Policy Watch

Education’s always changing, and it can be hard to keep track. Policy Watch is the easy way to make sure you stay up to date with the latest developments.

Keep up with what’s happening in education policy

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

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

About Steve

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

The latest from Policy Watch

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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.

    read more
  • Pocket Watch - The UK's Digital Moment?

    We’re at a tipping point when it comes to the development of digital skills and digital development generally, says a new report.

    This is according to the House of Lords Digital Skills Committee in a strongly worded report out this week. ‘Make or break’ is in fact the title of a report described as “a wake-up call” generally about digital skills. “Digital is everywhere” the report stresses and “we have a choice as a country about whether we seize this opportunity or whether we fall behind.” “Whoever forms the next government in May” should take control of the issue, create a national agenda and rather like Lord Baker in the early flushes of computing in the 1980s, sanction a Cabinet Minister to lead it. Much of the report is aimed at education; this is what it has to say.

    For schools

    The report welcomed the new computing curriculum which started in schools in September but recognised that provision varies across the UK, that some teachers need more help in delivering it and that employers also look for the creative and innovative skills in young people that enable them to develop and exploit changing technology. It therefore recommended:

    •  Digital literacy being embedded in the school curriculum as the third core skill
    •  A new training and investment programme to help upskill teachers
    • Strong links developed with employers with an employer on each governing board.

    For FE

    The view here was that FE has a key role to play in developing such skills but that provision and responsiveness were also variable. The report considers the nature, funding and agility of the skills system and highlights the importance of strengthening digital skill development in the apprenticeship system. The main recommendation here was for a major industry-led review of the FE offer, to be completed in the first six months of the new Parliament and to consider:

    • The inclusion of a digital element in all FE courses
    •  Stronger industry relationships and industry-designed and endorsed certificates
    • More apprenticeships, particularly those that include a digital skills element
    • Skills funding targeted at short, flexible courses and apprenticeships
    • Stronger careers guidance especially for 16-19 year olds.

    For HE

    Less was said about the role of HE but there was support for high levels of research, closer links with employers and for greater promotion of computer science courses.

    And the rest

    In a strong set of messages, the Committee also called for the internet to be viewed as an essential utility service, for more work to be done on digital inclusion (apparently 6m citizens have yet to use the internet) and for more to be done to prepare for the effects of digitalisation on working (‘35% of UK jobs risk being automated over the next 20 years’) and daily life. 

    read more
  • Policy Eye - week ending February 13 2015

    Education funding has become the big battleground in education at the moment.

    The week summed up

    The Lib-Dems were the first out of the blocks last year claiming that they would protect the early years, schools and 16-19 budgets, a deal that was confirmed by Nick Clegg again this week when he set out his Party’s five manifesto priorities. Two weeks ago, the Conservatives laid out their position with the Prime Minister promising that school budgets would not be cut in current cash terms but equally would not necessarily be increased either. Now this week, in his first major education speech of the current campaign, Ed Miliband seems to have gone further claiming that “the next Labour government will protect the overall education budget…in real terms…every year.” The claim has raised excitement in the FE sector though how far it goes beyond 16-19 and just how much extra money that means is still under scrutiny.  Sam Freedman who offered a helpful analysis of Conservative school funding plans last week has done the same for Labour, it’s worth taking a look.

    Much of the rest of the speech involved a tour of Labour’s current education hot spots including the case for qualified teachers, a balanced curriculum and high standards for all but there were some eye-catching announcements. Here’s a list of four: bringing back compulsory work experience from age 14; granting all head teachers the same powers as academy heads currently have; providing parents with the right to call in the local Director of School Standards if they have concerns; and capping class sizes for 5, 6 and 7 year olds at 30. And a final strapline: “In the 21st century, world class education isn’t a luxury for the individual, it’s a necessity.” A clear pitch to a wider audience.

