Richard Holden: Tomorrow’s Budget must show a return to traditional Conservative economics of fiscal responsibility

26 Oct

Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.

Stanley Crook Primary School, Crook, Co. Durham

Nothing makes you reflect more on the “long-term” than a visit to a primary school. It will be almost 20 years before some of my youngest constituents are able to cast a ballot in a general election. If their parents continue to vote for me, I’ll be in my mid 50s and, like Ronald Regan, generously avoiding making light of my “opponent’s youth and inexperience.”

It is those who are too young to vote, but who will end up paying for the decisions that are made, that the Chancellor needs to keep in his mind tomorrow. With debt to GDP close to 100 per cent following the global pandemic – levels not seen since the early 1960s – it is clear spending must be kept under control.

We don’t want to burden those future generations with costs not due to a global pandemic, but our inability to get off “easy cash” when the worst has passed. Furthermore, we need to be careful because just a one per cent rise in interest rates on our national debt will lead to a £25 billion increase in the cost of servicing it. While the UK is better placed than some, with long-term maturing debt predominant, around a third of our debt in index-linked, meaning that the rise is automatic.

To put that in context, in spending terms that’s more than half the defence budget. In tax terms, that’s increasing the basic rate of income tax from 20 per cent to over 24 per cent. In a couple of years we don’t want to be having to look at massive spending cuts and tax rises just to keep in balance. That’s why it is so important that the Chancellor returns to traditional Conservative economics of fiscal responsibility and getting both borrowing and debt down so that, faced with a future pandemic, war or crisis, we are in a position to be able to respond.

Watching the New Labour documentary recently, I was struck by the mistakes made that led to their inability to respond when the 2008/9 financial crisis hit. They’d borrowed hugely during the good times and the UK paid a very significant premium on its debt compared to other European and major global powers.

As Conservatives, financial responsibility must be our watch-words. It’s what the public expect. We can leave Labour to veer between massive, unfunded spending promises one day to attempts at eye catching tax cuts the next. Our job is to be solid, sober and sensible.

There is one area where the Chancellor does need to do considered spending however. That is to push investment into things that raise productivity and truly level up the country, creating self-sustaining support rather than permanently reliant on hand-outs from central Government.

Where he does invest, the Chancellor needs to do so to build long-term viability. If the least productive parts of the country were as productive as the most productive, we wouldn’t be facing a budget deficit at all. Upskilling the workforce so that the third of people who don’t have an A Level or equivalent can access one is essential. More essential still is that we reduce the number of young people leaving education without one in the first place.

The second way of improving productivity is to ensure that people can access the jobs and opportunities available to them. Any big transport schemes need a close eye on them to ensure that they’re really going to deliver “levelling up” opportunity – and therefore productivity. New buses and new train networks need to be there to provide connectivity, expand real pinch points in capacity, not to service the vanity or whims of officials in Whitehall.

I’m not against the Chancellor cutting a bit of a dash where he can – on mine and others long fought campaign to reform alcohol duty for example to give draught beer a cut in price. Fingers crossed. But the basis of his budget needs to be aimed at the long-term health of our economy and the prospects for the next generation.

People vote for the future; not what you did but what you’re going to do. But they only have the past to rely on to guide them in that. The one rock solid anchor Conservatives need above everything is fiscal credibility, looking to the long-term interests of the country. I for one hope that Rishi puts that front and centre tomorrow – it is the foundation on which we build levelling up and good jobs from improving productivity and opportunity which it brings.

Dragging down private schools would be no way to close the attainment gap

11 Aug

As the Government has decided, after several happy years, to revive the annual furore over grade inflation, this year has also seen a return of the traditional hang-wringing about the role and performance of private schools.

On the one hand Lord Lucas, a Conservative peer and editor of the Good Schools Guide, suggested that universities will prioritise state-educated pupils. On the other, falling back on teacher assessment has seen the gap between private and state school outcomes grow wider than ever.

Worse, as I pointed out this morning, in the long run grade inflation can only benefit better-off pupils as universities are forced to use different metrics to sift applicants – especially if it sees a renaissance of interviews and even more weight placed on extra-curricular activities.

Unfortunately, as Rob Colvile of the Centre for Policy Studies observed this morning, the ritual debate about private schools too often focuses on how they could be brought into line with state school performance, rather than being a spur to try and improve private schools.

In this framing, any difference in outcome from private schools arises entirely from irreplicable conditions, presumably their budgets and the social background of their pupils. This has the handy result of avoiding any difficult questions about the things private schools do which state schools could do to. In the past this would primarily be holding on to classical methods of teaching and school organisation whilst the state sector experimented with various, often disastrous, alternatives.

