QUANGO REVIEW BOTCHED ACCORDING TO SELECT COMMITTEE REPORT
Public Administration Committee says that reform of quangos has been a lost opportunity and the Bill is poorly drafted
But reforms on-going
Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office Minister, has been driving through reforms in the delivery of public services to drive down costs, to improve efficiency, deliver value for money, streamline public procurement and to encourage greater transparency and accountability. He also wants to see, at the end of this process, a greater role for small and medium sized enterprises in public service delivery. Reforms have included a partial cull of the Quangocracy, though more barbecue, say critics. than the widely anticipated bonfire. Although the process of reform is on-going organisations such as the British Council , the TDA and NCSL (the SSAT now has less public funding to manage but is still competing unfairly with non-subsidised private and not for profit operators in the markets here and abroad) have emerged largely unscathed from the review although critics want these organisations to be cut down to size , made more transparent and accountable and for them to demonstrate, against clear performance benchmarks, that they deliver value for money for taxpayers and that the services they provide cannot be provided better and cheaper by the private and not for profit providers ,or indeed social enterprises.
The Public Administration Committee has been looking at reforms affecting quangos and has just published a report ‘ Smaller Government: Shrinking the Quango State’ . The verdict is that the Government’s “Bonfire of the Quangos” has been “poorly managed” resulting in badly drafted legislation that won’t deliver significant cost savings or improved accountability. Bernard Jenkin, the committee’s Conservative chairman, says “the whole process was rushed and poorly handled and should have been thought through a lot more”. Pre-election promises from the Conservatives about cuts to costly bureaucracy “created a false expectation that the review would deliver greater savings” than appear likely. And to make meaningful savings, the government needs to examine not just how the quangos operate, but what they exist to do. In many cases, the committee argues, functions could have been transferred to charities or mutuals. “This was a fantastic opportunity to help build the big society and save money at the same time,” Mr Jenkin says. “But it has been botched.”
The Committee report claims that the Public Bodies Reform Bill currently with the Lords aimed at delivering these reforms was badly drafted. And it promised to issue a further detailed report on the Bill once the Lords have finished their scrutiny. The report concluded “ The Government should have reassessed what function public bodies are needed to perform and transferred many more of these activities to charities and mutuals. Doing so would have helped explain more clearly its vision for a Big Society, giving these organisations the ability to provide more government services. It should also have used the review to get control of some activities of public bodies that provide questionable benefit to the taxpayer, most notably the use of public funds for lobbying and public relations campaigns.” The Committee added that ‘Deciding which bodies can be moved into the private and voluntary sector should form only part of the Government’s review. It should also reconsider what activities public bodies should continue to engage in. Some public bodies have allowed their remit to increase over the years and there is a need to refocus them on their core functions. Identifying the essential activities of these bodies will both make them more efficient and reduce cost. This principle must be embedded in future reviews. (Paragraph 114)
The Committee intends to bring forward proposals to strengthen the Select Committees’ role in scrutinising changes to public bodies in its future report on the detail of the Public Bodies Reform Bill.
The Committee though has failed to address the issue of the unfair activities of quangos in the markets both here and abroad which disadvantage non-subsidised private and not for profit providers. In short, Quangos use taxpayers money to cross subsidise their operations in order to under cut other competitors bids for contracts and quangos, such as the SSAT and British Council, are frequently awarded contracts that are not put out to open tender which apart from being unfair, cannot ensure value for money for taxpayers. Francis Maude has, though, been made aware of providers concerns and their calls for urgent reform.
Mr Maude has rejected the Committees criticism, promising to “see the reforms through”. The Committee welcomed the Minister’s comments which indicate that future reviews will include considerations about efficiency and value for money of quangos along with his assurances that he would be able to devise a more cost-effective review system than previous efforts.
Reforms are on-going driven by the Cabinet Office.
CONTEXTUAL VALUE ADDED MEASUREMENT
Not quite as robust as some claim
The Sykes Review of qualifications added to the growing criticism of contextual value added (CVA) measurement, increasingly used in league tables and by the SSAT quango to measure the performance of the state schools its supports (over 90%).The Sykes review noted that while the use of CVA is an attempt to “respond, within the league table culture, to a genuine and important issue; namely the greater challenge that some schools face, compared to others, in improving the academic achievement of their pupils….the implied precision of these measures is, in fact, spurious, and the measures are therefore unfair to schools and teachers, and to pupils and parents making use of them.” So, the Review recommended that “Wide performance measures (value added, CVA, average point score) should not be calculated unless it can be demonstrated that there is real underlying validity to the methodology, including the methodology for valuing different qualifications and different subjects within the same groups of qualifications.” Significantly, there is a range of different types of value added measurement. A recent US report by the National Research Council and National Academy of Education, found, to nobody’s apparent surprise, there is not one dominant Value Added Measurement. It noted too that “there are many technical and practical issues that need to be resolved in order for researchers to feel confident in supporting certain policy uses of value-added results”. Indeed, it went further concluding that no one value-added approach (or any test-based indicator, for that matter) addresses all the challenges to identifying effective or ineffective schools or teachers. Each major class of model has shortcomings, and there is no consensus on the best approaches, and little work has been done on synthesizing the best aspects of each approach. There are questions too about the accuracy and stability of value added estimates of schools, teachers, or programme effects. The overall conclusion was that much more needs to be learned about how these properties differ, using different value-added techniques and under different conditions.
SELDON –AN EDUCATION MANIFESTO
According to a new report our Education system is letting us down and its mainly to do with Trust
Quangos should be slimmed down and their influence reduced; all schools should be independent
On Monday Dr Anthony Seldon presented a BBC 2 programme on Trust informed by his recent book on the same subject ( Anthony Seldon, Trust: How we lost it, and how to get it back, Biteback, 2009)
He gives examples of the lack of trust between people and the institutions that purport to serve or represent them . His argument is that this has a corrosive effect on society and governance and diminishes the quality of all our lives. And an absence of trust in our relationships leads essentially to a dysfunctional society. But it doesn’t have to be like this, he says, and he looks beyond politics and to the past for answers in pursuit of greater accountability, social harmony and well-being placing power back in the hands of people at the grassroots. Fundamental reforms are needed with different approaches to re-establish Trust ( polling suggests that just 30% of the electorate trust politicians) but change must come from each and every one of us in the way we act, and interact, including for example, through more community engagement and volunteering.
