'Taking out the trash day' - Shortages, obsessions, and attitudes

'Taking out the trash day' - Shortages, obsessions, and attitudes

As ever, Paul Steer has 'The Last Word' in the latest issue of OCR's Policy Briefing, and this month he comments on the Smith review of post-16 maths, the 'obsession' school performance measures, and what's on the horizon for vocational education.

It was good to see the Smith review of post-16 maths has finally been published – it was originally due before Christmas 2016 and has appeared amid a flurry of reports and announcements that came out of the DfE the day before the summer recess – a day that has been dubbed rather disparagingly by some of the press as ‘take out the trash day’.

Much of what’s in the Smith review had been widely trailed and there were no real surprises, but the 88-page report highlights a series of depressing shortages: a shortage of people studying maths post 16; a shortage of funding for post-16 maths; a shortage of teachers (especially in FE); a shortage of maths options; a shortage of good careers advice; and a shortage of interest in maths from the general population. Most of Smith’s 18 recommendations are pragmatic and they also acknowledge the many initiatives that have already been put in place, simply urging that they continue and, sometimes ‘expand’. However, the impact of the recommendations will depend largely on how deeply the DfE is prepared to dig into the public purse to fund them.

The Ofqual report on preliminary entries for general qualifications is based on entry data from April 2017 so should be treated with a bit of caution. However, there are a couple of marked trends which are probably safe to comment on. Firstly, the decline in AS entries is a whopping 42%. This would seem to be proof that the decoupling of AS from A Levels and ongoing funding constraints are leading to more and more institutions dropping the AS altogether. This will feed concerns in the Smith review that options in AS Maths and A Levels in Further Maths are under threat.

The second striking trend in Ofqual’s preliminary data is the 9% growth of uptake in GCSE EBacc subjects (except, of course, the beleaguered Modern Foreign Languages). If this growth continues and somebody cracks the MFL issue, the newly confirmed government target of putting 75% of the Key Stage 4 population on an EBacc diet by 2022 looks achievable.

At the same time as confirming this target, the DfE published a report on trends in the uptake of arts-based subjects. Although many have argued that arts-based subjects are losing out to EBacc subjects, the report suggests otherwise. However, the recent survey on attitudes to the Progress 8 performance measure (which includes an EBacc element) shows that some school leaders believe Progress 8 is having a narrowing effect on the curriculum. It is difficult to believe that so many teachers are simply imagining a decline in the arts or other non-EBacc subjects – especially when the Ofqual report on preliminary entries tells us that every single non-EBacc GCSE showed a decline in entries this summer.

Speaking at the recent Festival of Education, the Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman argued strongly that an obsession with school performance measures can have a detrimental impact on the curriculum. She said teachers should spend their time on what matters most and that this means “concentrating on the curriculum and the substance of education, not preparing your pupils to jump through a series of accountability hoops”. Ms Spielman is also on the record for speaking out against the current GCSE English and maths re-sit policy. Professor Smith joins her by recommending in his review that the DfE take another look at this policy.

We should welcome aboard, Anne Milton, the new Skills and Apprenticeships Minister. She will certainly have a busy time of it given the extent of her brief. One of her main challenges will be delivering the proposed Technical Education reforms or ‘skills revolution’ as she has termed it in her letter announcing that the delivery of the first T-Level qualifications has been put back a year. But even with this very sensible delay, the scale and time frames of what is proposed remain enormous. One of the headaches is going to be finding quality work placements for the new army of technical students we are primed to expect. At a recent conference, it was suggested 3 million hours of work placements would be needed per annum for the T-Level programmes, though there must be quite a lot of wild speculation behind such a figure. The Learning and Work Institute has outlined many of the challenges of delivering the work experience element, not least the fact that current work experience opportunities are nowhere near the scale proposed in the Skills Plan.

Finally, this month also saw the publication of two reports looking at the vocational qualifications market. One from Ofqual looks at employer awareness and attitudes – employer awareness varies from sector to sector but the report knocks a hole in the argument that vocational qualifications are neither valued nor understood by employers. The second report on the market from Frontier Economics looks at how competition works between awarding organisations. It points out another challenge to the plans for Technical Education by highlighting the risks concerned with the model in the Skills Plan which franchises out the development and assessment of the T-Level qualifications to single awarding organisations. Whatever the merits or otherwise of such a model, and notwithstanding the overall complexity of the proposals, it is incumbent on all of us involved to get this right. We can’t afford another failure like the 14-19 Diplomas – we have to get it right this time for the economy and, most of all, for the young people involved.

Paul Steer
Head of Policy, OCR

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