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.

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 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!

The latest from Policy Watch

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  • Policy Eye – week ending December 4 2015

    Ofsted’s latest annual inspection report tops the education news this week and if you want a quick summary of the 100+ page Report, it came in the opening shots of the Chief Inspector’s forthright accompanying speech: “England’s primary schools continue to improve but secondary schools still remain a problem in large parts of our country.”

    The week summed up

    There’s been a depressingly familiar riff to Ofsted Reports in recent years and this year was no different with attainment gaps, English and maths resit performance, apprenticeship standards and weaknesses in leadership and management all cited once again but the headline story was the disparity in performance between secondary schools in the South of the country compared to those in the North, the so-called North-South divide. Sir Michael pointed to the performance of secondary schools below a line drawn roughly from the Bristol Channel to the Wash compared to those above it to make his point.

    This picture of “a nation divided at age 11” comes just a couple of weeks before the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission publishes its latest annual ‘State of the Nation’ Report which is likely to reinforce a similar picture and follows concerns raised by the think tank IPPR last month in its Report on the potential for the Northern Powerhouse. It found what it called a “stark early years gap” which translated into weak performance at age 16; “we will never become a powerhouse economy when our children and young people have such a poor start in life,” it concluded.

    The attainment gap is therefore an issue with significant economic as well as social implications so what to do? The government has lined up a host of mechanisms including tougher literacy and numeracy standards in primary, a new coasting performance threshold for all schools, support for National Leaders of Education and from next year a new National Teaching Service due to start in the North West of England, all aimed at tackling the problem. Sir Michael called for the resurrection of the Challenge school improvement model that has been used successfully in London and the Midlands in the past. Yet there’s been considerable debate about just what role the Challenge model did play in helping raise standards. An LSE Paper a few months ago on ‘Understanding the improved performance of disadvantaged pupils in London’ concluded that it was hard to tell while in a blog this week, Professor Michael Jopling argued that the template would be hard to replicate.

    All in all, therefore there are no easy answers but while so much rests on ensuring our young people get the best start in life and disparity in performance remains so sharp, there’ll be no shortage of political solutions offered.

    Top headlines this week

    • ‘Half of teachers rarely use technology in class.’ (Monday)
    • ‘North-South divide in England’s schools,’ (Tuesday)
    • ‘Government reveals 485 teachers on £65k+ as recruitment advert investigation continues (Wednesday)
    • ‘Rise in foreign students amid accusations universities use them as cash cows.’ (Thursday)
    • ‘State school debt on course to double.’ (Friday)