At the end of last week the centre right think tank the Centre for Policy Studies published a Seldon pamphlet ‘An end to Factory Schools’ -An education manifesto 2010 – 2020 in which he argues that too many state schools have become factories. Results (at least on paper) have improved. But, he asks, at what cost? Reluctant students are processed, says Seldon, through a system which is closely controlled and monitored by the state. No area of public life is more important than education to prepare people to live meaningful, productive and valuable lives. Yet our schools turn out young people who are often incapable of living full and students’ lack of academic and personal skills while universities find that the end products of schools can be little more than well drilled automatons who do not know how to think independently about their academic subjects. Seldon’s book (and the TV programme) and the CPS pamphlet are linked. He writes ‘If one unifying idea draws together the ensuing chapters, it is the need for more trust throughout education. Government needs to trust schools, heads and teachers more. Parents need to be trusted more to choose the school for their children and to be far more actively involved in their children’s schools. Governors need to trust heads more. Heads need to trust teachers more. Teachers need to trust students more. Parents need to trust their children more. Students need to trust adults more. Mistakes will be made, but that in a free society is how learning occurs, how progress is made.’
In his film in one particularly striking scene he talks to a Primary school Head who shows the number of policies and regulations that his school has to adhere to, vividly illustrating just how little trust politicians and bureaucrats have in his ability as Headteacher to run his school.
Seldon makes twenty recommendations in his report calling for independent state schools free to decide their own curriculum, with active learning, not rote learning.
He wants a more holistic approach too to learning, encouraging all children to develop the ‘eight aptitudes’ , informed by Howard Gardners eight intelligences, combined with diversification of public examinations. He calls for a radical restructuring of the current exam regime and for the stranglehold of A-Levels and GCSEs in England and Wales to be ended. The Government should instead welcome alternative exam systems, including the IB at diploma, middle years and primary years level. Within schools, the focus should shift away from assessment and teaching-to-the test, towards genuine learning and understanding. Significantly, he wants the influence of QCDA and Ofqual to be “greatly reduced.” The General Teaching Council (GTC) should be abolished and recast as a far more rigorously professional body, upholding and championing the highest standards rather than acting as a trade union protecting teachers. And ‘The education ‘establishment’ ,including the DCSF, QCDA, Ofqual, Ofsted, the TDA, SSAT, GTC and ISC, should all undergo radical restructuring before 2015. They need to decentralize power, he says, to facilitate rather than drive change and to work collaboratively rather than dictatorially. They should be far slimmer. They need to trust schools more and let creativity and individuality blossom, rather than be stifled by central blueprint.’
For those who have caricatured happiness classes in schools, Seldon reminds them that promoting ‘well-being’ does not require special lessons, but could be emphasized in all aspects of a school’s activities, including politeness and good manners, and a smart and distinct school uniform. On inspections, he believes that Ofsted should be cut considerably and be focused on teaching and learning, not on children’s services. . Schools which are performing poorly should be inspected regularly, while those performing at high levels should not be inspected at all. Seldon was an admirer of Tony Blair as Prime Minister (though not of his conduct over Iraq). But he comes to not so flattering, conclusions on the effects of 13 years of New Labour’s education policies.
First, the disparities in performance between the independent and state sectors are increasing, not reducing. Independents have improved more rapidly than state schools and the current mix of policies to deal with the divide between independent and state schools will never succeed in closing the gap. Second, those children from the least advantaged backgrounds who would benefit from additional funding above the average, are receiving a worse education than those who attend popular state schools or who attend fee-paying schools. Seldon concludes ‘A new approach is needed. Its ultimate aim must be independence for all schools.’
Many of his ideas find favour with the Tories, and the shadow Education Secretary Michael Gove and Seldon are members of a mutual appreciation society, with Lord Adonis (Labour) an honorary member.
VALUE ADDED MEASUREMENT OF SCHOOLS AND TEACHER PERFORMANCE
Not so clear cut, as consensus is hard to find
The Government is keen on value added measurements for pupils and for this to be included in performance tables, as is the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, which prefers Contextual Value Added measurement, designed by Professor Jephson, of York University, to the five good GCSEs in maths and English, used as the key Government performance measure and for initiatives such as the National Challenge.
The attractions of CVA, as opposed to raw test scores are obvious as it is widely recognized among education researchers and practitioners that school rankings based on unadjusted test scores are highly correlated with students’ socioeconomic status. So CVA is thought to give a more complete and fairer picture of a pupils’ achievements. It can also be used as a basis for rewarding teacher and pupil performance and to determine teachers pay as well as for teachers self-improvement or pupil target setting.
Value-added methods refer to efforts to estimate the relative contributions of specific teachers, schools, or programmes to pupil test performance.
In recent years, these methods have attracted considerable attention because of their potential applicability for accountability, teacher pay-for-performance systems, schools and teacher improvement, programme evaluation, and research. But the challenge is that value-added methods involve complex statistical models applied to test data of varying quality and so it is not free from controversy. Indeed, academics will agree that there are unresolved concerns about the precision and bias of value added results and many academics argue against employing value-added indicators as the sole basis for high-stakes decision. Interest in value added measurement took off after the well known Sanders and Rivers report was published in 1996. They found that teacher effects, estimated using student test score trajectories, predict student outcomes at least two years into the future. This finding suggested that teachers have persistent effects on their students’ achievement and that the accumulation of these effects could be substantial. The following year, Sanders and his colleagues published another paper claiming that teachers are the most important source of variation in student achievement (Wright, Horn, and Sanders, 1997).
