The 'Messy Middle Tier': Part 1

Part 1: Why we need more clarity about who is responsible for what in the English education system. 

By Julie McCulloch, ASCL Director of Policy

Cast your mind back, if you can bear it, to December 2020. The second wave of the pandemic was building to a crescendo in the UK. Areas were moving in and out of different tiers of restriction on what sometimes felt like a daily basis. The then Prime Minister was fighting a losing battle to ‘save Christmas’. 

Schools, as ever, were at the centre of the maelstrom – doing their best to stay open with ever decreasing numbers of pupils and staff. 

On Sunday 13 December, at the height of this febrile atmosphere, Councillor Danny Thorpe, Leader of Greenwich Council, wrote to families in his local authority. Here’s an extract from that letter: 

"Dear parents, carers and families across Royal Greenwich,
I’m writing this open letter to let you know the situation in Greenwich in relation to Covid 19 is now escalating extremely quickly, and I have today been briefed by colleagues from Public Health England that the pandemic is now showing signs that we are in a period of exponential growth that demands immediate action. 

We now have the highest rates of infection in Greenwich than at any time since March, and for these reasons I have therefore asked all schools in Greenwich to close their premises from Monday evening and move to online learning for the duration of the term, with the exception of key worker children and those with specific needs."

Schools across Greenwich shared this letter with their communities and started to plan to move to remote learning as instructed. 

The following day, Monday 14 December, all headteachers in Greenwich received another letter, this time from Nick Gibb, Minister for School Standards. The minister’s letter said the following:

"Dear Colleagues
I know that you will have seen the letters issued by Greenwich Council to all schools last night, asking them to move to remote education from the end of today, apart from provision for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. 

I believe there is no place in our response to this pandemic for unilateral actions such as Greenwich Council has taken, and we must keep schools open for face-to-face education. Under Schedule 17 of the Coronavirus Act 2020, the Secretary of State may make a direction to require schools to enable all pupils to attend full time, other than pupils who are required to self-isolate in accordance with the schools’ opening guidance. We will consider using these powers in this instance. 

I would appreciate you confirming directly with your school community your intention to remain open for face-to-face education from tomorrow through to the last scheduled teaching day of term, to ensure no families mistakenly believe their school to be closed

Caught in the crossfire
Why am I harking back to this traumatic and unedifying moment in our recent history? Because it illustrates perfectly the real life consequences of what we, in ASCL’s Blueprint for a Fairer Education System, refer to as England’s ‘messy middle tier’. 

Whatever your view on whether or not schools should have remained open for those last few days of 2020, it can’t be right for heads and governors, during a time which was already the most challenging they’d ever faced, to be caught in the crossfire between national and local government in this way. 

Let me give another example of the sort of unhelpful confusion a blurred middle tier can cause. 

Over the last year or so, at least ten documents have landed on headteachers’ desks which contain what we at ASCL have started calling ‘non-statutory expectations’. They include:  
  • Ofsted’s growing bank of curriculum research reviews
  • The DfE’s national plan for music
  • DfE guidance on the parent pledge
  • DfE guidance on the length of the school week 
  • DfE guidance on the National Tutoring Programme 
Let’s pick a couple of these for more scrutiny.

Length of the school week
The DfE’s guidance on the length of the school week says that “By September 2023 at the latest, all state-funded, mainstream schools will be expected to provide a compulsory school week of at least 32.5 hours”. There’s no legal requirement to do this – the legal requirement is just that schools should meet for at least 190 days during the school year. 

So, what’s the nature of this expectation – and what mechanisms do the government have to enforce it? 

Well, they’ve punted that across to Ofsted. The guidance says that “Where a school is not meeting the minimum expectation [on length of the school week], inspectors will want to understand how they have come to that decision, and what impact it has on the quality of education provided. Where it is clear that increasing the overall time pupils spend in school would improve the quality of education, inspectors may reflect this in the inspection report and will also want to understand the plans that are in place to meet the minimum expectation.”

So, it’s not a statutory requirement to have a school week of at least 32.5 hours, but if you don’t, Ofsted will be asking why. 

Curriculum research reviews
I also mentioned Ofsted’s curriculum research reviews in the list above. These are documents which Ofsted started publishing in Spring 2021. The aim of the documents is “to support and inform those leading the thinking on subject education in our schools”. 

Ofsted has always insisted that these research reviews play no role in individual inspections. They’re not referenced in the inspection framework; they don’t set out what inspectors expect to see in individual schools. Ofsted does not, they keep telling us, have a preferred curriculum model. 

And yet… we’ve had a number of reports from members that some inspectors do refer to these research reviews in individual inspections, and do at the very least, imply that it would be a good idea for schools to pay attention to them. 

Then, this term, we’ve seen the leaked publication of a set of ‘aide-memoires’ used by inspectors. These go much further than what’s in the inspection framework and, according to the head of Ofsted’s curriculum unit, include “messages from our published research reviews”. 

So, is it a requirement for schools to heed these subject reviews? Definitely not. Is it an expectation? No, not really. But now that these aide-memoires are in the public domain, and Ofsted has been explicit that inspectors draw on them in individual reviews, it would be a brave school which decided to ignore them completely. 

Who decides? 
I’m not making a judgement on any of the examples I’ve given here – whether or not schools should have been open or closed in the run-up to Christmas 2020, how long the school week should be, whether or not Ofsted should take a particular view on curriculum design. What I’m saying is that all these examples illustrate the mess we’ve got ourselves into about who can tell schools what. 

Who decides if a school can stay open in a public health emergency? Central government? Local government? Schools themselves, based on their own risk assessments? 

Who decides how many hours a week’s teaching a pupil should get? Central government? Ofsted, based on the impact they think this has on the quality of education pupils receive? Schools themselves, based on their knowledge of their own communities and local logistical constraints? 

Who decides what a school’s curriculum should look like? Central government – based on a National Curriculum which 80% of secondary schools and 40% of primary schools don’t have to follow? Ofsted – based on a set of criteria which aren’t in the public domain? Schools themselves, based on what they think their pupils need? 

You’ll all have views on those questions. ASCL has formal positions on some of them. 

But my point here isn’t about those issues in themselves. My point is that the longer we attempt to limp along with a messy middle tier which leaves these sorts of questions unanswered, the more uncertainty, confusion and irritation we create for leaders and teachers. And, as the teacher recruitment and retention crisis deepens, that’s the last thing we need. 

To be fair to the government, they’re trying to do something about this. In Part 2 of this blog, I’ll talk about what the government is currently planning in terms of the middle tier, whether this heading in the right direction, and what else I think they need to be doing. 

Julie McCulloch is ASCL Director of Policy. 

Posted: 10/11/2022 11:19:44