WHAT NOW FOR EDUCATION POLICY?

What  now for education policy?

With no Education Bill in the Queens speech, what will be keeping Ministers busy?

The minority government  and reshuffle that never was  means that Theresa May now has little freedom of movement. So what might this mean for education policy? It seems rash in this climate to make firm predictions, but here goes.

Funding

We know that May had planned no real terms increase in per capita funding for schools. If pre-election policies stick, there will be a decrease of around 3-6% over this parliament unless the government really is wedded to less austerity, as implied by our new environment secretary Michael Gove. The increase in pupil numbers will place pressure on schools both primary and secondary. Some further marginal cost savings and efficiencies might be squeezed out of schools but for many, probably most, there is no wriggle room left. Also, bear in mind inflation is close to 3% and rising. If more funding is not available and Greening wants more there will be two consequences.

Firstly, the curriculum offer will be narrowed, as teachers and assistants are lost, pastoral support reduced and some school days shortened. Secondly, more schools will be tempted to join chains to afford some protection against cuts, although there may be limited capacity and few incentives for those running chains for this to happen at scale. My guess is there will have to be some adjustment in schools funding, to ease the burden, but it will not be as much as headteachers want and feel they need.

As for the free schools and academies programme, the programme remains the main delivery mechanism for much needed additional school places, regardless of the government’s stance on grammars and increased selection, which has been   radically scaled back  , will probably be    dropped altogether. Graham Brady, chair of the influential 1922 backbench committee, has suggested that there might be pilots on increased selection but that seems the best that the pro-selection lobby can expect. But even that in the current climate is a big ask

And, as far as the much vaunted new school funding formula is concerned, this will be placed, yet again, on the backburner. Clearly a new fairer formula is needed as the current system is unfair but as any new formula will create winners and losers, a minority government just cannot afford to upset even a minority of its backbenchers. Schools Minister Nick Gibb suggests that a new Formula will still be introduced, but this is unlikely as things stand .

Teacher recruitment and retention remains a big challenge. Getting enough leaders identified, trained, supported and deployed where they are most needed, is becoming a major priority and that will be Nick Gibb’s responsibility. Efforts to date have proved disjointed and piecemeal. There is currently no sustained pipeline of good heads, although there is some funding available  and a  new leadership college may be  in the wings. So, watch this space.

On the skills front there will be efforts to improve the quality and scope of apprenticeships as well as promoting higher degree apprenticeships and alternative routes into employment, beyond traditional degrees. Disappointingly, for the guidance sector, junior minister Robert Halfon was sacked. One of his main tasks had been to present a new careers strategy, which would be welcomed by all parties and employers particularly if informed by  all the so called ‘Gatsby benchmarks’, but this may be delayed further.

Mental health  is now seen as an issue from the Primary phase right through to Higher Education. The issue now is resources and  capacity within the system to address the challenge of identifying early  those with issues and getting them professional support before its too late.

Higher education

In higher education (HE), the new Higher Education and Research Act will be implemented, whether universities like it or not, they will be in a more competitive and accountable environment. The new Teaching Excellence Framework has  clearly embarrassed one or two leading universities, strong on research but poor on  teaching quality,  who  have  been  found to be wanting.  The TEF will be reviewed, and its metrics fine- tuned,  but,  make no mistake,  its here to stay.  With increasing numbers of students feeling they don’t get value for  money for their courses, and destination measures being published, as well as future earnings, the age of increased accountability in the HE sector is upon us. Vice Chancellors will be hard pressed to justify their inflated pay packets, under increased scrutiny.

May’s hard-nosed attitude to international students and tightening up visas will undoubtedly come under renewed attack and she is likely to have to concede some  ground under pressure from businesses, the research community and vice-chancellors, as UK universities slip down international league tables and Indian students, among others, no longer feel welcomed.

Brexit brings its own worries for the sector around access to  research funding, and in   attracting and retaining  both staff and students,. But there are also new opportunities for   collaboration, and for  transnational  partnerships around research,  enterprise , teaching and learning, and expect more satellite campuses abroad. .

