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.

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

About Steve

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

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  • Policy Eye - week ending January 16 2015

    The start of the week saw David Cameron set out six themes likely to feature in the Conservative Party Election Manifesto; they included education but surprisingly for some, not the NHS which has shot to the top of voters’ concerns this week.

    The week summed up

    The themes contained a lot of references to the economy with mentions of jobs, taxes and tackling the deficit and the argument is that by only getting the economy right will we be able to provide for a strong NHS. It was a message the Chancellor was keen to get across in his Royal Economic Society lecture this week which both set a new positive tone (for Britain to become the most prosperous of any major economy by the 2030s) but also a further challenge to raise education and skill standards.

    The Chancellor, indeed the government as a whole, have been making the case for some time about the importance of the education system in nurturing the skills and talent needed to help the economy recover and there have been some interesting developments in this area this week with reports from the Engineering Council UK, McDonalds and the Prince’s Trust. All stressed the importance of equipping young people with the right, for which read market-driven, skills.

    Elsewhere a positive report on the top end of the graduate market was published, reforms to apprenticeship funding were put on hold for further review and two important deadlines reached. The first, the closing date for applications for school places for autumn 2015, provoked a storm of alarming headlines about the squeeze on school places in parts of the country while the second, the date for submission of UCAS forms for university entry this autumn came with a surge of advice and guidance from UCAS and others guarding applicants against filling in forms with this sort of error highlighted in The Daily Telegraph:“Thanks for considering my application and I hope I will here (sic) from you soon.” 

    Top headlines this week

    • ‘Ofsted school inspections: concerns about reliability.’ (Monday)
    • ‘Almost one in five primary schools has too many pupils, Labour survey finds.’  (Tuesday)
    • ‘Campaign puts £88bn value on soft skills.’ (Wednesday)
    • ‘Global firms urged to invest in education.’ (Thursday)
    • ‘A level reform; schools plan to ignore changes by offering AS levels.’ (Friday

    People/organisations in the news this week

    • The Chancellor who proposed a new fiscal rule in his Royal Economic Society Lecture that when conditions were right, future governments should be forced to run a budget surplus
    • Global companies who have been urged to follow the lead of Santander, GlaxoSmithKline and HSBC and commit a fifth of their CSR budgets to education by 2020
    • MPs who debated grammar school funding this week
    • The DfE who published the latest list of Free Schools either open (256 listed) or about to (111 listed)
    • The BIS Dept who published a detailed evidence review of how high-performing countries go about improving their basic skills
    • The Skills Minister who defended the need to go back to the drawing board on apprenticeship funding in a witness session at the Education Committee
    • The Institute for Fiscal Studies who launched their election 2015 website dedicated to assessing the veracity of spending and other economic claims including those on education
    • The HE sector who expressed concerns about its proposed role in countering extremism as the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill reached its Second Reading
    • The HE Statistics Agency whose latest figures point to an increase in the number of students achieving top grades but a drop in the number of students studying part-time especially for foundation degrees
    • HEFCE who published some good practice case studies where institutions have spelt out clearly to students about how fee and other money is being spent
    • 10 University Vice-Chancellors who shared their wish lists for 2015 with calls for more funding, research, foreign students and science all featuring prominently
    • The Quality Assessment Review Group, set up to look at future quality assessment arrangements in HE, who called for views on initial principles
    • High flying graduates, especially in finance, the public services, accountancy, retail and the armed services, whose job prospects this year look promising although it helps to have undertaken work experience in the industry first
    • Communication and interpersonal skills, teamwork, time and self-management skills, decision-making and initiative-taking, taking responsibility: the five ‘soft skill areas’ identified by McDonalds in the latest campaign launched to promote such skills
    • Engineering UK whose latest report forecast 257,000 vacancies in the sector by 2022
    • The NUS who joined the clamour for a free bus pass for college students (the Lib-Dems are likely to include discounted bus passes in their election manifesto)
    • The Prince’s Trust whose latest Youth Index survey found young people slightly less happy than last year and worried about money, jobs and health
    • Youth Employment UK who became the latest organisation to launch a critical survey of careers provision in this country
    • Ofsted who revealed that to test out the reliability of new short inspections, some schools might experience two separate inspections on the same day
    • UCAS chief executive Mary Curnock Cook who reported on a recent survey that suggested many schools will continue to offer the AS level
    • 50 13 year olds who will be taught English, maths and science for half a term in a BBC2 documentary series designed to test out the virtues of the Shanghai education system
    • Parents who had to submit applications for 2015 primary school places this week as concerns were voiced about demand for places in some areas
    • 'What are the most enjoyable and the least enjoyable aspects of the role?’ One of ten recommended questions to ask in a job interview according to a Guardian blog
    • And in the week before BETT, apparently researchers have found that by analysing ‘likes,’ Facebook can know you better than your own family does.