But in the aftermath of the pandemic, it would also pose pointed questions about things such as the level and rigour of remote teaching offered to pupils, as well as the basic question of how keen an individual school was to stay open at all, and the level of remote learning they provided whilst pupils were off-campus.

Of course, a sudden shift to remote learning would have put better-off pupils at an advantage, as they are much more likely to have had the necessary infrastructure in terms of broadband, devices and so on. The Learning in Lockdown report from the Sutton Trust found that private schools were more confident in their pupils’ online access, switched to online more quickly, and reported higher attendance. Focus groups also found private schools parents being happier.

But we shouldn’t pretend that money is likely to be the only difference. Whilst the Sutton We don’t seem to have monitored differences between traditional comprehensives and academies and free schools, we have also already seen clear evidence of different sorts of state school taking very different approaches to, for example, reopening. As I noted previously:

“It is surely no coincidence that it’s the major academy chains – Reach 2, Harris, Oasis and GEP – which are backing the Government’s plans to restart schools, alongside the headteachers’ unions. The founder of Oasis, Steve Chalke, has gone so far as to attack opposition as ‘middle class’, highlighting the disproportionate impact extended closure will have on children from less advantaged backgrounds.”

What this illustrates is that material circumstances are not destiny. Even if you start with less, it is still possible to do better or worse with what’s available to you. (It also perhaps suggests that parental agency, as well as money, helps drive positive change in school attitudes – the very logic of the school choice agenda).

That’s why one virtue of private schools is that they provide an independent barometer against which the impact of various reforms to state education can be measured. The point isn’t whether or not a state school can do what a private counterpart does. But if one set of reforms sees the private/state gap grow wider, and another set narrows it, we can fairly conclude that the latter reforms are delivering better outcomes.

Michael Gove touched on this point when he suggested that the best way to get rid of private schools would be to make state schools so good that it didn’t make sense to spend the money.

Until then, we should sternly resist those who suggest closing the attainment gap by cracking down on private schools. Doing so would only bring even more wealthy parents back into the state sector, which instead of lifting all boats would just see house prices in the catchment areas of good schools climb even higher whilst their kids took a share of the state education budget to boot.

As school pupils rack up devalued As, Williamson gets an F on grade inflation

11 Aug

When Michael Gove made toughening up exams part of his mission as Education Secretary, the teaching establishment wasn’t pleased. Far from offering a rigorous assessment of a pupil’s attainment, the argument ran, they distort the curriculum via ‘teaching to the test’ and fail to capture a candidate’s real abilities.

Following the Government’s lamentable but predictable capitulation over trying to generate reasonable results algorithmically last year, we have now had two years to see what the alternative is. And the answer: ‘rampant grade inflation’. From yesterday’s Times:

“Almost half of Tuesday’s A-level results are expected to be at A* or A in a second year of rampant grade inflation. The Times has learnt that about 19 per cent of the qualifications are likely to be graded A* this year and a further 30 per cent are expected to be given A grades. The results come after last year’s exams fiasco when 38.6 per cent of A-levels were graded A or A*, up from 25.5 per cent in 2019.”

Worse still, this may not even be the end of it, with the papers reporting that substituting teacher assessment for actual assessment could be back next year, as apparently two and a half years won’t be enough for the Department of Education to find a way to hold exams safely.

In the short term, this has led to university places being once again oversubscribed, with top-flight universities already restricting places available via the clearing system. There are also reports that they might start expanding the use of entrance exams, in order to differentiate between the mass of A-wielding applicants and try to reduce the need to provide remedial teaching to get students up to the level needed to start higher learning.

Of course, it wouldn’t be fair to let all the blame fall on the teachers. Debbie Hayton argues that it is impossible for them to foresee which pupils would have fluffed their exams on the day, although this has the effect of shifting the blame back onto exams as a system of assessment. One can also see how easily relying on predicted grades could produce a race to the bottom, with conscientious teachers not wanting to put their charges at a disadvantage relative to those of their more generous colleagues.

But there is no doubt that the ideological preferences of the education establishment are also at work. Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, told the Times that inflated grades will “become the new norm”, and is quoted as saying that: “The early signs are that it will be another bumper year for grades, justified as compensation for all the disruption suffered.”

Both Smithers and Hayton think this is a mistake: he suggests it amounts to “killing with kindness”, whilst she spells out how grade inflation rebounds on everyone:

“But what about the students who would have achieved straight A*s in any case? For better or for worse, exams are used to discriminate between students. There is already talk that leading universities will need to set their own entrance exams to do the job that A levels have failed to do… It’s not just the current 18 year-olds who have been let down. I sat A levels so long ago that my results are now a historical curiosity; I’m no longer judged against them. But those in the early stages of their careers will now be relying on grades that suddenly don’t look so impressive when compared to this year’s bumper results.”

