Education’s always changing, and it can be hard to keep track. Policy Watch is the easy way to make sure you stay up to date with the latest developments.
Keep up with what’s happening in education policy
Policy Watch is our regular policy update service, covering national and international developments in the world of education. We try to keep things simple, sharing the latest news and information with you through weekly updates, monthly summaries, papers and events.
You can access the Policy Watch by signing up for email updates.
14-19 education has always been fraught. It’s the time when youngsters go through the most changes, when we cram in the most exams and when youthful hopes and fears battle it out in equal measure.
Getting the curriculum and support systems right at such a critical stage in a young person’s development remains one of the big challenges for the education system and many have the scars to prove it. Recent weeks have seen fresh momentum in this area with the government setting out plans for a core curriculum built around the EBacc, the CBI and the Opposition calling for a review if not overhaul of the whole 14-19 package and a group of enterprising teachers opting to seize the initiative and devise their own National Bacc. It’s eleven years since the legendary Tomlinson review attempted to do much the same for 14-19 provision and much has changed on the surface but essentially four challenges remain.
Four big challenges
14 or 16, at what age should students choose different curriculum and potentially future career paths? Many countries start the process at age 14 although in fairness they have systems that allow for transfer between pathways as students progress. This is not a new debate here, the Skills Minister referred to it as ‘an age-old debate that will not be settled in this parliamentary term but one we should have again,’ when he raised it in a recent debate in Parliament. Supporters point to the fact that starting at 14 could overcome some of the drifting that can happen at KS3, that youngsters are more savvy now about career choices and that we already have some institutions that operate this way, UTCs being the obvious example. Opponents, and this seems to include the DfE at present (“a rigorous curriculum until age 16 is the best way to ensure that every child succeeds,”) argue that 14 is too young to make what could be difficult choices and that what’s more important at this stage is securing a basic level of skills that provide the platform for more specialised learning.
A common core. The government’s latest pronouncements about provision of the EBacc package has once again raised questions about a) the need for a common core and b) what should be in it. As Professor Chris Husbands has indicated, curriculum entitlements always tend to raise hackles as to what’s in and what’s out and the EBacc model is no different; what’s different this time is the emphasis on a more ‘academic’ core which could exclude some students and could divert attention from some wider learning. For Professor Sandra McNally: “the requirements of the EBacc seem like a minimum for a developed country”as long as they incorporate those wider employability skills. It comes down in other words to what constitutes a balanced curriculum which is where professional expertise should apply.
Exams at 16. The perpetuation of an exam ‘hurdle’ at age 16 at a time when not only participation to age 18 is becoming the norm but fears about schools becoming exam factories are growing is a no-brainer to many. The poor old GCSE has been under assault for some time now and the CBI’s John Cridland was very clear in his speech last week that it should go. The problem as the FT pointed out recently is that our education system has been put together haphazardly, the bits don’t all join up neatly but do serve particular purposes, in this case a measure of performance in a system that needs a post-16 gateway. On that basis any demise could be regarded as premature.
Parity of esteem (between academic and vocational routes.) A phrase that has bedevilled reform in this area for some time and is as much structural as cultural. Many would like to see the phrase dropped in favour of a focus on desired outcomes, different routes but similar results, leading to rounded and successful youngsters rather than sheep and goats.
For a change it hasn’t all been about schools this week.
The week summed up
With a major conference and a significant new report a lot’s been happening in the world of skills while HE appears to be bracing itself for a further set of developments around quality assurance as HEFCE’s review and government plans on teaching quality both gain momentum. They’re not the only ones adopting the brace position. The summer Budget is now just over ten days away and given the likelihood of further cuts (the manifesto spelt out at least two years of austerity), a number of bodies have been making their pitch to the Chancellor. The recent papers from Universities UK and the Association of School and College Leaders provide good examples of these.