    It’s been a week of big speeches.  David Cameron, Ed Balls, Chuka Umunna and Nick Clegg each took to the floor to address the British Chambers of Commerce in Conference this week, Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan both spoke at the think tank Policy Exchange but perhaps the other speech that deserves a special mention this week, particularly for those in FE, was that by Glenys Stacey, the Chief Executive of Ofqual. The focus was vocational qualifications and how Ofqual as regulator goes about ensuring high standards and quality on the one hand but flexibility and responsiveness (to employer needs) on the other. Ofqual is shortly to launch a consultation on a new framework for adult vocational qualifications and the speech was a timely reminder of the issues. It can be read here.

    Top headlines this week

    • ‘Billions more for new schools-despite doubts about speed of work.’ (Monday)
    • ‘Exams made easy in race to bottom.’ (Tuesday)
    • ‘Pupils in some areas are not offered ‘vital’ GCSEs.’ (Wednesday)
    • ‘Ed Miliband: Labour government would restore Blair era cap on class sizes.’ (Thursday)
    • ‘Labour would protect education funding – Miliband’ (Friday).

    People/organisations in the news this week

    • Budget 2015, due to take place on 18 March and where we have until the end of today to offer our two penny worth via the Treasury survey
    • David Cameron, Ed Balls and Nick Clegg each of whom pitched ‘ a new industrial policy’ to the annual conference of the British Chambers of Commerce
    • The government who announced a further £1.3bn to help local authorities plan for extra school places up to 2018
    • Labour who promised to resurrect Sure Start centres for use by charities and other organisations working particularly with disadvantaged families and to prioritise school admissions for children being brought up by family members other than their parents
    • Nick Clegg who set out the Lib-Dem’s five election priorities which included protecting the education budget from cradle to college
    • Tuition Fee (Transparency and Accountability) Bill requiring universities to send a letter to students explaining how they are spending the money which was laid before Parliament
    • Former HE Minister, John Denham MP who once again called for a rethink on the traditional three year, study away from home university degree model
    • Lord Young, the government’s Enterprise Adviser, whose latest report on small businesses, noted that more young people were looking to become their own boss as the internet was making it easier for business ideas to be turned into propositions 
    • Universities UK who published the Gaskell Report proposing a new regulatory body and better protection for students as part of a shake-up of HE regulation
    • Sheffield University who are launching a new scheme of bursaries to help disadvantaged graduates find work after they leave
    • The University of Brighton which has been chosen to lead the expansion of the ‘Troops for Teachers’ scheme
    • Newvic’s (Newham sixth form college) Eddie Playfair who wrote a blog piece dispelling some myths about applying to Russell Group universities after 71% of its class of 2014 went on to such universities last year
    • The BIS Dept whose updated version of the Specification of Apprenticeship Standards for England (SASE) included latest amendments to functional skills and alternatives
    • The Skills Funding Agency who published a number of Papers on to the funding rules, rates and formulae for 2015-16
    • Ofqual who published its Second Report to Parliament covering its activities between April 2011 and December 2014
    • Glenys Stacey, chief executive of Ofqual who announced that Ofqual would be consulting on a new qualification framework for adult Voc Quals in a speech to the Skills Summt
    • NIACE who have proposed that £100m of skills and careers funding should be used to create a National Advancement Service to help people with careers advice and job opportunities
    • UKCES whose latest report highlights the Catch-22 effect on young people told to get work experience but then finding employers not offering it
    • Teacher unions who have written to the government to express their disappointment that the recent Workforce Challenge has failed to tackle the ‘root causes’ of the problem
    • The DfE who published guidance on the latest batch of 2016 GCSEs and AS/A levels
    • Ofqual who published the latest set of regulatory arrangements for GCSE History, Geography and Modern foreign languages and AS/A level geography
    • OPSN whose research suggested that some learners in deprived areas were being denied opportunities to take more challenging and in many cases, more marketable GCSEs in case schools’ league positions looked bad
    • Tom Bennett, Director of researchED who questioned some of the theories peddled about teaching styles and called for much more practically-based classroom research instead
    • Get fit, climb mountains, take risks, ban computer games: some of the proposals in the Manifesto for Children launched by TV adventurer Bear Grylls.

