Policy Watch

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Policy Watch is our regular policy update service, covering national and international developments in the world of education. We try to keep things simple, sharing the latest news and information with you through weekly updates, monthly summaries, papers and events.

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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 November 6 2015

    ‘We won’t waste a minute.’ That’s what David Cameron said as the Conservatives roared back into action six months ago and it’s certainly been the case this week with what Tom Bennett graphically described as “a hunter’s stew of policy announcements.” 

    Here’s the main bones.

    The week summed up

    For schools, the big story has been Nicky Morgan’s speech at the Policy Exchange think tank at the start of the week. Billed as her most important speech to date, it showed her prepared not just to continue her predecessor’s agenda but stamp her own mark on it as well. The theme was ‘educational excellence everywhere,’ her take on the real 3Es government should prioritise and contained a mix of updated and newly tuned announcements. The most contentious was around primary assessment: KS2 resits will go ahead and the government will look at assessment and reporting arrangements for 7 year olds. This has raised hackles about a return to KS1 testing and comes as concerns continue not just about the testing load but about how best to set baseline data for progress reporting. The other two big announcements were about the adoption of the EBacc for what will now be 90% of pupils in time, it’s currently at 38.6% for state schools, and the creation from next autumn of a new ‘Top Gun’ teaching force, intended to help out in those parts of the country where needs are greatest. Chris Husbands’ blog on the EBacc and Tom Bennett’s on the National Teacher Service both listed below offer interesting perspectives on each.

    Moving on, the government has also announced this week what it rather grandly calls ‘ground-breaking reform to technical and professional education.’ This turns out to be another move to consolidate and strengthen the tech route for young people, in this case 16-19 year olds, with an all-through progression pathway of some 20 employer endorsed programmes that will feed young people on to higher-level apprenticeships and other routes. Details at this stage are sketchy, an expert panel under Lord Sainsbury has been set up and will report back next spring. Many will welcome a high-status route, after all status for vocational learning has been an issue for a long time but whether this will bring the simplicity that government desires remains to be seen, particularly as we already have existing prescribed routes for this stage of learning.

    And so to the higher education Green Paper, finally launched this morning, and variously described in the media as ‘a major shake-up’ and ‘the biggest reform in decades.’ The focus as the title suggests is on teaching excellence through a new evolutionary metrics framework linked to fees, social mobility through a new advisory group and student choice through a wider range of providers. There’s a lot in the paper and extensive consultation let alone further technical papers and potentially legislation will follow into 2016/17. Both the THES and wonkhe have excellent summaries. You can sign up for wonkhe’s ongoing analysis and briefings

    Top headlines this week

    • ‘Ministers consider national tests for seven year olds.’ (Monday)
    • ‘Nicky Morgan to send top teachers to struggling schools.’ (Tuesday)
    • ‘Tougher primary tests and top teachers in weak schools.’ (Wednesday)
    • ‘Government to scrap GCSE and A level ICT qualifications.’ (Thursday)
    • ‘Government plan to allow ‘better’ universities to raise fees.’ (Friday