    Tweet(s) of the week

    • ‘Computing teachers fear students know more than they do, poll shows.’ @ed_ontap
    • ‘Majority of voters think international students should be allowed to remain in the UK after graduation and work.’ @UniversitiesUK
    • ‘Children need to learn how to beat boredom. Nicky Morgan.’ @ed_ontap 

    Acronym(s) of the week

    • CAS. Computing at School
    • CSR. Corporate Social Responsibility.  

    Quote(s) of the week

    • “There is a moment of magic when you see a young person make something totally unique happen on a screen…but to get to that moment we need passionate people who have the right skills and knowledge to help give young people the building blocks they need.” The CEO of Microsoft UK on the importance of trained computer teachers
    • "It is also estimated that almost a quarter of responses were part of several campaigns associated with the consultation.”  The BIS Dept reflects on responses to its apprenticeship funding consultation
    • “The phasing out of grammar schools in most of the country was one of the greatest policy disasters of the post-war era.” Sir Edward Leigh MP opens the MPs’ debate on the funding of grammar schools.  

    Number(s) of the week

    • 6. The number of themes likely to form the core of the Conservative’s general election manifesto and covering: dealing with the deficit; creating jobs; lowering taxes; improving education; tackling housing shortages; and helping the retired
    • 205 and 51%. The number of graduates who achieved a 1st and 2.1 degree respectively in 2014 according to the latest figures
    • 900,000. The number of extra school places reported to be needed over the next decade
    • 26 minutes, 28 seconds. What the average lunch hour has been reduced to apparently. 

    What to look out for next week

    • Oral Questions to the Education Secretary (Monday)
    • Publication of DfE Annual Report and Accounts for 2013/14. (Tuesday)
    • Launch of CentreForum/Pearson Report on Primary School Accountability (Wednesday)
    • BETT Conference (Wednesday-Saturday). 
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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. 

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  • Pocket Watch – Managing curriculum reform

    Sir David Bell’s speech to the Association for Science Education Conference last week has once again raised the issue of how curriculum reform should be managed in this country.

    It comes as all three Party Education Spokespeople have acknowledged the need for a period of calm once the current cycle of reform is complete. Sir David did veer close to Tomlinson territory when he went on to suggest that A levels should be part of a Bacc structure in the long-run but his general point that education reform, let alone the interests of learners, is better served by taking the politics out of the process, has considerable support. For many, the best way forward would be to leave the strategy, funding and accountability to the politicians and the rest to independent experts. This is how the argument’s shaping up. 

    The Context

    As a member of a group of experts who published a Report on the matter almost exactly a year ago, Sir David clearly has an interest in this area. That Report, ‘Making Education Work,’ sponsored by Pearson, brought together a group of leading education professionals under the stewardship of Sir Roy Anderson. One of its key recommendations was for ‘the creation of an independent body representing all key stakeholders with the aim of establishing long-term political consensus on the school curriculum but with ultimate responsibility for delivering and assessing the curriculum continuing to be vested in government.’ The thrust behind such a proposal was to ensure that long-term planning and stakeholder consensus were built in so that important curriculum reform could be conducted in “a more ordered and transparent way.” 

    Role models

    A number of role models for this sort of approach have been put forward. Some have suggested that the Office for Budget Responsibility which provides independent advice to government on public finances offers a model. Others have pointed to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as well as to examples of Curriculum Development Panels in other jurisdictions as possible models but the one that seems to have attracted most interest and indeed was cited by Sir David, is the National Infrastructure Commission as proposed by Labour’s Armitt Review 18 months ago. Under this, UK infrastructure needs would be subject to long-term (25-30 years) planning and cross-party political consensus, and major assessment reviews carried out every ten years with Dept delivery plans required within 12 months of priorities being identified. “Rather than taking power away from politicians,” Sir John Armitt said, “I believe that an independent National Infrastructure Commission would act as an important enabler and provide a robust framework within which public and political debate on these important issues could take place.” It’s a model many think could work in education. 

    What are the politicians saying about all this?