    Tweet(s) of the week

    • “CPD Theory No 17: a whole day course is 20% useful input and interactions, 40% stuff we could read, 40% filler/stuff we already know.” @headguruteacher
    • “If you can’t tweet anything nice, don’t tweet anything at all.” @Telegraph, a head teacher’s advice to a celebrity parent tweeter
    • “Criticism makes us stronger: Apple Executive.” @DTelegraph

    Acronym(s) of the week

    • NIACE. National Institute of Adult Continuing Education
    • UKCES. UK Commission for Employment and Skills.

    Quote(s) of the week

    • “We should always be the eternal warriors for higher standards.” Ed Miliband declares what lies behind Labour’s education policies 
    • “Children can’t learn and teachers can’t teach in schools that are cold and have leaking roofs.” The Deputy PM helps announce the extra building money to schools
    • “We’ve had people claiming that children learn using brain gym, people saying that kids only learn if you appeal to their learning style. There’s not a scrap of research that substantiates this.” Tom Bennet Director researchED on current learning myths
    • “Dense, impenetrable and inaccessible.” An English teacher bemoans the inclusion of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde on GCSE English reading lists suggesting it will put young readers off.

    Number(s) of the week

    • 75. The number of MPs who have signed a letter to the Education Secretary calling on her to exempt sixth-from colleges from VAT. (They have to pay but school sixth forms don’t)
    • £6bn. The amount of money the government has pledged for school buildings over the next three years
    • 57%. The number of 11-16 yr olds who have done something risky online according to research released to coincide with this week’s Internet Safety Day.

    What to look out for next week

    • Half term!
    read more
  • Policy Eye - week ending February 6 2015

    The election bandwagon moved on to education this week but has not strayed far from familiar ground - namely school standards.

    The week summed up

    Youth training and skills are topics for the future while HE remains gripped by contortions over tuition fees. 

    Education was the fourth in the list of six core election themes announced by the Prime Minister at the start of the year and it’s perhaps been a welcome relief to move on to a new topic after both sides had battered themselves to a standstill over the economy and health but whether we’ve learnt anything particularly new remains debatable.

    Arguably three themes stand out. First, how to raise standards, particularly if as the Education Secretary announced ‘we want to be one of the top five performing countries worldwide for English and maths by 2020?’  Labour has already put its weight behind a fully trained and qualified teaching profession, the Conservatives it seems are going for widespread academisation, upping the ante so that not just inadequate schools as judged by Ofsted but also those requiring improvement as well could be converted to academy status. It’s a proposition that raises all sorts of questions about the future funding, accountability and management of the school system. Second, schools are going to face the pinch when it comes to funding. The Prime Minister promised flat cash protection for 5-16 year olds but as others were quick to point out, when you factor in pension, pay, NI and possible inflation increases over the next five years that means a cut. And third, the battle for the Gove legacy continues.  Nicky Morgan may have poo-pooed the idea that he was a back seat driver and one of his favoured standards mechanisms, the HE A’ level Advisory Board may have been stood down but as indicated, the academies movement is alive and well and driven by a familiar script of a ‘war on mediocrity.’  

    In another busy week for education, developments in two other parts of the education world deserve a mention. One is apprenticeships, a big priority for all Parties and the subject of an Opposition-led debate this week. As with schools, the argument here is equally about standards and whether as Labour believe apprenticeships should be aligned with the European model and pitched at level 3. The debate didn’t change things but we’re just under a month away from National Apprenticeship Week so expect to see an increase in policy activity in this area in coming weeks. And the other is HE, not just the fees issue which continues to rumble on but the wider future of UKHE which amongst other topics has been under discussion at this week’s annual HEFCE Conference.  One aspect of this is the potential impact or not of technology on learning in HE and whether like music, it will become ‘unbundled’ and individually purchased on different platforms.  An interesting article appeared on this recently; it’s worth a look.

