Guest post: Why the government white paper deserves ridicule by Professor Michael Bassey

Professor Michael Bassey has been reading through the Educational Excellence Everywhere white paper and in this post gives us his feedback (spoiler: he’s not terribly impressed).

Michael Bassey

Michael Bassey

This White Paper is obsessed with greatness. The words “great leaders”, “great teachers”, “great education”, “great outcomes”, “great results”, “great practice”, and “great sponsors” are splattered across the 124 pages.  It is not clear what is meant by a “great leader”, but the Government thinks it knows for it is determined to find them and put them in charge of schools.

In a nutshell the Government intends to make every school an academy, most of them in multi-academy trusts (MATs), where the children will be taught by “great teachers”, in “great schools” with “great leaders” and “great governing bodies” that are supervised by “great MATs”.

The responsibility of local authorities for schools, exercised since 1902, is to be taken from them and handed to what one critic estimates as 1,000 trusts each with around 10 academies. A writer in the Conversation notes “Local authorities provide many services to schools, from the vetting of contract and human resources management, to payroll services and delivering expertise in commissioning, tendering and procurement. They also provide many support services from school transport and peripatetic music teachers, to anti-bullying advice and educational psychology services.” Is every trust to replicate these services?  A despairing letter in the Financial Times says “the empirical evidence to date provides no support for the idea that academy trusts are any better at improving schools than local authorities (and may indeed be much worse)” and goes on to note that there is “growing evidence that Ofsted believes some academy chains are not competent or trustworthy providers”.  A similar letter in the Guardian says “The policy appears to be based on a combination of ideological zeal and extraordinary organisational naivety”.  Others refer to “chaotic upheaval” and “breathtaking stupidity”. 

There is much else in this paper that is worrying (including reducing teacher training in universities) but trivial compared to the government obsession with setting up academies.  I’ve counted 87 items of Government intent, all starting with the phrase “We will …” Whether the Department for Education has the resources to effect all 87 of these in addition to turning more than 10,000 schools into academies is not clear.

The only thing great about this paper is its length. 

The paper starts with the government’s three-fold vision of what education is about:

  • “the engine of social justice”,
  • “the engine of economic growth”, and
  • “the foundation of our culture” (paragraph 1.3).

It is clear that the second of these is the main concern.  Thus:

  • “Education is … the best investment we can make in the future of our country.” (1.3)
  • “Our education system must compete with those around the world” (1.3)
  • “Other education systems – from Shanghai and Singapore to Poland and Germany – are improving even faster than we are.” (1.7)

What a pity that the Government didn’t wait for the just published evidence to the Select Committee on Education into the purpose of education where there are 165 submissions, many of which support (in various ways) the twelve “aims of education” as identified in the Cambridge Primary Review and expressed by Prof Robin Alexander as promoting  “well-being; engagement; empowerment; autonomy; encouraging respect and reciprocity; promoting interdependence and sustainability; empowering local, national and global citizenship; celebrating culture and community; exploring, knowing, understanding and making sense; fostering skill; exciting the imagination; and enacting dialogue.”

How does the Government propose “to achieve educational excellence everywhere”?  

  • “putting the best leaders at the heart of the school system, with the support to thrive:”
  • “recruiting and developing great teachers wherever they are needed;”
  • “setting high expectations for all – supported by fair, stretching accountability measures;” and
  • “enabling pupils, parents, and communities to demand more from their schools.” (1.13)

The paper says that “the fastest and most sustainable way” of achieving this is:

  • “to trust this country’s most effective education leaders, giving them freedom and power”. (1.14)
  • “good, enthusiastic leaders should be able to use their creativity, innovation, professional expertise and up-to-date evidence to drive up standards” (1.18)

The first hint of how this “freedom and power” will be given to the “most effective leaders” is in paragraph 1.20:

  • “For too long, local authorities were unchallenged in their provision of state-funded schools … Academies offer an alternative – breaking the monopoly, and allowing the best schools and leaders to extend their influence, taking over from weaker ones.”

There are many references to “great leaders” – I’ve counted 27 in this paper but haven’t found a description of what this entails.  But we are told how they will be supported.

