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 – Ofsted raise questions about Apprenticeships

    ‘Guilty parties,’ ‘abuse of trust,’ ‘organise yourselves,’ just some of the strong language used by Ofsted’s Chief Inspector this week as he launched the inspectorate’s latest report on apprenticeships.

    The report follows concerns raised by the Chief Inspector in his Annual Report last year particularly about the poor take-up among young people and the lack of skill development in some programmes. Subsequently, Ofsted undertook further survey and visit work and this report is the result of that. The sub-text is: ‘how well do apprenticeships meet the needs of young people, their employers and the economy?’ The answer is not well enough…yet.    

    The current context

    As has been regularly touted, the government has positioned apprenticeships as a major policy priority for the duration of this Parliament. 2.38m apprenticeship were delivered over the last Parliament and a new target has been set of 3m over this one. The argument is that these are good for business, good for individuals and good for the country at large. The latest data published a couple of weeks ago shows that there were 492,700 apprenticeship starts in the academic year 2014-15 but that at 16-18 and for higher level apprenticeships, both key priorities for the government, there were only modest increases. That said, the government is undertaking a major reform programme designed to ensure that apprenticeships are high-quality, meet employer and learner needs and deliver what’s needed more generally. The reforms include the development of recognised industry standards through industry-led trailblazers, the introduction of an employer’s levy and provision for a statutory definition of apprenticeships to be applied. In fairness these reforms have yet to be implemented meaning the Ofsted report reflects a ‘before’ rather than an ‘after’ position. 

    What did Ofsted find?

    In the words of an accompanying press release Ofsted found that “the government’s ambition to boost apprenticeships in England and create a higher skilled workforce is being undermined.” And it is being undermined by a number of problems summarised as follows:

    • There’s too much variable and poor quality provision. “Inspectors found that in a third of the 45 providers visited, apprenticeships did not provide sufficient, high-quality training that stretched apprentices and improved their capabilities.” The report went on to cite examples of too much making of coffee and sandwiches and cleaning the floors rather than specific skill development, a claim disputed by AELP in Conference this week and one which was clearly not the case in many ‘traditional’ apprenticeship schemes but where the service industries appeared to be the main culprits.
    • Not enough young people, 16-18 year olds, are taking up apprenticeships. This has been an issue for some time and debate continues to rage about why this is the case. As the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) pointed out in its response, the decimation of careers guidance for young people has hardly helped but Ofsted feel that more could and should be done by schools and colleges both to inform and to prepare young people for apprenticeships. It’s a point the Edge Foundation and the British Chambers of Commerce in their recent reports have been making for some time and it well may be as the Association of Colleges argue that we need a return to some kind of pre-apprenticeship programme as a way in. Either way the issue of information and careers guidance continues to ring loud and clear.
    • Apprenticeship growth hasn’t been focused on the sectors where the skill shortages are at their most acute. Again not a new issue and one that the Engineering and Construction Boards respectively have been raising for some time but one that’s becoming increasingly important as the government’s Productivity Plan takes shape. “Nationally the number of apprentices starting since 2009/10 has almost doubled in business, admin and law and nearly tripled in health and care. Over the same period, in IT and engineering, the increase was at a lower rate and in construction, the number declined.”Websites like ‘Go Construct’ and ‘Tomorrow’s Engineers’ all help, let alone the ‘Get in.Go far’ marketing drive from the National Apprenticeship Service and other agencies but it’s clearly a hard slog and in need of some new momentum.
    • Employers, especially small and medium-sized business need to do more. This year’s CBI/Pearson Employers’ Survey reported that 66% of employers surveyed were involved in apprenticeships in some form with two-thirds of them looking to do more. Things like the apprenticeship Grant for Employers and the current publicity around apprenticeships have clearly helped but Ofsted is concerned that too many employers have been slow to get involved and many, particularly small businesses, find the whole engagement process daunting. “They told inspectors they fear that a burden of bureaucracy would fall on them.” The Chief Inspector urged businesses not to hold back: “organise yourselves. It’s no use waiting for others to put structures in place…use your networks and knowledge to find solutions.” How far such strictures work remains to be seen but for many, the uncertainty over the levy and where to start at a local level, remain big issues. 

    So what would a ‘good’ apprenticeship look like?

    The report goes on to list some of the key features of what it considered to be ‘successful’ apprenticeships, most of which were to be found in the more established areas of motor vehicle, engineering and construction.

