17 April 2023

Can we really get 90% of primary pupils ‘up to standard’ by 2030?


Today hundreds of thousands of families found out which primary school their children have been offered a place at for this September.

It can be a truly nerve-wracking experience. Getting your child off to a good start in their schooling is vital, and for many parents only School X or Y will do. The good news is that the vast majority will have been allocated one of their preferred schools: in 2022 92.2% got a place at their first preference, and 98.1% a place at one of their top three.

Why are so many families able to get into a preferred school these days? Well, a big part of it is because the Government created over one million extra school places since 2010, many of them through the super-effective free schools programme. 

Another reason, and one that is going to play out for quite a while from here, is the decline in the number of younger children. The birth rate rose for over a decade up until 2013 – hence the need for all those extra school places – but then it fell a bit, and then fell a lot after 2016.

This means far fewer four-year-olds starting school now. The decline has happened faster than schools can close or reduce their admission number, which means more places available than there are children in many areas. This is tricky for school budgets, but great for parent choice (and, eventually, teacher shortages.)

So most families will be breathing a sigh of relief today, and can look forward to their little ones going somewhere they’re happy with this autumn.

However, this is obviously only the start of the journey. Where they go to school is less important than what happens when they get there i.e. what the culture is like, how well they are taught maths and phonics, and the broader curriculum experience thereafter.

And for the cohort starting in September this is going to be even more closely monitored than usual. This is because they are the group that will leave primary school in 2030, which is when the Government hopes to see 90% or more of pupils achieving at least the ‘expected standard’ in reading, writing, and maths SATs.

This target was already pretty ambitious when it was set a year ago: the highest ever result was 65% in 2019, pre-Covid, and last summer it fell to 59%. It’s not entirely bonkers though.

I was a ministerial adviser when the target was set, so I’m biased but I think that it is achievable for a number of good reasons.

Firstly, whilst things in our schools have come a long way in the past decade or so, thanks to investment and the hard work of teachers, we know that there is still lots of low-hanging fruit to be picked when it comes to practice in key aspects.

For instance, thanks to Nick Gibb’s focus on teaching early reading through ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ (SSP) far more kids get off to a good start than a decade ago, with 82% hitting the expected standard in Year 1 in 2019, versus only 58% in 2012.

But some trusts and schools with even very disadvantaged intakes are doing far better than this, consistently getting over 90% of their kids across the line. They’ll say it’s because they deliver SSP with fidelity, sticking rigidly to the teaching programmes they’ve adopted, where others mix and match materials and dilute the impact.

We see similar variation and inconsistencies in practice when looking at schools approach things like attendance, behaviour, curriculum content and pedagogy. So more can be done here.

Secondly, there are now a lot more organisations with a track record in systematically raising standards at primary. Academy trusts like Outwood Grange, Harris Federation, STAR and Ark Schools have models that they have tweaked over time and are replicated whenever they take a new school on. They generally see SATs results go up by around 20 percentage points or more in the first few years, so we need to get as many schools as possible into more strong trusts like these so they can work their magic – and this is exactly what the Government is going to do.

Finally, while we don’t yet know exactly what combination of things are needed to transform things so that 90% can be hit, because of developments in recent years – strong chains of schools, the EEF to evaluate interventions, the rise of ResearchED and move towards evidence-informed practices etc – we now have a school system that is much better able to share and adopt innovations as they emerge.

We now know much more about systematically teaching kids better than we did five years ago, and there’s no reason to think that we won’t know even more in five years’ time. This ‘X factor’ is what should get us from 80% of kids hitting the expected standard to 90%, and it’s going to be fascinating to see what comes up over time.

It’s going to be a really exciting time to work in our schools. That’s why I’ve spent a lot of time in recent months talking to teachers and trusts about what the educational ‘ingredients’ and ‘recipes’ are that will help teachers and pupils achieve incredible things.

Here at the Centre for Policy Studies we want to support people in their hugely important work, by identifying and sharing the things that are already making a difference in classrooms around the country. Whether it’s measures that have transformed attendance and behaviour, or that have boosted early reading competence or maths confidence, we want to hear about it, especially if you think it could be adopted or adapted elsewhere – so do get in touch & tell us all about it.

There are obviously some major challenges to contend with, not least the parts of the wider ecosystem that are struggling, like Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services and children’s social care. But if we can overcome those, the next few years could be amongst the most significant yet for English schools and genuinely transform the prospects for our children and the nation as a whole – all while making school offer day a lot less nervewracking for parents.

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Mark Lehain is Head of Education at the Centre for Policy Studies.