    People/organisations in the news this week

    • Jo Johnson, the HE Minister, who outlined proposals for a new phase of reform for higher education in a comprehensive Green Paper document which will remain open for consultation until mid-January 2016
    • Education Secretary Nicky Morgan who made a major speech on the theme of educational excellence, calling among other things for a review of assessment arrangements for 7 year olds, implementation of the EBacc and the introduction of a National Teaching Service
    • The DfE who followed up Nicky Morgan’s speech by launching a consultation on implementing the EBacc with associated data on take-up and achievement in EBacc subjects to date
    • The House of Commons Library who published a helpful Briefing Paper on the EBacc incorporating the latest announcements from this week
    • Professor Chris Husbands who set the context for the latest announcement on the EBacc by looking at past governments’ attempts to enshrine a core curriculum
    • BIS who have announced the creation of a new panel, due to meet shortly and report back in a few months, to help endorse a new professional and technical track for 16-19 year olds leading to speedier through-put to apprenticeships and other high-tech routes
    • BIS who included a new monthly deadline and an online response survey as it updated its guidance on the approval process for apprenticeship standards
    • The National Institute of Economic and Social Research who provided a useful research report on education and skills provision in the UK, USA, France and Germany as an evidence base for the joint Education Committees’ Inquiry into education, skills and productivity this week; p 23-26 has the conclusions
    • The World Innovation Summit for Education whose latest conference revealed considerable dissatisfaction by member countries about the state of education in their respective countries and in particular in how well/poorly it was preparing young people for the world of work
    • NIACE who following its recent link-up with CESI (the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion) will adopt the name of the Learning and Work Institute from the start of 2016
    • Nadhim Zahawi MP who has been appointed as the Prime Minister’s adviser on apprentices
    • The Association of Colleges (AoC) who published a blog looking at some of the issues around the introduction of an apprenticeship levy
    • The training company JTL who as the latest BBC Apprentice series got into its full swing set out to explain the differences between the show and the reality, listing eight in all
    • The Education Committee who held the third of three witness sessions on the role of Regional Schools Commissioners
    • The NAHT who published a survey report on school finances suggesting many were at breaking point
    • Ofqual and the DfE who launched the latest round of consultation on new GCSEs and A levels covering in this case GCSE short course PE and AS/A level geology and politics, all due for first teaching from 2017 but who faced criticism for not re-developing GCSE and A level IT
    • Ofqual who confirmed the assessment arrangements for the new GCSE Design and Technology
    • Debate about whether independent or state school pupils achieve higher degree levels which continued this week with HEFCE amending data from an earlier report to make the case for the former and Cambridge Assessment publishing research on the impact of the introduction of the A* to make the case for the latter
    • BBC Education Correspondent Sean Coughlan who reported on some of the difficulties schools in many coastal towns face and why this is causing concern
    • The NFER who listed 7 building blocks as part of  major research report on helping raise disadvantaged pupils’ attainment
    • Tom Bennett and Professor Gren Ireson, each of whom wrote blogs highlighting some of the challenges facing the government as it seeks to set up a new National Teaching Service
    • Shanghai maths teachers, the latest batch of whom have now arrived in this country to help out with maths masterclasses in English secondary schools
    • The Maths Hub programme which is looking for a number of secondary school maths departments to join in a new, free programme of training to help teachers develop pupils’ maths reasoning
    • The Institute of Engineering and Technology who as part of Tomorrow’s Engineers Week assembled a team of experts to help parents answer some of the more tricky technical questions that children tend to ask
    • The National Literacy Trust who published its latest survey of teachers. literacy co-ordinators and assistants and reported that nearly a quarter of teachers don’t feel confident in teaching the new national curriculum literacy requirements
    • The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) who are launching a £10m campaign with Northern Rock Foundation to help improve literacy levels particularly for more disadvantaged primary school pupils in the North East
    • Binge-watch, ‘to watch a complete series of TV programmes at one sitting,’ one of the top words/ phrases of the year included here in this listing of words for 2015 by Collins

    Tweet(s) of the week

    • “Tim Oates: ‘we have over-estimated what the national curriculum can do.’ @SchoolsWeek
    • “Let experts decide can often mean ‘let more people like me have a say.’ @PExEducation
    • “Rather than literacy, I wish we could talk about poems, literature, creativity…Michael Morpurgo.” @SchoolsImprove
    • “Few things give me more pleasure than the all too rare experience of correcting people who say asterix instead of asterisk” @tombennett71 “and the teachers who open their spreadsheets in Edexcel.” @sxpmaths

