Policy Watch

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Keep up with what’s happening in education policy

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

You can access the Policy Watch service through Steve's Twitter feed @SteveBesley or by signing up for email updates.

About Steve

As head of UK education policy at Pearson, Steve’s been running the Policy Watch service for almost 20 years. He’ll keep you informed on all things education, along with the rest of his subscribers – there were more than 10,000 at the last count!

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  • Pocket Watch - Which way for adult voc ed?

    What’s the future for adult education and training?

    Sir Andrew Foster’s unloved middle child, the subject of a major report ten years ago calling for a new vibrant skills system, finds itself a decade on, facing a major funding crisis leading to questions about its very future.

    ‘Adult education could disappear by 2020, colleges warn,’ just one of the striking headlines this week. Yet at the same time the government has launched a major new review of adult vocational learning built around a vision that sees this country as a leading international player in this area, Ofqual has launched a consultation on a new more flexible qualification framework following the QCF and two of the prime products in adult vocational learning, namely Functional Skills and HNs, have been given the thumbs up to continue as they are albeit with developments. Is this therefore one of those cathartic moments that the adult vocational sector often has to go through as it prepares itself for a changing set of conditions or is it something more? The developments this week offer what could be seen as some hopeful pointers. 

    Four latest pointers

    1.    Vision. Essentially a drawing breath exercise after a period of change and economic upheaval, the consultation exercise launched by BIS this week aims to bring clarity and purpose around what it calls the ‘dual mandate’ of adult voc learning, namely providing for the skill needs of employers and individuals and secondly, providing second chance opportunities where needed. Arguably this remit hasn’t changed but the operating conditions have, where three factors have gained prominence. First, the requirement to ensure all young people reach minimum standards in English and maths by age 18, second the growing importance of high-level technical skills and of a recognised learning route for these and third, a shift away from central to local planning and funding. Each of these feature in some shape or form in policy priorities for all of the major Parties in the coming election and point to where the vision is heading  

    2.    Qualifications or more precisely qualification frameworks. Securing a balance between a secure quality assured system and one which offers flexibility for employers and learners has been a source of debate for some time and the current trend, evident in recent reviews from UKCES and the Commission on Adult Vocational Learning let alone Ofqual itself, has been to try and simplify by focusing on general principles, defined outcomes and employer engagement. Ofqual’s  consultation on a new regulated framework post the QCF, builds on this trend: “what will matter in future will be whether qualifications can be shown to be good, not whether they are designed to tick boxes.” The key drive here is market responsiveness, not new in itself but given new urgency by the demand for skilled talent and concerns about social mobility. The new framework aims to help both facets   

    3.    Functional Skills. The quest for credible alternatives to GCSE English and maths has been a long one but according to the latest report published this week, Functional Skills which have been around now for over five years and are widely used, could fit the bill. There are issues about how they are viewed, (as stepping stones or as alternatives,) about how employers view them (87% of those familiar with them value them but only 47% admit actually to being familiar with them) and about some content and assessment but the hope is that a new government will cement their support

    4.    HNs. Finally a quick word about Higher Nationals, where the government confirmed this week that they would remain under HE funding rules thereby continuing to provide an important vocational route as higher level vocational progression becomes more important.

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  • Pocket Watch - Three Lessons from National Apprenticeship Week

    So as another busy National Apprenticeship Week draws to a close, what have we learned? Arguably three things.

    First, that there’s growing interest in both pre-level and higher-level apprenticeships; second that the Apprenticeship Trailblazers and Traineeship schemes are going OK but that more needs doing; and third that a number of issues around apprenticeships remain. Here’s a quick run-down on each of these three key areas.

    Young and higher-level apprenticeships

    Re-creating a young or pre-apprenticeship route has been a source of debate for some time and surfaced again this week with the Education Committee, the AoC and the AELP all calling for a dedicated programme. The Education Committee proposed reviving the 14-16 Young Apprenticeship scheme or something similar while the AoC and AELP called for the Traineeship scheme for 16-24 year olds to be built in as a stepping stone programme. At the other end of the scale where Labour has been focusing its interest recently and where the government has been promoting its new Degree Apprenticeships, Professors Sir Keith Burnett and Sir Nigel Thrift, Vice-Chancellors at Sheffield and Warwick Universities respectively published a Paper calling for a new HEFCE funded higher vocational route leading to 40,000 more higher apprenticeships as part of a new ‘gold standard’ higher vocational route. It’s getting to be a busy route.

