Category Archives: published letters



Almost certainly not according to the experts


‘Schools now have a legal duty to secure independent careers guidance for all 12-to-18 year-old pupils. They can choose the type of careers advice they offer: for whom and by whom, whether by telephone, through a web portal, or face to face. All this is in line with the government’s drive to make schools, and their decision-making, more autonomous.

The only problem is, it isn’t working: rather than getting careers advice more appropriate to their local job market, many pupils are now forced to make do with advice that’s barely up to scratch. In early March, business secretary Vince Cable triggered a row when he said that teachers weren’t even in a position to give good careers advice. The teaching unions reacted angrily to his suggestion that their members were unfamiliar with the world of work – but few seem to have a response to suggestions that they can’t do the job the government has handed them.

The range of providers from which schools are now buying services includes local authorities, private careers guidance companies, sole traders and new social enterprises. Elsewhere in the market you’ll find education business partnerships, which offer schools integrated careers guidance or work-related learning support services, as well as FE colleges and universities, all selling careers guidance services to schools.

At present, though, relatively few schools are buying in face-to-face careers guidance from an external specialist careers provider. Even those which are commissioning services are buying fewer days than they had received before.This matters, because schools’ own efforts don’t seem to be up to scratch. A 2012 Careers England survey found that there was a postcode lottery in both the quality and the scope of careers guidance on offer to pupils. Overall, what’s more, provision was deteriorating.

A range of other organisations have also expressed concerns about the quality of schools careers guidance. Ofsted has found that three out of every four schools they had visited had not been delivering an adequate service. The CBI’s John Cridland has said that “careers advice is on life support in many areas”. As for Parliament, the Education Select Committee said in 2013, “We have concerns about the consistency, quality, independence and impartiality of careers guidance now being offered to young people.” In February, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg announced that schools were to receive new statutory guidance on what was expected from them in providing careers advice – hardly a ringing endorsement of the status quo.

None of this has surprised the guidance profession. Its members had warned ministers from the outset that, with no additional funding allocated to schools to pay for this new duty, many were likely to pick the cheapest, rather than best, option for their pupils. There were no prescribed quality standards, nor even a recommended professional guidance qualification; and the accountability framework was weak to non-existent. In short, schools do not need to account for the quality of careers advice they offer their pupils. The result is a growing perception that the government is marginalising careers professionals and careers education in schools.

In the past, there’s been an overarching consensus that young people need access to high quality, independent careers education and guidance: to make the right choices for them, to manage the transitions from one stage of their education to the next, and to ensure they have access to information on the local job market. There’s been a consensus, too, that all this is best delivered by an independent, qualified professional, and to come with embedded contributions from employers. Some experts have argued, plausibly, that the delivery of interlinked government policies – improving social mobility, reducing exclusion and NEET figures, filling the skills gaps or improving the opportunities and access for disadvantaged pupils – all stand a better chance of success if young people have easy access to good advice.

But not everyone agrees. Education secretary Michael Gove is on record as doubting the need for “a cadre of careers advisers”. He recently claimed that the new guidance, due out this month, is “all about cutting out the middle man and getting inspirational speakers in front of students to spark their ambitions”. The line seems to be that young people need inspiration, not just information. But does Gove really believe you can cut out the careers advisers in favour of employers? Few doubt the importance of employer engagement, but they and careers professionals have important complementary roles. Young people need access to both.

When the government introduced its overarching National Careers Service as part of the 2012 reforms, many hoped that this would be the organisation tasked with ensuring that no one fell through the guidance net. That, though, has turned out to be a re-branded careers service for adults. For those under 19, access is limited to its website and telephone advice service. NCS has no remit to provide face-to-face careers guidance to young people, no remit to work with schools, and no funding for services to young people beyond its online and telephone facilities.

The government has a number of possibilities open to it. Radically tightening up accountability measures with some additional funding targeted on careers guidance is one option. Bolstering the NCS, and extending it to providing face-to-face careers guidance in schools, possibly with regional contracts, is another. Or perhaps schools could be required to employ their own qualified careers advisers, responsible for providing face-to-face careers guidance to pupils, with teaching staff planning and delivering programmes of careers education.

But one thing is clear: carrying on as things are today is not an option.

(Published in Education Investor- March 2014 Edition)



August 15, 2013 10:14 pm-Financial Times

Fee rise and a fundamental indignity

From Mr Patrick Watson.

Sir, Jonn Elledge’s article on private schools (“Private schools are heading for a crunch”, August 15) and the relentless yearly rise in fees, well above inflation, reminds me of a Wellington College parent’s complaint to its master in the 1970s.

