Policy Watch

Education’s always changing, and it can be hard to keep track. Policy Watch is the easy way to make sure you stay up to date with the latest developments.

Keep up with what’s happening in education policy

Policy Watch is our regular policy update service, covering national and international developments in the world of education. We try to keep things simple, sharing the latest news and information with you through weekly updates, monthly summaries, papers and events.

You can access the Policy Watch service through Steve's Twitter feed @SteveBesley or by signing up for email updates.

About Steve

As head of UK education policy at Pearson, Steve’s been running the Policy Watch service for almost 20 years. He’ll keep you informed on all things education, along with the rest of his subscribers – there were more than 10,000 at the last count!

The latest from Policy Watch

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  • Pocket Watch - 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.

    read more
  • Pocket Watch - New skills agenda

    We’ve had over 200 pages of official economic and skills planning documents over the last couple of weeks in the shape of the Summer Budget and the government’s Productivity Plan.

    If you pitch in some of the accompanying reports like the OBR’s (Office for Budget Responsibility) latest economic outlook let alone our two Pearson sponsored reports this week, one with the CBI on employers’ views on education and skills and the other with the HE Policy Institute on higher-level technical skills, it’s more like 500 pages. We’re not unknown in this country for the quantity of our skills reports and the government has come in promising to prioritise this area and so is likely to add to this total but where does this all leave the education and skills agenda?   

    The current picture

    Four points stand out here.

    1.    We’ve been here before of course in terms of skills policy reports and announcements but there is a sense that things may be different this time because different conditions are in place. An improving economy, a pragmatic government keen to make its mark, a man with a plan in the shape of the Chancellor, a legislative framework for local growth planning, a healthy employer appetite for a stronger talent pipeline…it’s not all positives of course, real concerns persist about adult skills funding for a start, let alone about local infrastructures, employer engagement and it’s no surprise that the Productivity Plan is called ‘Fixing the foundations’ but the opportunity is there.

    2.    A shift towards higher-level technical and professional skills. Again not new and subject to various incursions over the years from Lord Mandelson’s skills activism to Vince Cable’s bridging the FE/HE divide and where various initiatives have been tried to fill what Ministers have often referred to as the ‘membrane between FE and HE’ but where the case for action has now become almost imperative. As the CBI/Pearson employers’ survey reported just this week: “the balance of firms expecting to need more employees with higher skills stands at +65% in 2015 and has been close to or above +60% each year since 2010.” In another Pearson sponsored report this week, the HE Policy Institute has set out three principles needed to sort out this critical transition phase including: dedicated institutions, recognised work-related qualifications and simplifying barriers to employer engagement. Both pre and post-election, policy is moving in this direction.

    3.    The apprenticeship levy. A surprising announcement to some although it’s been on the table for some time and has an historical base to it. Operating details about the levy remain limited at this time although we have the bones of a likely digital transfer scheme. There are strong views, both for and against, about the effectiveness or otherwise of a levy. Both employers and training providers for example have their own reservations largely about whether cost compunction changes the nature of the employer – employee relationship. We’ll have to wait until the autumn for further details but in the interim, an excellent summary of the whole levy issue can be found on the Association of Colleges website.

    4.    As indicated above, although we’ve had a buzz of activity and a number of announcements recently, we’re still very much at broad brush stage. There are two reasons for this. One is that so much hinges on the forthcoming Spending Review later this year as this will set out dept spending details for the core part of this government and is thus the critical piece of the jigsaw. And the other is that the government has promised consultations on a number of the features and these will not be complete until later in the year. It’s building up to being a busy second half of the year.

    What’s been said for schools, FE and HE

    This is a summary of the key pointers from both the recent Budget and Productivity Plan for schools, FE and HE respectively.

    Schools

    • Overview. No great change. The main disappointments are that there’s little on school funding where 16-19 is under particular pressure and not much on skills provision in the curriculum for young people.
    • Specifics  
      • Trialling of the new Jobcentre Plus Employment Adviser role working with schools and sixth-form colleges on building understanding of local labour market opportunities (Budget)
      • Pay, 1% per year for next four years (Budget)
      • Support for qual reform, the EBacc core and STEM subjects (Productivity Plan)
      • Support for school system reform and tackling ‘coasting’ (Productivity Plan). 

    FE

    • Overview. Notable pointers about apprenticeships, higher-level skills, local growth and some potential system change as a result.
    • Specifics
      • Support for current approach to apprenticeships including the push on Degree Apprenticeships and the targets for public sector bodies (Productivity Plan)
      • Support for the levy system and a promise of further engagement with business on it (Productivity Plan)
      • The introduction of a Youth Obligation for 18-21 yr olds (Budget)
      • A pledge to develop a system of employer sponsored Institutes of Technology “to deliver high standard provision at L3/4/5” (Productivity Plan)
      • More rationalisation of qualifications and a shift towards locally determined provision (Productivity Plan)
      • A big push on a re-designated skills system, built around local planning and commissioning with more regions encouraged (Budget and Productivity Plan)
      • Continuing work on developing destination data, earnings returns and other accountability measures (Productivity Plan)
      • Introduction of a National Living Wage (Budget and Productivity Plan).    