Nor are the long-term results likely to be progressive. Whilst in the immediate prospect universities might use the glut of top grades to squeeze out better-off pupils, as Lord Lucas warned yesterday, such a trend will not survive sustained grade inflation. As and when universities are forced to use other criteria to sift candidates, be that entrance exams or the older methods of interview and extra-curricular achievement, the ball will be back in the wealthy’s court.

(That doesn’t mean that universities should be prohibited from setting entrance exams. Far from it: having the ultimate barometer of schools’ achievement set independently of the schools themselves might be the best structural reform for bringing grade inflation under control permanently. I have also written elsewhere that the Government might also consider introducing CV-blind entrance exams for public sector employment, in areas where a specific technical qualification is not required and degrees are simply being used as a first-stage sieve for candidates.)

Finally, it is worth pointing out that moving away from exams appears to have given fresh power to teachers’ prejudices about how the sexes learn, with the long-standing attainment gap between girls and boys, so recently closed, now wider than ever.

All of which is why this spike in grades deserves more than a dismissive “so what?”

But who is going to do anything about it? From being one of the boldest and most radical parts of government under the Coalition, today the Department for Education seems drained of all energy and authority. It has been rightly excoriated for its lack of pandemic contingency planning, and appears to have spent the last year doing nothing at all to try and prevent a second (and perhaps even a third) year of grade inflation.

It is no surprise that our survey finds party members giving Gavin Williamson truly stygian ratings, month after month after month. The best he could muster yesterday was to say that pupils “deserve to be rewarded” after a year of disruption. How many, in the long run, will actually thank him for this Weimar pay-rise? In a properly-functioning system, an unusually difficult year would lead, however sadly, to unusually low attainment. Not the opposite.

Education has never been Boris Johnson’s top priority. The 2019 manifesto was extremely light on proposals for schools, and he has not favoured the Department since taking office. But if the Government is serious about ‘levelling up’ or driving cultural change, let alone both, it has to take schools and universities much more seriously.

Christian Wakeford: The number of pupils doing A-Level maths is fantastic – but higher education is not doing enough to support them

9 Aug

Christian Wakeford is MP for Bury South

All students receiving their A-Level results tomorrow deserve huge credit. It’s been another disrupted and difficult year for pupils.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is that maths is set to be the most popular subject choice, just as it has been for the last few years. According to the interim figures from Ofqual, over 90,000 pupils will receive A-Level results in maths this week. (It’s a long way back to second place in the list of subjects – 68,000 sat psychology while biology takes bronze with 63,000 candidates).

This is good news for maths. But it brings with it certain issues. With so many school pupils sitting maths we must ensure that the pipeline in further and higher education is big enough to accommodate them. There are worrying signs of kinks in that pipeline.

Earlier this year Leicester University took the decision to close the pure maths group in its mathematics department. That prompted the founding, by the London Mathematical Society and others, of the Protect Pure Maths campaign. Its dual aims are to promote maths in general and to protect pure maths in particular, because that area of the subject seems most under threat at the moment.

Dr Nira Chamberlain, president of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications (IMA), is a vocal supporter of the campaign. He recently said, “To those who think we can have a better society by reducing pure mathematical activity, I say this: ‘All of mathematics is important, you cannot target one without hurting the other!’ When mathematics is strong the UK economy becomes stronger.”

That goes to the nub of the issue. The mathematical sciences contribute over £200 billion to the UK economy, that’s around 10 per cent of GDP. We need maths and mathematicians as we rebuild the economy.

But sometimes it can be tricky to see what pure maths in particular contributes. By its very nature pure maths is concerned with pursuing mathematical ideas for their own sake.

And yet without it our lives today would be very different. For example, the encryption that secures the contents of your mobile phone and which facilitated all those contactless transactions during the pandemic relies on principles from pure maths.

We don’t just carry pure maths in our pockets. It’s pure maths that underpins the safe and successful functioning of GPS satellites in space mapping the globe. Pure maths keeps us safe.

Alan Turing was studying a knotty problem in mathematical logic back in the 1930s. It appeared to have limited real world application. Yet when it came to cracking the Enigma code that pure maths work proved vital. And of course Turing’s work would ultimately hatch modern computers.

Today, government security and surveillance hub GCHQ is one of the nation’s largest employers of pure mathematicians. The Heilbronn Institute – a partnership between GCHQ and universities put out a statement on ‘the value of pure mathematics in security’ which boiled down to this line: “Pure mathematics is crucial in designing and analysing modern security protocols.”