    Broadly this comes down to good practice before, during and after. So at the before stage, best schemes invite the candidate in for a probationary period, establish rules and set clear goals. During the programme, apprentices are encouraged develop relevant skills including English and maths and are supported through regular reviews. And after, apprentices are helped with progression onwards and upwards and their contribution evaluated. It sounds motherhood and apple pie stuff but involves a lot of time, effort and resource and as Ofsted found, many schemes were not able to provide all this. 

    What’s Ofsted recommending?

    The report lists 15 recommendations, mainly aimed at government and providers and at this stage fairly broad brush in nature.

    Urging schools and colleges for instance to “provide impartial careers guidance about apprenticeships to all pupils and their parents,” is of course worth highlighting but as the ASCL comment earlier indicated, if there’s no formal mechanism in place for this to happen then it’s not going to get very far. Having said that if, as the report indicates, some schools were actually blocking providers and employers from going in and offering advice, then this raises a bigger issue about the impartiality of such advice and guidance.

    The issue seems to be as the Chief Inspector put it in his closing remarks when launching the report: “we have won the argument over the value of apprenticeships but we have yet to make them a sought-after and valid alternative career choice for hundreds of thousands of young people.” That’s the challenge that sits alongside the dash to deliver 3m more apprenticeship places. 

    read more
  • Pocket Watch – Developing the higher level skills route

    Do we need to re-balance things a bit better between FE and HE if we are to secure that elusive high-level skills pathway that politicians and practitioners have dreamed of for so long? Many people think so.

    Alison Wolf saw it as a no-brainer in a report in June, describing the system currently as ‘bifurcated with spending concentrated on academic three year programmes for young people with spending per learner far lower in the skills sector than HE.’ And this week the think tank Policy Exchange has added its weight in a report calling among other things for a large chunk of university funding, half a billion to be precise, to be channelled over to the FE sector to help it develop ‘the high quality technical education’ that employers need.

    So how’s this been received, why has a high-level skills route proved so difficult to develop and what was Policy Exchange proposing? 

    What’s been the reaction?

    Pretty much as expected.

    The university sector remained unimpressed: “Robbing HE to prop up FE is not the way forward” argued former Education Minister now University Vice-Chancellor, Bill Rammell. University Alliance and Universities UK agreed: ‘this shouldn’t be an either-or.’ Kamjit Kaurin in a blog on wonkhe went further describing proposals to cut HE budgets any further as ’a recipe for disaster.’  On the specific issue of universities sitting on large surpluses which could be used to fund high-skills training in FE, Chris Hale, Director of Policy at Universities UK argued that the report failed to understand university finances: surpluses were necessary to ameliorate recent cuts, secure loans, engage in wider research and invest in infrastructure and other needs.

    FE people inevitably saw things differently. The AoC saw it as an opportunity to redress the funding balance and while we’re at it, giving colleges powers to create and award their own higher level technical and professional qualifications. The adult continuing learning organisation NIACE also saw it as a chance to lever funding into the skills training that the country needs while the Edge Foundation sided wholeheartedly with Policy Exchange: “we couldn’t agree more”and pointed to its own report in the summer which had painted a similar picture. 

    It’s unfortunate but perhaps inevitable six weeks away from an ominous sounding Spending Review that the debate is being played out in economic terms. A dance to the death between the two sectors over funding would probably help no-body. The bigger issue maybe is how to create a genuine all-through higher level route, providing a ladder between the two sectors in what Ministers have been wont to call a single membrane, but this has proved difficult.  

    Why has the higher-technical route proved so difficult to develop?

    It’s not been for want of trying with some efforts going back over a century. There’s been broad agreement on the fundamentals but not necessarily on the implementation or the mechanisms as these three recent examples from across the political spectrum shows.

    In the latter days of the last Labour administration, Lord Mandelson’s approach was to create what he called ‘a modern class of technicians.’ Details were set out in a National Skills Strategy published in 2009 and the mechanisms involved beefing up the number of advanced apprenticeships, developing a system of skills accounts and raising the quality of skills training in colleges and other providers.  A few years later, Vince Cable for the Coalition picked up the mantle promising in a landmark speech at Cambridge to strengthen what he called the sub-degree gap, encouraging the two systems of FE and HE to work together to develop advanced apprenticeships and higher-tech qualifications worthy of the name and effectively create an FE/HE bridging system. And even more recently, in June this year, George Osborne took things a stage further in the government’s Productivity Plan by proposing a network of specialised Institutes of Technology working with FE providers to deliver employer endorsed qualifications determined through local labour market planning and commissioning.

