Policy Watch

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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 service through Steve's Twitter feed @SteveBesley or by signing up for email updates.

About Steve

As head of UK education policy at Pearson, Steve’s been running the Policy Watch service for almost 20 years. He’ll keep you informed on all things education, along with the rest of his subscribers – there were more than 10,000 at the last count!

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  • Policy Eye - week ending March 13 2015

    This week the policy focus has been on families and apprenticeships. 

    The week summed up

    Each is important politically and politicians from all Parties have been out and about lending support, making announcements and seeking photo opportunities accordingly. So we’ve had the Skills Minister in full overalls helping a young apprentice plumber unblock a sink as part of National Apprenticeship Week and Ed Miliband photo shopped strolling down the road with his family as Labour extends its credentials on family matters. This is after all the photo selfie election.

    It hasn’t all been photo glare however. David Cameron used his family-friendly speech at the start of the week to announce, somewhat controversially given the strong views on the subject, a big boost to the Free Schools programme. He may well have been encouraged to do so by a bullish report on Free Schools from the think tank Policy Exchange a few days before which concluded that Free Schools were having a positive effect and that it should be made easier for more to be rolled out. It may also be a matter of expanding school places but either way, the Prime Minister pledged that his Party would open 500 more over the next Parliament and moreover that the current Education Secretary would be there to ensure this would happen. There was a lot more in the speech but if you want it in bite sizes, it’s this: jobs, money, homes, schools and savings, these are the five things that the Prime Minister believes families want most and he’s determined to deliver them.

    As for the other major talking point of the week, apprenticeships, the annual National Apprenticeship Week has provided a major opportunity for all political Parties to establish their credentials. The government launched a series of reports on apprenticeships and traineeships while the Prime Minister was on hand to help announce the roll-out of nine new industry designed Degree Apprenticeships. Labour confirmed its commitment to “a new universal gold standard for apprenticeships,” while the Lib-Dems pledged to double the number of employers with apprentices, “meaning up to 4m new apprentices.” Away from the headlines, it’s the debate about the topping and tailing of the apprenticeship system that’s becoming interesting: a clear entry point for young people, either a Young Apprenticeship scheme as the Education Committee suggested or a pre-apprenticeship scheme as the AoC have proposed, and a coherent progression and exit point at the other end through perhaps Higher Apprenticeships, Degree Apprenticeships or Tech Degrees, all with many others have been proposed for this space in recent months. It’s a long time since the work-based route attracted such attention.

    Top headlines this week

    • ‘Too few young people becoming apprentices say MPs.’ (Monday)
    • ‘Ms U-turn will keep her job insists Prime Minister.’ (Tuesday)
    •  ‘Cameron’s £15,000 for maths and science teachers. (Wednesday)
    • ‘Research universities should lead on higher apprenticeships. (Thursday)
    • ‘Teachers’ pay rise will spell cuts.’ (Friday)

