Education needs a fresh start from May- time to clear up the DfE’s mess

The last month has seen events in British politics move at a pace that is probably unprecedented. At times just keeping up has felt like a full time occupation. So this blog has been rather quiet as other issues have taken priority.

But as we approach the formation of a new government, it is an appropriate moment to look at the DfE agenda and perhaps identify some things that current ministers have mismanaged or ignored and which new ministers (if that is what we get) need to pay attention to.

It so happens that in the last few days, a number of issues have been brought into sharp perspective through the publication of research and through just the press of events:


There have been three reports on the performance of multi-academy trusts. They come from the DfE itself, the Sutton Trust and the Education Policy Institute (chaired by Lib Dem ex minister David Laws). They agree that at the very least MATs are no more effective than local authorities. A few are effective – as Sir Michael Wilshaw told the Select Committee, he could find half a dozen good ones – but no more. It’s clear than many trusts are not effective. The EPI’s first recommendation is very straightforward – “ditch full academisation as a policy in favour of ensuring all pupils are in a good school”.

At the same time, another of Gove’s superheads bit the dust. Durand Trust received a notice threatening termination unless it sorted out the massive conflicts of interest in its structure. In particular its founder, Greg Martin, is required to sever all links with the trust and its schools. Durand’s reaction – it is seeking legal advice!

Teacher Shortages

TheTeachers’ Pay Review body’s report – massively overdue – has highlighted the growing crisis in teacher recruitment and retention. It told ministers that they must be prepared to pay teachers more in future years recognising a continuing decline in teachers’ earnings compared to other professions.

At the same time the workforce census data showed 10% of teachers leaving the profession last year and almost a quarter leaving within three years of qualifying. The latter is the worst figure since records began in 1996.


The first results of KS2 tests under the new curriculum and testing arrangements were published. Just 53% of pupils reached the expected standard. So almost half the population have been labelled as failures at age 11. And to rub it in, one outcome is that many thousands of pupils will start their secondary school career faced with re-taking their KS2 tests. It is hard to imagine anything more likely to cause disillusionment at just the time when pupils should be excited by the new opportunities opening up in secondary school.


A petition regretting the exclusion of arts and technology subjects from the EBacc was debated in Westminster Hall. The crisis in design and technology was a particular feature with just 40% of teacher training places being taken up. When asked to justify the privileged position of history and geography, Nick Gibb responded that “we believe it is important that young people learn the skills of writing essays”.

The new Chief Inspector

The nominee for the post of HMCI, Amanda Spielman, suffered the unusual fate of being rejected by the Education Select Committee. Nicky Morgan has said she will override this decision. A lot of the great and good have rallied round emphasising her management qualities and arguing that she would be very different from Wilshaw. The committee was accused of hankering after a male and macho style of leadership.

It is true that to have a numerate Chief Inspector and one less inclined to give vent to personal prejudices would be no bad thing. But we are asked to have an HMCI who would not be qualified to participate herself in an inspection in any part of her sprawling empire. The tone of her session at the select committee was set by her first answer:

Chair: “Why do you want to be Her Majesty’s chief inspector?”

Amanda Spielman:  “Why? It is a bit of a “mountain” answer: because it’s there. It is something that is incredibly important in the system and that cannot be approached  simplistically. It is not a routine thing that you simply have to point in a certain direction and off it goes. It needs understanding of education; understanding of large and complex systems and how they evolve and need to be steered over time; understanding of Government and the pressures on Government; and understanding a big and complex profession. It brings it all together in a very exciting way. It is a challenge that I couldn’t resist.”

I don’t think it’s asking too much to think that the answer could have included something about making a difference for children. Frankly you’d expect better from a candidate for a head of department job in a school. And in this case it didn’t get better. But she’s probably going to get the job unless a new Secretary of State takes a different view.

So there a lot of chickens coming home to roost. We can only hope that we will see some changes at the DfE and that a new team will recognise how much needs doing and how misguided much of current policy is.

But then we remember that Teresa May supported the proposal for a grammar school annex in her constituency of Maidenhead ……. groans ….




2 Comments on “Education needs a fresh start from May- time to clear up the DfE’s mess”

  1. terryloane says:

    Thanks, John, for drawing our attention back to these significant educational issues that run the risk of being forgotten under all the political froth that has been dominating the media recently. But I must take issue with you on one thing. You talk of “the formation of a new government”, but surely this is to put far too much emphasis on to the role of a prime minister, and only encourages people to think that we have a pseudo-presidential mode of government. The conservative government continues in office and, in the absence of a general election, has a moral, if not a constitutional, duty to continue to deliver on the manifesto upon which it was elected. Teresa May may well decide to have a ministerial re-shuffle, but she is not forced to do so, and it could well be that the changes will be less dramatic than Macmillan’s 1962 ‘night of the long knives’. And I don’t think people talked of “the formation of a new government” back in 1962, or indeed in 1976 when Wilson resigned and was replaced by Callaghan.

    I suggest we, as educators, need to try to get the public to focus less on the celebrity aspect of politics and more on what is actually happening. As Rosa Luxemburg said, we should “proclaim loudly what is happening”. And this is precisely what you have done in your post, John, by taking us away from all the personality-based nonsense to the issues that affect the real learning of real people in the real world. Thank you!

  2. lewis doig says:

    And the one from School Improvement on Theresa May