  • “Building the infrastructure to support great leaders: the growth of multi-academy trusts (MATs) expands the reach and influence of the most successful leaders so more children can benefit from their expertise, and offers many more senior roles and rapid progression opportunities, ensuring the best leaders can play new, more influential roles across more schools.” (1.37a)

These “great leaders” however are to be restricted in their “freedoms” for their governing bodies will set the “vision” for the school as well as holding them to account.

  • “Governing boards need to be skills-based and focused on the strategic functions of setting a vision and holding school leaders to account for the educational and financial performance of their schools.” (1.38)

By page 15 it is clear that every school is to become an academy.

  • “Spreading excellent practice and ending the two-tier system. … This white paper sets out how, by the end of 2020, all remaining maintained schools will be academies or in the process of conversion.” (1.41)

Apparently there will be an advantage in MATs having schools spread around the country.

  • “When every school is an academy, groups of schools will be able to span geographic boundaries, with the best MATs expanding to run schools in our toughest areas in a way that no high-performing local authority ever could. This provides real accountability, competitive pressure and choice – improving performance, enabling innovation and scaling success.” (1.4).

Academies, it is claimed, have driven improvement – but no clear evidence of this is cited! 

  • Over the last five years, the academies and free schools programmes have freed thousands of headteachers and leaders to drive improvement in their own schools and across the system. (4.1)

It is not clear from what they have been freed other than the obligation to follow the National Curriculum.

How should we know that becoming an academy improves the education provided?   Because the Government tells us:

  • “A system in which all state-funded schools are academies will deliver better results for children through:
  • Empowering great teachers and leaders–autonomy and accountability will better position people to succeed and provide more effective leadership structures
  • Better responding to changes in performance–the system will prioritise responsiveness and clear accountability over an arbitrary requirement for all schools in a local area to be run by the same entity, regardless of its effectiveness
  • Sustainability – schools will operate in more sustainable groups, and we will end the dual system of running schools which is inefficient and unsustainable in the long term” (4.6)

On page 20 is a first and brief reference to character building in school.

  • “Character and resilience: education should prepare children for adult life, giving them the skills and character traits needed to succeed academically, have a fulfilling career, and make a positive contribution to British society.” (1.55c)

This is elaborated in Chapter Six:

  • “A 21st century education should prepare children for adult life by instilling the character traits and fundamental British values that will help them succeed: being resilient and knowing how to persevere, how to bounce back if faced with failure, and how to collaborate with others at work and in their private lives.” (6.33)
  • “These traits not only open doors to employment and social opportunities but underpin academic success, happiness and wellbeing. The country’s leading state and independent schools already demonstrate a concerted focus on instilling these kinds of character traits throughout school life. Although we want that for all children, there are many different methods and the government has no intention of mandating a particular approach.” (6.34)

But what a revealing statement of government ignorance:  “Education should prepare children for adult life …”  What does our Government think schools have been doing over the centuries?  What about the personal qualities that are fostered during the years of schooling based on individual happiness, love, family, community, and pursuit of the good life?  These get just three words, in paragraph 6.34, “happiness and wellbeing”.  And as every teacher knows, schools do not “instill” these:  they foster them.

Undoubtedly there is common ground between Government, teachers, parents and the wider community that education matters and that children should get good schooling. But the authors of this White Paper show a frightening level of ignorance about what good schooling is and how it is achieved.  They are driven by ideology, not by reason.  The contention that academy trusts will provide better schooling than local authorities is not substantiated by evidence. 

This not a great paper.  It should be withdrawn.

An online petition “Scrap plans to force state schools to become academies” has attracted over the 100,000 signatures which should prompt a debate in Parliament.  Our MPs should recognize that irrespective of their party loyalties, this White Paper deserves their ridicule.  For the sake of our children, grandchildren and beyond, academisation must be stopped now.


Read or download the full white paper: [pdf-embedder url=””]


Professor Bassey is not impressed with the white paper but are his criticisms valid?

Please let us know why/why not in the comments or via Twitter…


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  1. MikeHaines20

    SwailesRuth SchoolsImprove Agreed – good analysis of vacuous arguments and empty writing – really is a ‘White Paper’!

