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!

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  • Pocket Watch – Stepping up careers guidance?

    Its been the subject of numerous reports and a cause of concern for some time, but careers guidance for schools and colleges may be about to pick up a bit with the launch of a new network of Enterprise Advisers intended to join up schools, colleges, young people and the world of work a bit better.

    The scheme has been put together by the Careers and Enterprise Company, which has been working with LEPs on the details for some time. The scheme, let alone the company, have not received a lot of attention so far so here’s a brief outline.  

    What is the Careers and Enterprise Company?

    It describes itself as “an employer-led organisation set up to help inspire and prepare young people for the fast-changing world of work.” It was actually formally announced in a statement by the Education Secretary last December in response to the clamour of concern about the lack of good careers guidance for young people. It was granted £20m seed corn funding to get started and became fully incorporated in February this year. It is independent of government and its official status is as one of the new breeds of community interest companies that were created in 2005 to support social enterprise 

    What’s the company’s remit?

    A key word is connectivity: connecting schools and colleges with the world of work and connecting young people with local employers, in essence using best practice and local ‘intelligence’ to support and help young people. Brokerage is key but using employers to help inspire and inform young people is seen as equally important 

    So what is this Enterprise Advisers network?

    It’s an employer engagement scheme which, as indicated, has been developed over recent months across the country in close partnership with Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). The aim is to use business volunteers, who will be supported by full-time co-ordinators, to work closely with groups of local schools and colleges helping perhaps with job tips, application advice, work experience opportunities, insights into the world of work and generally as the phrase goes, ‘joining up the dots.’ The scheme will roll out in three stages covering 28 areas (listing here) this month, with further waves by the end of this year and early next year.

    What else has the company got planned?

    It intends to launch an Investment Fund this autumn to support further activities and development and is also working on a student-owned digital enterprise passport as well as developing a ‘what works’ research base 

    How can I find out more?

    Brief details can be found on the Careers and Enterprise Company website.  

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  • Policy Eye - week ending September 11 2015

    A major keynote speech, an interesting announcement and two important reports make up the bevy of education headlines this week.

    The week summed up

    The keynote speech which had many in the sector buzzing, not all contentedly, was from the HE Minister Jo Johnson at the Universities UK Annual Conference this week. In essence, this was the first real attempt to reflect some of the changes that have been taking place in HE since the 2011 White Paper and to reset the vision accordingly. As the Director of Wonkhe put it in his helpful summary, the speech reflects a shift from students being at the heart of the system, as per the title of the White Paper, to teaching being a core issue. Not that students don’t remain central of course, after all they pay the bills but the new climate means they deserve better choices, better access and yes, better quality teaching. These and other matters such as making it easier for providers to gain degree-awarding powers and for new providers to enter the market, will be the subject of the much touted Green Paper due sometime this autumn. Bets are on as to when this might be; seasons can be very changeable these days.

    The interesting announcement came from Schools Minister Nick Gibb when he confirmed in a letter that the Dept was considering changing the rules on when summer born children should start school. Basically it’s going to offer more flexibility and consult accordingly before amending the Admissions Code. Whether summer born children as the youngest in a Year Group do actually struggle when they start school has been the source of contention for some time so this may be a sensible option although interestingly the Institute for Fiscal Studies published a report a couple of years ago arguing that the age at which they took tests rather than starting school was what really counted.

    The two important reports this week concerned colleges and schools respectively.

    Colleges, both Sixth Form and FE, are facing difficult times at present with a Damascene funding knife constantly hanging over them. To add to their uncertainties the government is proposing a series of area-wide reviews which will cover all colleges, attempt to weed out inefficient provision, and in official speak: “establish an appropriate set of institutions to offer high quality provision.” A trail run of reviews in two parts of the country has led to considerable re-structuring and this week, BIS issued further guidance and gave the green light for further roll-out of the review process.

    As for schools, this week Ofsted published the results of its survey of provision at key stage 3. The title of the report was ‘KS3: the wasted years?’ By the end, the question mark was not necessary. 