But to start with schools where this week the Prime Minister added his voice to the current school reforms: “the whole purpose of our education reforms is to extend educational excellence and opportunity to every school and community and not just a privileged few,” and MPs got to debate some of the details as the Education Bill received its Second Reading; links to both are below. Little new came out of the debate although the Education Secretary did reveal the three criteria on which the definition of a coasting school would be based, namely pupil progress, pupil performance data and institutional performance over a 3-year period. Further details at the Committee stage.
On to skills where the government this week released the latest batch of stats on training and take-up, largely positive, training providers and others were in conference at the AELP Annual Conference and Professor Alison Wolf published her latest seminal report, this time on the importance to both the country and to individuals of a vibrant adult skills training service. Skills providers face many challenges but funding chief executive Peter Lauener put the latest one in perspective when he told the AELP conference that meeting the government’s 3m apprenticeship target, would mean ‘more than one apprentice starting every minute of every day over the next five years.’ Unfortunately the Minister was unable to use his speech to discuss funding figures but Alison Wolf’s report (linked below) did, confronting one of the big challenges in the training system currently, namely the Cinderella funding treatment of 19+ skills training compared for example to that of higher education. “I think we should be very alarmed,” she said, echoing the comments of employers who like the construction sector recently have concerns about a lack of skilled workers.
Finally, HE where funding issues apart, the sector is awaiting a keynote speech from the Universities Minister and further developments about the future of quality assessment. HEFCE’s review of this area still has some way to run but the government it seems remains keen on ensuring that strengthened procedures are in place as the market expands. More to follow.
Top headlines this week
‘Four in ten students say university not good value-survey.’ (Monday)
‘Let’s end this disgraceful charade over academies: Estelle Morris.’ (Tuesday)
‘Skilled workers may vanish if further education budget cuts continue.’ (Wednesday)
‘Numeracy crisis threatens to hold back UK in global data race.’ (Thursday)
‘National tests could return for infant pupils.’ (Friday)
The Higher Education (Information) Private Member’s Bill which will require institutions to provide greater information for students on how its tuition fees are being spent, which received its first reading this week
The UK Graduate Careers Survey of students graduating this summer which reported a big increase in the number expecting to go straight into work from university, generally after some work experience, and with consulting, marketing and the media as the most popular options
The National College for Teaching and Leadership who announced a lifting of the cap on recruitment numbers by universities and schools for postgrad initial teacher training courses starting in 2016/17
The Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) who ahead of a promised Treasury report on Productivity published its own recommendations including better usage of employee’s skills and better skilled managers
The British Academy who issued the latest report to warn about the pressing problems of low levels of numeracy and data skills in the UK, and who called for a more concerted push on improving teacher recruitment and quality
Former Education Secretary Estelle Morris who wrote a strong piece in The Guardian criticising the government’s obsession with Academies
Progress 8, where the closing date for schools wishing to opt in early closes on 30 June
Teachers who in the latest Eurydice report on the profession across Europe listed: help with teaching students with special needs, with developing ICT skills and with applying new technologies across the workplace as three of their top development needs
“What I’d like to see is universities telling students exactly where their money is going.” @nickhillman
“Skills has never been so high up the agenda. Where we lead, government follows.” @aelp2015
“Is productivity the new buzzword in FE?” @ FENews
“We have to consider whether a general FE college is a model we want for the future when resources are constrained @nickboles.” @tesfenews
“Sir Ian Diamond: teachers nervous about numbers deliver number-nervous students.” @roclandb
“Maybe Ofsted should move to 3 categories: waving, coasting, drowning.” @joehallg
Quote(s) of the week
“This (helping the unemployed back to work) is an essential ingredient of my 2020 vision with 20% more jobs, 20% more university places and a 20% increase in apprenticeship take-up for black and ethnic minorities by the end of the decade.” The PM on his 2020 vision
“Work experience has changed from something that was seen as nice to have on a CV to something that’s become a necessity.” High Fliers research on how to compete in the graduate job market
“The examiner’s report provides our tutors with an all too rare chance to prove that they are indeed in possession of a sense of humour albeit as part of a package deal with encyclopaedic knowledge and ruthless expectations.” An Oxford university student responds to some scathing comments from this year’s examiners about levels of English and general knowledge
“This is no way to run whelk stalls, never mind a national economy.” Alison Wolf questions the lack of money spent on adult skills training
“It’s ironic that the students who need the most expertise get the adults with the least expertise.” Professor John Hattie on his latest ‘What Works in Education’ polemics
“When I see my kids playing educational games on iPads or looking up how-to videos on You Tube I feel a stab of jealousy. But then I think of the tests and targets and homework that I didn’t have and I feel a bit sorry for them.” A parent reflects on primary education in an article for The Daily Telegraph.
