rules, this implies that remaining maintained schools would change status, to become academies. There will be new quality standards for MATs, and a unified system of oversight and regulation.

Strong trusts, says the DfE, will be those that offer high-quality and inclusive education; have effective school improvement and workforce development and deployment strategies; robust strategic governance; and strong financial management.

Academisation has always attracted strong views, with some seeing opportunities for autonomy and school-led collaboration, while others question whether it improves standards. Under the current plans, the Government says local authorities would be able to establish MATs in areas where there’s a shortage of strong ones – albeit with limits on their level of involvement in trust boards.

Higher standards in English and maths

By 2030, the Government wants 90% of children to achieve expected standards in English reading, writing and maths by the end of primary school. Children in year six (aged 10 or 11) are tested and assessed on these subjects via SATs. In 2019, the last year when SATs took place owing to the pandemic, 65% of pupils achieved the expected standard. 90% would therefore be a significant increase – especially given pandemic-related disruption to education. There will also be other measures, including a new parent pledge to ensure parents whose children are falling behind receive information, and the pupils get targeted help.

The Government also wants the average grade in English language and maths GCSE to rise to 5, a ‘strong pass’ – according to the Department for Education (DfE), it was 4.5 in 2019, the last year in which exams were held. Under the new numeric grading system for GCSEs in England introduced for pupils taking exams from summer 2017, 9 is the highest grade, and 1, the lowest.  

Schools to open for longer

The white paper foresees a “richer, longer” school week, with an expectation that all mainstream state-funded schools are open for a minimum of 32.5 hours per week by September 2023. This equates to six hours and 30 minutes per day, on average. Some evidence suggests a longer school day may lead to more learning, but DfE surveys estimate most schools are already open, on average, for six hours and 15 minutes per day, or longer. Some have therefore questioned whether this ambition will lead to much real change.

Wide-ranging other measures

The white paper also covers several other areas, including school admissions; behaviour, attendance and absence; oversight, accountability, and intervention; curriculum support; and teacher and school leader development. In the same week, the Government also published a long-awaited review of support for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). These proposals are not covered in this paper but will be explored in another Library publication.

This briefing doesn’t aim to cover all the schools white paper proposals in equal detail. It highlights key areas, and those that have generated the most detbate, so far.

Funding the proposals

To fund implementation, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi has pointed to the recent DfE Spending Review settlement, which has increased core school funding through to 2024/25, and dedicated education recovery funding now standing at around £5 billion.

Inevitably, there have been questions about whether this is enough, especially given inflation rates, and expected increases to newly qualified teacher starting salaries. There are also ongoing debates about whether education recovery funding is being targeted and spent appropriately.

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