    Top headlines this week

    •  ‘Lowering tuition fees’ implausible’ say vice-chancellors.’ (Monday)
    •  ‘Cameron challenged on ‘no cuts’ school funding promise.’ (Tuesday)
    •  ‘Ofsted to press ahead with A’ level science reforms despite criticisms.’ (Wednesday)
    •  ‘Students subjected to unfair course changes.’ (Thursday)
    • ‘Teacher workload crisis: ministers unveil plans to tackle excessive hours.’ (Friday)

    People/organisations in the news this week

    • The Prime Minister who confirmed that education funding for ages 5-16 would continue to be protected after the election but left concerns that this would not necessarily take into account increases in inflation, NI, pension and other costs
    • The Education Secretary who pledged to stop major mid-year policy changes as part of  a new deal with teachers unveiled in response to the recent workforce Challenge
    • The Labour Party who pledged “the biggest devolution of economic power and funding to England’s regions over five years” including funding for skills training
    • The Lib-Dems who claimed to have blocked eight of Michael Gove’s more ‘ideological’ plans in a 13-page dossier entitled ‘The Gove Files’
    • The NHS, living costs and family care: the three issues topping female voter concerns according to a poll by Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour
    • 20 university vice-chancellors who supported a letter to The Times challenging Labour’s reported plans to cut the maximum HE tuition fee from £9000 to £6000
    • The HE Funding Council who launched their latest Business Plan at their annual conference this week highlighting research, T/L, access and regulation/reputation as key pointers
    • The HE Policy Institute who published a book of essays from different institutions of how they are tackling the issue of demonstrating value for money to students and others 
    • The University of Bath which emerged as the most searched for uni last year in the Complete University Guide followed closely by Cambridge, UCL, Durham and Warwick
    • HE Student numbers which according to research by The Times, have varied considerably across universities following the introduction of tuition fees
    • Loyals, Stayers, Returners and Incomers, four types identified in HECSU’s analysis of graduate migration trends. (Loyals for instance remain in their home patch for both study and work while returners move away to study but return afterwards to seek employment)
    • NIACE and the Centre for Economic and Social Inclusion who announced they’d be joining forces this week to create a new united voice on economic growth and social inclusion
    • The Excellence Gateway, the website offering ‘unrivalled’ resources for the learning and skill sector, which was re-launched by the Education and Training Foundation
    • The Local Government Association who called for more ‘good’ school places and provision for young unemployed people in its Manifesto wish-list
    • ‘Claim Your College,’ the coalition of groups supporting the creation of a College of Teaching who launched their proposals this week
    • Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT who raised strong questions about the independence of the proposed College of Teaching
    • The think tank Demos whose analysis of the latest league tables indicated that the attainment gap between pupils on free school meals and their peers was widening and that spending under the pupil premium was having little effect
    • Ofsted who confirmed following recent consultation that it would go ahead with more frequent but shorter inspections and with a common inspection framework
    • Ofqual who confirmed that it intended to press ahead with its planned changes to science practicals at A level and launched consultations on Dance, Music, Art/Design and Ancient Languages
    • Better discipline and smaller classes, the top two proposals for raising school standards in a poll of voters by YouGov
    • The Independent Schools Council who published its Manifesto for the election calling for traditional stereotypes of toffs and top hats to be abandoned
    • The government who announced a new UTC will open next year in Hull specialising in engineering and to be named the Ron Dearing UTC after one of its favourite ‘sons’
    • Professor Robin Alexander who published a considerably re-tweeted blog reflecting on the government’s recent enthusiasm for developing pupil character and true grit
    • Hodder Education, NFER and Durham CEM, three of the six providers approved to offer reception baseline assessments from Sept 2015
    • The University of East Anglia (UEA) where a ‘nap nook’ for students has been opened in the Students Union for stressed students in need of a 40 minute nap break
    • Roddy Doyle, Jojo Moyes, Sophie Hannah, Fanny Blake, Adele Geras and James Bowen whose books have all been added to the Quick Read list of books intended to encourage more adults to read.

    Tweet(s) of the week

    • “I shot from bottom to top set for maths. My inability to cope with mental arithmetic has no bearing on my overall intelligence.” @hannahfearn
    • “It’s no good hanging on to students who aren’t going to get anything out of their schools, says Lord Baker.” @tesfenews
    • “Flashes of steel from Glenys Stacey of Ofqual rejecting criticism of changes to science practicals.” @GregHurstTimes

    Acronym(s) of the week

    • HECSU. Higher Ed Careers Service Unit
    • NCTL. National College of Teaching and Leadership.