Number(s) of the week
£23,700. What new graduates from top universities are looking for as a starting salary according to the latest survey by High Fliers Research
52%. The number of final year undergraduate students (the first to be paying fees up to £9,000) reporting that their university education had been value for money according to a Radio 5 Live survey
Is 14-19 education emerging as the latest battleground in education?
The week summed up
A glance through the week’s education news headlines which even provoked one education blogger to revoke the spirit of 200 years ago by indicating that education was facing its Waterloo, suggests perhaps it is
The cause of the latest angst is the government’s recent pronouncements on the EBacc, a form of core curriculum that it wants to see formally adopted by schools for new pupils from this September. “There may be a small group of pupils for whom this won’t be appropriate. But our goal is for pupils starting year 7 this September to study the EBacc subjects when they reach their GCSEs,” so said the Education Secretary in a keynote speech at the start of the week.
The move comes, as part of the government’s long-term plans to ‘enshrine the excellence’ that the government claims to have unlocked in some schools and spread it to all. It is partly therefore about social opportunity, opening out opportunity to all but it raises some fundamental questions.
Arguably three stand out. First, and perhaps most practically, have we got enough history, geography, language and other teachers to teach the full range of EBacc subjects? As Education Datalab have pointed out, we need a couple of thousand more language teachers for starters and yet as is widely recognised, we’re facing a teacher recruitment crisis which seems likely to get worse before it gets better. Second, is a force-fed diet of the EBacc what 21st century youngsters need? The debate about balance in the curriculum, what we should teach the next generation is not new of course and many people can still point to the scars of previous skirmishes such as the emblematic Tomlinson reforms of over a decade ago, as evidence of this. If the week is anything to go by, a new reform momentum is building on those reforms with the Shadow Education Secretary calling for a cross-party review of 14-19 provision and the director general of the CBI going for equally wide-ranging reform including the scrapping of GCSEs. And third, is government best placed to determine what’s most appropriate for learners? The NUT have called the idea “poor,” the Design and Technology Association let alone other subject groupings have complained about the downplaying of their subjects outside the EBacc while the SSAT survey of school leaders suggested, many may turn a Nelson’s eye to the instruction. In other words this raises once again an issue that was bubbling around before the election about how far curriculum design should be de-politicised, left to professional experts rather than politicians to determine.
For the moment, attention will turn to the Education Bill which moves on to its second reading this week but the issue of the core curriculum will not be far away.