    All major political Parties have expressed interest in this area but it is the Lib-Dems who have perhaps come nearest with David Laws’ call for the creation of an independent Education Standards Authority (ESA) in a speech last year. As he saw it, the ESA would be independent of government and would “be charged with assessing changes in standards and performance over time and overseeing the detailed development of curricula.” The idea is on the table. 

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  • Policy Eye - week ending January 9 2015

    The 2015 general election campaign kicked off in earnest this week and already there are signs of consumer fatigue. 

    The week summed up

    “The election campaign is only one week old and I’m bored already” tweeted one commentator; “could Dave Smashey and Ed Nicey please play some new tunes?” blogged the RSA’s Matthew Taylor, himself a former adviser at Number 10. Part of the problem is that the build-up seems to have been going for a long time and part is that so much of the early skirmishing has been predictable: the Conservatives challenging Labour on the economy and Labour challenging the Conservatives on the NHS, ‘wealth v health’ as The Sun neatly summarised it. Matthew Taylor’s conclusion was that: “both major Parties are stuck with messages which are failing to reach beyond their core constituencies” which suggests intriguingly that this will be an election in which the minority Parties (UKIP, SNP, Greens and so on) rather than the majority ones will be the ones to keep an eye out for. We’ll be following with interest.

    Away from the election, there have been a limited number of education developments this week.

    The Education Secretary appeared before the Education Committee to answer questions on careers guidance but gave very little away, alternative HE providers got together to announce a new mission group, the Education Endowment Foundation launched a new interactive tool to help groups of similar schools work together to close the attainment gap and the Schools Minister worried that school pupils today would fail to recognise the importance of some of the great historical anniversaries which fall this year such as the signing of Magna Carta. So far, so expected. One theme, however, beginning to gain traction and which may be worth noting as election noises get louder, is just what role politicians should play in education reform in the future. As Sir David Bell’s s keynote speech today seems to be suggesting: if for no other reason than economic necessity, politicians should row back from constant reform and let the professionals get on with it. A positive message on which to start election year. 

    Top headlines this week

    • ‘Universities refuse to reveal how they spend students’ £9,000 fees.’ (Monday)
    • ‘Ofsted inspectors must stay out of politics, say Labour.’ (Tuesday)
    • ‘School collaboration could help close the attainment gap.’ (Wednesday)
    • ‘Private providers create ‘Russell Group’ of the alternative sector.” (Thursday)
    • ‘The next twelve months will be critical for the future of colleges.’ (Friday)

    People/organisations in the news this week

    • YouGov whose latest figures suggest that voters are split over which of the two main Parties is best suited to handling education
    • The Prime Minister and Chancellor who began a planned regional campaign by heading up to the North West to launch a six-point long-term economic plan which would see among other things a boost to science, business, innovation and education in that region
    • Education Secretary Nicky Morgan who confirmed in a rather mundane Committee session on careers guidance that the new independent careers company, announced just before Christmas, would be up and running in March                    
    • Ed Miliband who launched Labour’s 2015 election campaign with a keynote speech setting out the Party’s five key messages including one on better education and opportunities for young people
    • Shadow Education Minister, Tristram Hunt, who called for Ofsted to focus on inspecting school performance and not to become engaged in looking at things outside its remit
    • The Lib-Dems who announced their campaign team for the general election and celebrated Nick Clegg’s 48th birthday with a list of 48 ‘good things Nick has done’
    • 95 leading economists, who predicted in the annual FT survey of economic prospects for the year ahead that UK borrowing and taxes would rise in 2015
    • The DfE which invited applications for the new DfE Character Awards
    • Sir James Dyson who labelled Theresa May’s proposed plans to send home non EU international students once they had graduated as ‘mean-spirited’ days before the plans were dropped
    • University UK whose expert panel reviewing student funding and due to report before the election, published an interim paper outlining emerging lines so far
    • The OECD’s Andreas Schleicher who blogged about how different countries were tackling the issue of higher ed financing and concluded by praising the approach adopted in England
    • The IOE and AELP who launched phase two of the Teach Too Programme designed to encourage industry experts to offer their expertise in vocational teaching and learning
    • John Cridland, the Director-General of the CBI who questioned the long-term future of the GCSE in his New Year message
    • Sir David Bell, vice-chancellor of Reading University and former permanent secretary at the DfE, who joined the calls for an independent curriculum body to help take some of the politicking out of education reform
    • Russell Hobby who was elected as General Secretary of the NAHT for a second term
    • The Education Endowment Foundation who launched a new interactive tool to help ‘families’ of schools come together to help close attainment gaps
    • The Wellcome Trust, one of a number of leading bodies, who signed a letter calling on Ofqual to review proposals to change the assessment of GCSE science practicals (Ofqual’s consultation on the matter closes on 4 Feb 2015)
    • School wellbeing, the subject of a report out from Nuffield Health and 2020health which will see the first head of well-being appointed to a (yet to be selected) secondary school later this year
    • Academies Week, the newspaper which reports on what’s going on in schools, which changed its name to Schools Week
    • Birmingham, recognised in the latest survey as the most entrepreneurial city outside London
    • ‘Cyber-attacks, ubiquitous drones, spooky smartphones and the continuing rise of wearable technology,’ all leading predictions for 2015 in a survey of leading techies
    • Magna Carta, along with the Battles of Agincourt and Waterloo, one of a number of significant historical anniversaries which fall this year but which the Schools Minister fears a lack of general knowledge will mean young people will fail to recognise the importance of

