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 August 14 2015

    Results week of course for advanced level students and as one sixth former tweeted at the start of the week: “you can almost smell the apprehension.”

    The week summed up

    For those seeking just the cut down version, Thursday’s headline below taken from the BBC website (‘top grades down but more university places,’) pretty much nails it but there is of course much more to it than that. Commentary, analysis and reflection continues to pour in and will continue to do so until appeals and performance data is complete and UCAS issues its final report at the end of the year, but for the moment perhaps, four themes stand out.

    First the results themselves which have stayed pretty stable this year with a slim (0.1%) rise in the overall pass rate and the number (8.2%) getting the very top grade also remaining stable but where the rise in entries for the so-called core subjects has continued. Maths, computing, geography and even Spanish were all noticeably up. There may be three reasons for this. First, these are the ‘facilitating’ subjects that help secure a place at top universities; second students may have reacted to government messages in the Productivity Plan and elsewhere but third, budgetary pressures may well have put the squeeze on other subjects. Either way it’s allowed the government to add further weight to the EBacc effect which gains new momentum next month as the incoming Year 7s are put on the EBacc diet.

    Second, the anticipated surge in university entry appears under way with 409,000 students already having secured places (up 3% on last year) and Clearing, Adjustment and all sorts of helplines at full throttle. Universities of course have a free rein on numbers this year and it seems also from surveys that fewer young people will defer entry this year perhaps due to changes to maintenance grants and potentially fees but once again its raised the question of whether we need a post-qualification application system to help ease the summer scramble for places.

    Third, it’s not all about uni, interest in alternative routes remains high. The vocational route through BTECs has remained prominent for some time and as colleges, the SFA and the CBI have all been stressing, apprenticeships offer a valued alternative as well. PwC’s figures on applications for its Higher Apprenticeships (up 17%) are a case in point. Also this week, Edge Foundation and HR Magazine have both published pieces highlighting careers where degrees aren’t necessary.

    Fourth, with 16-19 provision unprotected from cuts and Sixth Form Colleges painting a dire picture of future prospects, it’s perhaps no surprise that the results this year are tinged with warnings that providers will find it difficult to generate the same offer let alone the same level of results in future.

    Top headlines this week

    • ‘Increase in university students working to fund studies.’ (Monday)
    • ‘Schools Minister: ’vague’ qualifications will be thing of past.’ (Tuesday)
    • ‘Children ditching books for phones.’ (Wednesday)
    • ‘A levels: top grades down but more university places.’ (Thursday)
    • ‘Class of 2015 has fallen victim to education cuts, say head teachers.’ (Friday)

    People/organisations in the news this week

    • Schools Minister Nick Gibb who claimed that the current A level students were ‘the best in a generation,’ and that while the government’s latest reforms to exams had helped restore credibility, further reform of the exam board system may be needed
    • Professor Chris Husbands whose latest blog examined the merits and demerits of exam board system reform
    • Ofqual, UCAS and the BBC, each of whom has useful summaries of the A level results and university applications
    • The 2015 WorldSkills event which has been running this week in Sao Paulo and which has seen over 60 nations, including the UK, compete in what has been described as ‘the biggest vocational education and skills excellence event in the world’
    • Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn who pledged, if elected, to re-create a version of the old Ministry of Labour to help train and support the workforce of the future
    • Michelle Mone OBE who has been appointed to head a government review to report next year, on supporting business start-ups in disadvantaged communities
    • Sir Nigel Thrift, Vice-Chancellor at Warwick University, whose blog in the build-up to A level results day stressed that alongside any string of exam results, young people should develop wider skills and aptitudes
    • Toni Pearce, outgoing President of the NUS, who is joining NIACE as its new Head of Employment and Skills with a particular brief on supporting apprenticeships
    • Ed Sheeran, who left school at 16 but who is now being honoured by his local university in Suffolk with an honorary doctorate
    • The QAA who set out an alternative approach to quality assurance in HE that would be brisk-based, focused on students’ academic experience and built around quality profiling and peer to peer annual dialogue, as it issued its response to HEFCE’s current QA review
    • The University of Law who have promised that from this Sept, graduates who don’t secure a job in the legal or commerce sectors within 9 months of graduating, would be entitled to a refund of up to half their tuition fee 
    • Carlos Vargas-Silva, Associate Professor at Oxford University, who wrote a comment piece in The Conversation about foreign students staying in the UK and some of the data used to measure this
    • The latest annual National Student Survey of final year undergraduates in UK universities which reported a continuing satisfaction rating of 86% overall
    • The CIPD (Chartered institute of Personnel and Development) whose latest employer survey suggested that what it called ‘the long dark decade for young job hunters’ was ending as more employers looked to recruit young people
    • The Edge Foundation who published a report arguing that some of the occupational classifications used in surveys were not graduate jobs and that many professional jobs did not actually require a degree
    • The CBI who highlighted a number of issues around the apprenticeship levy as it set out its initial thoughts in a discussion document
    • ‘They’re only for people with bad grades,’ ‘they’re only for young people,’ ‘I won’t get a good qualification;’ three of the Top Ten Apprenticeship Myth-Busters published by Barclays as it sought to remind young people of the availability of the apprenticeship option   
    • The Skills Funding Agency who announced a clampdown on further qualification approvals except in exceptional cases, for the remainder of the 2015/16 financial year
    • The Sixth Form Colleges Association whose latest annual funding impact survey painted a pretty sobering picture of belt tightening in that sector
    • The NAHT, ATL, NUT and Unison who have joined forces to set out their concerns about the current Education and Adoption Bill
    • Ofqual who looked at issues around variability in A level results for institutions and published the results in a series of charts
    • VoiceED who published an infographic on why teachers change exam boards
    • Chinese style teaching, the subject of a documentary on BBC2 recently and likely to be extended for some primary maths classes in the coming year
    • ’10 things secondary teachers need to know about the new primary maths curriculum.’ The latest in a series of useful summary pieces on the TES website highlighting recent curriculum changes
    • Year 7. Apparently the most expensive school year for parents who often have to shell out for new equipment, uniform and other resources which can amount to as much as £6.000+
    • British parents who emerged as some of the most anxious and restrictive in Europe when it came to allowing their offspring to play outside or go out alone after dark, in a study published by the Policy Studies Institute.