    Quote(s) of the week

    • “Whilst adults argue about consultations and fight ideological battles, young people are losing on average 13 months of their education in a school that has already been deemed inadequate, before things start to get better. That can’t be right.”  Education Secretary Nicky Morgan on the need to transform under performing schools
    • “Ms Morgan is very keen on tests.” One of the professional association responds to Nicky Morgan’s announcement about reviewing testing arrangements for 7 year olds
    • “Coastal schools, rural one-horse hamlets, island eyries and urban crucibles alike can struggle to attract the talent they need.” Tom Bennett on the challenges facing the National Teaching Service 
    • “As mass higher education has developed in the UK, it has been tempting for many employers to recruit more and more graduates from full-time HE courses (educated largely at state and individual expense) and then to complain about their lack of employability skills.” The NIESR report on skills training in the UK
    • “There is no one broadly accepted definition of teaching excellence.” The HE Green Paper starts the discussion on defining teaching excellence 
    • “In higher education, as in schools, hospitals, the law and almost everywhere else, it is no longer possible simply to rely on professionalism-that is so last century.” Professor Peter Scott on why a Teaching Excellence Framework for HE won’t work
    • “Paperwork is not now an aid to supporting teaching and learning but a Frankenstein’s monster taking over the whole of education.” Teachers and others express concern about the paperwork monster in an open letter to the Secretary of State
    • “I don’t see the point of exams at 16-they get in the way.” The outgoing director-general of the CBI remains clear that reform of school exams is needed. 

    Number(s) of the week

    • £1bn. How much is probably needed through the apprenticeship levy to help fund the proposed 3m target, according to the AoC
    • 45%. The number of school leaders responding to NAHT’s survey who reckoned their school budget would be unsustainable within a couple of years
    • 67.4%. The percentage of pupils who were not entered for the languages element of the EBacc in 2014/15 (against 22.1% for Humanities and 9.9% for Sciences)
    • 3%. The percentage of scripts subject to some form of special consideration this summer according to figures published by Ofqual this week
    • 76.1%. The number of teachers responding to the latest National Literacy Trust survey who confirmed that their school still had a library. 

    What to look out for next week

    • Pearson Policy Hot Breakfast event on HE (Monday)
    • CBI Annual Conference (Monday)
    • MPs questions to the BIS Dept (Tuesday)
    • HEFCE Annual Meeting (Thursday).
    read more
  • Policy Eye – week ending October 30 2015

    A mixed bag this week so let’s start with some good news. 

    The week summed up

    18 year olds are continuing to apply to university in large numbers according to UCAS’s latest stats, a bit more money is being put into careers and enterprise guidance, and perhaps most significantly of all, the nation’s primary sector has come in for a shower of praise from perhaps an unexpected quarter: the Chief Inspector.

    The latter story is particularly interesting. There’s been much interest recently in the ‘London effect,’ the improvement in performance of London schools where improvements at the primary stage has been one of the factors cited so is a Heineken effect now happening and it’s spreading to other parts? Sir Michael Wilshaw thinks so: “I think we have real grounds for optimism here.” The optimism is grounded in inspection evidence: “there were 2,293 more good and outstanding primary schools in the last academic year than in 2011-12.” So what’s fuelling this? As the quote listed below indicates, it’s pretty much a return to core essentials: grammar, synthetic phonics and so on. The only downside appears to be that not enough is carried forward into key stage 3.

    It hasn’t all been good news this week. IPPR’s ‘State of the North’ report, for instance, highlighted the continuing attainment gap for many young people and the impact of deprivation on early years; the Equality and Human Rights Commission reported a similar tale highlighting the effect the recession was still having on specific groups of young people and the House of Lords Social Mobility Committee heard powerful witness testimony about how difficult it can be for some young people transitioning into work, particularly the low-skilled. For many, the Chief Inspector’s comment in his Annual Report last year, that when it comes to education, we have a divided nation, still rings true and remains one of the litmus tests for the Chancellor’s forthcoming spending announcements.

    More immediately we have the build-up to the higher education Green Paper, due shortly, and where this week, two new interesting Papers added to the debate. The first was from the HE Policy Institute looking at the decline of part-time learning and what to do about it. Described by Nick Hillman, the HEPI director as “arguably the single biggest problem facing higher education at the moment,” much of the answer, given current restrictions and shortages around funding, seems to lie in the Paper’s title: ‘It’s the Finance, Stupid!’ The second was a Paper from the university think tank million+ which ahead of the Green Paper, questioned the proposed linkage between a teaching excellence framework and any increase in fees: “the link with fees risks a reductionist, metrics-based approach that would be based on questionable data.” The build-up to the Green Paper incidentally is well charted on the wonkhe site here.