    People/organisations in the news this week

    • Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw who published his fourth annual report highlighting continuing concerns about a North-South attainment gap in England’s secondary schools and also concerns about teacher retention, standards on some apprenticeship programmes and weak leadership in some schools and colleges
    • The DfE who launched a consultation on the implementation arrangements for the proposed National Reference (GCSE sampling) Test which is due to come in from Sept 2016
    • The BIS Committee who heard calls to de-couple the Teaching Excellence Framework from fee decisions when it heard from a full bench of vice-chancellors and others on quality assurance and HE this week
    • The House of Commons Education Committee who have opened a can of worms by asking for views on what education is for, allowing for discussion over Christmas with responses due by 25 Jan 2016
    • The Education and Childcare Minister who addressed the Westminster Forum and laid out the bare bones of the government’s emerging careers strategy
    • The Business Secretary who highlighted the ‘Midlands Engine,’ the latest area to develop regional economic and growth plans, in a speech at the University of Birmingham
    • Universities UK who published their latest Patterns and Trends report highlighting among other things the growing diversity of the student body with increases in students from a disadvantaged background and from non-EU countries
    • HEFCE who published a monitoring framework along with guidance and reporting arrangements to help ensure higher ed institutions meet the Prevent requirements
    • Peter Scott, professor of HE studies at UCL Institute of Education, who in his latest piece for the Guardian put forward 3 reasons why HEFCE shouldn’t be scrapped (keeps Ministers at bay, offers a pool of expertise, restructuring is never the answer)
    • The Sutton Trust who issued ‘a cautious welcome’ to the widening access proposals in the recent HE Green Paper but called for more to be done to improve access to so-called top tier universities
    • The Open University whose latest Innovation Report strained the sinews of learning styles and assessment by listing ten new pedagogies for the future from ‘crossover learning’ to ‘stealth assessment’
    • HEPI who along with YouthSight sampled the student mood on the EU and found most believing it better to stay in
    • Martin Doel who is move from the AoC and take up the role of FETL Professor for FE and Skills in the UCL Institute of Education next year
    • The government who published a proposed timescale for the rest of the area-based reviews for the FE sector due to complete in various waves next year
    • The University of Huddersfield who have been handed the largest grant so far for helping to improve technical and vocational education in FE as part of a 2-year project
    • The Manufacturing Advisory service, part of the Business Growth Service, which following the Spending review announcements is being withdrawn
    • City and Guilds who published a report based on YouGov research looking at career choices and aspirations of 14-19 year olds and found many lacking proper guidance about the realities of the labour market
    • The Education and Training Foundation who spelt out the arrangements and partners for the first stage of the review of Functional Skills which is due to complete next summer
    • The National Baccalaureate Trust which launched its new website to help promote thinking and development around the concept of a National rather than an E Bacc
    • The f40 group (the group that represents the poorest funded local authorities in England) who handed in a petition to the House of Commons calling for a fairer distribution of funds ahead of next year’s proposed national consultation
    • The TES whose recent survey of how much state schools were borrowing to finance debt suggested a worrying doubling of previous figures
    • The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) who added their voice to the current teacher recruitment and retention issues highlighting that even though the actual leaving rate has remained relatively stable, growing pupil numbers and classroom demands are creating pressures at secondary level in particular
    • The Education Endowment Foundation who published its Annual Report for 2014/15 under a rather Pink Floyd style cover, with an impressive listing of projects, reports and resources all aimed at helping schools tackle attainment gaps and improve learning outcomes.

    Tweet(s) of the week

    • “A great (school) leader knows the name of the cleaner’s children.” @tes
    • “We don’t accuse Jaguar for selling cars to foreign buyers. So don’t have a go at unis for their education exports.” @HEPI_news
    • “I’m so concerned where the next generation of school leaders will come from that I’ve commissioned a survey-Wilshaw.” @SchoolsWeek

    Quote(s) of the week

    • “The only question remaining over school autonomy is not whether it’s a good or bad idea but whether the independence it confers is being used well. “ Sir Michael Wilshaw argues that school improvement is less about structures and more about leadership and teaching
    • “If you draw a line roughly from the Wash to the Bristol Channel, 79% of the secondary schools below it will be good or outstanding compared with 68% of those above it.” Sir Michael Wilshaw on the North-South performance divide in England’s schools
    • “External, centrally imposed target setting would not work. It would be a costly, bureaucratic exercise.” The Director of Fair Access to HE rejects proposals for admissions targets for universities to be set externally
    • “It will have a central role in advising on how much funding government should make available to pay for training and assessment under each standard. “ The Skills Minister sets out the initial remit of the new Institute for Apprenticeships
    • “If government were to say there is no role for local government in education that would be a sad day.” The leader of Hampshire County Council responds to the government’s latest declaration that all secondary schools should become academies
    • “The careers ecosystem is complex and, at present, careers provision is not working as well as it should.” The Education and Childcare Minister says it
    • “We need to tackle this like parents not politicians.” Jamie Oliver on tackling sugary drinks and unhealthy foods among young children.

    Number(s) of the week

    • 77%. The number of FE colleges judged good or outstanding in Ofsted’s latest annual report (although there has been a drop to 35% for those inspected this year)
    • 16. The number of local authority areas, largely concentrated in the North, where fewer than 60% of pupils attend good or outstanding schools and equally achieve below expected levels of progress according to Ofsted’s latest annual report
    • 85%. The number of primary schools rated good or outstanding in Ofsted’s latest annual report (evenly balanced between the North and the South of the country)
    • 70%. The number of students in the latest survey who would vote to stay in the EU (although a third admit to having given it little great thought so far)
    • £360,000. How much the Gatsby Foundation has handed to the University of Huddersfield to help improve technical and vocational education and training
    • 485. The number of classroom teachers who earned more than £65,000 last year (the top figure quoted in the government’s latest recruitment campaign). 

