Monthly Archives: April 2011



Academics argue over the model it uses to compare performance

Is Pisa the right benchmark?


How well are our school children doing by International standards? Not well, would seem to be the answer, at least based on the latest OECD Pisa study of 2009 in which, for example, we came 28th in Maths out of 65 countries. Pisa measures maths, science and Reading and supposedly the ability of pupils to apply knowledge to resolve problems.  However, a Danish Academic Professor Svend Kreiners is preparing a paper, shortly to be published, which allegedly rubbishes the statistical model on which all Pisa results are based. Pisa, he says, doesn’t compare like with like across all countries and is not therefore an objective performance benchmark. Andreas Schleicher – Head of the Indicators and Analysis Division (Directorate for Education) OECD who is responsible for Pisa, disputes this, and will issue a detailed rebuttal in due course-but statisticians are beginning already to take sides. The Education Secretary Michael Gove is an admirer of Schleicher dubbing him the most important man in British Education. In this country Professor Stephen Heppell has long contested the accuracy and usefulness of Pisa results and has a web site which cites research that questions Pisas methodology. Professor Alan Smithers doubts its ability to compare like with like. S J Prais (National Institute of Economic and Social Research London) has previously used the example of Englands results to demonstrate serious flaws in the response rates and sampling, of Pisa which necessarily lead to biased results. Gjert Langfeldt (Agder Universitet) questions the validity and reliability claims made by PISA, pointing to ‘constructional constraints, methodological mishaps and the cultural bias embedded in the PISA design’. Svein Sjøberg at the University of Oslo analyzed PISA items and found some to have confusing and erroneous material. For example, Sjøberg observed that the title of an article about cloning, “A Copying Machine for Living Beings,” was translated literally word for word into Norwegian, rendering the title totally incomprehensible. And the questions posed by Pisa are supposed to be culturally neutral. PISA uses a statistical technique called the “One Dimensional Item Response Theory.” But Joachim Wuttke of Jülich Research Center in Munich contends that this is wholly inappropriate. “Items that did not fit into the idea that competence can be measured in a culturally neutral way on a one-dimensional scale were simply eliminated.”   This appears to corroborate findings by the University of Oslo’s Rolf Olsen who also argues that “in PISA-like studies, the major portion of information is thrown away.”

Pisa results, say critics, just happen to support the Governments reform narrative of the moment which is why it is so frequently cited here, although Andreas Schleicher seems to suggest that there is no evidence of decline in English pupil performance merely a suggestion that we are stagnating.  Gove uses Pisa statistics that go back to the 2000 and 2003 surveys to demonstrate a 10-year performance decline. However, the OECD  itself eschews using its data for such comparisons saying  that sampling in 2000 and 2003 was not up to scratch and  is not keen  for countries to use the data in this way because it is unreliable, although it hasn’t stopped our Government doing so.     Professor Alan Smithers points out that UK schools had a very low response rate in the 2000 Pisa study and, of those who did respond, a disproportionate number came from the best state schools and independent schools. Smithers added (BBC Radio 4) that because schools don’t regard PISA as important they focus their efforts on trying to do well in the national tests where pupils are improving year on year. So, no special effort is put in for PISA (unlike some other countries) . Also given that there were 32 entries to Pisa in 2000 and in 2009 there were 65 it is hard to compare like with like. But possibly more serious is Professor Svend Kreiners (the University of Copenhagen) allegation that it is impossible to accurately compare items across all countries using Pisas methodology.  To do so the items compared must be the same across all countries in the study.  But he says this is not the case. So comparisons between countries are not objective and its  ‘measurements’ are “neither valid, objective or sample free in the sense that we usually understand these terms.”  He concentrated on researching different degrees of difficulty in Pisa Reading test items.  PISA as we have seen uses the “One Dimensional Item Response Theory” which he also claims is inappropriate.  The main charge is that items tested are not exactly the same across the countries being tested. Indeed Kreiners claims he found no two items exactly the same in all countries. So there is a real argument now among academics, getting up a head of steam, at a time when our Government is placing great significance on Pisa and using the Pisa results in a way that the OECD is clearly uncomfortable with.