    The language may have changed over the years but as the HE Policy Institute discovered in a Paper commissioned by Pearson a few months ago and looking specifically at ‘Tackling the Level 4 and Level 5 conundrum,’ the basic concepts of employer engagement, locally determined skills needs, work-orientated qualifications and dedicated high-quality technical institutes have remained. All that’s been missing perhaps has been the funding which is where the Policy Exchange report comes in.  

    What’s Policy Exchange proposing?

    Broadly six things:

    • As part of the Spending Review, the government should seek to ensure that rather than relying on funding grants, the HE sector should draw on its own residual funds to provide for the additional costs of areas like widening participation and high-cost subjects. This would ease some of the pressure on the need to make further Dept cuts which at present appear to be targeted at FE while the potential savings accrued, estimated at £532m, could be used to fund the currently poorly funded higher skills and professional training in FE.
    • The Dept should accelerate the development of a network of specialised providers equipped to deliver the higher level technical and professional skills that employers need. This would mean building on the current model of National Colleges and Institutes of Technology and in effect creating sector specific provider hubs and outlets around the country. In addition, as many in the FE sector have argued, the Dept should allow these specialist colleges to develop and award their own higher level awards and in time franchise these out to other colleges who wish to use them. At the same time, relevant current qualifications developed by Awarding Organisations (AO) should be opened out and not restricted to any one AO.
    • The government should move towards a uniform loan system available for all post-19 training whether undertaken in FE or HE. In addition, this should encompass a lifetime draw down facility, in other words it should be a loan where any balance could be used up at a later date perhaps to top up or undertake further specialist training albeit within an overall cap.
    • The current maintenance grant, shortly to become a loan facility, should be extended to FE where currently the absence of any maintenance support mechanism is restricting opportunities for learners, for example to undertake specialist training in another part of the country.
    • Government should encourage employer engagement through the extended use of Industrial Partnerships.
    • The government should consider re-instating some form of cap on the numbers taking full hons degrees so as to encourage greater growth at the sub-degree level where many professional and technical qualifications are listed. In effect this would be a return to the numbers management system that operated a few years ago whereby universities were allowed to recruit any number of high-performing learners but where numbers limits applied to the rest. This would be a similar policy but with the cap lifted on numbers for the high-tech route. 
    read more
  • Policy Eye – week ending October 23 2015

    Half-term has arrived for many with education pretty much in full throttle.

    The week summed up

    This week, two important education-related Bills (the Education Bill and the Cities and Local Gov Devolution Bill) moved a step closer, the Education Secretary defended her position on new schools including grammars, the DfE launched further consultation on ‘dealing with’ coasting schools, the Education Committee examined the role and remit of Regional Schools Commissioners, the Public Accounts Committee examined FE finances, the BIS Committee looked into the government’s Productivity Plan and Ofsted, the think tank Policy Exchange and LKMco/Pearson all published significant reports. In addition training providers and awarding organisations have been in conference. As they used to say in Private Eye: ’that’s enough: Ed’.

    It means we reach the final quarter of 2015 with the world of education as busy as ever and arguably three issues prominent.

    First, inevitably perhaps as the Chancellor’s spending announcements draw nearer, funding where anxieties continue to build. There’s been something for everyone this week. The Institute for Fiscal Studies issued a new briefing on the outlook for schools funding which boiled down to tough times ahead, colleges were told to expect more births, deaths and marriages by the Dept Permanent Secretary while HE faced the proposition, spelt out in a comprehensive report by the think tank Policy Exchange, that money should be switched from them to FE to help fund the tightly squeezed but much prized higher-level tech training provision. Almost exactly a month to go therefore before the Chancellor declares his hand on where the cuts should fall and education is waiting nervously.

    Second, what about the workers, under pressure, underpaid but according to the LKMco/Pearson research today keen to make a difference; is there a recruitment and retention crisis as many have suggested? The Education Secretary waved school teachers off for half-term with a grateful thanks and a reminder that the latest Workforce Challenge groups are busy getting to grips with issues about paperwork, bureaucracy and so on but a seminar hosted by Policy Exchange this week also heard worrying evidence about a lack of specialists in some subject areas and concerns about replacement needs among heads and senior managers. The Dept has done its modelling but this looks like being an issue that will run for some time.

