Policy eye - highlights of the week ending 17 August

Policy Eye

Welcome to Policy Eye, a weekly service from Policy Watch offering a regular round up of UK education headlines and stories from over the previous 7 days.

The week summed up

A lot’s been happening over the last ten days while Policy Watch has been away but the top story currently concerns A’ level and BTEC results.

Reflections on this year’s advanced level results are still coming in, guided by some excellent analysis from the TES, Schools Week, UCAS, FFT Educational Datalab, Wonkhe and the Joint Council for Qualifications among others. There’s a lot to take in but arguably, five features stand out so far.

First, concerns about the impact of the rise in the number of unconditional offers from universities, up from around 3.000 five years ago to 68,000 this year, rumble on; some have blamed it for the fall in the A’ level pass rate this year. Second, and always intriguing, changes in entries, with A’ level entries up for STEM subjects, Chinese and Computing, but with AS entries continuing their downward spiral. Third, the impact of ‘new’ linear A’ levels, 13 were sat last year and 12 more this year, which again appears minimal; the Joint Council for example, has stressed ‘stability.’ Fourth, there’s been a lot of conjecture about the numbers going to uni this year; latest stats from UCAS suggests a UK wide 2% drop on last year but record numbers of 18 yr olds. And fifth, perhaps more than any other year, there’s been intense interest in alternative routes for young people with, for example, BBC Breakfast zoning in on voc students at last.

Away from the results, two other headlines stand out this week.

First one about school inspections with suggestions that Ofsted is considering changing some of its reporting measures to incorporate teaching, learning and student outcomes in a wider quality of education measure in its new school inspection framework. The story has been widely referenced although the DfE has remained tight lipped. The issue of what young people should be taught in a rapidly changing world remains and if nothing else the coverage ensures that the new framework, due out for consultation in the coming months, will be closely scrutinised. Ed Dorrell of the TES has good summary of the story.

Second, Level 4/5 qualifications, a core feature in the government’s Industrial Strategy and currently under government review. It’s an important review not just because of the critical role these qualifications play for both individuals and the country but also because in this country we have problems with this level; we fail to support it well and take-up is low. Many of the issues, good and bad were highlighted in two government reports this week, one summarizing some of the research findings so far and the other looking at case studies of good practice. There will be more on this whole area in the autumn as part of the build-up to the grand sweep of announcements due next spring and likely to take in L4/5 provision, post-18 funding, adult education funding and the next spending review.

Top headlines this week

  • ‘DfE and Ofsted at odds over exams.’ (Monday)
  • ‘University unconditional offers undermine education. (Tuesday)
  • ‘Government accused of total failure to widen elite university access.’ (Wednesday
  • ‘A’ level results 2018: teenagers achieve rise in top grades.’ (Thursday)
  • ‘The UK’s highest paying degrees according to graduate salary.’ (Friday)

People/organisations in the news this week

General Policy

  • Saving technical and vocational education. The commentator Toby Young called for technical schools to be able to select students by aptitude in a new report for the Centre for Policy Studies think tank 
  • Using data effectively. The Reform think tank made a number of recommendations including developing open standards and enabling greater multi-agency sharing in a new report on using data effectively
  • Young people today. The RSA published some findings from its research with the Centre for Real-World Learning into how young people can use their creative skills to create a better world, finding many keen to participate but unsure if it’ll make much difference 
  • Older people today. The insurance company Aviva published new research suggesting that more people aged 50 and over were now planning to work beyond their retirement age and calling for more training and support to make this a reality