    Quote(s) of the week

    • “Were this to happen, at least £10bn of additional public funding would need to be found and ring-fenced over the course of the next parliament to close the gap.” A group of vice-chancellors writes to The Times to explain why it opposes Labour plans to cut HE tuition fees
    • “No one talks about firing surgeons if a single operation does not succeed.” The general secretary of NAHT on government proposals to remove head teachers of primary schools in which children fail to reach required standards in English and maths
    • “In many ways Ofqual shares the ethos of Tomorrow’s World. We want GCSE and A level students to be excited by science.” The chief executive of Ofqual defends the changes to A level science practicals
    • “The manifesto and website contain more recognisable names than a Debrett’s guide.” Renowned head teacher Geoff Barton on the need to keep the College of Teaching in the hands of the profession.

    Number(s) of the week

    • 71%. The % of parents who have helped their children with university costs with 53% who have helped with the fees and 20% with clearing the debt according to a YouGov poll
    • £70. The potential annual membership fee for the proposed new College of Teaching
    • 31%. The number of prospective parliamentary candidates who stand a good chance of winning in 2015 and who have had a private education and according to Sutton Trust research. (The current figure for MPs is 33% and for the population as a whole, 7%)
    • 69%. The number of people apparently tempted to take last Monday off (Feb 2 is generally known as National Sickie Day).

    What to look out for next week

    • Education Committee witness session with Charlie Taylor of the NCTL (Wednesday).
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  • Pocket Watch - Ofsted ring the changes to inspections

    So full steam ahead it is for changes to the inspection system.

    This follows the announcement this week by Ofsted confirming widespread support for the changes listed in its recent ‘Better inspection for all’ consultation. Nearly 5000 responses were received offering broad support for the three core proposals of shorter but more frequent inspections for ‘good’ providers, the use of a Common Inspection Framework and for a full round of inspections for non-association independent schools over the next three years. Coupled with some other previously announced changes, it means Ofsted can now go ahead and plan to implement from this Sept what it describes as ‘some of the most significant changes in its history.’  The longer-term issue of where Ofsted sits within a self-improving system remains, as the Education Committee discussed in a witness session with the Chief Inspector last week but for the moment, this is how things now look.

    What are the main changes?

    1.    Ofsted will introduce shorter but more frequent (every three years) inspections from this September for schools, academies and FE providers judged ‘good’ at their last inspection. The key issue here is ‘proportionate,’ so not subjecting proven providers to full inspections every five years, six for FE, but using an approach that is more, well proportionate to the level of risk. Concerns had also been voiced that a gap of five or six years between visits was too long, things could change in the interim which might only be picked up when problems had set in, so more regular monitoring should help here too. Short inspections would also allow for what the report calls ‘greater professional dialogue’ between inspectors and institutional leaders, in other words more meaningful conversations on strengths and weaknesses, given that these occasions would not be mini full inspections. This new system will also apply to other providers rated good, such as special schools and pupil referral units but not yet to early years’ providers. And although it remains subject to parliamentary approval, the aim is to pilot some short inspection visits between now and the summer and to introduce the new approach fully from Sept 2015

    2.    Inspections will be carried out using a uniform Common Inspection Framework. The key issue here is consistency of judgements, let alone better coherence and comparability which along with the new contracting and training arrangements for individual inspectors, should be greatly improved by the use of a common approach. There was some worry that a ’one size fits all’ model covering everything from early years to academies to skills provision might not be appropriate but Ofsted intends to overcome this by producing separate handbooks. The new Framework will also see some new emphasis placed on areas like the quality of assessment which has been added to the quality of teaching and learning, pupil welfare, learner outcomes, the effectiveness of leadership and management and the appropriateness of the curriculum generally. In addition grades may be given for some specific areas of post-16 activity such as study programmes and traineeships

    3.    And already announced. From this Sept, Ofsted will no longer sub-contract inspections but bring the whole process in-house. Second, the separate graded judgements for early years and school sixth form provision introduced last Sept will remain and third, the position on no-notice inspections is unchanged: it will only be used when safeguarding issues are raised. 

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