Hello everybody!

Well, what can I say? This week’s blog post was originally intended to be a little longer and a little more in-depth. I had spoken to those in the know about international comparison tests (they’re expensive to enter, so it is in the counties’ best interests to see some use for the results… even if the tests are so unrelated to any particular country’s curriculum as to be almost entirely useless for comparative purposes); I had done a very deep-dive into the actual TIMSS and PIRLS reports, as well as the PISA report (which wasn’t mentioned in the White Paper). There was an interview with a data scientist to help me understand what the data says and why certain reported interpretations could be skewed and potentially biased. So much, it was truly going to be a bumper post. Part exam exploration, part DfE update…

Then my wife went into labour.

So I’ve had to cut things short. I hope you understand!

Following the White (Paper) Rabbit…

This week, the Department for Education in England released a White Paper. This White Paper has been critiqued by people far more influential than your humble blogger and podcaster (remember to subscribe to Mr M’s Musings: The Podcast wherever you get your podcasts), and a quick trawl through Twitter will net you various quips, insights, comments and complaints. 

But just what the heck is a White Paper anyway?

A White Paper is basically a glorified mission statement - a ‘to-do’ list with a purpose. It is Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, saying what he wants for education and, importantly, how he intends to get it. It’s a 68-page document covering everything from teacher training to school leavers’ success rates. You can read a copy of it here

In a nutshell (and it is a very rough-husked nutshell), the government:

  • want more children to leave Primary and Secondary education with higher grades
  • want more teachers
  • seem to want greater control over what is taught
  • want to extend the school day (to 6.5 hours - this is 9 am - 3:30 pm… but they want more)

They intend to achieve all this by (again, very, very roughly - this is all extremely back-of-an-envelope analysis here) encouraging more schools to join academy trusts:

“That is why we want to spread the benefits of the best multi-academy trusts so that every child learns with the benefits of a strong, supportive family of schools.”[1] (emphasis added)

They also intend to ‘establish a new curriculum body’, which could lead to teachers not only being told what to teach but also how to teach it:

“Building on the success of Oak National Academy’s work in the pandemic, we will establish a new arms-length national curriculum body.”[1] (emphasis added)

They intend to do all of this through the introduction of the new Institute of Teaching[2], the leader of which is Mr Ian Bauckham who, among other things, is the Chair of both Ofqual (the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation) and Oak National Academy. That, to me at least, suggests a conflict of interests. How can the person in charge of qualifications also be the person in charge of moulding the curriculum? 

It’s all a bit dystopian to me (and I’m not the only one[3]).

I would love to go further into this White Paper but, as I said, other people already have. Besides, there was something else that interested me far more:

What was behind the paper?

The majority of the data used in the White Paper came from the most recent 

Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS)[4], from 2016, and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS), from 2019. Both tests assess 10-year-olds (TIMSS assesses 14-year-olds as well)[5]. I’m guessing that the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results were not considered as, although they assess Comprehension, Maths and Science, they only assess 15-year-olds (this week’s podcast is all about the latest PISA results…). 

There was a smattering of data from the most up-to-date Key Stage 2 and 4 Assessments analyses but, in all honesty, the numbers are so similar over the last few years that they’re not really worth looking at[6 & 7]. I am told by people who understand data analysis better than I, that this is a good thing as it shows consistent results and suggests a strong and reliable approach to the teaching of the subjects tested.

Nadhim Zahawi says in the paper that 65% of children achieving the expected standard for reading, writing and maths at the end of Key Stage 2 was not good enough. He wants England to be ‘world-leading’[1]. I can only assume by this that he means he wants to see England and the top of TIMSS, PIRLS and by extension, PISA. Like I said in Episode 7 of my podcast, he wants to beat Singapore in maths (and English and science). But will extending the school day, or throwing money at new teachers, or even micromanaging the curriculum achieve this?

Not according to PIRLS and TIMSS (and PISA - I know, I know, they didn’t use the PISA report…). 

We are 6th in the world ranking for children feeling safe though, so that’s nice (America is 26th but don’t feel too bad, Canada is 27th!). Singapore, the country that consistently lands in the top two of the academic results, came 21st in the safety rankings. Could this be linked to the high suicide rates of their children[8]?

Having said this, England ranks 34th in the world for ‘bullying almost never occurs’, so I’m not entirely sure how PIRLS has defined ‘safe'.