Pure maths helps keep us well. For example, by making MRI scanners more efficient it has surely saved the lives of many patients. Maths in all its forms has been crucial to our response to Covid-19. From the graphs that we became accustomed to seeing at Downing Street briefings to modelling the spread of the disease, and more happily, the development and rollout of vaccines – a process in which this country and this government has led the world.

We can lead the world in maths too if we recognise the value of maths in all its forms and ensure maths departments remain not just viable but healthy.

Students acing A-Level maths today shouldn’t have to travel far from home if they don’t want to. There’s a danger that if some institutions make injudicious cuts then pure maths will become the preserve of certain universities while others will specialise in applied mathematics. Better to have maths departments where all strands of the subject can interact, infuse and enthuse each other spread throughout the country.

This government knows the value of maths. We’ve announced £300 million in additional funding for the subject. The details around that commitment should be forthcoming in the autumn. I hope it will be used to fund all branches of mathematics and that it will be provided in a sustainable way, to pay for students to complete courses over a number of years. That is the way to maintain our mathematical pipeline of excellence.

By doing so we give today’s pupils celebrating their success at maths A-Level the best opportunity to develop their knowledge and love of the subject. And we give the nation the best chance of reaping the rewards of that excellence in terms of the economy, opportunity and in finding the answers to questions we have even thought to ask yet and in being ready to face challenges currently unknown.

Michael Goode: How to close the inspiration gap in schools between students’ ability and their outcomes

8 Aug

Michael Goode is a school governor and has been a young offenders mentor since 2017.

When school children are inspired and informed about the world of work they study harder, place a greater value on their subjects and are more engaged. This is especially true for underperforming students. Inspirational sessions with employers can also result in higher earning potentials and fewer young people becoming a NEET (not in education, employment or training).

Put simply, what children think they want to be when they grow up and how they reached those aspirations matters. Yet there is a serious inspiration gap between the schools doing an excellent job of expanding pupils’ horizons, through exposing them to a variety of careers, and those that are not.

Its scale is significant. When asking children what they want to do when they grow up, research in 2018 showed that about half expect to work in one of only ten jobs. Many of these (teachers, doctors, vets etc.) are typically grounded in a nineteenth or twentieth century view of the professions.

Research from 2020 also highlighted the disconnect between pupils aspirations and our economy, showing that over five times as many 17 and 18 year olds wanted to work in art, culture, entertainment and sport as there were jobs available. Nor are these career ambitions future-proofed, given that over 30 per cent of the jobs that UK teenagers want are at high risk of automation.

I have seen for myself what it is like to be on the wrong end of this inspiration gap. I went to a failing secondary school (now merged) where around 70 per cent of the students didn’t get their five A-Cs at GCSE. 

I was later told that I was the first person from that school to go to the University of Cambridge, which was shocking, given how bright so many of my classmates were. Looking back, I can see how little we had in terms of inspiration. We simply didn’t know what jobs were out there, what we could aim for, or how that would be affected by our grades.

At best, it was: “good grades will get you into a good university,” but there was no horizon beyond that point or alternative view of success. I remember discussing plans with classmates and hearing answers like “‘Ill work for my uncle so don’t need to study” or “I just want a family and will get a flat”.

Everyone is entitled to their own life plan but there was nothing to invite us to expand our horizons. We were all just left to reach our own conclusions. It sounds funny, but I remember thinking hard about what people would always need and settling on being a shoemaker.

Few of us become what we wanted to be at school (I’m not a shoemaker or an astronaut), but those initial aspirations shape our perception of what we can be and our appreciation of the value of education. And it is not hard to understand why survey after survey still show children having stereotyped and out of touch aspirations.

All this means that children on the wrong end of the inspiration gap are leaving school with limited or warped career expectations expectations which, crucially, have been built almost entirely outside of school.

Policy makers increasingly recognises this. One recent, substantial improvement is Ofsted’s inclusion of the Gatsby Benchmarks (tried and tested principles for expanding pupils’ horizons) in their inspection guidance.

Another is the establishment of the Careers and Enterprise Company, a national network designed to facilitate careers education and support schools.

But there is much more work to be done to ensure that career inspiration is at the heart of every child’s school experience. Especially because, as the Prince’s Trust has found, the disruption, uncertainty and misery of the last 16 months has affected young people’s aspirations.

The job to do now is to close this inspiration gap. The research shows that the best way to achieve this is to ensure all schools act early and often, showcasing different career paths and using these sessions to have broader conversations about jobs.