What is slightly perplexing about all this is that  there is rarely any mention of  the alternative table,  TIMSS which sheds a more positive light on this countries’ performance  This is particularly ironic, as Warwick Mansell has pointed out , given that TIMSS is ‘ a closer test of pure curricular knowledge of the sort about which Mr Gove often enthuses – ie the problems could be seen as more “traditional” – than is PISA, which tests application of reading, maths and science understanding in “real world” scenarios.’   Comparing yourself against international benchmarks seems, on the face of it, a pretty sound idea. But if there is a question mark over the benchmark you choose, then it could become problematic, particularly if the whole education system is then  oriented towards satisfying its criteria. Pisa measures just a very narrow range of outcomes. Is that really how we want to determine whether or not our schools are successful? And what if the two key international benchmarks are measuring altogether different things, which Pisa and TIMMSs appear to be doing? If you choose one benchmark then you are probably not going to improve much in the other as they are measuring different things.  And if Pisa is so important you would have thought Government reforms would ensure that those things Pisa measures are targeted for improvement ie pupils ability not just to absorb facts but to apply those facts to resolve problems. Will the Ebacc help here? Or a more fact based curriculum delivering the essential body of knowledge which all children need to learn? Or giving schools more autonomy?  Possibly, but it’s not absolutely clear how.



Adam Smith Institute calls for profitmaking in State schools

Free schools initiative needs help


The Adam Smith Institute published a report last week authored by James Croft, an Education consultant,  which backs profit making state schools to meet the challenges set by the choice agenda, shortage of capital and  demand for new school places, particularly at the Primary level.

The message is that involvement of profit making companies will breathe new life into the Free schools programme which shows signs of stalling. The report also  looks at the untapped potential offered by Proprietorial (for profit) schools that have delivered outstanding results where they have been allowed to operate.

The idea behind Free Schools is a good one, says the ASI report but the restrictive nature of the policy has led to disappointing results so far.

Just 41 Free Schools are  in the pipeline  with only  a handful starting in September this year. (only one has so far signed a funding agreement)

The Secretary of State, Michael Gove has said that he ‘wants to give the idealists a chance, but idealists need capital too.’

The report says ‘There is no reason why brilliant and innovative educationists cannot effectively partner with able businesspeople, for-profitThere is every reason to believe, to the contrary, and on the evidence, that for-profit incentive will in fact work to lift pupil attainment. ‘

However as things stand  far from bringing about systemic change ‘Free schools look set to have only a ‘statistically minor’ impact unless ministers are prepared to facilitate the contribution of profit-making businesses.’


The ASI report ‘Profit-Making Free Schools: Unlocking the Potential of England’s Proprietorial Schools Sector, assesses the gains that would come from opening up the Free Schools programme to profit-making schools. It looks too at  the challenges facing the government and the excess capacity currently available in the for-profit schools sector.

The paper considers the case for new schools in the context of these challenges (Part 1), examining in particular whether fears an extension in the private sector’s remit in schools are justified and revisiting the question of whether profit necessarily compromises educational outcomes. Building on other studies scrutinising the performance of for-profit education management companies overseas, Part 2 investigates the little known English proprietorial school tradition and offers a profile of these schools for the first time as constituting a sector in their own right. Concluding the report, Part 3 considers ways of unlocking the sector’s spare capacity and harnessing its entrepreneurial energy in service of wider policy goals

The author looks at Ofsted and Independent Schools Inspectorate reports of the profit-making schools sector in detail, and determines that these schools deliver results that are equal to or greater than all independent schools. In other words, there is no evidence that profit damages outcomes. Crucially, this holds true even in profit-making schools that charge fees roughly the same as the state’s per student education expenditure. The report concludes that the excess capacity in the profit-making schools sector can be unlocked by liberalizing the requirements for Free Schools.

The Free schools project has the potential to be this government’s most lasting legacy, but for this to happen Free Schools must be given exactly that – freedom, says the report.

