On 12 January 2023, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following question for short debate in grand committee:

Lord Vaizey of Didcot (Conservative) to ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of their funding for Oak National Academy on the publishing and education technology sectors in the United Kingdom.

1.   What is the Oak National Academy?

1.1 A pandemic creation

The Oak National Academy was created in April 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. It aimed to make “the best curriculum thinking, the deepest subject expertise and the smartest learning design” available to teachers by providing free access to “thousands of teacher-made, fully-resourced lessons”. These lessons were designed for students from the beginning of primary up to the end of key stage four.

In July 2021, the academy worked with ImpactEd, a social enterprise that supports schools and education organisations, to understand the impact its resources had over the spring and summer terms of the 2020–21 academic year. This meant that the findings would reflect on the usage of the resources during both partial school closures and following full pupil returns. The key findings of this research included that:

  • Oak resources were most popular during school lockdown. After lockdown, the usage patterns shifted with teachers reporting through focus groups that as they returned to in-person teaching, they mainly used the resources to cover classes, support self-isolating pupils and as a tool for continuing professional development (CPD).
  • The majority of teachers said that the academy was their main source of remote learning support due to its alignment with their own school curriculum and the national curriculum more broadly.
  • Workload was fairly similar between academy users and non-users, however, academy respondents generally reported that they had saved time. Respondents also said that having the resources had allowed them more time to focus on identifying and supporting more vulnerable pupils during lockdown.
  • Those who used the academy had a statistically significant higher wellbeing score than non-users and the scores were generally higher for academy-users the longer they had been using the resources (though this was not statistically significant).
  • Around a third of users reported that they had changed how they ordered some curriculum topics to better complement academy resources.
  • The majority of users reported that the academy’s curriculum and resources had increased their confidence in curriculum design and improved the quality of their lesson planning and delivery, both for remote and in-person teaching.
  • In focus groups, teachers expressed that using the academy to cover lessons would have a considerable impact on reducing learning loss due to staff absence.
  • Academy users identified a statistically significant higher proportion of pupils as exceeding expectations than non-users, particularly in primary schools.
  • Most teachers in the focus groups and interviews said that academy resources were accessible to special education needs (SEND) and EAL pupils (those who use English as an additional language).
  • Roughly three-quarters of pupils engaged as or more than expected with the academy’s resources, with a slightly higher average for secondary pupils.

1.2 A new role

In March 2022, the government said that it would build on the success of the academy by establishing a new arms-length national curriculum body. This plan was announced in the schools white paper: ‘Opportunity for all: Strong schools with great teachers for your child’. In the white paper, the government said that this new body would:

Work with thousands of teachers to co-design, create and continually improve packages of optional, free, adaptable digital curriculum resources and video lessons that are effectively sequenced to help teachers deliver an evidence-based, high-quality curriculum.

It explained that each subject would have a choice of resources to provide variety for teachers. It argued that this “sector-led approach” would draw on expertise and inputs from across the country, involving teachers, schools, trusts, subject associations, national centres of excellence and education publishers.

The government argued that these resources would “ensure high quality lessons are available nationwide for the benefit of all children”. In addition, it argued that it would reduce workload for teachers so that they can concentrate on delivering lessons and create new resources only when there’s a reason to do so.

In a press release also published in March 2022, the Department for Education explained that the Oak National Academy would be converted into this new arm’s length national curriculum body. The release contained details of a speech the then education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, was expected to give which focused on the academy and its evolution. Mr Zahawi said that data had shown that 46 percent of primary teachers plan lessons from scratch. Stating that this is a drain on teachers’ time, he said that instead of each teacher “reinventing the wheel”, the new body would enable them to access content, for free, that would continuously evolve. Mr Zahawi also said that the body would be centred on collaboration and partnership: “I am committed to building on the “by teachers, for teachers” approach that has been a key success factor for Oak National Academy”.

In October 2022, the government published a business case to support the creation of a new arm’s length body that would incorporate the Oak National Academy. It said that this included evidence which set out the strategic, economic, financial, commercial and management case for its plan.

Further information about the Oak National Academy is available in a framework document published by the government in September 2022.

2.   Concerns about the impact on the publishing and education technology sectors

Several bodies and individuals have raised concerns that the conversion of the Oak National Academy to a curriculum body could have a negative impact on the publishing and education technology sectors. However, the government has argued that the market has overestimated the impact.