Another interesting tidbit that didn’t make it to the White Paper was the fact that England was the third highest country when it came to placing emphasis on academic success. Singapore (that country that UK government seems to hold in such high esteem), despite its high academic scores, ranks 13th. Now, there are many, many reasons why Singapore appears to not push for academic success but achieves it anyway - and that’s a blog post of another time.

The PIRLS report also suggests that children perform better if they have teachers who feel valued; who are “satisfied with their profession and the working conditions”[4]. According to the results, England is in 28th place (out of 61) for teacher satisfaction. Interestingly, that result didn’t make it to the White Paper.

Or did it?

Point 36 of the White Paper[1] states: 

“We are committed to delivering the government’s manifesto commitment to pay new teachers a starting salary of £30,000”

Let’s be generous and ignore the fact that this pay rise is only applicable to new teachers, and that more experienced teachers are effectively losing money when inflation is factored in (more experienced teachers are receiving a pay rise of between 2% and 3%, inflation is predicted to reach 7% in the spring[9]). 

Let’s also ignore the results from PIRLS showing that “experience can have a large impact on effectiveness, especially during the first few years of teaching” (I’ve added the emphasis but I think you get my point)[4], after all, the White Paper ignored it, so it’s only fair… I guess. 

We’ll pretend all of that didn’t happen (even though it absolutely did happen and this is why you have to check the source material; that’s why I cite all my references for you lovely people!). The government is going to throw money at new teachers and invest in a whole new teaching infrastructure. 


And how fortunate that they decided not to include the PISA reports. Especially the passage on page 22 that says that the solution to shortening the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils is not as simple as paying teachers more[10].

Anyway, they didn’t use the PISA report so I guess I can’t either. 

That’s okay, there are other things to consider. I mentioned that Mr Zahawi also wants to micromanage the curriculum (through the gradual introduction of National Oak Academy lessons - what was that song about a bad moon rising?). The thing is, we did that already; it didn’t work. The education secretary’s own political party knows it didn’t work. Even the political opposition party recognised that micromanaging the curriculum doesn’t work[11].

In England, we used to have a thing called the National Strategy. It actually wasn’t that bad - the lesson outlines and teaching strategies were pretty useful (I continue to use some of them to this day). The problem was the insistence that all schools followed the lessons to the letter, completely ignoring local needs and removing any sense of equity within the classroom and between schools.

Call me a crazy conspiracy theorist but isn’t this drive towards a National academy the same thing? Speaking of academies (which are defined in England as state-funded schools that receive funding directly from the government and are run by an academy trust. They have more control over how they do things than community schools; do not charge fees; and are subject to official inspection by Ofsted - the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills[12].), the government wants more:

“We will shape a dynamic system of strong trusts.”[1]

The thing is… they have been proved to not work[13]. In his paper: What are Academies the Answer to?[14], Stephen Gorard points out that the misleading reported success of early academies (from 2000) was based on ignoring short-term indicators or failure and embracing short-term indicators of success.

Hmmm… only using the bits of information that suit their purpose? Does that sound eerily familiar to a certain White Paper?

More recently, flawed evidence behind apparent academy successes has been cited by the teaching union group, NEU. They argued that schools rated ‘Good’ or ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted were more likely to lose those grades after academisation[15]. They also mention a 2018 report from UCL (my old stomping ground) that found academies offered no positive impact on attainment or progress[16]. Add to this a lack of accountability and the fact that academies are free to employ unqualified teachers[17] and I’m not all that sure you have yourself the most convincing argument. Especially considering that countries with high levels of unqualified teachers ranked lower in Mr Zahawi’s precious PIRLS and TIMSS rankings[4 & 5].

That leaves us with lengthening the school day. I’ll admit, this one had me confused. The number 32.5 hours a week was mentioned. Dividing this by 5 gives us 6.5 hours a day. That’s 9am to 3:30pm. I don’t want to be that guy but when I was at school, that was school time anyway. I’m confused.

The minister also calls for two, one-hour sessions in the morning and two, one-hour sessions in the afternoon. Again, that’s what I had when I was a child. I know, coming from several London schools, that that is not what is being delivered now (anecdotally, I can vouch for two, one-hour sessions in the morning and two, forty-five-minute sessions after lunch - which is not really long enough so they tend to end up being one ninety-minute session… which is too long).

I find myself agreeing with this aim. Especially given that PISA results (I know, I know, they didn’t use the PISA results in the White Paper) show schools in England fall below the OECD average of just 44 hours of learning time per week[9]. Although it is also interesting to note that the countries that have fewer qualified teachers but spend longer in school rank below England in the rankings. Are you sure you want more academies, Mr Education Secretary?

