Policy Watch

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

Keep up with what’s happening in education policy

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

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

About Steve

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

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  • Pocket Watch - 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.’ 

    read more
  • 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. 
    read more
  • Policy Eye - week ending February 27 2015

    Labour’s proposed plans to cut tuition fees, described as “tortuous” by the Party’s Business Secretary, “implausible” by some vice-chancellors and “foolish” by Vince Cable, provides the breaking news this week.

    The week summed up

    But that's not the only funding story in town at present. The adult skills sector has been badly hit by a further slice of cuts confirmed in the Dept’s letter to the Skills Funding Agency this week and the sector is pretty miffed that no-one is highlighting their problems so let’s start there.

    Basically the sector is facing a cut of 11% on the adult skills budget for 2015/16. And, and it’s a big ‘and,’ this comes after a sustained period of cuts to the adult skills training budgets as government has sought to shift the cost burden from the state to employers and individual learners, as increases in pension and insurance contributions come in and as the impact of protecting programmes like apprenticeships and English and maths could leave some providers facing cuts of up to 24%. All this too at a time when the economy is picking up and employers are gagging for trained staff. Yes, the BIS Dept has no doubt had to fend off even sharper demands and yes apprenticeship funding is up, according to the government potentially up to £800m, but the effects of the reduction on adult skills training could potentially be damaging. Individual provider budgets will be confirmed in the next few weeks but perhaps the final word for the moment at least should rest with the Association of Colleges: “adult further education is in year 10 of a 15-year cuts programme and could be entirely privately funded by 2020; at this point one third of the UK workforce will be over the age of 50.”

    Back to HE and tuition fees where at the time of writing Ed Miliband has yet to confirm the details but where the Party seems set to announce a cut in the annual tuition fee to £6000. At present commentators are lining up to highlight both concerns and comments; here’s a list of six which pretty much capture the current state of the argument.

    First, will it help the lower earners; the Institute of Fiscal Studies reckons no because the higher earners will have less to pay off and be able to do it quicker. Second, how will universities make up the shortfall of a lower fee, calculated by some vice-chancellors as up to £10bn over the next five years? Third, what about those already in the system, will they be stuck with the higher fee level? Fourth, what impact will this have on Labour itself; Times correspondent Philip Collins has labelled it more about headlines than helping the poor.  Five, why as Nick Pearce of IPPR argued has there been no proper debate about subsidies, maintenance loans and digital provision such as there’s been in the USA? And sixth is it fair? That, at present remains the $64,000 question.

    Top headlines this week

    • ‘Labour unveils plans to aid training and recruitment of head teachers. ‘ (Monday)
    • ‘MPs criticise lax oversight of £1.2bn higher education expansion.’ (Tuesday)
    • ‘Student loans system is not sustainable warns leading economist.’ (Wednesday)
    • ‘New commission on primary assessment.’ (Thursday)
    • ‘Labour to reveal how it would fund cut in tuition fees.’ (Friday)

