News from Westminster

08 February 2018

A round-up of all the key news from central government including a new Education Secretary, reports on the teacher recruitment crisis and investment in STEM and a new Inquiry in to the Social Impact of Participation in Culture and Sport from the DCMS Select Committee.

A new Education Secretary

On 10 January, Damien Hinds was appointed as the new Secretary of State for Education, since when he has published new delivery plans for the next wave of the Opportunity Areas Initiative (Bradford, Doncaster, Fenland and East Cambridgeshire, Hastings, Ipswich and Stoke-on-Trent), funding for literacy and numeracy (£25m over 75 projects) and funding for Multi Academy Trusts to tackle underperformance (£45m).

He made his first major speech at the Education World Forum, where he led on the need to prepare students for the fourth industrial revolution (digital and technology) and the fast pace of the changing economy. Following the general government line of the last few years he stressed the importance of core academic subjects and of improving standards and our international standing in relation to other countries academic results. He also spoke about the need for children to have an international outlook and global perspectives (particularly interesting as this month England has chosen to opt-out of the new PISA tests in global competencies and tolerance).

Knowledge vs skills (again)

There was nothing in his speech directly relating to arts and culture, but he talked about the importance of ‘employability skills’ and ‘soft skills’, particularly character, resilience and digital skills. Interestingly, School’s Week pointed out that some of this language appears to be directly contradicted in School’s Minister Nick Gibb’s Speech, which he gave the following day, and which stressed that that all skills should be knowledge-based:

Around the world, many educationists – and I see one or two of them here – promote skills-based curricula as the way to prepare pupils for life in the 21st century. Often, knowledge-rich curricula are derided as an impediment to helping pupils to become creative critical-thinking problem solvers, but this is to confuse means with ends.

The mistake made by these influential voices in education is to believe that creativity is a skill independent of subject domain-specific knowledge; that critical thinking can be taught discretely from the subject being thought about, or that one becomes a better problem solver simply by practicing solving problems.

Just as musicians become proficient by learning their scales, it is as important that pupils build up the underlying knowledge they will need. We cannot expect a pupil to think critically about the causes of the First World War without an understanding of the delicate balance of power that existed at the turn of the 20th century. And we will not prepare pupils to be the creative, problem solving mathematicians of the future without giving them a firm grounding in the foundations of mathematics.’

It will be interesting to see which direction the government takes in coming months. We believe that it is crucial that there is a policy shift away from a binary understanding of knowledge and skills. Every subject should be taught by qualified specialists and should include practical and theoretical learning and should build knowledge, skills, competencies and understanding. 

Teacher recruitment and retention crisis

The  Public Accounts Committee has published a report that says there is a growing crisis for schools in England struggling to retain and develop a teaching workforce. It states that:

‘It is particularly worrying is that the number of secondary school teachers has been falling since 2010 and more teachers have been leaving the profession for reasons other than retirement since 2012. 

Many teachers have cited heavy workloads as a reason for their departure. At the same time pupil numbers are rising and the Department for Education expects schools to make significant savings from using their staff more efficiently.’

The Chair of the committee has called the government response to the crisis ‘sluggish and incoherent’.

DCMS Select Committee on the Social Impact of Participation in Culture and Sport

The DCMS Select Committee has launched a new Inquiry which has a deadline of 22 February.

Select Committees hold government to account and so this is a good opportunity for us to flag any issues about co-ordination between departments on cultural learning: particularly between the Department of Education and the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and with other departments such as Business Energy and Industrial Strategy, the new Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, the Department of Heath and across to other home nations.

The Committee is asking for examples of positive social impact and for your ideas on how the government can enable greater diversity in the creative industries and culture, and a stronger talent pipeline. They also want to know how venues can be supported to boost access and social impact.

It’s essential that the Committee is armed with the best possible information, so do write in and let them know your thoughts, experiences and about the work that you do. Follow this link to make a submission.


Government STEM policy: not joined up

The National Audit Office has produced an interesting report looking at the government’s current investment in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). Despite £990m spent on, or committed to, key STEM-specific interventions between 2007 and autumn 2017, the results have been patchy, with marked gender imbalance and skills mismatches flagged as areas of concern. The NAO is calling on government to do much more to make the policy coherent.

We know that much of the intelligence coming from employers is that they want young people with a mix of skills and knowledge; creative, resilient communicators who can use STEM skills creatively. This is just one of the reasons why the CLA and Nesta have joined together to call on government to take this opportunity to expand their STEM investment to include the Arts and make it STEAM. Read our STEAM briefing to find out more.


Photo credit: Adults and children enjoying Family Dance Day at The Place, WC1H 9PY. Photo by Jalaikon