Labour’s popular offer of no more tuition fees, which helped secure the support of the young vote, means that university funding will be back on the agenda. Expect think tanks to focus  in on this issue over the coming months.The interest rate that students now have to pay on their loans  is widely regarded as unacceptable.

The findings of the Sainsbury Review, which proposed the creation of T-levels and 15 technical routes for vocational and technical education, had been met with wide support both inside and outside the skills sector. While there are still crucial details about the implementation of the reforms, notably the content and progression routes around the proposed “transition year”, the spirit and substance of the reforms have been broadly welcomed. Institutes of technology should be up and running in this parliament, employer-led, with a STEM focus and operating on a hub and spoke model.

Schools

As far as the private sector is concerned, stagnant incomes, falling output and rising inflation could mean a tougher time for private schools. Demand from domestic consumers will probably remain at best, flat. But it’s always been a resilient sector that has weathered many other storms and will continue to attract international students and open satellite schools abroad to support its income streams. The biggest worry is obviously the prospect of a future Corbyn-led government that would threaten a school’s charity status and tax breaks. The higher education reforms mean more opportunities for private, alternative providers to enter the sector, and more two year degrees are in the pipeline, offering more choice to all students, and less debt. This could be attractive to the private sector but don’t expect a mad rush. It will be incremental.

The University of Buckingham, which was the first fully fledged private, non-profit university to be established 40 years ago, is expanding, and has seen an increased number of applications this year, so the private sector is not all gloom and doom. More competition, choice, new market entrants, better accountability and information for students is all good. Vice chancellors are even now scouring the horizon for new opportunities outside Europe and the UK education brand remains a strong card to play, in spite of sharper global competition.

But with all this, there is a huge caveat attached. Minority governments rarely last long. And don’t have a great back story. May, as leader, is much diminished, with limited freedom to act. There is likely to be a leadership contest within months. If the DUP arrangement doesn’t hold, and there is no guarantee that it will, we will have another general election and possibly by the end of the year. But the world still turns and there are still new opportunities out there

ELECTION JITTERS FOR TORIES

Having begun the election campaign with a lead of over 20% the Tories now realize they have a fight on their hands. The gap, according to the polls has narrowed to around 3-15%. Some recent modelling suggests that the Tories might actually lose seats and their overall majority in Parliament. Of course, we know polls can be unreliable, and , most recently, that’s exactly what they have been, but two things are clear. Corbyn has fought a much better campaign than expected. His, and his teams obvious gaffes ,and  some might say, dodgy records , don’t seem to be having the negative impact they would have had in past campaigns And the Tories strategy to focus on Theresa Mays leadership and turn this into a presidential style campaign promoting Brand May , could have backfired. The Evening Standard on Tuesday (edited, of course, by George Osborne , who was sacked by May) said the Tory campaign had “meandered from an abortive attempt to launch a personality cult around Mrs May to the self-inflicted wound of the most disastrous manifesto in recent history”. A bit harsh, probably, but reflecting genuine disquiet in Tory ranks. Mays decision not to debate with Corbyn directly looks now to have been a tactical error, although Amber Rudd’s performance as a proxy was good enough. Mays record as Home Secretary over her six year tenure was frankly mixed (Immigration, Police Prisons etc)and she has had to defend that record. Setting targets for immigration and consistently failing to meet them is not very clever. Corbyn doesn’t have to defend a record in government as he has none. Nor has he really managed anything much. How he  currently runs his own office should give electors some concerns, and indeed, insights into what Corbyn would look like as Prime Minister. He is not bad at the poetry of campaigning, but untested in the prose of governing. The Prime Minister gave a speech this week attempting to realign her campaign on Brexit. Significantly, she appeared in front of re-branded posters which carried the word “Conservatives”, more prominently instead of the previously used slogan “Theresa May’s Team”.
If the Tories don’t win a significant majority, ie over 50 . Mays authority will be diminished and Corbyn will claim a partial victory and stay on as Labour leader. He may well stay on as Leader anyway, of course. Much can change over this next week. But this election is, for sure ,turning up a few surprises.