    Tweet(s) of the week

    • “Electing a UN secretary-general takes three months and candidates for Bake Off wait four weeks, so why does applying to university take nearly a year? @tes
    • “Schools Minister: vague qualifications will be thing of past.” @SchoolsImprove
    • “Over 60% of the people who checked their @CCEA_info GCE results this morning used a smartphone or tablet” @CCEA
    • “If your A level results aren't great, be cheered by the fact that I got a C and two Us. And I'm currently sitting in a villa in St Tropez.” @Jeremy Clarkson
    • “Parents sign petition and threaten withdrawals after introduction of homework.” @MailOnline
    • “16-19 education in danger of being turned into Cinderella service.” @ascl

    Quote(s) of the week

    • “These results provide the clearest proof that the introduction of the EBacc and our drive to persuade more pupils to study core academic subjects has been a success.” The Schools Minister hails the increase in entries for core subjects at A level this year
    • “While pupils sit in halls and write answers in booklets, almost everything that happens from there on has been revolutionised by technology.” The Guardian observes the exam marking process at first hand
    • “My concern is in five or ten years’ time young men will be the new disadvantaged group. I remain astounded that there is not more political and societal focus on this.” UCAS chief executive Mary Curnock Cook on the news that girls continue to apply to university in much greater number than boys
    • “Three-quarters will be paying off their loans in their ’50s.”  Will Hutton in a comment piece on the challenges facing many of today’s university students
    • “We’re working on the assumption that the rate will be around 0.5% of payroll.” The CBI on its working assumtion for the apprenticeship levy
    • “The sector cannot survive on starvation rations.” The Sixth Form Colleges Association sums up the bleak prospects facing many Sixth Form Colleges
    • "I should add that we are not intending for this to be a big consumer brand with related products.” Google boss Larry Page on its rebranding as Alphabet.

    Number(s) of the week

    • £412. How much uni students earn on average a month according to recent research from insurers Endsleigh, as record numbers (77%) are reported to be turning to part-time work to help pay for their uni courses
    • 7%. How few students are planning to defer their university entry and take a gap year this year according to research published by Bucks New University
    • 98.1%. The overall pass rate (A-E) at A level this year, up slightly (0.1%) on last year
    • 29.1%. The rise in entries for A level Computing this year, the biggest increase for any A level subject
    • 30%. The number of A level students who reckon their parents get more stressed than they do about Results Day according to recent research by the Student Room and Bradford University
    • 33%. The number of employers with hard to fill vacancies looking to recruit young people in the coming months according to the CIPD’s latest quarterly survey
    • 26. The number of Sixth Form Colleges who fear they might be out of business by the end of the decade according to the Association’s latest funding survey
    • 16,430. The number of parents prosecuted in 2014 (up 25% on 2013) for failing to ensure their children attended school. 

    What to look out for next week

    • MPs on summer recess
    • GCSE Results Day (Thursday).
    read more
  • Policy Eye - week ending July 31 2015

    Fewer announcements this week as the summer recess kicks in but some interesting developments all the same.