    Apprenticeship Trailblazer and Traineeship Schemes

    Commissioned evaluations on both of these were published by the BIS Dept this week, early days in both cases but with some useful initial analysis all the same. On the Trailblazers, closer employer working has helped raise the quality and status of the standards though there have been issues over assessment, grading and general working practices that have not been helped by uncertainty over the future funding regime and over initial remits and roles. On the first year of traineeships, numbers are growing and according to the Skills Minister hoping to double to 20,000 this year, most (79%) trainees appear happy with their training and over a half have progressed on to an apprenticeship, work or further training. Some teething problems remain over the referral process, guidance and support and English and maths provision and a fuller survey will be undertaken next year.

    Current Issues

    Nothing particularly new here perhaps but three areas where concerns remain high. First funding, variously highlighted by the Education Committee, the think tank Demos and Edge where the general consensus is that any new regime should allow employers some element of choice and shouldn’t be so complicated as to put employers off. The Skills Minister has recently confirmed that ‘giving employers direct control over funding for apprenticeship training and assessment remains a non-negotiable part of our reforms.’ Second, mentioned by all of the above and more, the need to improve guidance and information especially at a school level and especially about work-based alternatives where, as the Education Committee reported: “there remains a cultural preference for the academic over the vocational.” And third, also a pretty universal issue, quality and how best to ensure it with Labour’s Chuka Umanna in his speech during the week citing his Party’s commitment to 2yr/Level 3 apprenticeships as part of “a new universal gold standard.”

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  • Pocket Watch - Helping young people into work

    It’s been back to the future this week as both major Parties traded blows on welfare reform and youth employment.

    Labour went back to the skills activism policy developed by Lord Mandelson in the dying days of the Gordon Brown administration as it confronted the issue of skills training and industry development while the Conservatives breathed further fire into the Get Britain Working proposals developed around the same time to tackle the issue of welfare to work and what the Prime Minister called ‘the stampede to the job centre.’

    Things have clearly moved on since 2009/10. This week’s labour market figures covering the final quarter of last year offered further evidence of improvement with the overall employment at its joint highest rate. For young people though, where the unemployment rate for 16-24 year olds remained stuck on 16.2%, things look less rosy particularly if, as the Prince’s Trust, Impetus and other have pointed out, you have few qualifications to wave around. Labour is due to offer young people a voice through its new Youth Manifesto shortly but for the moment here’s the politician’s view on young people and what should be done to help those either on welfare (the Conservative pitch) or preparing to enter the labour market (the Labour pitch.)

    The Conservative pitch

    The aim here is to eradicate long-term unemployment by getting 18-21 yr olds who have been out of work or training for six months on to community work and job search. The target group is the 50,000 young people “most at risk of starting a life on benefits” where a tough love approach is being adopted: “we are taking further steps to help young people make something of their lives.” Building on his Conference speech last autumn, the Prime Minister announced:

    • Jobseeker’s Allowance for 18-21 yr olds to be scrapped in favour of a Youth Allowance

    • NEETs to put on to job search/community work from day one (rather than after 6 months)

    • Annual benefits cap to be lowered from £26,000 to £23,000

    • A minimum wage aspiration of £8 an hour by 2020

    • Deployment of welfare savings to fund 3m new apprenticeships.

    The Labour pitch

    Labour has already confirmed that it would bring back its Future Jobs Fund model in the form of a Compulsory Jobs Guarantee for every young person who has been out of work for 12 months. This would be paid for out of a tax on bankers’ bonuses and would be compulsory in the sense that you’d have to participate or lose benefits. It’s also going for an £8 minimum wage although before 2020 but its big offer for young people is for those still in education and was set out in its new industrial plan published this week. It includes:

    • By 2020, a guaranteed place on a L3 apprenticeship for school leavers ‘who get the grades’ plus reforms to the provision, quality and management of apprenticeship programmes

    • A balanced curriculum, Eng/maths and for 16-18 yr olds ‘a gold standard’ Tech Bacc

    • Ring fenced funding for 16-19 yr olds and provision through new Institutes of Tech Ed

    • A progressive tech route through tech degrees.