    People/organisations in the news this week

    • The Prime Minister who announced a significant increase in the number of Free Schools as part of a major speech on improving the lives and opportunities for families
    • The House of Lords who confirmed that it would set up a committee to look into social mobility and the transition from school to work in the next session of Parliament
    • The government who announced a new programme to encourage more people, including career changers and A level students, to take up training and become maths or physics teachers
    • The BIS Dept who updated its guidance on the delivery framework for Traineeships and published the results of an evaluation of how the first year of the programme had gone  showing that 79% of trainees were happy with their programme and 50% had gone on to an apprenticeship or work
    • The BIS Dept who also reported on how the Apprenticeship Reforms and Trailblazers were working and concluded that while some issues about funding, assessment and grading and standards development remain, considerable progress had been made
    • The FE and Skills Minister whose latest progress report for the sector sent in a thank-you letter to college governors confirmed that the outcome of the evidence review into non GCSE Eng/maths will be published before the end of the month
    • The Education Secretary who announced plans for a new charter mark to be awarded jointly by the DfE and PSHE Association for schools who deliver a so-called ‘curriculum for life’
    • The Education Committee who urged the government to bring back the Young Apprenticeship scheme as one of a number of recommendations in a report on apprenticeships and traineeships for 16-19 year olds
    • The Home Office who issued updated guidance for sponsor institutions applying for the Tier 4 licence needed for recruiting international students
    • Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls who in a speech to the RSA challenged the Conservatives over the extent of their proposed cuts in the future
    • Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umanna who outlined Labour’s ‘gold standard’ model of apprenticeships (Level 3, 2yrs) in a speech to FE Week’s Apprenticeship Conference
    • The Lib-Dems who pledged to create 4m new apprenticeships over the lifetime of the next Parliament as they launched their 5-point economic growth plan
    • The Taxpayers’ Alliance who included scrapping the BIS Dept in its latest 160+ page report  on where savings could be made in the future
    • Living costs, affordable housing and employment and access to work, the top three priorities of young (18-24) voters in a recent poll. Tuition fees came in at number 6
    • The University think tank million+ who called for a university-based professional career framework for teachers as part of a new manifesto for teacher education
    • The Times Higher global rankings which saw 12 UK universities in the top 100 and Durham and Warwick in for the first time
    • Sir Keith Burnett and Sir Nigel Thrift, Vice-Chancellors of Sheffield and Warwick universities respectively who sketched out a vision for research intensive universities to help lead a new ‘gold standard’ higher voc education route leading to 40,000 higher apprenticeships nationally
    • Moocs some of which are being made more openly available (without the need for registration) in an ‘Open Step Pages’ pilot being launched by FutureLearn
    • The think tank IPPR who published a collection of essays looking at how European employment trends were changing in response to technology, globalisation and labour movement
    • The Sixth Form Colleges Association who argued that unless the funding rate improves many of its colleges will be forced to cut weekly teaching times by a further 7-10 hours
    • The think tank Policy Exchange who examined some of the data available on the impact of Free Schools and concluded that the model was sound enough for further expansion
    • The National Association of Head Teachers who published an Election Special with each of the main Parties setting out its views
    • The professional body ASCL who have worked with the DfE to produce a guide to the current A level reforms
    • Ofsted whose latest guidance on school inspections confirmed that schools don’t have to undertake a specified amount of lesson observation
    • Former government education adviser Sir Alan Steer who in a pamphlet by the New Visions for Education Group, listed four actions needed to improve school standards including focusing on early years and requiring all schools to be in a federation
    • Basildon where the town’s academy and local authority primary schools have agreed to work together and where standards are now rising to such an extent that it’s being seen as a role model
    • The DfE who published the names of the members of the new Commission on (primary) assessment and who provoked criticism for not including a classroom-based teacher
    • The BBC who announced it would give away Micro-Bit computers to pupils starting secondary school this autumn as part of its Make it Digital campaign
    • The Education Endowment Fund who along with Durham University launched an Early Years Toolkit with a list of strategies and resources including early literacy and numeracy but also play-based learning.

    Tweet(s) of the week

    • “There is not a high road or a low road. They both lead as far as you want them to go. One of them is an apprenticeship.” @NickBoles MP. The Skills Minister helps launch apprenticeship week
    • “A nod towards character education is welcome-just don’t go measuring it.” @Schooltruth. Fiona Millar comments on the new found interest in character education
    • 10% of teaching time is lost to inadequate technology.’ @brotheruk

    Acronym(s) of the week

    • The Slow Education Initiative. A movement dedicated to doing things properly rather than quickly.

    Quote(s) of the week

    • “Because for us an ‘all right’ education is not good enough for our children.” The Prime Minister on the thinking behind accelerating the Free School programme
    • “An obsessive, ideological focus on structural change.” The NASUWT respond to the latest announcement about a proposed increase in the number of Free Schools
    • “We get vocational education.” Shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umanna claims Labour gets the importance of voc education.

    Number(s) of the week

    • 256. The number of new Free Schools currently open
    • 553. The number of technical and vocational qualifications now approved for school and college performance tables
    • 9. The number of new industry designed Degree Apprenticeships announced this week
    • 22-25 hours a week. What the Sixth Form Colleges Association reckons is needed to deliver a worthwhile curriculum and which is gradually being eroded by funding cuts
    • 2%. What the ‘top’ teachers may get as a pay rise this year
    • 121m. The number of primary and lower-secondary age pupils still not enrolled in educational programmes according to the latest report by UNESCO
    • 30%. The number of young people who suggest that social media will in some way inform their voting preference according to a recent Ipsos Mori poll.