Receiving the dreaded letter announcing the yearly fee rise, he noted a misspelling of “per annum”, missing out, crucially, one of the letter n’s.

The parent with some alacrity replied that he would prefer, if it was OK with the master, to pay the fees in the accustomed way – through the nose.

Patrick Watson, London SW8, UK



 Tear down the wall

Many independent schools remain reluctant to help out with the academy programme, says Patrick Watson in Education Investor magazine

Britain has not one school system, but two, existing in parallel, hardly ever coming into contact. This is worrying some of our leading educationalists. Lord Adonis, the architect of the academies scheme, for example, used a conference at Brighton College this month to remind private schools heads that he wanted the “Berlin Wall” separating them from the state system to be torn down. Dr Anthony Seldon, the master of Wellington College, meanwhile, talks about the “apartheid” that characterises our schools, and the widening performance gap between the independent and maintained sectors.

Those who support closer links between the two sectors use a number of arguments to make their case. Some argue that these schools are now so exclusive they are actively damaging to their students, because they see so little of the rest of society. Others say that, as charities, independent schools have a moral obligation to serve the many, rather than the few. Adonis argues that most major private schools, originally established as charities for the education of the poor and under-privileged, have in practice “entirely divorced themselves from these groups” over the last century.

His solution is that private schools should get involved with the running of academies, to bring their talents to bear in the state system. Seldon, meanwhile, has called on those organisations that represent private schools to actively broker linkages between private schools and academies. He put his money where his mouth was by establishing the Wellington academy in Tidworth.   A few other private schools – Dulwich, Eton, Uppingham, et al. – have heeded this advice. So far, though, most private schools have ignored the call.

To explain why, you need to understand independent schools. They jealously guard and treasure their independence, and are deeply suspicious of any political intervention that looks like it could threaten it. They are attacked so often, and given so little credit by politicians, that their mind-set is defensive. And they believe that it’s for their own management teams to decide – not only how to run the schools, but also how they should deliver the ‘public benefit’ that justifies their charitable status.

Schools are also sensitive to the fact that many parents are struggling to pay the school fees. They thus feel a pressing duty to use this income exclusively for the benefit of their existing pupils. Sponsoring an academy, though, would mean redirecting resources and staff time over an extended period. There’s reputational risk involved, too: some academies will fail. And private schools, most of whom have little experience of dealing with disadvantaged pupils with little parent support, will be taken out of their comfort zone. So, many think, why risk your reputation and the collateral damage that might follow?

Besides, independent schools can and do provide help to state pupils in many different ways. In 2012 the Independent Schools Council reported that over 90% of its members – more than 1,100 schools – were involved with some form of partnership activity. For some that meant academy sponsorship – but for others it meant offering state pupils access to specific lessons, activities, or facilities; helping prepare them for entry to higher education; seconding teaching staff to maintained schools to teach specialist subjects; and so on. Indeed, the Independent State School Partnership Forum now meets three times a year, to consider how further co-operation can be encouraged.

But it is true, nonetheless, that some schools are better than others at developing such links, and in delivering public benefit. We are told that the Charity Commission will come down hard on those schools that are seen to be ‘tokenistic’. It is hard to argue that a handful of bursaries deliver meaningful public benefit – and it is an uncomfortable truth that cherry-picking the best pupils from the state system harms the schools they leave or eschew. The aim, surely, must be to maximise public benefit and deliver it at scale.

This, then, is one key justification for academy support. Here is another. Education is about making connections and preparing pupils for the real world. How do you give a child a truly rounded education, if you isolate them from the mainstream and, in particular, from the most disadvantaged in society?

In any case, collaboration between schools is now widely seen by experts as the best means to deliver systemic improvement. And, of course, it isn’t a one-way street. Many progressive ideas in education and great teaching are in evidence in the state system, in those schools where socio-economic disadvantage is not seen as an excuse for poor performance and where the concept of adding value is understood.

And, whisper it soft, but some in the independent sector look to be more than a little complacent when it comes to adding value and leadership. For reluctant independent schools, it could be time for a re-think.

Article published in  Education Investor  June  Vol 5 2013


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.

Patrick Watson


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 .

Note 2

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?




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


Charitable schools

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.

Patrick Watson

London SW8


Responding to Sir  Peter Lampls call in the Times on 25 October for independent schools to provide more bursaries to disadvantaged pupils


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.

Patrick Watson

London SW8



History repeating

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



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