    And third, skills training and provision, vital for the government’s Productivity Plan and economic growth ambitions but underfunded at the higher level as Policy Exchange pointed out and still some way short of the full package when it comes to apprenticeships for young people as Ofsted pointed out. Again, we haven’t heard the last of either. 

    Top headlines this week

    • ‘Cut HE funding to boost FE says think tank report.’ (Monday)
    • ‘Private schools attack exam appeals smokescreen.’ (Tuesday)
    • ‘Coasting school definition out for consultation.’ (Wednesday)
    • ‘Apprenticeship drive has diluted quality, says Ofsted chief.’ (Thursday)
    • ‘Fact or Fiction? The reasons teachers chose the job -and quit.’ (Friday

    People/organisations in the news this week

    • The Prime Minister who along with the Home Secretary launched the government’s counter-extremism strategy with an emphasis on helping build ‘cohesive communities’
    • The BIS Committee who spent a morning this week hearing a range of views from different parts of the education and business world on the government’s Productivity Plan
    • The Education Committee who have announced that it will hold a one-off session to examine the issue of teacher recruitment and retention; no date set yet but it is calling for evidence submissions by 20 November 2015
    • The DfE who updated its guidance on intervention strategies for schools causing concern and published an accompanying consultation on the definition of ‘coasting’
    • The DfE who following the publication last week of interim performance results for GCSEs and A levels have now added interim destination results as well 
    • The House of Lords Library who provided a useful summary of the Education and Adoption Bill as it reached its Second Reading stage in the House this week
    • The House of Commons Library who provided an equally useful summary of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill including an update on the 4 latest ‘devo-deals’ agreed as it reached its Second Reading in the Commons
    • Go ON UK, the charity promoting digital skills, who along with the BBC, LGA and LSE have created a heatmap showing where digital exclusion is at its wort in the UK. (Spoiler: London and the S.E fares best, parts of Wales, Scotland, Northumberland, Shropshire and N.Lincs fare worst)
    • Ed Balls who is joining the growing body of expertise at the Policy Institute at King’s College London and becoming a visiting professor there
    • Sir Anthony Seldon who has pursued his interest in ‘learner mental wellbeing’ from his new post as Vice-Chancellor at the University of Buckingham by publishing a 10-point plan intended to help universities deal with such issues better
    • Former Chair of the Education Committee Barry Sheerman who has been confirmed as Chair of the new Sutton Trust Advisory Group which will advise the Trust on its future research strategy
    • Michael Davis, chief executive of UKCES, who will leave his post next March
    • The think tank Policy Exchange whose report proposing a transfer of funds from HE to FE to help build a higher level professional technical route attracted considerable interest
    • Ofsted who published a major report on apprenticeships critical of many aspects including the quality of some of the schemes, the failure to focus on the key sectors and the lack of careers guidance and support needed to encourage young people to take up an apprenticeship
    • Chief Executive of Ofqual Glenys Stacey who gave a comprehensive overview of how the qualification systems and its regulation is changing in a speech at the Federation of Awarding Bodies Annual Conference
    • Nicky Morgan who updated teachers on progress in the Workload Challenge (the latest 3 groups are just about to start a second round of meetings) in a half-term message
    • Neil Carmichael, Chair of the Education Committee, who is one of a number of co-authors of a new report from the consultancy Wild Search looking at new models of school governance and calling for proper remuneration for governors 
    • The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) whose latest Briefing Paper on schools funding in England suggests that despite protections, they (schools) “will feel the pinch”
    • LKMco who in a report commissioned by Pearson surveyed teachers to find out what motivated them to go into teaching in the first place and what some of the issues were that helped and/or hindered them
    • The Institute of Physics who published a report looking at how gender can affect the choice of subjects such as Physics in school and who called for ‘gender champions’ to be appointed to help overcome any bias 
    • The Education Endowment Foundation who is launching a series of new learning packages this week designed to help those working with disadvantaged pupils particularly in areas such as numeracy
    • Laura McInerney whose article in The Guardian this week raised a number of interesting points about how best to attract teachers, especially in so-called tough areas
    • The NUT who led the handing in of a petition to the DfE this week arguing against the introduction of baseline assessment for 4 and 5 year olds at the start of primary. 

