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 - 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
  • Pocket Watch - Helping young people into work

    It’s been back to the future this week as both major Parties traded blows on welfare reform and youth employment.

    Labour went back to the skills activism policy developed by Lord Mandelson in the dying days of the Gordon Brown administration as it confronted the issue of skills training and industry development while the Conservatives breathed further fire into the Get Britain Working proposals developed around the same time to tackle the issue of welfare to work and what the Prime Minister called ‘the stampede to the job centre.’

    Things have clearly moved on since 2009/10. This week’s labour market figures covering the final quarter of last year offered further evidence of improvement with the overall employment at its joint highest rate. For young people though, where the unemployment rate for 16-24 year olds remained stuck on 16.2%, things look less rosy particularly if, as the Prince’s Trust, Impetus and other have pointed out, you have few qualifications to wave around. Labour is due to offer young people a voice through its new Youth Manifesto shortly but for the moment here’s the politician’s view on young people and what should be done to help those either on welfare (the Conservative pitch) or preparing to enter the labour market (the Labour pitch.)

    The Conservative pitch

    The aim here is to eradicate long-term unemployment by getting 18-21 yr olds who have been out of work or training for six months on to community work and job search. The target group is the 50,000 young people “most at risk of starting a life on benefits” where a tough love approach is being adopted: “we are taking further steps to help young people make something of their lives.” Building on his Conference speech last autumn, the Prime Minister announced:

    • Jobseeker’s Allowance for 18-21 yr olds to be scrapped in favour of a Youth Allowance

    • NEETs to put on to job search/community work from day one (rather than after 6 months)

    • Annual benefits cap to be lowered from £26,000 to £23,000

    • A minimum wage aspiration of £8 an hour by 2020

    • Deployment of welfare savings to fund 3m new apprenticeships.

    The Labour pitch

    Labour has already confirmed that it would bring back its Future Jobs Fund model in the form of a Compulsory Jobs Guarantee for every young person who has been out of work for 12 months. This would be paid for out of a tax on bankers’ bonuses and would be compulsory in the sense that you’d have to participate or lose benefits. It’s also going for an £8 minimum wage although before 2020 but its big offer for young people is for those still in education and was set out in its new industrial plan published this week. It includes:

    • By 2020, a guaranteed place on a L3 apprenticeship for school leavers ‘who get the grades’ plus reforms to the provision, quality and management of apprenticeship programmes

    • A balanced curriculum, Eng/maths and for 16-18 yr olds ‘a gold standard’ Tech Bacc

    • Ring fenced funding for 16-19 yr olds and provision through new Institutes of Tech Ed

    • A progressive tech route through tech degrees.

    read more
  • Pocket Watch - The UK's Digital Moment?

    We’re at a tipping point when it comes to the development of digital skills and digital development generally, says a new report.

    This is according to the House of Lords Digital Skills Committee in a strongly worded report out this week. ‘Make or break’ is in fact the title of a report described as “a wake-up call” generally about digital skills. “Digital is everywhere” the report stresses and “we have a choice as a country about whether we seize this opportunity or whether we fall behind.” “Whoever forms the next government in May” should take control of the issue, create a national agenda and rather like Lord Baker in the early flushes of computing in the 1980s, sanction a Cabinet Minister to lead it. Much of the report is aimed at education; this is what it has to say.

    For schools

    The report welcomed the new computing curriculum which started in schools in September but recognised that provision varies across the UK, that some teachers need more help in delivering it and that employers also look for the creative and innovative skills in young people that enable them to develop and exploit changing technology. It therefore recommended:

    •  Digital literacy being embedded in the school curriculum as the third core skill
    •  A new training and investment programme to help upskill teachers
    • Strong links developed with employers with an employer on each governing board.

    For FE

    The view here was that FE has a key role to play in developing such skills but that provision and responsiveness were also variable. The report considers the nature, funding and agility of the skills system and highlights the importance of strengthening digital skill development in the apprenticeship system. The main recommendation here was for a major industry-led review of the FE offer, to be completed in the first six months of the new Parliament and to consider:

    • The inclusion of a digital element in all FE courses
    •  Stronger industry relationships and industry-designed and endorsed certificates
    • More apprenticeships, particularly those that include a digital skills element
    • Skills funding targeted at short, flexible courses and apprenticeships
    • Stronger careers guidance especially for 16-19 year olds.

    For HE

    Less was said about the role of HE but there was support for high levels of research, closer links with employers and for greater promotion of computer science courses.

    And the rest

    In a strong set of messages, the Committee also called for the internet to be viewed as an essential utility service, for more work to be done on digital inclusion (apparently 6m citizens have yet to use the internet) and for more to be done to prepare for the effects of digitalisation on working (‘35% of UK jobs risk being automated over the next 20 years’) and daily life. 

    read more
  • 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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  • 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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