Published Evening Standard 3 October 2012
In his plans for the TechBacc, Ed Miliband should beware the lesson of the Diploma brought in by the last Labour Government, the botched compromise in the wake of the rejected Tomlinson Report proposals.
The diploma never enjoyed even lukewarm support from most employers, top universities or the independent sector, despite much arm twisting from politicians and officials. The engineering diploma, which exceptionally did have some admirers from the academic community, was so expensive that even Wellington College was unable to offer it.
Any new vocational qualification needs to be designed in consulation with employers and include suitable training for those who are going to teach the courses. But it must also take into account the capacity of the education system to deliver and currently schools are not in a position to do so. They are already suffering from a huge shortage in qualified specialist maths teachers, and we are producing too few science and engineering graduates to even maintain a status quo in industry, research and education.
The TechBacc is a moderately encouraging proposal on its merits – Michael Gove’s EBaccs entirely fail to address the vocational side of education. The challenge is how best to bridge the gap between Coalition and Labour policy.
The government is trying a new approach to supporting education exporters. Can it work? Patrick Watson
Published in ‘ Education Investor-’ September 2012
This government, it claims, is committed to export-led growth. Education is our seventh largest export industry, worth over £14 billion in 2008-09, and is growing at a rate of 4% a year but, ministers feel, it could do more.
So, in a tacit acknowledgement that our exporters need more support, UK Trade & Industry is moving to offer a ‘system to system’ approach to help education exporters. Its new UK Education Services unit aims to bring the best expertise in the private, public and voluntary sectors together under one roof, to enable a more joined up approach to education exports. The intention is to sell international customers a distinctive UK offer comprising a number of providers working together. This, the theory goes, will be more attractive to potential customers than a number of competing UK offers that meet only parts of their needs. This is quite a change. Until now, the go to organisation for UK education businesses abroad has been the British Council (BC), but that bodys inadequacies are well-known. Its too thinly spread, lacking the capacity, expertise or, indeed, competence to provide the support commercial education firms require. It also suffers from a conflict of interests. Though tasked with representing our education services, in practice the BC often competes with it, by providing language training and so on itself. Accordingly, it often keeps valuable commercial information to itself. To compound the problem, as its grant funding has decreased, its exhorted its staff to act more commercially. This toxic mix of conflicts of interest, overstretch and quality deficit once amounted to an irritation. Increasingly, though, its turned into a crisis.
UKTIs latest initiative, then, could represent a step change in the way the government supports the UKs education industry. We know whats needed: the UKTI spells it out in an overview of its new approach.
First, the identification of major opportunities, through detailed country market analysis. Second, engagement with UK education providers and supporting agencies to identify those with the capability and interest in exporting to these countries.Third, engagement with the host government contacts to develop opportunities to the point where they can be offered to UK providers. And, finally, facilitation and support to UK providers in bidding for contracts.
So far, UKTI has mainly focused on the needs of Higher Education institutions, but increasingly it accepts the need for a more inclusive approach. After all, the UK exports a wide-range of education services: independent schools and their franchises, school improvement, qualifications and assessment, inspection, teacher training, language teaching… Such specialist services are often poorly understood by our local representatives, and so havent had the support that they might.
The UKTI approach sounds promising, but will need to be backed by political will and resources. Secondments from the private sector would give this initiative some focus and traction. Using education service providers as a sounding board will help, too.
But heres one more idea. The BC receives a lot of grant money specifically to promote UK education, but the consensus is that this has not been used cost-effectively. Why not simply transfer it to UKTI, and use it to fund, say, secondments from the private sector?
Published in Education Investor September 2012 Vol 4 No 7
Education Investor is organising a conference in London on 17 October 2012 ‘Exporting excellence: capitalising on the global value of UK education’, at the Westminster Conference Centre
UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) works with UK-based businesses ‘ to ensure their success in international markets, and encourage the best overseas companies to look to the UK as their global partner of choice.’ It is part of the Department for Business Innovations and Skills (BIS). Lord Green is the Trade and Investment Minister .
Unsurprisingly the BC has taken exception to my views on its role and competence, insisting on a right to reply in Education Investor. Its weak reply in letter form amounts to flannel and flummery so typical of that organisation , signally failing to address the core issues raised. It suggests that I am articulating my clients views, the implication being that these views do not represent the broader education sector. Wrong. There is a broad consensus among UK based education providers, most of whom are not my clients (if only!) about the inability of the BC to represent their interests, for the reasons given above. Many have to work in partnership with the BC or suffer commercially without fully understanding the reasons why. The BC behaves like the worst kind of monopoly, and in consequence damages UK education interests abroad in a sector where we should have some competitive advantage. It really is that simple. The real shame is that our politicians and civil servants allow the BC to get away with it. But for how much longer?
