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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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.
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  • Policy Eye – week ending December 11 2015

    Christmas may be in sight but there’s been no let-up in activity this week with a keynote speech from the Prime Minister, a new plan of action for apprenticeships, some important consultations, a significant amendment to the Education Bill and the release of the latest official data on KS2 results all following in quick succession.

    The week summed up

    The Prime Minister’s speech first, important for two reasons. First because it was further evidence of a theme that the Prime Minister has been running with since the election that this is a government that claims it can deliver. He pointed to five areas (more academies, more apprenticeships, more homeowners, more money for the NHS, more family support) where he argued action was being taken. And second because at least two of those five areas, academies and apprenticeships, concern education and training and show how important a priority this is.

    Indeed there have been significant developments in both of those education areas this week.

    On academies, the government has now tabled amendments to the Education Bill that would see the proposed coasting criteria extended to both academies and free schools leaving regional commissioners with a further issue to contend with. It’s also requiring academy sponsors to let parents know what their plans are for schools they are lining up to take over.

    On apprenticeships, the government released its latest call for action in the shape of action plan to take us up to 2020 and the summit of 3m apprenticeships. In all, the Paper lists 47 ‘actions,’ that need to be ticked off over the coming months with the first half of 2016 looking particularly busy. A specific listing can be seen in an accompanying Policy Watch but standouts include further levy and funding guidance, more detail on the steps being taken to reform technical and professional education (the Sainsbury group work) and a careers strategy, all due in the first two quarters of 2016. Next year’s National Apprenticeship Week which runs from the 14-18 March 2016 looks like being particularly busy.

    Moving on to those ‘important’ consultations, the government proposals on intervening in underperforming and coasting schools closes next Friday while Ofqual has followed up its latest published data on appeals and malpractice by releasing a series of consultations on related matters but with particular interest in the proposals for future enquiries about results.

    Finally, we should not forget the official results of KS2 tests, released this week, and showing a further increase (up from 78% to 80%) in the number of 11 year olds reaching the requisite level 4 standard. It meant a welcome drop in the number of primary schools below the floor standard although the media seemed unsure whether this constituted good or bad news.

    Top headlines this week

    • ‘Apple turns stores into classrooms.’ (Monday)
    • ‘Failing academies face rapid action.’ (Tuesday)
    • ‘Tuition fees will depend upon subject.’ (Wednesday)
    • ‘Wilshaw: make apprenticeships more appealing or risk them going to foreigners.’ (Thursday)
    • ‘More than 90,000 exam grades changed.’ (Friday)

    People/organisations in the news this week

    Tweet(s) of the week

    • “In education, four little words are guaranteed to send me into orbit: ‘in the real world.’” @timeshighered
    • “51% of teachers say they don’t have time to deliver employability activities. Proxy for ‘don’t want to,’ ‘don’t know how,’ not relevant?” @davidharbourne
    • “No morale problem. Teaching isn’t a profession in crisis @NickGibbMP tells MPs.” @tes

    Quote(s) of the week

    • “A manifesto shouldn’t be a wish-list; it should be a checklist.” The Prime Minister confirms that the government is steadily ticking off its manifesto promises
    • “At the heart of this Bill lies our belief that a single day spent by a child in an underperforming school is a day too many.” The Education Secretary on the rationale behind the latest amendment to the Education Bill
    • “The body will be funded by government using public funds as the rest of the governance system is.” The Skills Minister explains how the new Institute for Apprenticeships will be funded
    • “The apprenticeship levy will shift incentives so that it is far more in employers’ interests to take on apprentices.” The apprenticeship levy assumption in the government’s latest Vision Paper on apprenticeships
    • “If there is a surfeit of plumbers one year, the number being trained is reduced and applicants encouraged into other sectors.” Sir Michael Wilshaw explains how Germany manages labour market supply around its apprenticeship scheme
    • "It is less target driven.” A comment piece in the Guardian looks at how the German education system has raised its game
    • “If we want our students to have a rich and balanced education, teachers must become curriculum developers again.” John Dunford calls for the teaching profession to regain its curriculum mojo
    • “It’s good to just sit there, close your eyes and breathe. It really helps.” The UK’s first Happiness Teacher on what really helps.

    Number(s) of the week

    • 2.3%. The percentage of the workforce in large public sector bodies that should be apprentices likely to be set out in a forthcoming government consultation
    • Two-thirds. How much of the apprenticeship funding cake the Skills Minister is urging colleges to grab by 2020 (at present it’s nearer one-third)
    • 50. Roughly how many applications for recognition as an awarding organisation Ofqual receives each year
    • 44 (out of 276.) The number of private schools listed as offering vocational courses at A level
    • 36.5%. The % of disadvantaged pupils who achieved 5 core A*-C GCSEs in 2013/14 against 64% of pupils overall
    • 17%. The increase from last year in enquiries about results according to latest Ofqual data
    • 122. The number of formal improvement notices issued to academies and free schools according to the Education Secretary
    • 676. The number of primary schools below the floor standard, down by nearly 100 from last year.

