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!

The latest from Policy Watch

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  • Pocket Watch – Where would you cut?

    The postbags at the Treasury were no doubt fuller than usual last weekend as consultation closed for responses to this year’s Spending Review.

    The drill was set out in July when the Chancellor launched the Review, calling for a further £20bn of savings by 2019/20, setting out a number of guiding principles and asking for views. For unprotected areas of public spending such as FE including 16-19 provision and HE, this is an anxious time, particularly as stories continue to circulate about impending cuts. FE and HE have both been busy submitting their thoughts to the Treasury; here’s a summary. 

    The view from HE

    In their submissions, both the Russell Group and Universities UK have stressed the important contribution universities make to the economy, the need to ring-fence science and research and the importance of international students. Particular priorities listed include:

    • Increase the tuition fee cap in line with inflation (Russell Group)
    • Respond to concerns about a decline in p/t provision (UUK)
    • Increase capital investment in teaching (both)
    • Increase funding for high cost STEM subjects (both)
    • Continue to ring-fence science, beef up funding for research and increase funding through the dual support system (both)
    • Support and build on business innovation through the HE Innovation Fund (both)
    • Ensure UKHE remains attractive to international students (both)

    Full details can be found in respective submissions from the Russell Group and from UUK. 

    The view from FE

    The Association of Colleges (AoC) have highlighted issues around 16-18 funding, the apprenticeship levy and longer-term financial planning among other points in their list of ten recommendations to the Treasury. In summary, these include:

    • Tackling concerns about 16-18 funding by proposing that schools and colleges merge sixth form provision which falls below a benchmark of 250 students, scrapping VAT on sixth form provision and putting 16-18 funding on a par with that of 14-16 yr olds
    • Introducing more stable three-year funding allocations for colleges and developing an outcome formula to be used in locally devolved adult provision
    • Introducing specific initiatives to help recruitment of English and maths specialists
    • Extending the loan system to 19-24 yr olds
    • Setting the apprenticeship levy at 0.5% of payroll of large organisations
    • Rationalising the number of agencies. 

    The view from adult and community learning

    NIACE and the Centre for Inclusion have also put in a submission reflecting some of the above points but also calling among other things for a new Apprenticeship Quality and Access Fund, Personal Career Accounts and a single funding agency for post-19 loans. 

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  • Pocket Watch – Up for review: latest on post-16 review process

    The publication this week of further guidance on the area-based review process for post-16 provision moved the re-structuring of the college sector a step closer.

    A step rather than a leap because a lot of the detail about precisely which institutions are involved and how it’ll work at a local level have still to be determined but it has answered a number of questions as follows: 

    The objective?

    Pretty much the same as originally indicated in the July announcement: cutting out duplication and waste, matching local and learner needs better, developing higher-level specialist provision, or in two words ‘efficiency’ and ‘focus.’ There are three differences to the July announcement:  a greater emphasis on the role of technology both in teaching and management; the importance being attached to IoTs (Institutes of Technology,) “one per LEP area;” and, inevitably, the need to keep an eye on the Spending Review…’living within your means’ is the new catchphrase. 

    Who’s going to lead the reviews?

    The local steering group comprising chairs of governors, local Commissioners, LEP, LA and agency reps, remains the lead body reporting into a National Area Review Steering Group. More interesting perhaps is how other interested parties engage: Ofsted and the funding agencies for instance who are expected to provide specialist intelligence, the government which has said it will be hands off unless it has concerns, and other providers such as HE and training providers.   

    What about schools?

    Still not fully clear. Regional Schools Commissioners have the brief to ‘engage’ with school sixth forms and as the guidance makes clear, ‘other providers’ can opt in and ‘all post-16 providers will be in scope’ at least for the initial phase. In fairness, the Dept is carrying out its review of how new school sixth forms are created and is pushing the case for greater collaboration.

    What will trigger a review?

    Either a risk alert from one of the Commissioners or a funding agency which will set the process in motion or alternatively, a local area itself can come forward with its own review proposals. 

    How long will a review last?

    Typically 3-4 months, with the whole national programme itself due to complete in spring 2017. 