    We are fortunate to have the authors of both Papers and wonkhe along with other commentators speaking at our Pearson Hot Breakfast Policy Seminar on higher education in a week’s time. 

    Top headlines this week

    • ‘UCAS applications to be anonymous, says David Cameron.’ (Monday)
    • ‘Sleepwalking into UK’s worst teacher recruitment crisis.’ (Tuesday)
    • ‘Teacher shortage costing millions in supply staff.’ (Wednesday)
    • ‘QAA publishes overview of Higher Education Reviews this year.’ (Thursday)
    • ‘Prospects for young people have worsened, says report.’ (Friday

    People/organisations in the news this week

    • The Prime Minister who announced that from 2017, individual candidate names will be removed from UCAS application forms to avoid any potential for bias
    • The Chancellor who formally launched the National Infrastructure Commission with an initial focus on three areas: northern connectivity, London transport, and energy but where the skills pipeline will be crucial
    • The Business Minister who opened a new innovation centre for high-tech small firms in Loughborough
    • Cheshire and Warrington who become the next area to launch a Growth Hub to support and advise local business on matters such as the provision of skills and training
    • Cabinet Minister Matt Hancock who used a speech to the Institute for Government to spell out how the digital revolution was helping transform public services such as education
    • Lord Nash, Parliamentary Under Secretary for Schools, who made the case for high-rise schools as a way of tackling concerns about a lack of school places 
    • The All-Party Parliamentary Group which has been looking at Mindfulness and has included the creation of a new £1m Fund to help develop provision in schools among its recommendations
    • The House of Lords Select Committee on Social Mobility which has been hearing a range of sometimes worrying evidence about the transition into employment for young people
    • The Equality and Human Rights Commission whose latest survey on how far Britain is becoming a fairer society revealed that young people in general and certain groups in particular (the disabled, White boys, Black workers) had suffered under the recession
    • The OECD who launched its new Centre for Opportunity and Equality to complement its policy activity and help focus attention on issues of social inequality
    • The think tank IPPR who highlighted the closing of the attainment gap in early years, primary and secondary education as one of four big tests facing the architects of the Northern Powerhouse
    • Instructure Research who investigated how well HE students around the world were being prepared for the world of work and found UK students ‘overly optimistic’ about their prospects
    • UCAS who published the first of its regular updates on how the 2016 applications are going and reported that at this mid-October stage, applications by UK 18 yr olds were up 1% on last year although total UK applications were slightly (1%) down
    • The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) who published a collection of essays by leading commentators looking at why there had been such a drop in part-time HE student numbers, what impact this was having and what to do about it (mainly change the inflexible funding rules)
    • The university think tank million+ who published a policy briefing challenging current government proposals to link fee levels with a teaching excellence framework
    • The Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) who published the findings from its latest round of peer reviews covering 24 HEIs and 62 colleges in which 30% of the former received commendations and 70% of the latter were deemed satisfactory
    • The BIS Dept who published latest guidance for FE providers wishing to apply for Foundation Degree Awarding Powers (FDAP)
    • AELP Chief Executive Stewart Segal who reflected on some of the issues around apprenticeships that had been raised at his Association’s recent Conference
    • Previous Labour Education Ministers Estelle Morris and Jim Knight each of whom offered their thoughts on teacher recruitment in respective articles this week
    • Sir Michael Wilshaw who issued the first of what are intended to be regular commentaries on different aspects of the education system, in this case focusing on the success of England’s primary schools and the difficulties of transitioning this into secondary
    • Schools Week whose article on why schools in certain parts of the country had managed to improve their GCSE results as reported in the government’s recent interim data, attracted considerable interest
    • The Careers and Enterprise Company who announced the launch of a £5m Investment Fund to help beef up careers and enterprise provision in so-called ‘cold spots’ across England
    • Education correspondent Liz Lightfoot who examined the growing trend for super-size secondary schools noting that research on the optimum size of schools has so far proved inconclusive
    • Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife who confirmed that the new school they intend to open will be different in concept in that it will integrate health and social care services for local families and children
    • The government who launched its latest ‘Your Future: Their Future,’ advertising recruitment campaign for teachers and faced criticisms over claims of potential salary levels   
    • The National Union of Teachers (NUT) who organised a lobby of teacher supply agencies as concerns rose about teacher supply and recruitment costs. 