    HE

    • Overview. Some significant changes proposed for fees and grants, commitment to the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and further opening of the door to alternative providers.
    • Specifics.
      • Changes to maintenance grants from 2016/17 (Budget and Productivity Plan)
      • Consultation on freezing the fee repayment threshold and review of the discount rate applied to loans (Budget and Productivity Plan)
      • Consultation on criteria to be used for allowing an increase in tuition fees in line with inflation (Budget and Productivity Plan)
      • Commitment to consult and introduce a TEF (Budget and Productivity Plan)
      • Further opening up of the market to new and alternative providers including a new pool of places and faster route to DAP (Budget and Productivity Plan)
      • Development of science and innovation audits  (Productivity Plan).
    read more
  • Pocket Watch - Two months and counting

    By next week, the government will have had two months. While still short of the nominal ‘first 100 days,’ it’s perhaps enough time to see how things are shaping up.

    Education, it was thought, might not be a big priority but concerns about cuts, the curriculum and coasting have changed that. As the Education Secretary said in her speech at the Festival of Education recently: “I don’t want anyone to mistake silence for stability, to presume that education is no longer a priority for the government.” Proving the point, this is an update on progress so far in the Party’s 38 education and training pledges listed in its 2015 election manifesto.   

    Manifesto Progress Check

    · On the core curriculum there were two pledges: first that secondary pupils would be required to take GCSEs in core subjects and second that Ofsted would only award highest ratings to schools that taught them. Although there’ll be consultation this autumn on some of the details, how far it’s applicable to all pupils for instance, the government has already confirmed that pupils starting secondary this Sept will be expected to take the EBacc subjects to GCSE. At the moment, accountability is likely to be through league table data.

    · On school performance there were three pledges including National Leaders taking over ‘failing’ primary schools, ‘best’ head teachers and sponsors taking over other underperforming schools and an expansion of academies and free schools. In a letter on 15 June, the government strengthened the powers of Regional School Commissioners to tackle school underperformance while other powers proposed for the Education Secretary, such as issuing warning notices and academy conversion orders, are under discussion in the current Education Bill. A definition of underperforming and/or coasting has been proposed and further consultation will also follow this autumn.

    · On school behavioural issues where there was a pledge ‘to tackle low-level disruption,’ the government has appointed a behaviour ‘expert’ who will lead a team of practitioners coming up with training, resources and advice to help teachers.

    · On apprenticeships, there were two pledges: to scrap NI contributions for apprentices under 25, pencilled in for next year and, notably, ‘to deliver 3m apprenticeships over the next 5 years,’ currently concentrating minds in the skills sector. The government has already confirmed that schools, hospitals and prisons will be set targets to recruit apprentices, the new Youth Allowance will shift those unemployed for 6 months or more on to apprenticeship programmes, formal reporting of progress will be enshrined in the Full Employment and Welfare Bill while the forthcoming Enterprise Bill will give government powers to convert ‘low-quality’ courses into apprenticeship courses.

    · On local growth and devolution of skills planning/funding, where there were four pledges covering local growth deals and devolved powers to Greater Manchester, the London Mayor and other regions wishing to bid, the Cities and Local Government Bill, intended to create a legislative framework for such developments to happen, is already progressing through Parliament. It reaches the report stage in the House of Lords on 13 July.

    · On higher education where there were a number of pledges including on science, online learning, and the implementation of a national postgrad loans system, the core pledge of a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) was the subject of a wide-ranging speech by the Minister this week. Not only will a Green Paper on the TEF follow in the autumn but the government is also interested in providing more informed choice and protection for students, knowledge exchange with business and a revised degree scale.

    read more
  • Pocket Watch – The 14-19 Conundrum

    14-19 education has always been fraught. It’s the time when youngsters go through the most changes, when we cram in the most exams and when youthful hopes and fears battle it out in equal measure.

    Getting the curriculum and support systems right at such a critical stage in a young person’s development remains one of the big challenges for the education system and many have the scars to prove it. Recent weeks have seen fresh momentum in this area with the government setting out plans for a core curriculum built around the EBacc, the CBI and the Opposition calling for a review if not overhaul of the whole 14-19 package and a group of enterprising teachers opting to seize the initiative and devise their own National Bacc. It’s eleven years since the legendary Tomlinson review attempted to do much the same for 14-19 provision and much has changed on the surface but essentially four challenges remain. 

