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 - Ofsted ring the changes to inspections

    So full steam ahead it is for changes to the inspection system.

    This follows the announcement this week by Ofsted confirming widespread support for the changes listed in its recent ‘Better inspection for all’ consultation. Nearly 5000 responses were received offering broad support for the three core proposals of shorter but more frequent inspections for ‘good’ providers, the use of a Common Inspection Framework and for a full round of inspections for non-association independent schools over the next three years. Coupled with some other previously announced changes, it means Ofsted can now go ahead and plan to implement from this Sept what it describes as ‘some of the most significant changes in its history.’  The longer-term issue of where Ofsted sits within a self-improving system remains, as the Education Committee discussed in a witness session with the Chief Inspector last week but for the moment, this is how things now look.

    What are the main changes?

    1.    Ofsted will introduce shorter but more frequent (every three years) inspections from this September for schools, academies and FE providers judged ‘good’ at their last inspection. The key issue here is ‘proportionate,’ so not subjecting proven providers to full inspections every five years, six for FE, but using an approach that is more, well proportionate to the level of risk. Concerns had also been voiced that a gap of five or six years between visits was too long, things could change in the interim which might only be picked up when problems had set in, so more regular monitoring should help here too. Short inspections would also allow for what the report calls ‘greater professional dialogue’ between inspectors and institutional leaders, in other words more meaningful conversations on strengths and weaknesses, given that these occasions would not be mini full inspections. This new system will also apply to other providers rated good, such as special schools and pupil referral units but not yet to early years’ providers. And although it remains subject to parliamentary approval, the aim is to pilot some short inspection visits between now and the summer and to introduce the new approach fully from Sept 2015

    2.    Inspections will be carried out using a uniform Common Inspection Framework. The key issue here is consistency of judgements, let alone better coherence and comparability which along with the new contracting and training arrangements for individual inspectors, should be greatly improved by the use of a common approach. There was some worry that a ’one size fits all’ model covering everything from early years to academies to skills provision might not be appropriate but Ofsted intends to overcome this by producing separate handbooks. The new Framework will also see some new emphasis placed on areas like the quality of assessment which has been added to the quality of teaching and learning, pupil welfare, learner outcomes, the effectiveness of leadership and management and the appropriateness of the curriculum generally. In addition grades may be given for some specific areas of post-16 activity such as study programmes and traineeships

    3.    And already announced. From this Sept, Ofsted will no longer sub-contract inspections but bring the whole process in-house. Second, the separate graded judgements for early years and school sixth form provision introduced last Sept will remain and third, the position on no-notice inspections is unchanged: it will only be used when safeguarding issues are raised. 

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  • Policy Tracker - Keeping track of what happened in the world of education in January 2015

    Election year has got off to a flyer with plenty happening around education but little sense of any grand new vision. Reports on Academies, apprentice funding, FS and HEQA have all set the tone.

    Key headlines from the month

    • Key dates. DfE publishes main 2015 diary dates for schools and colleges 
    • Early Years Pupil Premium. Over £1m given to first local authorities
    • KS2 tests. Arrangements for 2015 published
    • Child illiteracy. Nick Clegg pledges to eradicate by 2025
    • Character Awards. Schools and organisations invited to apply
    • Well-being. First head of well-being in a UK secondary school to be trialled
    • GCSE D/T. Introduction put back a year to 2017
    • Computing. Government pledges new support for teachers
    • AS levels. UCAS survey reveals latest picture on proposed take-up
    • GCSEs/AS/A’ levels. Content and assessment info for 2016 starts published
    • Initial Teaching Training. Outcomes of latest review published
    • Head teachers. New national excellence standards published
    • Education Endowment Fund. Provides new tool to help close attainment gaps
    • School places. 78% of local authorities said to be under pressure for primary places
    • Free Schools. 256 now open and a further 111 preparing to in latest DfE listing
    • Grammar schools. MPs debate future funding
    • Sixth Form Colleges. Celebrities join the call to remove VAT costs
    • Destination data. Latest (2013) figures for KS4/KS5 learners show mixed picture
    • League Tables. Latest tables reflect impact of new tougher rules
    • Teach Too. Phase 2 (of teaching partnership projects with industry) launched
    • Functional Skills. ETF launch their review as Ofqual report on theirs
    • Soft skills. New employer-led campaign launched
    • Apprenticeship funding. Government calls for more time to review options
    • Growth Deals. Government allocates further £1bn
    • HEFCE. Offers best practice models for universities to demonstrate how they spend funds
    • P/T students. Down 7% on the previous year in latest stats
    • Graduates. Booming job market for some in latest high fliers report
    • Widening HE participation. New national outreach networks launched
    • Uni applications. Up 2% overall on last year in UCAS latest figures
    • Private HE providers. Form a new independent grouping.