To do this we need to –

  • Make employee and career engagement an independent section in any Ofsted report;
  • Update Ofsted guidance to require schools to work with their Local Enterprise Partnership on employee engagement plans which are grounded in the area’s economy and future job needs;
  • Set out new guidance encouraging schools to use digital conferencing technology to connect with employers outside of their region;
  • Change Ofsted guidance to mandate termly opportunities for pupils to encounter the world of work, primarily through guest speakers and –
  • Update guidance to stress that inspiring employer engagement sessions must come before lessons around CV writing skills or training pathways.

None of this should add appreciable cost to the taxpayer, especially given the plethora of programmes out there designed to help pupils engage with different careers and industries.

The organisation Education and Employers has a fantastic program called Inspiring the Future and is leading the work in this field, while other initiatives focus on specific sectors: I volunteered for a program called Feeding Britain’s Future, which works to explain to students what careers exist in the food industry, while also providing general interview guidance and CV writing skills. One good side-effect of the lockdowns is that schools now have far more digital conferencing technology, which means volunteering takes less time and can reach pupils across geographical boundaries. There is plenty of goodwill and many programmes to tap into.

And for those of you thinking about volunteering, or perhaps with lingering doubts about the importance of this gap, I have seen for myself as a prison mentor how important inspiration is. Helping young offenders dream of a career on the outside, getting them fired up, and then building a plan to achieve that goal has been the most powerful tool in helping them feel that there is something tangible to roll their sleeves up and work for. What’s disheartening is that many certainly did not have this at school.

No young person should leave school, as my classmates did, without a good understanding of what jobs are out there and what they could do to get to them. Fantastic work has been done in this area, but an inspiration gap remains. That gap takes on a new importance, given how the past 16 months have disrupted education and dampened young peoples’ aspirations.

Let’s close this gap by connecting pupils to the world of work, expanding their horizons, and inspiring them to make the very best use of their time studying, confident that there is something to work for.

Robert Halfon: We need to get a handle on home education – and the surge of kids who’ve vanished from the school roll

28 Jul

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Thanks to the Centre for Social Justice, we know that around 93,500 children missed over 50 per cent of their school sessions in Autumn 2020. As disturbing as this may be, at least we are aware of these children and can track them with the hope of getting them back into education.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the many thousands of children across our country that are being home educated. We have little information, limited data and no analysis of these pupils’ outcomes. Astonishingly, the Department for Education does not even collect national figures on the number of children in elective home education.

For too long, a fog has shrouded home education.

Compared with our European neighbours, the English model is relatively permissive. A survey from 2018 showed that in a dozen countries, including Germany, home education was possible only in exceptional circumstances and in many cases, parents had to get authorisation. Students’ progress was “monitored and assessed everywhere except in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom”.

Survey figures suggest that, over the year to October 2020, there was a 38 per cent increase in the number of home educated children, with around 75,000 being educated at home. Further to this, Fraser Nelson, the editor of The Spectator, has identified around 20,000 thousand children who have completely vanished from the school roll. We are faced with a surge of missing children, catalysed by the Covid-19 crisis.

The Education Select Committee, which I Chair, published a report this week looking at what steps can be taken to strengthen and support home education. The report was passed unanimously by the Conservative and Labour members of the Committee.

First, our report recommends that the Department for Education should collect much more data and information about home educated pupils. One way of achieving this would be to have a register collected by local authorities. Data from the register would be anonymised nationally. It would enable resources to be targeted. The Department for Education would be able to seriously lend a helping hand to the families of children who have been let down by the school system.

Second, our report notes that every parent is required to secure a suitable education for their child. As we point out, home education should aim to enable the child, when grown-up, to function as an independent citizen in the UK. Individuals are surely independent if they have the qualifications and basic key skills in numeracy and literacy needed to gain access to the jobs ladder of opportunity.

Our report suggests that home educated children should be assessed at least once a year in maths and English. It is worth noting that Anne Longfield, the respected former Children’s Commissioner, has argued for termly visits to home educated children.

Third, too many parents have been forced into un-elective home education. This is especially true of families of children with special educational needs. One parent told our Committee that support for children with special needs was inadequate and that many parents remove their children from school in order to protect them. We are, therefore, proposing the introduction of independent advocates for these families to help them wade through the treacle of bureaucracy and to get the right support for their child.

Fourth, if it is agreed that there should be a register and that home educated children should be assessed, it only seems fair that there should be a level playing field for exams. In practice, this would mean that the Government would fund home educated pupils who wish to complete GCSEs, A-Levels and other relevant qualifications.