Government hostility to the profit motive has confused many in its own ranks. The ASI   does a service by reminding readers that the commissioning of private sector organisations to assist with public service delivery in hospitals, prisons and care homes is nothing new in the UK. There are, furthermore, precedents in education, notably in early years and Special school provision, for entrusting private providers with the care of the youngest and some of the most vulnerable individuals in society. ( So,  profit making companies can look after  the most vulnerable pupils  but not  mainstream pupils- work that one out! )  For-profit nurseries now account for approximately 74% of market provision.   Proprietorial independent special schools have focused their efforts on catering for pupils with acute SEN, more complex (including medical) needs and/or those displaying more challenging SEBD requiring specialist services.

In respect of academies and new schools, however, the government has sought to maintain a delicate political compromise by insisting that these be governed by trusts operating as companies limited by guarantee, on a not-for-profit basis. This means that educational management organisations are limited in practice in the role they can play.

The report claims  that this is an artificial construct: ‘ there is no evidence to suggest that trust governance guarantees solid educational outcomes, neither for that matter is there evidence to suggest that for-profit management necessarily compromises standards.’

The report explores the untapped potential offered by Proprietorial (for profit) schools that have delivered outstanding results where they have been allowed to operate.  These schools show how schools in the market respond effectively to demand.  The 480  Proprietorial schools educate over 80,000 pupils and  include those run on more traditional sole proprietor and family partnership models as well as those owned and operated by chains.

ASI concludes that the government should unlock the for profit  potential in order to meet growing demand in the coming years, with a view to introducing a steadily greater degree of choice for parents and increasing competition among schools. The requirements of the new free school applications process are altogether too prescriptive. If choice and competition are indeed inherently beneficial, as the Conservatives have consistently argued in and out of office, then audited accounts showing sound financial management, together with evidence of demand, ought to be sufficient criteria for existing schools not in need of capital investment. Providing such schools have some spare capacity to bring to the equation, they should be automatically approved on a value for money basis every time.

The report recommends that the government remove any requirements relating to corporate or legal structure from free schools legislation. Schools would no longer have to be run via a charitable vehicle or operate under a trust framework. Private companies, partnerships and sole traders should all be able to participate in the Free Schools programme.


Goves resistance to allowing companies to profit from state schools precedes the Coalition. It is emphatically not a result of a compromise hammered out with the Liberal Democrats. Indeed some Liberal Democrats including Julian Astle of the think tank Centre Forum have no problem with the profit issue. Nor do those think tanks traditionally closest to Goves thinking – Policy Exchange and Reform. His resistance seems to be informed  by a  fear of upsetting unions and others in the education establishment including some senior civil servants. He doesn’t want to open another political front although ironically  unions already argue that he has privatised the  school system

‘Profit-Making Free Schools: Unlocking the Potential of England’s Proprietorial Schools Sector; ASI James Croft 2011


Research from LSE finds autonomy helps raise standards


Stephen Machin and James Vernoit of the London School of Economics   have just published research looking at the performance of academies created by the last Government. Prof Machin and Mr Vernoit conclude that “the increased autonomy and flexible governance enabled by academy conversion may have had the scope to sharpen incentives to improve performance”.

The research considers the impact of an academy school conversion on their pupil intake and pupil performance and possible external effects working through changes in the pupil intake and pupil performance of neighbouring schools. These lines of enquiry are considered over the school years 2001/02 to 2008/09 ie the last Labour Government. The researchers bypass the selection bias inherent in previous evaluations of academy schools by comparing the outcomes of interest in academy schools to a specific group of comparison schools, namely those state maintained schools that go on to become academies after the  sample period ends. This approach allows the researchers to produce a well-balanced treatment and control group. The results ‘ suggest that moving to a more autonomous school structure through academy conversion generates a significant improvement in the quality of their pupil intake and a significant improvement in pupil performance.’ The report also finds significant external effects on the pupil intake and the pupil performance of neighbouring schools. The paper observes “a strong relationship” between improvements at academies and at local schools – even though higher-achieving pupils started leaving other local schools to go to the new academy.

All of these results are strongest for the schools that have been academies for longer and for those who experienced the largest increase in their school autonomy. The report says ‘In essence, the results paint a (relatively) positive picture of the academy schools that were introduced by the Labour government of 1997-2010. The caveat is that such benefits have, at least for the schools we consider, taken a while to materialise.’

Prof Machin and Mr Vernoit put improvements down to market effects, saying that this is “likely to have come via the increased choice/competition mechanism that has scope to deliver significant positive external effects from academy conversion”.

