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 December 11 2015

    Christmas may be in sight but there’s been no let-up in activity this week with a keynote speech from the Prime Minister, a new plan of action for apprenticeships, some important consultations, a significant amendment to the Education Bill and the release of the latest official data on KS2 results all following in quick succession.

    The week summed up

    The Prime Minister’s speech first, important for two reasons. First because it was further evidence of a theme that the Prime Minister has been running with since the election that this is a government that claims it can deliver. He pointed to five areas (more academies, more apprenticeships, more homeowners, more money for the NHS, more family support) where he argued action was being taken. And second because at least two of those five areas, academies and apprenticeships, concern education and training and show how important a priority this is.

    Indeed there have been significant developments in both of those education areas this week.

    On academies, the government has now tabled amendments to the Education Bill that would see the proposed coasting criteria extended to both academies and free schools leaving regional commissioners with a further issue to contend with. It’s also requiring academy sponsors to let parents know what their plans are for schools they are lining up to take over.

    On apprenticeships, the government released its latest call for action in the shape of action plan to take us up to 2020 and the summit of 3m apprenticeships. In all, the Paper lists 47 ‘actions,’ that need to be ticked off over the coming months with the first half of 2016 looking particularly busy. A specific listing can be seen in an accompanying Policy Watch but standouts include further levy and funding guidance, more detail on the steps being taken to reform technical and professional education (the Sainsbury group work) and a careers strategy, all due in the first two quarters of 2016. Next year’s National Apprenticeship Week which runs from the 14-18 March 2016 looks like being particularly busy.

    Moving on to those ‘important’ consultations, the government proposals on intervening in underperforming and coasting schools closes next Friday while Ofqual has followed up its latest published data on appeals and malpractice by releasing a series of consultations on related matters but with particular interest in the proposals for future enquiries about results.

    Finally, we should not forget the official results of KS2 tests, released this week, and showing a further increase (up from 78% to 80%) in the number of 11 year olds reaching the requisite level 4 standard. It meant a welcome drop in the number of primary schools below the floor standard although the media seemed unsure whether this constituted good or bad news.

    Top headlines this week

    • ‘Apple turns stores into classrooms.’ (Monday)
    • ‘Failing academies face rapid action.’ (Tuesday)
    • ‘Tuition fees will depend upon subject.’ (Wednesday)
    • ‘Wilshaw: make apprenticeships more appealing or risk them going to foreigners.’ (Thursday)
    • ‘More than 90,000 exam grades changed.’ (Friday)

    People/organisations in the news this week

    Tweet(s) of the week

    • “In education, four little words are guaranteed to send me into orbit: ‘in the real world.’” @timeshighered
    • “51% of teachers say they don’t have time to deliver employability activities. Proxy for ‘don’t want to,’ ‘don’t know how,’ not relevant?” @davidharbourne
    • “No morale problem. Teaching isn’t a profession in crisis @NickGibbMP tells MPs.” @tes

    Quote(s) of the week

    • “A manifesto shouldn’t be a wish-list; it should be a checklist.” The Prime Minister confirms that the government is steadily ticking off its manifesto promises
    • “At the heart of this Bill lies our belief that a single day spent by a child in an underperforming school is a day too many.” The Education Secretary on the rationale behind the latest amendment to the Education Bill
    • “The body will be funded by government using public funds as the rest of the governance system is.” The Skills Minister explains how the new Institute for Apprenticeships will be funded
    • “The apprenticeship levy will shift incentives so that it is far more in employers’ interests to take on apprentices.” The apprenticeship levy assumption in the government’s latest Vision Paper on apprenticeships
    • “If there is a surfeit of plumbers one year, the number being trained is reduced and applicants encouraged into other sectors.” Sir Michael Wilshaw explains how Germany manages labour market supply around its apprenticeship scheme
    • "It is less target driven.” A comment piece in the Guardian looks at how the German education system has raised its game
    • “If we want our students to have a rich and balanced education, teachers must become curriculum developers again.” John Dunford calls for the teaching profession to regain its curriculum mojo
    • “It’s good to just sit there, close your eyes and breathe. It really helps.” The UK’s first Happiness Teacher on what really helps.