CMRE THINK TANK – INCREASED SELECTION IS NOT A VIABLE STRATEGY FOR THE EDUCATION SYSTEM

 

Centre Right think tank, CMRE, says increased selection is not a viable strategy for the education system as a whole

This is what Gabriel Sahlgren the Director of Research at the CMRE think tank said  about selection   in  an opinion  piece  in the Daily Telegraph on 8 May.

‘Conservatives have proposed academic selection. In this model, children would compete for places based on their performance. Parents wouldn’t just choose schools – but schools would choose pupils, too. This is not a viable strategy for the education system as a whole. Indeed, research suggests that between-school selection doesn’t raise performance overall, but often decreases equality. Rather than promoting a more cohesive country, selection may therefore merely divide us further.

Most importantly, academic selection decreases parental choice and risks the competitive incentives in the system; it induces schools to focus more on picking pupils than on improving their performance.’

I  suggest  it  would be helpful, and appropriate ,  before any future government decides  to increase selection in the schools system, for it to set out clearly the evidence base that informs this policy decision.  At present, as far as I am aware ,there is no think tank,   no reputable academic or research organisation or institution , nor  any organisation promoting social mobility which  either backs the policy of increased selection or has provided evidence that such a policy  will  do any of the following: improve performance across the system, raise the performance overall of disadvantaged pupils, narrow the performance gap between disadvantaged and mainstream pupils ,increase social mobility, improve equity,  or significantly help ‘ordinary families’ educationally, all of which appear to be  priorities on the current  education  agenda.  If evidence informed policy and practice  has any meaning, then this should be a minimum requirement, before any government wastes scarce resources, political energy and capital on introducing and driving through any such policy in the face of   available evidence and expert opinion

GRAMMARS ,AND SELECTION -THE JAMS OWFS etc

The Government is heading rapidly down a cul de sac in its policy to increase selection in the maintained sector. Either it will have to execute a U turn (not unheard of-think, Nicky Morgan) or it will come to a grinding halt , using its scarce resources and haemorrhaging political capital, to prop up a policy that cannot possibly deliver the outcomes it wants-a significant number of new, good school places for ‘ordinary working  families’ and increased social mobility.

The Grammar school model is currently demonstrably failing to help the most disadvantaged pupils and is no engine of social mobility. Justine Greening has accepted as much, and now talks about  the need for a  ‘new model ‘for Grammar schools ,  conceding past failures of Grammars to cater for the less affluent.

Selective schools continue to be dominated by the most affluent. Over half of pupils in selective schools are in families with income above the national median and fewer than one in ten are eligible for the Pupil Premium. Ironically  one  enduring  education success of this and the previous government, has been the Pupil Premium ,which specifically targets the most disadvantaged cohort with extra per capita funding  . Grammars really haven’t played any significant  part  in this success story.

The government has shifted its attention now  to what it calls ordinary working families. Although there is no official definition of an ordinary working family, the government   describes students fitting into the category as those who are not entitled to pupil premium, but who come from families earning “modest” or below median incomes.The Education Policy Institute tells us that Department for Education’s definition of  the OWF group occupies the centre of the income distribution of children in maintained schools.’ Crucially, though , the child of the OWF  currently ‘experiences attainment and progress outcomes that are above average’.

Seeking to change that model by incentivising, or  compelling,  Grammars to take more   pupils from these  ordinary working families  presents a huge new  practical  challenge. . How do you hold schools  to account ? Do you introduce a quota system? Do you dump the eleven plus in favour of another test?  Indeed, can you design a new  tutor -proof test (unlikely)?  Or ,do you lower the pass mark for young people whose families fall below the median income threshold?  The Government risks falling between a rock and a hard place here, alienating both the education establishment and grammar schools.