    What to look out for next week

    • UCAS publish End of Cycle Report on the 2015 uni admissions cycle (Thursday)
    • Social Mobility Commission publish its annual Report (Thursday).
    read more
  • Pocket Watch – What’s being lined up for skills training 2016/17

    Phew, there’ve been a lot of announcements recently about apprenticeships and skills development.

    The Prime Minister’s ‘this is a government that delivers speech,’ the new Apprenticeship 2020 Vision, the latest listing of area-based reviews and the Minister’s latest round-robin to colleges have all rattled off shopping lists of things to be completed over the coming months. A lot of this buzz of activity is obviously being driven by the 3m apprenticeship target but with the spending review now out of the way, the sense that Britain needs to tool up if the economic plan is to be delivered is clear. Whether it’s the Northern Powerhouse, the Midlands Engine or Local Growth plans generally, the case for a highly trained and skilled workforce is becoming more and more pronounced.

    Here’s a checklist of what’s being lined up.

    December 2015

    • Further announcement on funding at 16-19, Guidance Paper on Institutes of Technology, Government consultation on setting an apprenticeship recruitment target for larger (250+ employees) public bodies (the proposal is for 2.3% of their workforce).

    2016

    • January. Government intending to issue further funding guidance, publish sector specific apprenticeship wage returns and launch its latest comms campaign around apprenticeships and work-based learning generally. Second wave of area-wide reviews to begin. National Careers Service to implement its new digital platform to help determine the suitability of young people for apprenticeships and work-based training. Apprenticeship Grant for Employers to be extended to summer 2017
    • February. DfE to issue guidance for Sixth Form Colleges seeking to convert to Academy status, area-based review guidance amended to incorporate increased apprenticeship delivery volumes, Government to launch an employer’s ‘Find an Apprentice’ service
    • March 14-18. National Apprenticeship Week
    • Spring. Announcement expected on the proposed new ‘clearer’ post-16 professional and technical pathways recommended by the Sainsbury group, Government to publish its careers strategy, Report due on the impact of the current FE workforce strategy and possible consultation on the provision of maintenance loans for learners at National Colleges and specialist providers
    • April. Introduction of the new National Living Wage
    • May. Applications open for 19+ Advanced Learner Loans at levels 3 and 4, 5 and 6
    • Summer. Further information due on the levy and public sector recruitment targets, new statutory requirement protecting the use of the term apprenticeship following the expected passage of the Enterprise Bill to be applied, publication of a listing of the Top 100 apprenticeship employers. Also new 16-19 performance measures to apply to learners completing 2-year courses
    • Sept. Traineeship provision extended to other approved providers, new minimum standards of performance threshold introduced for training providers, UCAS to include info and guidance on higher and degree apprenticeships.

    2017

    • April. New Institute for Apprenticeships to be fully operational, introduction of a new Youth Obligation to ensure 18-21 yr olds on Universal Credit develop appropriate work skills
    • Autumn. Adoption of new 19+ outcome based success measures.

    2018

    • January. Publication of 2017 performance tables with apprenticeship ‘results’ included as part of school 16-18 results
    • New Functional Skills qualifications to be available. 
    read more
  • Pocket Watch – Ofsted raise questions about Apprenticeships

    ‘Guilty parties,’ ‘abuse of trust,’ ‘organise yourselves,’ just some of the strong language used by Ofsted’s Chief Inspector this week as he launched the inspectorate’s latest report on apprenticeships.

    The report follows concerns raised by the Chief Inspector in his Annual Report last year particularly about the poor take-up among young people and the lack of skill development in some programmes. Subsequently, Ofsted undertook further survey and visit work and this report is the result of that. The sub-text is: ‘how well do apprenticeships meet the needs of young people, their employers and the economy?’ The answer is not well enough…yet.    

    The current context

    As has been regularly touted, the government has positioned apprenticeships as a major policy priority for the duration of this Parliament. 2.38m apprenticeship were delivered over the last Parliament and a new target has been set of 3m over this one. The argument is that these are good for business, good for individuals and good for the country at large. The latest data published a couple of weeks ago shows that there were 492,700 apprenticeship starts in the academic year 2014-15 but that at 16-18 and for higher level apprenticeships, both key priorities for the government, there were only modest increases. That said, the government is undertaking a major reform programme designed to ensure that apprenticeships are high-quality, meet employer and learner needs and deliver what’s needed more generally. The reforms include the development of recognised industry standards through industry-led trailblazers, the introduction of an employer’s levy and provision for a statutory definition of apprenticeships to be applied. In fairness these reforms have yet to be implemented meaning the Ofsted report reflects a ‘before’ rather than an ‘after’ position. 