    People/organisations in the news this week

    • The Labour Party who are about to announce plans to reduce the tuition fee for higher education in England
    • Ed Miliband who spoke to the Creative Industries Federation and pledged that a future Labour government would back creative education and the arts
    • The Education Secretary who announced the first 27 schools and organisations each awarded £15,000 to help promote pupil character and resilience
    • The Schools Minister who set out government thinking on assessment in primary education in a speech to the Reform think tank
    • Minister for Intellectual Property Baroness Neville-Rolfe who called for a better balance between accessibility and protection as part of a speech on the UK’s vision for a digital single market
    • The DfE who published further guidance on the Progress 8 accountability measure in preparation for its implementation in some cases  from this year
    • The All Party Parliamentary Group who highlighted the importance of supporting families and children in the first two years of a child’s life
    • The North East of England which saw a £330m Growth Deal for the region signed off that included a package on skills improvement
    • The BIS Dept who looked at the lessons to be learnt from  last year’s setting up of the first new FE college incorporation for 20 years and concluded that the process may need some revamping
    • The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) who published a new strategic plan for 2015-2020 with a big push on increasing the numbers of disadvantaged students entering more selective universities
    • The Public Accounts Committee who published a report taking the government to task for failing to set up adequate regulation for any expansion of the HE market particularly to alternative providers
    • HEFCE whose latest report on the  participation of young people in England entering higher education between 2006 and 2013 revealed a significant increase in the number holding L3 BTEC qualifications
    • Sir William Wakeham and Sir Nigel Shadbolt who will lead reviews of STEM and computer science HE accreditation respectively following the government’s recent Science and Innovation Strategy
    • Professor Sir Ian Diamond who as Chair of the Universities UK Efficiency Task Group published a new report on efficiency and value for money in the UKHE sector claiming that the sector has made over £1bn in cost savings over the last 3 years
    • UCAS who announced that its ‘Extra’ process is now open and running until the end of June for those applicants who haven’t yet received or confirmed an offer and want to make an extra choice
    • Developers, Freeriders, Organisers, Plodders, Recruiters, Survivors, Trainers, different categories of small and medium businesses identified in a report by the UK Commission looking at how such businesses approach training  
    • FE and training providers  facing further significant budget cuts for adult skills provision as the latest funding grant letter is released
    • Dr Lynne Sedgemore who announced plans to retire later this year after seven years exec director of the 157 Group and over 30 years in FE generally
    • The 2011 Wolf report on vocational learning for young people which four years on from its publication has now seen most of its recommendations acted on
    • Ofqual who published the results of a survey into which factors influence schools and colleges when they make purchasing decisions about particular qualifications and awarding bodies
    • Glenys Stacey, Ofqual Chief Regulator who spoke about how the current qualification reform programme was going and cautioned an incoming government against changing too much
    • Professor Graham Donaldson who called for learning from ages 3 to 16 to be a continuum without phases and key stages as he completed a major review of curriculum  and assessment arrangements in Wales
    • Exceptional school middle leaders, over a hundred of whom will be ‘invited’ to apply for year-long postings to help support underperforming schools in parts of the country
    • The Education Endowment Foundation who launched a new report to help schools make better use of Teaching Assistants
    • Shanghai maths teachers, a second group of whom arrived this week to help support the maths exchange programme launched last year
    • Former head teacher John McIntosh who will chair the new ‘teacher-led’ commission on helping primary schools develop best practice in assessment without levels
    • School absences which according to new research published by the DfE showed that for instance a pupil who didn’t miss any schooling at key stage 2 was 4.5 times more likely to achieve L5 or above than those who had missed 15-20% of the time
    • The professional association ASCL who launched its blueprint for a self-improving school system built around a new architecture and seven key elements.

    Tweet(s) of the week

    • "Just snapchat me: the new way to stay in touch with university tutors.2 @ed_ontap
    • “Students seriously under challenged by the books they are given at school, study claims.” @SchoolsImprove

    Acronym(s) of the week

    • POLAR. Participation of Local Area, used in helping define areas of advantage/disadvantage when it comes to participation in higher education.

     Quote(s) of the week

    • “I come here with an offer: to put policy for arts and culture and creativity at the heart of the next Labour Government’s mission.” Ed Miliband on Labour’s offer to the creative sector
    • “My little granddaughters scratch at magazines as though they were operating an IPad, digital natives to the core.”  The BIS Dept’s Minister for IP on modern digital natives
    • “Validity is the degree to which it is possible to measure what needs to be measured by implementing an assessment procedure.” The Chief Exec of Ofqual on the meaning of validity
    • “Levels have been a distracting, over-generalised label, giving misleading signals about the genuine attainment of pupils.” The Schools Minister on why prescribed assessment levels in primary had to go.

    Number(s) of the week

    • 11%. The size of the cut to the adult skills budget for 2015/16
    • "735m. The amount of money being put in to support fair access into higher education this year
    • 27. The number of recommendations in the 2011 Wolf Report where 20 have now been fully  implemented, 6 are in the process of and one (No 13 on carrying forward credit to a later date) partially so
    • Tenfold. The volume increase between 2006 and 2013 in the number of people entering HE with a combination of A level and BTEC qualifications (from 2,100 to 21,00). 

    What to look out for next week

    • Times HE, HEPI and OU Hustings on HE and the 2015 Election (Monday)
    • Education Committee witness session on starting school (Wednesday). 
    read more