Finally, it is worth noting data from the former Children’s Commissioner, suggesting that five per cent of schools were responsible for 40 per cent of children being withdrawn to home education in 2017-18. The Commissioner could not say whether these high numbers reflected parental dissatisfaction or were the result of pressure or influence from the school to withdraw a child.

During the 2018-19 school year, before the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ofsted was investigating around one hundred schools for high levels of pupil movement, potentially linked to off-rolling. Of course, permanent exclusions for serious misbehaviour will still be necessary, but there should be a requirement for schools to publish data on their websites about the number of permanent and fixed-term exclusions alongside the number of children taken off the school roll.

With all that being said, there will be many examples of where home education has proven to be successful. However, some families may be struggling. It does not follow that every home educating family has access to the networks and resources they need to provide a “suitable” education.

Neither is it wrong to suggest that home educated children need to have a basic knowledge of literacy and numeracy. After all, pupils in schools are required to take SATS and other examinations. Moreover, by having a register, we can ensure that assistance and resources can be directed to home educated families who are having difficulties.

Emily Carver: The Government’s plan to make exams easier will be devastating for this country’s education system

21 Jul

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs

In the midst of the media frenzy around vaccinations passports, the “pingdemic” and the long-awaited “Freedom Day” (which turned out to be no such thing), one story that has hasn’t received nearly enough scrutiny is what’s going on in our schools.

We all know that students have faced significant disruption over the past 16 months. On-off school closures, months of virtual-only learning, plus the farce that has become the “Covid bubble” scheme, have plunged many schools into crisis territory. It was reported yesterday that last Thursday there were over a million pupils off school, including 774,000 as a result of children being told to self-isolate. Some schools have been forced to close altogether.

It’s hard to overstate the impact this level of lost learning will have on children, yet the Government has consistently failed to put children first over the course of the pandemic, while the unions have warned against – and continue to stubbornly oppose – any easing of restrictions. Now, with the summer holidays fast approaching, pressure is mounting on the Government to find ways to claw back some of what has been lost.

It is regrettable that schools were ever forced to close, but there have since been some sensible recommendations made, including funding for extra tuition, and catch-up classes for those who have fallen behind. Predictably, when offered an extra £1.5 billion for such measures, the response from union officials was one of outrage at what they deemed to be a derisory sum.

Of course, it’s likely no amount of money will be enough to fix the level of damage that Covid restrictions have reaped on schools – there is no way of going back in time. But the Government’s education recovery commissioner has also proposed practical changes that will cost far less, including longer school days and changing the structure of the school year – both common-sense ideas that an IEA paper advocated earlier this year.

These suggestions were met with equal pushback, with teaching unions straight out of the traps to claim a 30-minute extension of the school day would do “more harm than good”. This, despite the fact longer school days have been shown to help disadvantaged pupils the most.

You would have thought – or naively hoped – that those dedicated to representing teachers, would rally around measures to help pupils. Instead, they’ve pushed for the strictest interpretation of Covid measures every step of the way, acting as a thorn in the Conservative government’s side. ‘Twas ever thus, I suppose.

However, there is one area where the unions have got on board with the Government: plans to make exams easier next summer. Proposals published by the Department for Education and Ofqual, which aim to address schooling disruption by “reducing pressure” on students and “freeing up teaching time” essentially amount to making examinations easier to pass.

They will do this by narrowing the scope of the curriculum that will be subject to examination and giving teachers the greenlight to tell students in advance what specific topics will be covered in their GCSE and A-Level exams.

Sure, shrewd students have always analysed past papers to discern which topics are most likely to reappear in their exam. But this effort to make exams easier will do nothing but create a false illusion of success. This may serve the short-term interests of teachers, students, parents and the Government, who will benefit from a perception that educational achievement has remained stable, but the longer-term consequences of this are deeply concerning.

Some may argue that this is little different from shifting the grade boundaries to reflect the relative difficulty of the paper, as happens every year. However, the consequences of manipulating results by limiting the scope of the exams themselves are of far more troubling consequence.

Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, said it is “right that next summer’s arrangements take into account the disruption young people have faced over the past 18 months”. But isn’t this a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted? Should we not assess pupils as rigorously as normal years? Only then can we understand the impact of Covid on educational outcomes. It seems the Government and some teaching representatives would rather sweep our problems under the carpet to save face.

In the next few years, we may find that we have large numbers of pupils leaving school without any real, in-depth knowledge of their subject. The knock-on effect on universities will be significant. School will send students off to university, knowing full well they have gaping holes in their understanding of what should, in normal times, be the basics. Will students spend the whole first year of their tuition catching up to A-Level standard? Will there be a need to extend the duration of the degree? Will universities now have to dumb down degrees to make up for lost time?