    What did Ofsted find?

    In the words of an accompanying press release Ofsted found that “the government’s ambition to boost apprenticeships in England and create a higher skilled workforce is being undermined.” And it is being undermined by a number of problems summarised as follows:

    • There’s too much variable and poor quality provision. “Inspectors found that in a third of the 45 providers visited, apprenticeships did not provide sufficient, high-quality training that stretched apprentices and improved their capabilities.” The report went on to cite examples of too much making of coffee and sandwiches and cleaning the floors rather than specific skill development, a claim disputed by AELP in Conference this week and one which was clearly not the case in many ‘traditional’ apprenticeship schemes but where the service industries appeared to be the main culprits.
    • Not enough young people, 16-18 year olds, are taking up apprenticeships. This has been an issue for some time and debate continues to rage about why this is the case. As the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) pointed out in its response, the decimation of careers guidance for young people has hardly helped but Ofsted feel that more could and should be done by schools and colleges both to inform and to prepare young people for apprenticeships. It’s a point the Edge Foundation and the British Chambers of Commerce in their recent reports have been making for some time and it well may be as the Association of Colleges argue that we need a return to some kind of pre-apprenticeship programme as a way in. Either way the issue of information and careers guidance continues to ring loud and clear.
    • Apprenticeship growth hasn’t been focused on the sectors where the skill shortages are at their most acute. Again not a new issue and one that the Engineering and Construction Boards respectively have been raising for some time but one that’s becoming increasingly important as the government’s Productivity Plan takes shape. “Nationally the number of apprentices starting since 2009/10 has almost doubled in business, admin and law and nearly tripled in health and care. Over the same period, in IT and engineering, the increase was at a lower rate and in construction, the number declined.”Websites like ‘Go Construct’ and ‘Tomorrow’s Engineers’ all help, let alone the ‘Get in.Go far’ marketing drive from the National Apprenticeship Service and other agencies but it’s clearly a hard slog and in need of some new momentum.
    • Employers, especially small and medium-sized business need to do more. This year’s CBI/Pearson Employers’ Survey reported that 66% of employers surveyed were involved in apprenticeships in some form with two-thirds of them looking to do more. Things like the apprenticeship Grant for Employers and the current publicity around apprenticeships have clearly helped but Ofsted is concerned that too many employers have been slow to get involved and many, particularly small businesses, find the whole engagement process daunting. “They told inspectors they fear that a burden of bureaucracy would fall on them.” The Chief Inspector urged businesses not to hold back: “organise yourselves. It’s no use waiting for others to put structures in place…use your networks and knowledge to find solutions.” How far such strictures work remains to be seen but for many, the uncertainty over the levy and where to start at a local level, remain big issues. 

    So what would a ‘good’ apprenticeship look like?

    The report goes on to list some of the key features of what it considered to be ‘successful’ apprenticeships, most of which were to be found in the more established areas of motor vehicle, engineering and construction.

    Broadly this comes down to good practice before, during and after. So at the before stage, best schemes invite the candidate in for a probationary period, establish rules and set clear goals. During the programme, apprentices are encouraged develop relevant skills including English and maths and are supported through regular reviews. And after, apprentices are helped with progression onwards and upwards and their contribution evaluated. It sounds motherhood and apple pie stuff but involves a lot of time, effort and resource and as Ofsted found, many schemes were not able to provide all this. 

    What’s Ofsted recommending?

    The report lists 15 recommendations, mainly aimed at government and providers and at this stage fairly broad brush in nature.

    Urging schools and colleges for instance to “provide impartial careers guidance about apprenticeships to all pupils and their parents,” is of course worth highlighting but as the ASCL comment earlier indicated, if there’s no formal mechanism in place for this to happen then it’s not going to get very far. Having said that if, as the report indicates, some schools were actually blocking providers and employers from going in and offering advice, then this raises a bigger issue about the impartiality of such advice and guidance.

    The issue seems to be as the Chief Inspector put it in his closing remarks when launching the report: “we have won the argument over the value of apprenticeships but we have yet to make them a sought-after and valid alternative career choice for hundreds of thousands of young people.” That’s the challenge that sits alongside the dash to deliver 3m more apprenticeship places. 

    read more