    Tweet(s) of the week 

    • “When Lemsip just isn’t enough. 16 tell-tale signs that half-term is just around the corner.” @tes
    • “What those pen colours mean. #Red: I work in the independent sector.” @tombennett71
    • “Nicky Morgan01 says: there are no applications for new grammar school expansions sitting on her desk right now.” @SchoolsWeek
    • “It’ll be like Ofsted on speed when the area-review teams visit (colleges)” @tesfenews 

    Quote(s) of the week

    • “At the end of the day let’s be frank about this, we need everyone to work on this together.” The Prime Minister appeals for help as he launches the counter-extremism strategy
    • “It’s likely and it’s my personal view that there will be significantly fewer of them.” BIS’s Permanent Secretary tells the Public Accounts Committee what might happen to colleges after the area-based reviews
    • “I realise there has been significant interest in the outcome of this case, including from MPs, but I would like to take this opportunity to confirm that the government has no plans to change our policy on grammar schools.” The Education Secretary on where the government stands on grammar schools
    • “In my opinion there are 3 guilty parties: schools, further education providers and employers.” The Chief Inspector takes a wide aim when it comes to tackling apprenticeships
    • “What it isn’t OK is to come in at 9 until 4-it isn’t that sort of job-but my teachers do 8 to 6.” Government adviser and practising headteacher Sir Andrew Carter describes what’s required to be a teacher in his school
    • “They may not be a pleasant thing to do but they are a necessary thing.” Government behaviour adviser Tom Bennett on the case for school detentions
    • “If you’re arguing with teachers and principals, coaches and umpires all the time, it’s a sign you’re a little too invested.”  The Washington Post on how to avoid being a helicopter (or over-zealous) parent

    Number(s) of the week

    • 8%. How much the IfS reckon school funding per pupil will fall by in real terms over the next 5 years
    • 4. The different teacher ‘types’ identified in a LKMco/Pearson survey into ‘Why Teach?’ (Practitioners; Moderates; Idealists; Rationalists)
    • 71%. The number of students in continuous education, training or employment six months after completing Key Stage 5 according to the government’s latest provisional stats
    • £2577. How much it would cost a family of 4 to fly to Larnaca this half term as against £970 the week after according to the Local Government Association who is calling for more flexibility over family holidays in term-time
    • 83%. The number of 16-24 year olds who rated their life satisfaction as high or very high in the last ONS stats on children and young people’s well-being (although 17% reported high levels of anxiety)
    • 64%. The number of higher education providers who in a recent sample by Which? had failed to provide updated information about next year’s fees on their websites. 

    What to look out for next week

    • Pearson Teaching Awards ceremony broadcast on BBC2 (Sunday)
    • Education Questions in the Commons (Monday).
    read more
  • Policy Eye – week ending October 16 2015

    No higher ed Green Paper this week as had been widely anticipated, instead, as the listing below shows, schools and exams have been filling the headlines.

    The week summed up

    The main story has been about the opening of a new grammar school ‘annexe’ in Kent. The government has been very circumspect in how it’s presenting the decision to approve it: ‘this will better meet the needs of parents,’ ‘it’s a genuine expansion of an existing school,’ ‘it doesn’t reflect a change in policy’ and so on but inevitably it’s provoked a lot of debate and the Labour Party has called for an official explanation. For many, the approval sits awkwardly with the Prime Minister’s “no more children with their noses pressed to the window as they watch the world moving ahead without them” social mobility speech just a week ago and a key issue will be how far this is a one-off and what impact this has on the planning of school provision in the future. Time will tell.

    Exams and exam performance has been the other big schools story this week partly because the government has decided to publish ‘provisional’ exam performance data early this year to help parents making choices about secondary schools and partly because Ofqual has been in front of the Education Committee this week answering questions on exams and much more.

    On the performance data which as ASCL’s Brian Lightman said, ‘should come with a hefty health warning’ as it’s still only partial, the broad picture is no great change between 2014 and 2015. Slightly more state school pupils (0.2%) achieved 5 A*-Cs, slightly fewer (0.1%) took EBacc subjects largely because of a drop in entries for languages and at L3, the average point score per vocational entry continued to rise. The formal performance tables by the way will be published in the normal way in January. As for exams generally, Ofqual was tackled on a range of issues including exam reform, GCSE grading, numbers of examiners and marking generally by the new Education Committee this week. Much of it was traditional stuff but a particular issue and one highlighted on the BBC website this week is that of appeals about marks and whether this is being used strategically to raise results in parts of the school system. Ofqual’s evidence suggests that despite the rise in requests, the number of grades actually changing as a result is very small…but it is going to consult all the same.    