  2. MikeHaines20

    SwailesRuth SchoolsImprove Agreed – good analysis of vacuous arguments and empty writing – really is a ‘White Paper’!

  3. Baggienickjg

    SchoolsImprove warwickmansell to protest today do group “Nicky Morgan – No!!!’ selfie + post with this tag #handsoffourschools

  4. Baggienickjg

    SchoolsImprove warwickmansell to protest today do group “Nicky Morgan – No!!!’ selfie + post with this tag #handsoffourschools

  5. @TW To tell a lie you need to know that what you are saying is wrong.  Morgan, Gove, Gibb and Co believe they are right and believe they have the best interests of the students at heart.
    This is why simply opposition has so little effect.

  6. @TW To tell a lie you need to know that what you are saying is wrong.  Morgan, Gove, Gibb and Co believe they are right and believe they have the best interests of the students at heart.
    This is why simply opposition has so little effect.

  7. @TW To tell a lie you need to know that what you are saying is wrong.  Morgan, Gove, Gibb and Co believe they are right and believe they have the best interests of the students at heart.
    This is why simply opposition has so little effect.

  8. Mike Bell No amount of evidence can influence the true believer.  However, if these true believers attract so much ridicule and opposition that it’s likely to threaten election chances, then these ridiculous policies can be stopped.  They must be, for our children’s sake.

  9. Morgan’s foreword to the White Paper was full of vacuous waffle .

  10. teach_well

    Julie_Cordiner No but progressive educationalists have managed to change the system with the ideas of some educational philosophers alone so replacing it with even a shred of evidence is better.

  11. teach_well

    “They are driven by ideology, not by reason”
    Pot calling the kettle black.

    “What does our Government think schools have been doing over the centuries?”
    Has he not noticed the fundamental shifts in education over the last 40 years instigated by himself amongst others. 

    All there is a Professor picking out bits and then having a moan. Truth is essential argument here could be made for any reform. 

    If he wanted to contribute to the debate then where is his analysis of the move to a more evidence-based profession, because the truth is the likes of Bassey will no longer have the influence they once did. It’s a pathetic attack from an academic who is no doubt going to become redundant and whose pseudoscientific nonsense won’t be taught to students anymore. 

    Get rid of the white paper – not if it means Bassey and his ilk continue to draw salaries for contributing nothing of worth to the education sector and schools.

  12. Jarrod_Gaines

    What a disappointing article. Where was the argument for ‘ridicule of the white paper’? The professor points to the ‘ignorance of the government’ but without any critique of the paper itself. He points to the Academisation process as “ideologically driven” – so what? If the ideology is flawed then say why you believe this to be so? He “ridicules” the white paper for making statements without evidence – its not a report – its a white paper. His singular point seems to be “its just a bad idea”. I want to hear the other side of the argument but all we get is academics who reject the idea of Academies based on their own ideology while blaming the process on “ideology”… strange indeed! The MATS and the Academies I know are singularly driven to improve the lives, the outcomes and the academic achievements of young people. The best ones see students as a ‘whole’ and do not compartmentalise the education experience. By pointing to some of the added local authority services he points only to the dis-jointed education some children have had since 1902. I am still listening but as far as I can tell, change is working, change is coming, change is here. Lets keep going.

  13. Jarrod_Gaines  There are indeed some MATs and academies which do well just as there are non-academies which do well.  But the evidence is that academies as a group are no better or worse than non-academies.    The Education Select Committee 2015  said politicians should stop exaggerating the success of academies.  Ofsted have been very critical of seven MATs in just over a year and several are subject to Financial Notices to Improve. Despite this, this Government proposes all schools should become academies.

    Just because change is relentless doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.   Change happened in education in Finland, for example, but it was done slowly, carefully and with consensus over many years.  It was not, as the OECD pointed out (see here because of high-profile initiatives by one government or a single politician.

    Instead of keeping going like lemmings about to fall off a cliff, it’s right that people should point out the lack of evidence showing academy conversion automatically brings improvement (even Nick Gibb had to admit that it didn’t  And the National Audit Office found informal intervention such as local support was more effective than formal interventions such as academy conversion (

    You say you want to hear the other side of the argument.  Try reading the Local Schools Network (disclaimer – I blog there).   There’s lots of links to reports and analysis to dispute your claim that ‘change is working’.

