Policy Watch

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.

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  • Pocket Watch – What now for Academies?

    Education currently lies seventh in the list of voter concerns, wedged between tax and pensions but one issue that may well push it up the list is that of school performance and whether reforms such as the development of Academies and Free Schools have helped or not.

    This week, the Education Committee, which has been conducting an extensive inquiry into the matter, offered its verdict and like others who have gone before, was unable to come down on one side or another: “current evidence does not allow us to draw conclusions on whether academies in themselves are a positive force for change.” It did, however, come up with some key messages. 

    Key messages from the Education Committee Report

    1. Isolating the factors that determine one school’s success from another is not straightforward and in the case of Academies which can be of two types (sponsored and converter) and working in different relationships, even more so. The DfE has argued that autonomy is an important ingredient and made it one of the two defining features behind the drive for Academies but as Andreas Schleicher of the OECD and other witnesses told the Committee, “there are many other aspects at least as important” to school success. The quality of teaching and leadership was cited as the most important but as the NAHT argued, parental support, capital and human resources, high expectations can be equally so. The Committee supported extending curriculum freedoms to all schools but believed that more evidence was needed about what really determines school success.

    2. How far the primary sector should be part of the Academy movement remains a moot point. The government has certainly pushed for this over the last couple of years and has put funding behind it but as the Committee heard, academisation can generate new admin burdens and many primary schools have their own successful local collaborative arrangements anyway. The Committee concluded that more research was needed to determine what worked best for primary schools and how far academisation would help.

    3. Free schools remain controversial and questions about cost, quality and need were all raised in the Inquiry. Over 250 Free Schools are now open and 100+ preparing to but these are early days, only a small number have been inspected and impact evidence is limited. So more transparency and clarity was needed about how such schools are determined, where they fit into the landscape and what impact they appear to be having.

    4. The question of management and oversight of the new schools system and whether for example a middle tier arrangement between central and local government is needed, remains pertinent. Basically there are concerns about where responsibilities lie and particularly in the case of large Academy chains, where accountabilities lie. The Committee called for the roles of Local Authorities and Regional School Commissioners to be clarified, for procedures for brokerage to be strengthened and for oversight of chains to be improved.
    5. In terms of the future, much may hinge on which Party is in power after the election as to whether the current trend towards diversification continues or whether schools are brought together into a more coherent system. The Committee was keen that whoever is in power should spell out its vision for the future of the school system more clearly, that greater transparency and accountability by not just the Dept but by agencies such as the EFA should follow and that the pace of reform should be reviewed.

    In all, the Committee came up with 43 recommendations and while acknowledging that many schools were now performing better, warned against any claims as to why until further research and evidence had been generated.    

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  • Pocket Watch – Policy Lessons from this year’s BETT show

    Now in its 31st year, the annual BETT show which has been taking place this week offers a great opportunity to showcase the latest gadgets and advances in learning technology but also a useful platform for any policy announcements.

    It was at BETT 2012, for instance, that Michael Gove made his landmark announcement about ditching the old ’dull and demotivating’ IT curriculum in favour of the industry-led computing curriculum that we now have. This year a number of Ministers have been on hand to offer their thoughts; so what have we learned?

    Key policy announcements that have come out this week

    1. Last week’s Microsoft/Computing at school survey which revealed that ‘68% of primary and secondary teachers are concerned that their pupils have a better understanding of computing than they do,’ highlighted some of the challenges being faced by teachers implementing the new computing curriculum. In response, the government is pledging to support the scheme led by companies such as Microsoft and Google who have been working in partnership with universities like UCL and Oxford since last year offering training and support for teachers. £3.6m is being made available to support five new projects

    2. Barefoot will continue. Barefoot is a training programme, led by the British Computer Society and BT and aimed particularly at primary school teachers for whom it offers free in-school workshops. So far it has trained some 3000 teachers from over 800 schools but DfE funding was due to finish this March. This week, however, BT stepped in with funding to ensure the programme will be able to run for the rest of this year

    3. Wi-fi connectivity is still an issue for many schools. Apparently it’s now available in 78% of homes and businesses but according to figures quoted in the Secretary of State’s speech, admittedly for last year, 65% of primary schools and 54% of secondary schools don’t have access to good wi-fi connections. The government’s aim is to have super-fast broadband available across 95% of the UK by 2017 and is putting in £1.7bn to support this