    The week summed up

    For schools, the Education Secretary continued her engagement strategy with teachers by focusing on teacher workloads, for FE the government sought to clarify what constitutes an apprenticeship while HE re-iterated its case for international students as part of its staying in Europe campaign. A week then which has seen the first supermarket advertise its ‘Back to School’ autumn range has equally seen a number of what will be big autumn policy issues also given an early airing.

    Schools first where many are busy preparing themselves for the release of exam results which in the case of A’ levels is now just a couple of weeks away. Head teachers have been lining up in the media this week to offer advice to both students and parents on how to cope with the big day: “Book a lovely breakfast for 10.00am. They won’t eat much before. Neither will you.” For teachers, however, the work on preparing for another year goes on and despite last year’s ‘strategy,’ the workload issue remains as pertinent as ever. Speaking at the Teach First Impact Conference this week, the Education Secretary highlighted three further ways to ease the pain: new working groups to address the 3 biggest concerns (marking, planning and use of resources, and data management) new standards for CPD; and support for the College of Teaching. Teacher morale is a long-standing issue in the profession but equally now for the government as concerns rise about teacher recruitment and retention. Whether these latest measures will help, remains to be seen.

    Over at FE, while BIS reviews its cost operations as part of the 2015 Spending Review and the ‘bigger, better’ college model gathers momentum, apprenticeships remain the big game in town. This week the government launched a short consultation to help clarify how to define a ‘genuine’ apprenticeship. This has been an issue in the past and could become one again with the push to achieve the 3m target but the hope is that by making it an offence to apply the term to non-standard training and adding the ultimate sanction of a fine, it will help deter further misappropriation. Final details will appear in the forthcoming Enterprise Bill due this autumn.

    Finally HE where visas and restrictions on international students remain one of a number of concerns and where there’s also been activity this week. The Home Affairs Committee has announced it will hold an inquiry into the Tier 2 visa cap, introduced 4 years ago but now feared to be preventing skilled workers from taking up important skilled jobs. And second, Universities UK has launched its campaign against a Brexit, arguing that leaving Europe could inflict lasting damage to UKHE research, student numbers and jobs. Another issue building up for the autumn. 

    Top headlines this week

    • ‘What do universities look for in a BTEC student?’ (Monday)
    • ‘Councils to be scored on school dropout rates.’ (Tuesday)
    • ‘Leaked levels report claims reveals testing concerns.’ (Wednesday)
    • ‘Nicky Morgan vows to end needless bureaucracy for teachers.’ (Thursday)
    • ‘Colleges must offer ESOL courses despite funding wipeout.’ (Friday)

    People/organisations in the news this week

    • The Prime Minister who has been leading a big trade delegation including members of the Northern Powerhouse to South East Asia this week
    • The government who promised to provide a progress report on its Digital Agenda this autumn as it issued its official response to the Lords Committee Report on Digital Skills
    • The Home Affairs Select Committee who have announced it will hold an inquiry into the Tier 2 Skilled Workers system later this year
    • The BIS Dept who launched a brief consultation to help formalise the usage of the apprenticeships brand
    • Nick Boles, the Skills Minister, who announced that the government intends to push ahead with the publication of local council score cards each summer, showing how well councils were dealing with 16-19 NEETs
    • Education Secretary Nicky Morgan who announced three more working groups to try and ease teachers’ workloads in a speech to the Teach First Impact Conference
    • Labour leadership contender Jeremy Corbyn who called for the creation of a National Education Service which like the NHS could provide all-through education ‘free at the point of delivery’
    • John Pugh MP, appointed Spokesperson for Education in the new Lib-Dem set-up
    • The Institute of Directors whose latest survey of business leaders found varying degrees of support for devolving powers to the regions with just over 50% supporting the devolution of responsibilities over skills
    • The Social Mobility Commission whose latest commissioned report argued that many disadvantaged young people faced not only a glass ceiling but also a glass floor, as more advantaged families sought to ensure their offspring didn’t fall too far behind
    • The Independent Commission on Fees which published its final report calling among other things for the OBR to head a ‘value for money’ study into the whole fee and loan system
    • Universities UK who launched its ‘Universities for Europe’ campaign designed to ensure the HE sector provides a strong ‘staying in voice’ come the referendum
    • The University Alliance who hosted a half-day seminar on the TEF (Teaching Excellence Framework) and its implications
    • HEFCE who published its latest (2014/15) facts and figures publication covering main trends and developments in HE in England over the last year
    • Anthony McClaran, who will leave his post as Chief Executive of QAA and take up a similar post in Australia in October
    • Professor Chris Husbands, Director of the UCL Institute of Education, who has been appointed as Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University from Jan 2016   
    • Sheffield University who has announced that it will open up for clearing two weeks earlier than usual so that it’s ready for any influx of numbers following the lifting of the numbers cap on students this year
    • The Guardian which offered a helpful guide to the government’s new rules for international students in both HE and FE
    • New College Nottingham and Central College Nottingham, the latest two FE colleges to merge, in this case from next August
    • AELP whose Briefing Paper on the Apprenticeship Levy urged the government not to rush implementation and instead develop the proposition over a 3-4 year period
    • Academy chains, the subject of a blog by the Institute of Government arguing that five questions about governance and accountability need answering
    • NFER who have started advertising for English and maths markers for the new National Reference Tests
    • Rise To,’ one of the new innovative career sites which aims to help match young people to companies and opportunities and which secured launch funding this week
    • Journalist David Nield who described some of the latest wearable technology devices for use in the classroom both now and the future in an article in The Guardian
    • ‘1984,’ ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ and ‘Animal Farm,’ the top 3 books recommended by teachers for KS3/4 students in a TES survey. Full listing of the top 100 here.

