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 - Three Lessons from National Apprenticeship Week

    So as another busy National Apprenticeship Week draws to a close, what have we learned? Arguably three things.

    First, that there’s growing interest in both pre-level and higher-level apprenticeships; second that the Apprenticeship Trailblazers and Traineeship schemes are going OK but that more needs doing; and third that a number of issues around apprenticeships remain. Here’s a quick run-down on each of these three key areas.

    Young and higher-level apprenticeships

    Re-creating a young or pre-apprenticeship route has been a source of debate for some time and surfaced again this week with the Education Committee, the AoC and the AELP all calling for a dedicated programme. The Education Committee proposed reviving the 14-16 Young Apprenticeship scheme or something similar while the AoC and AELP called for the Traineeship scheme for 16-24 year olds to be built in as a stepping stone programme. At the other end of the scale where Labour has been focusing its interest recently and where the government has been promoting its new Degree Apprenticeships, Professors Sir Keith Burnett and Sir Nigel Thrift, Vice-Chancellors at Sheffield and Warwick Universities respectively published a Paper calling for a new HEFCE funded higher vocational route leading to 40,000 more higher apprenticeships as part of a new ‘gold standard’ higher vocational route. It’s getting to be a busy route.

    Apprenticeship Trailblazer and Traineeship Schemes

    Commissioned evaluations on both of these were published by the BIS Dept this week, early days in both cases but with some useful initial analysis all the same. On the Trailblazers, closer employer working has helped raise the quality and status of the standards though there have been issues over assessment, grading and general working practices that have not been helped by uncertainty over the future funding regime and over initial remits and roles. On the first year of traineeships, numbers are growing and according to the Skills Minister hoping to double to 20,000 this year, most (79%) trainees appear happy with their training and over a half have progressed on to an apprenticeship, work or further training. Some teething problems remain over the referral process, guidance and support and English and maths provision and a fuller survey will be undertaken next year.

    Current Issues

    Nothing particularly new here perhaps but three areas where concerns remain high. First funding, variously highlighted by the Education Committee, the think tank Demos and Edge where the general consensus is that any new regime should allow employers some element of choice and shouldn’t be so complicated as to put employers off. The Skills Minister has recently confirmed that ‘giving employers direct control over funding for apprenticeship training and assessment remains a non-negotiable part of our reforms.’ Second, mentioned by all of the above and more, the need to improve guidance and information especially at a school level and especially about work-based alternatives where, as the Education Committee reported: “there remains a cultural preference for the academic over the vocational.” And third, also a pretty universal issue, quality and how best to ensure it with Labour’s Chuka Umanna in his speech during the week citing his Party’s commitment to 2yr/Level 3 apprenticeships as part of “a new universal gold standard.”

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  • Pocket Watch - The Free School Conundrum

    Are Free Schools “a huge success story” as the Education Secretary claimed this week, or are they an expensive, disruptive and unproven experiment?

    Do they help to raise standards, offer places for pupils in areas of need and provide a popular choice for parents? Or are they an experiment, in the words of one teacher union, by a Party with an “obsessive ideological focus on structural change?”

    The arguments which were fierce enough when Michael Gove first expressed support for the model before the last general election have surfaced again this week just months away from the next general election following the publication of a new report on the matter by the think tank Policy Exchange and the announcement by the Prime Minister that a future Conservative government would “hope to open at least 500 more Free Schools” over the lifetime of the next Parliament. There are clearly strong views on all sides so how do things stand?

    The current situation

    Currently 256 Free Schools are now open with a further 156 approved to do so from this September. Along with the 49 new ones announced this week and the 500 proposed, it would take the number of Free Schools over the next five years up to 900; four have closed since 2010. The current capital budget for Free Schools is £1.5bn though both the National Audit Office and Public Accounts Committee have expressed concerns about ’escalating costs.’ Free Schools are inspected by Ofsted and their results are published in performance tables.