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  • Pocket Watch – The (economic) case for soft skills

    Much has been written about soft or personal skills in recent years, some might say too much, but the latest report on the matter, commissioned by fast food chain McDonalds, and published this week is of interest for a number of reasons.

    First because McDonalds has a particular interest in this area, it’s a major employer of young people and it’s where many of them develop such skills. Its 2014 survey for instance found that “over 50% of current employees reported that the soft skills they had developed whilst working at McDonald’s had provided a major boost to their self-confidence.” McDonalds accordingly takes the whole thing seriously. And secondly because the report looks at things from a socio-economic perspective; it calculates for instance how much such skills are worth to the economy, just under £88.5bn by the way, and goes on to break it down by sector and region. In essence, therefore, it helps build an economic case for these skills which McDonalds and other companies are now pledging to support in a new 2015 campaign.  

    Which soft skills?

    The report goes for five, all pretty familiar and all evident in most other lists drawn up in recent years. The five are: communication and interpersonal skills; teamwork; time and self-management skills; decision-making and initiative-taking; and taking responsibility. Some might bridle that there’s no reference to numeracy, a staple of BTEC’s original common core competencies, regularly highlighted as an area of concern in CBI reports and referred to by the Skills Minister recently as an essential life skill. Others might point to a lack of any reference to problem-solving, integrity or customer awareness, all of which appear on other versions yet the list could become endless and in all fairness, the report goes on highlight the importance of what it calls “characteristics, attributes and skills” such as ‘show respect’ and ‘accept responsibility’ that underpin soft skills and cover some of what’s missing. 

    What is the economic case?

    Employers have been saying almost since time immemorial how important such skills are and the report runs through a number of recent employer surveys emphasising the point. In many ways there’s always been some disconnect between what employers want and what the education and training system provides but this report suggests that the economic argument behind soft skills in particular is incontrovertible. Here’s some of the figures from the report which back this up: the contribution of soft skills to the UK economy is expected to increase by 44% over the next ten years; the annual expected loss of production resulting from soft skill shortages is predicted to hit £7.4bn by the end of the decade; over the next ten years the number of unfilled vacancies due to soft skills shortages is likely to hit 1.78m. And yes, the report does explain the methodology it has used to reach such conclusions.  

    What now?

    McDonalds is supporting a campaign with other organisations including the CBI, Work Foundation, Barclays, the AoC and others, working alongside entrepreneur James Caan to help improve the lot of soft skills. The campaign is calling for suggestions and will then publish a short report ‘listing recommendations that have come out of it.’ It’s looking for action. 

    read more
  • Policy Tracker - Keeping track of what happened in the world of education in November 2012

    A big month for learning and skills with the CBI Conference, the AoC Conference and this year, the Skills Show following in quick succession and provoking a range of announcements. 

    Main talking points

    Not much quieter elsewhere with notable developments on performance tables, A levels and apprenticeships and Reports from the CBI, Ofsted, Ofqual, NAO and both Education Committees amongst others all helping to keep the lights burning.

    Key headlines from the month

    • Primary Schools. 400 underperformers to be converted to Academy status by end of 2013
    • Calculators. Banned for KS2 tests from 2014
    • Performance Tables. The Dept publishes the KS4 list for 2015
    • GCSE English. Raw grades only to be issued for Jan 2013 assessments
    • EBacc. 22 academics sign an open letter expressing concern
    • RE. Cross party MPs get together to stop the subject being marginalised
    • Engineering Diploma. Royal Academy of Engineering work up new model
    • English and maths. SFA confirm additional monies for adults and apprentices
    • A levels. Jan resits to go from Sept 2013
    • School Governors. Education Committee announce new Inquiry
    • 16-19 VQs. Government to consult on criteria for performance table recognition
    • College estate. Further ‘renewal grant’ money allocated
    • FE Guild. Project team put together, consultation due Jan 2013
    • Employer Ownership Pilots. Round 2 bids launched
    • Earn or learn. Scheme proposals due early next year
    • Work Programme. Latest data indicate target likely to be missed
    • Graduate jobs. Futuretrack survey reports job market remaining challenging
    • University status. 10 more Colleges await university nomenclature
    • University access. HEFCE and OFFA prepare report for mid Jan
    • University freedom. New group set up to defend the freedom of British universities
    • Unemployment. Drops to 2.51m, 963,000 for 16-24 yr olds but p/t working up.