    So no HE Green Paper this week but decks clear for next week or soon after. Speculation remains rife as to what might be in the Paper as Mark Leach’s expert piece in the Guardian this week indicated although broad details were evident in the Minister’s speech last month. One thing that may arrive from HE next week however is a big bag of washing. According to train companies the third weekend of October, generally one month into term, is peak time for uni student travel; time to clear more decks. 

    Top headlines this week

    • ‘New wave of super-sized secondary schools planned.’ (Monday)
    • ‘Exam boards’ reform will lead to Corbynesque solution. (Tuesday)
    • ‘Is the cost of exam re-marking putting off state schools?’ (Wednesday)
    • ‘First new grammar school in 50 years,’ (Thursday)
    • ‘We’re Mystic Meg: head teachers left in dark over new exams.’ (Friday

    People/organisations in the news this week

    • Nicky Morgan, whose decision to approve a new grammar school ‘annexe’ in Kent has attracted considerable comment
    • BIS whose commissioned report published at the end of last week has a mass of useful data showing how effectively FE contributes to seven of the key social mobility indicators
    • The BIS Committee who held a witness session with the Business Secretary and his Permanent Secretary on the work of the Dept
    • The DfE, who as promised earlier this year, published provisional performance results from this year’s GCSEA level and vocational exams in an effort to get info out early to parents applying for secondary school places
    • The DfE who pointed to figures published this week showing that more 5 year olds than ever were achieving the expected standards in maths and literacy under the early years foundation stage profile
    • The Institute for Fiscal Studies who published a helpful summary of how things are shaping up for Dept spending under the 2015 Spending Review where both education Depts are likely to face cuts
    • The Institute for Government who offered an interesting analysis of the current 38 devolution bids now submitted noting that 80% included devolution of skills planning and commissioning
    • Deputy Director at the CBI, Katja Hall who is moving to a new job next month as Group Head of Public Affairs at HSBC
    • Roger Pope, Principal of Kingsbridge Community College in Devon, who has added to his duties by becoming Chair of the National College of Teaching and Leadership as well
    • Universities UK Vice-President Janet Beer who has joined the board of the ‘Keep Britain In Europe ’ campaign to fly the flag for HE and higher learning opportunities generally
    • London Met University which announced that it will consolidate its provision around its main Holloway Road campus from Sept 2017
    • HEFCE who made its point by publishing the results of an independent survey indicating high levels of client support and satisfaction with its work
    • The sector skill group People 1st who have added their voice to the concerns about the apprenticeship levy
    • Ernst and Young who emerged as the UK’s top company for employing apprentices and school leavers in the latest RateMyApprenticeship listing
    • ESOL, the focus of a rally in London this week protesting against the government’s decision to cut funding for the ESOL mandation programme
    • The Education and Training Foundation (ETF) who have been given the green light to go ahead and lead development of new functional skills standards for introduction from 2018
    • The British Chambers of Commerce whose survey of business and education leaders found overwhelming support for the return of work experience for under 16s
    • Ofqual Chief Regulator Glenys Stacy whose speech to the Westminster Education Forum this week outlined how the development of new GCSEs and A levels and other current issues around exam reviews and appeals
    • Glenys Stacey and Amanda Spielman who both appeared before the Education Committee this week answering questions on exam reform, GCSE grading, marking, appeals and the National Reference Test
    • Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission who have launched a consultation on inspecting how effectively local areas are meeting special educational needs requirements
    • The think tank Demos whose commissioned research for its ‘Mind over Matter’ report identified that students were less happy and more anxious towards the end of their secondary schooling than at the beginning
    • Northern Ireland’s National Children’s Bureau whose report ‘ICT and Me’ found that while there was no statistically significant link between mobile phone use and GCSE performance, there was between excessive use of gaming and GCSE exam performance
    • The Competition and Markets Authority who have written to schools to remind them that parents should be free to shop around when it comes to buying school uniforms rather than be tied into a particular retailer
    • Nineteen Eighty-Four,’ George Orwell’s classic tome which is listed as 4th in the Booksellers Association top 20 academic books that have changed the world. (No 1 was Stephen Hawking’s ‘A Brief History of Time’). 

