UK: Education unions react to Department for Education request to authorities to address accountability, workload, funding, qualifications, and inspections

published 4 December 2020 updated 7 December 2020

Teacher unions in the UK have reacted to announcements by the Department for Education (DfE), requesting public authorities to better address educators’ workload, accountability, pay and funding to ensure quality education for all.

NEU: General increase in trainee teachers is welcome, but shortages in certain subjects and retention are a challenge

Talking about the latest figures from the DfE on new entrants to postgraduate initial teacher training released on 3 December, the Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), Kevin Courtney, said that “the significant rise in trainee teachers is welcome and necessary as the Government had failed to reach its own recruitment targets in each of the previous seven years”.

However, he said it was important to understand that this increase is a response to the economic uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic but there are still significant shortages of applicants in Physics, Modern Foreign Languages, Design and Technology, Chemistry, and Maths.

Warning that “recruitment is nothing without retention”, Courtney explained that the Government needs to have a long-term plan for retaining teachers, so that they will still be working in schools in five years' time. This has been a failure of Conservative governments over the past decade, he said.

“Desperately high workloads, excessive accountability, the pernicious impact of Ofsted, pay freezes, and underfunding of schools all need to be addressed to ensure we keep the teachers we need, and children get the education they deserve,” he concluded.

NASUWT: More details needed concerning qualifications, inspections and accountability

Commenting on the Government's announcement on 2 December concerning arrangements for qualifications, inspections, and accountability for the remainder of this academic year – for example the decision to benchmark exam standards for 2021 against those in 2020 –, Patrick Roach, General Secretary of the NASUWT-The Teachers’ Union, stressed that “pupils, teachers, and school leaders have been waiting anxiously for further details of measures to help ensure those taking their GCSEs and A-Levels – major school exams in the UK – next summer are not disadvantaged by the major disruption they are continuing to experience to their education as a result of the pandemic”.

Even if it addresses some of the uncertainty that has surrounded qualifications, inspection, and accountability, the announcement leaves many important questions unanswered, according to Roach. The measures announced do not go far enough, he said. “Whilst we welcome the announcement that students are to be provided with advance notice of the topics to be covered in exam papers and that they will be able to make use of exam aids, these measures will not be sufficient to ensure equity for those pupils who have suffered higher levels of disruption due to Covid-19,” Roach stressed.

He also recalled that the NASUWT has never underestimated the scale of this challenge or the problems that disruption to the normal operation of exams creates. However, the union believes the Government’s delay in bringing forward plans for next summer’s examinations and qualifications has caused “unnecessary anxiety, stress and workload pressures for both teachers and pupils”.

Roach insisted that “the DfE must ensure that the expert group it intends to convene is directly informed and shaped by practicing teachers and school leaders”. Staff in schools have direct and valuable experience of the implications that COVID-19-related disruption has had on learners, particularly those who are most vulnerable and disadvantaged and those living in areas of the country and attending schools that have been especially badly affected, he added.

Agreeing that, given the current restrictions on schools, it is right that routine Ofsted inspections will remain suspended during the spring term, he also urged the Government “to use the current pause in inspections to reflect on how the system of school accountability can more appropriately support and reflect the vital work of all schools”.