    Tweet(s) of the week

    • “The more networked a country the more successful and prosperous it can be.” @RCorbettMEP
    • “Academics lack understanding for business-university links. They obsess about shiny things, ignore business needs.” @timeshighered
    • “Easy degrees are fuelling drunken laddish behaviour” @telegraph
    • “Schools cannot magic away bureaucracy' - unions respond to @NickyMorgan01's suggestion to stop working at 5pm” @tes
    • “The average person changes career 7/8 times. I want teaching to be one of those career changes.” @educationgovuk
    • “Discussion: the essential relationship isn’t between exam boards and schools. It’s between exam boards and markers.” @tes
    • “We do homework, but I don’t insist teachers mark it because we don’t really know who’s done it. @natedtrust.” @RealGeoffBarton

    Quote(s) of the week

    • “As autonomous organisations it is up to colleges manage their own budgets.” The FE Minister responds to a Parliamentary question on FE finances
    • “There’s not a single one of the 39 LEPs that hasn’t put skills and productivity at the heart of its strategic thinking.” Ann Limb, chair of the S.E. Midlands LEP, on the importance of local skills planning
    • “Ban e mails after 5.00pm to help teachers cope with workload.” The Secretary of State’s latest thoughts on how to reduce teachers’ workloads
    • “No one should criticise parents for doing the best for their children. That’s what we all want. But Britain is a long way from being a meritocratic society when the less able can do better in life that the more able.” Alan Milburn, Chair of the Social Mobility Commission, introduces the Commission’s latest research
    • “A rule of thumb is: would I be happy for anything I post on Twitter or Facebook to be on the front page of the Daily Mail?” Head teacher and tweeter Geoff Barton on the ‘rules’ of social media for teachers 
    • “To help teens develop a sense of independence and financial responsibility, one especially valuable holiday activity is enabling your son or daughter to manage the family budget for a week- making them responsible for the food shop and planning and cooking dinner for the family.” A brave head teacher suggests one way to help develop life skills in young people
    • “We always recommend that our students have a Plan A and a Plan B.” Head teachers offer their top tips for A level results day
    • “Special measures school improves after banning slang words including ‘coz’ and ‘innit.’ “ How one all-girls school raised performance.

    Number(s) of the week

    • 0.7%. Economic growth for the UK in the last quarter (April – June,) up from 0.4% in the previous quarter, leading to optimistic forecasts for the remainder of the year
    • 75. The number of employers on the government’s latest name and shame list for failing to pay the National Minimum Wage
    • 125,000. The number of EU students in British universities (and whose numbers could reduce if we exit the EU according to Universities UK)
    • 46%. The percentage of parents in the UK who questioned the value of higher education in a survey conducted by HSBC
    • 45,010.  The number of fixed-term pupil exclusions from primary school last year, ‘considerably’ up on the previous year
    • 60%. Average percentage of teachers reporting moderate-high training needs to be able to teach ICT skills according to the latest OECD TALIS survey (Spoiler alert: the UK’s figure’s half that)
    • 7 years. How far ahead of their peers pupils can be by using the internet according to latest research from Professor Sugata Mitra.

    What to look out for next week

    • MPs on summer recess.
    read more
  • Policy Tracker - Keeping track of what happened in the world of education in July 2015

    A month in which the traditional rush to get things out before the summer break was clearly evident.  