COMPULSORY MATHS IN SCHOOL POST 16
Published Letter-The Times 30 July 2012
Sir, No one doubts the importance of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects, but making maths compulsory post-16 would surely be counterproductive. Most people cope very well in the jobs market with basic maths skills. Of course it is important to raise standards at primary and at early secondary level, but coercing pupils into studying maths post-16 is unlikely to greatly improve outcomes. For such a policy to be workable you would need a cadre of high-quality maths teachers. This is currently not the case. Even top private schools find it hard to recruit good maths teachers.The danger, of course, is that this would damage the prospects of those who are keen on maths because they have to share their class with demotivated pupils. Mediocre teaching plus demotivated pupils doesn’t equal a good learning environment. Maths is perceived as dull by many pupils, and part of this is probably due to the teaching and a lack of imagination and creativity in the way the subject is taught.There is no silver bullet here, but beginning early, at the primary level, to ensure that maths is accessible, engaging, relevant and fun for pupils would be a good start. We should begin by focusing on the shortage of good maths teachers rather than coercing pupils to continue to fail at maths for a bit longer.
Patrick Watson London SW8
Daily Telegraph 5 June
SIR – Alan Milburn, an adviser to the Government on social mobility, wants to re-open the issue of the charitable status of private schools (report, June 2).
Mr Milburn memorably said that the latest Charities Act would have failed if at the end of the process independent schools kept their charitable status. It is of course not up to him to decide such an issue. In 2011 the Upper Tribunal ruled that it is for a fee-charging charity to decide how best to meet its charitable obligations, not for the Charity Commission, the tribunal or the courts. The commission agreed to leave it to schools to decide how to provide benefits to the community and will act against them only if they receive complaints with evidence that they are abusing charitable status.
Removing charitable status for these schools could decrease their numbers, but would also serve to make the sector more elitist, less inclusive and less prone to helping the state sector. These schools resent interference from politicians and value their independence. It would also mean thousands of pupils looking for places in a hard-pressed state system. And, if they lost their charitable status, a cull of other charities which provide less public benefit might follow.
Responding to Sir Peter Lampls call in the Times on 25 October for independent schools to provide more bursaries to disadvantaged pupils
LETTER PUBLISHED;THE TIMES 27 OCTOBER 2011
Sir, I doubt that increasing bursaries is the best way to improve access for our most disadvantaged pupils to our best schools and universities. Bursaries will benefit a relatively small number of pupils and will serve to damage the state schools from which pupils are poached.
Independent schools with charitable status have a duty to satisfy the public benefit requirement and it is up to the trustees to determine how schools deliver that benefit. There is more that the independent sector can do to break down the barriers between the sectors, but trying to push trustees to pursue one course of action is counter-productive, as the one thing they prize above all else is their independence.
The government’s revolutionary open public services white paper actually covered some very familiar ground. The coalition should learn from its predecessor’s mistakes, says Patrick Watson in EducationInvestor (September 2011)
July’s Open Public Services white paper promised more choice, more accountability, more diversity and fairer access to services. Two reactions sprang immediately to my mind. The first was, what’s not to like from a plan that offers such clear benefits for consumers and suppliers alike? The second, though, was a strong sense of déjà vu.
We have, after all, heard all this before. The previous Labour government committed itself to public services reform. Centrally driven reforms, aimed at moving services from poor to adequate, were supposed to be followed by bottom-up ones, which would personalise services and deliver more choice. But something got lost in translation. If the poetry, in politics, lies in generating ideas, then the prose lies in delivering them, and for all its talk Labour ended up with half-baked reforms with producer interests still firmly entrenched. One has to ask, then, will these coalition reforms be any different?
Some of the proposals are certainly eye-catching. Every adult receiving social care will have an individual, personal budget by 2013. Also on the cards are personal budgets for those with chronic health problems, for children with special needs, and those in housing for vulnerable people. Funding will follow the pupil in schools, the student in further education, the child in care and the patient in the NHS. Consumers will be empowered to choose where the money is spent.
In order to improve access, the government will introduce a pupil premium, offering extra funding for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, with the money available increasing over time. There will be easier access to data, too, so that people can make informed choices about services. Crucially, there will be a new system of redress, provided through the beefed-up powers of ombudsmen, who will step in when choice is denied. In short, the reforms envisage putting the needs of the consumer of the service first.
So far, so good. But these reforms will come to nothing if the government fails to open up the supply side, encouraging entry from both the private and not for profit sectors. That means removing barriers to market entry, while simultaneously ensuring that the market is seen to be both fair and transparent. In this respect, the previous government failed to deliver. Labour, indeed, went so far as to ignore a blue print for change it had itself commissioned from PwC in 2006, ‘Overarching Report on Children’s Services Markets’.
This report has as much relevance today as it did at the time, and its findings could help this government to get its reform proposals off the drawing board. It found that some local authorities were neither meeting the needs of children and parents, nor delivering value-for-money’, and listed a number of barriers to effective market operation. These included a lack of transparency on costs; a shortage of experienced commissioners; limited dialogue between suppliers and commissioners; inconsistent application of national policies; and, “crucially, conflicting roles of local authorities acting as both commissioner and provider”.
