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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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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!
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.
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).
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.
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.
January. Publication of 2017 performance tables with apprenticeship ‘results’ included as part of school 16-18 results
New Functional Skills qualifications to be available.
‘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.
It was always going to be a different Conference season this year with all three major Parties having to adjust to the realities of life after the May general election, but what have we learned about the future for education and skills?
Here are six observations.
Education and skills remains an important issue
It may not feel like one of the top policy issues at the moment but if the last few weeks are anything to go by, education remains an important priority for many. In the build-up to the general election earlier this year, education remained consistently in the top ten of voter priorities, coming in at number seven behind issues such as immigration, the NHS and the economy. According to the latest survey by Ipsos-Mori a couple of weeks ago, that has hardly changed. As if to emphasise the importance of education, it’s been the Prime Minister who has been fronting education announcements of late whether it be the announcement of more academies and apprenticeships last month or tougher rules on school truancy this week. The government clearly sees education as an important part of its pitch for the so-called ‘common ground,’ offering opportunity and aspiration to those hardworking families it so often mentions. As for Labour, it’s early days, there was a brief reference to school accountability in Jeremy Corbyn’s speech and the new Shadow Education Secretary has identified this along with teacher recruitment and funding as obvious targets as she starts to shape Opposition education policy. For public and politicians alike therefore, education remains up there as an important issue.
It’s (still) all about the economy
The economy remains the overriding issue for much of this Parliament and certainly in the case of the government the locus for much education policy. At the moment, most minds are focused on the Spending Review and what that might bring for education but we’ve heard a lot over the last few weeks from both major Parties about their wider economic plans for the future. For the Conservatives, George Osborne seized the headlines with his raid on Opposition territory for a man and a plan in the shape of Lord Adonis and the National Infrastructure Commission. This along with a promised ‘massive transfer of power to local authorities’ and a commitment to legislate for a surplus for the future were the headline ingredients in his ‘building for the future’ speech and will be of interest for much of the FE and HE sectors let alone those who argue for a more skills-based 14-19 curriculum. For Labour, John McDonnell was keen to demonstrate that there were alternatives to austerity, “another world is possible.” He duly announced a series of reviews including of the Treasury, Bank of England and HMRC, the creation of a new Economic Advisory Committee and a clampdown on tax evasion and avoidance. How far any of this would translate into a new skills agenda remains to be seen but he did interestingly stoke up a reformed BIS Dept as a key player in the future ”in charge of public investment, infrastructure planning and setting new standards in the labour market.”
But social reform matters
Whether it’s Corbyn’s “kinder politics, more caring society” or Cameron’s ‘building a more compassionate society that leaves no-one behind,’ the Conference season has seen all major Parties attempt to add a heart to the economic head that has been determining government policy for so long. At present it’s hard to get beyond the buzz words: aspiration, opportunity, mobility and so on but there are signs that it’s beginning to drive some specific policies such as housing, social care, youth employment and of course education where the Prime Minister identified a lack of social mobility as “another big social problem we need to fix.” David Cameron’s belief that a more autonomous school system, sharper accountabilities and the introduction of a National Living Wage will help solve the problem puts him at odds with the Labour Party who have genuine concerns about all of those and especially about some of the specific welfare reforms. Social mobility is clearly one of the big social reform issues facing education at present as Ofsted, the Social Mobility Commission and others have been pointing out for some time. But there are others including: pupil welfare, safeguarding, children’s mental health, children in care and how well we prepare young people for adult life, many of which were raised in fringe events over the last few weeks and which will continue to shape the education agenda for the foreseeable future.
Schools of excellence
In the build-up to the Conservative Party Conference this week, the TES highlighted four “major education crises” facing the government namely: teacher supply, pupil numbers, ‘rushed’ exam reforms and budget cuts. These, plus concerns about early years and 16-19 funding were also raised in various forums by Lucy Powell, the Shadow Education Minister who used her major speech to focus on a problem that’s proved thorny for the Party in the past: what to do about Free Schools and Academies. Her answer? “There will be no more Free Schools and Academy chains will be made accountable.” How the proposed new‘local oversight’ will work, whether it will be the Blunkett model of local standards commissioners or something else, remains to be seen but the marker has been firmly laid. As for the Conservatives, the Prime Minister again committed to more of the same in terms of Free Schools and Academies and the Education Secretary to wraparound childcare during both term and holiday time, and more opaquely to “educational excellence everywhere” but how far all this has helped resolve the crises listed.