So far, 357 schools have converted to Academy status   under this government.

Changing School Autonomy; Academy Schools and their introduction to Englands Education;Stephen Machin and  James Vernoit  CEE DP 123


Tea and sympathy for Greg Mortensen

Published Letter; The Guardian ;25 April 2011

Madeline Bunting is somewhat harsh about Greg Mortenson of Three cups of Tea fame, who allegedly made up parts of his book (Comment, 22 April). He hasn’t had, as yet, much time to defend himself. His book’s basic message, though, isn’t to do with imperialism or feminism. It is that by building schools – especially girls’ schools – in Afghanistan andPakistan, local people, and particularly moderate tribal elders, can rescue and protect their people from extremists and the influence of fundamentalism, while fostering sustained local economic development, better health and quality of life – not least because educated women are powerful agents and catalysts for change and progress. All this can be achieved with a bottom-up approach, largely avoiding bureaucrats, politicians and the military, who tend to be either inefficient, brutal or corrupt, or all three. Hopefully his book, which is an uplifting read and a much-needed antidote to cynicism, can still, when the smoke clears, demonstrate these essential truths.

Patrick Watson



Seeks to rationalise and streamline Capital

School Planning system too complex  and hostile


Sebastian James of Dixons has just completed the Review of Capital Funding for the Government

In July 2010, the Government launched a comprehensive review of all capital  investment funded by the Department for Education (the James Review). The purpose of the Review was to consider, in the context of the Government’s fiscal consolidation plans and emerging policy, the Department for Education’s existing capital expenditure and make recommendations on the future delivery models for capital investment for 2011-12 onwards. The overall aim of the Review was to ensure that future capital investment will provide good value for money and strongly support the Government’s ambitions to reduce the deficit, raise standards, tackle disadvantage, address building condition and meet the requirement for school places resulting from an increase in the birth rate.

The main issues identified are:

i. The capital allocation process is complex, time consuming, expensive and opaque.  In most cases, decisions are not based on objective criteria   which are consistently applied and do not succeed in targeting money   efficiently to where it is needed. There are too many different approaches across the various programmes and keynote programmes such as Building Schools for the Future had an approach that, with hindsight, was expensive and did not get to schools with the greatest need fast enough.

ii. The design and procurement process for the Building Schools for the Future programme (and other strategic programmes) was not designed to create either high and consistent quality or low cost. Procurement starts with a sum of money rather than with a specification, designs are far too bespoke, and there is no evidence of an effective way of learning from mistakes (or successes).

iii. A lack of expertise on the client side meant that there was little opportunity to improve building methods in order to lower costs over time, especially for very large and complex Building Schools for the  Future projects. The main clients for contracting companies were Local Authorities and head teachers. As a result, despite many hundreds of schools being addressed by the Building Schools for the Future programme, central mechanisms to engineer better solutions were too weak and Partnerships for Schools did not have enough authority to make this happen effectively.

iv. Devolved funding processes did not deliver efficiently the objectives that they were established to achieve. Multiple funding streams diverted funds to those most adept at winning bids rather than necessarily to those in most need. There was little tracking of how money was spent and wide variations in outcome for the same money invested in similar projects.

v. Maintenance is critical to controlling the lifetime cost of schools and the quality of maintenance across the estate is extremely variable. This is exacerbated by the fact that no good quality data is collected on the condition of the estate.

vi. The regulatory and planning environment is far too complex and hostile for building schools. The individual nature of the buildings that have been built historically also meant that every project had to run the gauntlet of these regulations.

The report highlighted five key points

i. There should be a clear and agreed goal for capital expenditure in England: to create enough fit-for-purpose school places to meet the needs of every child. Currently there is considerable ambiguity as to the goals of capital spend.

ii. Capital allocation should be determined using objective information on need for pupil places and on the condition of the local estate. At a local level this notional budget should be turned into a light-touch local plan to achieve the overall goals of the investment. Currently, there is no information held centrally on the condition of the estate and different Responsible Bodies receive capital in different ways.

iii. New buildings should be based on a clear set of standardised drawings and specifications that will incorporate the latest thinking on educational requirements and the bulk of regulatory needs. This will allow for continuous learning to improve quality and reduce cost. Currently the bulk of new schools are designed from scratch with significant negative consequences on time, cost and quality.