    Key headlines from the month

    • Reception. Baseline assessment providers confirmed
    • Phonics. Government offers grants to help share good practice
    • Assessment. Review announced to consider how to assess pupils with low attainment
    • Assessment without levels. Commission report now set for Sept
    • Mindfulness. Wellcome Trust launch major new trial in secondary schools
    • 2017 GCSEs, AS, A levels. DfE and Ofqual consult on content and assessment
    • PSHE. Caroline Lucas MP re-introduces Bill on it
    • Prevent. New duty on schools to help ‘prevent’ young people being drawn into terrorism
    • Coasting schools. DfE draft definition
    • Inspections. New arrangements outlined in a letter to schools
    • Performance tables. Government confirms changes to 2015 arrangements
    • School funding. Rates for 2016/17 set
    • Child Poverty. Attainment at age of 16 to be included in new measures
    • School to work. NIACE set up new website
    • Social Mobility. Lords Committee takes evidence of impact on young people
    • Teachers’ Pay. Limited to 1% increase a year for each of next 4 years
    • RSCs. Education Committee to conduct an autumn inquiry
    • NEETs. Local council score cards to be published each summer
    • Apprenticeships. New Delivery Board set up, trailblazer guidance updated
    • Apprenticeships. Government consults on correct usage of term
    • Functional Skills. Government commissions more work
    • 25 + yr olds. Entitled to new National Living Wage of £7.20 an hour from April 2016
    • FE funding. SFA confirms nature of cuts for 2015/16
    • FE. Government announces area-based reviews
    • Cornwall. Becomes first county to sign initial devo deal
    • HE. Universities UK launches ‘stay in EU’ campaign
    • Maintenance grants. Replaced by loans for new entrants from 2016/17
    • HE funding. HEFCE confirms cuts for 2014/15, 2015/16
    • HE fees. Commission calls for OBR-led review.

    Reports/Publications of the month (in order of publication)

    Speeches of the month

    • Jo Johnson’s 1 July UUK speech sets out the three core manifesto objectives (teaching excellence/value for money/extending opportunity) that the Minister intends to pursue
    • Nicky Morgan’s 1 July Sutton Trust speech calls for schools to apply a more targeted approach to the use of pupil premium funds
    • George Osborne’s 8 July Budget speech includes significant changes to welfare, living wage, apprenticeship funding and HE as part of a new, 5 year settlement with the country
    • Tristram Hunt’s 9 July Education Reform speech summons the spirit of Jim Callaghan’s Great debate as he calls for ‘bottom-up’ thinking on a Nat Bacc and other matters
    • Nick Gibb’s 9 July Education Reform speech grapples with the purpose of education and comes up with a love of knowledge, preparation for life and developing the skills for the future
    • Jo Johnson’s 16 July science speech outlines the ingredients of what’s termed a ‘One Nation Science’ strategy built around regional mapping, STEM support and greater diversity
    • Nicky Morgan’s 16 July creative arts speech declares her and her government’s unwavering support for the creative arts in schools
    • Nicky Morgan’s 29 July Teach First speech offers teachers more working groups to help consider reductions in workloads, better CPD and support for the College of Teaching.

    Quotes of the month

    • “While many firms do a brilliant job training their workforces, there are too many large companies who leave the training to others and take a free ride on the system.” The Chancellor on the case for an apprenticeship levy
    • “We expect cuts to unprotected depts between 2015/16 and 2019/20 of around £19bn to be announced in the Spending Review.” The Institute of Fiscal Studies on what lies ahead
    • “If assessing learning is hard, assessing teaching quality is harder.” Alison Wolf on the TEF
    • “I used to send very nasty letter to parents who didn’t turn up to parents’ evening and say you’re not going to get your son’s or daughter’s report until you come and see me.” Sir Michael Wilshaw on how to deal with ‘feckless’ parents
    • “At the time we were laughed at by almost everybody. Now most schools are taking up the teaching of character, well-being and resilience.” Sir Anthony Seldon on school happiness
    • “A teacher cannot function on Twitter like someone who works in a supermarket or an accountancy firm.” Head teacher Geoff Barton highlights the dangers of social media.

    Word or phrase of the month

    • ‘Casual leadership.’ In Ofsted’s sights apparently.
    read more
  • Policy Eye - week ending July 24 2015

    This week provided further clear evidence that the government is determined to stick with its economic plan as further cuts were announced for the FE and HE sectors and the Chancellor outlined his plans for the 2015 Spending Review.

    The week summed up

    ‘Fixing the roof while the sun is shining’ is the mantra but for many this week the mood has been more cloudy than sunny.