    Who’s first?

    Colleges in parts of East Anglia and the City of Nottingham have been ‘done’ first in trial form; next up are colleges in Birmingham and Solihull, Greater Manchester and Sheffield City. The National Steering Group will publish a schedule of who’s been done and who’s next in due course. 

    Who pays?

    The local area concerned…government finance only “as a last resort”. 

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  • Pocket Watch - Summer Headlines

    For those that missed them, whether by design or not, here’s a quick reminder of some of the main education stories from over the summer hols, August in particular.   

    The main story over the summer

    Given that August by tradition is results month, the main story/ies inevitably concerned exam and assessment results in some form. The month began with stories of Ministerial concern about aspects of the exam board system and ended with the same Ministers heralding a stable set of GCSE and A’ level results and an upbeat set of KS2 results. In between many familiar arguments about the exam system in general and specific trends in subjects, regions and so on were aired but perhaps the most notable feature, picked up in some of the headlines, was the emerging impact of government policies. ‘Gove’s generation’ as an Institute of Ed blog labelled this year’s entrants faced a number of changes instigated by the previous Education Secretary including those to early entry, resits and assessment, much of which showed in changing trends such as the drop in entries by 15 year olds and rise in entries for EBacc subjects for 16 yr olds and English/maths GCSE resits for 17 yr olds. More of course is to come as new GCSEs and de-coupled AS levels come in over the next few years. Maths had another bumper entry year at both GCSE and A’ level, languages remain a concern but this year’s big noise is Computing with a surge in entries at both GCSE and A’ level. Finally, one unusual fact from the BBC’s Education correspondent, Sean Coughlan: “there will be more people starting university this autumn than were getting five good GCSEs a couple of decades ago.”   

    The biggest debate over the summer

    Arguably there’ve been two, both familiar.

    First the long-term future of the GCSE exam. The GCSE has faced criticism for much of its 27 years, indeed the chief executive of Ofqual was said to have expressed amazement at the extent of this when she took over a few years back, and it faced a further barrage again this summer: ‘out of date,’ ‘ready to wither on the vine’ and ‘killing our young people;’ just a selection of comments from the boss of the CBI, a former Education Secretary and former headmaster respectively. The case against is threefold: they’re archaic, they expensive both in terms of time and cost and they don’t prepare kids very well for the future. In defence, as Tim Oates argued, most countries have, if not exams at age 16 certainly “high-stakes assessment,” they help ensure a qualitative bar of achievement for future progression and they provide a focal point for learning. There the argument rests, perhaps for another year with issues like Sir Mike Tomlinson’s Core + model for exams at age 16 still hanging in the air.

    The other debate this summer has been about the numbers going to university, up 3% to 47% at the last count with the student numbers cap lifted this year. Should we continue to encourage more people to go to university or should we be encouraging more to follow a skilled or professional pathway, what’s best for the individual, what’s best for the country? As HEFCE and others have argued, few would doubt the benefits that higher ed can bring and certainly the graduate premium, the return on investment, remains high but as both the Edge Foundation and the CIPD have argued in reports this summer, there are concerns that a rise in graduate numbers has not been reflected in a rise in high skilled jobs and productivity. At root, as Professor Alison Wolf argued recently is the question of whether university should be seen as a route to a job or as a wider learning and development experience …or both?

    The most worrying story

    Inevitably about funding and again there’ve been two.

    First the Sixth Form Colleges Association who published their annual funding impact survey on the eve of A’ level results day showing that a lot of Colleges were having to drop courses because of funding cuts and as far as they could see, things were only going to get worse. 72 of the 93 Colleges responded and of those, 26 feared for their very future. Increases in pension and NI contributions, the imposition of the VAT burden and the imminent ending of formula protection funding all suggest that the Association is not crying wolf. There’s considerable sympathy for their position as the recent IPPR Spending Review Paper indicates but the government seems intent on using the area-based reviews, which may or may not prove any more favourable, to help resolve the situation.