iv. There must be a single, strong, expert, intelligent ‘client’ acting for the public sector in its relationships with the construction industry and responsible for both the design and the delivery of larger projects. This body must be accountable for the delivery of buildings on time and to the right budget and quality standards. This is a philosophical shift in approach as it would mean that the Department for Education will deliver not money, but rather a building to meet local needs. Currently, the Department for Education supplies money to the Responsible Body and the principal accountability for delivery lies with them.

v. Responsible Bodies should be accountable for the maintenance of the  facilities they own and manage, as these facilities are their tools to use in support of education and the provision of services. That means they  have a long-term responsibility to maintain their own facilities as well as  to work together in a local area to ensure the education estate meets or  exceeds the needs of local children. Currently there is no explicit  obligation to maintain buildings and no agreed standard. Funds are wholly devolved to school level making it impossible for Responsible  Bodies to prioritise their needs at a local level.

A Summary of the reports main recommendations are included in Appendix A of the report


Among its Recommendations

The review suggests that savings in both time and money of up to 30 per cent could be made in the schools capital funding process.

The review calls for a centralised approach to capital funding and an end to multiple funding streams of investment. It says that allocations should be based on objective facts and data, and that a single capital budget be allocated to local authorities on the basis of local need. These priorities should be agreed on the basis of a Local Investment Plan, which should be based on a template supplied by the Government. It also recommends that the process be significantly flexible to allow several local authorities to work together to create a Local Investment Plan.

Capital funding may be allocated directly to academy chains rather than to the local authority. It is recommended that devolved formula capital allocations are aggregated and given to local authorities or academy chains rather than individual schools, however, for individual academies (converting or not in a chain) funding would be devolved directly to the school.

If this recommendation was to be approved it would probably encourage even more schools to seek academy status as a way of ensuring future capital funding. For Free Schools, the review recommends that they are funded from the centre and that a centrally retained budget should be set aside for them. So funding will be handed out at the government’s discretion. It is unclear how much of the total DFE capital building budget will be allocated,  for Free schools or indeed how the decisions to spend it will be taken.. A shortage of funding for Free schools is acting as a significant obstacle to their expansion.

For future new build programmes the review recommends that a set of standardised drawings and specifications is used as a way of reducing costs, stating that it is their belief that best practice can be codified. It is recommended that these specifications are continuously improved through post occupancy evaluation. (not supported by RIBA)

The review also calls for the establishment of a Central Body for school procurement, who would be responsible for negotiating and monitoring contracts. The model would allow for other bodies, such as local authorities and academy chains to earn the ability to procure independently.

For ICT the review recommends that the Government ensures a clear broadband service for schools and says that their needs to be a clear ICT funding allocation model for new build or refurbishment projects. It suggests the use of an ICT Services Framework, the introduction of a web-based price comparison catalogue to enable “virtual aggregation” (which sounds similar to the former Government’s OPEN system) and that the Government should procure a central framework for school MIS.


The Spirit Level sees unequal societies as the unhappiest

But Spirit level Delusion says its hypotheses  are just  plain wrong


The left have been animated for a while by the incredible popularity and ubiquity of The Spirit Level. This tract from  Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett   claims that more equal societies do better at  just about everything, backed by much data and graphs comparing variables between countries and drawing conclusions from them.  On almost every index of quality of life, or wellness, or deprivation, there is a gradient showing a strong correlation between a country’s level of economic inequality and its social outcomes. Almost always, Japan and the Scandinavian countries are at the favourable “low” end, and almost always, the UK, the US and Portugal are at the unfavourable “high” end, with Canada, Australasia and continental European countries in between.  The authors  give themselves a huge challenge in making sense of so much data, which is impressive, although critics  such as Christopher  Snowden in The Spirit Level Delusion’ claim they have failed and  that the way they have used data produces many absurdities and false linkages. Nick Cohen of the Observer however   has said that Labour is energised by “The Spirit Level, a book which is turning into a cross between a manifesto and a call to arms. At one Left-wing meeting recently, a speaker wished everyone in the country could read its argument that societies more equal than Britain enjoy better physical and mental health, lower homicide rates, fewer drug problems, fewer teenage births, higher maths and literacy scores, higher standards of child wellbeing, lower obesity rates and fewer people in prison.( Although Wilkinson and Pickett concede that suicide rates are higher in more equal countries). If they could just grasp that, he said, then they would see that combating inequality was good for everyone.” His was not a lone voice. David Miliband and other senior Labour politicians have declared their admiration for its authors and their take on inequality.