    4. The Education Technology Action Group (ETAG) which was set up a year ago by the previous Skills Minister to advise on how digital technology might help teachers, produced its first report this week with 19 recommendations. Some of these were standard expectations about training, access and the use of data but the section on assessment was perhaps the most eye-catching and included a big nudge towards digital technology-enabled assessment for General Qualifications from 2015/16

    5. Still on the future. In her speech, the Education Secretary outlined three areas where she felt technology could help ‘transform the world of education.’ The first, that of helping generate data that could be used to assess the economic worth of certain qualifications, has attracted considerable comment and shows continuing political interest in learning outcomes and destinations as measures of performance. The other two, supporting assessment/ improving information flows for parents, and helping to reduce teacher workloads, are more mainstream although some remain to be convinced about the latter

    6. That FELTAG recommendation for 10% online learning. The Skills Minister endorsed the line from the SFA that this was not a prescriptive target but an attempt to encourage more blended and innovative approaches to learning and assessment in FE, so an aspiration

    7. And further afield. Not part of BETT but interesting nevertheless, the government this week launched its vision for a single EU digital market for many products and services and the Gates Foundation published its latest open letter on learning developments. 
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  • Policy Eye - week ending January 23 2015

    It’s been annual BETT Conference week so there’s been a lot of interest in IT and all things digital. 

    The week summed up

    One survey published on the eve of the Conference even suggested that IT was the most important school subject for kids nowadays while Steven Schwartz, one time V.C. at Brunel University took to a blog to argue that new technology could be the saviour of HE ‘transforming it from a craft industry in which academics produce bespoke courses to a modern industry which combines the best course materials with online delivery.’

    New technology continues to ask questions of politicians and educators alike. This week for instance we have seen the full range of views with the global Gates Foundation highlighting the importance of tablets and smartphones in spreading learning opportunities in developing countries and closer to home, the general secretary of the head teachers association calling for some of the money being spent on new-fangled equipment to be given over to training up good teachers “and sticking them in front of old-fashioned blackboards.”  It was left to the Education Secretary in her speech to BETT to highlight three areas where she felt technology could play a major role in the future: in making performance data more sophisticated, in transforming assessment techniques and in reducing teacher workloads. We shall see.

    On the election front this week, Nick Clegg announced a pledge to eliminate child illiteracy by 2025, Tristram Hunt vowed to make reform of vocational education his ‘personal mission,’ the Labour Party continued to muse over university tuition fees, the government proposed new powers for Scotland and the Greens continued their upward surge. It was left to the OECD to put things in perspective with a report challenging governments to spend less time coming up with new education initiatives and more on checking out what works and why or more often, why not.

    Top headlines this week

    • ‘No child illiteracy by 2025, Nick Clegg pledges.’ (Monday)
    • ‘Most education reforms not given chance to work.’ (Tuesday)
    • ‘Pupil progress key for primary accountability.’ (Wednesday)
    • ‘Tech companies link up with schools to boost computer lessons.’ (Thursday)
    • ‘Changing the channel on the skills gap.’ (Friday