    Four big challenges

    1. 14 or 16, at what age should students choose different curriculum and potentially future career paths? Many countries start the process at age 14 although in fairness they have systems that allow for transfer between pathways as students progress. This is not a new debate here, the Skills Minister referred to it as ‘an age-old debate that will not be settled in this parliamentary term but one we should have again,’ when he raised it in a recent debate in Parliament. Supporters point to the fact that starting at 14 could overcome some of the drifting that can happen at KS3, that youngsters are more savvy now about career choices and that we already have some institutions that operate this way, UTCs being the obvious example. Opponents, and this seems to include the DfE at present (“a rigorous curriculum until age 16 is the best way to ensure that every child succeeds,”) argue that 14 is too young to make what could be difficult choices and that what’s more important at this stage is securing a basic level of skills that provide the platform for more specialised learning.

    2. A common core. The government’s latest pronouncements about provision of the EBacc package has once again raised questions about a) the need for a common core and b) what should be in it. As Professor Chris Husbands has indicated, curriculum entitlements always tend to raise hackles as to what’s in and what’s out and the EBacc model is no different; what’s different this time is the emphasis on a more ‘academic’ core which could exclude some students and could divert attention from some wider learning. For Professor Sandra McNally: “the requirements of the EBacc seem like a minimum for a developed country”as long as they incorporate those wider employability skills. It comes down in other words to what constitutes a balanced curriculum which is where professional expertise should apply.

    3. Exams at 16. The perpetuation of an exam ‘hurdle’ at age 16 at a time when not only participation to age 18 is becoming the norm but fears about schools becoming exam factories are growing is a no-brainer to many. The poor old GCSE has been under assault for some time now and the CBI’s John Cridland was very clear in his speech last week that it should go. The problem as the FT pointed out recently is that our education system has been put together haphazardly, the bits don’t all join up neatly but do serve particular purposes, in this case a measure of performance in a system that needs a post-16 gateway. On that basis any demise could be regarded as premature.

    4. Parity of esteem (between academic and vocational routes.) A phrase that has bedevilled reform in this area for some time and is as much structural as cultural. Many would like to see the phrase dropped in favour of a focus on desired outcomes, different routes but similar results, leading to rounded and successful youngsters rather than sheep and goats.
    read more
  • Pocket Watch – Unravelling the Education Bill

    Mindful of the Prime Minister’s word at his first Cabinet meeting that they shouldn’t “waste a minute,” Depts have moved swiftly to publish a number of the Bills that were listed in last week’s Queen’s Speech.

    The Education and Adoption Bill has attracted particular interest; here’s a quick summary of what’s involved.

    What does the Bill say?

    Apart from a brief section on Local Authority adoption functions, most of this Bill is aimed at what are termed: ‘schools causing concern.’ In simple terms, the Bill creates a new category of school, the so-called ‘coasting’ school and gives the Secretary of State new powers to deal with them by amending, generally in favour of the Education Secretary, the existing powers of intervention and conversion originally set out in the Education and Inspections Act of 2006 and the Academies Act of 2010 respectively. It means a school could be directed to convert, “be required to take all reasonable steps to ensure this” and to do this within a set timescale.

    Why is the government introducing this Bill?

    Three reasons. First because it can; it was in the manifesto, the Party now has a mandate and believes it has a duty as part of the ‘good life’ promised in the election to ensure “all families have the security of knowing your children are getting a great education.” Second, because as the Prime Minister said earlier this year, the government is determined to tackle what it sees as ‘mediocrity’ in the school system and believes that “turbo-charging the academy programme” is the way to deal with it. And third, because it wants to remove what it feels have been ‘roadblocks’ to system reform whether it’s been professional opposition and/or local authority tardiness, hence the concentrating of powers in the hands of the Secretary of State and the use of the word “force” in the accompanying DfE press notice.

    What have been the reactions?

    The press notice cited a number of supporters from leading academy sponsors but there’s also been widespread criticism as well. The main criticisms are as follows. First, the concentration of powers in the hands of the Secretary of State, sections 4-11 of the Bill for instance are riddled with new powers over local authorities, governing bodies and schools in general; the TES provides a helpful summary of these. Second, the continuing failure to define just what a ‘coasting’ school is, section 1 doesn’t help much and for the moment it’s pretty much left to the Education Secretary to determine. Third, as many have pointed out, the case for academies has yet to be proven; to quote Brian Lightman, ‘academisation is not in itself a magic wand’ and conversion, let alone a rushed one may not work for everyone. And fourth, will this new punitive approach work? As the BBC’s Chris Cook argued: “I’m not clear that you will get more from pushing schools harder;” many agree.

    What happens next?

    The Bill receives a Second Reading in two weeks when some of the general principles will be discussed; further consultation will be undertaken this summer. Potentially 200+ schools a year over the next five years could come within scope creating up to 1000 more academies.  

    read more