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

    • Update from UUK’s Student Funding Panel. Universities UK outlines initial issues emerging from its Panel looking into UK student funding and due to report before the election
    • Engineering UK 2015. The sector’s latest annual report calls for a big increase in engineering apprentices and graduates needed to fill an annual current shortfall of 55,000 skilled workers
    • Government Response on Apprenticeship Funding. The government finds little support for either of its two proposed models and calls for more time to rethink options
    • The Value of Soft Skills to the UK Economy. McDonalds publishes a commissioned report showing that so-called soft skills are crucial to individuals and worth £88bn to the UK economy
    • The future of quality assessment in HE. The Steering Group reviewing options issues a call for thoughts as it considers initial principles
    • Youth Index 2015. The Prince’s Trust releases its annual testing of the pulse of young people and finds many, especially the low-skilled, at a very low ebb and anxious about their future
    • Unpacking Qualification Reform. UCAS finds 66% of schools and colleges surveyed will offer standalone AS quals but calls for continued dialogue with admissions officers
    • National standards of excellence for head teachers. The DfE prepares to go ahead with five of the six recommendations accompanying the revised prof standards for head teachers
    • Carter Review of Initial Teacher Training. Sir Andrew Carter publishes the results of his review into ITT and calls for a new independent body to set a future framework
    • Making Reforms Happen. The OECD reviews education reforms in different countries over recent years and laments the lack of proper evaluation of what works
    • Progress matters in Primary too. The think tank CentreForum makes the case for pupil progress as the main measure of primary school accountability in a report supported by Pearson
    • 16-18 year old participation. The Public Accounts Committee continues to express concerns that government initiatives aren’t properly evaluated and that too many young people disappear
    • Growth Dashboard. The government publishes its latest inventory of government and sector performance against its key industrial and economic targets
    • Our Reflections. The Education Technology Action Group (ELTAG) offer their thoughts on future development of learning and assessment technology
    • Reformed GCSE and A level subject content consultation. The DfE and Ofqual publish the latest batch of content and assessment information on these 2016 starts
    • Improving Functional Skills Qualifications. Ofqual puts forwards four reform proposals to help improve standards and assessment and pledges to return in the autumn to review progress
    • Academies and Free Schools. The Education Committee finds no conclusive evidence that they have yet raised standards or closed gaps and calls for greater transparency on future strategy
    • School oversight and intervention. The Public Accounts Committee calls for greater clarity in where responsibilities lie in overseeing the school system.

    Speeches of the month

    • Sir David Bell’s 9 January ASE speech calls for reforms to A levels, changes to the provision of teacher training and for a new body to oversee curriculum development
    • Nicky Morgan’s 19 January Education World Forum speech continues to advocate the case for teachers as ‘gifted, dedicated professionals who regularly go the extra mile’
    • Nicky Morgan’s 21 January BETT speech pledges additional match funding and support to help train the next generation of computing teachers
    • Nick Gibb’s 22 January OECD Education Policy Outlook speech outlines how selected international evidence has helped drive forward the government’s education reforms
    • Tristram Hunt’s 22 January BETT speech highlights how the digital revolution provides education with an opportunity to transform academic and vocational learning
    • Nicky Morgan’s 27 January Politeia speech stresses the importance of a knowledge-based curriculum as part of her vision for education. 

    Quotes of the month

    • “I was interested in education before but it has been a steep learning curve, there’s lots of education lingo and acronyms.” The Education Secretary on getting to grips with the job
    • “I am desperate for a conversation that leaves behind the incendiary rhetoric of the Blob and the class war.” The Shadow Education Secretary on debating education in the election
    • “Current evidence does not allow us to draw conclusions on whether academies in themselves are a positive force for change.” The Education Committee is left uncertain about academies
    • “Young people who have five or more A*-C GCSEs rate their happiness higher than those who don’t.” The Prince’s Trust assesses the mood of young people in its latest Youth Index
    • “To date, I think we’d be better spending the money on recruiting and training great teachers and sticking them in front of old-fashioned blackboards.” NAHT’s Russell Hobby on edtech
    • “If the culture is right, it’s a calm and orderly place, the head is marching round corridors making sure children are behaving themselves and doing well.” Sir Michel Wilshaw on good schools. 