The impact on young people, the economy and wider society, of manipulating students’ achievements will store up big problems for the future, not least setting them up for deep disappointment when they realise their qualifications are worth less than those taken in previous years. Employers will also know full well that GCSEs and A Levels taken during the Covid years aren’t of the usual standard.

It is widely recognised that New Labour’s educational reforms made exams less rigorous. Some on the left still continue to dispute this for ideological reasons, but for anyone like me who has seen an O-Level French paper and a GCSE French paper side by side, there is no doubt.

It is understandable that the Government would want to ease the pressure on students during a pandemic, but if these planned changes to exams go ahead next summer, they may well take far longer to reverse. Why would it be in the interests of the unions, teachers or some parents to make exams harder once again?

It would be devastating for this country’s education system if, after Michael Gove spent so much time and energy attempting to reverse the legacy of the Blair years, Covid caused standards to slip once again.

Making it easier for students to pass their exams won’t reduce educational disparities in this country; grade inflation will encourage children to have a false sense of confidence in their own academic ability, and the buck will be passed to universities and their future employers.

Pressure must be put on the Government to restore exams to pre-pandemic standards as soon as possible, for the benefit of students, dedicated teachers and the wider economy.

The DfE has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at school reopenings. But the perennial problem is communication.

25 Feb

With little over a week to go before schools reopen, Gavin Williamson has been busy trying to persuade all parties concerned that it’s safe to go back.

Yesterday at a Downing Street press conference, he outlined plans for schools in England. One of the Government’s biggest moves is a “pandemic package” of extra funding to help pupils catch up with all the learning they have missed during the course of 2020/21.

The Government will fund £700 million in total for England, with a £302 million Recovery Premium dedicated towards state and primary schools. This is designed to help schools support disadvantaged students in whatever way they think is best – whether that’s additional clubs and activities, or something else.

The other huge development is that A-Level and GCSE results in England this year will be decided by predicted grades (teachers deciding pupils’ exam results, based on a combination of mock exams, coursework and essays). More on that later.

As for safety, face masks will not be compulsory in schools, but “highly recommended”, and Nick Gibb, the education minister, said he hoped the majority of students would volunteer to have Coronavirus testing twice a week. Secondary schools and colleges are also allowed to stagger reopenings on March 8 to get testing in order.

The DfE has gone to huge efforts to try and get schools running again. It is trying to pre-empt every criticism that has been levelled at the Government during the pandemic, from schools not having enough tests to concerns about how far behind pupils are, which will be addressed with mass testing and after-school classes, respectively.

One of the toughest challenges for the Government has been deciding how to mark grades. It cannot win, whichever route it takes. When it used an algorithm over the summer – designed by Ofqual – to decide GCSEs and A Levels, this led to huge outrage about exam results. But predicted grades aren’t perfect either. When the Government switched to them after the Ofqual furore, it led to grade inflation (last year a total of 76 per cent of GCSE results were a grade 4 or above compared to 67.1 per cent in 2019).

Williamson said 2021’s predicted grades will be “fair to every student”, and Gibb promised “the best system possible to ensure there is consistency and fairness in how teachers submit grades for their students.” But you sense that it’ll be another troublesome summer for the Government.

Add to that it is already dealing with increasing calls to bump teachers up the vaccine queue. These will only grow after Germany announced it was doing this (even in spite of its terrible difficulties rolling out the vaccine, which make it no model to follow). 

Although the UK government’s scientific advisers have repeatedly spelled out the rationale for the vaccine order, it has been hard to compete with the likes of Tony Blair (who has also called for teacher prioritisation) and everyone else who has suddenly decided they’re an epidemiologist.

Overall, the Government’s biggest problem has always been communication. Up against a vocal opposition – that’s the teaching unions, not Labour – Williamson has struggled to make the case for keeping schools open (and it is a strong one).

As I wrote in November for ConservativeHome, one way the Government could have moved its plans forward is by using an independent taskforce in the way it did for vaccines (with Kate Bingham in charge). I also wrote that “it would be wrong to assume that the issue of closures has now been settled for good” – at a time when public attitudes to school reopenings actually improved.

Likewise, despite the speedy roll out of the vaccines and a palpable excitement about the Government’s roadmap to easing lockdown, one senses that the problems with school reopenings are far from over.

Anne Milton: The Government must protect pupil choice when reforming qualifications

25 Feb

Anne Milton was Minister of State for Apprenticeships and Skills, and MP for Guildford from 2005 to 2019.

The Department for Education is currently reviewing the findings from its consultation on changes to qualifications at Level 3 (qualifications taken after GCSEs, e.g. A Levels or BTECs).