Six years on, an Ofsted report published this August – ‘An evaluation of approaches to commissioning young people’s services’ – echoed some of the PWC report’s findings. The regulator found that only two local authorities “systematically managed commissioning as a strategic process… and took into account the full range of alternative providers”. In other words, most local authorities do not even consider the option of an alternative provider, and whether they could offer an improved service.
Even when local authorities do choose to outsource, they can bring services back in-house at a whim, without the need to market test or to demonstrate best value. This inflexibility increases the risks for alternative providers, and so limits the development of a diversified supply market. It also makes it harder to secure value for money for taxpayers.
If the reforms outlined by the white paper are to succeed, the government must combine strong leadership with incentives for those who reform, and sanctions for those who don’t. Simply issuing guidance is not enough: guidance can be ignored with impunity, and local authorities have a vested interest in keeping services in–house.
The key to changing this lies in the transformation of local commissioning and procurement practices. The government must drop its reluctance to become involved in market management. If the coalition is to deliver on its reforms it must ensure a clear distinction between those who commission services and those who provide them. If it doesn’t, it is doomed to repeat the mistakes of its predecessor.
Patrick Watson is managing director of Montrose Public Affairs Consultants, which specialises in education and skills policy. He also runs the education blog montrose42
OXBRIDGE IS NOT THE ONLY OPTION
Published Letter; Evening Standard; 22 August 2011
You report that schools are to be officially ranked in league tables by the proportion of sixth-formers they send to Oxford and Cambridge universities. This is one of the governments nuttier ideas- reflecting the obsession with Oxford and Cambridge-that didn’t deserve to get off the drawing board. Given how few schools send pupils to Oxbridge ,in any quantity, it will do nothing but irritate heads and governors. UCL, Imperial, LSE, Durham, Bristol and others will also be understandably aggrieved. Imperial frequently tops Oxford in League tables and is thought to have better science courses overall. There are also plenty of very bright pupils who could easily go to Oxbridge but choose other universities because Oxbridge doesn’t offer the options they want , or the courses simply suit them better. Their schools now stand to be penalised. The Sutton Trust, which exists to improve access for disadvantaged pupils disapproves of this measure which speaks volumes. Ministers should change their minds and quickly.
Patrick Watson, London
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.
SWEDISH SCHOOLS HAVE RAISED THE BAR
The Sunday Times; 30 January; Letter
The government’s admiration for the Swedish model of education is right, despite criticisms from some of the teachers’ unions. For instance, the most recent evidence from the Institute of Economic Affairs shows that Sweden’s free schools and the competition they helped introduce into the system have raised standards in all schools — and they are non-selective and socially inclusive.
With regard to Finland’s schools, which the unions so admire, they are comprehensive in the sense that they are non-selective, but more than half of parents in Helsinki opt to send their child to a secondary school different from the one the local authority allocates to them — so school choice is operating in Finland to drive up standards.
Unions are, of course, against school choice, and even against teachers helping to set up co-operative schools in which they would have a stake — an option under the free schools model. Nothing is done to protect our children from incompetent tutors and poor teaching, and — worse — poor teachers are recycled around the system. Research shows that our most disadvantaged pupils are taught by the worst teachers.
Patrick Watson, London
PS The unedited version of this letter sent to the Sun Times was in response to a published letter from the NUT , which, interlia, attacked the Swedish system. I wholly accept that other unions and their leaders do not necessarily all share the views of the NUT and my letter was attacking specifically the NUTs position which may not be obvious in the final published version of the letter. Research undertaken in the last Labour administration by the DCSF provides evidence that our most disadvantaged pupils are taught by the worst teachers.
Letter; Published ;The Times;6 October 2010
A good GCSE or equivalent in maths and sciences is more than enough to see most people through their professional lives
Sir, Anthony Seldon is largely correct in his analysis of what has gone wrong with the exam system (“A levels are just instruction, not education”, Opinion, Sept 29). But as to his remedy — introducing the International Baccalaureate — I beg to differ. It cannot be right to oblige pupils to study maths and sciences post-16. This would alienate many pupils and even persuade some to opt out of school altogether.
We already have one of the highest drop-out rates at 16 in Europe. A good GCSE or equivalent in maths and sciences is more than enough to see most people through their professional lives. The IB is also acknowledged to be more demanding, requiring self-discipline and more teaching time, meaning that it is more expensive to deliver. On cost grounds, alone, is it likely that the IB will be seen as a viable option for state schools?
The IB has its place in the qualifications spectrum. The key, though, is to have a range of robust qualifications that cater for an individual pupil’s needs.
Postscript Note; Seldon, an eloquent supporter of the IB-both the Middle Years Programme and the Post 16 Diploma- having introduced them at Wellington College, importantly, still offers pupils the choice of GCSE and the AS/A2 level.