    FE first, where the Funding Agency’s announcement of immediate cuts to ESOL and adults skills non-apprenticeship budgets coincided with a withering report from the National Audit Office on the financial health of the sector as a whole. The cuts come as a response to the Chancellor’s recent call for a further £450m from this year’s dept budget and are part of a sequence. Whether the sector is facing its own Groundhog Day moment as some headlines suggested or not, the issue is that the sector has had to endure a sustained period of cuts, that its been left to operate in a market that’s become increasingly unstructured (“Many colleges are competing for fewer students against an increasing diversity of provision”) and that financial forecasting on all sides has failed to recognise the extent of the problem. The government has responded by announcing a major structural review of the post-16 sector that will kick off in earnest this autumn and run through to next spring. The direction of travel has already been indicated in previous policy statements but is writ large in its latest pronouncement: “we will need to move towards fewer, often larger, more resilient and efficient providers.” It’s being left pretty much to local stakeholders to sort out although the government will issue guidelines and will be represented but a key issue will be how far school post-16 providers are involved as well.

    As for HE, which a contributor in the Times Higher this week described as being “in a perpetual financial crisis,” the Funding Agency has equally had to announce further cuts this week to meet the £150m in savings required for the 2015/16 financial year. Its meant that teaching grants as well some specific funds such as those used to support increases in student numbers will be hit. Again some of this is immediate although the full scale may not become apparent until institutional adjustments are confirmed in October.

    All of which means that many people will be keeping a wary eye on how this year’s Spending Review which was formally launched by the Chancellor this week and under which future spending details will be announced in late November, shapes up.  The approach being adopted is similar to that in 2010 with depts being asked to model best and worst case scenarios in an effort to find the £20bn of savings that the Chancellor is looking for. School age pupils remain protected, the others will be hoping for the best case scenario, that’s cuts of 25% rather than 40%. Some sunshine.

    Top headlines this week

    • ‘Pupils’ mental health tops head teachers’ concerns.’ (Monday)
    • ‘Meltdown warning in FE College finances.’ (Tuesday)
    • ‘Spending Review to include measures to cut schools back office spending.’ (Wednesday)
    • ‘Baby boom to put pressure on English secondary schools.’ (Thursday)
    • ‘UK study raises concerns over ‘coasting’ academies.’ (Friday)

    People/organisations in the news this week

    • The Prime Minister who announced a five-part strategy to tackle extremism which included new duties on local authorities, schools and families and an interim report on community cohesion expected early next year
    • The Chancellor who called on depts to model two scenarios of cuts, one based on 25% and the other based on 40%, as he set out his plans for the 2015 Spending Review
    • The BIS Dept who outlined the new conditions for alternative providers of higher education as it responded to earlier consultation on Alternative Providers of HE
    • The BIS Dept who have launched a 12 week consultation on freezing the student loan repayment threshold
    • The BIS Dept who announced an overhaul of the post-16 college sector though a series of locally driven area-based reviews due to run over the next nine months
    • The FE/Skills Minister who posted his regular end-of-term letter to the sector confirming developments in a number of key areas and highlighting the importance of the sector’s role in meeting a number of the skill needs under the Productivity Plan
    • David Meller and Richard Harrington MP, Joint Chairs of the Apprenticeship Delivery Board, tasked with advising on how best to expand the apprenticeship programme
    • The Science and Technology Committee, BIS Committee and Education Committee who have announced that their first major inquiries in this new Parliament will be into science funding, the Productivity Plan and the role of Regional School Commissioners respectively
    • The government who issued its response to the previous Education Committee report into apprenticeships and traineeships indicating that it had accepted all their recommendations bar three (on careers plans, work exp for 14-16 yr olds and 14-16 Young Apprenticeships)
    • HEFCE who announced reductions to the teaching grant and to funds set aside to support any increases in student numbers as they outlined savings required for 2015/16
    • HEFCE who published a series of commissioned reports looking into ways of ensuring students from different backgrounds achieve success in HE 
    • The Institute of Fiscal Studies who examined the recent Budget announcements on HE student financing and concluded that both lower and middle income families and students would be hit hardest by the respective changes
    • GSK, Rolls Royce and Pfizer, the top three companies collaborating on research projects with UK universities according to the recent review of HE-Business research collaboration (Microsoft was the only technology company in the top ten)
    • Martin McQuillan, Pro-Vice Chancellor of Research at Kingston University whose blog for this week’s WonkHE briefing looked at HE developments in the light of current policy changes
    • The National Audit Office whose report on the financial sustainability of the FE sector raised concerns about the number of colleges facing financial difficulties both now and in the future as funding continues to tighten
    • The Skills Funding Agency who announced further cuts to ESOL and non-apprenticeship funding allocations with immediate effect as the BIS Dept sought to meet further savings from current budgets
    • The Skills Funding Agency who reported on how it had delivered against its five strategic objectives in its latest annual report and accounts
    • The local LEP and FE providers in Cornwall who will pool resources and approaches to employment and skills provision from 2017 under the region’s Devolution Deal
    • The Education and Training Foundation who have been asked to lead further developments to help strengthen the position of functional skills
    • City and Islington College and Westminster Kingsway College who announced that they were looking at the case for working much more closely together
    • Ofsted who defended its role as it added its response to the previous Education Committee’s Trojan Horse Inquiry
    • The Sutton Trust who examined the issue of academy chains on the attainment gap and whose commissioned report called for other high-performing providers to be involved in school improvement
    • The DfE who issued guidance to schools and local authorities on the use of cloud software and data protection
    • The Schools Minister who announced that the Dept was taking further steps to secure some community languages at GCSE and A level
    • Schools Week who provided a summary overview of Ofsted inspections over the last term and noted that a higher proportion of secondary schools had received a good or outstanding than over the previous two terms
    • ‘Photograph’ by Ed Sheeran, ‘Shake it off’ by Taylor Swift and ‘Happy’ by Pharrell Williams, the top three tear jerker/rabble rouser songs being played in final assemblies for Year 6 this summer.