    Second, the Skills Funding Agency’s announcement at around the same time that they will have to clampdown on further qualification approvals for the remainder of the financial year for all bar a couple of categories of qualification: automatic approvals and those that qualify for 24+ Advanced Learning Loans. This is seen as a temporary measure and as the government regularly reminds us, there are a lot of qualifications on the stocks but it’s a sharp reminder of how tight things are at present.  

    The most significant speech of the summer

    It was more of an article than a speech but David Cameron’s comment piece as his government reached its first 100 days watermark on 15 August was significant for three reasons. First, it re-emphasised the message that however small its majority, the government intends to keep up the pace: “we will not waste a second in getting on with the job.” Things may be different once a new Labour leader is selected on 12 Sept but for the moment, it’s all go. Second, as if we needed reminding, the economy remains the b-all and end-all. And third, perhaps surprisingly, education remains a high priority with the Prime Minister for instance pushing the case for Academies and Free Schools.

    The most important policy paper of the summer

    Any number stand out here including the Sutton Trust’s report on pay differentials for privately educated graduates, Cambridge assessment’s research into the difficulties in making exam predictions, QAA’s response to the Quality Assessment Review, the Children’s Society Good Children’s Report and Policy Exchange’s Paper on a levy on schools for GCSE English and maths resits in FE. But given the government’s priority being attached to them, the levy consultation and accompanying announcements about apprenticeships is perhaps the most important in terms of future policy impact. The downside is that the consultation raises more questions than answers about for instance which employers would fall in scope or not, about whether there should be a limit to how much an employer’s account could be topped up and how long they should have to use it and whether it will enable quality training or quick and dirty. The levy as Julian Gravatt at the AoC said is “just a tool to encourage training, investment and a focus on skills” but it could be a very important one and it’s one that needs to be got right.   

    The most noticeable survey of the summer

    Again there’ve been a number over the summer including the annual National Student Satisfaction Survey, The Motor Industry Institute survey let alone the Sixth Form Colleges and CIPD Labour Market surveys already mentioned but the one whose results may run for some time is the ASCL (Association of School and College Leaders) survey about the EBacc. The government intends that pupils starting secondary school this year will work towards the EBacc subjects at GCSE; critics feel this is prescriptive, not suitable for all pupils and want more flexibility over how it’s applied. In their survey, ASCL found that as many as 87% of respondents opposed the requirement in its current form. We may not have heard the last.

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  • Pocket Watch - Autumn Scheduling

    With the government passing its first 100 days last month, seemingly intent on keeping up the pace, it looks like we’re heading for another busy autumn.

    Here’s a few things to look out for over the coming months for the world of education.

    Government ‘stuff’

    The main event here will come on 25 November when the Chancellor announces the outcomes of the 2015 Spending Review. Launched earlier this summer, the Review will determine dept budgets and spending priorities for a large chunk of this Parliament and so has the potential to be a defining moment. Individuals have been invited over the summer to submit their thoughts on where the review’s projected £20bn of savings should come from (the closing date is actually today) while individual Depts will no doubt continue their wrangling throughout the next few months.

    At the last major such review in 2010, the BIS Dept went close to the wire before its budget details were settled and given some of the dire predictions that have been circulating this time, similar brinkmanship may be required again. Some decisions such as that on converting HE maintenance grants to loans from 2016 have already been taken while the Chancellor’s announcement in his Summer Budget that he was allowing a further year to move into surplus has taken some of the heat out of things. The Review should include some specifics such as an update on the future funding formula for schools, the apprenticeship levy for FE and the recent review of Business-University research in HE but if we weren’t already convinced, it will remind us that ‘turning round the economy’ remains the government’s top priority.

    On the legislative front, three education-related Bills have already started their journey through Parliament with the Education Bill and its proposals about ‘coasting’ schools attracting the most comment. The other two up and running Bills are about to swap places, the Cities and Local Devolution Bill to the Commons and the Childcare Bill to the Lords. Three more Bills, on Enterprise, on Employment and Welfare, and on Immigration are due to be introduced shortly. Each will be worth watching. The Enterprise Bill will enshrine any new definition of apprenticeships, the Employment and Welfare Bill will endorse the government’s new earn and learn arrangements for young people while the Immigration Bill will include clauses on skilled worker visa arrangements and requisite levels of English for certain public facing jobs.