    Tweet(s) of the week

    • “If we ever want to be a profession, we need to take responsibility for our own professional practice. Time to stop waiting for superman.” @tombennett71
    • “Let children have five days a year of term time holidays, Netmums editor says.” @SchoolsImprove
    • “Tell you what I want, what I really, really want…Geri Halliwell talks Free School.” @tonyparkin
    • “An austerity plan for @George_Osborne: stop the regime of endless testing, it will save millions.” @tes
    • “Titan schools will be like cheap high-rise housing, independent head warns.” @SchoolsImprove

    Quote(s) of the week

    • "The fact remains that much teaching at university is poor and if Ofsted were to come in and assess it I think there would be very large numbers of departments that get fours and threes.” Sir Anthony Seldon on the need for a teaching qualification for academics
    • “The regulatory regime is byzantine and over-complex, expensive and time-consuming. It’s virtually impossible for a new higher ed institution to come into existence.” Professor Grayling on some changes needed for the HE sector
    • “I would disagree that there is anything necessarily to be afraid of from mergers.” The FE Minister tries to reassure the FE sector about the outcomes of the current area reviews
    • “The idea of schools being on one or two floors is not essential.” The DfE’s Lord Nash tells the TES that schools will need to be bigger to cope with the demand for places
    • “Today’s primary school literacy lessons abound with talk of conjunctions and prepositions, of passive and active tenses, antonyms and ellipses.” The Chief Inspector relishes what’s going on in the nation’s primary school classrooms
    • “I think this is a brutal piece of stupidity that you can make people good at language by telling them the names of things.” Children’s author Philip Pullman on proposals to develop a new course for primary school teachers to help them bone up on their grammar knowledge. 

    Number(s) of the week

    • 0.5%. The growth figures for the UK economy in the last quarter, up in the service sector but with continuing worries about a further decline among growth making sectors such as Construction and Manufacturing
    • 3. The number of ‘acid tests’ that should be applied to any testing regime according to President Obama (they should only be worth taking, should only enhance teaching and learning, and should only be one source of information on a child’s ability)
    • £9.70. The returns to the economy and society generally for every £1 invested under the HE Innovation Fund
    • £733m. How much schools in England spent on supply teacher agencies last year according to the National Union of Teachers
    • £250,000. How much the proposed new College of Teaching is looking to source from teachers to help kick start the new College
    • £65,000. The figure that the government’s latest advertising campaign claims ‘leading practitioners’ (teachers) can earn, which many dispute.   

    What to look out for next week

    • NYA Youth Work week (all week)
    • Politics in Education Summit (Monday)
    • Nicky Morgan keynote speech on ‘Educational Excellence’ at Policy Exchange (Tuesday)
    • Education Bill at Committee Stage of House of Lords (Tuesday)
    • Education Committee witness session on the role of Regional Schools Commissioners (Wed)
    • Student rally in London against fees and cuts (Wednesday).
    read more
  • Policy Tracker – Keeping track of what happened in the world of education in October 2015

    Teacher recruitment, exam performance data, apprenticeships and the funding of high-level skills top the headlines this month where ‘quotes of the month’ pretty much capture the current mood.