A report Getting Value Out of Value-Added was recently released in the US by National Research Council and National Academy of Education. This documents discussions of a workshop jointly held by the two organizations in 2008 to help policy makers understand the current strengths and limitations of value-added approaches and whether to implement them in their jurisdictions. The workshop explored the advantages and disadvantages of value-added methods and responsible and defensible uses in education settings. While the report does not issue recommendations, it summarizes current research findings and the judgments expressed by workshop participants.
Many workshop participants “observed that value-added approaches have the potential to provide useful information for educational decision-making. At the same time, they noted that there are many technical and practical issues that need to be resolved in order for researchers to feel confident in supporting certain policy uses of value-added results.”
To date, there is little relevant research in education on the incentives created by value-added evaluation systems and the effects on school culture, teacher practice, and student outcomes.
Significantly, there is a range of different types of value added measurement. And the US workshop discussions found, to nobody’s surprise, there is not one dominant Value Added Measurement. No value-added approach (or any test-based indicator, for that matter) addresses all the challenges to identifying effective or ineffective schools or teachers. Each major class of models has shortcomings, and there is no consensus on the best approaches, and little work has been done on synthesizing the best aspects of each approach. There are questions too about the accuracy and stability of value added estimates of schools, teachers, or programme effects. The overall conclusion was that more needs to be learned about how these properties differ, using different value-added techniques and under different conditions. This is probably worth remembering when the SSAT next publishes its value added measurements for its schools.
Big reforms required to protect taxpayers and the market
According to the LGA the quangocracy now manages and recycles £43.2 billion of public money every year – that’s £2,000 per household. Another estimate claims that there are at least 1,500 bodies with around 700,000 staff and a total budget above £64 billion. Some do an important job, particularly those that regulate and monitor standards. With others though it is hard to tell what they do that adds value, or whether what they do is effective.
And, what about education quangos?
Across the UK, there are over 80 known quangos involved in the government-directed provision of education, training, or skills services. The combined known budgets of these quangos amounts to around £24 billion (there is some dispute over what is and isn’t a quango which accounts for the differing estimates). The bulk of this is made up £11bn for the Learning and Skills Council (on its way out) and £6.9bn for the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Far from taking the knife to education quangos the government has recently created three new quangos to replace the LSC: the Young People’s Learning Agency (YPLA), the Skills Funding Agency and the National Apprenticeship Service. The Association of Directors of Children’s Services (ADCS) and the Local Government Association (LGA) believe these three quangos will be unwieldy, complex and costly. They also claim the bodies will employ more staff than necessary. So no surprises there then.
These education quangos come in all shapes and sizes with different legal status’.Two things they have in common though are that they are taxpayer funded, either fully or in part, and they are carrying out tasks for the government. Of course they differ in their role and functions .We probably have five main quango groupings. First the wholesalers – in other words, the upstream distributors of the money – e.g. Learning and Skills Council and its successors, Higher Education Funding Council, Teachers Development Agency. Next we have the Regulators e.g. regulators or those with an oversight position like the GTC, OFSTED, QCDA OFQAL .Third the advisory quangos. Fourth the tribunal quangos And, finally, the service providers – these could be or are independent providers to the end customer. Under these one could include SSAT, the NCSL and the British Council. Quangos are continually being created, occasionally dissolved, merged but relatively rarely abolished, despite successive Governments promising a bonfire of quangos and to cut waste. Keeping track therefore of education quangos is very much a moving target. Even now (see above) more quangos are being created.
But most lack basic transparency and accountability. They report at different times of the year, in different formats, applying different rules for public disclosure. Frequently, they publish their results in non-searchable pdf formats and lodge these reports with the Charities Commission or Companies House (which must be paid for). Some are subject to Freedom of Information requirements, some not. They defy easy scrutiny and accessibility. Their web sites are, too often, hard to navigate and often do not publish detailed performance indicators and performance outputs or much detail about how they spend our money. They prefer instead to measure inputs rather than outputs ie how many conferences they run, rather than how their activities directly impact on learners performance and at the chalk face. What is clear, according to Margaret Eaton, chairman of the Local Government Association is that “ the public want more involvement in decision-making and the quango state is the least accountable part of the public sector. “
The Reform think tank in its pre-Budget report released on 20 April last year claimed that an education bureaucracy has developed that is “ unresponsive to the consumer and restricts professional judgment”. The think tank argued that the number of quangos is unsustainable –“To pursue important reforms such as the academies programme expansion and higher education funding change, it is vital that costly central dictation and extraneous activities are removed. This will free resources and capacity for reform.” Echoing a sentiment expressed in a Times leader at the time, Reform said that money should be spent at school level rather than on (Ministers) ‘vanity projects’. Reform demanded “swingeing cuts” to education quangos. Ministers rather like quangos as a rule. They afford them scope for dispensing patronage and creating distance between them and prickly policy areas ,farmed out to quangos. If things go pear shaped which they often do (think QCA and LSCs funding of colleges) they pass the buck. The nothing to do with me guv-approach undermines accountability of course and Ministerial responsibility leaving stakeholders confused and frustrated but its now part of our system. A Centre for Policy Studies report also last year authored by Tom Burkard and Sam Talbot Rice said seven of the main 11 education quangos in England should be abolished, with the remaining ones being reformed or turned over to the voluntary or private sectors. On their hit list- the new QCDA (formerly the QCA) to be replaced by a small Curriculum Advisory Board, with the aim of freeing schools from the centralized control they face from the National Curriculum. The TDA, NCSL and BECTA should also go, and Partnerships for Schools re-vamped. In some cases, they said, the powers the bodies have should be devolved down to schools. Sam Talbot Rice says part of the problem with quangos is that they are set up to tackle a certain problem, but then things move on and they are not needed in the same way but are difficult to dismantle because this sometimes requires legislation. “It’s easy to reach for a quango when there is a problem,” he said. “They are easy to set up and hard to get rid of. There might have been an initial reason for them and they have grown, drawing in taxpayers’ money.”
