Our new blueprint has every child at its heart

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Issue 120 | Autumn Term 1 2021

To close the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers would take us an eye-watering 500 years, says Julie McCulloch. Here, she highlights ASCL’s new blueprint, which strives to address this injustice and provide every child with a great education.

It will take over 500 years – or 20 generations – to close the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. This stark statistic from the Education Policy Institute’s (EPI’s) 2019 annual report, Education in England (tinyurl.com/3pw4f6au), was the catalyst for our new blueprint – A Great Education for Every Child: The ASCL blueprint for a fairer education system – which we will publish later this month.

This bleak picture has been exacerbated, of course, by the Covid-19 pandemic. The growing bank of evidence on the impact of the pandemic (see tinyurl.com/6tj5b6n) suggests that the progress and attainment of almost all pupils has been affected by lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, and that the impact has been particularly felt by children and young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

It has never been more urgent or important to consider why this stubborn gap persists, and what can be done to address it.

Education matters

In 2015, we published our Blueprint for a Self-Improving System. This set out our vision for an education system that delivers quality and equality for all children and young people. Our new blueprint builds on that vision, considering where we are six years later. It focuses particularly on how our most disadvantaged children and young people can flourish and thrive as we begin to emerge from one of the most difficult periods most of us have ever experienced.

The blueprint was developed over the last two years through discussions with ASCL Council, input from our research partners (the EPI, the National Foundation for Educational Research, and Public First), responses to a public call for evidence and roundtable discussions with external experts.

Our guiding principle throughout this process has been the belief that all children and young people are entitled to a high-quality, broad and challenging education. No child or young person should receive a lower standard of education as a result of their background or where they live. And while education alone cannot address the entrenched problems of poverty and inequity in today’s society, what happens at school or college can have a transformative effect on children’s lives and life chances.

Education matters – and it matters particularly to children and young people in disadvantage.

Building blocks

The blueprint sets out five ‘building blocks’ for a stronger, fairer system. These are:

  1. A core national curriculum, mandatory for all state schools until the age of 16, focused on what we collectively agree are the most important things children and young people should know and do. This is relatively stable, with regular but infrequent opportunities for review. Young people can branch off into different pathways as they get older. These pathways are all of a high-quality, and can be combined and moved between.

  2. Leaders, teachers and support staff in every school and college who have the expertise and capacity to develop and expand the core national curriculum into a high-quality local curriculum, and to provide the broader support children and young people need. This expertise is developed through strong initial teacher training, ongoing and effective professional development and the sharing of knowledge and effective practice.

  3. National assessments and qualifications which link seamlessly to the core curriculum and post-16 pathways. These are constructed in a way which enables all children and young people to demonstrate their knowledge and skills, and to be recognised for this. Students’ results in national assessments play a proportionate role in how schools and colleges are held to account.

  4. Sufficient resources for all schools and colleges to deliver the education to which we have agreed all children and young people are entitled.

  5. Structures and systems which support and reward schools and colleges for providing all children and young people with a high-quality, broad and challenging education. These structures and systems encourage and enable everyone working in schools and colleges to act for the good of all children and young people, not just those in their own institutions.

Changes needed

The blueprint then proposes a number of changes that we would like to happen in the next five years to create or strengthen these building blocks. These include the following:

  • Develop a revised national curriculum – mandatory for all state schools and reviewed every ten years – which focuses on fewer things in greater depth and leaves enough space for schools to develop their own complementary local curriculum.

  • Replace Key Stage 2 SATs with adaptive assessments which make greater use of technology to ensure assessments are more intelligent and personalised, and enable all children to demonstrate what they can do.

  • Reform GCSEs to reduce the massive number of terminal exams taken by pupils during their final summer at secondary school by reintroducing more ongoing assessment over the course of a qualification and making greater use of technology.

  • Extend the pupil premium to include 16–19 year-olds, and reform funding for pupils who have special educational needs so that the system is simpler, clearer and better resourced.

  • Review the school admissions code to require all schools to do more to prioritise disadvantaged children.

  • Overhaul school performance tables so that they provide parents with a broader range of measures beyond just exam and assessment results and take in aspects like attendance and exclusion rates, and the breadth of the curriculum that is provided.

A broad consensus

Not everyone will agree with all of our proposals. But we hope that the blueprint can help to build a broad consensus around the principles for a stronger and fairer system, and encourage and inspire others to contribute to building that system.

For our part, we will do everything we can to drive the changes we want to see. We will use the blueprint to guide our work with the government and other organisations over the next five years. We will bring together groups of like-minded colleagues to help take forward these changes, and support other groups working towards similar aims.

We look forward to working with members, friends and colleagues on this journey.

We hope that the blueprint can help to build a broad consensus around the principles for a stronger and fairer system, and encourage and inspire others to contribute to building that system.

New ASCL blueprint

Look out for the publication of our new blueprint, A Great Education for Every Child: The ASCL blueprint for a fairer education system, on 14 September online at www.ascl.org.uk/blueprint

Julie McCulloch
ASCL Director of Policy
@juliecmcculloch

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