    Number(s) of the week

    • 2.3%. The percentage of the workforce in large public sector bodies that should be apprentices likely to be set out in a forthcoming government consultation
    • Two-thirds. How much of the apprenticeship funding cake the Skills Minister is urging colleges to grab by 2020 (at present it’s nearer one-third)
    • 50. Roughly how many applications for recognition as an awarding organisation Ofqual receives each year
    • 44 (out of 276.) The number of private schools listed as offering vocational courses at A level
    • 36.5%. The % of disadvantaged pupils who achieved 5 core A*-C GCSEs in 2013/14 against 64% of pupils overall
    • 17%. The increase from last year in enquiries about results according to latest Ofqual data
    • 122. The number of formal improvement notices issued to academies and free schools according to the Education Secretary
    • 676. The number of primary schools below the floor standard, down by nearly 100 from last year.

    What to look out for next week

    • UCAS publish End of Cycle Report on the 2015 uni admissions cycle (Thursday)
    • Social Mobility Commission publish its annual Report (Thursday).
    read more
  • Pocket Watch – What’s being lined up for skills training 2016/17

    Phew, there’ve been a lot of announcements recently about apprenticeships and skills development.

    The Prime Minister’s ‘this is a government that delivers speech,’ the new Apprenticeship 2020 Vision, the latest listing of area-based reviews and the Minister’s latest round-robin to colleges have all rattled off shopping lists of things to be completed over the coming months. A lot of this buzz of activity is obviously being driven by the 3m apprenticeship target but with the spending review now out of the way, the sense that Britain needs to tool up if the economic plan is to be delivered is clear. Whether it’s the Northern Powerhouse, the Midlands Engine or Local Growth plans generally, the case for a highly trained and skilled workforce is becoming more and more pronounced.

    Here’s a checklist of what’s being lined up.

    December 2015

    • Further announcement on funding at 16-19, Guidance Paper on Institutes of Technology, Government consultation on setting an apprenticeship recruitment target for larger (250+ employees) public bodies (the proposal is for 2.3% of their workforce).


    • January. Government intending to issue further funding guidance, publish sector specific apprenticeship wage returns and launch its latest comms campaign around apprenticeships and work-based learning generally. Second wave of area-wide reviews to begin. National Careers Service to implement its new digital platform to help determine the suitability of young people for apprenticeships and work-based training. Apprenticeship Grant for Employers to be extended to summer 2017
    • February. DfE to issue guidance for Sixth Form Colleges seeking to convert to Academy status, area-based review guidance amended to incorporate increased apprenticeship delivery volumes, Government to launch an employer’s ‘Find an Apprentice’ service
    • March 14-18. National Apprenticeship Week
    • Spring. Announcement expected on the proposed new ‘clearer’ post-16 professional and technical pathways recommended by the Sainsbury group, Government to publish its careers strategy, Report due on the impact of the current FE workforce strategy and possible consultation on the provision of maintenance loans for learners at National Colleges and specialist providers
    • April. Introduction of the new National Living Wage
    • May. Applications open for 19+ Advanced Learner Loans at levels 3 and 4, 5 and 6
    • Summer. Further information due on the levy and public sector recruitment targets, new statutory requirement protecting the use of the term apprenticeship following the expected passage of the Enterprise Bill to be applied, publication of a listing of the Top 100 apprenticeship employers. Also new 16-19 performance measures to apply to learners completing 2-year courses
    • Sept. Traineeship provision extended to other approved providers, new minimum standards of performance threshold introduced for training providers, UCAS to include info and guidance on higher and degree apprenticeships.


    • April. New Institute for Apprenticeships to be fully operational, introduction of a new Youth Obligation to ensure 18-21 yr olds on Universal Credit develop appropriate work skills
    • Autumn. Adoption of new 19+ outcome based success measures.


