Blog: Education pitfalls and the policy pendulum - Paul Steer

Blog: Education pitfalls and the policy pendulum - Paul Steer

Paul Steer

Friday 6th March 2015

The latest reports on competition in the exam system, sponsored by Ofqual, don’t tell us much we don’t already know. As with many previous reports we learn that exams are not very price sensitive. This prompts a few hypotheses: maybe it’s because, relative to the other costs of laying on an education, exam fees are incredibly marginal; maybe it’s because the overall exams bill is going down; maybe it’s because the person who decides which board to use isn’t a budget holder and cares more about education... or maybe it’s because the real currency that drives schools is not pounds sterling but grades and league tables.

Of course, the amount of resources available to schools is a constant concern, but it is in the post-16 world of vocational qualifications and A Levels that, despite what the Ofqual report on School and College Purchasing Behaviours may tell us, the cost of exams and everything else is a really big deal. Colleges are trying to plan their budgets with shrinking pots of uncertain funding and are desperate to know what fees the exam boards will be charging. As the boards reel from the costs of redeveloping every single qualification they offer, uncertain and changing patterns in uptake, and undecided regulatory rules, it will be a while yet before they are able to publish their fees.

The grimmest financial news comes with adult education, this year facing a cut of 12% and, with priorities skewed in favour of apprenticeships, non-apprenticeship provision looks like it will face a cut of 25%. The skills system isn’t a set of neatly demarcated funding streams – cuts in one area impact on resources and cohort sizes in other areas.

This requires a strategic approach; one which looks at the education and skills system as a whole – something that the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Skills and Employment (APGSE) tries to do with its newly launched manifesto. As you would expect of something that comes out of cross-party agreement, there is a certain amount of apple pie and a few old chestnuts, but its core recommendations hit all of the right spots; in particular, a proposed review of how DfE, BIS and DWP might work together on ‘joined-up policy’. The suggested broadening of the role of Ofsted is welcome – it is crazy that we are looking to the exam regulator to impose rules on the delivery of science practicals when checking that young people are taught a core curriculum entitlement must rest with Ofsted.

As you would expect, APGSE’s manifesto also includes recommendations about professional development of teachers. Here, too, we have to look at the whole system. For example – how do we get an Ofsted that encourages teachers to grow and develop rather than one that scares them out of teaching all together? How can we make sure there is an infrastructure of professional development for teachers that is less piecemeal and eroded than the arrangements? If we are going to tackle the challenges of maths education and embrace the vision set out in Make or Break: The UK’s Digital Future we will need to start by securing an infrastructure of trained and expert digital teachers. The BIS-sponsored review of maths and English qualifications (Making Maths and English Work for All) may make some interesting observations about the design and purpose of existing qualifications but any amount of tinkering with qualifications will make little or no difference if there is no infrastructure of skilled teachers and trainers to deliver them.

The thorny issue of workforce development points to the importance of a College of Teaching, and this is why OCR has signed up to the aims of the Claim Your College movement. At the same time, the Sutton Trust report, Developing Teachers, calls for a revitalised National College for School Leadership. Talking about the need for greater CPD for teachers is pointless if they are too busy chasing down other priorities to worry about their own development. The teacher workload survey highlights overwork as a systemic problem. The measures to address unnecessary teacher workload promised by Nick Clegg and Nicky Morgan may bring some much-needed relief in a few spots but hardly get to the root causes. Promising not to make changes to accountability measures and qualifications part way through an academic year will make a refreshing change from reading about new interventions via the Sunday Telegraph, but it doesn’t ask fundamental questions about the volume of change and the unique type of pressure that accountability measures place on teachers. Nick and Nicky do not promise to stop asking for new things without resourcing them and the raft of initiatives directed at schools and colleges tied to single issues (such as obesity or the prevention of terrorism) will keep on coming. The commitment made in relation to Ofsted amounts to nothing more than changing the length of its handbook. Meanwhile, OCR is currently responding to 16 technical consultations from Ofqual on different subjects at GCSE, A Level and AS Level – changes making their way through the system for first delivery next year.

The outcome of the general election may mean that the consultations on A and AS Level will prove to have been pointless. Political change often causes the policy pendulum to swing back and forth burning resource without anything bedding in. Hopefully, wherever we are post May, there will be no rush to tinker with the changes made in response to the Wolf report on vocational education. The DfE’s ‘Final Progress Report’ shows that 20 of its 27 recommendations have been met and that a further 6 are almost there. Recommendation 21 led to the removal of the statutory duty to provide work experience at Key Stage 4. This may not be universally liked, but it has made a difference to teacher workload. However, the APGSE manifesto recommends that ‘some experience of work that is worthwhile to the learner must be mandatory by age 16’.

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

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