    The arguments

    Free Schools have attracted strong views from the start and it was noticeable that in one of the case studies cited on the Gov.UK website on setting up a Free School, in this case primary, the head teacher decided on a low-key approach: “we tended to keep very quiet about what we were doing.” The arguments perhaps revolve around three areas. First about whether they really do help push up standards not just internally but also for surrounding schools. Nick Gibb told the recent Education Committee Inquiry that 71% of those inspected so far had been rated good or outstanding while Policy Exchange, who examined comparative performance data of neighbouring schools concluded that the ripple effect on standards locally was powerful. Critics argue that the evidence base for both assumptions was too small and that other factors need to be considered; Datalab for example suggested that the pupil premium may be just as important. Second whether they’re expensive, drain valuable resources and are in areas where there’s no problem with places. The New Schools Network claim that actually they ‘are eight times more likely to be located in the most than the least deprived authorities’ while Policy Exchange argue that 72% are in areas with a projected lack of places in the future. Critics argue that the data is inconclusive and that even the revered OECD has expressed concerns about the dangers of socio-economic segregation. And third, that they’re popular and what parents want. The Prime Minister clearly thinks so and Policy Exchange point to the fact that there are 2.7 applicants for every place. Critics argue that demand for places is stronger in some other schools and that regional variations limit comparisons. For many, the issue is local accountability and choice.

    And are they a success or not?

    The general verdict whether from the Education Committee, ‘fact checker’ The Conversation or the data cruncher Datatlab is that actually ‘it’s too soon to know.’ 

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  • Policy Eye - week ending March 6 2015

    We’re moving into the last few weeks of this current Parliament. At the end of this month. March 30 to be precise, Parliament will be dissolved and the so-called purdah, when the hatches come down on new business and initiatives, will begin.

    The week summed up

    It’s not quite all over yet of course, there’s still a lot of business to be completed and some tidying up to be done. Next week for instance sees the latest National Apprenticeship Week where given the current policy interest in apprenticeships we’re likely to see Ministers from all Parties out in force across the country lending their support. Key days are likely to be the Monday when any policy directions or signals will be made, Wednesday when the theme is traineeships and young people and Thursday when higher apprenticeships are in the spotlight. The Deputy Prime Minister has already issued a video message heralding the launch of the week of activities which will also include a number of conferences, events and publication launches up and down the country.

    And then the week after that we move on to one of the final set piece occasions of this Parliament in the form of Budget 2015 when the Chancellor will look to ensure that the economic mood is positive as the electioneering begins in earnest.

    For education, funding inevitably remains one of the major causes of concern and many people will be waiting for the Spending Review that will follow the election later this year with varying degrees of trepidation accordingly. It’s hard to convey all the concerns in simple terms but for the moment this is how they are shaping up.

    For schools, the issue is what to ring fence and at what cost, should it be for ages 5-16 or should it be from early years through to age 18? And if the latter is it the overall budget or per-pupil funding that should be protected? The Conservatives have gone for flat cash per-pupil aged 5-16, Labour and the Lib-Dems for protected budget funding from cradle to college. You pays your money, perhaps. For FE, the issue is the gradual erosion of government grants and the shift towards business and individual investment where the question for all Parties, yet to be fully answered though local commissioning is seen as part of it, is how to build a modern skills policy on an evolving business model. And for HE where the reverberations from Labour’s recent HE tuition fees announcement are still being felt, the issue is how to get the balance right between state and student investment while protecting the most disadvantaged and ensuring a strong presence in the global market. Another Commission on HE funding? Some think so.

    Top headlines this week

    • ‘Give girls careers advice before age of 10 says Shadow Education Secretary.’ (Monday)
    • ‘All schools need trained careers advisers, says charity.’ (Tuesday)
    • ‘Audit Office to examine financial sustainability of FE sector.’ (Wednesday)
    • ‘Exam changes risk problems for schools, say heads.’ (Thursday)
    • ‘Tories consider plan to pay off teachers’ student debt.’ (Friday)