    Tweet(s) of the week

    • 'Death of the ebook? Kindle sales have disappeared says Waterstones.” @Teachit
    • "Dory MP Binley. We need to improve the productivity of universities. They’ve had too many high tables, had it easy too long.” @JMorganTHE

    Acronym(s) of the week

    • NNCOs. National Networks for Collaborative Outreach, a bit like AimHigher and intended to help schools, colleges and others who are supporting those of all ages, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, considering applying to HE, announced this week
    • IUG. The Independent Universities Group, a group of non-profit and for-profit HE providers who have got together to represent their interests more accurately.

    Quote(s) of the week

    • “So we will have a revolution in vocational education so that as many young people leave school to do apprenticeships as currently go to university.” Ed Miliband re-affirms Labour backing for apprenticeships
    • “As the election looms I am keener than anyone for education policy to be debated. But I am also desperate for a conversation that leaves behind the incendiary rhetoric of ‘the Blob’ and ‘class war.’ Tristram Hunt looks for a new kind of debate
    • “Among all available approaches, the UK offers still the most scalable and sustainable approach to university finance.” Andreas Schleicher reviews international tuition fee regimes.

    Number(s) of the week

    • 4m. The number of ‘conversations’ with voters Labour is intending to have in the next four months as it takes its election campaign out to the country
    • 86. The number of pages in the Treasury dossier released by the Government challenging the costing of many of the Opposition’s plans including those on expanding apprenticeships, UTCs and the number of qualified teachers in schools and colleges
    • Over £1m. The amount of initial funding distributed under the Early Years Pupil Premium.

    What to look out for next week

    • Education Committee witness session with Nick Boles on 16-19 apprenticeships and traineeships (Wednesday)
    • Important UCAS application deadline date (Thursday)
    • And beyond: Annual Bett Conference (21st – 24th Jan,) publication of 2014 ‘league tables and further announcement on apprenticeships (both due before the end of the month).  
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  • Pocket Watch – Key education themes for 2015

    The start of a new year has brought the traditional flurry of predictions for what lies ahead in the coming months.

    Financial pundits have been lining up to predict more borrowing and higher taxes at least for the second half of the year, techies are predicting a growth in ‘anticipatory computing’ (smartphones that anticipate what information you need,) while political pundits are predicting a very close run thing when it comes to the election but what of education, what’s in store here for 2015?

    Here are some key themes that we’re likely to hear a lot about in 2015.

    1. An education ‘lite’ general election. That’s not to say there won’t be numerous announcements, we’ve already had three this week with David Cameron pledging more, as yet undefined, education legislation, Ed Miliband promising to grow the apprenticeship route and Nick Clegg reasserting Lib-Dem plans to protect education budgets but there’s little sense of any new vision or direction driving education as there was in say 1997 or 2010. That may be no bad thing given the intensity of reform programmes over the last few years and indeed there’s a strong argument, as a recent YouGov poll indicated, for giving managers in schools or colleges, time and space to respond to change. As it is, there are still plenty of current issues around to arouse passions with school brands, workloads, youth training and tuition fees all being obvious examples but if the intent behind last summer’s Ministerial changes was to allow for a softer approach to these and other education issues as the election approached, then it seems to have had the desired effect with education now seemingly in calmer waters.

