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Education plan: what about teachers?

09 June 2023

Howard Dellar raises issues of interest and concern in the DfE’s direction of travel


In the DfE’s latest publications, little mention is made of the importance of classroom teachers in drawing out a child’s talents

In the DfE’s latest publications, little mention is made of the importance of classroom teachers in drawing out a child’s talents

IN MARCH and April, the Department for Education (DfE) published important documents indicating the department’s plans for its strategic way forward. Its last attempt, the Schools Bill 2022, attracted criticism in the House of Lords, and was subsequently withdrawn from the parliamentary process.

Writing as a lawyer in the field, I continue to believe in the essentially local nature of Church of England school trusts, and share ongoing concerns for the autonomy of multi-academy trusts (MATs) as companies under the Companies Act, and as charities under the Charities Act. These issues remain fundamentally unaddressed by the Academies Regulatory and Commissioning Review and the Trust Quality Descriptions, now published.

It is noteworthy that, despite the important part played by faith bodies in providing about one third of all schools, there is hardly any mention of them in either document. In particular, they are not even listed as “other partners” in Annex A of the review. Nor, it should be added, is the significant part that is still played — in practice — by local authorities (LAs) much recognised or explored.

This remains, then, an essentially “top-down” vision, displaying a touching but vulnerable faith in high-performing MATs and their leaders.


THIS does not mean that there are not very valuable elements in both documents. Not least, they serve a useful purpose in clarifying the continuing aims of the DfE, and the strategies by which it hopes that they will be attained. The Trust Quality Descriptions, in particular, will be a very useful guide to MATs when developing their own strategies, giving them a better idea of what it is that they are being asked to achieve. There are very welcome references to an enriched curriculum; to collaboration with local partners (including parents); to a culture relating to the community served by the school; and to the nature of the relationship between management and governance.

Alas, there is no mention of available funding, which is crucial to curriculum enrichment and community engagement, and, of course, to pupil-well-being services, all of which are, at present, under severe pressure, as MATs attempt to balance their books.

The review remains heavily dependent on the thinking of the preceding White Paper, continuing its belief in academies as the solution that will deliver universal improvement.

It continues to fail to consider the effect of local communities and parents on school standards, and to treat the latter as, in effect, simply consumers. This tendency mans that no consideration whatever is given to local school governance. The review focuses instead on great MAT leaders and powerful MAT boards. Local governing bodies (LGBs) and the like are never mentioned; yet they are crucial links to the local community, whose active support is essential to enabling school staff to draw out the true capacity of pupils.

Academies are moving visibly further from their local communities. It is not surprising, therefore, that many Church of England primary schools are far from eager to join MATs, and that dioceses are anxious that church schools should always, at least, be within church MATs, which recognise the important of localism and the benefits that accrue to young people when they are educated at the heart of their communities.

The review also contains revealing phrases that indicate the mind-set of the DfE and its ministers. The part played by the Department, we learn, is “managing the system”, reflecting the continued view that LAs have proved incapable of such management, and that even the much lauded MAT leaders (let alone actual classroom teachers) require systematic management if they are to deliver quality.

It is phrases like that that continue to undermine the autonomy that is an essential characteristic of MATs, both as companies and as charities. It may also seem to undermine the professionalism of teachers.

This top-down focus is reflected, also, in the recent new title for regional commissioners, who are now regional directors. It is reflected further in the Trust Quality Descriptions, which are, indeed, now clearer, but, for that very reason, more prescriptive. There are references to the need to “protect the freedoms” of MATs, but the actual effect of both documents remains essentially centralising and prescriptive.

We await with interest the proposed revision of the Academy Trust Handbook in the hope that it might, indeed, be shorter (rather than increasing in length and complexity, year on year) and might, at last, bear a proper relationship to the academy funding agreements on which it legally depends.


THE promised “simpler and more proportionate regulatory oversight” will need careful scrutiny as it emerges. There is also a passing reference to a “local governance standard”, which might be capable of addressing the localism issues that continue to give us concern.

Recent concerns about Ofsted arose too late for comment in these documents, but they point up how difficult it is to achieve a reasoned and fair assessment of individual schools, or indeed of MATs. The DfE, as regulator, needs to be careful that it is not relying on less-than-well-researched evidence.

Lastly, we emphasise something that is not at all a matter of law, but can be appreciated by everyone who recalls going through their own school years: the influence of individual teachers over pupils.

Classroom teachers and even school middle management (such as subject leaders) receive scant attention in these documents — except as people on the receiving end of management, support, and training, which we do not belittle. Theirs is, however, the key contribution to quality, and to the formation of the whole child, as they draw out talents, build on hopes, and open the doors of the future. The DfE might like to write more about them. . .


Howard Dellar is a solicitor at Lee Bolton Monier-Williams who specialises in charity, ecclesiastical, and education law.

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