One  possible problem with The Spirit Level is that you  can’t really, with much conviction, separate out all the variables when comparing statistics from different countries (just how reliable are these statistics anyway-are they collected and collated  to a uniform standard?). To demonstrate, the author of the Spirit Level Delusion, Christopher Snowdon, shows a scatter graph that proves recycling causes suicide. By fact-checking the book’s statistics and reviewing the scientific literature, Snowden argues that in fact there is no correlation between income inequality and a country’s health, happiness and well-being. In short, the hypothesis in The Spirit Level is, he says, based on selective evidence and flawed reasoning. A report from Policy Exchange  Beware False Prophets re-examines the empirical claims made in The Spirit Level and finds that of the 20 statistical claims made in it, 14 are spurious or invalid and in only one case (the association internationally between infant mortality and income inequality) does the evidence unambiguously support their hypothesis.

Given the fact that well- being and the pursuit of happiness appears to be  moving up the political agenda perhaps it is worth looking at both books before coming to your own conclusion.


Funding cuts, lack of investment and unrealistic timescales are  all damaging prospects for reform


Careers England commissioned Professor Tony Watts, an international authority on Careers Education Information Advice and Guidance, to deliver a Policy Commentary ‘The Coalition’s Emerging Policies on Career Guidance’ which was published on 18 April

Careers England   has expressed   the professions  deep  concern  ‘that over the past few months very  little progress has been made in  turning the Government’s vision for  a world-class  all-age strategic careers service into reality’ and  there has been a failure to address  ‘ the urgent issues of transition from current arrangements and statutory duties to the new  proposals for careers services for all age groups, alongside the need for absolute  clarity about the support to be available to young people in schools in the future.’

Recent Government announcements, in CEs view, have served to clarify some issues, but raised alarm on others. There has also been, despite Ministers claims, very little substantive consultation on the future of Careers guidance with professional bodies and indeed no discussion of detailed plans.

The views in this commentary are those of the author. However, the Careers England Board ‘commends this careful and thorough analysis to all who care for the future of careers services for all age groups in England.’


The current Government has affirmed its intention to strengthen career guidance services in England. Its main rationales are two-fold: promoting social mobility; and moving towards a user-led skills system. In pursuit of this intention, the Government has made three commitments, all of which have been widely welcomed: to establish  an all-age  National Careers  Service (NCS); to revitalise the professional status of  career guidance; and, in respect of support for young people, to safeguard the  partnership model between schools and external career guidance providers.

The main sources of significant tensions lie between these policies and the  Government’s policies relating to school autonomy. Schools will in future have a  statutory duty to secure careers guidance services either from the NCS or from other  providers (a contractor-supplier relationship);  but  they may also appoint their own  ,careers adviser, so long as they  provide, at a minimum, access to online resources  (which they  could not realistically deny). This undermines the partnership model; it raises issues about how quality is to be assured; and the minimalist option offered as fulfilling the new requirements effectively renders the statutory duty meaningless.

Veiled by these changes and confusions, there are also fears that much or all of the existing funding for face-to-face career guidance services for young people may well  be allowed to vanish without trace, without any public announcement to this effect.

Such a dramatic erosion of services for young people would seriously undermine the  potential to build better services for adults as well.


There are many issues on which clarification is urgently needed. These include:

The DfE funding contribution to the new all-age National Careers Service.

The structure of the NCS, and the extent to which it is viewed as a strategic  body.

The quality standards to be applied to the NCS, and also to other providers within the market in career guidance provision (including suppliers from whom schools can purchase such services).

The proposed new kite-mark and other quality arrangements to encourage and  help schools to develop high-quality careers programmes.

How the data for the proposed destinations measure in schools are to be collected; how   “added value‟ is to be demonstrated; and what other accountability measures and procedures are to be introduced alongside it.

