May 2022 edition: 2022-2030: Beyond the White Paper

2022-2030: Beyond the White Paper

When the White Paper was released, many commentators were quick to suppose a lack of real vision and ambition from Whitehall. Cries of ‘there’s nothing new in here!’, ‘we’ve heard it all before!’, ‘this is a just a repackaged version of the 2016 paper!’ echoed across #EduTwitter. Your view on that depends on your perception of both the sector and what ‘good’ policy looks like. Because to be fair to the Government, there are important changes suggested in there – albeit yet to be developed behind a promise of seven consultations and 26 further pieces of work.

But what of that beyond the four chapters of the White Paper? As we journey to a full Trust system by 2030, what else might dominate thinking in those eight years?

If there’s one thing the arrival of a pandemic taught us, the answer is we can never really know. But, spoiler alert: we do know there are some striking challenges ahead that will need addressing and that just might capture the policy sphere in the coming years.

It seems sensible, then, that if the sector is to rise to the plethora of challenges likely to arrive in the coming years, schools being part of a Trust is essential to the solution.

Sam Skerritt

Funding is a constant issue, and that’s unlikely to change. We’ve already seen the impact of the rise in energy prices, which is likely to become even more troublesome later this year, and there will be very real consequences along the supply chain that begin to take hold.

Catering is sure to become the next big issue as food prices and staffing costs rise as expected, with no sign yet that the amount paid for universal free school meals will catch up.

National Insurance contributions, pay and pensions are also likely to present a real issue; that’s before we even stray into thinking about how pay scales and pensions might work when all schools are part of a strong Trust, or how Trusts will grow rapidly with such tight budgeting headroom.

Then there’s how any of these issues interact with the sustainability ambitions of the Department. Most schools in England will require substantial retrofitting across their estate, whether it be heating or lighting or controls – and then what of solar installation, electric vehicle charging, or the other infrastructure investments Trusts might be expected to make?

The other issue – which manages to straddle the short-, medium-, and long-term – is recruitment and retention. Recent ITT figures are alarming, and TeacherTapp data shows a concerning trend of school staff, particularly headteachers, expecting to leave the profession in the coming years.

With pandemic fatigue gripping the workforce, it stands to reason that we’ve yet to feel the full brunt of burnout and exhaustion. And if you can forgive my innate cynicism, it’s not clear how a £3,000 levelling up premium for new teachers, in certain areas, teaching certain subjects, is going to crack it.

Then there’s everything else.

The welcome return of exams and assessment will be a big moment for the sector, a key cornerstone of normality yet to settle post-COVID – but how smoothly they go will largely be dictated by the prevalence of the virus, and whether any new variants appear over the coming weeks. We also await the recalibration of university places following a few years of fluctuating deferrals and how that might impact access and destinations. Then there are potentially vast political shifts on the horizon too; what will the long-term impact be of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? What will the outcome be of the (at least) two General Elections before 2030? How many more Secretaries of State for Education might there be in the next eight years? (For context, we’re on the sixth post-holder in eight years at time of writing…)

For a while now, the Treasury has been committed to its line that schools have plenty of money and are funded better now than ever before. But that fails to recognise the impact of inflation and other pulls on the purse strings, and that other cuts – particularly in Early Years and mental health support – are diverting funds that really should be covered elsewhere.

The point is, whatever your view on the content of the White Paper, there’s a lot more that’s likely to pull the day-to-day attention of the sector in the next eight years.

But it’s not all doom and gloom.

We know that Trusts are excellent at adapting and delivering, of pooling the best expertise and savvy financial management, of enacting their civic duty while maintaining a relentless focus on outcomes for children.

It seems sensible, then, that if the sector is to rise to the plethora of challenges likely to arrive in the coming years, schools being part of a Trust is essential to the solution.

So, the sector will do what it always does; come together and work as a team, galvanised to surpass the seemingly impossible.

And if the Government truly wants to spread opportunity for all, and ensure the right support is in the right place at the right time, let’s hope it focuses on providing the tools – funding, staffing, morale and genuine support – and allows our great sector to meet the challenges head on.