    Tweet(s) of the week 

    • “Prof Richard Pring@UniofOxford: the most centralised system of education since Calvin’s days in the 1th century.” @Adrian_Hilton
    • “@JeyyLowe: Anyone arguing in favour of grammars is talking out of their anecdote.” @miss_mcinerney
    • “#ASCLInfo: 69% still planning to enter all students for AS levels.” @brianlightman

    Quote(s) of the week

    • “Do bankers deserve their bonuses?” One of a number of possible interview questions facing candidates applying to Oxford University as it seeks to delve into their reasoning powers and thought processes
    • “FE doesn’t stand for featherbedding the economy but further education.“ Emeritus UCL Professor Frank Coffield on the need for teaching staff as much as local employers to be involved in the current area-based reviews of the FE sector
    • “It was careless of government to end compulsory work experience in 2012 but it is not too late to correct the decision.” The D.G. of the British Chambers of Commerce reporting on their latest employers’ survey
    • “If you play darts every day you get good at subtracting from 501. The reason that so many of us believe that we can’t do maths is largely psychological.” Mike Ellicock, CEO of National Numeracy talks about the challenge of maths at this week’s World Maths Day
    • “Let the senior leadership team take over someone’s teaching for a day so that they can observe another teacher’s practice in a focused way.” One of 13 tips from Sir Tim Brighouse, listed on the TES website, to help improve teacher CPD and morale
    • “There is no reason why an academic core curriculum should in any way imperil a cultural education or vice versa.” Schools Minister Nick Gibb at the launch of a new initiative to boost cultural education in schools. 

    Number(s) of the week

    • 1.7m. The latest (June – August) unemployment total, down 79,000 on the previous quarter
    • 872,300. The number of people on government funded apprenticeships during the 2014-15 academic year according to the latest statistical release
    • 19,200. The number of people who started a traineeship last year according to the latest statistical release
    • 38.6%. The number of state school pupils entered for the EBacc, down 0.1% but with 23.9% achieving the full measure according to the DfE’s provisional KS4 ‘exam’ results published this week
    • 3,102. How many maths teachers will need to be in training next year, up 20%, according to DfE figures
    • 7%. The increase over the last 10 years in the number of children in ‘kinship care’ (being brought up by relatives) according to research from the University of Bristol
    • 75%. The number of 5 year olds reaching the expected level of maths in the early years foundation stage according to the government’s latest statistics.

    What to look out for next week

    • Public Accounts Committee witness session on the financial health of the FE sector (Monday)
    • Policy Exchange/ASCL ½ day seminar on the ‘Future of the Teaching Workforce.’ (Monday)
    • AELP Autumn Conference (Tuesday)
    • LEP Summit (Tuesday)
    • Education Committee Inquiry session into the role of Regional Schools Commissioners (Wed)
    • Westminster Hall debate on the UK Science Budget and the Spending Review (Wed)
    • FAB (Federation of Awarding Bodies) Conference (Thursday, Friday). 
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  • Pocket Watch – Conference Lessons 2015

    It was always going to be a different Conference season this year with all three major Parties having to adjust to the realities of life after the May general election, but what have we learned about the future for education and skills?

    Here are six observations.   

    Education and skills remains an important issue

    It may not feel like one of the top policy issues at the moment but if the last few weeks are anything to go by, education remains an important priority for many. In the build-up to the general election earlier this year, education remained consistently in the top ten of voter priorities, coming in at number seven behind issues such as immigration, the NHS and the economy. According to the latest survey by Ipsos-Mori a couple of weeks ago, that has hardly changed. As if to emphasise the importance of education, it’s been the Prime Minister who has been fronting education announcements of late whether it be the announcement of more academies and apprenticeships last month or tougher rules on school truancy this week. The government clearly sees education as an important part of its pitch for the so-called ‘common ground,’ offering opportunity and aspiration to those hardworking families it so often mentions. As for Labour, it’s early days, there was a brief reference to school accountability in Jeremy Corbyn’s speech and the new Shadow Education Secretary has identified this along with teacher recruitment and funding as obvious targets as she starts to shape Opposition education policy. For public and politicians alike therefore, education remains up there as an important issue. 

