Education reform in England: understanding the changes

As the government aims to drive up standards in England’s schools to those of schools in other high-performing countries, we provide an overview of recent changes to education in England’s state schools.

Education reform in England

Source: St Mary's Calne

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The following overview of recent changes to education in England’s state schools will help families on the move to understand their options.Just before the Brexit bombshell nudged all other events off the news agenda, government plans for education reform were dominating the headlines. And with Theresa May’s first domestic speech as Prime Minister, in which she announced that she planned to lift the ban on new grammar schools, it seems that education is firmly back on the policy agenda for Brexit Britain.The government’s central aim in its programme of education reform is to drive up standards in England’s schools to match those of schools in other high-performing countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s (OECD) international education league tables.

What are academy schools?

At the heart of the changes is the government’s desire to allow schools to become independent of local authorities, giving headteachers and senior leadership teams the freedom to undertake day-to-day management, funded directly by the Department for Education.The academy school programme, initiated by the Labour government, began with ‘sponsored academies’ – schools that were deemed by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted) to be underperforming and were required to convert to academy status, with a government-approved sponsor taking over leadership. Later, the programme was expanded to allow top-performing schools to convert to academy status.The present government believes that the academy programme is driving up standards in England’s schools, and the programme remains firmly on its agenda for poorly performing schools. There are currently around 3,300 state-funded secondary schools in England, just over 2,000 of which are already academies. Of the approximately 16,500 primary schools, nearly 2,500 have converted to academy status.

Lifting restrictions on grammar school expansion

Not long after she entered Number 10, Theresa May delivered a speech in which she revealed a radical set of proposals for education reform, including lifting the restrictions on grammar-school expansion.Grammar schools are popular with relocating families, as they typically offer an excellent standard of education. Many grammar-school students perform exceptionally well at GCSE and A Level and in the International Baccalaureate. As a consequence, many transfer to top universities, both in the UK and overseas.Theresa May announced that she would like to relax the restrictions on new and expanding selective schools, as well as allowing existing non-selective schools to become selective in some circumstances.She also wants to see independent schools offer more support for increasing the quality of provision in state schools.Independent schools are currently required to demonstrate a benefit to the public in order to maintain their charitable status. Mrs May would like them to work harder for this privilege. She suggested a raft of options that would range from undertaking full sponsorship of a local state school to providing direct school-to-school support. This could include supporting teaching in minority subjects, such as further maths or classics, which state schools often struggle to make viable.
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New curriculum and assessment 

Over the past two academic years, the government has introduced a new, “more ambitious” National Curriculum and reformed qualifications and assessment at GCSE and A Level. The curriculum has been slimmed down significantly so that teachers can focus on the “essential knowledge and skills every child should have”. The bar has been raised considerably for children’s learning in the areas of maths, English, computing and science. For example, children are now expected to know their 12 times table by the age of nine.Assessment of the primary National Curriculum takes place at the end of Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2. Key Stage 1 pupils take externally set but internally marked tests in spelling and grammar (SPaG), maths and reading. Key Stage 2 pupils take externally set and marked tests in the same subjects. The tests result in a scaled score, which produces a precise number for each test. The government’s ‘floor target’ is that 85 per cent of all children should achieve the expected level of 100.

GCSE and A Level reform

From September 2015, schools in England began teaching new, revised GCSE and A Level programmes. Students sat the first set of examinations in summer 2017. Assessment for the new-style GCSEs has moved away from coursework assessment to be mostly by exam. A new grading scale of 9–1 is used, with 9 being the highest grade. This allows for greater differentiation, particularly at the top, where the new grade 9 is higher than the current A*. English language, English literature and maths were the first of the new GCSE subjects to be taught in schools in England. Further subjects will be introduced until summer 2019, when all subjects will be taught under the new system. Exam resits are only be available in November, and only in English language and maths.New AS and A Levels have also been taught in schools in England since September 2015. The first results for the new AS Levels were announced in 2016, and those for the new A Levels in 2017. As with the GCSEs, the main changes are that assessment will be mainly by exam. AS and A Levels are being ‘decoupled’, meaning that AS results will no longer count towards an A Level in the way they do now.As Theresa May said in her speech on education reform, “We are facing a moment of great change as a nation. As we leave the European Union, we must define an ambitious new role for ourselves in the world. That involves asking ourselves what kind of country we want to be: a confident, global trading nation that continues to play its full part on the world stage.”It is clear that the new Conservative leadership plans to place education at the heart of its vision for a post-Brexit UK, with plans to offer a range of education provision that, in the words of Mrs May, “caters to the individual needs and abilities of every pupil”. For globally mobile families seeking school places, the continued assistance of leading British independent schools and the promise of an increase of quality school provision can only be a good thing.This is a revised version of an article originally published in September 2016.
The Guide to Education & Schools in the UK is designed to help relocating parents make informed education choices.
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