    Top headlines this week

    • ‘Decisions to scrap levels won’t help pupils, say heads in major survey.’ (Monday)
    • ‘Fears over unfair university admissions as AS levels disappear.’ (Tuesday)
    • ‘Start school a year late if you are born in summer.’ (Wednesday)
    • ‘Key Stage 3 pupils too low a priority, chief inspector of schools says.’ (Thursday)
    • ‘England’s schools face recruitment crisis.’ (Friday

    People/organisations in the news this week

    • The Chancellor who confirmed that an Autumn (financial) Statement would be issued alongside the Spending Review announcements on 25 November
    • The BIS Dept who announced that colleges in Greater Manchester and Sheffield would be the next to face area reviews as it launched its latest guidance on the review process
    • HE Minister Jo Johnson who made a keynote speech at the Universities UK Conference setting out the five guiding principles (improved teaching quality, widened participation, simpler entry for new HE providers, easier provider access to degree awarding powers, simpler research framework) underpinning his HE strategy and likely to form the basis of the forthcoming HE Green (discussion) Paper
    • Nicky Morgan who limbered up for the Rugby World Cup by launching a scheme whereby rugby clubs can work with schools to help ‘instil character and discipline’
    • Schools Minister Nick Gibb who spoke about teaching and learning styles and the importance of tried and tested and methods in a speech to the ResearchEd Conference last weekend
    • The DfE who have confirmed that they intend to amend the school Admissions Code to allow summer born children to be admitted to school later
    • Sir Claus Moser, a leading figure in both UK and global education who notably contributed to UK higher education and basic skills, whose death was reported last weekend
    • The OECD who announced that their annual health check on the performance of education systems around the world, ‘Education at a Glance,’ will be published later than usual this year on 24 November to allow for changes in classification
    • CIPD and Edge who following the HE Minister’s speech this week, issued a statement standing by their claims that current stats fail to recognise the extent of graduate over-qualification   
    • Universities UK who have been commissioned to head up a taskforce and develop a code of practice to help universities tackle issues of violence against women on campuses 
    • Nick Hillman, Director of the HE Policy Institute, Baroness Sharp and new Universities UK President Dame Julia Goodfellow who have all made powerful cases this week for part-time students in HE
    • Lecturecapture (self-explanatory) and Laundrapp (tells you where you can get your laundry done,) two of the most useful apps for student life cited in a list provided by the Daily Telegraph as undergrads prepare for the new university year
    • Universities UK who submitted their proposals to the Treasury’s Spending Review calling among other things for better funding for high-cost subjects, R/D and teaching
    • The Association of Colleges who also sent their wish list to the Spending Review with more 19+ loans and better funding for 16-18 yr olds among the 10 proposals
    • NIACE and Inclusion, now working together, who submitted thoughts from the adult and employment world to the Spending Review including using part of the Apprenticeship Levy to help protect the quality and access of apprenticeships
    • NFER who looked at the work of Regional Schools Commissioners showing how their role pans out in different regions
    • The Fabian Society who stressed the importance of partnerships as part of a new national constitution for the schools system in a report entitled ‘Stakeholder Schools
    • Ofsted who published a report on key stage 3 raising concerns that in many schools this stage was not being given sufficient priority and support
    • Ofqual and the DfE who have launched further consultation on the content and assessment of the 2017 batch of reformed GCSEs and A levels
    • GCSE youngsters in Wales who started Wales only qualifications that included a particular emphasis on literacy and numeracy
    • 100 schools where a sample of perhaps lucky teenagers will be able to start school an hour later in an experiment to see if an extra hour’s sleep can help boost GCSE results
    • Teachers and others who have been asked to submit ideas to the Teachers’ Professional Development Group on a new national standard for teacher CPD
    • BT who have announced plans to step up its support for tech literacy in schools with the aim of reaching 400,000 primary school children over the coming year through its Barefoot Computing programme 
    • Facebook who have confirmed a further move into education in the US by pledging to provide free educational software that can help with personalised learning in schools
    • Parent Info, the new online service supported by the DfE, to help parents keep up to speed with their children in anything from understanding teenspeak to more serious issues of health and awareness
    • The NAHT who published a report highlighting some of the challenges involved in extending free childcare places as proposed under the government’s Childcare Bill
    • The TES who in recognition of the Queen’s milestone this week looked up the TES published in 1952 and found that some education issues (teacher recruitment, mental health) hadn’t changed much
    • ITV who is calling on anyone who fancies making a ‘dramatic’ pledge in public to change their lives perhaps through learning or training to get in touch for a new show being hosted by Davina McCall. 

