Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governance Association, responds to the release of the Department for Education’s Schools White Paper, Opportunity for All.
The publication of the Department for Education’s first white paper since 2016 contains some timely and constructive insight on the future of national education policy. Overall, there is very little to disagree with, but it has left some key questions half explored, others completely unanswered. NGA looks forward to discussing further detail in the coming months, and we acknowledge that the paper itself is only the start of the process for securing future change.
That said, the totality of what has been published today is somewhat underwhelming and a missed opportunity to tackle the big issues facing pupils. NGA were among the many who hoped there would be a clearer pathway set out for how the government looked to secure an ambitious future for our schools and all their pupils – that unfortunately does not seem to have happened with the publication of the white paper.
The release of Opportunity for All makes an important and welcome acknowledgement on the need to secure sustained teaching and school improvement through staff development. However, until we see further evidence to the contrary, NGA contests the Secretary of State for Education’s confident assessment there is already enough money in the system to deliver what has been set out. The feedback from many governors and trustees suggests this underestimates the scale of the challenge to reverse the impact of both the pandemic and poverty.
While governing boards are very supportive of starting salaries of £30k for new teachers, these may be difficult to find for some schools and trusts. And as an era of increasing costs impacts schools, but also fast becomes more overwhelming and insurmountable for so many families, it is regrettable that rising concerns about the impact of the increasing weight of child poverty and the lack of resources schools face have not been adequately addressed. We are concerned that pupil premium is in danger of being diluted.
NGA very much welcomes an increased emphasis on schools and trusts being more accountable to parents. This is in keeping with NGA’s recognition that ensuring the voices of stakeholders are heard is a core function for boards. However, there appears to be little by way of actual guidance for schools as to how this will work in practice. What has been included in these proposals is currently too vague and there is a danger that parent pledge will become no more than a compliance exercise.
A fully trust-based system
NGA is pleased to see the crucial role of strategic governance being included in the six standards that make up the department’s definition of trust strength. Local governance within MATs forms the bridge between the trust board and its schools, and the inclusion of the DfE’s expectation that all trusts need strong local governance is to be applauded.
NGA welcomes the announcement of a consultation on when a good school may request the regulator to consider whether it can move to a stronger trust. This is a significant step but one that should only be taken when it is in the best interests for the schools existing pupils.
The focus on LA established trusts requires further detail, and presumably just means MATs with LA connections as members who then appoint trustees. Although this may reassure a few schools, especially in terms of the local connections, it is unlikely to produce the sea change that the DfE wants to see. It wouldn’t be advisable for huge LA MATs to be set up in one go. While this may prove a helpful step for some, one of the lessons of the early days of MATs was that rapid growth was proven to be high problematic in some trusts. It is vital that the proposals within the white paper do not allow the mistakes of the early days of MATs to be repeated.
NGA’s 2021 annual governance survey revealed that just 5 per cent of maintained school governors and 15 per cent of single-academy trustees planned to join a MAT in the near future. Only time will tell how the proposals for all schools to be in a strong multi academy trust or with plans to join or form one by 2030 will turn out in practice. We remain unconvinced enough has been done and said to win the hearts and minds of the decision makers. The accompanying case for a fully trust led system is unlikely to be enough to inspire all decision makers that joining a trust is in the best interest of their pupils.