Top headlines this week
‘Schools face pressure under plans to target academic GCSEs.’ (Monday)
‘GCSEs: Pass mark raised in exams shake-up.’ (Tuesday)
‘Hunt wants cross-party exam consensus on 14-19 curriculum.’ (Wednesday)
‘Schools will reject requirement to teach EBacc to all.’ (Thursday)
‘CBI head call for GCSEs to be scrapped.’ (Friday)
People/organisations in the news this week
The Education Secretary who set out a number of new measures under the banner of raising school standards that included more formal adoption of the EBacc, setting the ‘good’ pass grade at GCSE at level 5 and creating a new group to help teachers deal with disruptive behaviour
BIS and the FE Commissioner who as cuts continue to bite and colleges increasingly look at partnerships, mergers and federations as ways of reducing costs, published some guiding principles on how to make such arrangements work
The government who announced that the forthcoming Enterprise Bill will include plans to protect the legal status of apprenticeships and that ensure all public bodies recruit apprentices
Neil Carmichael, Iain Wright and Frank Field who have been selected to chair the Education, BIS and Work and Pensions Select Committees respectively as new Parliamentary business gets under way
CBI director general John Cridland, who in a major speech to the Wellington Festival of Education, called on the government to conduct a major review of 14-19 learning with an emphasis on improving careers guidance, bringing back work experience and finally putting GCSEs out to grass in an effort to ensure the system provided for all rather than some
The Social Mobility Commission whose latest research highlighted how difficult it can be for working-class applicants to gain entry to elite professions
The Office of the Independent Adjudicator, the body that deals with HE student complaints, whose latest annual report identified academic issues as the biggest source of complaints
David Willetts, who in a pamphlet for the Policy Institute at Kings College, argued that the HE fee system should be reviewed on a regular five-year basis but equally that the current fee ceiling may need to increase although the repayment threshold should stay
The Student Funding Panel, set up by Universities UK two years ago to look at the fee loan system, whose final report this week concluded that no immediate change was needed to the current system but that student living costs remained an issue
Ian Pretty who will take over as Chief Executive of the 157 Group when Dr Lynne Sedgemore retires this Sept
Tom Bennett, director of ResearchED, who has been asked by the Education Secretary to lead a group of practitioners in helping teachers become better at managing classroom behaviour
Belinda Vernon who is taking over as acting Chair of National Numeracy, the charity dedicated to promoting maths/numeracy
The Association of Colleges who published a set of case studies showing how colleges are working closely with employers in developing the sort of skilled workforce needed
The SSAT who surveyed school leaders about the latest requirement on schools to provide the EBacc and found considerable concerns particularly about its application to all pupils
Ofsted who announced new inspection arrangements for this Sept and which include a recognition scheme for outstanding leaders, regional scrutiny committees, more serving practitioners as inspectors, and shorter but more frequent inspections
BAM Construction who will start work this autumn on preparing the Old Admiralty Building in Whitehall in readiness for the arrival of the DfE in 2017
“What’s your favourite quote?” Highlighted this week as one of the toughest questions to be asked in an interview.
Tweet(s) of the week
“Wilshaw: Ofsted has reformed, is reforming and will continue to reform.” @tes
“I know we’ll never be loved but I do aim for greater respect for the inspectorate.” @HarfordSean
“Tech ed works best when it’s neglected by politicians whose esteem it should never try to seek.” @andrew_1910
“Escalator from low to high skills is broken - middle skill jobs gone.” John Cridland@CBItweets
“My classroom is the most benevolent of dictatorships but it is, and shall always remain, a dictatorship.” @tes
Quote(s) of the week
“I don’t want anyone to mistake stability for silence, to presume that education is no longer a priority for the government.” The Education Secretary tells delegates at this week’s Education Festival not to be lulled into a false sense of ease
“I think it is a very gloomy picture.” The view from one sixth-from college principal as the Sixth Form Colleges Association prepares to discuss the funding crisis facing the sector
“Have the leaders got a grip on the institution? Do they fully understand its strengths and weaknesses?” One of the seven standard questions inspectors are likely to ask when the new inspection regime comes into effect this September
“Here’s the special homework for the holidays that I have left to my guys for the summer.” An Italian teacher’s holiday homework for his class goes viral after it includes instructions ‘to watch the sunrise and walk by the sea, thinking about the things you love most’
“If university graduates have their moment in the sun so should people who undertake apprenticeships.” The Skills Minister on plans to protect the legal status of apprenticeships
“Elite firms seem to require applicants to pass a ‘poshness test’ to gain entry.” The Social Mobility Commission on the difficulties working-class applicants often face when they try and access top jobs
“Some absurdists claim that a noisy classroom that rocks with spontaneity is the perfect crucible for learning. It isn’t.” The government’s new behavioural expert on some of the basic rules of learning
“A great teacher takes a class with him. A poor robotic teacher takes them to boredom and mischief.” Piers Morgan on what makes for a good teacher.