Look, ultimately, I don’t know. I’m not a politician and, as I said at the top of this blog post, there are people far more adept at interpreting these reports than I. It just doesn’t seem like this White Paper says anything promising or even new. I guess time will tell… or will it? Education policy takes such a long time to yield results that entire governments can change before any useful evidence can be gathered.

Still, if nothing else, it was useful to explore the reports behind the paper.

Well, I had better go and see if I can be useful. Take care of yourself; take care of your friends; and remember, you can do this... you're awesome. And hey, by the time you read this, I could be a father...


Carl Headley-Morris

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References for this post:

[1] Zahawi, N. (2022) Opportunity for all: Strong schools with great teachers for your child [White Paper]. Crown. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1063602/Opportunity_for_all_strong_schools_with_great_teachers_for_your_child__print_version_.pdf

[2] Zahawi, N., Gibb, N. (2021) New Institute of Teaching set to be established. Crown. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-institute-of-teaching-set-to-be-established 

[3] Weale, S. (2022) Education union criticises ‘badly flawed’ evidence behind academy drive, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/education/2022/mar/31/education-union-criticises-badly-flawed-evidence-behind-academy-drive

[4] Mulils, I.V.S., Martin, M.O., Foy, P. & Hooper, M (2017). What Makes A Good Reader: Pirls 2016 International Results in Reading. TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center, Lynch School of Education, Boston College and International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 2017912121 ISBN: 978-1- 889938-48- 6  

[5] Mulils, I.V.S., Martin, M.O., Foy, P. & Hooper, M (2021). What Makes A Good Reader: Pirls 2016 International Results in Reading. TIMSS & PIRLS International Study Center, Lynch School of Education, Boston College and International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA). Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 2021918336 ISBN-978-1-889938-58-5

[6] DfE, (2019) National curriculum assessments at key stage 2 in England, 2019 (revised). Crown. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/851798/KS2_Revised_publication_text_2019_v3.pdf

[7] DfE, (2019) Key stage 4 performance, 2019 (revised). Crown. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/863815/2019_KS4_revised_text.pdf

[8] Yan Han, G. (2020) "Youth suicides still a concern, with 94 cases last year and in 2018" The Straits Times: Singapore. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/number-of-suicides-in-2019-did-not-decline-compared-with-2018-youth-suicides-still-a

[9] Bailey, A., Broadbent, B., Cunliffe, J., Haskel, J., Mann, C.L., Pill, H., Ramsden, D., Saunders, M. & Tenreyro, S (2022). Monetary Policy Report February 2022. Bank of England. https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/-/media/boe/files/monetary-policy-report/2022/february/monetary-policy-report-february-2022.pdf?la=en&hash=BD71A8D49FA5973A333213CE8AD3D266ED9C3441

[10] Schleicher, A. (2018). PISA 2018 Insights and Interpretations. OECD. https://www.oecd.org/pisa/PISA%202018%20Insights%20and%20Interpretations%20FINAL%20PDF.pdf

[11] Shepherd, J. (2010). “Labour's teaching strategies were a burden, say inspectors”. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/education/2010/feb/24/national-strategies-a-burden-ofsted

[12] In “Schools and Education”, The Home Office. Crown. https://www.gov.uk/types-of-school/academies#:~:text=Academies%20receive%20funding%20directly%20from,Academies%20are%20inspected%20by%20Ofsted. (accessed: March, 2022)

[13] Andrews, J. (2018) School performance in academy chains and local authorities - 2017, Education Policy institute. ISBN: 978-1-909274-54-9. https://epi.org.uk/publications-and-research/performance-academy-local-authorities-2017/

[14]Gorard, S. (2009). What are Academies the answer to? In Journal of Education Policy (Vol. 24, Issue 1, pp. 101–113). https://doi.org/10.1080/02680930802660903

[15] From Times Educational Supplement Magazine, “Maintained schools 'more likely to stay 'good' than academies'” (2019). https://www.tes.com/magazine/archive/maintained-schools-more-likely-stay-good-academies

[16] Walker, R. (2018). 'Chaotic' government reforms are failing to tackle education inequality, UCL IOE Press. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/ioe/news/2018/jul/chaotic-government-reforms-are-failing-tackle-education-inequality

[17] Martindale, N., (2019) Does outsourcing school systems degrade education workforces? Evidence from 18,000 English state schools, British Journal of Sociology of Education, 40:8, 1015-1036, DOI: 10.1080/01425692.2019.1647092