  • Costing student support. GuildHE reported on its work with London Economics costing out various proposals for supporting part-time students and concluding that better options, such as resetting the repayment threshold, were possible 
  • Another student survey. YouGov published the latest in the recent surveys of student views reporting that as in other reports, most (86%) students are happy with the quality of their course and hope their degree will help them gain a good job but many (62%) are also unhappy about the overall costs 
  • World leaders. The HE Policy Institute (HEPI) published its latest research on where current world leaders undertook their higher education showing that the UK had slipped to second place behind the US as the country of choice
  • EU funding. The FT reported on data from the BEIS Dept suggesting that UK universities were in danger of missing out on some research funding let alone future collaborative opportunities ahead of Brexit
  • On the Horizon. The Russell Group issued its formal response to the European Commission’s proposals for the Horizon Europe Programme putting forward a number of amendments that would see continued engagement at various levels 
  • Essay mills. Paul Greatrix, Registrar at Nottingham University, raised the issue of essay mills in a comment piece on Wonkhe, arguing that although proposals for tackling this had been put forward by the QAA and others, little action had been taken, supporting as a result a petition to make them illegal
  • Advanced Analytics. Researchers at McKinsey reported on their recent work on how higher ed institutions in North America were applying advanced analytics to transform the way they were working, listing five ‘action’ steps such as facilitating the student journey, that could prove useful 



  • Level 4/5 review. The DfE summarized some of the initial findings from its Level 4/5 review highlighting the importance of provision at this level and the benefits to both individuals and the country but also some of the problems such as low take-up
  • Good practice in Level 4/5 qualifications. The DfE published the results of its research report into good practice in L 4/5 provision in England using five sector case studies to highlight examples of what works, such as good employer engagement as well as what needs further attention, such as support and communication
  • 2017 Employer Skills Survey. The DfE reported on the research findings from its extensive 2017 Employer Skills Survey pointing to increased recruitment activity but continuing concerns about productivity, concluding with four skills challenges: finding the right workers; improving existing skills; expanding employee training; and beefing up workplace practices
  • The levy one year on. The Resolution Foundation marked the release of the latest apprenticeship figures with a review of the impact of the levy one year on highlighting five features including the changing nature of an apprenticeship 
  • Triple lane highway. Rod Bristow, President of Pearson UK, argued in a comment piece in FE Week that post-16 learners were entitled to a choice of three routes, that included not just A’ levels and T levels but Applied Generals which could offer what he called an important career-focused route for many
  • Project awareness. The Association of Project Management (APM) published new research showing growing awareness of the role and potential of project managers but also of the need to highlight this to pupils and parents


  • The full A’/AS level picture. The Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) published the full set of A’/AS results and entry trends for the 2018 summer exams
  • Main trends in A’/AS entries and grades. FFT Education Datalab provided a valuable overview of the main trends and data for this year’s A’ level entries and results
  • Eight key points. The Times Ed outlined eight key points from this year’s A’/AS level results 
  • Hanging on by their fingertips. The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) reported on its survey among school and college leaders about the current state of A’ level provision showing many having to pare back with subjects like music, D/T and languages only just hanging on in some cases 
  • The problem of predicting A’ levels. David Kernohan, Associate Editor at Wonkhe examined the issue of predicted grades arguing like many that it is a dubious art but that the real issue is that an individual’s background and history generate determining factors 
  • What about the workers? Education correspondent Laura McInerney suggested in a comment piece in The Guardian that if the government was finding it difficult to increase teachers’ pay, it should consider providing wider benefits such as transport and/or housing support

Tweet(s) of the week

  • ‘Well done @BBCBreakfast & particularly @stephbreakfast for highlighting that while 1.5m students take A Levels, far more (3.8m) take vocational courses. Both are important but the latter rarely get the attention those students deserve’ - @ipryce
  • ‘A key point to remember on every A’ level results day: only 40% of pupils take any A’ levels. The majority are doing BTECs and other vocational qualifications. Their achievements should be celebrated too’ - @Samfr
  • ‘If A Level entries are broadly stable, then increases in some subject(s) must be balanced by declines in other subject(s). Similarly, either boys must outperform girls, or vice versa. Please don’t report this as new’ - @jonathansimons
  • ‘Universities offering party-free student halls to meet demand from undergraduates for a decent night’s sleep’ - @jim_dickinson
  • ‘Really pleased that @durham_uni have cancelled plans to hold 8.00 am lectures next year following pressure from students and staff. In future we must make sure students are consulted from the beginning on changes to the academic timetable’ - @DurhamSUpres
  • ‘The three ages of bureaucrat. At age 25: why don’t I get to go to any meetings? At age 35: I feel so validated by attending all these important meetings. At age 42: I will do anything legal to avoid godforsaken meetings’ -@Jardisliketardi

