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When this Government was first elected in 2019, it did not have much to say about education. The relevant section of the manifesto was thin, and little of what it did contain actually referred to new spending.

To judge by the response to the new Education White Paper from this morning’s Times, the same spirit prevails in 2022:

“The commitment that schools will provide no fewer than 32.5 hours a week to pupils does not add up to much, since most do anyway. And the “parent pledge” is platitudinous: “any child that falls behind in English or maths should receive timely and evidence-based support” is all that is offered. 

“The white paper is best treated not as the government’s answer to the challenges the system faces but as the beginning of a discussion about a necessary transformation.”

It is difficult to say how much of this is Nadhim Zahawi’s fault. For example, whether or not the unions are correct about “badly needed additional funding” – and it is hard to envisage circumstances in which they would not call for such – the Education Secretary is clearly facing a Treasury opposed to turning on the spending taps.

Easier to lay at his feet is the fact that the White Paper contains little detail on the mechanisms for how it will hit its ambitious targets for reading and mathematics; the ‘parent pledge’ is a space-filler.

More curious still is what isn’t referenced at all: the entire paper contains not a single reference to grade inflation. Yet in addition to lost learning, the corrosive effects of teacher assessment on qualification standards is one of the biggest challenges facing Zahawi as he tries to put right the damage done by the pandemic.

Instead, on page three of the report he writes: “We have returned rigour to our exams and the qualifications children achieve set them on a path for success.” The use of the past tense is curious: according to Zahawi’s own plan, the goal is to return rigour to exams over the next two years.

The push for universal academisation also raises questions about the old Coalition-era commitment to diversity of provision. Tory MPs are already wondering how selective schools (of which the Education Secretary is a fan) will fit into multi-academy trusts.

And both the drive towards MATs and the minimum requirement of 32.5 hours per week provision seems a step back from the original spirit of free schools, which were supposed to be independent and with great leeway to set their own terms of operation. The Times says that “the plan to turn all schools into academies tidies the system up”, but ‘tidiness’ was not one of the hallmarks of the original vision.