    Key headlines from the month

    • iPads. A third of pre-school kids now have one according to research
    • Reception assessment. NUT leads the handing in of a petition against baseline assessment
    • Foundation stage. 70% of pupils at required levels in latest government figures
    • Primary schools. Come in for praise in Chief Inspector’s monthly commentary
    • Numeracy projects. EEF trials new resources to help with primary mental maths
    • School absences. PM announces new tougher truancy rules
    • School holidays. LGA call for more reasoned approach  
    • School types. Education Secretary approves new grammar school site in Kent
    • School sizes. Local councils plan to increase intake in many secondary schools
    • School funding. Likely to be down by 8% over next 4 years according to IfS
    • Exam appeals. Ofqual due to consult on possible changes
    • Performance data. Government publishes interim figures from this year’s exams
    • Destination data. Latest unofficial data shows 73% participation by 18 yr olds
    • Work experience. BCCs call for restoration of this for under 16s
    • Careers. Careers and Enterprise Co launch new £5m Investment (support) Fund
    • Mindfulness. New report published calling for training in schools
    • Teachers. NUT survey suggests workload proving unbearable for many
    • Maths teachers. 10% more trainees needed next year under latest government modelling
    • Teacher recruitment. Education Committee to hold one-off session
    • Workload Challenge. 3 new groups under way
    • Education and Adoption Bill. Moves to 2nd Reading in the Lords
    • Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill. Progresses to 2nd Reading in the Commons
    • Functional Skills. BIS calls on ETF to lead new development programme
    • FE. BIS confirm latest area-review schedule
    • Apprenticeships. Ofsted critical of some provision for younger people
    • Apprenticeship levy. Consultation closes with employers expressing concerns
    • Devolution. Sheffield City latest region to sign up for local  growth deal
    • HE applications. UCAS and others commit to anonymous forms to remove bias
    • 2016 applications. UCAS report latest figures as of 15 Oct deadline
    • University websites. Which? complain that some fail to have up-to-date info on fees.  

    Reports/Publications of the month (in order of publication)

    Speeches of the month

    Quotes of the month

    • “Learning is about so much more than just filling in the right bubble.” President Obama reacts to concerns from American teachers about too much testing
    • “Early indications from the regions showed that colleges could be forced into shotgun marriages.” Labour’s FE Minister on marrying in haste as a result of area-based reviews
    • “We want to see a new politically independent Levy Board setting the rate based on clear evidence with the funds ring-fenced.” The CBI respond to the apprenticeship levy consultation 
    • “We do not believe that coasting should be about isolated dips in performance but about identifying schools which have consistently not stretched their pupils sufficiently over a number of years.” The DfE incorporates the stretch challenge in its coasting consultation
    • “This does not reflect a change in this government’s position on selective schools.” The Education Secretary on the decision to allow a new grammar school site 
    • “It is not clear to me that paying markers more of its own will deliver improvement although of course we don’t argue against this.” Ofqual Chief Executive confirms it’s not all about the money
    • “This is a goldilocks scenario. It must be neither too fast nor too slow. We need a gap of at least 2 years between design and implementation.” The NAHT’s Gen Sec on school funding reform
    • “Schools shouldn’t be places where business people drop their kids off at the beginning of the day like they drop off their dry cleaning.” The Chief Inspector on employer engagement. 

    Word or phrase of the month

    • ‘Gig work.’ No 9-5 jobs anymore, more gig work instead‘
    • Self-serving generation.’ Kids who turn to google for anything from careers to homework.  
    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. 

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  • Pocket Watch – Developing the higher level skills route

    Do we need to re-balance things a bit better between FE and HE if we are to secure that elusive high-level skills pathway that politicians and practitioners have dreamed of for so long? Many people think so.

    Alison Wolf saw it as a no-brainer in a report in June, describing the system currently as ‘bifurcated with spending concentrated on academic three year programmes for young people with spending per learner far lower in the skills sector than HE.’ And this week the think tank Policy Exchange has added its weight in a report calling among other things for a large chunk of university funding, half a billion to be precise, to be channelled over to the FE sector to help it develop ‘the high quality technical education’ that employers need.

    So how’s this been received, why has a high-level skills route proved so difficult to develop and what was Policy Exchange proposing? 

    What’s been the reaction?

    Pretty much as expected.

    The university sector remained unimpressed: “Robbing HE to prop up FE is not the way forward” argued former Education Minister now University Vice-Chancellor, Bill Rammell. University Alliance and Universities UK agreed: ‘this shouldn’t be an either-or.’ Kamjit Kaurin in a blog on wonkhe went further describing proposals to cut HE budgets any further as ’a recipe for disaster.’  On the specific issue of universities sitting on large surpluses which could be used to fund high-skills training in FE, Chris Hale, Director of Policy at Universities UK argued that the report failed to understand university finances: surpluses were necessary to ameliorate recent cuts, secure loans, engage in wider research and invest in infrastructure and other needs.