    People/organisations in the news this week

    • President Obama who made cheaper, and in some cases free, higher education a core part of his 2015 State of the Union address
    • The government who is committing £3.6m match funding to support five new projects that will see major companies and top universities work together to help train computer teachers
    • The Education Secretary who used her speech to the world Education Forum to ram home her new year message of support for teachers and how they transform lives
    • Nick Clegg who not only pledged to commit to ending child illiteracy by 2025 but also claimed to lead the only political Party dedicated to protecting education funding
    • Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt who argued in a speech to the BETT Conference that ‘tired old snobberies’ were holding back the development of technical education in Britain
    • The BIS Dept who published the latest Growth Dashboard on progress being made against current skills, productivity and other economic targets
    • The DfE who updated the statutory guidance for local authorities on managing schools causing concern
    • The OECD whose latest report on different education systems found that only one in ten of the 450 different reforms attempted across various countries had been properly evaluated
    • The Public Accounts Committee which continued to take the government to task over its failure to stress test initiatives for 16-19 year olds in its latest report on the matter
    • UK unemployment which fell overall to 1.9m in the latest figures covering the three months up to Nov 2014 but which saw a worrying but small increase of that for 16-24 yr olds
    • Aldershot, Brighton, Edinburgh, Cambridge and Reading, the top five areas with the most qualified residents according to the latest report from the Centre for Cities think tank
    • Nick Hillman, director of the HE Policy Institute, who responded to media stories that the Labour Party was considering charging a lower tuition fee for STEM and other in-demand degrees by posting six challenging questions that the proposal raises
    • X-Factor’s Dermot O’Leary, an ex-sixth form college student himself, who leant his voice to a campaign to have the contentious VAT charge removed from Sixth Form Colleges
    • Inspectors who are meeting together in the first ever international conference hosted by Ofsted and international inspectorates to consider quality issues in FE vocational learning
    • Head teachers for whom an updated set of professional standards was published built around four domains: qualities and knowledge; pupils and staff; systems and processes; system self-improvement
    • Sir Andrew Carter whose report into Initial Teacher Training (ITT) recommended the creation of an independent body to help determine a future ITT framework
    • Academy schools who were accused of stockpiling funds in bank accounts
    • Ofqual who outlined the three strands of its GCSE maths research programme due to report by the end of this April and focusing on the comparison of item demand and question difficulty
    • IT which was rated the most important school subject today by over two-thirds of people questioned in a recent survey (maths came 2nd, English 3rd and languages 4th)  
    • Alternative schooling, the subject of the latest BBC fly on the wall documentaries which started on BBC 3 this week
    • Primary school accountability, the subject of a well-publicised report by the think tank CentreForum backed by Pearson which argues for pupil progress to be the key measure
    • KS2 tests where the DfE published the statutory guidance for the operation of this year’s tests
    • ‘Motivated,’ the most over-used word currently appearing on the LinkedIn site as people brush up their CV’s for a new job at the start of a new year. (The next three were ‘creative,’ ‘enthusiastic’ and ‘passionate’).

    Tweet(s) of the week

    • 'The new frontline of parenting is the argument over children’s computer time.’ @seanjcoughlan
    • ‘HE is the strongest, sturdiest ladder to increased social mobility.’ @universitiesuk
    • ‘Schools should stop wasting money buying ipads for kids and spend the money on teachers.’ @ed_ontap

    Acronym(s) of the week

    • ONS. The Office for National Statistics who among other things publish the Blue Book which records and reports on UK economic activity and is used in reports such as the government’s Growth Dashboard cited above
    • ETAG. Education Technology Action Group who published their first major report this week with 19 recommendations intended to enhance learning and assessment development.   

    Quote(s) of the week

    • “My job is to help where I can and get out of the way when I should.” The Education Secretary describes how she sees her job
    • “Let’s call homework what it really is. It’s a parent test. I hope the biggest dog in the world comes out and eats it.” Times Columnist Caitlin Moran has little time for homework
    • “There is a simple, if radical, solution to apprenticeship funding. Employers could be told that any eligible apprentice can receive up to a maximum off-the-job training free at a college or approved training provider. After that it’s up to them.” Lynne Sedgemore, Executive Director of the 157 Group, proposes a solution to the apprenticeship funding conundrum.  

    Number(s) of the week

    • 8.8 seconds. The average time an employer spends scanning an applicant’s CV
    • 58m. The number of primary-age children around the world still not in education according to the latest report from UNESCO
    • £335,000. How much the average Sixth Form College pays in VAT a year
    • 84%. The number of UK bosses worried about skill levels according to the latest PWC CEO survey (up a staggering 20% on last year). 

    What to look out for next week

    • Public Accounts Committee witness session on DfE and EFA accounts (Monday)
    • All Party Parliamentary Group session on Sixth Form Colleges (Monday)
    • Publication of KSS4/5 destination data (Tuesday)
    • Centre for Market Reform Of Education lecture by Julian Le Grand on school choice (Tues)
    • Education Committee witness session with Ofsted Chief Inspector (Wednesday).  
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  • Policy Eye - week ending January 16 2015

    The start of the week saw David Cameron set out six themes likely to feature in the Conservative Party Election Manifesto; they included education but surprisingly for some, not the NHS which has shot to the top of voters’ concerns this week.

    The week summed up

    The themes contained a lot of references to the economy with mentions of jobs, taxes and tackling the deficit and the argument is that by only getting the economy right will we be able to provide for a strong NHS. It was a message the Chancellor was keen to get across in his Royal Economic Society lecture this week which both set a new positive tone (for Britain to become the most prosperous of any major economy by the 2030s) but also a further challenge to raise education and skill standards.