    2. Debate will grow about how best to manage change in the future. As government divests itself of a range of responsibilities and a shift towards local management takes hold, an interesting debate is developing about how best to manage big reform programmes in the future. The model of prescribing from the centre is, as Michael Gove declared when launching the national curriculum review a few years ago, unlikely to be replicated in the same way in the future particularly as the education system becomes more fragmented. All three major Party Education Spokespeople have recognised this as an issue and are likely to call for changes depending on who’s in power after the general election. Interestingly both Nicky Morgan and David Laws made speeches on the matter on the same day at the end of November with the latter making a strong pitch for an Independent Standards Authority “charged with assessing changes in standards and performance over time and overseeing the detailed development of curricula.” The concept of an independent, professionally-based Commission, able to advise the Secretary of State on the curriculum is not new, operates in other countries and may well come under consideration here.

    3. Funding issues will never be very far away. The economy was always going to feature prominently this year and so it’s proving with furious debate raging currently about the costing of various spending plans. While the Parties bandy about figures on anything from the costs of ensuring all teachers in schools and colleges are fully qualified to the funding needed for an increase in apprenticeship numbers, the more immediate issue is the potential impact of cuts for 2015 and beyond, particularly since the harsh dose of reality dished out by the Chancellor in his Autumn statement. At the moment only two things are clear. First that all major Parties are committed to reducing the deficit over the lifetime of the next Parliament albeit some more painfully than others and second that we shan’t know the precise nature of any cuts until at least the second half of this year when a new Spending Review is completed. For the moment, ring fencing, further efficiencies and the future of the pupil premium remain issues for schools; the funding of apprenticeships, the spread of fee loans and the impact of Dept cuts remain issues for FE while for HE, student funding will continue to be debated but its long-term future looks likely to be dependent on who’s holding the reins after the election as to whether there’s a further review or not.

    4. Social mobility and opportunity will continue to set the context for much of education. According to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission who issued their second annual ‘state of play’ report last October, “Britain is on the brink of becoming a permanently divided nation.” The current government has justified many of its education and welfare reforms on the basis they would help improve social mobility but as the Commission’s conclusion indicates and reports from Ofsted to the Prince’s Trust have underlined, this is proving challenging. Just what role education should play in this, whether for instance there should be more grammar schools, or more young people should be equipped with employability skills or more disadvantaged young people encouraged to enter HE, remains open to question. Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt raised the stakes in a keynote speech last November when he committed a future Labour government to ending state subsidies for private schools if they did not support new partnerships with state schools but other proposals can be seen in the Commission’s own 12 key recommendations. 

    5. Accountability and inspections systems will continue to evolve in response to access to greater data and demands for greater transparency. A lot of work has been done in this area by the current government and at present there seems to be broad political consensus about some of the accountability measures proposed. There’s still some modelling and harvesting of data to be done but the aim is to have new floor and progress measures in place for schools in limited form this year and fully from 2016 and new adult learning success measures in place the year after. Where we are likely to see debate this year is around the use of baseline assessments at the start of Reception, the nature of destination data for school leavers and the relationship to wage returns for college leavers. As for school/college inspections Ofsted is currently mulling over responses to its recent “radical” plans for streamlining inspection arrangements. How far this will satisfy all Parties remains to be seen. Tristram Hunt has already indicated that further reform would follow if Labour gets in while as Sir Tim Brighouse indicated in an interview late last year, there’s still a strong body of support for a more self-determining system. Either way, more change seems likely although the bigger story may well be taking place in HE where the case for putting quality assessment services out to tender is under review. 

    6. Qualification reform will soldier on. The first of the revised GCSE, AS and A levels will be taught for the first time this September and represent accordingly a further stage in the sweeping programme of curriculum reform which began some three years ago, has taken in considerable change on the way but which has a further two years of implementation to go. It’s been a demanding process; issues like GCSE grading and practical assessments in science continue to be debated but the reform tanker is well under way now and would be difficult to turn round at this late stage. Where we might see developments this year is in three areas. First in providing a better balance to the curriculum with a push to develop pupil character alongside traditional subjects. All Parties are committed to this and developments are following at a steady pace. Second, in the long-running saga of the standalone AS level where the election will determine whether Labour will get its chance to reverse government policy even though as Ofqual has warned it may take time. And third, the GCSE, 30 years old now but where, as the CBI’s John Cridland suggested in his New Year message, the issue of whether we still need an exam at age 16 remains live and may well re-emerge if Labour wins and starts to implement its proposed 14-19 Bacc model. 

    7. There’ll be more system change. This always tends to happen after a general election and a number of changes that could transcend Party lines for whoever is in power after May, are already lined up. These include: a College of Teaching, teacher professional development, school commissioners, careers portfolios, youth training and apprenticeships, specialist colleges, local commissioning of skills training, city region partnerships, online learning, high-level voc provision, fee loans, alternative providers, quality assurance systems.    
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