    Word or phrase of the month

    ‘To greenhouse.’ To nurture an idea. 

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  • Policy Eye - week ending January 30 2015

    Schools and HE have been making the news this week and it’s been a very mixed bag.

    The week summed up

    For schools there have been two issues. One has been about performance and how this should be measured and reported and the other has been about the school system itself and whether changes here, and in particular what’s known as ‘academisation,’ has helped raised standards.

    Issues of performance have arisen because this week has seen the annual publication of the school ‘league’ tables, different this year following the changes to early entry, iGCSEs and to vocational qualification recognition. The net result has seen a number of independent schools at the bottom of the league tables and a doubling of the number of state schools who have fallen below the required floor standard leading in turn to a series of questions about the merits or otherwise of the current system. What started 20 years ago as an exercise in creating the informed consumer has pretty much ended up creating a very confused consumer. As Jon Coles, formerly in charge of such things at the DfE argued in the Independent this week, the problem is that the government is only providing the data it prefers, not that which consumers seek. At present that seems to be coming from alternative sources but it seems likely that the continuing data revolution will lead to further changes in the ways school output is reported.

    The second issue facing schools this week has been about the reforms to the school system where two critical reports, one from the Education Committee and the other from the Public Accounts Committee, have raised challenging questions about the diversification of the system and oversight of it. Academies in particular have been under intense scrutiny this week but the wider issue is that the creation of different types of school have changed the operation of the school system in many ways, accountability, funding, governance and so on. It means any incoming government this year will have to think carefully about how the system should operate in the future.

    As for HE, two issues have been gathering steam here also this week. One is about alternative providers, part of the government’s original White Paper plans for opening out the HE sector and giving students greater choice but remaining controversial as concerns emerge about accountability, funding and quality. Here the government has moved to stem some of the concerns with a series of measures to strengthen requisite quality assurance arrangements.

    And the other issue is about tuition fees with Labour apparently poised to announce its policy in this area potentially encompassing a reduction in the maximum fee level to £6000. According to BBC expert Robert Peston, this could come at a great cost, potentially £2.5bn a year based on current loan rates. Not unnaturally the FE sector is keeping a watchful eye for any raid on the skills budget to help pay for this. By all accounts there’s no done deal yet but nerves are fraying. 

    Top headlines this week

    • ‘Majority of UK’s most influential had independent school education-survey’ (Monday
    • ‘No proof academies raise standards, say MPs.’ (Tuesday)
    • ‘Ofqual issues four-point improvement plan for functional skills.’ (Wednesday
    • ‘League Tables branded ‘a nonsense’ by private schools.’ (Thursday
    • ‘Government announces new rules for private colleges.’ (Friday

