Radical proposals to bring back national testing for 14-year-olds and scrap limits on teaching hours are under consideration by ministers, the Guardian has learned.
Plans have also been drawn up to hand more powers to Ofsted and to beef up inspections of schools in England, before an education white paper next year.
One of the most controversial proposals sitting in the in-tray of the new education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, is to reintroduce externally marked standard assessment tests (Sats) at the end of key stage 3, when most pupils are 14.
The tests were abolished by Labour in 2008 after a series of inquiries concluded that they fuelled a “pervasive anxiety” in younger pupils’ lives and distorted children’s education. Sats currently take place at ages seven and 11, in English, maths and sometimes science.
Sources said ministers were worried that key stage 3, which covers the first three years of secondary school, had “got a bit lost” because there is no assessment at the end of it, and children can end up losing focus. Some schools have started teaching GCSE courses a year early, in year 9.
In another move that is likely to infuriate teaching unions, the Department for Education (DfE) has been exploring getting rid of the national cap on the number of hours teachers have to be available for work. This would allow school leaders to negotiate locally with staff to extend their school day – a much-debated option amid planning for post-pandemic catchup.
There are also plans to give the school inspectorate, Ofsted, greater powers, in line with commitments in the Conservatives’ 2019 election manifesto. The party pledged an extra £10m to extend individual school inspections from two to three days, pilot no-notice inspections and train more inspectors.
Ministers are looking at ways to accelerate the academisation programme, to turn schools still maintained by local authorities into academies, though there remain concerns about the capacity of existing trusts to take on more schools and the number of academies that are failing.
Sources told the Guardian the proposals were being discussed in the weeks leading up to the sacking of Gavin Williamson as education secretary last month, in preparation for a white paper outlining changes early next year. Key figures in the sector, including several academy trust leaders, are understood to have been called in and sounded out.
One academy trust leader declined to take part after hearing of the proposals, saying the DfE and headteachers should prioritise helping pupils catch up on learning lost during the pandemic.
A DfE spokesperson said: “We do not comment on speculation. The government is committed to an ambitious, long-term education recovery plan and an excellent education system that works for all.”
Concern has been growing about funding for schools in the forthcoming spending review. This week the Times reported that education would be hard hit and the DfE did not submit a formal application for catchup funding. “The department has its eye on other things,” a source told the Guardian. However, insiders in the DfE have disputed the claim.
The white paper proposals signal a new appetite on the part of ministers to pick a fight with teaching unions after a fraught 18 months during the pandemic. “There was a view that when Michael Gove was perceived to be successful [as education secretary], he was championing parents and being muscular with the profession,” said one insider by way of explanation.
Any attempt to dismantle the 1,265-hour “directed time” cap for teachers will be resisted by unions, for whom workload remains a huge concern. Most state schools in England operate in line with the school teachers’ pay and conditions document, which says a classroom teacher can be directed by a head to work up to a maximum of 1,265 hours over 195 days of the year, though in practice they work far more.
With concerns growing about the impact of the pandemic on disadvantaged children’s learning, the DfE has been looking at how to reform school hours to give pupils more class time to help them catch up after months of disruption to their studies.
“If the 1,265 hours agreement goes, it would allow headteachers to determine locally what the working arrangements in the school were. It could make longer days cheaper, because you wouldn’t have to pay teachers to do it,” a source said.
“There’s quite a lot of misunderstanding about how fatigued, tired and frustrated the profession is. They’ve really gone the extra mile. Anything that pushed them like this, you could see a backlash.”
Of the proposed testing reforms, one trust leader said: “I can see the logic. I’m in favour of testing. But we need to rethink the system a bit more radically. It’s become one of those tests of strength: ‘Our teachers must work more hours. We have a right to know more. We want to see what we are getting for our money.’”
Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: “If these proposals were in a white paper, that would be a backward step. The pandemic has shown that schools can be and are trusted. Further unnecessary high-stakes accountability measures will do nothing to help the recovery mission. What schools are crying out for is support, not sanction.”
The proposals are understood to be at an early stage and will now be considered by Zahawi.
• This article was amended on 4 October 2021. The school teachers’ pay and conditions document defines a full working year as 195 days, not 190 as a previous version said.