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1.1 There is much that is good and to be celebrated in schools in England today. There are many excellent teachers, working hard and succeeding with children and young people. There are many outstanding school leaders, some of them taking the opportunity to extend their impact more widely as executive head teachers of more than one school, or as National Leaders of Education, supporting other schools to improve. There are many schools which take seriously the task of raising achievement and narrowing attainment gaps, focus sharply on the progress of every child and teach a rigorous and demanding curriculum in an inspiring way, opening up opportunity to many more young people. Third sector organisations including Teach First, Teaching Leaders and Future Leaders are helping to attract more of the best graduates and school leaders to working in disadvantaged schools. Academies are beginning to transform attainment in some of the most disadvantaged and low performing schools in the country.
1.2 But we can do much better. Teachers consistently tell us that they feel constrained and burdened, limited to repetitive teaching of the same narrow syllabus to successive classes of young people, often feeling that they are in a straitjacket which gives them little scope to pursue avenues which might unlock the potential of their pupils. The majority of pupils behave well1, but teachers consistently tell us that their authority to deal decisively with bad behaviour has been undermined. Consequently, too many lessons are disrupted, new teachers rate behaviour management as their biggest worry2 and poor behaviour is an important factor for teachers deciding to leave the profession3.
1.3 Meanwhile, head teachers frequently say that they too feel constrained to comply with the wishes of government, even where in theory they have the powers to do something innovative and different. They say that in the face of many different government agencies pursuing different goals, often holding schools to account for the use of dedicated ‘single issue’ budgets, it can be hard to establish and maintain their own improvement plan, and it takes great determination to pursue their own approach. Consequently, schools have become skilled at meeting government targets, but frequently head teachers feel that their ability to do what is right for their pupils and communities is constrained by government directives and improvement initiatives.
1.4 The approach some schools have taken to meeting targets falls some way short of meeting the needs of their pupils. In a significant number of primary schools, preparation for key stage two tests goes well beyond what would be sensible familiarisation with the tests into excessive rehearsal and repeated practice of tests, eating into valuable teaching time and creating a very narrow curriculum for some children in year six. Meanwhile in many secondary schools, there have been very significant changes to the curriculum. Some of these have served pupils well. But it is no accident that some of the qualifications which have become very popular recently are not those which have the most support from employers and universities, but those which count for more than one GCSE in performance tables, can be taught in a single option block and can be less demanding than most GCSEs.
1.5 For the period 2004–2010 the number of vocational qualifications taken up to age 16 rose from about 15,000 to 575,000: an increase of 3,800 per cent4. So, while more young people are participating in education for longer, the curriculum and qualifications they are pursuing contain too much that is not essential and too little which stretches them to achieve standards matching the best in the world.
Number of entries by KS4 pupils for VRQs, NVQs and BTEC vocational qualifications for the period 2004–2010
1.6 And at the same time as these qualifications have grown in popularity, there are worrying signs of a decline in the study of academic subjects. In some schools, the number of pupils studying languages or stretching qualifications in science and humanities has declined alarmingly5.
1.7 For example in 2009 around half of schools entered no pupils at all for all three sciences6. It is pupils in deprived areas who suffer the most from this trend: where schools struggle to attract good teachers of academic subjects7 they are more likely to stop teaching those subjects altogether. Deprived pupils are then less well prepared for university, especially for the highest status universities: out of the 80,000 pupils eligible for free school meals when they were 16-years-old, in the last year for which we have figures only 40 pupils went to Oxbridge8.
‘[...] in a knowledge economy, education is the new currency by which nations maintain economic competitiveness and global prosperity [...] opportunities to land a good job are vanishing fast for young workers who drop out of school or fail to get college [HE] experience.’
Arne Duncan, UNESCO speech
1.8 Given these problems, it is perhaps unsurprising that employers and universities consistently express concerns about the skills and knowledge of school leavers, while international studies show that other countries are improving their school systems faster, and the difference in achievement between rich and poor is greater in this country than in other comparable countries. We are clear that our school system is performing below its potential: our pupils, teachers and head teachers are capable of achieving more than the current structures allow them to.
1.9 It does not have to be like this. The best performing and fastest improving education systems in the world show us what is possible. These systems consistently combine a rigorous focus on high standards with a determination to narrow attainment gaps between pupils from different parts of society9. They combine high levels of autonomy for teachers and schools with high levels of accountability: so that professionals both feel highly trusted to do what they believe is right and highly responsible for the progress of every child10. They ensure that every child and young person learns through a coherent and stretching approach to the curriculum11.
1.10 Indeed, what these best performing jurisdictions tell us is that we must pay attention to all of the key elements – the recruitment, training and practices of teachers and leaders, the standards being set by curriculum and qualifications, the autonomy and accountability of schools – if our system is to become one of the world’s fastest improving. In this White Paper we set out to learn the lessons, so that more schools succeed and more of our skilled teachers feel that they have the support they need.
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