    People/organisations in the news this week

    • The HE Minister who announced a series of measures including annual re-designation and minimum requirements on registering students intended to beef up quality assurance arrangements for alternative HE providers
    • The Education Secretary who underlined the importance of a knowledge-based curriculum in a keynote speech outlining her vision for education which also included a call to rethink the position on practical assessments in GCSE science
    • MPs of all Parties, many of whom are lining up to support an early day motion on removing international students from net migration targets 
    • The think tank Policy Exchange who published a report showing how smarter use of technology and data could help local authorities save up to £10bn over the next 5 years
    • Best of Both worlds, the title of a new guide from the CBI and sponsored by Middlesex University, showing how HE and business can work together on skills and innovation
    • The Association of Graduate Employers who became the latest organisation to predict a buoyant labour market (vacancies up 11.9%) for graduates in 2015
    • UCAS who confirmed that applications to higher education were up, particularly from EU applicants, as it reported on the position following the important Jan 15 deadline
    • Local Growth money allocated to LEPs this week to support regional skills, housing and transport initiatives
    • The Education and Training Foundation whose recent report on FE leadership and management found declining levels of satisfaction
    • The Edge Foundation who published new research in the build-up to this year’s VQ Day showing that young people had little idea about which jobs had the best earnings potential
    • Apprenticeship and Traineeship figures, both up in the latest official figures for the first quarter of the 2014/15 year including 54,000 apprenticeships starts for 16-19 yr olds and 5,000 traineeship starts
    • Ofqual who published its long-awaited report into L2 Functional Skills proposing changes in four key areas including the quality of assessment materials and standard setting
    • Ed Sallis, former Chief Exec of Highlands College, who is heading up the review into non-GCSE English and maths which got under way this week
    • KS4/KS5 destination figures for the period up to March 2013 showing 91% of KS4 learners in education, employment or training a year after course completion (up 2%) but 71% (a 3% drop) for KS5 learners
    • 2016 GCSEs and AS/A’ levels where content and assessment arrangements for a further batch of 2016 starts were confirmed by the DfE and Ofqual respectively
    • School and College league tables for 2014 performance which were published this week to mixed reactions as the impact of some of the government’s changed rules became apparent
    • ASCL, NAHT,PiXL and United Learning who published alternative performance tables offering a more ‘rounded’ picture of school/learner performance
    • The Education Committee who published an important report on the government’s programme of Academies and Free Schools but could find no conclusive evidence so far that they had raised standards or closed the gap
    • Academies, in the news in other respects this week with the Public Accounts Committee asking questions of the head of the Durand Trust and the Gizzi Review reporting no irregularities in the Norfolk Academies inspection issue
    • School oversight, debated by MPs this week and the subject of a critical report from the Public Accounts Committee
    • Sir Anthony Seldon who used his Oxford lecture to express concerns about the failure of the major parties to come up with any convincing strategies to tackle social mobility 
    • Heavy workloads, cited by ¾ teachers in a recent survey as the top reason why they’re quitting teaching with ’wanting to make a difference for young people’ as the main reason why they started teaching in the first place
    • Music and arts activities for children, especially the music education hubs where funding will be stretched into a further year under an announcement from the DfE this week 
    • Victoria Beer, Chair of the Teaching Schools Council, who was announced as Chair of the panel who will judge the 2015 DfE Character Awards next month
    • Teachers, shop assistants and hospitality staff who were among the unhappiest workers in a recent survey looking at pay rates 
    • ‘Associate dean of eureka moments,’ a new post being advertised at Bristol University. 

    Tweet(s) of the week 

    • ‘Private schools happy to be at bottom of league tables; not sulking just don’t care.’ @Telegraph
    • Countries with better maths scores allocate resources more equitably. It’s not how much you spend but how you spend it.’ @OECD

    Acronym(s) of the week

    • SFR. (Statistical First Release,) the Dept’s official statistical publications showing data, such as the destination data this week, collected on schools, children and young people. 

    Quote(s) of the week 

    • “It’s still too early to know how much the academies programme has helped raise standards.” The Chair of the Education Committee summarises the findings in his Committee’s report on Academies and Free Schools
    • “I am concerned that a decision to remove practical assessment from science qualifications is in danger of holding back the next generation of scientists.” The Education secretary steps into the debate about the assessment of science practicals
    • “With this review we are working to establish what kind of improvements might be needed to make sure non-GCSE English and maths qualifications have labour market respect.” The Chair of the review of non-GCSE English and maths which got under way this week. 

    Number(s) of the week

    • 330. The number of state secondary schools who have fallen below the floor standard (of 40% of pupils gaining 5 A*- Cs including Eng/maths) in the latest ‘league’ tables and which has doubled since last year as new rules have applied
    • 2%. The increase in applications to higher education against the same stage last year    
    • 32.2. The average number of hours we work a week according to latest data, up slightly
    • 40%. The number of people who went to independent school in Debrett’s latest survey of the top influential people in the UK.  

    What to look out for next week

    • HE Minister Greg Clark speaks at the HEFCE Annual Conference (Wednesday)
    • Opposition-led debate on Apprenticeships (Wednesday). 
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  • Pocket Watch – What now for Academies?

    Education currently lies seventh in the list of voter concerns, wedged between tax and pensions but one issue that may well push it up the list is that of school performance and whether reforms such as the development of Academies and Free Schools have helped or not.

    This week, the Education Committee, which has been conducting an extensive inquiry into the matter, offered its verdict and like others who have gone before, was unable to come down on one side or another: “current evidence does not allow us to draw conclusions on whether academies in themselves are a positive force for change.” It did, however, come up with some key messages. 

    Key messages from the Education Committee Report

    1. Isolating the factors that determine one school’s success from another is not straightforward and in the case of Academies which can be of two types (sponsored and converter) and working in different relationships, even more so. The DfE has argued that autonomy is an important ingredient and made it one of the two defining features behind the drive for Academies but as Andreas Schleicher of the OECD and other witnesses told the Committee, “there are many other aspects at least as important” to school success. The quality of teaching and leadership was cited as the most important but as the NAHT argued, parental support, capital and human resources, high expectations can be equally so. The Committee supported extending curriculum freedoms to all schools but believed that more evidence was needed about what really determines school success.