    What to look out for next week

    • Education Committee Report on Closing the Gap: the Work of the Committee in the 2010-2015 Parliament (Monday)
    • Education Committee Report on the Trojan Horse Affair (Tuesday)
    • Budget day (Wednesday)
    • Ofqual Report in 2014 exam appeals (Thursday).
    read more
  • Pocket Watch - Three Lessons from National Apprenticeship Week

    So as another busy National Apprenticeship Week draws to a close, what have we learned? Arguably three things.

    First, that there’s growing interest in both pre-level and higher-level apprenticeships; second that the Apprenticeship Trailblazers and Traineeship schemes are going OK but that more needs doing; and third that a number of issues around apprenticeships remain. Here’s a quick run-down on each of these three key areas.

    Young and higher-level apprenticeships

    Re-creating a young or pre-apprenticeship route has been a source of debate for some time and surfaced again this week with the Education Committee, the AoC and the AELP all calling for a dedicated programme. The Education Committee proposed reviving the 14-16 Young Apprenticeship scheme or something similar while the AoC and AELP called for the Traineeship scheme for 16-24 year olds to be built in as a stepping stone programme. At the other end of the scale where Labour has been focusing its interest recently and where the government has been promoting its new Degree Apprenticeships, Professors Sir Keith Burnett and Sir Nigel Thrift, Vice-Chancellors at Sheffield and Warwick Universities respectively published a Paper calling for a new HEFCE funded higher vocational route leading to 40,000 more higher apprenticeships as part of a new ‘gold standard’ higher vocational route. It’s getting to be a busy route.

    Apprenticeship Trailblazer and Traineeship Schemes

    Commissioned evaluations on both of these were published by the BIS Dept this week, early days in both cases but with some useful initial analysis all the same. On the Trailblazers, closer employer working has helped raise the quality and status of the standards though there have been issues over assessment, grading and general working practices that have not been helped by uncertainty over the future funding regime and over initial remits and roles. On the first year of traineeships, numbers are growing and according to the Skills Minister hoping to double to 20,000 this year, most (79%) trainees appear happy with their training and over a half have progressed on to an apprenticeship, work or further training. Some teething problems remain over the referral process, guidance and support and English and maths provision and a fuller survey will be undertaken next year.

    Current Issues

    Nothing particularly new here perhaps but three areas where concerns remain high. First funding, variously highlighted by the Education Committee, the think tank Demos and Edge where the general consensus is that any new regime should allow employers some element of choice and shouldn’t be so complicated as to put employers off. The Skills Minister has recently confirmed that ‘giving employers direct control over funding for apprenticeship training and assessment remains a non-negotiable part of our reforms.’ Second, mentioned by all of the above and more, the need to improve guidance and information especially at a school level and especially about work-based alternatives where, as the Education Committee reported: “there remains a cultural preference for the academic over the vocational.” And third, also a pretty universal issue, quality and how best to ensure it with Labour’s Chuka Umanna in his speech during the week citing his Party’s commitment to 2yr/Level 3 apprenticeships as part of “a new universal gold standard.”

    read more
  • Pocket Watch - The Free School Conundrum

    Are Free Schools “a huge success story” as the Education Secretary claimed this week, or are they an expensive, disruptive and unproven experiment?

    Do they help to raise standards, offer places for pupils in areas of need and provide a popular choice for parents? Or are they an experiment, in the words of one teacher union, by a Party with an “obsessive ideological focus on structural change?”

    The arguments which were fierce enough when Michael Gove first expressed support for the model before the last general election have surfaced again this week just months away from the next general election following the publication of a new report on the matter by the think tank Policy Exchange and the announcement by the Prime Minister that a future Conservative government would “hope to open at least 500 more Free Schools” over the lifetime of the next Parliament. There are clearly strong views on all sides so how do things stand?

    The current situation

    Currently 256 Free Schools are now open with a further 156 approved to do so from this September. Along with the 49 new ones announced this week and the 500 proposed, it would take the number of Free Schools over the next five years up to 900; four have closed since 2010. The current capital budget for Free Schools is £1.5bn though both the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee have expressed concerns about ’escalating costs.’ Free Schools are inspected by Ofsted and their results are published in performance tables.