    Elsewhere a number of Select Committees have important Inquiries lined up for this autumn. The Education Committee, who have both Nicky Morgan and Sir Michael Wilshaw up before it this month, will be looking into the role of Regional Schools Commissioners and Ofsted while the BIS Committee will be examining the government’s Productivity Plan. Two other Committee Inquiries worth noting include the Lords Social Mobility Committee which is investigating the transition into work for young people and where the call for evidence closes on 14 Sept. It’s due to consider evidence over the autumn before issuing a report next March. The other one is the Home Affairs Committee which will be looking into the Tier 2 Skilled Workers System for which a visa cap was introduced three years ago and where there are concerns about the impact on recruitment in many sectors. This Committee is calling for evidence submissions by 9 Sept. 

    Finally, the government will be keeping a close eye on a number of structural reforms as the year progresses. These include the further academisation of the schools system, the area-based reviews for FE and the lifting of the numbers cap in HE.

    School specific

    For schools, this autumn sees the first of three years of implementing new GCSEs, AS and A levels. This year’s batch includes the three big GCSEs, two English and one maths, and some 13 AS and A levels. At the same time, preparation work for the next two batches continues with consultation on the design and assessment of the 2017 ‘batch’ due to complete on 24 September. Also in September, the new Year 7 will start on their journey leading to the EBacc suite of GCSEs by 2018, initial trials of the National Reference Test are scheduled and the government report on Assessment without Levels is due for publication. The Rochford Review on assessment arrangements for pupils with low attainment incidentally reports in December.

    Moving on, in mid-October, the government will for the first time publish provisional GCSE and other qualification performance data from this year’s exams including also for the first time provisional Attainment 8 data for schools that opted in early for this. Final performance tables will be published as normal in January with the aim of helping parents as they make secondary school choices although as some head teachers are planning to publish a rival set of performance tables at around the same time, it may all get a bit messy.

    Other things schools may be looking out for this autumn include the new Ofsted inspection regime which begins this month, the three new teacher workload groups, (on marking, on planning and resources and on data management,) proposed recently by the Education Secretary, and further developments around the College for Teaching and the Teacher Professional Development and Behaviour Management Expert Groups.

    For FE

    Autumn is an important time for the FE sector where the annual Colleges Conference and Skills Show in November often provide a focal point for announcements and developments.

    FE providers will be awaiting the Spending Review announcements in November with more trepidation than most given recent announcements although their first task is to submit, by the end of this month, their updated financial plans following the latest cuts announced in July. The other big challenge facing the sector is its potential reshaping in the wake of the area-based reviews. These are due to get under way this month and continue through to March 2017 and form part of the shift towards greater local determinism. Government involvement in these reviews will be “proportionate to the level of risk” but most people believe the opportunity will also be used to review financial, quality and other issues of post-16 provision.

    Three other things for FE to look out for this autumn include further development work around apprenticeships with a new Delivery Board and target in place and two consultations, one on status now complete and the other on the Levy, completing next month. Second, the reform programme around Functional Skills along with the new post QCF qualification framework due to be in place from 1 October. And third, further consultation on outcome based success measures along with more destination and earnings data both due in the coming weeks.

    For HE

    For HE where the ramifications of the lifting of the cap on student numbers this year will no doubt be scrutinised for much of the autumn four issues stand out. First, quality assurance where a Green Paper on a Teaching Excellence Framework is promised and where consultation on HEFCE’s proposals on quality assurance closes on 18 Sept. Second, funding where institutions will be advised of their revised teaching grants in October, consultation on freezing the loan repayment threshold closes on 14 October and consultation on allowing some tuition fees to increase in line with inflation may follow. Third, further activity around validation arrangements, with the government likely to consider options for opening out the degree market to other ‘best’ providers. And fourth, visa issues where an Immigration Bill and Home Affairs Committee Inquiry are looming and a Migration Advisory Committee Report is due before the year end.

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  • Pocket Watch - Dog days for FE?

    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.   

    What next?

    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.   

    When you talk FE, you talk solutions.

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