Joint letter to the new Education Secretary

The Edge Foundation wrote an open letter to the new Secretary of State, Kit Malthouse, which was signed by multiple colleagues across the education sector.

Dear Secretary of State,

Many congratulations on your appointment. The education portfolio is a unique area to lead and nothing can be more important than realising the potential of our citizens and future leaders.

In light of this, a number of important commissions and committees have been developing well-researched solutions for how we might transform England’s education system. They have been led by highly-respected professionals across the sector and they speak with a unified voice calling for:i) A fair, long-term education strategy ii) Prioritising skills as well as knowledge iii) Evidencing a wider portfolio of talents iv) Turning the tide on technical education and v) Developing a balanced scorecard. We have expanded on these key priorities below.

For context, the world is changing fast and the UK faces wide-spread and growing skills shortages (summarised in our regular bulletins), causing particular concern in sectors such as healthcare, construction, and hospitality. Take our brilliant NHS as an example. We currently have 38,972 vacancies within the Registered Nursing staff group alone.

Businesses are reinforcing this message, and the Open University Business Barometer 2022 report highlights 68% of SMEs and 86% of large organisations reporting skills shortages. This costs businesses £6.1bn per year in recruitment fees, temporary staff and training for workers. Education and training can be the key to restoring a sustainable upward trajectory in productivity.

You have also inherited a fantastic workforce of highly skilled and enthusiastic teachers in schools, colleges and universities. However, institutions continue to face a mounting crisis in teacher recruitment and retention. In 2020, a record one in six early career teachers left the profession after serving just one year, while an estimated 40% leave after five years. Teachers are the bedrock of education, so any reforms will need long-term investment and greater support for our workforce.

Given the tight fiscal climate and the impact of Covid-19 on the economy, HM Treasury has rightly kept a cautious eye on the government purse strings. However, nothing can be more important than investing in education. It is an investment in our human capital, future talent and future generations.

So now is the time to take action on the key priorities being called for across the education sector:

  • A fair, long-term education strategy – A recent report from the Foundation for Education Development, found that 85% of respondents believe politicians from different parties should work together to develop a shared education strategy. Over the last decade, the education sector has undergone significant churn. So, we should look to develop a 15-year education strategy – one that unlocks the potential of every child and supports our teaching workforce. The strategy needs to bring together education at all levels and throughout life. This will tackle educational inequalities and support progression at all ages. This strategy would be shared across all parties, go beyond the five-year electoral cycle and be supported by a long-term funding commitment.
  • Prioritising skills as well as knowledge – Essential skills are transferable skills like creativity, problem solving, team-work; skills that almost everyone needs to do almost anything. They support working, learning and wider life too. Research from LinkedIn’s Global Talent Trends (2019) found that 92% of employers believe so-called ‘soft skills’ are equally or more important than hard skills. However, with a knowledge-heavy curriculum and assessment system, the skills employers are seeking are not being prioritised within education. We should embed the learning of essential skills via interdisciplinary project-based learning, links with employers and real-world events. Organisations such as the Skills Builder Partnership continue to develop a common approach and framework to achieving this.
  • Evidencing a wider portfolio of strengths – The current focus on high stakes written exams rewards those who are more naturally inclined towards academic, written examinations but routinely fails a third of pupils at GCSE level. It also fails to evidence the kinds of skills and experiences employers and universities want.Instead, like a growing number of countries across the world, we need to celebrate the strengths of all young people. To do this we need a variety of ways of assessing pupils, including on demand, tests with oral components and extended investigations. Influential organisations like ‘Rethinking Assessment’ have developed practical solutions such as a learner profile model which can be rolled out in schools across the country.
  • The year we turn the tide on technical education – We must no longer define technical education as ‘alternative’ to academic learning. It provides its own unique educational pathway, integrating academic learning with practical skills. T Levels currently represent an exciting development in technical and vocational education. However, it is not necessary to replace other valuable Level 3 options to make T levels a success. The Protect Student Choice campaign secured over 100,000 signatures urging government to reverse the plan to defund a number of important Level 3 options, including valuable Applied General Qualifications. Learners deserve the opportunity to study a range of high-quality qualifications; defunding these valuable pathways would be a mistake.
  • Developing a balanced scorecard – The way we currently measure schools causes unnecessary stress and anxiety among teachers and students. We should look to reform the inspection and accountability regime [including reform of the Ebacc and Progress 8] moving from an adversarial to a performance improvement role – similar to inspectorates in the other three nations. The Times Education Commission has called for a reformed Ofsted that works collaboratively with schools to secure sustained improvement. As part of this, we should develop a new “school report card” measuring a wider range of metrics including wellbeing, school culture, and inclusion; unleashing the potential of schools.

Finally, the education sector has experienced countless policy changes over the years, providing a wealth of information about what has already been tried. We want to see a real focus on making good education policy, including learning from international examples (as well as those outside the usual case studies), learning from front line practice and learning from the past. It is critical that we learn from these lessons to ensure that your policies have the best chance of success.

Education has the potential to create meaningful change in every area of society and following Covid-19, England now has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to restack the educational card deck in favour of all young people, rather than just a select few. The Government’s commitment to lifelong learning can only be fully realised through a developed strategy which creates opportunities at all ages. These calls offer just a glimpse of the key priorities for education and there are many others calling for important changes across the sector.

We look forward to working with you to deliver this important work.

Yours sincerely,

Alice Barnard – Chief Executive, Edge Foundation

Also signed by:
Dr Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney – Joint General Secretaries, National Education Union Rachel Sylvester – Chair, Times Education Commission
David Hughes – Chief Executive, Association of Colleges
Professor Bill Lucas – Co-Founder, Rethinking Assessment
Carl Ward – Chair, Foundation for Education Development
Bill Watkin – Chief Executive, Sixth Form Colleges Association
Jane Hickie – Chief Executive, The Association of Employment and Learning Providers Tom Ravenscroft – Founder and CEO, Skills Builder Partnership
Patrick Wall – Founder,
Rebecca Deegan – Founder and CEO, I have a voice
Dr. Diana Beech – Chief Executive Officer, London Higher
Deborah Annetts – Chief Executive Officer, Incorporated Society of Musicians
Simon Parkinson – CEO & General Secretary, WEA
Kerry-Jane Packman – Executive Director, Parentkind
Hannah Kirkbride – CEO, Career Matters
Tony Ryan – Chief Executive Officer, The Design and Technology Association
Andrew Hurst MBE – Chief Executive, One Dance UK

Further blogs

Transforming University admissions with Adaptive Comparative Judgement cover

Transforming University admissions with Adaptive Comparative Judgement

Discover how Adaptive Comparative Judgement is revolutionizing university admissions in Canada with Adaptive Comparative Judgement, making the process fairer, more efficient, and insightful by focusing on holistic evaluations over traditional rubric-based assessments....

The future of assessment – time for a rethink?

The Edge Foundation at the Conservative Party Conference 2021

Here at the Edge Foundation, we strongly believe that one of the biggest levers to achieving substantial change in our education system would be to reform the assessment system…

Learning is not confined to schools – assessment shouldn’t be either

Why the needs of learners both inside and outside of the mainstream school system need to be considered for assessment to work fairly for all

It’s never been easier to tailor learning to the interests and needs of an individual student. We need an accessible assessment system that supports those individual approaches and isn’t locked in to a one-size-fits-all …