    The arguments

    Free Schools have attracted strong views from the start and it was noticeable that in one of the case studies cited on the Gov.UK website on setting up a Free School, in this case primary, the head teacher decided on a low-key approach: “we tended to keep very quiet about what we were doing.” The arguments perhaps revolve around three areas. First about whether they really do help push up standards not just internally but also for surrounding schools. Nick Gibb told the recent Education Committee Inquiry that 71% of those inspected so far had been rated good or outstanding while Policy Exchange, who examined comparative performance data of neighbouring schools concluded that the ripple effect on standards locally was powerful. Critics argue that the evidence base for both assumptions was too small and that other factors need to be considered; Datalab for example suggested that the pupil premium may be just as important. Second whether they’re expensive, drain valuable resources and are in areas where there’s no problem with places. The New Schools Network claim that actually they ‘are eight times more likely to be located in the most than the least deprived authorities’ while Policy Exchange argue that 72% are in areas with a projected lack of places in the future. Critics argue that the data is inconclusive and that even the revered OECD has expressed concerns about the dangers of socio-economic segregation. And third, that they’re popular and what parents want. The Prime Minister clearly thinks so and Policy Exchange point to the fact that there are 2.7 applicants for every place. Critics argue that demand for places is stronger in some other schools and that regional variations limit comparisons. For many, the issue is local accountability and choice.

    And are they a success or not?

    The general verdict whether from the Education Committee, ‘fact checker’ The Conversation or the data cruncher Datatlab is that actually ‘it’s too soon to know.’ 

    read more
  • Policy Eye - week ending March 6 2015

    We’re moving into the last few weeks of this current Parliament. At the end of this month. March 30 to be precise, Parliament will be dissolved and the so-called purdah, when the hatches come down on new business and initiatives, will begin.

    The week summed up

    It’s not quite all over yet of course, there’s still a lot of business to be completed and some tidying up to be done. Next week for instance sees the latest National Apprenticeship Week where given the current policy interest in apprenticeships we’re likely to see Ministers from all Parties out in force across the country lending their support. Key days are likely to be the Monday when any policy directions or signals will be made, Wednesday when the theme is traineeships and young people and Thursday when higher apprenticeships are in the spotlight. The Deputy Prime Minister has already issued a video message heralding the launch of the week of activities which will also include a number of conferences, events and publication launches up and down the country.

    And then the week after that we move on to one of the final set piece occasions of this Parliament in the form of Budget 2015 when the Chancellor will look to ensure that the economic mood is positive as the electioneering begins in earnest.

    For education, funding inevitably remains one of the major causes of concern and many people will be waiting for the Spending Review that will follow the election later this year with varying degrees of trepidation accordingly. It’s hard to convey all the concerns in simple terms but for the moment this is how they are shaping up.

    For schools, the issue is what to ring fence and at what cost, should it be for ages 5-16 or should it be from early years through to age 18? And if the latter is it the overall budget or per-pupil funding that should be protected? The Conservatives have gone for flat cash per-pupil aged 5-16, Labour and the Lib-Dems for protected budget funding from cradle to college. You pays your money, perhaps. For FE, the issue is the gradual erosion of government grants and the shift towards business and individual investment where the question for all Parties, yet to be fully answered though local commissioning is seen as part of it, is how to build a modern skills policy on an evolving business model. And for HE where the reverberations from Labour’s recent HE tuition fees announcement are still being felt, the issue is how to get the balance right between state and student investment while protecting the most disadvantaged and ensuring a strong presence in the global market. Another Commission on HE funding? Some think so.

    Top headlines this week

    • ‘Give girls careers advice before age of 10 says Shadow Education Secretary.’ (Monday)
    • ‘All schools need trained careers advisers, says charity.’ (Tuesday)
    • ‘Audit Office to examine financial sustainability of FE sector.’ (Wednesday)
    • ‘Exam changes risk problems for schools, say heads.’ (Thursday)
    • ‘Tories consider plan to pay off teachers’ student debt.’ (Friday)