    It’s (still) all about the economy

    The economy remains the overriding issue for much of this Parliament and certainly in the case of the government the locus for much education policy. At the moment, most minds are focused on the Spending Review and what that might bring for education but we’ve heard a lot over the last few weeks from both major Parties about their wider economic plans for the future. For the Conservatives, George Osborne seized the headlines with his raid on Opposition territory for a man and a plan in the shape of Lord Adonis and the National Infrastructure Commission. This along with a promised ‘massive transfer of power to local authorities’ and a commitment to legislate for a surplus for the future were the headline ingredients in his ‘building for the future’ speech and will be of interest for much of the FE and HE sectors let alone those who argue for a more skills-based 14-19 curriculum. For Labour, John McDonnell was keen to demonstrate that there were alternatives to austerity, “another world is possible.”  He duly announced a series of reviews including of the Treasury, Bank of England and HMRC, the creation of a new Economic Advisory Committee and a clampdown on tax evasion and avoidance. How far any of this would translate into a new skills agenda remains to be seen but he did interestingly stoke up a reformed BIS Dept as a key player in the future ”in charge of public investment, infrastructure planning and setting new standards in the labour market.” 

    But social reform matters

    Whether it’s Corbyn’s “kinder politics, more caring society” or Cameron’s ‘building a more compassionate society that leaves no-one behind,’ the Conference season has seen all major Parties attempt to add a heart to the economic head that has been determining government policy for so long. At present it’s hard to get beyond the buzz words: aspiration, opportunity, mobility and so on but there are signs that it’s beginning to drive some specific policies such as housing, social care, youth employment and of course education where the Prime Minister identified a lack of social mobility as “another big social problem we need to fix.” David Cameron’s belief that a more autonomous school system, sharper accountabilities and the introduction of a National Living Wage will help solve the problem puts him at odds with the Labour Party who have genuine concerns about all of those and especially about some of the specific welfare reforms. Social mobility is clearly one of the big social reform issues facing education at present as Ofsted, the Social Mobility Commission and others have been pointing out for some time. But there are others including: pupil welfare, safeguarding, children’s mental health, children in care and how well we prepare young people for adult life, many of which were raised in fringe events over the last few weeks and which will continue to shape the education agenda for the foreseeable future.  

    Schools of excellence

    In the build-up to the Conservative Party Conference this week, the TES highlighted four “major education crises” facing the government namely: teacher supply, pupil numbers, ‘rushed’ exam reforms and budget cuts. These, plus concerns about early years and 16-19 funding were also raised in various forums by Lucy Powell, the Shadow Education Minister who used her major speech to focus on a problem that’s proved thorny for the Party in the past: what to do about Free Schools and Academies. Her answer? “There will be no more Free Schools and Academy chains will be made accountable.” How the proposed new‘local oversight’ will work, whether it will be the Blunkett model of local standards commissioners or something else, remains to be seen but the marker has been firmly laid. As for the Conservatives, the Prime Minister again committed to more of the same in terms of Free Schools and Academies and the Education Secretary to wraparound childcare during both term and holiday time, and more opaquely to “educational excellence everywhere” but how far all this has helped resolve the crises listed.    

    FE still the forgotten middle child

    If there’s one sector entitled to feeling a bit miffed about a lack of political attention over the last few weeks, it’s FE. There was plenty of talk around the Conference fringes about apprenticeships, skills training and local growth planning but when it came to platform speeches from the BIS Secretary of State and his Shadow, not a smidgeon. For FE therefore it’s business as usual, battling to deliver the dual mandate of essential employability skills and higher-level tech skills while coping with shrinking budgets and a time-consuming series of area reviews. Significantly most government policy for the sector these days emanates from the Treasury, last week’s release of a National Infrastructure Plan for Skills being just the latest example. It may be some comfort therefore that so many of the Treasury plans including the all-important Growth and Productivity Plans depend on the FE sector to be able to deliver them. How many, should become clearer when the Treasury announces its spending and growth plans next month. 

    HE on hold

    For HE, Theresa May’s “students, yes; over-stayers, no,” speech was a sharp reminder that the student visa issue remains a hot topic and one that appears to be dividing Ministers as well. Overall, however, the sector remains a bit in limbo as it awaits the outcomes of two important Reports. One of course is the Spending Review where comments continue to pour in warning the government against savage cuts. Valedictory comments from the outgoing V.C. of Oxford and a blog from the Chancellor of Birmingham University this week being just the latest two examples. And the other of course is the Green Paper, given a pretty hefty trail by the HE Minister last month and due out shortly. Until the details on both of these are out and the implications clearer, HE remains in a state of uncertainty. Further uncertainty surrounds the Labour Party’s position on fees where it now appears that the campaign pledge by Jeremy Corbyn to scrap them will be subjected to the Party’s extensive consultation process. Quite what will emerge from what the Shadow Minister called “a deep process of thought” remains to be seen but it’s unlikely to be quick. 

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