    2. How far the primary sector should be part of the Academy movement remains a moot point. The government has certainly pushed for this over the last couple of years and has put funding behind it but as the Committee heard, academisation can generate new admin burdens and many primary schools have their own successful local collaborative arrangements anyway. The Committee concluded that more research was needed to determine what worked best for primary schools and how far academisation would help.

    3. Free schools remain controversial and questions about cost, quality and need were all raised in the Inquiry. Over 250 Free Schools are now open and 100+ preparing to but these are early days, only a small number have been inspected and impact evidence is limited. So more transparency and clarity was needed about how such schools are determined, where they fit into the landscape and what impact they appear to be having.

    4. The question of management and oversight of the new schools system and whether for example a middle tier arrangement between central and local government is needed, remains pertinent. Basically there are concerns about where responsibilities lie and particularly in the case of large Academy chains, where accountabilities lie. The Committee called for the roles of Local Authorities and Regional School Commissioners to be clarified, for procedures for brokerage to be strengthened and for oversight of chains to be improved.
    5. In terms of the future, much may hinge on which Party is in power after the election as to whether the current trend towards diversification continues or whether schools are brought together into a more coherent system. The Committee was keen that whoever is in power should spell out its vision for the future of the school system more clearly, that greater transparency and accountability by not just the Dept but by agencies such as the EFA should follow and that the pace of reform should be reviewed.

    In all, the Committee came up with 43 recommendations and while acknowledging that many schools were now performing better, warned against any claims as to why until further research and evidence had been generated.    

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  • Pocket Watch – Policy Lessons from this year’s BETT show

    Now in its 31st year, the annual BETT show which has been taking place this week offers a great opportunity to showcase the latest gadgets and advances in learning technology but also a useful platform for any policy announcements.

    It was at BETT 2012, for instance, that Michael Gove made his landmark announcement about ditching the old ’dull and demotivating’ IT curriculum in favour of the industry-led computing curriculum that we now have. This year a number of Ministers have been on hand to offer their thoughts; so what have we learned?

    Key policy announcements that have come out this week

    1. Last week’s Microsoft/Computing at school survey which revealed that ‘68% of primary and secondary teachers are concerned that their pupils have a better understanding of computing than they do,’ highlighted some of the challenges being faced by teachers implementing the new computing curriculum. In response, the government is pledging to support the scheme led by companies such as Microsoft and Google who have been working in partnership with universities like UCL and Oxford since last year offering training and support for teachers. £3.6m is being made available to support five new projects

    2. Barefoot will continue. Barefoot is a training programme, led by the British Computer Society and BT and aimed particularly at primary school teachers for whom it offers free in-school workshops. So far it has trained some 3000 teachers from over 800 schools but DfE funding was due to finish this March. This week, however, BT stepped in with funding to ensure the programme will be able to run for the rest of this year

    3. Wi-fi connectivity is still an issue for many schools. Apparently it’s now available in 78% of homes and businesses but according to figures quoted in the Secretary of State’s speech, admittedly for last year, 65% of primary schools and 54% of secondary schools don’t have access to good wi-fi connections. The government’s aim is to have super-fast broadband available across 95% of the UK by 2017 and is putting in £1.7bn to support this

    4. The Education Technology Action Group (ETAG) which was set up a year ago by the previous Skills Minister to advise on how digital technology might help teachers, produced its first report this week with 19 recommendations. Some of these were standard expectations about training, access and the use of data but the section on assessment was perhaps the most eye-catching and included a big nudge towards digital technology-enabled assessment for General Qualifications from 2015/16

    5. Still on the future. In her speech, the Education Secretary outlined three areas where she felt technology could help ‘transform the world of education.’ The first, that of helping generate data that could be used to assess the economic worth of certain qualifications, has attracted considerable comment and shows continuing political interest in learning outcomes and destinations as measures of performance. The other two, supporting assessment/ improving information flows for parents, and helping to reduce teacher workloads, are more mainstream although some remain to be convinced about the latter

    6. That FELTAG recommendation for 10% online learning. The Skills Minister endorsed the line from the SFA that this was not a prescriptive target but an attempt to encourage more blended and innovative approaches to learning and assessment in FE, so an aspiration

    7. And further afield. Not part of BETT but interesting nevertheless, the government this week launched its vision for a single EU digital market for many products and services and the Gates Foundation published its latest open letter on learning developments. 
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