Policy Watch

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  • Pocket Watch - Lining up the Bills

    This week saw the first set piece occasion of the new Parliament when the government outlined its legislative programme in the Queen’s Speech.

    In the words of the Prime Minister, it was “a clear programme for working people, social justice and bringing our country together,” stitched together under the banner of ‘One Nation’ and offering as the manifesto put it, ‘security and opportunity for everyone at every stage of life.’ For many people, notably in education, the more challenging half of the government’s life plan comes in July when the Chancellor announces his Summer Budget but for the moment, there’s plenty to concentrate the mind with at least six Bills likely to affect education in some way, the first three in particular. Details below.

    Six education-related Bills

    1.    Education and Adoption Bill. This is the Bill that deals with the government’s manifesto pledge to tackle so-called ‘coasting’ and underperforming schools. It’s a theme that the Party has been pursuing for much of the year most notably in the Prime Minister’s ‘all-out war on mediocrity in schools’ speech in February. The Bill itself incorporates two core elements: stronger intervention powers and speedier conversions to academies but leaves open a number of fundamental issues such as just what a coasting school is in the first place. The Bill hints at a definition but prefers to leave the detail to later. Other questions also remain open such as the benefits or otherwise of academisation, whether there are enough ‘top’ leaders ready to leap in and help run such schools and as Prof Chris Husbands has indicated, whether the deeper issue is as much performance differences within rather than between schools. This will run

    2.    Full Employment and Welfare Benefits Bill. As the title implies, this Bill aims to link work and benefits much more closely and saddled with some big employment targets is also likely to attract considerable attention. The government wants to make work more attractive by ensuring that the minimum wage remains tax free but it also wants to ensure that enough jobs are available so this Bill will introduce annual reporting on the progress against its core targets of 2m new jobs and 3m new apprenticeships. There are two other proposals in the Bill that may prove contentious. One is the proposal to pull in Jobcentre Plus advisers to supplement careers guidance and the other is the introduction of a more punitive Youth Allowance for 18-21 year olds. In both cases as the OECD has shown this week in its Youth, Skills and Employability Report, the question remains whether enough is being done to help young people into work

    3.    Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill. This Bill, now published, builds on work the Party has already done to try and stimulate local economic recovery through devolved powers and responsibilities in areas like transport, housing and skills training. The drive here is re-balancing the economy through mechanisms such as the Northern Powerhouse. This Bill is key to the Treasury so will be closely watched and may yet see further ceding of skills planning to local partnerships

    4.    Childcare Bill. This Bill enshrines the manifesto pledge to provide 30 hours a week of free childcare to eligible families which in turn will mean more trained childcare workers are needed

    5.    Immigration Bill. This Bill further strengthens the government’s immigration measures by in particular reducing the demand for skilled migrant labour. Among the proposals is a new visa levy on businesses that use foreign labour without advertising in the domestic market first

    6.    Enterprise Bill. This Bill is intended to reduce the regulatory burden on small businesses and thereby encourage job creation but it also aims to encourage more entrepreneurship.

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  • Pocket Watch - Carry on Minister

    The general election over and Ministers in place, attention this week has been switching to what lies ahead for the world of education.

    Commentators and others have been rushing forward to offer their thoughts. Head teacher Tom Sherrington put his in an open letter to Nicky Morgan urging her to remove what he termed ‘a constant gun to the head’ (no pun intended;) the TES listed ‘seven things that a Conservative government might mean for schools’ including more of some things such as tests and free schools and less of other things, principally money; the professional bodies have already combined to urge the new government to ‘protect all education funding’ while Professor Chris Husbands, Aaron Porter, FE’s AoC and 157 Group, and Leora Cruddas are among those who have offered insightful blogs on future policy possibilities.

    Arguably two schools of thought are emerging. On the one hand are those who believe that the Conservatives will not be able to be very radical in an area like education largely because they have bigger fish to fry, Europe for a start and will be strapped for cash as they battle to eradicate the deficit by the end of the next Parliament. Then there are those who think that unencumbered now by Coalition partners, the Party will be able to push through a much more radical agenda particularly in the area of schools where early legislation is anticipated.

    Initial comments from both the Education Secretary and the BIS Secretary offer few clues. Nicky Morgan has suggested that her top priorities ‘would be to tackle school performance and ensure lots of good and excellent teachers across England’ while Sajid Javid has stressed that apprenticeships, jobs and youth training would remain important issues for his dept. All of which suggests business as usual, a case of Carry on Minister perhaps, but the Tory manifesto had 38 pledges for education and it’s in here that we should find the real clues as to what lies ahead.