The Local Government Association in a more general report on quangos ‘Putting Power into Local Hands’ discovered that some of the quangos they looked at spend large sums of tax payers’ money to employ senior managers to deliberate policy, strategy and communications, as opposed that is to managing the delivery functions the quango is actually responsible for. Collectively they are spending much more on communications without though, paradoxically, becoming any more transparent in the process. Transparency and basic unmediated communications is signally lacking with many quangos. The SSAT incurs the wrath of education journalists by running a significant and expensive in-house PR department, while concurrently sub-contracting an external PR agency to answer any press inquiries, so placing a shield between themselves and the media (and other stakeholders)-fairly typical of the mind set of this secretive quango, which supports Academies and Specialist schools. Quite apart from the expense of it all-it fails the most basic transparency test. My guess is that if the SSAT has a future it will be in slim line form. It will have to change its attitude both to the way it manages public funds, it measures itself (relying almost exclusively on measurement by contextual added value given its limitations is simply not good enough) and the way it conducts itself in the marketplace. It has managed to alienate most of the large education suppliers in both the profit and not for profit sectors.
And what about their funding? All are subsidized by the taxpayer. They are great recyclers of taxpayers money too. The SSAT will claim that it only receives about 20% of its income in grant form. But given that it supports 90% of state schools many of whom pay it fees and it has guaranteed contracts to support schools many of which are not open to competition, the reality is that most of the SSATs income comes via different routes and streams from the taxpayer.
Education quangos have a great predilection for funding each other. Delivering resources to the front line ought to entail a minimum of friction and intermediation between the public sector and the end consumer. Instead, there are often several layers of capital transfers and bureaucracy from central government via other bodies towards education quangos and then to the front line. This is inefficient and wasteful.
Nor are Education quangos competitively neutral using as they do their grant funded privileged position to compete in the market here and increasingly abroad. Private sector companies claim that Quangos cross subsidise and can conceal the real costs of their bids when competing for contracts, so giving them a competitive advantage while selling themselves on the back of implicit government guarantees and backed by guaranteed income streams from long term government contracts, many of which are not put out to open tender. When competing abroad for contracts they receive more support too from UK officials than private companies. True. Try pitching for education contracts that the British Council is interested in and see how much the local embassy helps you or indeed the British Council (which is supposed to promote British education interests abroad).
This is of great concern because no consideration is currently given to the “crowding out” of private sector education services. Apart from the obvious business of teaching and funding students ,ostensibly to acquire new skills and improve training or learning, education quangos also have acquired, and have been encouraged in this respect by the Government, a commercial line in publications, awards ceremonies, consultancy, training, school support advice and improvement services, international offices and networking, membership programmes and even conferences. All of these could and should be competitively contracted out to the private and not for profit sectors and thus have a positive deflationary impact on the cost of state-funded education. With pressure soon to be put on quango budgets many of these functions will be kept in-house to protect these quango’s income streams and taxpayer quangos will search for business abroad, bringing them up more often against non-subsidised UK companies which by definition have to compete at a disadvantage. This acts against fair competition, contestability and also stunts the development of the education market as non –subsidized companies find it too costly and risky to compete head to head with quangos.
The fact is it is all a mess and cant continue like this as politicians realize. Lord Mandelson has called for review of certain quangos and the Prime Minister would like some rationalization.
Liberal Democrat education spokesman David Laws has said: “The rise of education quangos has been incredibly expensive and there’s little evidence to suggest they have raised standards. At a time when public finances are being squeezed, we must ask if these quangos are necessary. When infant class sizes are rising and schools need more money to support struggling pupils, we need to be looking at ways to divert more money to the front line rather than to bureaucrats.”
The Tories have pledged to cut quangos if they gain power. The shadow education secretary, Michael Gove, has said every effort had to be “directed to identifying waste and unnecessary bureaucracy” to “concentrate resources where they are needed: in the classroom”.
It would be worth senior quango managers revisiting the Nolan principles. Two in particular spring to mind. On openness – ‘Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands’. And on Accountability - ‘Holders of public office are accountable for their decisions and actions to the public and must submit themselves to whatever scrutiny is appropriate to their office.’
And the time has surely come for a proper audit of quangos, and for those that can demonstrate that they fulfil an essential purpose and deliver public value to be held more rigorously accountable, with the rest abolished. Ironically a regulator might be needed to control the activities of quangos in the market or a ban introduced on quangos from competing in the market for specified services unless they can demonstrate unequivocally that they are competitively neutral.
PHYSICS TEACHING REMAINS A BIG CHALLENGE
Specialist science school status doesn’t mean anything, according to (yet more) experts
How to encourage more pupils to study STEM subjects has been a major preoccupation of policymakers for over a decade.
At the recent STEM hearings of the DCSF Select Committee expert witnesses, including Professor Sir John Holman, National STEM Director, DCSF and Director, National Science Learning Centre, and Professor Peter Main, Director, Education and Science, Institute of Physics offered their views on how to support STEM subjects. Whilst the witnesses accept that a corner has been turned on STEM subjects, they also agreed there is still a long way to go. Numbers taking A-level physics have just begun to turn up after a 30-year decline. The numbers taking A-level physics are about 29,000 a year at the moment. That has declined from a high point of probably more than 40,000 in the 1980s.Girls continue to be relatively uninterested in physics, which remains a big worry. About 22% of A-level physics candidates are girls, and it has been stuck there for a long time.
The good news is that Mathematics is growing very strongly. Chemistry is not bad and biology has never really been under threat. But, and its quite a big but, possibly the most serious of all the problems within the STEM community is the shortage of physics teachers with too few schools offering physics at A level. The witnesses had identified 500 schools that do A-levels but not physics A-level. So a substantial percentage of schools that do A-levels are not even offering physics A-level. The conclusion was that we should look at the drivers within the education system and in the schools that are influencing behaviour such as league tables and the qualifications boards. Many drivers seem to be pushing people away from the STEM areas, and perhaps these need to be addressed.