Number(s) of the week
139,200. The number of businesses in England who use local colleges to train their staff according to figures from the AoC
11,000. The number of Oxbridge graduates now teaching in UK secondary schools, a big increase over the last decade according to the Sutton Trust who carried out the research
84.2%. How many applicants were offered a place at their first choice secondary school this year, down 1.0%
7 out of 10. The number of Ofsted inspectors who will also be practitioners from this September
82%. The number of schools and FE providers judged good or outstanding by Ofsted in its latest official data
18%. The number of 16/17 year olds combining work with studying, a drop of well over 50% over the last 20 years according to research from the UK Commission for Employment and Skills.
What to look out for next week
AELP National Conference (Monday, Tuesday)
Education Bill Second Reading (Monday)
Westminster Hall debate on government support for pupils with English as an additional language (Tuesday).
Teaching and learning have been very much at the forefront this week.
The week summed up
The Schools Minister made a keynote speech on the importance of the core academic curriculum, MPs debated vocational qualifications, Ofqual continued with its flow of information on the reformed GCSEs and A’ levels, the Education and Endowment Foundation published its latest batch of project reports on innovative approaches to assessment and the Teacher Development Trust launched a major new report on ‘Developing Great Teaching.’
For many, this is a welcome shift away from the often distracting obsession with school structures and systems and a focus on what really matters, namely high-quality teaching and learning. As former Schools Minister Jim Knight put it at the launch of the Teacher Development Trust Report this week; “I wish we didn’t have the role of schools minister in this country. We spend way too much time obsessing about schools-their structures, their schools, their accountability, their buildings. Instead we should have a teaching minister.” Maybe. But there’s a further interesting development to note as well and that is the extent to which the teaching profession is now taking a lead role in some of these developments. The College for Teaching, the Foundation for Leadership in Education and the Institution for FE, all of which have also been in the news this week, are all teacher led while the mantra ‘Own your Curriculum’ is beginning to gain momentum.
We shall no doubt hear more next week when Professor John Hattie’s latest Papers are released under the Pearson ‘Open Ideas’ series and the Sunday Times hosts its annual two day education-fest at Wellington College.
For the moment, it’s worth just noting some of the messages that came out of this week’s burst of activity. On the move to strengthen the position of the core academic curriculum, Nick Gibb in his speech to the think tank Policy Exchange last night, made a strong case for this being part of a moral mission, ensuring that disadvantaged pupils were given the same opportunities to secure the same high-value qualifications as everyone else. Further details on the mechanics such as whether all pupils will have to follow the requirements are due shortly. On vocational qualifications, Nick Boles, the Skills Minister, posed three questions which seem to encapsulate where government thinking is at present; none new but all important: should they start at age 14 or 16; should colleges specialise more; have we got the right qualifications? As for ‘Developing Great Teaching,’ where considerable evidence of effective professional development for teachers in other countries was presented, it’s very much a case of sustained support rather than occasional drip feed that we should be aiming for. Bye-bye Baker days perhaps.
Top headlines this week
‘Leading girls’ school to scrap homework over stress fears.’ (Monday)
The Migration Advisory Committee who have been asked to advise the government before the end of the year on how to restrict work visas to ‘genuine’ skills shortages and how to boost apprenticeship funds through a new skills levy on Tier 2 visas raising concerns among some employers
Training providers many of whom have been concerned to receive letters from the Skills Funding Agency telling them that growth funding, the funding they can apply for when they deliver more than allocated, will be frozen until after the July Budget
Eduserve who published the results of a report into digital learning resources in FE and identified three current barriers: insufficient funding; ineffective procurement; low levels of staff engagement in new technologies
A new national funding formula for schools which according to the TES may see developments later this year and which has already generated strong feelings
The TES who produced a useful set of charts from the recent DfE school census data on rising pupil numbers
Ofsted who in its latest Annual Report and Accounts suggested that new inspection arrangements would be able to generate annual savings of around £6.5m from 2016/17
Ofqual who launched a consultation on new rules and guidance for assessing practical skills in AS and A level sciences
The ‘Claim your College’ group behind the College for Teaching who have produced a new awareness pack to be used in promoting awareness of the College
Three organisations, the ASCL, NAHT and National Governors’ Association, who are getting together to develop qualifications and training for school leaders under a new Foundation for Leadership in Education
Chris Riddell who will take over from Malorie Blackman as children’s laureate
‘Invictus’ by W.E.Henley and ‘It’s Work’ by Benjamin Zephaniah chosen by teenagers as the top pre-1914 and post-1914 poems respectively in this year’s Poetry by Heart competition.