The three bodies that know most about social mobility and its drivers, are the Social Mobility Commission, the Sutton Trust and Teach First . None of these organisations  though believe that social mobility, remember the top  priority of Justine Greening as Education Secretary, will increase one iota on the back of increased selection. The Sutton Trust believes that Grammars should demonstrate how well they can support  the bottom third of pupils, before they  roll out  increased selection across the system.  Greening struggled on the BBC R4  Today Programme, on 13 April ,to name a single expert or institution that supports her policy (to be fair its not her Policy ,its Nick Timothys of N0 10). She couldn’t,  because there aren’t any. When NO 10 phoned around those whom it could normally rely on to support its education announcements, on the release of its Green Paper on selection, all ducked their heads below the parapet. They had a quick squint at the evidence, saw the prospect of a car crash, and made their excuses .All these organisations are alarmed too at the shift away from targeting the most disadvantaged cohort, and narrowing  the achievement gap,  to the group that  was called those who are just about managing (JAMs) ,( now called  ordinary working families’ (OWFs).

There are  many,  including  key figures who have been  broadly supportive  of the governments education reforms,   who cannot fathom  why the government is pursuing such a high risk policy,   that is not evidence -based, and  has  such little prospect  of  meaningful  educational ,or political, returns. .

WHATEVER HAPPENED TO CRITICAL THINKING AMONG STUDENTS?

There has been much debate in education about the need to develop in students critical thinking. Critical thinking  means having the ability  to see both sides of an argument clearly, while deducing or confirming conclusions from both the facts and arguments.  To think critically,  it is  thought  you need domain specific knowledge ,as well as certain  generic  skills. You  need to learn how to handle and order  facts,  as well as to learn the facts themselves.
The “critical” part of the term “critical thinking”  doesn’t refer to the  act of criticizing, or finding fault, but rather to the ability to be objective and dispassionate. So, “Critical,” in this context, means essentially  “open-minded,” seeking out, evaluating and weighing all the available evidence, affording a value to that evidence and reaching a rational,  objective , conclusion  .  Being Objective,  or rational,  though  is not as easy  as it might seem. Our  in built biases can interfere in our thinking process’s.  These are  sometimes known as cognitive biases.  And we can let our  emotions  get the better of us, so rational thought and objectivity goes  out the window.

According to Professor Dan Willingham,  looking at the issue  from the cognitive scientist’s point of view, the mental activities that are typically called critical thinking are actually a subset of three types of thinking: reasoning, making judgments and decisions, and problem solving.One likes to think that students who have studied A levels have developed, to a significant extent good critical thinking skills . Certainly those with the best grades.  And that at University they develop these skills further,  and advance to a different level of critical thinking. But do they?  There does appear to be a cultural shift underway .  Subjective emotional responses  have an elevated status.  Sometimes it seems the only valid response to any idea  argument or situation is the individual’s own—how he or she “feels” about it, subjectively. Are they offended by it? Has it hurt their feelings? This is when and where emotion and feelings trump rationality and it would seem critical thinking.  So  Could all the banning, no platforming, safe spaces and trigger warnings simply be symptomatic of the fact that subjectivity has replaced objectivity as the default position.  Is it the case that students, much more than in the past, are  increasingly incapable of processing conflicting viewpoints intellectually; they can only respond to them emotionally? Is this what is meant by the snowflake generation? Food for thought

GRAMMARS-DIVIDING THE TORIES ?

The Times, in a leader this week, repeated an essential truth, rooted in  evidence  ‘At the heart of the grammar schools debate is a single, uncomfortable truth. Selection is good for the children selected, and not so good for those who aren’t.’  Grammar schools just dont select   disadvantaged pupils. At the last count 3% of their intakes on average, qualified for free school meals, the clunky measure for deprivation. So they are  demonstrably  not, as is claimed by some in government, engines of social mobility.
Somewhat bruised by the evidence put before them,  ministers are considering forcing those grammars with the fewest disadvantaged children to lower the pass mark for applicants from poorer backgrounds. (Tip for SPADS-On balance, its better to look at the evidence, and then formulate a  policy rather than formulate a policy and then look at the evidence).  Lowering the pass mark, would be combined with other measures to help disadvantaged children, such as holding entrance tests on deprived council estates to encourage children there to apply. This means that the reforms that will appear in the White Paper (the Green paper consultation process, was  a window dressing exercise ,much to the annoyance of those who submitted evidence to the consultation in good faith) will be more complex than simply allowing grammars to expand and free schools to select ,so may not please the existing grammar schools lobby. There will be caveats attached,  given their poor record with disadvantaged  pupils.  Graham Brady MP, the leading Tory backbench voice on grammars, said this week “Grammars are already keen to widen the social diversity of applicants and of the pupils attending them .There are numerous ways of doing this and it would be a mistake to force grammar schools to adopt a particular approach by requiring a quota to be reserved for a particular demographics or requiring lower pass marks for entry exams.”