FE still the forgotten middle child
If there’s one sector entitled to feeling a bit miffed about a lack of political attention over the last few weeks, it’s FE. There was plenty of talk around the Conference fringes about apprenticeships, skills training and local growth planning but when it came to platform speeches from the BIS Secretary of State and his Shadow, not a smidgeon. For FE therefore it’s business as usual, battling to deliver the dual mandate of essential employability skills and higher-level tech skills while coping with shrinking budgets and a time-consuming series of area reviews. Significantly most government policy for the sector these days emanates from the Treasury, last week’s release of a National Infrastructure Plan for Skills being just the latest example. It may be some comfort therefore that so many of the Treasury plans including the all-important Growth and Productivity Plans depend on the FE sector to be able to deliver them. How many, should become clearer when the Treasury announces its spending and growth plans next month.
HE on hold
For HE, Theresa May’s “students, yes; over-stayers, no,” speech was a sharp reminder that the student visa issue remains a hot topic and one that appears to be dividing Ministers as well. Overall, however, the sector remains a bit in limbo as it awaits the outcomes of two important Reports. One of course is the Spending Review where comments continue to pour in warning the government against savage cuts. Valedictory comments from the outgoing V.C. of Oxford and a blog from the Chancellor of Birmingham University this week being just the latest two examples. And the other of course is the Green Paper, given a pretty hefty trail by the HE Minister last month and due out shortly. Until the details on both of these are out and the implications clearer, HE remains in a state of uncertainty. Further uncertainty surrounds the Labour Party’s position on fees where it now appears that the campaign pledge by Jeremy Corbyn to scrap them will be subjected to the Party’s extensive consultation process. Quite what will emerge from what the Shadow Minister called “a deep process of thought” remains to be seen but it’s unlikely to be quick.
It’s been a tough week for FE with difficult questions flying around about its long-term funding and positioning.
FE is nothing however if not resilient and as the Minister explained in his end-of-term letter to the sector this week, it has a major role to play in helping deliver a range of essential skills, the 3m apprenticeships, parts of the Productivity Plan and probably much of the anticipated L4/5 provision. That’s as maybe but these are clearly difficult times. Here’s a summary of what’s been a potentially defining week for the FE sector.
What's been happening around funding?
As an unprotected area, FE has been pretty much under the funding cosh since 2010 if not before but there’ve been three major developments this week that have heightened concerns.
First the Funding Agency announced that it was going to have to introduce an immediate 3.9% cut in non-apprenticeship and discretionary learner support allocations and also withdraw funding from mandated ESOL provision. FE’s not alone in having to take a hit, HE has had to do much the same as the Dept strives to meet the extra £450m demanded by the Chancellor from this year’s budget allocation. Colleges have been granted a couple of months grace to assess the implications before submitting their latest financial plans but with 16-19 funding still facing difficulties, it could mean some deft footwork on institutional plans is needed.
Second, the National Audit Office published its promised report on the financial health of the FE sector and emerged shaking its head. Broadly, the financial pulse of the sector wasn’t as sound as some forecasts and college plans had been hoping for, financial problems had been building up for some time, a number of colleges were struggling and the fear was that as many as 70 could be in dire financial straits by the end of the 2015/16 financial year. Most people familiar with the sector would recognise the scenario identified in the report: “reductions and changing priorities in public funding, falling numbers of 16-18 year olds, and more competition from schools and universities have combined to create a challenging educational and financial climate for many colleges.” The report clearly laid bare some of the issues and it was no wonder that the new Chair of the Public Accounts Committee described it as “deeply alarming.”