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

    • GCSE English 2012. Ofqual offer a second and more detailed surmise on the issues afflicting this year’s GCSE English
    • Governance and leadership of the DfE. The Education Committee reports on its inquiry into the running of the Dept and considers some of the impact of rapid change
    • Skills Survey 2012. The Chartered Institute of Insurers report on strengths and weaknesses in the skills supply chain to their industry
    • Financial Health of the HE sector. HE passes the HEFCE medical but it seems that much depends on the strength of future student recruitment cycles
    • BIS Committee Inquiry into Apprenticeships. The BIS Committee complete its 11 month Inquiry into issues around apprenticeships and come up with 32 recommendations
    • DfE Review Report. The Dept follows up its own internal review by proposing some important changes to the future size, structure and workings of the Dept
    • Tracking the decision making of high achieving HE applicants. BIS and the Sutton Trust identify the barriers facing particular groups of students
    • Analysis of the consultation on A level reform. Ofqual report on the 1,000 or so responses to its summer consultation on A level reform and announce some initial change to resits
    • Decoding learning. NESTA reflect on the promised land of digital education and see schools purchasing a lot of kit with little regard to how it can best be used
    • First Steps. The CBI turn their attention to schools and throw their weight behind a streamlined curriculum, a balance between skills and knowledge and testing at 18 not 16
    • Employer Ownership of Skills Pilot. BIS and the UKCES release the Prospectus for Round 2 bids following the successful approval of over 30 bids from Round 1
    • Annual Innovation Report. The latest Foresight Report highlights over 50 new and developing technologies that could help stimulate future economic growth
    • Managing the expansion of the Academies Programme. The NAO report on how the Dept is managing a rapid expansion of the Programme and the effect on Dept budgets
    • Regulating AO Training Events for Teachers. Ofqual follow up their initial report by launching a consultation on some new regulatory measures for ‘exam’ board teacher seminars
    • Consultation on Chartered Status for FE Institutions. BIS follow up the Lingfield Report by asking for views on what should constitute the criteria for chartered status
    • Choice and Competition in FE. The Institute of Government offer a history lesson on the various attempts at reforming FE
    • The Richard Review of Apprenticeships. The latest Apprenticeship Report proposes a stronger shift towards funded employer ownership of standards and delivery
    • Ofsted Annual Report. Ofsted’s latest Annual Report sees 70% of providers performing well but concerns about provision in some parts of the country
    • Review of Qualifications for 14-19 yr olds in Wales. The Welsh Government go for a single Qual Body but keep GCSEs, A levels and voc quals as part of a strengthened Welsh Bacc.

    Speeches of the month

    • Elizabeth Truss’s 9 November speech sets out how the Government is setting about raising maths standards such as removing the use of a calculator in KS2 tests
    • Michael Gove’s 9 November speech offers a stout defence of external exams and tests as helping ensure equal treatment and social justice
    • Glenys Stacey’s 14 November speech considers some of the challenges faced by the regulator when confronted by significant reform of the qualification system
    • Vince Cable’s 19 November CBI speech outlines how the Government is trying to encourage growth through its long-term Industrial Strategy
    • Matthew Hancock’s 21 November AoC speech brings some new funding but also a number of reforms to: apprenticeships; traineeships; qualifications; and standards.

    Quotes of the month

    • “It is probably neither as good as the zigs suggest nor as bad as the zags imply.” The Governor of the Bank of England on the uncertain state of the economy
    • We’re not going to write great books about Joseph Conrad by getting them out sooner.”The Council for the Defence of British Universities on the pressures of market forces in HE
    • “It is complicated and off putting to an employer to have to undertake paperwork gymnastics to pigeon hole their system into a pre-defined set of curricular approaches.”Doug Richard gets the message across about freeing up the apprenticeship system
    • “Education England is not yet on the medal podium but is picking up pace.” The Chief Inspector reflects on the state of English education in his Annual Report
    • “I am as it happens a huge fan of teacher assessment, properly designed and administered but teacher assessment alone cannot bring the benefits proper external assessment can secure.”  Michael Gove makes the case for external tests and exams.

    Word or phrase of the month

    • ‘RAPID.’  Recommend, Agree, Perform, Input or Decide: a planning model adopted by the DfE
    • ‘Sandpit.’  Space away from the frontline to be creative; apparently another planning term.
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