    Tweet(s) of the week

    • “Aristotle taught while doing it, Betrand Russell did it for an hour every evening, Nietzsche was at it all day long.” (Walking, apparently) @timeshighered
    • “Fairly confident that the point at which the DFE knows what a teen acronym means is the point where actual teens have stopped using it.”@gabyhinsliff
    • “Big school can be bewildering but give your Year 7s a human satnav to follow and they’ll never get lost.” @tes
    • “Academics are being forced into writing books nobody can buy.” @GdnHigherEd
    • “Sir Michael Wilshaw: reality shows like Educating Cardiff are deterring would-be teachers.” @ed­_ontap
    • "BT chief ex Gavin Patterson: Young people are surrounded by technology yet few understand how it works.” @tes
    • “I can’t decide what’s worse: assessment software companies or assessment without levels consultants. It’s a tough one.”  @ChrisPadden
    • “Parents told not to boast about kid’s exam results on Facebook in case it upsets others.” @ow.ly//RRRsq 

    Quote(s) of the week

    • “We don’t need Nobel physicists running car parks. We want the scientists focused on science.” The HE Minister on the need to simplify the research regulatory regime
    • “I think fragile is the way to put it.” Nicky Morgan on the current state of FE
    • “I look upon the next 5 years with great excitement, anticipating the new practices that will emerge due to greater school autonomy.” Nick Gibb gets excited at the ResearchEd Conference last weekend
    • “Too many school leaders treat key stage 3 as the poor relation of key stages 4 and 5.” Ofsted finds key stage 3 a cause for concern
    • “The question is why they lose interest because it is there at key stages 1 and 2.” The director of Code Club UK is concerned about why girls appear to lose interest in computing in their teenage years
    • “Parents of summer born children should have the right to defer the start of their education so that their children do not suffer developmental and education problems.” Stephen Hammond MP hosting a debate in the House of Commons on summer-born children
    • “We should not mourn the end of levels but the mode of their passing has left much to be desired.” NAHT’s general secretary on life without national curriculum assessment levels
    • “Personally, I do not think teachers are always best placed to actually teach lessons on mental health, although some do so magnificently.” The new mental health champion for schools on who’s best placed to offer young people help.

    Number(s) of the week

    • £20,000. What some STEM degree subjects cost to provide and why some universities want to see the tuition fee raised for these subjects
    • 4.4%. The unemployment rate among young graduates in the government’s latest (April – June) stats
    • 2/3. The number of parents, who in a survey by E.ON, described their understanding of STEM subjects as ‘average’ or even ‘poor’  
    • 22. The number of new build schools opening this month under the government’s Priority School Building Programme. (The aim is 500+ schools)
    • 1,237. The number of ‘active’ education blogs churning away in the UK according to the Schools Minister in his speech last weekend
    • 50. How many times a day 30% of us check our smartphones in a survey by Deloitte. 

    What to look out for next week

    • Announcement of Labour leader (Saturday)
    • MPs Questions to the BIS Dept (Tuesday)
    • OECD PISA report on digital skills (Tuesday)
    • Education Committee witness session with Sir Michael Wilshaw (Wednesday)
    • And coming up: Pearson and the London Knowledge Lab are offering three high profile events with leading thinkers examining how smarter digital tools can improve learning. The first event will be hosted in London on 22 Sept with follow-up events on 15 Oct and 17 Nov. Details and booking here.
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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. 

    read more
  • 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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