    People/organisations in the news this week

    • The Conservatives who are said to be considering further announcements about HE funding and progression pathways
    • Schools, colleges and universities all facing new responsibilities under the latest Counter Terrorism and Security Act which became law a couple of weeks ago
    • The BIS Dept who published a brief case study report on the impact of reformed governance in colleges
    • The University Alliance who called for a new HE Regulation Bill as part of its response to HEFCE’s quality assurance review
    • Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs,) the subject of a new report by the think tank Localis calling for LEPs to be given greater powers and funding including over all adult skills training
    • The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission who published a report calling on any incoming government to take action in five priority areas including education
    • The YMCA who called on all Parties to prioritise jobless young people in their latest manifesto
    • The Manufacturer’s Organisation EEF who launched a new skills manifesto calling an increase in the numbers of manufacturing apprentice and graduates and better training in schools
    • The Joseph Rowntree Foundation who suggested six other ways that Labour’s higher education ‘money’  might be better used such as supporting careers guidance and/or skills training
    • The Association of Colleges (AoC) who questioned what would happen under Labour’s new HE fees policy to those colleges already charging less than the £9000 maximum
    • The National Audit Office who will announced a review into the financial sustainability of colleges and how this is managed by government and its agencies
    • The think tank Demos who published the final report from its year-long inquiry into Construction and other apprenticeships calling for more to done to incentivise apprenticeships in schools,  for a quality charter mark for programmes and for clarity on funding schemes
    • UCL’s Institute of Education who researched English and maths performance post-16 and found the attainment gap worsening rather than improving
    • NIACE who looked in to how to get 16-24 year olds interested in carrying on with English and maths and found that it helps when it’s fun, interactive and helps get a job
    • Ofqual who announced its sticking with proposed changes to practical assessment in GCSE science despite concern including those from the Secretary of State
    • Teach First who called on all schools to appoint a middle manager to lead on careers guidance as it launched its own new careers programme for its recruits
    • Ofsted who published a report on how some secondary schools are supporting their most able pupils and concluded that a lot more ‘stretch and challenge’ was needed
    • Secondary schools where places for this Sept were allocated this week with the primary ‘bulge’ on places starting to be felt
    • Nick Gibb, the Schools Minister who was on hand to support this year’s World Book Day and announced that the government is going to put funding in to help more primary schools set up book clubs
    • Education Datalab, a new research group specialising in the use of large datasets to help inform and improve education policy making. 

    Tweet(s) of the week

    • “We should not have all STEM and no flower.” @Director_IOE
    • “That’s it. Last education questions before the election. All done. It wasn’t a classic.” @Schools Week
    • “The election should be a time for parties to set out how they’ll tackle poverty but so far they’ve failed, says Alan Milburn.” @mrsjacksoncooks
    • “Publishers should club together to start a Real Maths Day, one that is not just a huge marketing exercise. Any takers? @timstirrup (in response to this week’s World Book Day)
    • “Perhaps October babies derive from après-ski while June babies follow a wet weekend in Blackpool.” @OldDitch (in response to the this week’s Committee Inquiry into the education attainment of summer babies).

    Acronym(s) of the week

    • NMITE. The New Model in Technology and Engineering, the UK’s first new purpose built university for 30 years opening in Hereford in two years time
    • CEIAG. Careers education, information, advice and guidance.

    Quote(s) of the week

    • “We have consulted widely and have identified a new approach to the assessment of practical science that will liberate teachers to offer a wider variety of classroom experimentation and promote effective student progression to further study or employment.” Ofqual announces changes for GCSE science practicals
    • “In this environment, planning becomes a guessing game.” A Guardian blogger reflects on Labour’s tuition fees announcement.

    Number(s) of the week

    • 8. The minimum number of practical activities pupils must complete for the new GCSE single science
    • 4 out of 5. The number of 16-18 year olds who care about politics according to a survey by YouGov and Speakers for Schools.  

    What to look out for next week

    • National Apprenticeship Week (all week with a focus on policy on Monday, traineeships on Wed and higher apprenticeships on Thursday)
    • Education Committee publish their report into 16-19 apprenticeships and traineeships (Monday)
    • The think tank Policy Exchange publish a report into Free Schools (Monday)
    • Westminster debate on school funding (Tuesday)
    • Inaugural lecture by for the FE Trust for Leadership by Dr James Krantz  (Tuesday)
    • TES Global pre-election debate with each of the 3 Education Secretaries (Wednesday)
    • Demos launch of the final report from its Apprenticeship commission (Thursday).
    read more
  • Policy Tracker - Keeping track of what happened in the world of education in February 2015

    It’s been a month which has seen education power up the agenda as this month’s listing shows.