    Here’s a summary of some of the key points under four headings: funding; schools; FE; HE.


    Funding remains the big concern for many people in the education system. The manifesto commits the government to “eliminating the deficit in a sensible and balanced way.” This will mean among other things finding a further £13bn from dept savings and £12bn from welfare savings all on top of the £21bn of savings found in the last Parliament. It may broadly be the same rate of savings as the last five years but as the IFS have indicated, it’ll be a lot harder this time round because to use the cliché, ‘the low hanging fruit has already been lopped.’ It’s not known at this stage if there’ll be an early Budget as there was in 2010 but there will be a Spending Review later this year and with both DfE and BIS now headed up by Ministers with Treasury experience, education will be looking for both to secure as good a settlement as possible. As things stand the manifesto funding pledges include:

    • For schools: to continue the pupil premium, although at current rates, to invest £7bn for school places over the next five years, to protect the per-pupil funding of 5-16 year olds and to make school funding fairer,
    • For FE: to make it easier for employers to take on apprentices by scrapping National Insurance contributions for under 25 age apprentices and for other new workers through the Employment Allowance
    • For HE: to introduce a national loan system for postgrads.

    But it also promises among other things 500 more free schools, 3m more apprenticeships and a lifting of the cap on university student numbers, all of which will require some investment. Lots of figures were bandied about before the election about what the impact of continuing austerity might mean for different parts of the education system, anything from 6% to 10% cuts for schools and double that or more for some parts of the hard-pressed FE sector.

    So what to look out for now? Obviously the Spending Review later this year as that will set the funding picture for the next 2/3 years. Elsewhere schools may want to keep an eye out, finally, for the new national funding formula and potential multi-year spending plans which were endorsed in the last debate on school funding in March and due for completion next year. Things remain bleak for Sixth Form Colleges (SFE) and FE providers. A funding uplift for large programmes is promised for 16-19 provision but as the SFE argued before the election, the sector needs £1000 more per student to be able to deliver a decent programme. FE will no doubt look out for the NAO report on the financial health of the sector due out this summer and further ahead on how the apprenticeship voucher system, which was announced before the election and due to come in by 2017, will operate. As for HE, the manifesto remains clear that it’s sticking with the current fee regime but the issue will be whether a further fee increase is on the cards. There had been pre-election talk of a rise to £10,000, even £12,000 so it will be interesting to see if there’s a strong push from some vice-chancellors for this to happen.


    Most of the manifestos had plenty to say about schools and the Conservative manifesto was no different. David Cameron talked during the campaign about restoring ‘rigour, discipline and excellence’ in schools and that’s pretty much the tone throughout with more stick than carrot. Three particular sticks include a much stronger focus on the core essentials through the use of resit KS2 tests, universal adoption of EBacc subjects and support for STEM subjects; second, continued use of school system reform as a way of raising standards, parachuting in new leadership where necessary and creating more free schools; and third, a heavy reliance on accountability measures whether through Ofsted ratings or PISA tables to keep everyone on their toes. Some of the assumptions about what generates success may stretch credibility but the message is clear. As for what’s missing, there’s not much on teacher development and support and there’s nothing in the manifesto on the management of the new school system particularly as it continues to diversify, although announcements on Commissioner powers are expected shortly or on skills training for young people, no mention for instance of a 14-19 Bacc of any sort. The emphasis seems entirely, as the Education Secretary indicated, on school performance and measures needed to raise this.


    FE remains a fairly foreign land for much of the manifesto where apprenticeships form the centre piece of the Party’s commitment to skills training. Potentially some of the promised 3m new places will come from the pledge to ‘replace lower-level classroom-based FE courses with high-level quality apprenticeships’ but the rest will require concerted efforts by both government and employers. The dept is due to release further data on earnings and destination measures this summer and this data drive looks set to continue as does the development of a network of specialist National Colleges. Beyond these, the Party has already set out a dual vision for the sector around high-level professional skills and second chance opportunities for those who left school without the skills they needed for which a consultation is due to complete next month. The new BIS Secretary may want to put his own stamp on it but as a ten-year vision it pretty much sets the scene. The big challenge, however, remains how to create a stable funding regime to support the level of skills training needed to drive economic recovery and opportunity.