    What to look out for next week

    • BIS Committee witness session with the Minister and other on HE Quality Assurance (Tuesday)
    • Ofqual Awarding Organisation’s Conference (Tuesday)
    • Education Committee witness session on teacher supply (Wednesday)
    • House of Lords Social Mobility Committee session with Nicky Morgan and Nick Boles (Wednesday).
    read more
  • Primary Policy Watch - Here comes the sun... and a flurry of announcements

    With the last few weeks of the academic year seemingly roaring by, there’s been the normal rush to get information out before the end of term.

    Since the middle of June we’ve had new inspection guidelines coming out of Ofsted, confirmation of the approved Baseline providers, new safeguarding advice, a push on pupil premium, and sample materials for the 2016 national curriculum assessments. There’s a lot to take in, so here are the some of the main headlines:

    New Ofsted Common Inspection Framework

    The updated Ofsted Common Inspection Framework (CIF) was launched on the 11th June for inspections from September 2015.

    It contains some clarification on what Ofsted is looking to see in approaches to assessment post-levels. This includes how well teachers use assessment for establishing pupils’ starting points and how testing is being used to modify teaching so that pupils achieve their potential by the end of a year or key stage. Crucially, the document states that Ofsted does not expect to see any particular system of assessment in place, which suggests that rumours of a possible return to the levels system may be highly exaggerated.

    There also seems to have been some recognition of, and attempt to address, the high levels of pressure that news of inspection places on schools and teachers. Schools last judged as ‘good’ will have shorter inspections, while in his recent Future of Education Inspection launch speech Sir Michael Wilshaw made reference to teachers needing to be ‘focussed on what really benefits children and young people, rather than wasting their time endlessly preparing for an Ofsted inspection which could be years away.’ While that statement could perhaps do with being rephrased in such a way that it does not seem to put blame on teachers, there has been support from the unions for the general recognition that teachers should be freed up to do their actual job of teaching, rather than preparing for inspection.

    Finally, reflecting the new Counter-Terrorism and Security Act placing a general duty on specified authorities (including schools) to have “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”, there’s a greater emphasis on safeguarding to include prevention of radicalisation and extremism.

    Assessment

    Approved Baseline check providers have been announced, whittling down the field of six to three (those that achieved over 10% of market share in pre-orders). These are the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, Durham University (CEM), Early Excellence, and the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER). Within this field there are two noticeably different approaches – one ICT based, using adaptive technology, and one based on teacher observation. While this gives schools at least some degree of choice, a significant groundswell of resistance remains among the early years community meaning we’re unlikely to have heard the last of this debate.

    If you’ve previously chosen a provider that is no longer on the list of approved providers, you can still use your selected provider. However, the DfE won’t reimburse any costs and you will not be eligible to report on progress, rather having to report on attainment in line with the new floor standard.

    Meanwhile, sample papers, instructions and mark schemes were released at the beginning of July for the 2016 SATs. The mark schemes come with detailed guidance on marking principles and common issues. Questions are related to specific strands of learning or ‘content domains’ which are mapped out in the test framework documents (updated end June).

    We still don’t have full information about what the scale will look like. It will be created based on the first full set of data from the new SATs to ensure it is correct, and maintained in subsequent years by using a process known as ‘test equating’. The DfE is very clear that the old national curriculum levels are not relevant to the new national curriculum. However, they have confirmed that at KS1, the national standard will roughly equate to an old level 2b, and at KS2 to an old level 4b.

    Pupil Premium

    A report from the National Audit Office released on the 30th June concluded that: ‘While the impact of the Pupil Premium will take time to become clear, it has the potential to bring about a significant improvement in outcomes. However, the Department for Education and schools have more to do.’” This point was taken up by Nicky Morgan in a speech at the Sutton Trust and Educational Endowment Foundation summit – reiterating that more must be done to share best practice across schools and ensure that schools give more reflection to how they use the money in an evidence-based way.