    Key headlines from the month

    • Baseline assessments. DfE lists approved providers
    • Primary assessment. DfE launches new commission to review best practice
    • Class sizes. Labour pledges to restrict to 30 for 5,6,7 yr olds
    • School places. DfE puts in more money to cover next 3 years
    • 11 yr olds. The Education Secretary plans new benchmark standards
    • GCSEs/A levels. DfE and Ofqual publishes regs and guidance for 2016 batch
    • Science practicals. Ofqual confirms new uncoupled arrangements at A level
    • Maths. Cambridge Maths launch new manifesto to raise maths standards
    • PSHE. Education Committee calls for the subject to be beefed up
    • ALCAB. A level content advisory body stood down ‘for the time being’
    • Teacher Workloads. Debates continue about whether real issues tackled
    • Academies. The government plans to extend to schools requiring improvement 
    • School funding. The government sticks to ‘flat-cash,’ Labour and Lib-Dems plan protection
    • Inspections. Ofsted confirms shorter more frequent inspections from Sept 2015
    • Sixth Form Colleges. MPs sign up to removing the VAT burden
    • Work experience. Labour promise it for 14-16 yr olds as UKCES find it’s drying up
    • Apprenticeships. Labour pledges to create 80,000 more a year
    • Voc Quals. Ofqual announces consultation on new post QCF framework
    • FE. Further squeeze on adult skills budget signalled in latest funding letter
    • North East. Gets a new Growth Deal
    • UCAS. Gearing up to include applications to European as well as UK universities
    • HE. HEFCE publishes latest Business Plan
    • HE regulation. UUK proposes new statutory body
    • HE tuition fees. Labour confirms plans to cut fees by a third
    • HE participation. OFFA calls for faster progress on fair access at selective universities
    • Alternative HE providers. Public Accounts Committee expresses concerns about quality and costs
    • UKMoocs. Tops a million learners. 

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

    Speeches of the month

    • Greg Clark’s 4 February HEFCE Annual Conference speech acknowledges how important HE is to the country and what the government is doing to support it
    • Gleny Stacey’s 4 February Association of Colleges Examining officers speech explains what changes Ofqual is making to improve the exam system including the changes to practical work
    • David Cameron’s 10 February British Chambers of Commerce speech spells out how the government has been supporting business and pledges more of the same to help growth
    • Ed Balls’ 10 February British Chambers of Commerce speech calls for a new industrial policy, a competitive tax system and reform rather than exit from the EU
    • Glenys Stacey’s 12 February speech to the Skills Summit sets out Ofqual’s approach to regulating adult voc quals and announces consultation on a new framework
    • Ed Miliband’s 16 February industrial plan speech pledges more apprenticeships as part of a range of measures to raise productivity and prosperity for all
    • Glenys Stacey’s 25 February Next Steps speech sets out progress being made in reforming GCSEs and A levels and warns against throwing it all away
    • Nick Gibb’s 25 February Reform speech sets out government thinking on primary assessment and what the government is hoping for from the current reforms.

    Quotes of the month

    • “No one wants their child to go to a failing school and no one wants them to go to a coasting school either.” The Prime Minister on raising school standards
    • "I’m not saying that every Labour minister under the last administration was universally loved but…” .” Ed Miliband promises a new beginning for teachers
    • “It is worth noting that the average college has made 105 redundancies since 2009/10.” The Chief Ex of the AoC on the pressures in FE as the latest funding letter brings more bad news
    • “I would ask any incoming government to consider carefully before tinkering under the bonnet of GCSEs and A levels in the near future.” The Chief Exc of Ofqual on sticking to plan
    • “We do not believe your proposals will get close to the root cause of the workload problem. “ Teacher unions write to the Education Secretary about the workforce reforms.

    Word or phrase of the month

    • 'Polyanna creep.’ To try and show things in a better light. 
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