    • January. Publication of 2017 performance tables with apprenticeship ‘results’ included as part of school 16-18 results
    • New Functional Skills qualifications to be available. 
    read more
  • Policy Eye – week ending December 4 2015

    Ofsted’s latest annual inspection report tops the education news this week and if you want a quick summary of the 100+ page Report, it came in the opening shots of the Chief Inspector’s forthright accompanying speech: “England’s primary schools continue to improve but secondary schools still remain a problem in large parts of our country.”

    The week summed up

    There’s been a depressingly familiar riff to Ofsted Reports in recent years and this year was no different with attainment gaps, English and maths resit performance, apprenticeship standards and weaknesses in leadership and management all cited once again but the headline story was the disparity in performance between secondary schools in the South of the country compared to those in the North, the so-called North-South divide. Sir Michael pointed to the performance of secondary schools below a line drawn roughly from the Bristol Channel to the Wash compared to those above it to make his point.

    This picture of “a nation divided at age 11” comes just a couple of weeks before the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission publishes its latest annual ‘State of the Nation’ Report which is likely to reinforce a similar picture and follows concerns raised by the think tank IPPR last month in its Report on the potential for the Northern Powerhouse. It found what it called a “stark early years gap” which translated into weak performance at age 16; “we will never become a powerhouse economy when our children and young people have such a poor start in life,” it concluded.

    The attainment gap is therefore an issue with significant economic as well as social implications so what to do? The government has lined up a host of mechanisms including tougher literacy and numeracy standards in primary, a new coasting performance threshold for all schools, support for National Leaders of Education and from next year a new National Teaching Service due to start in the North West of England, all aimed at tackling the problem. Sir Michael called for the resurrection of the Challenge school improvement model that has been used successfully in London and the Midlands in the past. Yet there’s been considerable debate about just what role the Challenge model did play in helping raise standards. An LSE Paper a few months ago on ‘Understanding the improved performance of disadvantaged pupils in London’ concluded that it was hard to tell while in a blog this week, Professor Michael Jopling argued that the template would be hard to replicate.

    All in all, therefore there are no easy answers but while so much rests on ensuring our young people get the best start in life and disparity in performance remains so sharp, there’ll be no shortage of political solutions offered.

    Top headlines this week

    • ‘Half of teachers rarely use technology in class.’ (Monday)
    • ‘North-South divide in England’s schools,’ (Tuesday)
    • ‘Government reveals 485 teachers on £65k+ as recruitment advert investigation continues (Wednesday)
    • ‘Rise in foreign students amid accusations universities use them as cash cows.’ (Thursday)
    • ‘State school debt on course to double.’ (Friday)

