Blog: The winds of reform - Paul Steer

Blog: The winds of reform - Paul Steer

Paul Steer

11th February 2015

The recent UCAS survey of 500 schools appears to give some solid, quantifiable insights into how the AS will fare during the roll out of A Level reform. Most recipients - 66% - think their institution will continue to offer AS (although 16% are clear that they won’t). The majority also believe that the reforms will have no impact on the overall popularity of A Levels. So, on the surface, at least, it looks as though the future of the AS is set fair in the majority of schools and that something like the status quo will prevail.

But on further analysis it looks like a lot of people haven’t really made their minds up yet. 21% of respondents have no idea what their A Level offer will look like in 2017, and almost as many are still undecided about their offer for this coming September. We learn that decisions relating to AS are ‘interim’ with two thirds planning to review their position once the reforms are complete.

This ‘wait and see’ approach reflects uncertainty about the impact of the new A Levels in the classroom, political uncertainty as the two major parties head into a General Election with very different policies for A Level reform, and, serious reservations about how future funding and accountability measures might limit the options. What isn’t evidenced at this stage is a confident sector made up of autonomous institutions, free to make decisions that they believe are in the best interests of their students, and happy to make long term plans on that basis.

If and when the reforms have bedded in this might be something to evaluate along the lines of the recommendations of the recent OECD report Making Reforms Happen which criticises governments around the world for their failure to evaluate education reforms in a systematic way, or even to stay the course. The report gives plenty of advice on how to frame education policy, the importance of taking into account the complex drivers within education systems and of understanding the interests of all relevant stakeholders.

The current problems facing funding proposals for apprenticeships reveal just how challenging this can be. Whereas many will be disappointed at the potential stalling of the next phase of apprenticeship reforms, the Skills Minister, Nick Boles, has to be credited for admitting that there is more thinking to be done. As he said to the Education Select Committee, “You’ll understand if we do more homework”.

The winds of reform are just beginning to stir around non-GCSE qualifications in maths and English. One thing leads to another, and the controversial policy that requires post-16 students who failed their maths and English GCSEs to re-sit them has prompted Nick Boles to ask for a review of non-GCSE qualifications in these core subjects.

Managed by the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), the review, Making Maths and English Work for All is certainly broad in its scope; it asks fundamental questions about the value and recognition of existing qualifications, whether we need to develop new alternatives and even whether qualifications are the right solution in the first place. It is difficult to anticipate the outcomes of this review given the wide range of stakeholders it is targeting and the nature of the questions being asked, but there is certainly a possibility it will trigger major reforms.

However, Ofqual’s regulatory review of Functional Skills qualifications in maths and English suggests little need for major reform. It tells us that the training providers and employers that it surveyed mostly believe that these qualifications meet their intended purpose of improving the skills needed for life and work. Ofqual has asked each exam board to make particular changes to their versions of Functional Skills, and the extent of the changes will vary from one board to another; in our case, we are pleased that OCR versions have required minimal change.

The review also reminds us that Functional Skills were introduced after a major three year pilot that ran from 2007- 2010 which sounds almost leisurely compared to the pace of current reforms. If we are to consider further reforms to Functional Skills, it would be wise to take our time, do our homework, and for ministers to take great care in framing the underlying policies.

Reforms for maths and English have to align with policies to improve the infrastructure of the trained teachers needed to deliver these reforms. It is good to see the ETF (again) commissioning workforce development initiatives for mathematics with the National Centre for Excellence in Teaching. The support they provide will be excellent, as their name suggests, but whether the scale and reach of what is proposed will be sufficient is debatable. 

The recently published Carter Review also looks at teacher training, providing a thorough and balanced analysis of Initial Teacher Training provision. Naturally, OCR is delighted that the report highlights the importance of teachers learning about assessment. Assessment expertise is an essential part of the professional teacher’s armoury. If the current proposal to set up a College of Teaching proves to have legs, it could play a role in raising the profile and importance of assessment expertise and, crucially, the virtues of becoming an examiner as a means of honing and developing that expertise. This all goes to show how interconnected all education policies turn out to be and how, indeed, one thing really does lead to another.

Paul Steer
Director of Policy and Strategy at Oxford Cambridge and RSA (OCR)

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