Grammar schools, in order to retain their status may have to change their admissions/selection procedures fairly radically. So, The Government could fall between a rock and hard place. Irritating the Grammar schools lobby on the one hand, and on the other, the bulk of the educational and research establishment who feel that the government is heading down a cul de sac on selection.

CHERRY PICKING MINISTERS THREATEN THE CAREERS STRATEGY

The Minister Lord Nash, responding to a PQ in the Lords on Careers Guidance this month, said there is clear evidence that if  one relies on face to face careers guidance that  this is a very ineffective strategy. Most studies have concluded  ,he intoned, that the best careers advice comes through activities with employers, and there is evidence that five or more employer engagements during secondary school means that students are seven times less likely to be NEET. Really?  Come again.  Does the Minister truly  think that face to face careers advice from a trained guidance professional is ineffective- and that the best careers advice comes from employer engagement and that this engagement is the same as professional  careers guidance ? The alarm bells are ringing! If he does then the careers strategy will be a dogs dinner, marginalizing professional advisers and yet another missed opportunity. And , guess what, its the most disadvantaged  students who will suffer the most. (talking evidence, its  disadvantaged students who  benefit the most from face to face professional  guidance)

Employers are not trained in giving guidance. Giving information is not the same as guidance.  At a time when the guidance sector is focused on improving quality assurance, for guidance professionals , Ministers want to send lots of employers into schools. So where is the quality assurance in this process? Do they have the right skills? Do they have the knowledge base ? Are they good communicators? Have they worked with young people before? Do they know the routes into different professions, outside their own sectors and the qualifications required.? Will they be  impartial and disinterested , or will they promote the merits  of their company sector or profession? Would they know what a facilitating subject was ? Where are their guidance qualifications? In short,  Where, on earth is the quality assurance in this engagement process? Ministers endlessly quote the same one piece of research which they manage to fundamentally misunderstand and misuse about the importance of employer engagement. To base policy on such a narrow and selective evidence base will lead to poor policy design and ultimately a hopeless strategy.  .Nobody suggests that its only about careers advice from professionals. This has to be combined with (quality assured) employer engagement, of course, careers education ie equipping young people with the tools to make informed choices ,and high quality work experience.
Ministers though are stuck on one track. Employer engagement with schools, and, err, that’s about it. They should adhere to all the Gatsby benchmarks on careers guidance, one of which, number eight as it happens,  covers personal  face to face guidance from a trained professional.  Rather than specifying a particular model  it said ‘ , the indicator for our benchmark is that the interview should be with an adviser who is appropriately trained to have the necessary guidance skills, the knowledge of information sources and the essential impartiality to do the job.’ It continues ‘ This person might be an external adviser (the professional association for career guidance practitioners, the Career Development Institute, maintains a register of qualified practitioners), or might be one or more trained members of the existing school staff, whose careers role could be part-time or full-time. School leaders told the authors of the Gatsby report that they thought personal guidance important because it:
– Tailors advice to individual needs;
– Can direct pupils towards the information sources of most use to them, and the actions most relevant to them;
– Can (and always should) give impartial advice that has only the pupils’ interests at heart.
The authors stated ‘Alongside our evidence from international practice, there is research evidence that personal guidance has an observable impact on young people’s careers and progression.’ So Ministers should stop cherry picking. Stop cheery picking both  the empirical  evidence and the Gatsby benchmarks. Otherwise the Careers strategy will be dead in the water..