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!

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  • Policy Eye – week ending December 18 2015

    The final week of the 2015 Parliamentary year and with it a flurry of developments but a moment first to reflect on what’s been another eventful year in education.

    The week summed up

    The defining moment was the election in May of a new government, keen to power on and in the words of the Prime Minister show ‘it can deliver.’ So for education, we’ve had six new education-related Bills, eleven new Committee Inquiries, a new Productivity Plan, HE Green Paper, apprenticeship target, EBacc threshold and National Teaching Service all in quick succession. The political marching tune has been ‘One Nation’ but as recent reports from Ofsted, UCAS and the Social Mobility Commission have all shown, we’ve some way to go here yet. We may end the year with worries about children’s mental health, teacher numbers, skills funding and HE quality metrics but we should not forget that this year has also seen the best set of recorded KS2 results, more students gaining GCSE English and maths, an increase in apprenticeship numbers and record numbers of people accepted at UK universities. The glass is more half full than often assumed.

    So what about this week’s developments?

    Funding first where the Education Minister announced the revenue settlement for schools and the Skills Minister published the funding plans for FE. For schools, protections for the pupil premium and per pupil guarantees remain but the ESG is showing the first signs of the Chancellor’s required efficiencies. For FE, where this week’s Public Accounts Committee report, like the NAO Report in the summer, found the wolf not far from the door, the overall budget is £2.4bn this year, rising a further £1bn by 2020. It could have been worse of course but there’ll be some tough calls as the two funding streams, one for apprenticeships and the other for adult ed (AEB) take shape.

    Second, uni entry where also this week, UCAS published its regular annual report on this year’s university admissions cycle. It’s a report rich in data, trends and analysis and provides a valuable insight into both educational and social opportunity in Britain. As Chief Executive Mary Curnock Cook put it in her Foreword, “the increasing numbers are eye-catching” with more disadvantaged young people, more females, more students from both inside and outside the EU taking up places. Familiar concerns remain however and with disadvantaged young white males falling behind again, the Sutton Trust is calling for more targeted outreach strategies.

    Third, and on a related theme, the Social Mobility Commission published its third annual ‘State of the Nation’ report this week and concluded that despite efforts made so far: “the divisions in our nation run deep and, arguably, are deepening.” The report makes a number of important recommendations for each stage of education to deliver the ‘One Nation’ dream envisaged.

    Top headlines this week

    • ‘Lords in revolt over Tory plan to turn all failing schools into Academies.’ (Monday)
    • ‘Recruit more state pupils, Oxbridge colleges warned.’ (Tuesday)
    • ‘Further education funding crisis warning.’ (Wednesday)
    • ‘Women take record number of university places.’ (Thursday)
    • ‘Progress on social mobility too slow.' (Friday)

    People/organisations in the news this week

    Tweet(s) of the week

    • “Deliberate avoidance of input measures suggests consultation’s as open as an oyster with rigor mortis.” @JohhnySRich
    • “My old g/school had feared History teacher, he came in, we all stood, he sat, we sat. Got one A at "0" level History.” @Mowman123
    • “UCAS. The least advantaged young people in England are now 65% more likely to go to university or college than they were in 2006.” @Phil_Baty

    Quote(s) of the week

    • “It is a settlement to enable change, not to maintain the status quo.” The FE Minister on the latest funding settlement for the FE and skills sector
    • “The BIS and DfE appear to see area-based reviews of post-16 education as a fix-all solution to current problems.” The Public Accounts Committee questions some of the assumptions behind the current FE area reviews
    • “The government should make the non-graduate track into employment a priority for reform.” The Social Mobility Commission calls for more attention to be given to young people who do not go to on to university
    • “We have applied an efficiency saving to the ESG general funding rate for 2016-2017 and the rate will reduce from £87 per pupil to £77 per pupil.” The Education Minister includes the efficiency factor in his announcement on schools’ revenue funding
    • “This will be one of the big landmark reforms of this Parliament.” The Prime Minister on the reforms to children’s services
    • “Sponsors might want to write to parents when they’re first matched to the school to provide more information about them as a sponsor, their ethos and what parents can expect next.” The Parliamentary Under Secretary for Schools explains the thinking behind the amendment to the Education Bill requiring sponsors to communicate their intentions to parents
    • “Keep your eye on the ‘professional’ committee member who argues over every comma and wastes time.” One of the list of Dos and Don’ts of chairing Cabinet committee meetings revealed this week.

    Number(s) of the week

    • £3.41bn. How big the overall budget for FE will be by 2019/20 according to the Minister’s latest missive
    • £1,320. The per pupil premium funding rate for primary school pupils for 2016/17; £935 for secondary pupils
    • 532,300. The number of people who accepted into UKHE this year, up 3.1% on 2014
    • £40m. How much should be put into a new access fund for entry to higher education according to the Social Mobility Commission
    • 285. The number of public bodies/quangos that have been scrapped since 2010 according to a new report from the National Audit Office (although 184 new bodies of different types have been formed during the same period)
    • 1.7m. How many employees are likely to come under the scope of the National Minimum Wage, at a cost to employers of around £804m
    • 78%. The number of students in a survey from the NUS who said they experienced mental health issues over the past year
    • £1.3bn. How much it costs schools overall to recruit supply teachers according to latest figures from Labour.

    What to look out for next week

    • A Happy Christmas.
    read more
  • 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
  • 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.’ 

    read more