    Tweet(s) of the week

    • “The only role where we’ve not developed an apprenticeship is mine.” @NickBoles
    • “The gap year is back, but with purpose - not so much “Gap Yah” as fill-in-the-CV-gaps year.” @JISC
    • “What will we call colleges that specialise in remedial English and maths? Post-secondary moderns.” @OldDitch
    • “The only reason to keep national exams at 16 is because we still don’t trust our schools or our teachers.” @TheTimes
    • “It’s not been a summer of contentment in the education world.” @russellhobby

    Acronym(s) of the week

    • DLHE. The Destination of Leavers from HE, an annual national survey produced by the HE Statistics Agency, which will be refreshed and reviewed to meet changing demands.

    Quote(s) of the week

    • “The decline in the financial health of the sector has been quicker than indicated by colleges’ plans and current forecasts suggest that the number of colleges under strain is set to rise rapidly.” The National Audit Office takes the financial pulse of the FE sector
    • “We will need to move towards fewer, often larger, more resilient and efficient providers.” BIS suggests what it’s looking for from its new area-based reviews of college provision
    • “I believe that Functional Skills should continue to be the main alternative English and maths qualifications to GCSEs.’ The FE Minister commissions further work on FS
    • “We would of course survive and I’m sure thrive if we carried on independently but we can be better together.” Sir Frank McLoughlin, Chief Exec of City and Islington College as his College eyes up closer collaboration with nearby Westminster Kingsway College
    • “Usually reform needs a cheque or a plan and at the moment we have neither. Hence the drive for productivity.@alanmilburn.” @IPPR
    • “Bland, robotic and misleading.” A teacher’s view on school reports.

    Number(s) of the week

    • £20bn. The level of savings the Chancellor is looking to find through the latest Spending Review
    • £53,000. How much debt poorer students could end up with when they graduate following the replacement of maintenance grants by loans according to the IFS
    • 3.9%. The latest cut to non-apprenticeship adult skills budgets in FE
    • 70. The number of colleges who could be in financial difficulties by the end of the 2015/16 financial year according to the National Audit Office
    • 20%. The expected rise in secondary school pupil numbers over the next decade according to the DfE’s latest pupil projections
    • £600 a day. The amount of money some schools have been paying consultants for Mocksteds (pre Ofsted inspection run-throughs,) a practice Ofsted remains keen to outlaw.

    What to look out for next week

    • MPs on summer recess.
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  • Pocket Watch - Dog days for FE?

    It’s been a tough week for FE with difficult questions flying around about its long-term funding and positioning.

    FE is nothing however if not resilient and as the Minister explained in his end-of-term letter to the sector this week, it has a major role to play in helping deliver a range of essential skills, the 3m apprenticeships, parts of the Productivity Plan and probably much of the anticipated L4/5 provision. That’s as maybe but these are clearly difficult times. Here’s a summary of what’s been a potentially defining week for the FE sector.   

    What's been happening around funding?

    As an unprotected area, FE has been pretty much under the funding cosh since 2010 if not before but there’ve been three major developments this week that have heightened concerns.

    First the Funding Agency announced that it was going to have to introduce an immediate 3.9% cut in non-apprenticeship and discretionary learner support allocations and also withdraw funding from mandated ESOL provision. FE’s not alone in having to take a hit, HE has had to do much the same as the Dept strives to meet the extra £450m demanded by the Chancellor from this year’s budget allocation. Colleges have been granted a couple of months grace to assess the implications before submitting their latest financial plans but with 16-19 funding still facing difficulties, it could mean some deft footwork on institutional plans is needed.