    The Chancellor, indeed the government as a whole, have been making the case for some time about the importance of the education system in nurturing the skills and talent needed to help the economy recover and there have been some interesting developments in this area this week with reports from the Engineering Council UK, McDonalds and the Prince’s Trust. All stressed the importance of equipping young people with the right, for which read market-driven, skills.

    Elsewhere a positive report on the top end of the graduate market was published, reforms to apprenticeship funding were put on hold for further review and two important deadlines reached. The first, the closing date for applications for school places for autumn 2015, provoked a storm of alarming headlines about the squeeze on school places in parts of the country while the second, the date for submission of UCAS forms for university entry this autumn came with a surge of advice and guidance from UCAS and others guarding applicants against filling in forms with this sort of error highlighted in The Daily Telegraph:“Thanks for considering my application and I hope I will here (sic) from you soon.” 

    Top headlines this week

    • ‘Ofsted school inspections: concerns about reliability.’ (Monday)
    • ‘Almost one in five primary schools has too many pupils, Labour survey finds.’  (Tuesday)
    • ‘Campaign puts £88bn value on soft skills.’ (Wednesday)
    • ‘Global firms urged to invest in education.’ (Thursday)
    • ‘A level reform; schools plan to ignore changes by offering AS levels.’ (Friday

    People/organisations in the news this week

    • The Chancellor who proposed a new fiscal rule in his Royal Economic Society Lecture that when conditions were right, future governments should be forced to run a budget surplus
    • Global companies who have been urged to follow the lead of Santander, GlaxoSmithKline and HSBC and commit a fifth of their CSR budgets to education by 2020
    • MPs who debated grammar school funding this week
    • The DfE who published the latest list of Free Schools either open (256 listed) or about to (111 listed)
    • The BIS Dept who published a detailed evidence review of how high-performing countries go about improving their basic skills
    • The Skills Minister who defended the need to go back to the drawing board on apprenticeship funding in a witness session at the Education Committee
    • The Institute for Fiscal Studies who launched their election 2015 website dedicated to assessing the veracity of spending and other economic claims including those on education
    • The HE sector who expressed concerns about its proposed role in countering extremism as the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill reached its Second Reading
    • The HE Statistics Agency whose latest figures point to an increase in the number of students achieving top grades but a drop in the number of students studying part-time especially for foundation degrees
    • HEFCE who published some good practice case studies where institutions have spelt out clearly to students about how fee and other money is being spent
    • 10 University Vice-Chancellors who shared their wish lists for 2015 with calls for more funding, research, foreign students and science all featuring prominently
    • The Quality Assessment Review Group, set up to look at future quality assessment arrangements in HE, who called for views on initial principles
    • High flying graduates, especially in finance, the public services, accountancy, retail and the armed services, whose job prospects this year look promising although it helps to have undertaken work experience in the industry first
    • Communication and interpersonal skills, teamwork, time and self-management skills, decision-making and initiative-taking, taking responsibility: the five ‘soft skill areas’ identified by McDonalds in the latest campaign launched to promote such skills
    • Engineering UK whose latest report forecast 257,000 vacancies in the sector by 2022
    • The NUS who joined the clamour for a free bus pass for college students (the Lib-Dems are likely to include discounted bus passes in their election manifesto)
    • The Prince’s Trust whose latest Youth Index survey found young people slightly less happy than last year and worried about money, jobs and health
    • Youth Employment UK who became the latest organisation to launch a critical survey of careers provision in this country
    • Ofsted who revealed that to test out the reliability of new short inspections, some schools might experience two separate inspections on the same day
    • UCAS chief executive Mary Curnock Cook who reported on a recent survey that suggested many schools will continue to offer the AS level
    • 50 13 year olds who will be taught English, maths and science for half a term in a BBC2 documentary series designed to test out the virtues of the Shanghai education system
    • Parents who had to submit applications for 2015 primary school places this week as concerns were voiced about demand for places in some areas
    • 'What are the most enjoyable and the least enjoyable aspects of the role?’ One of ten recommended questions to ask in a job interview according to a Guardian blog
    • And in the week before BETT, apparently researchers have found that by analysing ‘likes,’ Facebook can know you better than your own family does.

