The Future Outlook for Primary Schools

Jun 8, 2016

In 1997, 67% of children attained a Level 4 in English and 62% in maths. Eighteen years later, 89% of children reached the expected standard in reading, 87% in writing, and 87% in maths. This is a story of a sector which has improved significantly over a time period in which, whilst it is true that investment has significantly increased, other phases of education have not improved to the same extent. Indeed, in his annual report in 2014, Sir Michael Wilshaw specifically noted that “primary schools continue to progress, but secondary schools have stalled”.1 Ofsted inspection data backs this up; by the time of the annual report for 2015, across England, 85% of primary schools were ranked Good or Outstanding compared with 74% of secondary schools.

This paints a picture of a phase of education in rude health, and one which might be expected to look broadly similar in 2020. But in fact, there are huge changes on the horizon and indeed happening on the ground now, as primary teachers are all too aware. These challenges come both from deliberate government policy, and as a consequence of broader changes in society and in the education system. These include:

  • the bedding in of a new National Curriculum with stronger subject knowledge, and a new assessment system for awarding pupils with the abolition of Levels
  • a tightening of school funding, with per pupil funding expected to shrink in terms of per pupil purchasing power by around 8% in real terms between 2014/15 and 2019/202
  • changes to the system of initial teacher training which place greater responsibilities on headteachers to recruit, train and qualify their own staff
  • changes to the system of initial teacher training which place greater responsibilities on headteachers to recruit, train and qualify their own staff
  • an upcoming leadership retirement issue, with 7% of all primary school SLT positions held by people aged 55+3
  • pupil numbers growing, with an estimated rise in the primary population of 7.7% over the next decade (from 4.4m children to 4.74m4)
  • a rapid decline in the extent of LA provided support services, which is likely to accelerate even further as funding cuts for these services (the Education Services Grant) roll out between now and 2020 the (likely) introduction of a National Funding Formula, which will benefit some schools but mean others face further funding cuts.


In addressing these challenges, primary schools also have to contend with one other factor their secondary colleagues do not, which is the inadvertent but nonetheless strong secondary-centric way in which much education policy is made. This comes about for several reasons, many of which are self-reinforcing: the nature of high stakes national exams at secondary means it is the phase that most commonly comes to mind when policymakers are considering schools; it is much higher profile in the media, which means it often assumes greater political significance; and it is where most practitioners who engage in policy discussions with government come from, which skews the perspective of ‘the sector view’. All of these factors mean that – and I speak here from over a decade’s experience of working in and around Whitehall on education policy – for many policymakers, “school” means, implicitly, “secondary school”.5

This is despite the fact that the evidence tells us that in many ways, primary schools are more important than secondary schools in terms of building a secure basis of knowledge that allows for the acquisition of further knowledge, and as a chance to address issues of socioeconomic gaps.

At this point in time, there are two futures for the primary phase. A positive future sees primaries adapting to the new circumstances in terms of curriculum, structure and financing and continuing to grow and develop. A negative scenario sees many of them buckling under the myriad new pressures accumulating upon them and hundreds, if not thousands, a year falling under the new increased floor standards for performance and becoming eligible for forced intervention.

What is almost universally agreed is that the solution for the next stage of development of the primary phase must be the creation of many more groupings and partnerships, building on the type of collaboration that has already happened over the past few years. One important question is over the formality, or ‘hardness’, of these partnerships. There is a distinct operational difference (let alone legal and governance difference) between a soft or informal clustering that might be just for CPD purposes, and a more formal partnering that involves some merging of budgets, staff, and governance. Robert Hill, who has studied this extensively, concludes that “schools gain the most from partnerships when they are deep as well as ‘tight’. That is to say, the schools are engaging in teacher-to-teacher learning and research and developing leaders jointly as well as having a hard organisational structure that ensures they are accountable to each other6” (my italics). These partnerships in which a hard organisational structure occurs are almost exclusively found in multi-academy trusts7. For various reasons, academisation, either as a single school or in an MAT, has been much slower to take off in primary than in secondary. However, it is inevitable that given the direction of government policy as well as the wider pressures outlined above that the vast majority of partnerships that will form by choice and compulsion over the next five years will be multi-academy trusts8. The only estimate that has been given by the DfE is that on current trends, around a third of primary schools might be expected to be an academy by 20209. However, even with the change in approach towards universal academisation, it is likely that new proposed measures on wholesale conversion of schools to academy status in the case of failing Local Authorities and unviable Local Authorities will disproportionately affect primary schools. So I would expect the one third figure to be a (potentially significant) underestimate of the scale of academisation in primary schools by 2020.

For primary school leaders, this means a need to become comfortable with a wholly new way of working. Although they will be very used to shared informal collaboration, for many maintained schools, the provision of many non-teaching services will have been provided almost entirely by the LA, with little need for action by the school. This will radically change. Everything from management of the school estate, to catering contracts, to fixing the boiler now suddenly becomes the school’s responsibility. And there will be a world of difference for some heads between a coming together of their schools to share best practice and compare budgets, and a situation in which suddenly one of their peer heads is an executive leader and becomes their boss – early proposals that groups could have ‘rotating leaders’ have been firmly rejected by the Government. On the positive side, a multi-academy trust offers the chance to employ specialist non-teaching staff to take care of problems with buildings and boilers. It also offers an opportunity to address the leadership deficit, by providing a supportive atmosphere in which a deputy might feel comfortable to step up to headship knowing that they are not going to be isolated. For middle leaders in primaries, the next few years offer a range of amazing opportunities. For those in smaller primaries in particular, it allows the type of peer activity and relationships that are so critical to ongoing development to happen on a much more systematic basis than can happen in a standalone school or that often happen with LA maintained school meetings or softer partnerships. For classroom teachers who also have middle leadership responsibilities, it also allows for opportunities for the type of collaboration and planning and team teaching that again, whilst it can and clearly does happen in standalone and softer groupings, can now take place more often. There will also likely be the creation of cross-trust roles working on areas of subject specialism, which will create a new type of middle leader – a maths mastery lead, for example, or a phonics lead. Middle leaders are also likely to gain experience in budget setting and greater scale of line management and performance management that is common for secondary middle leaders, but less so for primary.

Primaries are undoubtedly facing a raft of challenges at present. But for many, their destiny can and should remain in their own hands. If they work carefully and constructively to find a series of partners to work with that share their vision and their ethos and their goals; if they don’t rush to a decision but take their time; and if they develop a formal structure that supports these shared objectives, then the future can indeed look bright.

This piece was originally published in Teaching Leaders Primary 2020 Quarterly.

1 – The Annual Report of Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Education, Children’s Services and Skills 2013/14.
2 – IFS publication 8027, “English schools will feel the pinch over the next five years”, 21 October 2015
3 – DfE, School workforce in England: November 2014
4 – DfE, National pupil projections: July 2015
5 – To be very specific, I mean ‘mainstream school’ here – all the factors referred to here apply even more so to special schools who are almost entirely absent from any national policy discussions except those specifically on SEND and occasionally on behaviour.
6 – Hill, “Grasping opportunities arising from collaboration and comparing and contrasting different models of working in a competitive landscape” December 2012, accessed from his website here
7 – Though not exclusively – a ‘hard federation’ of local authority schools shares many of the same operational features, though these are strongly discouraged by the DfE
8 – Sir David Carter, the new National Schools Commissioner, is very clear that softer partnerships such as umbrella trusts, which initially seemed attractive to primary schools wanting/needing to collaborate but without losing their independence, will not be an option
9 –


Jonathan Simons

Director of Policy and Advocacy, Varkey Foundation Read Full Bio

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