2.1 Government market impact assessment

These arguments were set out in the government’s market impact assessment which it published alongside its business case. In the assessment, the government said that it had engaged with trade bodies that represented the relevant commercial suppliers to understand their assessment of the potential market impact. These trade bodies were the British Education Suppliers’ Association (BESA) and the Publishers’ Association (PA). The government reported that while both organisations “supported our ambitious aims”, they also showed a clear view that the proposals would have a “significant negative impact on the commercial market”. The government said that in trying to quantify the impact, BESA had said it would be between 10% and upwards of 30%. However, the government argued that it would dispute the basis of the 10% and that the grounds for the 30% figure were unclear.

The government said that the main impact cited by the bodies was that schools and teachers would reduce their spending on commercial resources. The bodies argued that this would happen because:

  • resources produced by the new commercial body would be seen as having been endorsed by Ofsted (or that the Department for Education would in time move in this direction); and
  • the resources would be free and therefore school managers would struggle to justify spending on material from the commercial market.

The bodies said that these factors would cause a fall in revenue that would reduce their ability to keep investing in their resources, depleting quality over time. They also argued that it would make it more difficult for new players to operate within the sector, leading to it being dominated by a few large organisations, affecting competition and innovation.

Poland was used by the bodies as an example of the impact the proposals could have on the digital publishing market. They said that before 2014, all textbooks were produced by educational publishers in Poland. However, from 2014 onwards, they said that schools were encouraged to avoid such publishers and use the government’s free-to-use digital textbook platform. They cited evidence which showed that this policy led to a 10% contraction in the textbook sector in the first year and may have shrunk it by a further 6–8% in 2015. The government said that while this was interesting, it highlighted that the use of resources produced by the curriculum body would be optional and that schools would not be encouraged to use them over higher quality materials. It also noted that there is a stronger prevalence of textbook use in Poland than in the UK.

The government also highlighted a survey it had carried out as part of its market assessment. It said that it had sent an informal survey to commercial providers who had attended an introductory webinar on the proposals. Stating that it received 43 responses in total, it said that the vast majority had raised similar concerns as the trade bodies, mainly that schools would reduce their spend on paid-for resources if free government-backed resources were available.

Considering the evidence received, the government said that it agreed with the theoretical case that its proposals could have some negative impact on the commercial market for curriculum resources. However, it said it believed that this would be lower than suggested by the market, which it argued had been unable to provide robust evidence for its position.

2.2 Parliamentary debate

In an oral question in November 2022, Lord Vaizey of Didcot (Conservative) asked the government what assessment it had made of the impact of funding for Oak National Academy on the education technology market in England. Speaking on the issue, Lord Vaizey said that the creation of the academy was opposed by publishers, multi-academy trusts, the educational technology sector and teaching unions and asked the government why it wanted to “nationalise the education technology and publishing sector”.

Speaking for the government, Baroness Barran, the minister for the school system and student finance, highlighted the business case for the new role of the academy which she said had passed internal government clearance. She also noted that monitoring market impact would be a priority throughout the academy’s lifetime and would be factored into its ongoing evaluation and two-year review.

Referring to Lord Vaizey’s comments, Baroness Barran said that suggesting that the academy was not supported was “not an accurate representation of the facts”. She also gave “two big reasons” why the government thought the creation of such a body was important. First, she said that teachers spend a lot of time preparing their curriculum and that the government wanted to reduce this workload so teachers could focus on their pupils. Second, she said that the government was clear that the quality of the curriculum could still be further improved and that the academy is “one simple way of doing that”.

2.3 Potential legal action

The trade body BESA has begun legal action against the government about the establishment of the Oak National Academy as a curriculum body. In May 2022, an article in Schools Week reported that the trade body had taken the first formal step towards legal action by giving notice of its proposed judicial review claim. It argued that it was “unfairly and unlawfully excluded” from consultation over the plans and that the Department for Education had failed to properly consider the decision’s impact on the education services market.

A further article published by Schools Week in October 2022 said that BESA had written a second letter to the government. It reported that BESA had said that the government had not followed official guidance and had not taken account of subsidy control rules and protection of property laws under the European Convention of Human Rights.

Writing for the TES Magazine, the director general of BESA, Caroline Wright, explained why the body was considering legal action against the government. In her article, Ms Wright questioned if there is a need for a publicly funded platform. She also highlighted the “wealth-creating role” of educational publishers and education technology companies “in enhancing the UK’s economy”. Ms Wright suggested that the government reinvest the £43mn set aside for the Oak National Academy, arguing that this could see schools almost double their curriculum resource budget.

Responding, a government spokesperson said that it was “disappointing to see businesses operating in the education sector seeking to undermine plans that have been designed by teachers, are in demand from teachers, and ultimately are in the best interests of pupils up and down the country”.

Cover image by tzido on Freepik.