In the second part of our global update, we look at the issues facing the English education system.

England – General

The first national teachers’ strikes for some years have been taking place in England over the past two months. The strikes have been over pay, which has not increased in line with the rapid rise in inflation. These have been single-day strikes and three were planned for this half of the spring term. Currently the strikes are on hold as the Government engages in discussions with the unions.

This disruption has been overshadowed by the tragic death of Ruth Perry, a primary school head teacher who her family said was under “intolerable pressure” as she waited for an Ofsted report that would downgrade her school to the lowest level possible. At a time when staff and pupil wellbeing is at the centre of the debate about education and compassionate leadership is being championed, as highlighted in our report of the Centre for Education Leadership annual conference, the BBC on 22 March 2023 reported that this tragic event has resonated with many in the education system.

Several of the trade unions have asked for a halt to inspections but the Chief Inspector has indicated that they will continue. The Labour party has already flagged the nature of and need for inspections as an issue at the next general election.

England – School issues and priorities

For our litmus test of what concerns English schools in general we have referenced the stakeholder briefing from School North East. It found:

  • Staff attendance continues to improve. There were still considerable recruitment issues for all types of staff both in quantity and quality. Retention is less of an issue but still concerning for 30 per cent of the schools surveyed. The monitoring of staff wellbeing shows a slight improvement from the autumn term with over 88 per cent taking 3-4 on a five-point scale, with five being good. However, more than half of responses said wellbeing was still below pre-pandemic levels.
  • Student attendance levels have improved marginally over last term, when just over three quarters of responses said student attendance was above 90 per cent. However, these levels are still below the pre-pandemic and disadvantaged and SEND students rates are still of concern for the Spring term.
  • All responses rated student wellbeing at three or above (on a scale of one to five). However, two-thirds reported seeing more behaviour-related issues and three-thirds reporting that their students were not ‘stage ready’.
  • Finances: With individuals or groups of schools responsible for running their own budgets, responding to the rapid increase in energy and potential staff cost was likely to push them into deficit or to draw upon reserves.

All of these factors meant that the key priorities for schools are finances, curriculum development and strategic improvement, recruitment and retention, support for students with SEND and other rising needs, and behaviour challenges.

England – Evidence-based decision making

One of the major innovations of the Conservative Government is to sponsor the formation of the Education Endowment Fund, which champions evidence-based decision making by undertaking research into what does and does not work and making it accessible to the profession.

The EEF has published two documents in the past month. The first was an invitation to schools to take part in three different trials.  These were for secondary schools in the use of mentors in GCSE science and for nine to ten year old primary school pupils in science and nine to eleven year old pupils struggling with their reading comprehension.

The second was to announce an important update to the Early Years Toolkit. It emphasised the evidence that “encouraging young people to engage with pictures, text and questions during story time can boost their early language development by as much as seven months.”

Increasingly the EEF is also providing contextual evidence which could contribute to educational policy. For example on March 23, the organisation published a briefing which drew attention to the concerns raised by NFER in a research report about the critical lack of recruits entering the teaching profession. The piece concluded:

The quality of support and training offered throughout their working lives, particularly to early career teachers who make up over a quarter of the teaching workforce in England, is also crucial. Schools are doing all they can to improve outcomes for the children in their care. But they can’t function effectively without full teams of well-supported staff.”

Source: EDUCATION ENDOWMENT FOUNDATION (EEF) COMMENTS ON NFER’S NEW TEACHER LABOUR MARKET IN ENGLAND ANNUAL REPORT 2023: Professor Becky Francis CBE, Chief Executive of the Education Endowment Foundation, March 23, 2023.

We hope you found this first part of our tale informative. In our second article we will focus upon the Quebec education system as experienced by our colleagues at the Western Quebec School Board.

Take and stay safe.


George Berwick