Your Weekly Sector News 01/12/2023

Never miss out on the latest updates in education with Your Weekly Sector News. Read ahead to discover more about the importance of AI in education, the consultation on minimum service levels during school strikes, and the inquest into Ruth Perry’s death.
Close up of a child's hands typing on an iPad screen, playing an online learning game.
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Experts call for new AI qualification

Experts from the British Computer Society (BCS) say that pupils must begin learning about artificial intelligence (AI) from the age of 11 so they can ultimately ‘succeed in life and help Britain compete in the global marketplace.’ Therefore, they call for the development of a new digital literacy qualification which puts an emphasis on AI and other digital skills.

The professional body also suggests that AI should become a key part of teacher training and headteacher’s professional leadership qualifications. This echoes evidence submitted to the Education Selection Committee, which emphasised the need for quality training and resources to ensure practitioners can teach digital media literacy effectively.

Julia Adamson, Managing Director at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, explains that the current Computer Science GCSE is highly theoretical, supporting pupils who are working towards a career in computer science. However, she explains that many industries, from marketing to law, will require an understanding of generative AI in the future. With this in mind, she argues that all young people ‘have a right to those essential digital skills, including understanding AI, so they can hold their own in the global workplace.’

This comes as child protection groups warn about the alarming trend of pupils using AI-generative technology to create images of other children that legally constitute child sexual abuse material. David Wright, Director at UK Safer Internet Centre (UKSIC), explains young people are not always aware of the seriousness of what they are doing, ‘yet these types of harmful behaviours should be anticipated when new technologies, like AI generators, become more accessible.’ UKSIC calls on schools to take urgent action to put in place better blocking, filtering and monitoring systems against child abuse material.

Government launches consultation on minimum service levels

Following the wave of industrial action that took place over the course of the last academic year, the Department for Education (DfE) is consulting on proposals for new minimum service level (MSL) laws when school staff are on strike. Education secretary, Gillian Keegan, says that ‘it is only fair that the right of individuals to strike is balanced with a child’s right to receive an education.’

As part of its plans for MSL legislation, the DfE says that schools should remain open for three-quarters of pupils during strikes. In particular, this includes cohorts who are due to take exams, looked-after children, learners with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), disadvantaged pupils, the children of critical workers, and primary aged pupils.

Whilst the MSL would be set by the government, the consultation states that school leaders would have the flexibility to determine the appropriate staffing levels which are necessary to meet the requirement. The responsibility for issuing a work notice would lie with schools, academies and trusts, specifying the people required to work and the work they must carry out to fulfil the MSL. Unions would then be obliged to take ‘reasonable steps to ensure compliance.’

Furthermore, ministers propose that schools use rotas for any strike action that lasts five consecutive school days or more. It is expected that schools must also make every effort to put appropriate arrangements in place to provide remote education for pupils not in attendance. The consultation will close on 30 January. If approved by both Houses of Parliament, the new law is set to come into effect next September.

The consultation was launched after ministers pulled out of talks with education unions to agree on a voluntary plan for MSL in schools. Union leaders now believe the government’s attempt at dialogue was never meaningful, after they collapsed negotiations by briefing the media first. Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), explains the Prime Minister had ‘always intended to implement this draconian legislation without consent or mandate.’ He points out that the proposals have already been questioned by the UN’s International Labour Organisation, adding that, ‘this is a policy not becoming of a modern, liberal democracy […] this will only make the resolution of dispute more difficult and cause further disruption in schools.’

Inquest reveals lack of guidance for Ofsted inspectors to respond to stress

This week marked the beginning of the inquest into the death of headteacher Ruth Perry, who died whilst waiting for the publication of an Ofsted report which rated her school inadequate. Whilst opening the inquest, the senior coroner noted that Ofsted’s code of conduct sets out that inspectors will take reasonable steps to prevent undue anxiety and to minimise stress during inspection. However, it later emerged that inspectors were not given written guidelines to modify inspections where headteachers were under high levels of stress.

Chris Russell, National Director for Education, emphasised that minimising the pressure on staff throughout the inspection process was a ‘core value’ in how Ofsted trains its inspectors. He explained that inspectors were encouraged to work flexibly with headteachers, for example by rescheduling a meeting if necessary, or ringing Ofsted’s duty desk to seek advice from an experienced HMI. However, he admitted he was not aware of a written policy that was put in place to adapt an inspection or slow down the process to support someone who was experiencing stress. 

The school’s business manager said Perry had appeared ‘extremely stressed and visibly shaking’ after a meeting with the lead inspector. The deputy headteacher described his demeanour as ‘very mocking and unpleasant.’ Alan Derry, the lead inspector during the school’s last inspection, expressed disappointment in the way he was perceived. He said he would hope to change his behaviour if a headteacher became upset during a future inspection.

The inquest heard that Perry told colleagues she had thought about taking her own life in the week after the inspection. Senior leaders relayed these comments to school governors and the local authority. Her husband, Jonathan, explained how she felt an inadequate judgement was ‘the end of her job and her career.’

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