The last word

The last word

Paul Steer comments on some of the issues featured in the latest issue of OCR's Policy Briefing.

Good luck and congratulations to Justine Greening on her new appointment. So she is the first person in charge of the state education system who has had direct experience of an ordinary state school – admittedly it doesn’t guarantee anything but feels like a step forward.

It’s also good to see responsibility for Further and Higher Education back at the DfE. It makes so much more sense to have one department responsible for education and training and it should lead to more joined up decision making, especially in relation to provision for 14-19 year olds. Justine will need to make sure, however, that under her watch, skills and the Further Education sector get the full attention from the Department they deserve. The tendency for political and financial priorities to gravitate towards schools and academic learning is well-known. For example, how much time does Ofqual apportion to vocational qualifications compared to GCSEs and A Levels?

"Justine Greening is the first person in charge of the state education system who has had direct experience of an ordinary state school."

The Sainsbury Report and the BIS Plan for Post 16 Skills is a very big deal. They could signal the biggest change in vocational education since the introduction of BTECs. There is much to say on the report but the key point is that this is a hugely ambitious, potentially destabilising set of proposals at "The BIS Plan for Post 16 Skills is a very big deal..." a time when money is short and other political priorities are to the fore. The emphasis on the technical route is long overdue but this mustn't be at the expense of the increasingly successful 'applied general' route which mixes A Level and vocational study to prepare people for Higher Education. Some sense of the scale, cost and remit of an expanded Institute for Apprenticeships needs to be fleshed out – a lot is being asked of this putative organisation at a time when its 'shadow' body is making something of a hash of apprenticeship reform.

If the Skills Plan is to be enacted upon it would benefit from a bit more consultation with young people. They might help develop some deeper thinking "Careers advice is little more than a poorly thought out add-on." about how to make sure young people don't face a cliff edge at 16 where they fall into the only routes available rather than the ones that fit with their skills and motivation. And this is a heightened risk given that, as the sub-committee on Education, Skills and the Economy puts it: "Careers advice is little more than a poorly thought out add-on".

It’s best not to comment on the Sainsbury report's proposals to franchise technical qualifications to single awarding organisations other than to say it looks like one big headache for all involved. Others with less obvious self-interest than the exam boards will make their own minds up.

The success of Sainsbury's new technical routes will depend hugely on having the right regional infrastructure to deliver them. This makes the outcomes of the current area reviews of FE colleges even more critical – the area reviews will have to be about curriculum reforms as much as they are about "The forthcoming Select Committee inquiry into area reviews is timely and let's hope it sheds some light into the murk." institutional reforms, moving a lot of general FE into specialist FE. There are a variety of opinions about how well the reviews are proceeding, although there is plenty of evidence that they are taking longer than intended and are proving hugely complex, requiring the balancing of a wide range of stakeholder interests, fiscal challenges and the gathering and interpretation of shedloads of data. The forthcoming Select Committee inquiry into area reviews is timely and let's hope it sheds some light into the murk.

On balance, the Ofqual survey on confidence levels in GCSEs and GCEs is reassuring. Compared to many of our other 'national institutions', our exams system actually has quite a good approval rating. The survey does highlight some perceptions that the accuracy of marking of GCSEs could be improved; "Compared to many of our other 'national institutions', our exams system actually has quite a good approval rating." as levels of public scrutiny tighten year on year, the boards have a responsibility to be as transparent as possible and to continue to tighten and refine what are already incredibly thorough quality assurance processes. We are doing our bit and our webpages on Explaining Examining are well worth a visit. The short animated videos on this site are becoming a very popular feature at school assemblies.

We are lucky to have Professor Adrian Smith looking into the matter of the compulsory study of mathematics post 16. There is broad consensus that "There is broad consensus that people should continue with maths study beyond 16." people should continue with maths study beyond 16. The tricky bit is deciding what sort of maths, how to pay for it, and where to find the maths teachers. But Professor Smith is a wise man with an impeccable record for looking into such matters.

There is just enough space to congratulate Amanda Spielman on her appointment as Chief Inspector at Ofsted despite the strong reservations of the Education Select Committee. It may be true that her performance before the Committee wasn’t her finest hour and that it is true she has never been a "It may be teachers will come to appreciate a quieter, less bullying tone." teacher. But otherwise she has a very solid track record and a reputation for quiet competence. Maybe the Committee had grown to expect a certain type of Chief Inspector of Schools – male, hectoring and with a tendency to ride their own hobby horses. We wait to see how she performs in her new role, but it may be that teachers will come to appreciate a quieter, less bullying tone – and an Ofsted that welcomes and nurtures the teaching profession rather than driving it away.

Paul Steer
Head of Policy, OCR


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