‘Opportunity for all: strong schools with great teachers for your child’, the long-awaited government White Paper on education (White Paper) was finally published on 28 March.

The big question is to what extent the proposals could lead to a sea change in our education system and bring about much-needed improvements and outcomes for children and young people or merely represent a series of soundbites that lack substance (and the necessary funding) to deliver.

There are certainly some areas in the White Paper that do not seem to go much further than what already exists with a degree of re-packaging. The minimum 32.5 hours school week was picked out by the media but in practice, the vast majority of schools already deliver this or more. The Parent Pledge that 'any child who falls behind in English or maths should receive timely and evidence-based support to enable them to reach their potential. We pledge to ensure that schools communicate this work to parents, ensuring parents are fully engaged in their child’s education – and relieving them of the worry and stress that comes from a child falling behind at school', feels like stating the obvious and simply reflects what most schools will already be doing. There is also mention of driving better behaviour and higher attendance through more effective use of data. This is unlikely to be achieved without additional human resources to interpret the data and act upon it, which inevitably raises questions about funding this.

Adequate funding lies at the heart of the likely success or failure of a number of other measures outlined in the White Paper, for example:

  • 500,000 teacher training and development opportunities
  • Specialist training to better drive literacy (and other areas such as Early Years leadership)
  • £30,000 per annum minimum starting salaries for teachers
  • Up to 6 million tutoring courses by 2024
  • A new curriculum body that will, amongst other things, make available a central bank of digital resources at all key stages and across the whole curriculum (surely a much overdue development?)

Some additional pots of funding are being made available for at least some of these initiatives, although even seemingly significant sums of money will not go far across the 22,000 or so schools which may wish to benefit. There is also the question of what happens when this initial funding is fully utilised? If we are to see sustainable sea change improvement across the many areas mentioned in the White Paper, then meaningful career development opportunities, specialist leadership training, appropriate salaries, tutoring opportunities for those needing additional support (to name just a few areas for development) must be adequately resourced through the core funding schools receive. Most schools simply do not have the resources to deliver more new initiatives from existing budgets and whilst the potential impact of these measures is no doubt significant, it will only be achieved if the fine ideas are accompanied by meaningful and sustained increases in core funding.

The worst kept secret confirmed in the White Paper is the Government’s intention to require every school to be part of or have plans to join or form a multi-academy trust by 2030. There is, of course, more than a touch of déjà vu here. The 2016 White Paper ‘Educational excellence everywhere’, set exactly the same target for 2020 but was met with a wall of resistance.

The Government at the time very quickly abandoned that goal in favour of a softer approach to encourage, cajole and (in the case of failing schools) force by other means schools to convert. The difficulty for the present government is that the hoped-for flow of conversions was reduced to a trickle by a general election quickly followed by two years of Covid-19 disruption. With the two-strand publicly funded education system (maintained schools and academies) proving increasingly cumbersome and difficult to regulate, the Government seems forced to act in order to accelerate academisation.

Much of the opposition in 2016 came from local authorities which maintained a strong education service and from schools within those local authorities content with the service they were receiving. Perhaps anticipating a repeat of such opposition, the biggest difference in the new White Paper is the provision for local authorities to establish new multi-academy trusts, although notably this is limited to situations 'where too few strong trusts exist' and 'such trusts will be subject to safeguards to effectively manage any potential conflicts of interest both for the trust and the local authority – including limits on local authority involvement'.

At the beginning of the academy programme in 2010, the clear intention was to completely remove schools from local authority control so this development certainly feels like a significant compromise. How local authorities will view the new proposals and precisely how the anticipated safeguards will work remains to be seen. This is perhaps the area of the White Paper where in particular ‘the devil is in the detail’ and one wonders if this is why these proposals were tucked away at the end of the document behind other more straightforward measures.

However, subject to the Government not facing any significant challenge, there is now a clear trajectory and timeframe for maintained schools. We would, therefore, expect to see a surge in the number of schools converting into academies over the next couple of years as a significant number of maintained schools decide to be masters of their own destinies, as far as possible, by choosing to convert sooner rather than later and seeking out appropriate trust partners. We also expect many trusts to be pro-actively approaching maintained schools in their area of operation, sharing details of their offering and inviting schools to join with them.

Finally, the White Paper emphasises ‘strong trusts’. Although the Government don’t make it entirely clear what they mean by ‘strong’ (clues can be found in the White Paper case studies and the data in the accompanying ‘The case for a fully trust-led system’ paper), there is a stated expectation that 'most trusts will be on a trajectory to either serve a minimum of 7,500 pupils or run at least ten schools'. However, the intention is not entirely clear as, for example, ten single entry primary schools or smaller would be very significantly less than 7,500 pupils. What is clear is that single academy trusts and very small multi-academy trusts (five schools or less) will continue to be targeted by the Department for Education and are expected to grow rapidly or merge into a similar size or larger multi-academy trust.

For more information

For more information or to discuss ways in which we may be of assistance to your academy trust please contact Phil Watts.