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 – 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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  • Pocket Watch – The (economic) case for soft skills

    Much has been written about soft or personal skills in recent years, some might say too much, but the latest report on the matter, commissioned by fast food chain McDonalds, and published this week is of interest for a number of reasons.

    First because McDonalds has a particular interest in this area, it’s a major employer of young people and it’s where many of them develop such skills. Its 2014 survey for instance found that “over 50% of current employees reported that the soft skills they had developed whilst working at McDonald’s had provided a major boost to their self-confidence.” McDonalds accordingly takes the whole thing seriously. And secondly because the report looks at things from a socio-economic perspective; it calculates for instance how much such skills are worth to the economy, just under £88.5bn by the way, and goes on to break it down by sector and region. In essence, therefore, it helps build an economic case for these skills which McDonalds and other companies are now pledging to support in a new 2015 campaign.  

    Which soft skills?

    The report goes for five, all pretty familiar and all evident in most other lists drawn up in recent years. The five are: communication and interpersonal skills; teamwork; time and self-management skills; decision-making and initiative-taking; and taking responsibility. Some might bridle that there’s no reference to numeracy, a staple of BTEC’s original common core competencies, regularly highlighted as an area of concern in CBI reports and referred to by the Skills Minister recently as an essential life skill. Others might point to a lack of any reference to problem-solving, integrity or customer awareness, all of which appear on other versions yet the list could become endless and in all fairness, the report goes on highlight the importance of what it calls “characteristics, attributes and skills” such as ‘show respect’ and ‘accept responsibility’ that underpin soft skills and cover some of what’s missing. 

    What is the economic case?

    Employers have been saying almost since time immemorial how important such skills are and the report runs through a number of recent employer surveys emphasising the point. In many ways there’s always been some disconnect between what employers want and what the education and training system provides but this report suggests that the economic argument behind soft skills in particular is incontrovertible. Here’s some of the figures from the report which back this up: the contribution of soft skills to the UK economy is expected to increase by 44% over the next ten years; the annual expected loss of production resulting from soft skill shortages is predicted to hit £7.4bn by the end of the decade; over the next ten years the number of unfilled vacancies due to soft skills shortages is likely to hit 1.78m. And yes, the report does explain the methodology it has used to reach such conclusions.  

    What now?

    McDonalds is supporting a campaign with other organisations including the CBI, Work Foundation, Barclays, the AoC and others, working alongside entrepreneur James Caan to help improve the lot of soft skills. The campaign is calling for suggestions and will then publish a short report ‘listing recommendations that have come out of it.’ It’s looking for action. 

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  • Pocket Watch – Managing curriculum reform

    Sir David Bell’s speech to the Association for Science Education Conference last week has once again raised the issue of how curriculum reform should be managed in this country.

    It comes as all three Party Education Spokespeople have acknowledged the need for a period of calm once the current cycle of reform is complete. Sir David did veer close to Tomlinson territory when he went on to suggest that A levels should be part of a Bacc structure in the long-run but his general point that education reform, let alone the interests of learners, is better served by taking the politics out of the process, has considerable support. For many, the best way forward would be to leave the strategy, funding and accountability to the politicians and the rest to independent experts. This is how the argument’s shaping up. 

    The Context

    As a member of a group of experts who published a Report on the matter almost exactly a year ago, Sir David clearly has an interest in this area. That Report, ‘Making Education Work,’ sponsored by Pearson, brought together a group of leading education professionals under the stewardship of Sir Roy Anderson. One of its key recommendations was for ‘the creation of an independent body representing all key stakeholders with the aim of establishing long-term political consensus on the school curriculum but with ultimate responsibility for delivering and assessing the curriculum continuing to be vested in government.’ The thrust behind such a proposal was to ensure that long-term planning and stakeholder consensus were built in so that important curriculum reform could be conducted in “a more ordered and transparent way.” 

    Role models

    A number of role models for this sort of approach have been put forward. Some have suggested that the Office for Budget Responsibility which provides independent advice to government on public finances offers a model. Others have pointed to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) as well as to examples of Curriculum Development Panels in other jurisdictions as possible models but the one that seems to have attracted most interest and indeed was cited by Sir David, is the National Infrastructure Commission as proposed by Labour’s Armitt Review 18 months ago. Under this, UK infrastructure needs would be subject to long-term (25-30 years) planning and cross-party political consensus, and major assessment reviews carried out every ten years with Dept delivery plans required within 12 months of priorities being identified. “Rather than taking power away from politicians,” Sir John Armitt said, “I believe that an independent National Infrastructure Commission would act as an important enabler and provide a robust framework within which public and political debate on these important issues could take place.” It’s a model many think could work in education. 

    What are the politicians saying about all this?

    All major political Parties have expressed interest in this area but it is the Lib-Dems who have perhaps come nearest with David Laws’ call for the creation of an independent Education Standards Authority (ESA) in a speech last year. As he saw it, the ESA would be independent of government and would “be charged with assessing changes in standards and performance over time and overseeing the detailed development of curricula.” The idea is on the table. 

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  • Pocket Watch – Key education themes for 2015

    The start of a new year has brought the traditional flurry of predictions for what lies ahead in the coming months.

    Financial pundits have been lining up to predict more borrowing and higher taxes at least for the second half of the year, techies are predicting a growth in ‘anticipatory computing’ (smartphones that anticipate what information you need,) while political pundits are predicting a very close run thing when it comes to the election but what of education, what’s in store here for 2015?

    Here are some key themes that we’re likely to hear a lot about in 2015.