    People/organisations in the news this week

    • The Conservatives who are said to be considering further announcements about HE funding and progression pathways
    • Schools, colleges and universities all facing new responsibilities under the latest Counter Terrorism and Security Act which became law a couple of weeks ago
    • The BIS Dept who published a brief case study report on the impact of reformed governance in colleges
    • The University Alliance who called for a new HE Regulation Bill as part of its response to HEFCE’s quality assurance review
    • Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs,) the subject of a new report by the think tank Localis calling for LEPs to be given greater powers and funding including over all adult skills training
    • The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission who published a report calling on any incoming government to take action in five priority areas including education
    • The YMCA who called on all Parties to prioritise jobless young people in their latest manifesto
    • The Manufacturer’s Organisation EEF who launched a new skills manifesto calling an increase in the numbers of manufacturing apprentice and graduates and better training in schools
    • The Joseph Rowntree Foundation who suggested six other ways that Labour’s higher education ‘money’  might be better used such as supporting careers guidance and/or skills training
    • The Association of Colleges (AoC) who questioned what would happen under Labour’s new HE fees policy to those colleges already charging less than the £9000 maximum
    • The National Audit Office who will announced a review into the financial sustainability of colleges and how this is managed by government and its agencies
    • The think tank Demos who published the final report from its year-long inquiry into Construction and other apprenticeships calling for more to done to incentivise apprenticeships in schools,  for a quality charter mark for programmes and for clarity on funding schemes
    • UCL’s Institute of Education who researched English and maths performance post-16 and found the attainment gap worsening rather than improving
    • NIACE who looked in to how to get 16-24 year olds interested in carrying on with English and maths and found that it helps when it’s fun, interactive and helps get a job
    • Ofqual who announced its sticking with proposed changes to practical assessment in GCSE science despite concern including those from the Secretary of State
    • Teach First who called on all schools to appoint a middle manager to lead on careers guidance as it launched its own new careers programme for its recruits
    • Ofsted who published a report on how some secondary schools are supporting their most able pupils and concluded that a lot more ‘stretch and challenge’ was needed
    • Secondary schools where places for this Sept were allocated this week with the primary ‘bulge’ on places starting to be felt
    • Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister who was on hand to support this year’s World Book Day and announced that the government is going to put funding in to help more primary schools set up book clubs
    • Education Datalab, a new research group specialising in the use of large datasets to help inform and improve education policy making. 

    Tweet(s) of the week

    • “We should not have all STEM and no flower.” @Director_IOE
    • “That’s it. Last education questions before the election. All done. It wasn’t a classic.” @Schools Week
    • “The election should be a time for parties to set out how they’ll tackle poverty but so far they’ve failed, says Alan Milburn.” @mrsjacksoncooks
    • “Publishers should club together to start a Real Maths Day, one that is not just a huge marketing exercise. Any takers? @timstirrup (in response to this week’s World Book Day)
    • “Perhaps October babies derive from après-ski while June babies follow a wet weekend in Blackpool.” @OldDitch (in response to the this week’s Committee Inquiry into the education attainment of summer babies).

    Acronym(s) of the week

    • NMITE. The New Model in Technology and Engineering, the UK’s first new purpose built university for 30 years opening in Hereford in two years time
    • CEIAG. Careers education, information, advice and guidance.

    Quote(s) of the week

    • “We have consulted widely and have identified a new approach to the assessment of practical science that will liberate teachers to offer a wider variety of classroom experimentation and promote effective student progression to further study or employment.” Ofqual announces changes for GCSE science practicals
    • “In this environment, planning becomes a guessing game.” A Guardian blogger reflects on Labour’s tuition fees announcement.

    Number(s) of the week

    • 8. The minimum number of practical activities pupils must complete for the new GCSE single science
    • 4 out of 5. The number of 16-18 year olds who care about politics according to a survey by YouGov and Speakers for Schools.  

    What to look out for next week

    • National Apprenticeship Week (all week with a focus on policy on Monday, traineeships on Wed and higher apprenticeships on Thursday)
    • Education Committee publish their report into 16-19 apprenticeships and traineeships (Monday)
    • The think tank Policy Exchange publish a report into Free Schools (Monday)
    • Westminster debate on school funding (Tuesday)
    • Inaugural lecture by for the FE Trust for Leadership by Dr James Krantz  (Tuesday)
    • TES Global pre-election debate with each of the 3 Education Secretaries (Wednesday)
    • Demos launch of the final report from its Apprenticeship commission (Thursday).
    read more