Opportunity for All?

Today the Government published the White paper ‘Opportunity for all – Strong schools with great teachers for your child’.

The first education white paper since 2016, 'Opportunity for all' draws together a decade of education policies that have brought an increasingly centralised strategy to all areas of education in England. All roads in this paper lead to a Department for Education (DfE) defined, data driven, definition of education. Though this White Paper aspires to give learners the tools to lead a happy, fulfilled and successful life, it is essentially lacking in any definition of success other than higher attainment in the ‘cornerstones’ of literacy and numeracy. 

The sole reference to cultural education is made as part of a commitment to a ‘richer, longer average school week’ and a promise of a cultural education plan to be published next year. State funded schools are already required to provide a broad and ambitious curriculum. The implication that this is a new ambition, that could be made possible through an extended day is astonishing. Creative arts are not an additional enrichment for those who wish to work in the sector, they are a curriculum entitlement, and should be at the heart of any sincere attempt to support children’s health, wellbeing and wider development.

This is a missed opportunity to re-imagine education fit for the future. Instead it is an exercise in tying together the so called ‘golden threads’ that run through teacher development into one centralised, DfE approved vision of what 'works for schools'. 

There are four big ideas holding this paper together – three of those are just statements of what is already generally the case – a school week of 32.5 hours, reporting progress to parents – and a consolidation of what is already in train – fully trust-led schools, and a centrally approved end-to-end programme of teacher development. 

This White Paper is defined by tunnel vision and the entrenching of flawed concepts. The definition of quality education rarely deviates from ‘evidence informed’ recipes for ‘what works’. But works for whom? And why? The indicators for standards and support are all focused on raising test scores according to set formulas for literacy and numeracy. Where are the targets and the measures for the promised ‘tools for happy, fulfilled, successful life'?

Whilst the levelling up aims and principles may be laudable, they are incomplete and do not address the full needs of children. We ask, how is the emotional impact of the pandemic addressed? 

This White Paper is based on the belief that teachers are the key to good educational outcomes. We agree. NSEAD welcomes the commitment to invest in excellent teachers. However, we would like to see funding for subject specialist NPQ qualifications. The development of subject expertise in all areas should be an aspiration. Levelling up starting salaries for shortage subjects should be extended to all subjects who do not reach the targets set by the department – it is anticipated that Art and Design is amongst that number this year, with the NFER and Nuffield report predicting only 86 percent recruitment this year.

There is much emphasis on the golden thread of professional development that will support teachers throughout their careers. We welcome a joined-up approach, but again, this must go beyond generic, one-size-fits-all solutions that do not address local or subject specific needs. A centralised approach to Initial Teacher Education that reduces the number of university providers will not bring a higher quality of training, or increase the availability of placements. 

It is encouraging to see that professional development will be based on evidence of what works and embedding structured practice. We ask that the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) undertakes and brings subject-specific and relevant research to different areas of the curriculum. One size does not fit all – we recommend that research-led, practice, policies and professional development recognises our subject's unique contribution to education.

We welcome the investment in digital curriculum resources. But NSEAD believes that the role of an arms-length curriculum body should be to support teachers in the creation of their own curriculum – to provide models and examples that indicate different ways of organising and structuring learning. 

Professional development is not, and cannot be about ‘free ready-made resources, guidance and lessons, designed in partnership with teachers and experts, which will reduce teachers’ workload and allow them to focus on responding to the needs of their class.’ This is a dangerous ambition – off-the-shelf solutions do nothing to raise professional standards. There is a real danger that this investment will result in teachers becoming mere curriculum operatives, rather than leaders of learning who work with their pupils to open up connections, spark new ideas and open minds. 

There is no reference in the White Paper to the diversity of approaches to teaching and learning that exist across subjects, and no recognition of the need to look beyond the so-called cornerstones of literacy and numeracy when determining impact and value

NSEAD believes that this arm's length curriculum body should build on the best partnership work developed by the Oak National Academy. This must include subject associations, who bring a vital wider evidence base along with expertise of their members (teachers and educators from across UK) to subject specialism.

There are proven benefits of bringing families of schools together, and the move to expand the Trust model to draw in the majority of primary schools who are currently working within their local authorities is intended to bring consistency and coherence. Subject communities have an important role to play, supporting the development of better practice and confident curriculum development. We would urge Multi Academy Trusts to support the development of subject-specialist networks working with subject associations and other communities of expertise.

It is clear that the four pillars of this White Paper will gain support from particular interest groups. As they stand however, they are a flimsy construction that will do nothing to ‘level up’ anything beyond the very narrow lens through which this government views success, fulfilment and happiness. We urge the DfE to engage with a deeper, more nuanced definition of education, which will genuinely allow every school community, and every child to thrive.