A period of calm and stability – latest update

Bill WatkinBill Watkin considers the latest termly email from the Secretary of State and the ongoing changes in education…

The DfE has now published the latest termly email from the Secretary of State to all schools. It is not strictly speaking a termly email, because for some reason, this is the first to be sent since May 19.

In this term’s email, Nicky Morgan set out the DfE priorities for 2016, which include:

  1. Publishing a response to the EBacc consultation (it’s open until 29 January, and I encourage you to respond)
  2. Empowering professionals, by helping more schools enjoy the freedom that becoming an academy brings and continuing to tackle unnecessary teacher workload.
  3. Working towards a national funding formula for schools based on pupil need, not unfair and outdated calculations.
  4. Getting some of our best teachers and middle leaders into areas where they are needed the most, via the new National Teaching Service.
  5. Supporting schools to develop pupils into well-rounded, confident, happy and resilient individuals to boost their academic attainment, employability and ability to engage in society as active citizens.
  6. Continuing to tackle radicalisation of young people wherever it occurs and supporting schools to recognise the signs of radicalisation early and to act quickly.
  7. Helping you make the best financial decisions for your schools with a new financial health and efficiency package of information and tools (available on gov.uk shortly). As part of that package of support look out for an email with a benchmarking report card for your school.
  8. Funding a significant expansion of the National Citizen Service, available to 15- to 17-year-olds (more info soon)

In this May 19 email, the SoS committed the DfE to a period of calm and stability in schools. I am sure that many welcomed and applauded this commitment, but few will have experienced much calm and stability since that time.

And there are two reasons for that: new initiatives have continued to come through the letterbox; but also, we are now in a period when the reforms of the last five years must be implemented in schools. Teachers are working hard to put in place the structures, processes, resources and lessons to make sure they are delivering the new requirements.

New initiatives since the May 19 message include:

  1. The decision, on 22 June, not to count legacy GCSEs taken early by Y10 students in 2017 in those subjects which will be available for first teaching in 2016. This caught many schools, particularly those with a three year KS4, unawares; they had to have a major rethink (options, timetable, staffing) in the last month of the summer term.
  2. The dropping, before Christmas, of IT at GCSE, AS and A-Level also came as a surprise to many. The intention, it seems, is to encourage more pupils to study computer science. But 90% of CS lessons are taught by non-specialists; the answer, it seems, is to assume that IT teachers, who now have less to do, can gently migrate to become CS teachers. Of course, that’s not so easy.
  3. The removal of the education services grant came as less of a surprise. It will be a difficult cut to accommodate, but the writing was on the wall; financially, there are tough times ahead. What was more surprising was that funding for summer schools has been ended, with very little fanfare.
  4. The suggestion from Ofqual, over Christmas, that legacy GCSEs in English, English language (but not literature) and maths should be available as resits in summer 2017 seems to be a helpful development.
  5. The Ebacc consultation has proposed a rather different, in a very welcome sense, scenario from that originally put forward. It will not be compulsory for all; the Ofsted Outstanding category will not depend on it; and it is schools that will decide which students should be exempt. It is held up as the aspirational curriculum and heavily promoted, but not compulsory.
  6. Ofsted has rolled out its new framework, with its new judgement addressing personal development, behaviour and welfare; this is a welcome change, as we see growing mental ill-health issues in schools, partly in response to the government’s Rigour Revolution.
  7. The Assessment Without Levels Commission has published its report and schools now have clearer guidance about what to do and how to do it; the commission has made it clear that it is not providing a solution, just some advice, and it is up to schools to work out what to do (if they have not already).
  8. We also have learned of, among other things, the new National Teaching Service, the definition of coasting schools, the proposals for more rigorous KS1 tests; the interim assessment frameworks at KS1 and KS2, the times tables tests, the requirement for effective online filtering and monitoring, and the new admissions rules for summer born children.

The DfE has committed to delivering on every line in the Conservative election manifesto and has indicated that the reforms introduced during the last parliament are here to stay.

And now it is time for schools to deliver on these. New curriculum, new specifications, new assessments, new accountability measures and new gradings are all understood in theory and it is now time to put them into practice. This is a significant factor in schools feeling that a period of calm and stability has not yet arrived.

A residual lack of clarity and certainty in some developments:

  1. Very few of the new exam specifications in subjects for first teaching in September 2016 have been accredited by Ofqual, and so most are only available in draft form. With a matter of weeks before the options evening, with less than two terms to plan the curriculum, schools are still having to work with draft materials – and they have seen how different the draft and final versions in maths were; different enough to make them nervous of placing too much faith in the draft.
  2. What will the scaled score at the end of KS2 look like? How can schools set targets for the next cohort of Y7 pupils, in the absence of the kind of scientifically valid data which has allowed us to draw accurate correlation graphs and regression lines in the past? As we move to a new assessment framework, there will be a period of uncertainty.
  3. The Rochford Review has now published, and proposes interim arrangements for pupils working below the required standard (P level pupils). How will our most vulnerable and least able pupils cope with the new more rigorous curriculum and tests, and how will they be measured?
  4. The Assessment Without Levels Commission will soon publish a bank of assessment questions for schools. This is welcome, but time is short now, if they are to be used from this coming September.
  5. The consultation on the plan for Y7 pupils to resit their SATs if they failed them in Y6 will be launched soon. The likelihood is that the first cohort to which this will apply will be those starting secondary school in 2017, and the first resit will be that December. So schools will need to start planning soon. And how will this work? Read an earlier blog of mine on this subject.

But there is also the question of logistics. For example, imagine a high ability Y7 intake; only 23 pupils failed their SATs and need to resit them; they are put in a separate group so that they can focus on the KS2 curriculum and prepare for their resits.

In December, the 23 pupils retake their SATs; 12 of them pass but the other 11 fail and need to reresit the tests in the Spring. So in term 2 of Y7, the school now needs a class of 12 – who are just starting Y7 work in January – and a class of 11 – who will continue their KS2 work.

Two small classes at this end of the spectrum means larger classes at the other end (or employing more teachers). Now we arrive at the Spring resit. Of the 11 who take the test, 7 pass it, but the other 4 do not. And the class size problem is exacerbated.

And at the start of Y8, how should pupils be grouped: those who passed their SATs in Y6 and did three terms of KS3 work in Y7; those who passed their SATs in December and did two terms of KS3 work in Y7; those who passed their SATs in April and did one term of KS3 in Y7?

As a number of FE students are concluding: ‘I’d rather get an E, than a D in English GCSE. That way, I don’t have to resit my GCSE, but can take a functional skills pathway, when I pursue my post 16 study and training.’

In a conversation last week, an inspector of a local FE college described a class of would-be welders. None of these students would end their course with the qualification they needed because they will not pass their English Language GCSE. So local employers will look to recruit their qualified welder workforce from Holland and elsewhere.

The problem is that with their D in English GCSE at the end of Y11, these students must now resit their GCSE, rather than take a qualification in functional skills – probably a more useful qualification for them and the work they will do. So are schools perversely incentivised to ensure that these students achieve an E grade, rather than a D?

A period of calm and stability?

So, a period of calm and stability… certainly an aspirational objective. But all the changes must now be embedded, solutions to well-understood hurdles must be overcome and some of the missing details still need to be established. The next two years are not likely to feel calm or stable to those at the sharp end of the profession.

Nevertheless, all teachers and schools leaders will recognise the need to continue to focus on classroom delivery, to set and aim for more challenging targets and standards, to do what is best for the young people.

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