Tweet(s) of the week
“I once had an inspector tell me children were bored in lessons. Evidence? One looked out of the window.” @tombennett71
“GPA degree classifications are coming but will getting a 4.25 ever match up to a 1st?” @timeshighered
“Be more like Aldi, boarding schools told.” @schools_ontap
“Two nominees for Public Accounts Committee chair mention need to scrutinise schools sector. Could be interesting.” @warwickmansell
“Social media turned exam angst into a different kind of event this summer with its own instant commentary and millions reading stories.”@seanjcoughlan
Acronym(s) of the week
TNE. Transnational education, typically students who start their degrees abroad on courses run or recognised by UK universities and the subject of a research report from HEFCE this week.
Quote(s) of the week
“We don’t export enough; we don’t train enough; we don’t save enough; we don’t invest enough; we don’t manufacture enough; we certainly don’t build enough; and far too much of the economic activity of the nation is concentrated in the centre of London.” The Chancellor’s ‘don’t get me started’ list of current productivity challenges
“We have just done one of the biggest data studies undertaken by government, matching people’s education performance and their earnings as recorded by HMRC.” The Skills Minister highlights the importance of qualifications that can improve people’s job prospects and earnings potential as he rounds off the debate on Voc Quals Day
“To those who criticise our focus on academic subjects or suggest the EBacc is a Gradgindian anachronism, I have a simple question: would you want your child to be denied the opportunity to study a science, history or geography or a foreign language?” The Schools Minister challenges critics of the government’s focus on core academic subjects
“In a decade’s time, if we have still got GCSEs in England, Britain will be completely out of kilter with other European countries and not giving young people what they need.’ Labour’s Shadow Education Minister remains committed to an overhaul of 14-19 education
“We are urging you to address the growing and significant funding disparity in the funding for the education of 16-19 yr olds in schools and colleges.” Leading organisations write to the Chancellor urging him to review 16-19 funding provision
“I’ve never worked in a profession before or since my time in the classroom in which people talked about ‘getting out’ the way a seasoned prisoner might discuss making a run for it.” A correspondent in The Daily Telegraph muses over how many teachers still hanker after an escape route.
Number(s) of the week
9. The age at which children apparently stop wanting to be firemen and women or nurses and want to become TV reality stars
94,000. The number of extra pupils in primary schools in England this year, up 2.1%, according to the latest School Census figures
41%. The number of adults who have undertaken some form of learning over the last three years, up 3% (although not for the unemployed) in NIACE’s latest participation survey
£39.9bn. How much UK Universities contributed to UK GDP in 2011 in the latest set of figures released by UUK
£143.3m. Ofsted’s budget for 2015/16 according to its latest Annual Report and Accounts
8. The number of factors that make for effective teacher CPD as identified by the Teacher Development Trust and TES Global in a report launched this week.
What to look out for next week
Adult Learners’ Week (all week)
MPs Questions to the DfE (Monday)
Launch of two new ‘thought piece’ papers by Professor John Hattie under the Pearson ‘Open Ideas’ series on what works/what doesn’t in education (Tuesday)
Chairs of Parliamentary Select Committees selected (Wednesday)
Sunday Times Festival of Education (Thursday/Friday)
UVAC/Edge Seminar on the ‘Future for high level voc ed in England’ (Friday).