Third, the Chancellor confirmed that he was looking for further cuts as he launched the process for the latest Spending Review, the outcomes of which will be announced on November 25. In essence, the government is looking for a further £20bn of cuts in public spending, some of which will come through the sales of public sector land, the integration and devolution of services and the ubiquitous ‘efficiencies’ but the rest from Dept savings. As with the 2010 Review, Depts have been asked to model best and worst case scenarios of 25% and 40% ‘savings’ respectively. BIS has already offered up HE maintenance loans and proposed an employer’s levy for apprenticeships while the sector has taken a hit on non-apprenticeship adult skill funding and had to accept pay rises restricted to 1% for four years. The hope is that with more time granted for meeting the surplus target and the economy strengthening, the pain will be limited but it’ll be well into November before the bargaining is complete and the results known.
So what did the Minister have to say in his latest end-of-term letter?
Three things stood out from this letter. First was the Minister’s acknowledgement that the current cuts amounted to 13% of what was currently being expected from BIS, a sharp reminder of the bigger picture.
Second, he underlined the importance of the proposed new area-based reviews, launched in a short BIS Paper at the start of the week and likely to have significant impact on post-16 college provision in the future. The procedure is not new, it was used under the LSC and has already been applied to college provision in East Anglia, and once rolled out from September will apply across all regions but is clearly being used to bring a sense of order and focus to what has been allowed to become a chaotic area of provision. As the National Audit Office noted in its report: “many colleges are competing for fewer students against an increasing diversity of provision…for example, around 300 schools, including academies and free schools have opened new sixth forms in the past five years and many schools are trying to retain 16-18 year olds.” The government is hoping that “these reviews will provide an opportunity for institutions and localities to restructure their provision to ensure it is tailored to the changing context” or in plain speak create: “fewer, often larger, more resilient and efficient providers.” The FE Commissioner’s recent report provides a number of models, federations, partnerships, collaborations and so on, but it’ll be up to local steering groups to determine best fit. The government wants to move fast and have the reviews completed by next March but this may be a tall order; the remit, framework and local structures required for carrying out such important reviews all need to be sorted first and there’s a lot of local players and local agendas at stake.
And third a few interesting updates, notably for example the commissioning of further work on functional skills. This will be led by the Education and Training Foundation, will build on earlier reviews by both them and Ofqual, and aim to position functional skills as “credible” alternatives to GCSEs, something that will please many. That said, the government intends to align the new GCSE good pass in English and maths with the 16-19 English and maths funding condition over time. As for other things: the consultation on outcome based success measures has now moved to the autumn and a further update on the workforce strategy, especially the recruitment of English and maths specialists, is expected shortly.
It looks like a large chunk of colleges’ time in the autumn will be taken up with the local area-based re-structuring process. Structures not standards? Perhaps but equally an opportunity to clarify and re-focus on who should be doing what at a local level and of course standards/quality expectations will never be far away. As the Minister put it, all colleges are expected to participate, not just those with financial or quality issues. The format and structure of these are not very clear at present and the government has promised more detailed guidance shortly but the issue will be how far school-based post-16 providers are involved in the process, only then can a genuine rationalisation occur.
Second, it’s worth remembering that along with English and maths, funding for apprenticeships and traineeships remains ‘protected’ and what’s called ‘credible’ growth numbers will be supported. The securing of apprenticeship numbers and the raising of achievement levels in English and maths remain important priorities for the government and if you factor in the growing interest in strengthening the higher-level technical route, the case for colleges with training providers, as all-through providers of skills solutions at both local and national level, becomes irresistible.
Third, we haven’t even mentioned the social mobility agenda yet. It’s the FE sector that provides much of the driving force for this, particularly for young people, as the current House of Lords Committee Inquiry is discovering. Pitch into that the latest earn or learn welfare reforms and FE offers a ready-made system for both social and economic recovery.
We’ve had over 200 pages of official economic and skills planning documents over the last couple of weeks in the shape of the Summer Budget and the government’s Productivity Plan.
If you pitch in some of the accompanying reports like the OBR’s (Office for Budget Responsibility) latest economic outlook let alone our two Pearson sponsored reports this week, one with the CBI on employers’ views on education and skills and the other with the HE Policy Institute on higher-level technical skills, it’s more like 500 pages. We’re not unknown in this country for the quantity of our skills reports and the government has come in promising to prioritise this area and so is likely to add to this total but where does this all leave the education and skills agenda?
The current picture
Four points stand out here.