David Perks, Head Physics at Graveney, a high performing London state school ,noted that we have reduced science content in qualifications and replaced it with something else, whether nominal skills or some kind of appeal to interest making the topic more relevant by throwing in controversial ideas, such as “Is nuclear power good or bad?” or “Is genetic engineering dangerous?” It is an attempt to reinvigorate an interest in something, but we do not need to do that in the first place. The end result is to dilute the subjects themselves he claimed. Though one can detect a moderate rise in separate sciences over the recent period by contrast the rise in BTECs is massive. Worse still, Perks claimed, the vast majority of state schools are now eagerly eyeing up BTECs-vocational qualification equivalents to GCSEs-as being far more beneficial for them, because they are easier in terms of grade equivalents.
Professor Holman thought that that the idea of using expert schools to coach other ones is very much part of the agenda and indeed was mentioned in the recent White Paper. We must identify ‘Expert’ schools he said, and put in place some mechanism by which they can transfer their expertise to other schools. They will always need support and external benchmarks, to show what really good science teaching is like; even the most expert schools will always need those outside benchmarks. That is the type of role that organisations such as the science learning centres can play, by helping schools to calibrate their expertise and to see what really good science teaching does, said Holman.
But, significantly, he thought it important to distinguish between ‘expert’ schools, that is schools that have an acknowledged expertise in the sciences and so called ‘Specialist’ science schools He said “ I think that where we have to be very clear-headed is in not necessarily equating specialist schools, as in the understood meaning of “specialist schools”, with expert schools. We should be thinking about how we can identify a group of expert schools that are really good at teaching science and that can demonstrate that teaching to other schools.” Professor Alan Smithers, in a 2009 study, found that specialist science schools were not in any meaningful sense specialist. Music specialist schools, it transpires, get better science results than science specialist schools. In 2008, 28% of the specialist science schools did not enter a single pupil for GCSE in physics.
Professor Peter Main said that clusters of schools might be the way forward with expert science schools at the centre of these clusters. But, tellingly, he added “The specialist schools ought to be capable of being the centres of such clusters, but they are not at the moment because they are not what it says on the tin…” He told the committee “the word “specialist” is a rather delicate one. It doesn’t really mean anything when you analyse it and when people talk about specialist teachers. …..The specialist schools can be specialist because they are excellent, but they can also be specialist because they aspire to be excellent. We know that many specialist schools and colleges, for example, do not have a specialist physics teacher as part of their staff.”
The DCSF is currently in discussion with the SSAT over developing a new STEM specialism.
Given experts negative views on specialist science schools ie the status doesn’t mean anything very much – except more funds for the respective schools (but not necessarily specialist teachers) it is hard to see how introducing a new specialism will make any difference. It might even be harmful, redirecting resources away from where they can be best utilized and targeted to support the STEM agenda. But my guess is that the SSAT, true to form, will argue it’s a great idea, not because it is, but because it might increase its reach and influence at a time when it feels somewhat threatened along with other education quangos who find it hard to demonstrate they deliver value for (taxpayers) money.
STEM SUBJECTS AND THE SSAT
NFER Research suggests scope for a new STEM specialism in schools
But poor uptake of triple science is not helping
Early in the last decade, much evidence emerged to suggest that the popularity of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects was in decline. This trend was of particular concern given the acknowledged importance of the science-based economy in the UK and its impact on our competitiveness. There were thought to be a number of reasons for this. Firstly, many young people had negative perceptions and experiences of STEM subjects. Second, there has been a relative lack of information on, and awareness of, STEM related careers. Third there has been a perceived shortage of specialist teachers in schools. And, finally, some schools have had too little awareness of, and engagement with, STEM interventions.
Specialists schools have been regarded as an important element in the Governments STEM strategy.
A STEM pathfinder programme, funded by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) and managed by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust (SSAT), aimed to help networks of specialist schools to design and deliver integrated STEM activities through a programme of continuing professional development, and provision of resources, consultancy and advice to schools.
The NFER was commissioned by the SSAT to evaluate this pathfinder project. It delivered its report at the end of 2009- ‘Evaluation of the 2008-09 DCSF-funded Specialist Schools and Academies Trust STEM Pathfinder Programme.’ The driver for the pathfinder was DCSF’s interest in whether a STEM specialism could be manageable and advantageous for schools, and the types of activities that schools carried out were those that could potentially form part of a STEM specialism. Schools generally had little history of undertaking integrated STEM activities, and what experience there was tended to involve all departments delivering activities that related to a school’s specialist subject. The NFER study found that integrated STEM activities can lead to significant benefits for pupils, teachers, schools and the wider community. It found evidence too that successful activities were underpinned by certain characteristics relating to the school, the planning of activities, and the activities themselves.
It did however acknowledge that “benefits can arguably also be achieved through innovative activities in individual STEM subjects (e.g. increased interest in a subject; development of skills such as independent learning), there are some benefits that are achieved only through the integration of STEM subjects in the curriculum and in enrichment activities (e.g. understanding of the interdisciplinary nature of many STEM careers and the combined application of STEM subjects in ‘real-world’ situations).”
The authors felt that there is potential value in all schools delivering integrated STEM activities, as benefits occur when such activities are delivered as part of another existing specialism (i.e. as has been seen through the pathfinder evaluation). However, there could be more benefit if such activities and approaches are developed further through a STEM specialism. So the reports main conclusion was that SSAT/DCSF should pursue the idea of a STEM specialism.