The role of and relationships between current consultative mechanisms on the emerging policies.

Meanwhile, amidst these uncertainties, many existing Connexions career guidance services for young people are being eroded or dismantled by Local Authority cuts.

If the main elements of the Government’s policies are to be implemented as planned, in a way which improves rather than damages services, there are a number of steps  that need to be taken. These include not only establishing the NCS, but also persuading schools to pay for services they have previously received free of charge.

There are grave doubts about whether these steps are achievable within the timetable Ministers have set.


There are also concerns that:

By the time the new market is established, much of the expertise for its professional base will have disappeared.

In the meantime, there will have been a widespread collapse of careers help for young people.

The original BIS vision for the all-age service will have been fatally eroded by lack of serious engagement from DfE, with adverse impact on the services for adults too


There is a real danger that a combination of funding cuts, lack of investment for the future, policy contradictions and a lack of detail, aswell as  a lack of consultation and unrealistic timetables will  leave this policy in tatters damaging the interests and opportunities of our  young people   while undermining the governments   social  mobility agenda. Urgent intervention is required by senior Ministers to address this crisis.


New breed of Academies may give private schools a run for their money


The Academies programme is continuing apace. 547 secondary schools are now Academies that is 16.5 % of all secondary schools. By the end of this year the proportion of independent state secondaries is expected to be 1-in-3; and by the next election the majority of state-funded secondary schools will almost certainly be independent. Ministers privately define success as at least  half of all secondaries becoming academies by 2015. They believe that this is  achievable .

The Free schools programme ie essentially new schools with academy status- is also developing with 40 in the pipeline,  around half of which should open  this  September.

The financial advantages to schools afforded by academy status  are one of the main drivers for those seeking to convert to academy status. It  is clear that the programme has achieved its own momentum, in contrast to the Free schools programme that has encountered a few teething problems, although the large Academy chains, offering technical support and economies of scale may help quicken the pace of Free schools expansion , over the medium term. The independent sector is now looking over its shoulder. Some see the supply side reforms as  a threat to their future, particularly the smaller ones operating on tight margins and with no endowments.  Fees have  risen on average well above inflation year on year and with inflation  on the up parents  are beginning to  feel the financial chill. Top independents are charging close to  £30,000 a year. True, the sector was extraordinarily robust over the period of economic slump, the financial crisis, and credit crunch. But will it be so resilient this time around.? Already there is a trickle of schools looking to join the state sector having seen their rolls fall. MTM research points out that of those parents that could afford independent school fees for their children but don’t use the sector, 73% are satisfied with their local state school options. If that proportion rose, say, to just 75%, the independent sector would lose 26,000 buyers, or 7% of its total roll.  With inflation up, falling confidence in the job market , a low growth economy  and lower disposable incomes, the independent sector may feel squeezed by rapidly improving state schools.  This does seem to be a developing threat to the sector particularly as many of the new breed of  academies  will be relatively  high performing schools, that  are not towards the bottom of the league tables and are not in effect   failing schools that have re- launched (unlike most of the first tranche  of academies under the last government)

Independents will have a job on their hands to keep their fees down and will find themselves competing with better local state schools. Many will probably meet the challenge with equanimity, others won’t.


Will getting more pupils into university improve social mobility

Professor Peter Saunders and some myths about social mobility


The benefits of the rapid expansion of higher  education were supposed to be obvious and  particularly the assumption that if you get more pupils into university they will get higher level qualifications which in turn will give them access to good jobs in the professions  and social mobility will increase . So far so virtuous. Yet despite the rapid expansion in university places over the last generation and many more graduates in the job market, report after report suggests that social mobility has actually stalled.   The evidence on social mobility is complex and sometimes contradictory. But as the Social Mobility report released a couple of  weeks ago  says ‘the broad picture is fairly clear. We currently have relatively low levels of social mobility, both by international standards and compared with the ‘baby boomer’ generation  born in the immediate post-war period’. Evidence actually suggests  that it is early  interventions that have the most effect on social mobility, and the earlier the better. If you try to engineer mobility at the university level you are basically too late.

