Your Weekly Sector News 30/09/22

Stay prepared for the emerging challenges in education with Your Weekly Sector News, as we discuss the next steps in post-pandemic recovery and the financial pressures facing schools as they strive to meet the needs of their pupils.
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Exam grades heading back to normality in 2023

This week, the Department for Education and Ofqual announced that GCSE, AS and A Level exams will return back to pre-pandemic grading in 2023. Chief regulator, Dr Jo Saxton, emphasises that this is an ‘important step back to normality,’ but recognises that students should receive some protection against the impact of Covid disruption. Therefore, she explains the new approach to grading will ‘provide a soft landing for students as we continue the process of taking the exam system back to normal.’

In case students’ performance is slightly lower than before the pandemic, senior examiners will be able to use the grades achieved by previous cohorts of pupils, along with prior attainment data, to inform their decisions about where to set grade boundaries. This means that ‘a typical A level student who would have achieved a grade A before the pandemic will be just as likely to get an A this summer,’ the DfE explains.

During this year’s exam season, pupils received advanced information and exam aids to help mitigate disruptions to learning during the pandemic. In 2023, pupils will no longer benefit from advanced information, however they will continue to be supported with formulae and equation sheets in some subjects, including GCSE maths, physics and combined science.

Education secretary Kit Malthouse explains that ‘students working towards their qualifications next year expect fairness in exams and grading arrangements, which is why we are transitioning back to pre-pandemic normality.’ The DfE and Ofqual have launched a series of consultations relating to qualifications next year, including plans for the exams timetable and guidance for gathering assessment evidence.

School leaders split on strike action

For the first time in its sixteen year history, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) consulted its members on whether to ballot for strike action in response to the proposed teachers’ pay award.

Of the members who responded, 69 percent said they were in favour of an indicative ballot for action short of a strike. This can include working to rule by adhering strictly to the hours stipulated in contracts and refusing to perform any additional duties.

Only half of senior leaders said the union should run an indicative ballot on strike action. However, general secretary of the ASCL, Geoff Barton, considers these figures remarkable, given that their ‘members are traditionally extremely reluctant to consider any form of industrial action.’

This summer, the government announced that experienced teachers and school leaders would receive a 5 percent pay rise, increasing from the 3 percent originally proposed. However, unions criticise that this amounts to a significant real-terms cut compared to Retail Prices Index inflation, which currently stands at 12.3%. Without additional funding from the government, they argue that the teachers’ pay award will also be unaffordable for many schools, forcing them to make budget cuts and reduce the quality of their provision.

‘School leaders fear this desperate situation will undermine educational standards and undo the work of their professional lives,’ Geoff Barton explains. However, he warns that the union must proceed with caution over the issue of industrial action. Whilst the survey was sent out to more than thirteen thousand members, only 16 percent responded. In order to take any industrial action, 50 percent of eligible members would need to vote in a formal ballot.

Meanwhile, unions continue to campaign for improved teacher pay and school funding. Together, ASCL, Community, NAHT, NASUWT and NEU have published a joint submission to the consultation on the School Teachers’ Review Body report on teachers’ pay and the government’s response, calling for wages to be restored to 2010 levels, equating to a pay rise of 14 percent.

Calls to widen free school meal eligibility

Schools are seeing a large increase in hungry children as families struggle with the cost-of-living crisis. According to reports, more children are coming into school without having eaten since lunch the day before. Others have been found hiding or pretending to eat out of their lunch boxes because they do not qualify for free school meals.

Despite the rise in catering costs, many schools are doing all they can to support pupils and their families, selling meals at below cost price, whilst also offering free breakfasts and serving food during after-school clubs. However, school leaders are concerned that they will not be able to keep up with demand without making significant cuts to other areas, such as books, stationery and other vital learning resources.

To tackle the growing problem of child hunger, there have been calls to widen the eligibility criteria for free school meals (FSM). From Reception to Year Two, all pupils in England are eligible for FSM. Beyond that, only children whose parents earn less than £7,400 a year are eligible. This low threshold means that many families are not entitled to FSM despite not being able to meet the costs. The Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) estimates that 800,000 children living in poverty are missing out as a result.

Andy Jolley, a campaigner for FSM, says that ‘this government is failing all our pupils by forcing schools to divert funding away from staffing. As a matter of urgency and as a bare minimum, they need to automate registration and widen eligibility to include everyone claiming universal credit.’

Other campaigners ask the government to go further and extend FSM for all primary school children in England, as governments in Scotland and Wales have done. In an open letter organised by the National Education Union’s No Child Left Behind campaign, politicians, unions, charities and medical bodies urge the Prime Minister to take action against the epidemic of child hunger, emphasising that ‘free school meals for all would mean every child can learn and succeed.’


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