One major factor threatening advances in STEM, but not alluded to in this report, is the shortage of specialist teachers in maths and the sciences, including in so called Specialist schools ,many of which are not Specialist in any meaningful sense of the word . Nor the fact that so few state pupils opt to take triple science. In the Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-2014: Next Steps, the Government set a target for all pupils achieving at least level 6 at Key Stage 3 to be entitled to study triple science GCSE by September 2008. However only about a third of maintained schools currently enter pupils in triple science. Again FSM pupils are way behind the curve .Only 2% of children eligible for free school meals studied triple science in 2007 for example.
While independent schools account for 9% of all GCSE entries they make up 18% of entries into triple science and while grammar schools accounted for 6.5% of all entries they made up 17% of those in triple science. And look at A levels. In 2007, physics came 11th in a listing of the 28 most frequently taken A-levels, behind even psychology, sports studies, design & technology, and expressive arts.
Recent evidence to the Select Commitee this month suggests that more than one in four secondary schools are unable to offer A-level physics because of a shortage of teachers. Peter Main, of the Institute of Physics, who provided the figure, blamed “incoherent” policy changes. The number of pupils studying A-level physics has fallen from about 45,000 a year in the late 1980s to about 29,000 now, although the figure has begun to rise slightly in the recent past.
Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson found in their 2009 study ‘Specialist Science schools’ that Specialist Science schools were “not distinctively scientific”. In 2007, more pupils in music, languages and maths & computing schools than in Specialist science schools obtained an A grade in A-level physics, though fewer did so in technology, engineering, business & enterprise and sports schools.
Dr Robinson said at the time “It could be argued that specialist schools were a useful way of freshening up ‘bog standard’ comprehensives. But it seems to have left us with a lot of schools with names that do not mean very much. It is odd having music and languages schools that do better in science than the science schools.” Indeed, their research found that a quarter of the science schools had chosen their specialism on the basis of strength in the subject, but a fifth had done so because they were weak in it and saw specialist status as a lever for improvement. Crucially the main benefit schools saw in being specialist was the extra money they could access.
The more pupils that take triple science the better for the future of STEM subjects. Triple science at GCSE clearly gives pupils the best preparation for science A levels. It is hardly fair that some pupils cannot study triple science simply because of which school they go to. Given what Professor Smithers and Dr Robinson found in their study one has to question whether giving schools a ‘STEM’ specialism the big idea coming out of this report will make any difference at all .The challenges are rather more fundamental. And the SSAT which supports so -called ‘Specialist’ schools has a decidedly patchy track record in making a measurable difference to pupils performance in maths and the sciences
Poor public sector productivity places quangos in the frame
Close to 90% of our government is carried out now not by ministerial departments, but delegated to a vast quangocracy, made up of hybrid organizations, operating below the waterline, with limited supervision and scrutiny by Parliament .
It is bizarre that in this new age of transparency our Parliamentarians ,whose job is to scrutinize the Executive and hold it to account, find their expenses are under detailed scrutiny, while those who run our quangocracy, the delivery agents, largely escape any such scrutiny. Do they deliver public value? Who knows?
They operate in various guises and under differing legal umbrellas , some are statutory public bodies, others charities and some even operate as private companies (allowing them to pretend that they are not quangos, to avoid too close a scrutiny of the way they spend our money -think SSAT) all with different standards of transparency and disclosure of information.
One thing they have in common though is that they receive taxpayers money and implement Government policy, but are not, for the most part, being held directly accountable for their outputs (often left free, incidentally, to measure their own performance) . Matthew Flinders 2007 book Delegated Governance and the British State: Walking Without Order is a real eye- opener. Flinders argues that the British state is ‘walking without order’ due to a general acceptance of the logic of delegation without any detailed or principled consideration of the administrative of democratic consequences of this process. He reveals that there are about 5,000 quangos nationwide and some 1,500 centrally.
For sure, Quangos do some good work. They can organise lavish conferences for starters. They help identify and disseminate best practice. But it is not always clear why, if there is such demand for their services, not for profits and the private sector couldn’t do their work just as well and at less cost. Too often quangos are given work that is not put out to open tender. How does this secure best value for taxpayers? Indeed securing best value for taxpayers is not, it would seem, high on their list of priorities. Clearly it should be.
Quangos bring in outside expertise, create a buffer zone round political hot potatoes and cut ministerial overload. They also provide a useful network to enable Ministers to dispense political patronage as they appoint quango heads. (So much for merit, and recruiting the best manager for the job). Quangos are responsible for ensuring that centrally driven initiatives are implemented. But many of these have been seen to have failed . They are at arms length from Departments so this means that if things do go badly, which they often do, Ministers can create space between them and the offending Quango. In this game of smoke and mirrors and passing the buck the one casualty is accountability. Historically, opposition parties always say that there will be a bonfire of quangos when they win power but the reality unfortunately can be rather more prosaic. In truth, more barbecue than bonfire. The Tories cut the quango count by 50 per cent when last in power. However, the cost of the remaining bodies went from £6bn to £22bn. This Government in its first 10 years in power, then created 300 new bodies as the public sector expanded and the private (wealth creating) sector contracted.(still happening by the way)
The education sector, of course, has its own alphabet soup of acronyms making up its own quangocracy. But given that we are currently in dire economic circumstances, and public finances have been shot through, there is a growing feeling that the time has come to seriously look at the cost effectiveness of these quangos. Indeed, whoever wins office next year , it is hard not to see how they will avoid making (big) cuts. Sue Cameron of the FT informs us that the Government (and Tories) have been studying Matthew Flinders book in some detail. The Truth is that they know there is wastage and inefficiencies; Cameron has talked about it in some detail. But knowing it is the easy part. Knowing where to apply the scalpel, without significant political fall out is the hard bit.
More generally our public services have experienced a real terms funding increase of 55 per cent, financed by an increase of 5 per cent of GDP in public expenditure since 2000. Yet public sector productivity has continued to fall: by 3.4 per cent over the last ten years, compared to the private sector’s 27.9 per cent productivity gain over the same period. Some of the blame for this rests with the bloated quangocracy. On education productivity the ONS said on 1 December that the volume of education inputs – how many resources the government puts in – rose by 33 per cent between 1996 and 2008. The volume of outputs – how much the state gets in return – also increased by 33 per cent. As a result, productivity – a measure of efficiency that divides output by input – stayed the same. Implicit in the ONS report is that increased spending should have led to a sustained rise in productivity and that standards in schools ought to have increased by a significantly bigger margin than they have.
