Poorer pupils will be left behind by the government’s new plan for schools because of the failure to offer adequate funding and ambitious ideas, experts and teachers have warned.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi announced on Monday that all pupils will be offered targeted support as part of the long-awaited white paper on schools. But the plan was criticised by educational leaders for being too “vague”.
The vision for England’s schools over the next decade includes a “parent pledge” that guarantees extra support for pupils falling behind in English and maths, such as small-group tutoring sessions. But the Education Policy Institute (EPI) think tank described the white paper as “disappointing”. It said the plan was “not well-funded enough” to help disadvantaged pupils catch up after the pandemic and close the inequality gap.
Adding to the criticism was the National Association of Head Teachers union (NAHT), which said the proposals “fall short” of the ambition required. “Commitment to adequate funding, access to support services or detail on how these bold ambitions will be achieved is sadly missing,” said general secretary Paul Whiteman.
The white paper said the government would aim for the national average GCSE grade achieved in English and maths to rise from 4.5 in 2019 to 5 by 2030. Schools will also have to offer a 32.5-hour school week by 2023 as part of a push to increase teaching hours, and Ofsted will be asked to inspect every school by 2025.
But the EPI criticised the failure to set out a clear plan to reduce the disadvantage gap leaving the poorest pupils behind. The institute said disadvantaged pupils in England – the 1.74 million children eligible for free school meals – will still be 18 months of learning behind their peers by the time they finish their GCSEs. “This gap had stopped closing before the pandemic and is now significantly wider,” said EPI executive chair David Laws.
“If the government wishes to meet the white paper aims, it may well need a further education recovery package, targeted on the pupils, schools and local areas which have missed out most,” the former Liberal Democrat minister added.
Meanwhile, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said the plan lacked “big ideas”, describing the proposal for boosting pupils’ literacy and numeracy targets as “vague”.
“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,” he said. “It is hard to learn when you are hungry, cold, poorly clothed and live in inadequate housing.”
Labour accused the government of making a “smoke and mirrors” announcement, saying that developing good reading, writing and maths skills should be fundamental and not just an “add-on”.
Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson said the strategy is “distracting from the business of teaching with yet more tinkering with school structures whilst offering nothing to change children’s day-to-day experience in the classroom”.
And Conservative MP Robert Halfon, chair of the Education Committee, said he hoped that “increasing parental engagement through the ‘parent pledge’ will help break down long-standing and often complicated barriers that exist to help increase attendance”.
Mr Zahawi said the white paper was “levelling up” in action. It also includes a pledge for all schools to join a “strong” multi-academy trust by 2030, and a commitment for Ofsted to inspect every school by 2025.
Councils will be able to establish and run their own academy trusts, which it is hoped will encourage more primary schools to become academies. Councils will also legally be able to request for their non-academy schools to join a trust.
And where schools have received two consecutive Ofsted judgements below “good”, the government plans to help them to join strong trusts – with an initial focus on schools in the 55 education “cold spots” identified in the levelling up paper.
The NAHT said the decision to change school structures was likely to be “controversial”, warning it could prove distracting unless the government presented a “compelling case” for the changes.
Among the white paper’s other announcements is that 500,000 teacher training and development opportunities would be introduced, and a commitment to raise starting salaries to £30,00 was affirmed.
However, Mr Zahawi indicated that senior school teachers would not be receiving a pay rise, saying that the public sector had to “exercise restraint” as inflation levels soar. The education secretary told Times Radio: “For more senior staff, we’re looking at a 5 per cent increase over two years … inflation is running ahead of that, of course.”
He was also grilled over findings from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) showing that the gap between private and state school spending has doubled in just over a decade. The education secretary blamed a period of “tightening our belts” after the financial crash. “The important thing is to continue that investment now and deliver,” he told Sky News.
Mr Zahawi also defended the “deserved” awarding of a knighthood to Sir Gavin Williamson – who oversaw the exams fiasco in 2020 – but said the closure of schools during the pandemic was “a mistake”.