    FE people inevitably saw things differently. The AoC saw it as an opportunity to redress the funding balance and while we’re at it, giving colleges powers to create and award their own higher level technical and professional qualifications. The adult continuing learning organisation NIACE also saw it as a chance to lever funding into the skills training that the country needs while the Edge Foundation sided wholeheartedly with Policy Exchange: “we couldn’t agree more”and pointed to its own report in the summer which had painted a similar picture. 

    It’s unfortunate but perhaps inevitable six weeks away from an ominous sounding Spending Review that the debate is being played out in economic terms. A dance to the death between the two sectors over funding would probably help no-body. The bigger issue maybe is how to create a genuine all-through higher level route, providing a ladder between the two sectors in what Ministers have been wont to call a single membrane, but this has proved difficult.  

    Why has the higher-technical route proved so difficult to develop?

    It’s not been for want of trying with some efforts going back over a century. There’s been broad agreement on the fundamentals but not necessarily on the implementation or the mechanisms as these three recent examples from across the political spectrum shows.

    In the latter days of the last Labour administration, Lord Mandelson’s approach was to create what he called ‘a modern class of technicians.’ Details were set out in a National Skills Strategy published in 2009 and the mechanisms involved beefing up the number of advanced apprenticeships, developing a system of skills accounts and raising the quality of skills training in colleges and other providers.  A few years later, Vince Cable for the Coalition picked up the mantle promising in a landmark speech at Cambridge to strengthen what he called the sub-degree gap, encouraging the two systems of FE and HE to work together to develop advanced apprenticeships and higher-tech qualifications worthy of the name and effectively create an FE/HE bridging system. And even more recently, in June this year, George Osborne took things a stage further in the government’s Productivity Plan by proposing a network of specialised Institutes of Technology working with FE providers to deliver employer endorsed qualifications determined through local labour market planning and commissioning.

    The language may have changed over the years but as the HE Policy Institute discovered in a Paper commissioned by Pearson a few months ago and looking specifically at ‘Tackling the Level 4 and Level 5 conundrum,’ the basic concepts of employer engagement, locally determined skills needs, work-orientated qualifications and dedicated high-quality technical institutes have remained. All that’s been missing perhaps has been the funding which is where the Policy Exchange report comes in.  

    What’s Policy Exchange proposing?

    Broadly six things:

    • As part of the Spending Review, the government should seek to ensure that rather than relying on funding grants, the HE sector should draw on its own residual funds to provide for the additional costs of areas like widening participation and high-cost subjects. This would ease some of the pressure on the need to make further Dept cuts which at present appear to be targeted at FE while the potential savings accrued, estimated at £532m, could be used to fund the currently poorly funded higher skills and professional training in FE.
    • The Dept should accelerate the development of a network of specialised providers equipped to deliver the higher level technical and professional skills that employers need. This would mean building on the current model of National Colleges and Institutes of Technology and in effect creating sector specific provider hubs and outlets around the country. In addition, as many in the FE sector have argued, the Dept should allow these specialist colleges to develop and award their own higher level awards and in time franchise these out to other colleges who wish to use them. At the same time, relevant current qualifications developed by Awarding Organisations (AO) should be opened out and not restricted to any one AO.
    • The government should move towards a uniform loan system available for all post-19 training whether undertaken in FE or HE. In addition, this should encompass a lifetime draw down facility, in other words it should be a loan where any balance could be used up at a later date perhaps to top up or undertake further specialist training albeit within an overall cap.
    • The current maintenance grant, shortly to become a loan facility, should be extended to FE where currently the absence of any maintenance support mechanism is restricting opportunities for learners, for example to undertake specialist training in another part of the country.
    • Government should encourage employer engagement through the extended use of Industrial Partnerships.
    • The government should consider re-instating some form of cap on the numbers taking full hons degrees so as to encourage greater growth at the sub-degree level where many professional and technical qualifications are listed. In effect this would be a return to the numbers management system that operated a few years ago whereby universities were allowed to recruit any number of high-performing learners but where numbers limits applied to the rest. This would be a similar policy but with the cap lifted on numbers for the high-tech route. 
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