  14. neils46

    Penny_Ten SchoolsImprove yet more political dogma! Having been in primary education since 1968 I hope my experience has greater merit.

  15. Nairb1

    Sorry but throwing in ‘progressive’ in order to show that something is worthless is a Govian trick. It won’t wash here.

  16. teach_well

    Nairb1 What an arrogant statement. You don’t get to choose what does and does not wash. If you have a point make it.

  17. Nairb1

    The point is that Gove no others use ‘progressive’ as a derogatory term with which to castigate anything they don’t like. At no point do they define ‘progressive’. Like you.

  18. teach_well

    Janet2 Pseudoscience is a claim, belief, or practice presented as scientific, but which does not adhere to the scientific method. The word nonsense could have been left out.

  19. teach_well

    Janet2 teach_well 
    A fundamental shift is an important (underlying) change. Fundamental shifts would be importnat underlying changes. Education is the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university. 40 years is equivalent to 4 decades, a decade being the equivalent to ten year. So what I am saying is that over the last four decades there have been important underlying changes made in the system of schooling. Your welcome to the explaination. An explanation being a statement or account that makes something clear. As to what they are: please find a thorough explanation in Robert Peal’s Progressively Worse, Daisy Christoloudou’s Seven Myths and Tom Bennett’s Teacher Proof.  have a nice day.

  20. Nairb1

    I’m not over sensitive to criticism. I’m simply challenging you to define ‘progressive education’ and identify its agreed elements and explain on that basis why you are using it as a derogatory term.

  21. teach_well

    I’ve defined it, the link shows agreed elements. I disagree with progressive education in the same way as some do traditional education. You are the one who says it’s usage is derogatory – I don’t. It’s a matter of opinion we will have to agree to disagree on.

  22. teach_well Nairb1 See this article in which schools minister Nick Gibb talks about the battle against ‘progressive’ ideas.
    It’s not oversensitive to make the obvious point that Gibb is being derogatory especially as he misrepresents ‘progressive’ methods as ‘child-led’.  This description hints at anarchy in which teachers do nothing but let the kids get on with it.  It is a distortion of ‘child-centred’ which puts children at the centre of their education.  That’s where it should be and not centred on government, employers, parents, society, multi-academy trusts, global companies with a financial interest in providing education or any other group which sees education as something which will benefit them rather than children.

  23. teach_well Janet2 That’s not what I was asking.   I’ll clarify: what ideas promoted by Professor Bassey would you say were ‘pseudoscientific’?

  24. TW

    Mike Bell  That’s true but they know perfectly well that the motivation for all this is to create profit centres for their mates.

  25. teach_well Janet2 I wasn’t asking for a definition of ‘fundamental shifts’.  Neither did I need to be told that 40 years equals 4 decades with each decade having ten years.
    The first two books you cite say much the same thing.  (And don’t you think Seven Myths is rather padded out by long quotations from Ofsted reports or similar?  More concise quotations would have sufficed).  Tom Bennet is spearing pseudoscience such as Brain Gym and Learning styles.  Lumping this pseudoscience with the progressive methods listed in the Wiki article you cited elsewhere is disingenuous.
    For an antidote, try reading the book I co-authored.  There’s a chapter on progressive education in which we argue that both ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ are needed.  You can claim a discount by citing the code and ordering the book through the link provided here

  26. warwickmansell

    .ROTSchools CommonsEd Nice spot. I had only thought had been kept hidden as of the last election manifesto. (ie from the electorate).

  27. ROTSchools

    warwickmansell CommonsEd At the time I thought it was an error. Now I’m not so sure. Who is driving this now – Morgan, Osborne, or No 10?

  28. Trudgeteacher

    warwickmansell CommonsEd SchoolsImprove hopefully they’ll be a white waste paper basket in the room. If this became legislation U0001f626U0001f620U0001f624

  29. antonyhopker

    warwickmansell CommonsEd SchoolsImprove do an FOI – how many contributed to white paper and when they last visited a school

  30. mscbeautiful

    nicholasclarke3 Interesting observations to the wording of the whitepaper, but his response lacks bite and insight #handsoffourschools

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