Fact-checking education policy for the Daily Telegraph

Like many people in day-to-day contact with schools, I was astonished to read the contents of the somewhat surreal Education Excellence Everywhere White Paper when it came out recently. However on reflection, I was not entirely surprised the Secretary of State had produced it. It was clearly an attempt to salvage something from the frenzied regime of her predecessor. And like many career politicians in a similar position, she has fudged a lot of the detail. She is not the first to do this, and she will not be the last.

Therefore in this post, I don’t want to talk at length about whether politicians should or shouldn’t be selective with the truth. We can pretty much take it for granted that many will. I want to talk instead about today’s Daily Telegraph opinion piece  Stop this academic heckling, in which many of the pretexts of the White Paper were rehearsed once again without any effort to check the facts, or get to the heart of why even moderate and right-wing thinkers are nervous of many of the premises contained within it. I will do this by fact-checking the introduction of the White Paper myself (much more than that and it would be too long for a reasonable blog post).

My first impression of the Education Excellence Everywhere stance was that it started on a weak footing with this paragraph:

“In 2010, we inherited an education system where 1 in 3 young people left primary school unable to read, write and add up properly; where the number of young people studying core academic subjects had halved in 13 years. Far too many schools were failing, and far too many children were left out or left behind. Recent international assessments, comparing the performance of our young people in 2011/2012 with their international peers, have shown that our education standards have remained static, at best, whilst other countries have moved ahead”.

Nicky Morgan was publicly reprimanded by Sir Andrew Dilnot from the National Statistic Agency on 18 December 2014 for making the assertion that one in three young people left primary school unable to read, write, and add up properly, something she re-asserts on the first page of the document, and which is a claim so outlandish that it would put the British education system somewhere around the level of countries such as Bangladesh, Bhutan, Haiti, Malawi and Nepal (according to UNESCO data). Here is the public letter of reprimand:


In the other measures, since the Tories came to power, internationally we have fallen slightly from 8th in the world (2006) to 13th in the world (2011) in PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Survey), 5th in the world to 9th in the world for Science in TIMSS (Trends in International Maths and Science Survey) and 7th to the world to 10th in Maths (TIMSS). TIMSS leans towards testing applied knowledge. The tests are scheduled to occur again this year. These shifts are not particularly significant and many other Western European countries show a similar pattern, but if the fall continues once the PIRLS and TIMSS data for 2016 are in, this might show that the Coalition education policies were not particularly effective and may have been detrimental if, for example, we fall to a position in the mid to low 20s or beyond for each subject. Testing is taking place at the moment and results will be available next year.

In PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) we have moved from the 2009 position of being 26th in the world (Maths) 20th in the world (Science) and 23rd in the world (Reading) to the 2012 position of being 28th in the world (Maths – a slight fall), 16th in the world (Science – a slight rise) and 25th in the world (Reading – a slight fall). PISA leans towards testing pure knowledge and has been heavily criticised for its statistical basis. The next round of PISA results should be available in December 2016.

On the basis of the international data cited above, it would be reasonable to say that our education system shows broadly similar levels of attainment and movement to our Western European neighbours such as France, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Belgium and so on. Sweden, which introduced similar education policies to the ones Morgan is proposing in the 1990s, represents an outlier as it has fallen dramatically in PISA international league tables to the low 30s since these policies were introduced.

Other claims are made in the introduction to the report, and I will address each of them in turn:

“Over the course of the last Parliament we put in place bold reforms to drive up standards in schools. We tackled grade inflation and restored the integrity of our qualifications,
introduced a new, more ambitious national curriculum, raised the bar for entry to the teaching profession, and gave more freedom and autonomy to headteachers and leaders through the academies and free schools programme”.

Grade inflation
It is important to be aware that in the Education Reform Act 1988 the Conservative Party put arrangements in place for the schooling system to move from norm-referenced qualifications, known as O Levels or Ordinary Level Examinations, to GCSE examinations (General Certificate of Secondary Education), which were to be criterion-based. This meant that the qualifications system changed from one in which only a set percentage of candidates could receive a particular grade each year, to one in which, mathematically speaking, all candidates could technically receive the top grade if they met each of the criteria. This forms the fundamental basis for grade inflation – changing the mathematical basis upon which results were calculated and compared, and it was something introduced by Nicky Morgan’s own party.

Integrity of qualifications
According to the British Council, each year 2,000,000 non-UK candidates from 90 countries sit UK examinations, as they are regarded as world-leading in their impartiality and rigour.

National curriculum
All schools now have to become academies, so they will also be at liberty to disapply the national curriculum for their pupils, and it may not be used in its current or future form by many schools.

Raising the bar for entry to the teaching profession
Academies do not have to employ qualified teachers, and indeed the Government plans to abolish Qualified Teacher Status, thereby lowering the bar.

Some readers of this blog post may have been present at a recent Policy Exchange event when I asked Nicky Morgan about Liverpool College, an HMC (Head Masters’ Conference) school founded in 1840, which recently converted from being an independent school to an academy. As an Old Girl, I happen to think this is a step forward, as every child should have the chance to attend a school of this type if their parents think it is suitable, not just those who can afford the fees. However at the Policy Exchange event the Secretary of State tried to assure me that Liverpool College would enjoy enhanced autonomy after conversion. Clearly this makes no sense at all – as it was originally an independent school, i.e. wholly autonomous, moving to the state sector is quite obviously going to mean a loss of autonomy as it complies with a raft of state regulations surrounding everything from admissions to procurement. So let’s see how the question of autonomy might play out for other schools.

According to summer 2015 DfE figures, more than 846 schools belonged to multi-academy trusts (MATs), with the largest multi-academy trusts then being:

E-ACT – 23
Greenwood Academies Trust – 27
Ormiston Academies Trust – 27
ARK Schools – 31
The David Ross Education Trust – 34
The Harris Federation – 35
Plymouth CAST – 35
REACH2 – 39
Kemnal Academies Trust – 41
United Learning Trust – 42
Oasis Community Learning – 44
School Partnership Trust Academies – 46
Academies Enterprise Trust – 61
Therefore many head teachers will be subject to control by the MAT and not independently autonomous. As Local Management of Schools (LMS) is being abolished, it may be that schools have less autonomy in practical terms with regard to procurement, outsourcing of certain key functions, uniform, curriculum, staff appointments, and so on.

“We will no longer require academy trusts to reserve places for elected parents on governing boards”

Many of us are parent governors, a role we take very seriously and carry out with a great degree of altruism in our spare time. However soon the role of parent governor will cease to exist in many MATs, and there will be fewer governors overall as schools will be grouped together with governance being provided by boards overseeing up to 60 schools at once. It is hard to see how parents (and indeed the Government itself) will be able to navigate such structures usefully when seeking accountability, and this means higher risks of schools running into problems as a result of distant boards not being sufficiently aware of what is happening on the front line.

So as we can see, even the most cursory fact check shows the introduction to the White Paper in a distinctly negative light, from wherever you are sitting in the political spectrum. This is the reason why even moderate and right wing professionals have started to voice unrest. Unless there is a more intelligent debate about the way forward that does not rely on insulting groups of professionals and misdirecting the electorate, as happened in the White Paper and more recently today’s Daily Telegraph article, I fail to see how we can make any useful progress in terms of raising standards. The Daily Telegraph has had repeated opportunities to engage with this White Paper properly, but in its anxiety to get an opinion piece out quickly in response to the Nick Gibb versus ATL fracas, it relied on repeating stirring the same pot rather than doing a decent editorial job. Given that it is supposed to be a respected broadsheet newspaper, today it will have left its readership somewhat hungry.



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