Measuring productivity in public services can be a challenge and is an inexact science (though apparently we pride ourselves in being world leaders in public service productivity measurement) , but there are very few observers out there who believe that the massive investment in education (it rose, at current prices, from £29 billion in 1996 to £63.9 billion last year — an annual rate of increase of 6.8 per cent.) has delivered the expected returns and the education quangocracy cannot avoid sharing some of the blame for this .
So, fundamental reforms seem likely. The fact is that, more than piecemeal reform, we need a transformation in how Government does business and a debate about where the boundaries of the state should lie. The challenge is to deliver more with less, getting more resources to the frontline by eliminating intermediary organizations and all processes that do not add value. So where does that leave some of our quangos?
The Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, originally established to support Specialist schools, has expanded exponentially to support the Academies initiative, and in a case of mission creep writ large, is now busy chasing new contracts and revenue streams abroad.
The SSAT, self evidently, is under pressure to support its top heavy management structure.
Quango managers have big salaries, public sector pensions and expense accounts to support. But, one has to ask, why the SSAT has expanded so much in recent years and indeed why it is continuing to do so against the backdrop of current economic conditions as, even now, it continues to recruit senior staff. Couldn’t the private and not for profit sectors do the SSATs job as well (if that job is, indeed, necessary) and at less cost?
So keen is the SSAT to identify new income streams that it has been looking abroad for new business. Here it uses tax payers money and the UK balance sheet to win business against other UK private and not for profit education companies, taking contracts from under their noses. Unsurprisingly these same unsubsidized UK suppliers are a bit miffed and cry unfair competition. They are now beginning to ask why the SSAT is allowed to get away with it, while the Government sits on the sidelines.
Important questions are now being asked about the SSAT, its effectiveness, accountability and its activities in the market. Because it is tax funded, unlike its competitors, the SSAT lacks competitive neutrality.
When it competes for contracts it is at a significant advantage and its participation in the market increases the costs and risks of other unsubsidized providers of participating in that market. This acts as a brake on expansion of that market in an area where UK suppliers could have a competitive advantage. It is not just fair competition that is being undermined here it is contestability too, which the government is so keen to promote. A contestable market is one in which entry and exit are absolutely costless. In such a market, competitive pressures supplied by the perpetual threat of entry, as well as by the presence of actual current rivals, can prevent monopoly behaviour (higher prices and restricted output) The SSATs activities raises the costs of entry which therefore threaten contestability. This issue is not arcane, it is one vital to the future of the UK education market and our chances of remaining competitive in the global markets. The SSAT recently won a contract in the Middle East to support schools amid cries of unfair competition. One wonders whether its new client looked at its track record. It’s an organisation with, at best, a patchy record.
True, some of what the SSAT does in UK schools is good ,identification and dissemination for instance of best practice springs to mind and you will find that it has admirers including Heads Consultants and providers who have worked with, or for it. But, and it’s a big but- how successful is it?
Does it secure best value for the taxpayer? Does it add value and measure its outputs effectively? How does it measure or benchmark its performance? To whom is it accountable? Indeed, couldn’t much or indeed all of its work be done by private or third sector providers and at less cost? And a question that is never asked by civil servants and politicians, when it competes with other UK providers doesn’t it have an unfair advantage in that it is grant funded and lacks transparency ? Why is it being given contracts without those contracts being put out to open tender? Surely that can’t secure best value for the taxpayer?
Lets look at the SSATS performance. Significantly, the Government uses five good GCSEs (A*-C Grades), including maths and English, as a key performance benchmark. Not the SSAT though. While supporting over ninety per cent of state schools, it judges itself on the ‘contextual added value’ in its schools. Around half of pupils in the schools the SSAT supports achieve five good GCSEs including maths and English. If you include a language and a science this is closer to 25%. One doesn’t have to be a cynic to work out why the SSAT uses CVA. CVA has its uses but these are limited .It also has its detractors. Professor Harvey Goldstein of the Institute of Education criticizes the methodology used by the SSAT to measure CVA. For example it is based on an analysis of mainly school level ,rather than pupil level data, and doesn’t take into account all relevant contextual factors, such as the percentage of pupils eligible for free school meals. The contextual added value measurement, in any case, is not understood by most stakeholders, particularly parents and is, crucially, ignored by admissions tutors and employers. If you don’t understand the data you are unlikely to be able to make an informed decision or choice. This lack of clarity also means that the SSAT is less accountable. So, one wonders why the SSAT uses it as a benchmark or rather is allowed to use it as such.
Stephen Gorard, Professor of Education Research at the School of Education, University of Birmingham claims that CVA is little more than a con. He explains “The propagation of errors in the incomplete and necessarily error-prone datasets on school intakes and outcomes means that the resultant figures from the complex zero-sum calculations are meaningless.” He adds that Grammar schools have good examination results because they select just those children at age 11 who are likely to do well at age 16 on similar kinds of tests. Schools with deprived intakes tend to have low outcome scores for a number of reasons, including differences in family education and parental support, high pupil mobility, pupils for whom English is a second language, and higher incidence of special needs.
