Policy Eye - Highlights of week ending Friday 22 April 2016

Some important reports, more academy issues and a great idea that started in a pub.

The week summed up

There’ve been some notable reports out this week.

They include those on GCSE exam variability, Regional Schools Commissioners, the DfE accounts, the school system, the operation of the apprenticeship levy and the government’s devolution policy. There’s even, and younger readers should look away now, been a report from an Institute in Australia that suggests 40-year-olds should only work 3 days a week any more and fatigue and poor performance sets in, apparently.

But back at base, it’s been another one of those difficult weeks for the government. It started under pressure as it faced questions over the availability of primary school places for this September and it ended with the Schools Minister having to pull this year’s grammar, spelling and punctuation KSI test in what was described as ‘a clearly regrettable incident.’

In between all that, the Prime Minister was taken to task over his government’s academies policy with a chorus of commentators suggesting that things were unravelling, while the publication of the Dept’s 2014/15 accounts received what was euphemistically described as ‘an adverse opinion’ from the government’s auditor.

As Donald Rumsfeld once famously remarked, “stuff happens” and there’s been no shortage of advice for the government on how to resolve things.

The lightening rod of discontent at present is the academies policy where commentators from Lord Baker to the BBC’s Chris Cook have all offered possible modifications. One of the most thoughtful pieces this week came from Conor Ryan, a former government education adviser and current Research Director at the Sutton Trust. He put forward 3 solutions: allow local authorities to create trusts with local partners to oversee academies; consider some tactical retreats such as over parent governors; and incentivise rather than mandate the transition to academy status.

We shall no doubt hear a lot more about these and other proposals and indeed the Education Secretary adopted a more accommodating tone in her speech to the Academies Show this week. But to finish, a couple of points from some of those other reports.

First, on Regional Schools Commissioners, the government offered little perhaps that was new in its response to the Education Committee this week but did again confirm that it’s working on further clarification of RSC powers and will publish this ‘shortly.’

Second, the government’s latest update on the apprenticeship levy, which as the CBI indicated raised more questions than answers but is at least evidence of government trying to get information out.

And third, for anyone interested in the government’s devolution policy, the NAO report is a helpful read.

Top headlines this week

  • ‘One in four primary schools is full or over capacity.’ (Monday)
  • ‘Sexual violence in schools probed by MPs.’ (Tuesday)
  • ‘After-school club boost for poor pupils.' (Wednesday)
  • ‘Spelling test blunder as DfE publishes forthcoming paper online.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘Minister cancels leaked primary school spelling test.’ (Friday)

People/organisations in the news this week

General Policy




Tweet(s) of the week

  • “Mission statements should be lived not laminated” @StephenJFarrant
  • “@MichaelBarber9: Complacency, caution, anxiety or a combination impedes the pace of change in education” @JakeCahan
  • “No one ever won a prize for the poetry, eloquence or rhetorical force of a consultation response” @wonkhe
  • “Young adults know Justin Bieber’s lyrics better than Shakespeare’ @indybooks

Word or phrase(s) of the week

Moore’s Law.’ A law developed in the 1970s by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore which states that the processing power of computers will double every 2 years. It was cited in its report on schools this week by the Institute of Directors.

Quote(s) of the week

  • “Important issues” - The Education Secretary acknowledges that the recent White Paper has raised quite a few of these
  • “In conjunction with @tes I recently sat a Maths SAT test. I got 91% apparently. I’m putting in an appeal” - Lucy Powell, Shadow Education Secretary submits the first exam appeal of the new exam season
  • “This is a blind spot in education policy” - UCAS Chief Executive Mary Curnock Cook highlights the issue of underachievement of boys in an article in The Times 
  • “Like many good ideas, this one started in a pub” - Lady Margaret Hall Principal and former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger on how the College’s new Foundation scheme for disadvantaged students came about
  • “It’s in explorer mode, drawing the map as it goes along” - The National Audit Office reports on how the government is approaching devolution deals 
  • “I was once told by an insurance employee that the company gets its executives to crash a car and then go through the process of making a claim. This way of undergoing customer experience could be applied to education ministers. Before taking office they could spend a month as a teacher and a month as a head, meeting all deadlines and experiencing an Ofsted inspection” - leading education commentator John Dunford with a novel suggestion
  • “Pupils are still tested on their ability to recall facts and apply standardized methods, two things computers do much better than humans” - The Institute of Directors seeks to drag parts of the education system into the 21st century
  • “You can’t teach grit. You imbibe it like mother’s milk from your surroundings and from the people going through the same grinding mill of life. And once absorbed, it never goes away” - Mirror journalist Paul Routledge on true grit… Yorkshire style. 

Number(s) of the week

  • 1.7m. The UK unemployment figure for the 3 months up to February 2016 showing a slight increase for the first time since mid-2015
  • 10. The number of devolution deals that have been agreed so far
    Nearly 100. How many ‘titan’ or large-scale primary schools there are now, according to the Labour Party (up from 16 in 2010)
  • Over 40%. The number of current school sixth forms with student numbers below the current recommended threshold of 200, according to research from education datalab
  • 75%. The number of state schools that offer Spanish at KS4 according to the latest Survey of Language Trends
  • 28%. The number of young people in a recent survey by the youth organization Fixers, who said they felt ‘emotionally’ safe when in school corridors and common rooms

What to look out for next week

  • Education Questions in Parliament (Monday)
  • Public Accounts Committee Inquiry into Cities and Local Growth (Monday) 
  • Education Committee witness session with the Education Secretary (Wednesday)
  • National Association of Secondary Moderns Conference (Thursday).

Steve Besley
Head of Policy

Policy Watches are intended to help colleagues keep up to date with national developments. Information is correct at the time of writing and is offered in good faith. No liability is accepted for decisions made on the basis of information given.