Other stories of the week

  • Summertime blues. It’s the time of year when questions are raised about the school summer holidays are they too long, too expensive, too badly aligned, too whatever? Last week, the Economist waded into the debate with a Leader column arguing that their length stymies children’s’ learning and perpetuates social disadvantage. Summer holidays vary in length between countries, more in Italy, less in South Korea for instance but the article concludes that here at least, school summer hols should be shorter and/or schools should do more to help during the break. 
  • Intergenerational fairness. The recent report from the Intergenerational Foundation looks at how twentysomethings in 1995, 2005 and 2015 respectively have fared across what it calls the five domains of wellbeing, namely: economic, health, relationships, personal environment, and belonging. It thereby offers a fascinating insight into changing social patterns. Broadly this latest report points to 2015 20-yr olds facing a tough time when it comes to economic and health wellbeing and some family relationships but on the plus side with higher levels of savings, commuting less and able to work more flexibly.

Quotes of the week

  • “The overall picture shown by today’s A’ level results is one of national stability during a period of significant reform” – Michael Turner, head of the Joint Council for Qualifications, sums up this summer’s A’ level exam results
  • “I don’t think we had a single exam where the vast majority or the majority of students came out and said this was ‘impossible’ or ‘this was too hard’” – Sally Collier, the head of Ofqual, reflects on social media comments about this year’s exams
  • “He should ask the Education Committee to launch an investigation into those exam results” – Labour’s Education spokesperson in Scotland calls on the SNP to get to grips with Scotland’s exam performance
  • “Subjects like A’ level music, French and German are hanging on by their fingertips in the state sector because schools and colleges cannot afford to run courses with low numbers on current funding levels” – ASCL highlights the challenges facing some A’ level subjects 
  • "If you focus the entire system of education up to age 16 on purely academic subjects, trying to bolt on a system of high-quality technical and vocational education at 16 will not work” – Toby Young offers his thoughts on how to ‘save’ technical education
  • “Quiet reigns, the bathroom stands eerily idle, the fridge remains stocked, meals are subdued. It’s a big change” – Times correspondent Greg Hurst on adapting to life when children head off to uni 
  • “Here’s a rule of thumb: if it doesn’t fit into the boot of a car, it’s unlikely to find a home in your room” – contributors offer advice on what new students should fit in the boot when they load up the car for their first term at uni

Number(s) of the week

  • 1.36m. The unemployment rate for the UK in the last (up to June 2018) quarter, the lowest for over 40 years but coupled with a sharp fall in the number of EU nationals working in the UK, according to the latest figures
  • 57. How many current world leaders (Monarch, President or PM) took their higher education in the UK, a slight drop on the previous year, according to latest figures from the HE Policy Institute 
  • 7%. How many people in England aged 18-65 are undertaking training at Level 4/5, one of the lowest rates in the OECD, according to new research from the DfE
  • 22,300. The number of apprenticeship starts for May 2018, up on figures for May 2017 but down on those for May 2016, according to latest provisional stats
  • 811,776. The number of A’ level entries this year, down 2% on last year but against a drop of 3.5% in the number of 18 yr olds, according to the Joint Council for Qualifications
  • 26.4%. How many candidates achieved an A*/A grade in their A’ levels this summer, up 0.1% on the year before, according to the Joint Council for Qualifications
  • 411,860. How many people have been accepted on to an undergrad course so far, down 1% on last year but with numbers changing all the time, according to latest UCAS stats
  • £244.90. How much parents are likely to spend on average in kitting out their children for the new school year, according to the latest in one of those ‘Back to School’ readiness surveys

What to look out for next week

  • GCSE results day (Thursday)