Professor Peter Saunders  pointed out in the 2010  Civitas publication ‘Social Mobility Myths’  that educational qualifications have become what economists call ‘positional goods’. A ‘positional good’ is one whose utility declines, the more people gain access to it. When only 5 per cent of the population had university degrees, for example, a degree was a powerful passport to career success. But when almost half of the population goes to university, a degree becomes commonplace. You may be disadvantaged if you do not have one, but the advantages of being a graduate are severely dissipated. (which may go some way to explaining why 20% of new graduates are unemployed) .– ‘Simply increasing the number of graduates, or the number of people passing A‐levels, or the number of 16 year‐olds staying on at school, or the number of training places on vocational courses, will therefore achieve little in the way of increasing people’s chances of getting a high income or a middle class job. All it will do is devalue the qualifications and trigger a diploma race as people chase ever‐higher qualifications in order to distinguish themselves from the mass of other potential applicants’.  So Ministers might argue that making it easier for disadvantaged pupils to access university is a good in itself but can they argue that it will improve social mobility given that the expansion of HE appears not to have affected social mobility ? Professor Saunders is clear on this “The average educational standard of the population may or may not have improved as a result of all this expansion, but what seems certain, is that there has been no significant impact on relative social mobility’

Professor Saunders specifically attacks:

the preoccupation with expanding entry into higher education, even at the expense of academic standards;

the ‘grade inflation’ unleashed by pushing ever-increasing numbers of pupils through GCSEs and A-levels;

the attempt by government to create more middle class jobs (mainly by expanding the size of the public sector);

moves towards ‘positive discrimination’ in university selection designed to make it harder for bright, middle class applicants to get accepted;

the fallacious belief that flattening the income distribution through higher taxes and more generous welfare benefits will promote mobility.

One of the biggest myths he claims is that governments can increase mobility by top-down engineering of the education system and forcing more income redistribution.

Saunders also argues, by the way, that social mobility is much better than we let on and evidence strongly suggests  bright working class pupils, whatever the perceived obstacles,  tend to be  socially mobile.



What does the Education Bill require?


The Education Bill, currently in the Commons Committee stage,  envisages  a new duty on schools to secure access to impartial and  independent careers guidance for every pupil in Years 9 to 11.This new duty will be in force from September 2012, with a new Careers Service established by April 2012.

In addition  the Government plans to consult in Summer 2011 on whether the duty should be extended down to Year 8 and up to Year 13.

So the governing body of a school will have the freedom to decide how  best to fulfil this duty ‘ in accordance with the needs of their pupils.’

Guidance, independent of the school, must be ‘provided in an impartial  manner, and should promote the best interests of the person to whom it  is given’.  Sources of this  independent careers guidance would include, but not be limited to, careers organisations funded by Government or other   expert careers guidance providers.  Schools should engage where appropriate, in partnership with independent providers (i.e.  not directly employed by the school).  Those schools that have already  developed their own arrangements for providing impartial careers advice and  guidance – for example, by employing their own careers adviser – may  continue to do so.  However, in such cases a school must also ensure pupils have access to a source of guidance which is independent and external to the school. This might include web-based or telephone services, and / or face-toface guidance from a specialist provider.

Schools will make any provision for careers guidance from within the Dedicated Schools Grant.  The budget is unringfenced so that schools can  identify their own priorities in line with the  Governments drive to  devolve as much decision making to schools as possible

A new national careers service will  be established by April 2012, with elements of the service in place from  September 2011.

Local authorities will retain their statutory duty to encourage, enable and assist young people to participate in education or training (Section 68(1) of the Education and Skills Act).  They will also continue to be responsible for completing learning difficulty assessments (under section 139a of the Education and Skills Act 2008) for those young  people with a learning difficulty and/or disability up to the age of 25.

The Government says ‘Local authorities must consider what arrangements they should put in place to ensure all young people, including those who will complete year 11 this  summer, get access to the careers guidance they need in advance of this new  duty being placed on schools, and of the establishment of the new careers  service (planned to be fully operational by April 2012).  The Early Intervention Grant  is being introduced in 2011-2012, and will cover authorities’ transitional responsibilities in respect of  careers guidance in advance of these changes coming into effect.

(Source DFE Guidance 13 April)