    Finally, briefly HE where as with the other sectors, the overriding message is carry on as before but where the arrival of a new, well-connected minister may make things more interesting. For the moment the three things to look out for include: any groundswell for an increase in fees, a continued clampdown on the visa system and sponsors, and a new teaching quality framework.

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  • Pocket Watch - Which way for adult voc ed?

    What’s the future for adult education and training?

    Sir Andrew Foster’s unloved middle child, the subject of a major report ten years ago calling for a new vibrant skills system, finds itself a decade on, facing a major funding crisis leading to questions about its very future.

    ‘Adult education could disappear by 2020, colleges warn,’ just one of the striking headlines this week. Yet at the same time the government has launched a major new review of adult vocational learning built around a vision that sees this country as a leading international player in this area, Ofqual has launched a consultation on a new more flexible qualification framework following the QCF and two of the prime products in adult vocational learning, namely Functional Skills and HNs, have been given the thumbs up to continue as they are albeit with developments. Is this therefore one of those cathartic moments that the adult vocational sector often has to go through as it prepares itself for a changing set of conditions or is it something more? The developments this week offer what could be seen as some hopeful pointers. 

    Four latest pointers

    1.    Vision. Essentially a drawing breath exercise after a period of change and economic upheaval, the consultation exercise launched by BIS this week aims to bring clarity and purpose around what it calls the ‘dual mandate’ of adult voc learning, namely providing for the skill needs of employers and individuals and secondly, providing second chance opportunities where needed. Arguably this remit hasn’t changed but the operating conditions have, where three factors have gained prominence. First, the requirement to ensure all young people reach minimum standards in English and maths by age 18, second the growing importance of high-level technical skills and of a recognised learning route for these and third, a shift away from central to local planning and funding. Each of these feature in some shape or form in policy priorities for all of the major Parties in the coming election and point to where the vision is heading  

    2.    Qualifications or more precisely qualification frameworks. Securing a balance between a secure quality assured system and one which offers flexibility for employers and learners has been a source of debate for some time and the current trend, evident in recent reviews from UKCES and the Commission on Adult Vocational Learning let alone Ofqual itself, has been to try and simplify by focusing on general principles, defined outcomes and employer engagement. Ofqual’s  consultation on a new regulated framework post the QCF, builds on this trend: “what will matter in future will be whether qualifications can be shown to be good, not whether they are designed to tick boxes.” The key drive here is market responsiveness, not new in itself but given new urgency by the demand for skilled talent and concerns about social mobility. The new framework aims to help both facets   

    3.    Functional Skills. The quest for credible alternatives to GCSE English and maths has been a long one but according to the latest report published this week, Functional Skills which have been around now for over five years and are widely used, could fit the bill. There are issues about how they are viewed, (as stepping stones or as alternatives,) about how employers view them (87% of those familiar with them value them but only 47% admit actually to being familiar with them) and about some content and assessment but the hope is that a new government will cement their support

    4.    HNs. Finally a quick word about Higher Nationals, where the government confirmed this week that they would remain under HE funding rules thereby continuing to provide an important vocational route as higher level vocational progression becomes more important.

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  • Pocket Watch - School policy lines

    Head teachers have called for greater stability in the school system, Shadow Education Minister Tristram Hunt wants an end to the ‘alpha male’ male approach to education reform while the DfE has issued further guidelines intended to moderate the impact of change under its Workload Challenge protocol but none of this has deterred the rush to get announcements out before Parliament is officially dissolved on Monday.

    If the latest ones are anything to go by, then four issues seem likely to dominate arguments over schools policy as the election campaign gets under way. This is how it’s all looking.

    Four school policy priorities

    1.    Funding. Labour and the Lib-Dems have already made some running here by claiming they would protect budgets up to age 18. At the moment, this is total budgets rather than per pupil costs so could come under strain as numbers rise and costs of pay, pension, NI are factored in. Most commentators have concluded that under any of the Party’s plans, schools will still face cuts and it’s clear from last week’s Budget that the government is looking for further efficiencies. Broadly as the Institute of Fiscal Studies has argued, school funding is now more distributive, more goes to disadvantaged schools although this leaves open the question of what will happen to the pupil premium after the election. There’s also the issue of the national funding formula with the professional body ASCL arguing recently that there are still great disparities between best and worst funded schools. MPs debated schools funding two weeks ago and the Schools Minister confirmed the formula was on course