    People/organisations in the news this week

    • Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw who published his fourth annual report highlighting continuing concerns about a North-South attainment gap in England’s secondary schools and also concerns about teacher retention, standards on some apprenticeship programmes and weak leadership in some schools and colleges
    • The DfE who launched a consultation on the implementation arrangements for the proposed National Reference (GCSE sampling) Test which is due to come in from Sept 2016
    • The BIS Committee who heard calls to de-couple the Teaching Excellence Framework from fee decisions when it heard from a full bench of vice-chancellors and others on quality assurance and HE this week
    • The House of Commons Education Committee who have opened a can of worms by asking for views on what education is for, allowing for discussion over Christmas with responses due by 25 Jan 2016
    • The Education and Childcare Minister who addressed the Westminster Forum and laid out the bare bones of the government’s emerging careers strategy
    • The Business Secretary who highlighted the ‘Midlands Engine,’ the latest area to develop regional economic and growth plans, in a speech at the University of Birmingham
    • Universities UK who published their latest Patterns and Trends report highlighting among other things the growing diversity of the student body with increases in students from a disadvantaged background and from non-EU countries
    • HEFCE who published a monitoring framework along with guidance and reporting arrangements to help ensure higher ed institutions meet the Prevent requirements
    • Peter Scott, professor of HE studies at UCL Institute of Education, who in his latest piece for the Guardian put forward 3 reasons why HEFCE shouldn’t be scrapped (keeps Ministers at bay, offers a pool of expertise, restructuring is never the answer)
    • The Sutton Trust who issued ‘a cautious welcome’ to the widening access proposals in the recent HE Green Paper but called for more to be done to improve access to so-called top tier universities
    • The Open University whose latest Innovation Report strained the sinews of learning styles and assessment by listing ten new pedagogies for the future from ‘crossover learning’ to ‘stealth assessment’
    • HEPI who along with YouthSight sampled the student mood on the EU and found most believing it better to stay in
    • Martin Doel who is move from the AoC and take up the role of FETL Professor for FE and Skills in the UCL Institute of Education next year
    • The government who published a proposed timescale for the rest of the area-based reviews for the FE sector due to complete in various waves next year
    • The University of Huddersfield who have been handed the largest grant so far for helping to improve technical and vocational education in FE as part of a 2-year project
    • The Manufacturing Advisory service, part of the Business Growth Service, which following the Spending review announcements is being withdrawn
    • City and Guilds who published a report based on YouGov research looking at career choices and aspirations of 14-19 year olds and found many lacking proper guidance about the realities of the labour market
    • The Education and Training Foundation who spelt out the arrangements and partners for the first stage of the review of Functional Skills which is due to complete next summer
    • The National Baccalaureate Trust which launched its new website to help promote thinking and development around the concept of a National rather than an E Bacc
    • The f40 group (the group that represents the poorest funded local authorities in England) who handed in a petition to the House of Commons calling for a fairer distribution of funds ahead of next year’s proposed national consultation
    • The TES whose recent survey of how much state schools were borrowing to finance debt suggested a worrying doubling of previous figures
    • The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) who added their voice to the current teacher recruitment and retention issues highlighting that even though the actual leaving rate has remained relatively stable, growing pupil numbers and classroom demands are creating pressures at secondary level in particular
    • The Education Endowment Foundation who published its Annual Report for 2014/15 under a rather Pink Floyd style cover, with an impressive listing of projects, reports and resources all aimed at helping schools tackle attainment gaps and improve learning outcomes.

    Tweet(s) of the week

    • “A great (school) leader knows the name of the cleaner’s children.” @tes
    • “We don’t accuse Jaguar for selling cars to foreign buyers. So don’t have a go at unis for their education exports.” @HEPI_news
    • “I’m so concerned where the next generation of school leaders will come from that I’ve commissioned a survey-Wilshaw.” @SchoolsWeek

    Quote(s) of the week

    • “The only question remaining over school autonomy is not whether it’s a good or bad idea but whether the independence it confers is being used well. “ Sir Michael Wilshaw argues that school improvement is less about structures and more about leadership and teaching
    • “If you draw a line roughly from the Wash to the Bristol Channel, 79% of the secondary schools below it will be good or outstanding compared with 68% of those above it.” Sir Michael Wilshaw on the North-South performance divide in England’s schools
    • “External, centrally imposed target setting would not work. It would be a costly, bureaucratic exercise.” The Director of Fair Access to HE rejects proposals for admissions targets for universities to be set externally
    • “It will have a central role in advising on how much funding government should make available to pay for training and assessment under each standard. “ The Skills Minister sets out the initial remit of the new Institute for Apprenticeships
    • “If government were to say there is no role for local government in education that would be a sad day.” The leader of Hampshire County Council responds to the government’s latest declaration that all secondary schools should become academies
    • “The careers ecosystem is complex and, at present, careers provision is not working as well as it should.” The Education and Childcare Minister says it
    • “We need to tackle this like parents not politicians.” Jamie Oliver on tackling sugary drinks and unhealthy foods among young children.

    Number(s) of the week

    • 77%. The number of FE colleges judged good or outstanding in Ofsted’s latest annual report (although there has been a drop to 35% for those inspected this year)
    • 16. The number of local authority areas, largely concentrated in the North, where fewer than 60% of pupils attend good or outstanding schools and equally achieve below expected levels of progress according to Ofsted’s latest annual report
    • 85%. The number of primary schools rated good or outstanding in Ofsted’s latest annual report (evenly balanced between the North and the South of the country)
    • 70%. The number of students in the latest survey who would vote to stay in the EU (although a third admit to having given it little great thought so far)
    • £360,000. How much the Gatsby Foundation has handed to the University of Huddersfield to help improve technical and vocational education and training
    • 485. The number of classroom teachers who earned more than £65,000 last year (the top figure quoted in the government’s latest recruitment campaign). 