    There was little concrete direction in the speech, however, beyond the department’s intention to challenge more ‘failing and coasting schools’ and work more closely with the Educational Endowment Foundation to disseminate thought-leadership around what works so that schools are not only ‘narrowing the gap’ but helping all children catch up and keep up. Indeed, Ms. Morgan went as far as to say that she viewed them as a ‘key partner’, suggesting that they may become a more important reference source for schools in the future.

    The final pieces of the puzzle…

    With the release of all of this new information it feels as though the final pieces of the puzzle in terms of the current reform agenda, are falling into place. The Department’s vision of challenging every child to reach their full potential is really gaining substance as we see it reinforced in successive announcements. The new curriculum, as well as the government’s policies on assessment and accountability are starting to feel more solid and permanent. While much remains to be done to support schools in achieving these lofty ambitions, it does at least feel as though the government is giving some thought to how to make this happen.

    Wishing you a restful summer holiday.

    Rosalind Letellier
    Pearson Primary

    For further information of interest to Primary schools, you can follow @PrimarySchool on Twitter.

    Steve Besley - policywatch@pearson.com

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  • Pocket Watch - School policy lines

    Head teachers have called for greater stability in the school system, Shadow Education Minister Tristram Hunt wants an end to the ‘alpha male’ male approach to education reform while the DfE has issued further guidelines intended to moderate the impact of change under its Workload Challenge protocol but none of this has deterred the rush to get announcements out before Parliament is officially dissolved on Monday.

    If the latest ones are anything to go by, then four issues seem likely to dominate arguments over schools policy as the election campaign gets under way. This is how it’s all looking.

    Four school policy priorities

    1.    Funding. Labour and the Lib-Dems have already made some running here by claiming they would protect budgets up to age 18. At the moment, this is total budgets rather than per pupil costs so could come under strain as numbers rise and costs of pay, pension, NI are factored in. Most commentators have concluded that under any of the Party’s plans, schools will still face cuts and it’s clear from last week’s Budget that the government is looking for further efficiencies. Broadly as the Institute of Fiscal Studies has argued, school funding is now more distributive, more goes to disadvantaged schools although this leaves open the question of what will happen to the pupil premium after the election. There’s also the issue of the national funding formula with the professional body ASCL arguing recently that there are still great disparities between best and worst funded schools. MPs debated schools funding two weeks ago and the Schools Minister confirmed the formula was on course

    2.    School types. The Prime Minister of course recently announced that a future Conservative government would aim to introduce 500 more Free Schools and in its response this week to the Education Committee Inquiry into Academies and Free Schools, the government clearly saw such models as instruments to help schools innovate and improve. Tristram Hunt in his ASCL speech last weekend confirmed that Labour “would end the existing Free Schools programme” but went on to argue in many ways for a more expansive model, one that would enable ‘innovators’ from abroad to come and work with local schools. The bottom line would appear to be adherence to a more accountable set of criteria

    3.    Curriculum reform. The issue that has been surfacing for some time here is whether there should be an independent, perhaps profession-led body to take a lead on advising government on curriculum reform. The Lib-Dems for instance have proposed an Independent Standards Authority. Nicky Morgan’s recent response that such decisions should stay in the hands of democratically-elected reps, i.e. MPs, may have taken some of the sting out of the argument but the bigger questions around innovation, autonomy and the management of change remain

    4.    The profession. All Parties have been keen to demonstrate their support for teachers while at the same time suggesting further reform is necessary. Tristram Hunt went so far as to tell the ASCL Conference that raising workforce quality “was without doubt the most important task of central government in a 21st c education system.” He has proposed a new dedicated “school leadership institute” along with new Leadership Partnerships between schools and businesses, a CPD based career progression path and “a gold standard qualification for heads.” The Conservatives have also backed CPD with a new fund and a new expert group to draft standards. They’ve also backed the College of Teaching.

    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.’ 

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