1. We’ve been here before of course in terms of skills policy reports and announcements but there is a sense that things may be different this time because different conditions are in place. An improving economy, a pragmatic government keen to make its mark, a man with a plan in the shape of the Chancellor, a legislative framework for local growth planning, a healthy employer appetite for a stronger talent pipeline…it’s not all positives of course, real concerns persist about adult skills funding for a start, let alone about local infrastructures, employer engagement and it’s no surprise that the Productivity Plan is called ‘Fixing the foundations’ but the opportunity is there.
2. A shift towards higher-level technical and professional skills. Again not new and subject to various incursions over the years from Lord Mandelson’s skills activism to Vince Cable’s bridging the FE/HE divide and where various initiatives have been tried to fill what Ministers have often referred to as the ‘membrane between FE and HE’ but where the case for action has now become almost imperative. As the CBI/Pearson employers’ survey reported just this week: “the balance of firms expecting to need more employees with higher skills stands at +65% in 2015 and has been close to or above +60% each year since 2010.” In another Pearson sponsored report this week, the HE Policy Institute has set out three principles needed to sort out this critical transition phase including: dedicated institutions, recognised work-related qualifications and simplifying barriers to employer engagement. Both pre and post-election, policy is moving in this direction.
3. The apprenticeship levy. A surprising announcement to some although it’s been on the table for some time and has an historical base to it. Operating details about the levy remain limited at this time although we have the bones of a likely digital transfer scheme. There are strong views, both for and against, about the effectiveness or otherwise of a levy. Both employers and training providers for example have their own reservations largely about whether cost compunction changes the nature of the employer – employee relationship. We’ll have to wait until the autumn for further details but in the interim, an excellent summary of the whole levy issue can be found on the Association of Colleges website.
4. As indicated above, although we’ve had a buzz of activity and a number of announcements recently, we’re still very much at broad brush stage. There are two reasons for this. One is that so much hinges on the forthcoming Spending Review later this year as this will set out dept spending details for the core part of this government and is thus the critical piece of the jigsaw. And the other is that the government has promised consultations on a number of the features and these will not be complete until later in the year. It’s building up to being a busy second half of the year.
What’s been said for schools, FE and HE
This is a summary of the key pointers from both the recent Budget and Productivity Plan for schools, FE and HE respectively.
Overview. No great change. The main disappointments are that there’s little on school funding where 16-19 is under particular pressure and not much on skills provision in the curriculum for young people.
Trialling of the new Jobcentre Plus Employment Adviser role working with schools and sixth-form colleges on building understanding of local labour market opportunities (Budget)
Pay, 1% per year for next four years (Budget)
Support for qual reform, the EBacc core and STEM subjects (Productivity Plan)
Support for school system reform and tackling ‘coasting’ (Productivity Plan).
Overview. Notable pointers about apprenticeships, higher-level skills, local growth and some potential system change as a result.
Support for current approach to apprenticeships including the push on Degree Apprenticeships and the targets for public sector bodies (Productivity Plan)
Support for the levy system and a promise of further engagement with business on it (Productivity Plan)
The introduction of a Youth Obligation for 18-21 yr olds (Budget)
A pledge to develop a system of employer sponsored Institutes of Technology “to deliver high standard provision at L3/4/5” (Productivity Plan)
More rationalisation of qualifications and a shift towards locally determined provision (Productivity Plan)
A big push on a re-designated skills system, built around local planning and commissioning with more regions encouraged (Budget and Productivity Plan)
Continuing work on developing destination data, earnings returns and other accountability measures (Productivity Plan)
Introduction of a National Living Wage (Budget and Productivity Plan).
Overview. Some significant changes proposed for fees and grants, commitment to the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and further opening of the door to alternative providers.
Changes to maintenance grants from 2016/17 (Budget and Productivity Plan)
Consultation on freezing the fee repayment threshold and review of the discount rate applied to loans (Budget and Productivity Plan)
Consultation on criteria to be used for allowing an increase in tuition fees in line with inflation (Budget and Productivity Plan)
Commitment to consult and introduce a TEF (Budget and Productivity Plan)
Further opening up of the market to new and alternative providers including a new pool of places and faster route to DAP (Budget and Productivity Plan)
Development of science and innovation audits (Productivity Plan).