    What to look out for next week

    • BIS Committee witness session with the Minister and other on HE Quality Assurance (Tuesday)
    • Ofqual Awarding Organisation’s Conference (Tuesday)
    • Education Committee witness session on teacher supply (Wednesday)
    • House of Lords Social Mobility Committee session with Nicky Morgan and Nick Boles (Wednesday).
    read more
  • Policy Eye – week ending November 27 2015

    The big news this week of course has been the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement and Spending Review announcements.

    The week summed up

    Much of the education world had been biting its nails since high summer when the Chancellor announced that he was looking to save some £20bn from public spending with parts of the education system likely to be in the firing line. In the event, a combination of more favourable tax receipts and debt interest payments added to the £27bn that as the media reported, the Office for Budget Responsibility found down the back of the Treasury sofa, and meant that things were not as bad as feared and education at least got off quite lightly. The Association of Colleges spoke of ‘huge relief,’ others followed suit.

    Inevitably sober reflection is now following and we are yet to see the full breakdown behind the headlines but a few points are worth highlighting. Further details can be seen in an accompanying Policy Watch.

    For schools three messages stand out. First, complete academisation remains the objective; “our goal is to complete this schools revolution and help every secondary school become an academy.” Sixth Form College can now be added to the flanks and primary schools too this week have been offered incentives. Second, the schools budget may have been protected but efficiencies are expected; the government will be coming back and knocking on the door on this. Third, the long-awaited fair funding formula now has a schedule; consultation next year, implementation in 2017.

    For FE, the vulnerable adult skills budget is assured at least in cash terms at £1.5bn and tuition fee loans extended to 19-23 year olds for level 3/4 courses but efficiencies are to come from a more responsive and specialised sector arising out of the area-based reviews; the government is clearly setting its hopes high here. The big challenges for colleges will be to grab a slice of the apprenticeship and higher-level tech provision on the one hand while positioning themselves in the reshaped local structures on the other; both hands will be full.

    For HE, it was more a case of fine tuning and topping and tailing previous announcements many of which had been set out in the Green Paper. So further support for part-time students and postgrads, an increase in the maintenance loan threshold and support for research and science. The teaching grant will be further trimmed, some agency shuffling is already planned and universities will be expected to shoulder more of the widening participation requirements but the Review painted a positive picture of rising student numbers, domestically and internationally.    

    Top headlines this week

    • ‘Spending Review: Schools to get fair funding formula.’ (Monday)
    • ‘Ofsted warning over private faith schools.’ (Tuesday)
    • ‘Teachers work longer classroom hours.’ (Wednesday)
    • ‘Autumn Statement: Apprenticeships Levy to raise £3m.’ (Thursday)
    • ‘Teachers offered days off to lure them into jobs.’ (Friday