    Second, the National Audit Office published its promised report on the financial health of the FE sector and emerged shaking its head. Broadly, the financial pulse of the sector wasn’t as sound as some forecasts and college plans had been hoping for, financial problems had been building up for some time, a number of colleges were struggling and the fear was that as many as 70 could be in dire financial straits by the end of the 2015/16 financial year. Most people familiar with the sector would recognise the scenario identified in the report: “reductions and changing priorities in public funding, falling numbers of 16-18 year olds, and more competition from schools and universities have combined to create a challenging educational and financial climate for many colleges.” The report clearly laid bare some of the issues and it was no wonder that the new Chair of the Public Accounts Committee described it as “deeply alarming.”

    Third, the Chancellor confirmed that he was looking for further cuts as he launched the process for the latest Spending Review, the outcomes of which will be announced on November 25. In essence, the government is looking for a further £20bn of cuts in public spending, some of which will come through the sales of public sector land, the integration and devolution of services and the ubiquitous ‘efficiencies’ but the rest from Dept savings. As with the 2010 Review, Depts have been asked to model best and worst case scenarios of 25% and 40% ‘savings’ respectively. BIS has already offered up HE maintenance loans and proposed an employer’s levy for apprenticeships while the sector has taken a hit on non-apprenticeship adult skill funding and had to accept pay rises restricted to 1% for four years. The hope is that with more time granted for meeting the surplus target and the economy strengthening, the pain will be limited but it’ll be well into November before the bargaining is complete and the results known.  

    So what did the Minister have to say in his latest end-of-term letter?

    Three things stood out from this letter. First was the Minister’s acknowledgement that the current cuts amounted to 13% of what was currently being expected from BIS, a sharp reminder of the bigger picture.

    Second, he underlined the importance of the proposed new area-based reviews, launched in a short BIS Paper at the start of the week and likely to have significant impact on post-16 college provision in the future. The procedure is not new, it was used under the LSC and has already been applied to college provision in East Anglia, and once rolled out from September will apply across all regions but is clearly being used to bring a sense of order and focus to what has been allowed to become a chaotic area of provision. As the National Audit Office noted in its report: “many colleges are competing for fewer students against an increasing diversity of provision…for example, around 300 schools, including academies and free schools have opened new sixth forms in the past five years and many schools are trying to retain 16-18 year olds.” The government is hoping that “these reviews will provide an opportunity for institutions and localities to restructure their provision to ensure it is tailored to the changing context” or in plain speak create: “fewer, often larger, more resilient and efficient providers.” The FE Commissioner’s recent report provides a number of models, federations, partnerships, collaborations and so on, but it’ll be up to local steering groups to determine best fit. The government wants to move fast and have the reviews completed by next March but this may be a tall order; the remit, framework and local structures required for carrying out such important reviews all need to be sorted first and there’s a lot of local players and local agendas at stake.

    And third a few interesting updates, notably for example the commissioning of further work on functional skills. This will be led by the Education and Training Foundation, will build on earlier reviews by both them and Ofqual, and aim to position functional skills as “credible” alternatives to GCSEs, something that will please many. That said, the government intends to align the new GCSE good pass in English and maths with the 16-19 English and maths funding condition over time. As for other things: the consultation on outcome based success measures has now moved to the autumn and a further update on the workforce strategy, especially the recruitment of English and maths specialists, is expected shortly.   

    What next?

    It looks like a large chunk of colleges’ time in the autumn will be taken up with the local area-based re-structuring process. Structures not standards? Perhaps but equally an opportunity to clarify and re-focus on who should be doing what at a local level and of course standards/quality expectations will never be far away. As the Minister put it, all colleges are expected to participate, not just those with financial or quality issues. The format and structure of these are not very clear at present and the government has promised more detailed guidance shortly but the issue will be how far school-based post-16 providers are involved in the process, only then can a genuine rationalisation occur.

    Second, it’s worth remembering that along with English and maths, funding for apprenticeships and traineeships remains ‘protected’ and what’s called ‘credible’ growth numbers will be supported. The securing of apprenticeship numbers and the raising of achievement levels in English and maths remain important priorities for the government and if you factor in the growing interest in strengthening the higher-level technical route, the case for colleges with training providers, as all-through providers of skills solutions at both local and national level, becomes irresistible.

    Third, we haven’t even mentioned the social mobility agenda yet. It’s the FE sector that provides much of the driving force for this, particularly for young people, as the current House of Lords Committee Inquiry is discovering. Pitch into that the latest earn or learn welfare reforms and FE offers a ready-made system for both social and economic recovery.   

    When you talk FE, you talk solutions.

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