    2.    School types. The Prime Minister of course recently announced that a future Conservative government would aim to introduce 500 more Free Schools and in its response this week to the Education Committee Inquiry into Academies and Free Schools, the government clearly saw such models as instruments to help schools innovate and improve. Tristram Hunt in his ASCL speech last weekend confirmed that Labour “would end the existing Free Schools programme” but went on to argue in many ways for a more expansive model, one that would enable ‘innovators’ from abroad to come and work with local schools. The bottom line would appear to be adherence to a more accountable set of criteria

    3.    Curriculum reform. The issue that has been surfacing for some time here is whether there should be an independent, perhaps profession-led body to take a lead on advising government on curriculum reform. The Lib-Dems for instance have proposed an Independent Standards Authority. Nicky Morgan’s recent response that such decisions should stay in the hands of democratically-elected reps, i.e. MPs, may have taken some of the sting out of the argument but the bigger questions around innovation, autonomy and the management of change remain

    4.    The profession. All Parties have been keen to demonstrate their support for teachers while at the same time suggesting further reform is necessary. Tristram Hunt went so far as to tell the ASCL Conference that raising workforce quality “was without doubt the most important task of central government in a 21st c education system.” He has proposed a new dedicated “school leadership institute” along with new Leadership Partnerships between schools and businesses, a CPD based career progression path and “a gold standard qualification for heads.” The Conservatives have also backed CPD with a new fund and a new expert group to draft standards. They’ve also backed the College of Teaching.

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  • Pocket Watch - Education and Budget 2015

    Whether it was to help Britain ‘walk tall’ and ‘keep the sun shining’ as the Chancellor claimed or it was something that ‘people won’t believe and don’t trust’ as Ed Miliband claimed, this week’s Budget was more about “sticking with the plan” than pulling rabbits out of hats.

    When it came to education, there were some honourable mentions of Apprenticeship Vouchers, Local Growth arrangements and postgrad support and in the big Budget book itself, reference to school efficiencies but that was about it, leaving many in the education sector distinctly underwhelmed. ‘A missed opportunity to boost skills,’ as the adult education body put it, while the teacher union NASUWT bemoaned the ‘lack of recognition of the crisis in education.’

    Of course this final Budget before the general election was always going to be defined by the forthcoming campaign and the Chancellor who notably used the word ‘choose’ seven times in his opening comments was helped by a bunch of encouraging figures on employment, growth and inflation but for the world of education, the key issue remains the impact of further cuts. The Chancellor carved out more room for manoeuvre by lowering his initial target of a surplus of £23bn the end of the next Parliament to one of £7bn by 2019, but it still leaves, as even the independent experts of the OBR highlighted, ‘a rollercoaster’ ride for public services with sharp cuts likely for the next three years, some of which will have to come from Dept spending. For the moment, these were the main education bits in this year’s Budget.

    Budget 2015: Education headlines

    • Public Spending. Total Managed Expenditure (TME,) that’s the money set aside for Dept budgets and some annually managed areas like welfare will continue to fall at the same rate up to 2018/19 as the last five years. There’s considerable debate about whether, given the failure to meet earlier targets, this means sharper cuts as the OBR and IFS claim or more of the same as the Chancellor claims. Specific Dept Expenditure Limits for 2015/16 have already been set, those for 2016 and beyond will be set in this year’s Spending Review
    • School efficiencies. The government is concerned about the differential in costs and efficiencies between schools which can range from £200 per pupil to over £1,400 per pupil. It will therefore pilot this year a cost comparison tool and introduce new management information and benchmarking tools allowing parents to compare school spending
    • Mental health. Amid growing concerns about the importance of this issue among young people, the government will invest £1bn over the next 5 years into developing new access standards and further funds into the access to psychological therapies programme
    • Apprenticeship funding. Confirmation that the government will test out its proposed Voucher model this year with a view to roll out from 2017. Further detail awaited
    • Local Growth and devolution. Continued support for stimulating growth throughout the country through the Northern Powerhouse project, Greater Manchester Agreement and extended Enterprise Zones and Hubs. Of particular interest is the incorporation of skills planning in the devolved powers to London and Sheffield
    • Science and innovation. Continued support for Innovate UK, Catapult Centres, Smart City technology and further funds to support ‘cutting edge’ research and innovation
    • Postgrads. A package of measures, following concerns by Universities UK and others about a decline in postgrad numbers, that include income-contingent loans up to £25,000 to support PhDs and research masters and a review into funding for postgrad research.
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