    People/organisations in the news this week

    • The Chancellor of the Exchequer who set out government spending targets and priorities for the remainder of this Parliament in his Autumn Statement leaving many of those in education at least, pleasantly surprised
    • The government who included its official response to the apprenticeship levy consultation as part of the batch of Papers issued with the Autumn Statement, confirming that it will go ahead with the introduction of the levy from April 2017 on paybills in excess of £3m a year
    • The OECD who published its latest comprehensive compendium of key education indicators covering areas like funding, teaching and tertiary education across the 34 member countries, prompting debate in the UK about how low teachers’ starting salaries were and how high tuition fees were 
    • Daniel Caro and Jenny Lenkeit, two Research Fellows at Oxford, who looked at the wider picture of education performance in PISA maths tests by factoring in socio-economic context and found that while some traditionally high performing countries such as Hong Kong and Korea continued to score well, others such as Turkey, Thailand and Indonesia moved up the rankings once the wider context was taken into account
    • The think tank IPPR who published its second annual report on European Jobs and Skills highlighting five key challenges around youth and adult unemployment, productivity, education outcomes and vocational education and training
    • Leading business consultancy Deloitte who are reported to be using a computer game as part of its recruitment process for school leavers to help identify those with particular creative and problem-solving skills
    • The university think tank million+ who published a report highlighting ten steps including better promotion, investment and support, needed to help re-invigorate the creative industries
    • The Further Education Trust for Leadership (FETL) who published the final reports from its first group of Fellows all highlighting different aspects of FE leadership
    • The Sutton Trust and PRIME (a group dedicated to widening access to the legal profession) who published further data showing that the profession has a long way to go to be considered truly representative
    • The DfE who published a call for evidence on creating a registration system for schools in non-standard settings
    • The DfE who launched a new Academy Chain Development Grant, worth up to £100k per chain, to encourage more primary schools to consider joining up
    • Ofsted who published the results of its latest survey of parents and found 95% aware of what they do and 72% who found their reports reliable or very reliable
    • The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) who launched a new tracker to try and help teachers find a better work-life balance
    • So-called ‘Dr of happiness’ Andy Cope who provides ‘inspirational’ sessions for heads and schools, who highlighted the 10/5 principle this week (smile at anyone who comes within 10 feet, say hello to anyone who comes within 5 feet). 

    Tweet(s) of the week

    • “Commentary by scheduling. On BBC2 the Autumn Statement. On BBC1 Bargain Hunt.” @PCollinsTimes
    • “Leadership is like a tea bag. You only know how good it is when it’s in hot water.” @Julia_Cleverdon
    • “Universities are too far into degree model to be able train students with skills needed to boost productivity.” @timeshighered
    • “Happiness in schools starts with the head teacher.” @schoolgoverning

    Quote(s) of the week

    • “I can tell the House as a result of this Spending Review, not only is the schools budget protected in real terms but the total financial support for education, including childcare and our extended further and higher education loans will increase by £10bn.” The Chancellor attempts to assuage concerns about education in his Autumn Statement
    • “Today’s Spending Review will be a huge relief for further education and sixth form colleges following five years of stringent budget cuts.” The Association of Colleges responds to the Spending Review announcements
    • “This is absolutely not the end of austerity.” Paul Johnson, director of the Institute for Fiscal studies on not getting carried away following the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement
    • “Headless chickens.” How everyone runs around when you set a challenging target such as 3m more apprentices within five years, according to Alison Wolf in evidence given recently to the House of Lords Social Mobility Committee
    • “It’s patently unfair that Knowsley received nearly £750 less per pupil than Wandsworth.” Education Minister on the need for fairer school funding
    • “If you look at this in absolute terms, when you compare teachers’ starting salaries, they are clearly not attractive in England.” The OECD’s Andreas Schleicher on the low base from which teachers’ salaries start in England
    • “There is a point when determination turns into obstinacy.” Former Education Secretary Estelle Morris reflects on the DfE’s first six months in government. 

    Number(s) of the week

    • 36.5%. The level of state spending as a share of output by 2020, down from 45% in 2010
    • 2.4%. The growth forecast for 2016, same as for 2015
    • £3bn. How much the apprenticeship levy is intended to raise a year
    • £360m. The level of efficiencies and savings expected to come from the adult skills budget by 2020
    • 20%. The core administrative savings expected from the DfE over the next four years
    • £5. How much many students spend a day travelling to college or training place according to latest survey from the AoC/NUS
    • £30,618. The actual average salary for a secondary teacher in England according to the latest OECD stats, higher than the OECD average of £28,813 but hugely dependent on other benefits and incentives
    • £11,800. The per school value in England of technology equipment left lying around and unused according to research from cloud-based company Instructure
    • 88%. The number of parents who were aware of the Ofsted rating of their local school according to Ofsted’s latest survey of parents. 

    What to look out for next week

    • Education Questions in the House of Commons (Monday)
    • Ofsted’s 2014/15 Annual Report published (Tuesday).
    read more