So, in short, almost all of the variation between school outcomes is explained by the variation in the nature of the school intakes. This hardly comes as news to Heads and Governors. So, when the SSAT start making claims over how much their schools ‘add value,’ look at the fine print. And, what about the ‘Specialist status’ of Specialist schools? Does Specialist status ‘add-value’. Indeed does it mean anything? Professor Alan Smithers and Dr Pamela Robinson of the University of Buckingham showed in a recent report that specialist schools appear to do better because poorer performing schools were not granted specialist status. Their report found “Specialist schools were found to add more value than non-specialist schools, but since adding value is part of the approval process they would have been the more effective in the first place.” So, in short, from the beginning, specialist schools have been creamed off, leaving a progressively weaker residual pool. The SSAT then, disingenuously, compares its schools with the ten per cent rump that is left. Professor Smithers said: “All the SSAT’s comparisons amount to is that if you take effective schools and give them extra money they do better than less effective schools without extra money.” In short the main benefit schools saw in being specialist was… err… the extra money. Many Heads will tell you that they apply for specialist status simply because it means their school will access more funding and for no other reason. More funding, of course, generally, though not always, means better results. And how Specialist are Specialist schools? More than a quarter of the country’s specialist science schools, for instance, failed to enter a single candidate for a physics, chemistry or biology GCSE last year. Instead, they opted to put pupils in for what everyone knows to be the less stretching -”double science” exam. The percentage of pupils choosing to study three separate core science subjects at GCSE barely improved from 1997 to 2007, with the figures for those years being 6 per cent and 8 per cent respectively At A level of the 433 schools identified as having a specialism in sciences, just 269 teach pupils to Key Stage 5 and, of these, three did not enter any pupils for a single A-level in the science subjects in 2008. Small wonder then that top universities complain that they are largely reliant for their intakes in maths and the sciences on pupils from abroad and the independent sector. And only a handful of the 350 specialist language colleges (4.3 per cent), it transpires, were putting every pupil in for a GCSE in the subject.
Tellingly, Christine Gilbert, the head of Ofsted, has suggested that the money spent on specilaist schools might be better utilised. She said in 2007 “Across a range of subjects, inspectors reported that they visited some schools where there was little to suggest that specialism had made a difference in terms of the fundamentals of classroom teaching. This is a serious criticism. If teaching had not improved, it’s hard to see that learning would.” David Laws MP, education spokesman of the Liberal Democrats agreed “The Government’s ‘specialist’ school initiative has been about creating the illusion of diversity without making any real difference to schools’ ability to innovate and offer meaningful change. The whole initiative may have been counterproductive by excluding the extra funding from schools in deprived areas who have not been able to qualify for specialist status. Targeting money away from the most needy schools is clearly absurd.”
So it is hard not to conclude that the label ‘Specialist’ looks pretty threadbare, little more than a crude marketing tool, with little or no substance behind it. It is equally clear that the SSAT has some serious questions to answer on the effectiveness of its so called specialist schools, as well as its anti-competitive activities in the education market both here and abroad.
Coming of age?
The SSAT recently arranged for twenty Headteachers to attend a conference in Mauritius to share views and insights, with their international peers, on Citizenship education.
The Telegraph used the visit as a stick with which to beat the SSAT portraying it as another quango distributing taxpayer’s money for freebies in the midst of a recession, like it was going out of fashion. Certainly if good citizenship has anything to do with protecting the environment, Heads leaving their large carbon footprints behind as they travel across the globe is probably not the best way, of getting the message across, on what responsible global citizenship is all about. It is, it seems ,not just politicians who have a keen sense of personal entitlement and an inability to see themselves as others see them or to understand how their actions are viewed outside their own bubble.
But such conduct doesn’t detract from the importance of teaching values related to citizenship to pupils and making them more aware of the values that help bind our society and communities. Nor, the importance of seeking to identify best international practice.
We are in a materialistic age in which pursuit of self interest is too often not mitigated by a sense of community, a willingness to serve others, an awareness of others needs and yes, the virtue inherent in a modicum of self-denial.
The NFER has just published a report ‘Citizenship and values education to the rescue! A call to action by the Five Nations Network’. This was the result of a recent conference. The five nations involved are England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Key points for the Call to Action are: Ensuring that every young person across the Five Nations has a right and entitlement to high quality citizenship and values education Galvanising support in educating people to play an active and responsible part in democratic life and exercise their rights and responsibilities Getting politicians and policy makers to make a renewed commitment to Citizenship and Values Education to enable young people to engage with our increasingly complex, challenging and changing world The report acknowledges that Public outrage at ‘MPs expenses’, increased mistrust in politics and politicians, the rise of the far right parties and a meltdown in democratic participation have all highlighted the urgency for investment in Citizenship and Values Education. Despite differences in culture, history and approach to Citizenship and Values Education across the five education systems, the Five Nations Network has brought together policy-makers, teachers, practitioners, stakeholders, NGOs and young people for an annual conference .They are now determined to take joint action.
The overarching aim of the conference was to take stock of where education for values and citizenship has come from, where it is currently and where it should go and, in the light of dialogue and debate, to set the agenda by agreeing what needs to be done to move this area forward across the Five Nations. The conference report stresses the importance of educating people, particularly young people, to play an active and responsible part in democratic life and to exercise their rights and responsibilities in society. It also focuses on the need to prepare people with the knowledge, understanding, skills, attitudes and values needed to work together on issues, make decisions and take action and thereby making a major contribution to community cohesion and equity in society. Among the report’s conclusions was that the drive to educate young people for life in the 21st century, the move to more flexible curriculum and learning frameworks, and the emphasis on competence – and skills-based learning all strengthen the opportunities for citizenship and values education to get a firmer foothold in the curriculum and at whole-school and wider community levels. In schools – there is a need for increasing encouragement to school leaders and teachers to use their professional judgment in shaping curriculum and learning experiences, so that they fit the needs of their learners. School and local contexts, creates opportunities for citizenship and values education to be integral to how schools are organised, the values they promote and the learning experiences they encourage. Among young people – the increasing concern of young people about the society in which they are growing up, frustration at not having a voice on issues that matter to them, and boredom with traditional teaching and learning, create the opportunity to underline the relevance of citizenship and values education to the lives and concerns of young people.
It does seem that the idea of Citizenship education has grown up over the last few years and is beginning to spawn some innovative joint approaches. http://www.nfer.ac.uk/nfer/publications/33304/33304.pdf
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