    Tweet(s) of the week

    • ‘Computing teachers fear students know more than they do, poll shows.’ @ed_ontap
    • ‘Majority of voters think international students should be allowed to remain in the UK after graduation and work.’ @UniversitiesUK
    • ‘Children need to learn how to beat boredom. Nicky Morgan.’ @ed_ontap 

    Acronym(s) of the week

    • CAS. Computing at School
    • CSR. Corporate Social Responsibility.  

    Quote(s) of the week

    • “There is a moment of magic when you see a young person make something totally unique happen on a screen…but to get to that moment we need passionate people who have the right skills and knowledge to help give young people the building blocks they need.” The CEO of Microsoft UK on the importance of trained computer teachers
    • "It is also estimated that almost a quarter of responses were part of several campaigns associated with the consultation.”  The BIS Dept reflects on responses to its apprenticeship funding consultation
    • “The phasing out of grammar schools in most of the country was one of the greatest policy disasters of the post-war era.” Sir Edward Leigh MP opens the MPs’ debate on the funding of grammar schools.  

    Number(s) of the week

    • 6. The number of themes likely to form the core of the Conservative’s general election manifesto and covering: dealing with the deficit; creating jobs; lowering taxes; improving education; tackling housing shortages; and helping the retired
    • 205 and 51%. The number of graduates who achieved a 1st and 2.1 degree respectively in 2014 according to the latest figures
    • 900,000. The number of extra school places reported to be needed over the next decade
    • 26 minutes, 28 seconds. What the average lunch hour has been reduced to apparently. 

    What to look out for next week

    • Oral Questions to the Education Secretary (Monday)
    • Publication of DfE Annual Report and Accounts for 2013/14. (Tuesday)
    • Launch of CentreForum/Pearson Report on Primary School Accountability (Wednesday)
    • BETT Conference (Wednesday-Saturday). 
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  • Pocket Watch – The (economic) case for soft skills

    Much has been written about soft or personal skills in recent years, some might say too much, but the latest report on the matter, commissioned by fast food chain McDonalds, and published this week is of interest for a number of reasons.

    First because McDonalds has a particular interest in this area, it’s a major employer of young people and it’s where many of them develop such skills. Its 2014 survey for instance found that “over 50% of current employees reported that the soft skills they had developed whilst working at McDonald’s had provided a major boost to their self-confidence.” McDonalds accordingly takes the whole thing seriously. And secondly because the report looks at things from a socio-economic perspective; it calculates for instance how much such skills are worth to the economy, just under £88.5bn by the way, and goes on to break it down by sector and region. In essence, therefore, it helps build an economic case for these skills which McDonalds and other companies are now pledging to support in a new 2015 campaign.  

    Which soft skills?

    The report goes for five, all pretty familiar and all evident in most other lists drawn up in recent years. The five are: communication and interpersonal skills; teamwork; time and self-management skills; decision-making and initiative-taking; and taking responsibility. Some might bridle that there’s no reference to numeracy, a staple of BTEC’s original common core competencies, regularly highlighted as an area of concern in CBI reports and referred to by the Skills Minister recently as an essential life skill. Others might point to a lack of any reference to problem-solving, integrity or customer awareness, all of which appear on other versions yet the list could become endless and in all fairness, the report goes on highlight the importance of what it calls “characteristics, attributes and skills” such as ‘show respect’ and ‘accept responsibility’ that underpin soft skills and cover some of what’s missing. 

    What is the economic case?

    Employers have been saying almost since time immemorial how important such skills are and the report runs through a number of recent employer surveys emphasising the point. In many ways there’s always been some disconnect between what employers want and what the education and training system provides but this report suggests that the economic argument behind soft skills in particular is incontrovertible. Here’s some of the figures from the report which back this up: the contribution of soft skills to the UK economy is expected to increase by 44% over the next ten years; the annual expected loss of production resulting from soft skill shortages is predicted to hit £7.4bn by the end of the decade; over the next ten years the number of unfilled vacancies due to soft skills shortages is likely to hit 1.78m. And yes, the report does explain the methodology it has used to reach such conclusions.  

    What now?

    McDonalds is supporting a campaign with other organisations including the CBI, Work Foundation, Barclays, the AoC and others, working alongside entrepreneur James Caan to help improve the lot of soft skills. The campaign is calling for suggestions and will then publish a short report ‘listing recommendations that have come out of it.’ It’s looking for action. 

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