Narrow and 'lacking in ambition' – White Paper fails to inspire

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Policy gimmick? School leaders said that the government's new Parent Pledge idea seems to be designed to grab headlines

The government’s Parent Pledge will be a “tall order” to deliver and risks being seen as nothing more than a “policy gimmick”, while the elephant in the White Paper is the lack of targets to close the disadvantage gap.

The Parent Pledge idea forms part of the new education White Paper (DfE, 2022) but seems to ignore the evidence showing how difficult it is for pupils to catch-up once they have fallen behind.

The White Paper also fails to set any targets for closing the disadvantage gap post-pandemic and ignores the failures of the National Tutoring Programme.

Published this week, the White Paper sets out plans for a minimum school week of 32.5 hours by September 2023, for Ofsted to inspect every school by 2025, and for six million tutoring courses to be delivered by 2024.

The headline Parent Pledge policy will focus on children who “fall behind” in maths or English and guarantees that they will get “the support they need to get back on track”.

The White Paper states: “The Parent Pledge is a promise from government, via schools, to families: any child that falls behind in English or maths should receive timely and evidence-based support to enable them to reach their potential.

“We pledge to make that a reality in every school in the country. We pledge to ensure that schools communicate this work to parents, ensuring parents are fully engaged in their child’s education – and relieving them of the worry and stress that comes from a child falling behind at school.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary at the Association of School and College Leaders, said that the pledge “seems like a policy gimmick designed to grab headlines”.

He added: “In reality, any child who falls behind in English and maths will already receive timely and evidence-led support and this is already communicated to parents via existing channels such as parents’ evenings. Schools already have robust assessment systems for tracking progress.”

But he went further: “The danger of the Parent Pledge is that it will build an expectation of an entitlement to various forms of additional support on demand. This is not realistic as schools have limited resources and have to meet the needs of all their students. We fear that this will simply create tensions between parents and schools.”

Not needed? The Parent Pledge as depicted in the education White Paper. Critics point out that most schools will be offering 'timely and evidence-led' support for children who fall behind in English and maths, rendering the Parent Pledge superfluous

Sir Peter Lampl, chair of the Education Endowment Foundation, said he was “enthusiastic” about the pledge but warned: “We must recognise that it is a tall order. As we’ve seen from a number of research studies we have carried out, it is extremely difficult for young people to catch up once they have fallen behind.”

Alongside the pledge, the White Paper sets out targets for 90% of primary school children to achieve the expected standard in key stage 2 reading, writing and maths by 2030 (in 2019 the figure was 65%) and for the national average GCSE grade in both English language and maths to increase from 4.5 in 2019 to 5 by 2030.

The narrow focus on English and maths in the White Paper has been criticised by some.

Mr Barton added: “There is little recognition of the wider societal factors which affect those outcomes, such as the fact that nearly a third of children in the UK live in poverty. It is hard to learn when you are hungry, cold, poorly clothed and live in inadequate housing.

He added that the school performance measures are driving some subjects such as design and technology and creative arts “to the margins”.

“Focusing so intensely on English and maths, important as those subjects are, is also a very narrow view of education. A truly ambitious White Paper should have greater ambition for the whole curriculum. The current curriculum is crowded and lacks coherence between early years, primary and secondary education.”

The White Paper’s ambition for a 32.5-hour school day equates to a 9am-3.30pm day and is not seen as a particularly effective policy. Neither is the White Paper’s ambition for every school to be part of a “strong multi-academy trust” by 2030 seen as a “silver bullet” for raising standards.

Natalie Perera, chief executive of the Education Policy Institute (EPI) said: “The government seems to be placing a lot of weight on all schools being in a 'strong multi-academy trust' by 2030, but it is clear from our research that academisation is no 'silver bullet' for improving school performance and there may simply not be enough capacity to absorb thousands of schools into the higher performing MATs.

She added: “The 32.5-hour school week, which amounts to a 9am to 3.30pm day, will not make much difference to most children.”

On academisation, Mr Barton added: “There are many successful multi-academy trusts doing excellent work, and there are many benefits of schools working together. We are not convinced, however, that collaboration can only be achieved through the model of multi-academy trusts. There are other forms of collaboration which can also work effectively. We do not think that a deadline for all schools to be in or joining a multi-academy trust is helpful.”

However, Mr Barton welcomed the White Paper’s ambition to allow local authorities to establish multi-academy trusts.

On the 32.5-hour school day, Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said there must be a review of the evidence supporting this policy: “Simply adding five or 10 minutes to a day is unlikely to bring much, if any, benefit. The government says it will be guided by evidence – they need to meet that undertaking.”

The elephants in the White Paper include the disadvantage gap, with no firm pledges to close the gaps that exist. The government also continues to insist that the NTP has been successful despite evidence to the contrary.

On tutoring, the White Paper pledges “up to six million tutoring courses by 2024”. It wants to “cement tuition as a permanent feature of the school system”. However, while ignoring the NTP’s failures, the White Paper does promise to allow schools to use their own staff.

It states: “We will continue to financially incentivise schools to provide tutoring – and we expect every school to make tutoring available to children who need it. Schools have the flexibility to use their own staff, bring in dedicated new staff or use external tutors from accredited organisations to provide high-quality tuition that best meets the needs of their pupils. Tutoring will be a core ‘academic’ option in the Pupil Premium menu.”

While the White Paper sets out at least £100m in funding for the Education Endowment Foundation, to put it on “a long-term footing”, and trumpets the government’s work to close the attainment gap pre-pandemic, it sets out no clear ambitions or targets going forward, which has disappointed former education minister David Laws, who is now executive chairman of the EPI.

He said: "It is disappointing that there is no commitment to a really big reduction of the disadvantage gap between the poorest pupils and the rest, in the ambitions set for 2030. Disadvantaged children are already 18 months of learning behind other children by the time they take their GCSEs, and this gap had stopped closing before the pandemic and is now significantly wider.”

Summing up his views of the White Paper, Mr Barton added: “While there are a number of promising and helpful measures, we cannot escape the feeling that overall it is mechanistic and lacking in ambition.

“Disappointingly, this White Paper lacks any big ideas for the future of the education system. The nearest it gets is its targets for improved results in English and maths by 2030, but the plan of how to achieve these targets is vague, and there does not appear to be very much in the way of funding to help schools deliver them.”

Other proposals included in the White Paper include:

  • 500,000 teacher training and development “opportunities” by 2024.
  • Moving to £30,000 starting salaries to attract and retain the best teachers in the next two years.
  • Payments to recruit and keep talented physics, chemistry, computing and maths teachers working in disadvantaged schools.
  • A register for children not in school to make sure no child is lost from the system.
  • Every school to have access to funded training for a senior mental health lead to deliver a whole school approach to health and wellbeing.
  • Oak National Academy becoming a government body with sole focus on supporting teachers to deliver “the very best lesson content”.

  • DfE: Policy paper: Opportunity for all: strong schools with great teachers for your child, March 2022:

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