    1. An education ‘lite’ general election. That’s not to say there won’t be numerous announcements, we’ve already had three this week with David Cameron pledging more, as yet undefined, education legislation, Ed Miliband promising to grow the apprenticeship route and Nick Clegg reasserting Lib-Dem plans to protect education budgets but there’s little sense of any new vision or direction driving education as there was in say 1997 or 2010. That may be no bad thing given the intensity of reform programmes over the last few years and indeed there’s a strong argument, as a recent YouGov poll indicated, for giving managers in schools or colleges, time and space to respond to change. As it is, there are still plenty of current issues around to arouse passions with school brands, workloads, youth training and tuition fees all being obvious examples but if the intent behind last summer’s Ministerial changes was to allow for a softer approach to these and other education issues as the election approached, then it seems to have had the desired effect with education now seemingly in calmer waters.

    2. Debate will grow about how best to manage change in the future. As government divests itself of a range of responsibilities and a shift towards local management takes hold, an interesting debate is developing about how best to manage big reform programmes in the future. The model of prescribing from the centre is, as Michael Gove declared when launching the national curriculum review a few years ago, unlikely to be replicated in the same way in the future particularly as the education system becomes more fragmented. All three major Party Education Spokespeople have recognised this as an issue and are likely to call for changes depending on who’s in power after the general election. Interestingly both Nicky Morgan and David Laws made speeches on the matter on the same day at the end of November with the latter making a strong pitch for an Independent Standards Authority “charged with assessing changes in standards and performance over time and overseeing the detailed development of curricula.” The concept of an independent, professionally-based Commission, able to advise the Secretary of State on the curriculum is not new, operates in other countries and may well come under consideration here.

    3. Funding issues will never be very far away. The economy was always going to feature prominently this year and so it’s proving with furious debate raging currently about the costing of various spending plans. While the Parties bandy about figures on anything from the costs of ensuring all teachers in schools and colleges are fully qualified to the funding needed for an increase in apprenticeship numbers, the more immediate issue is the potential impact of cuts for 2015 and beyond, particularly since the harsh dose of reality dished out by the Chancellor in his Autumn statement. At the moment only two things are clear. First that all major Parties are committed to reducing the deficit over the lifetime of the next Parliament albeit some more painfully than others and second that we shan’t know the precise nature of any cuts until at least the second half of this year when a new Spending Review is completed. For the moment, ring fencing, further efficiencies and the future of the pupil premium remain issues for schools; the funding of apprenticeships, the spread of fee loans and the impact of Dept cuts remain issues for FE while for HE, student funding will continue to be debated but its long-term future looks likely to be dependent on who’s holding the reins after the election as to whether there’s a further review or not.

    4. Social mobility and opportunity will continue to set the context for much of education. According to the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission who issued their second annual ‘state of play’ report last October, “Britain is on the brink of becoming a permanently divided nation.” The current government has justified many of its education and welfare reforms on the basis they would help improve social mobility but as the Commission’s conclusion indicates and reports from Ofsted to the Prince’s Trust have underlined, this is proving challenging. Just what role education should play in this, whether for instance there should be more grammar schools, or more young people should be equipped with employability skills or more disadvantaged young people encouraged to enter HE, remains open to question. Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt raised the stakes in a keynote speech last November when he committed a future Labour government to ending state subsidies for private schools if they did not support new partnerships with state schools but other proposals can be seen in the Commission’s own 12 key recommendations. 

    5. Accountability and inspections systems will continue to evolve in response to access to greater data and demands for greater transparency. A lot of work has been done in this area by the current government and at present there seems to be broad political consensus about some of the accountability measures proposed. There’s still some modelling and harvesting of data to be done but the aim is to have new floor and progress measures in place for schools in limited form this year and fully from 2016 and new adult learning success measures in place the year after. Where we are likely to see debate this year is around the use of baseline assessments at the start of Reception, the nature of destination data for school leavers and the relationship to wage returns for college leavers. As for school/college inspections Ofsted is currently mulling over responses to its recent “radical” plans for streamlining inspection arrangements. How far this will satisfy all Parties remains to be seen. Tristram Hunt has already indicated that further reform would follow if Labour gets in while as Sir Tim Brighouse indicated in an interview late last year, there’s still a strong body of support for a more self-determining system. Either way, more change seems likely although the bigger story may well be taking place in HE where the case for putting quality assessment services out to tender is under review. 

    6. Qualification reform will soldier on. The first of the revised GCSE, AS and A levels will be taught for the first time this September and represent accordingly a further stage in the sweeping programme of curriculum reform which began some three years ago, has taken in considerable change on the way but which has a further two years of implementation to go. It’s been a demanding process; issues like GCSE grading and practical assessments in science continue to be debated but the reform tanker is well under way now and would be difficult to turn round at this late stage. Where we might see developments this year is in three areas. First in providing a better balance to the curriculum with a push to develop pupil character alongside traditional subjects. All Parties are committed to this and developments are following at a steady pace. Second, in the long-running saga of the standalone AS level where the election will determine whether Labour will get its chance to reverse government policy even though as Ofqual has warned it may take time. And third, the GCSE, 30 years old now but where, as the CBI’s John Cridland suggested in his New Year message, the issue of whether we still need an exam at age 16 remains live and may well re-emerge if Labour wins and starts to implement its proposed 14-19 Bacc model. 

    7. There’ll be more system change. This always tends to happen after a general election and a number of changes that could transcend Party lines for whoever is in power after May, are already lined up. These include: a College of Teaching, teacher professional development, school commissioners, careers portfolios, youth training and apprenticeships, specialist colleges, local commissioning of skills training, city region partnerships, online learning, high-level voc provision, fee loans, alternative providers, quality assurance systems.    
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