DfE amends ‘sham’ consultation on minimum service levels

The Department for Education (DfE) has been forced to amend a consultation on the potential introduction of minimum service levels (MSL) in education, after controversy over its design. The department published proposals setting out MSL options, but early respondents complained of tiny character limits and being forced to choose options which they did not support.

Talks with sector unions over a voluntary approach to MSL ended last week without any agreement being reached. The DfE then published proposals and a consultation document on 28 November that set out just two MSL options. Proposal 1 would prioritise attendance for ‘specific groups of children and young people’, to include SEND pupils, those due to take public exams/formal assessments, vulnerable pupils and those who are the children of key workers. Proposal 2 takes the same approach as proposal 1 for secondary pupils, but would also prioritise attendance for all primary pupils.

The DfE proposes that either option would apply to all state-funded schools, including special schools, but that it would be for employers – e.g. schools, MATs, local authorities etc - to decide whether to enforce the MSL by issuing ‘work notices’ to their employees. This aspect has already proved controversial with some accusing the DfE of abdicating operational responsibility for the measures they are proposing. More broadly the proposals have attracted criticism that they would effectively end the right to strike in some settings, especially primary schools under proposal 2, and special schools under either proposal. The government’s approach to talks on a voluntary agreement has also been criticised, with Daniel Kebede of the NEU calling it ‘disingenuous and cynical’, while Paul Whiteman of the NAHT accused the government of acting ‘in incredibly bad faith’.

Given the controversy around the proposals, some respondents to the consultation did not wish to support either of the proposed options, but found the consultation design forced them to choose one. A question asked simply ‘Do you prefer proposal 1 or proposal 2?’ and had to be answered in order to continue progressing through the questionnaire. Elsewhere, questions had very short character limits – for example three questions were limited to 150 characters, 24 were limited to 200 characters and eight were limited to 500 characters. This was significantly lower than the limits for questions in other recent or live DfE consultations, which typically were either limited to 1000 characters or had no limit at all. Some questions also required an answer from all respondents in order to progress, despite being concerned only with specific settings or levels of education. These aspects of the consultation design saw further accusations that the DfE was not serious about consultation with the profession. Speaking to Schools Week before any changes had been made to the consultation, Robert Gasson, CEO of the Wave Education Trust said: ‘You would have to question whether this is a genuine attempt to get stakeholder feedback. It’s absolutely a sham consultation’.

Following the uproar, the DfE has now made amendments to the consultation design, saying it has extended the character limits and added a ‘no preference’ option for some questions, including the one which had forced respondents to choose a preferred proposal. The department says submissions made while the consultation was in its original form will still be considered, but Leora Cruddas, chief executive of the Confederation of School Trusts, urged DfE to ‘go back to every respondent and offer them the opportunity to withdraw and resubmit’ their response.

The amended consultation can be found here https://tinyurl.com/5cv6anez and will be live until 30 January 2024.

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