There are about 12,000 such qualifications, and the Government has already started to ‘tidy the landscape’ by defunding some of these. There has been widespread agreement that some of this was necessary. What is likely to be more controversial is the next tranche of defunding.

The stated aim of the qualifications consultation is to: simplify the system so that the choices for young people and adults are clearer; give a better line of sight from qualifications to employment, or more study; and create confidence by ensuring that every qualification is of high quality. In other words to raise standards at this level – no one can disagree with that.

However, there is a concern that in simplifying the system we will reduce opportunities for those that haven’t yet decided on their direction in life, or those that need qualifications as stepping stones on their way to finding the right job and career.

As the Minister for Skills and Apprenticeships between 2017 and 2019, I oversaw the development of the new T Levels. T Levels are the equivalent of an A level course in time and rigor, and will be a great option when fully rolled out, including their minimum of a 45-day industry placement. They are an important additional to technical education.

But the so-called ‘applied general’ qualifications (the most well-known of which are BTECs) are now in the firing line. I saw firsthand the role that these qualifications can play in boosting the skills of young people. We need to be very careful that in limiting choice at 16 to A Levels or T Levels, a generation of keen and diverse learners is not left out. If the Prime Minister’s aim is to ‘level up’, we must make sure that we have a wide variety of qualifications in place to be the stepping-stones into work or future study.

A recent survey from Pearson, who award BTECs and the new T Levels, found that eight-out-of-ten 14-18-year-olds and eight-out-of-ten parents feel that education should provide young people with a range of practical skills, alongside theory-based learning. BTECs do just that. They are widely accepted by universities and are often completed alongside a mix of other qualifications, including A Levels.

The creative sector in particular relies on the Performing Arts BTEC, as there is no A Level, or T Level equivalent being proposed. T Levels will be fantastic in areas of the country where there are plenty of industry placements available, but less good where those opportunities are limited. Similarly, they will work well for young learners who know what sector or industry they want to work in, but not so well for those who don’t know yet, or who might change their mind.

It is this issue of choice which is particularly dear to pupils. The Pearson survey highlighted most over nine-in-ten 14-18-year-olds want to study broad areas to prepare them for a number of job roles within an industry.

BTECs are flexible, comprehensive qualifications and so can be combined with several subjects. They develop broad knowledge and understanding and provide a route into a chosen career, without limiting future decisions. This improved choice, means students are more likely to know, by the time they finish school or university, what they want to do rather than be obliged to follow a path they set themselves two or three years earlier.

A wide range of organisations including Ofqual, the Association of Colleges, and the Sixth Form Colleges Association, have already cautioned against the Government pressing ahead too quickly with their review of qualifications, highlighting the risk of destabilising the system. Young people’s path does not always travel a straight line and many of the courses and qualifications taken will be of more value than others. But those courses and qualifications are vital in building confidence, acquiring skills, helping them develop as adults, and enabling them to start on their final route to work.

The impact assessment published by government with the qualifications review highlights that learners with special educational needs (SEN), those from Asian and black ethnic backgrounds, males, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds are all more likely to be negatively affected by changes to the qualifications available in the future. Moreover, Higher Education Statistics Agency data shows that a considerably greater proportion of those entering higher education who followed the BTEC route came from an ethnic minority background, or lower socio-economic groups, when compared with A Levels.

Add to this the research undertaken by the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, which suggests that the reforms will harm social mobility by reducing progression from University Technical Colleges to higher technical study and higher or degree apprenticeships by as much as 40 per cent, and the reforms paint a rather stark picture. There is a serious risk that the proposals would reverse recent laudable and successful efforts to widen diversity and broaden inclusion. Existing high-quality vocational qualifications, including BTECs, support a diverse range of learners, and the skills they bring to the UK economy.

I was proud to have been a minister during T level development, and policy officials, employers, and education providers worked tirelessly to get them off the ground within the time frame we set. There is no doubt that they are a much-needed addition, but they should not be the only option for the 16-year-old not wishing to take A levels. We need a choice between the early specialisation that T levels offer and broader, rigorous career-focused qualifications, such as BTECs.

Students, colleges, schools and the education sector are going through one of the most difficult periods in modern history. The education attainment gap was very apparent before Covid, and despite best efforts, the gap between the better off and less well-off students is likely to be growing rapidly. Now is not the time to cut off choices.

Simplify the system, make choices easier, and give clearer information about where qualifications will lead. Create confidence in the education system to ensure high quality. But don’t throw out qualifications that are widely accepted as being valuable to employers, to universities and to students, and which have provided millions of students wanting to succeed and find a passion with gainful employment.

Critically, make sure that there are stepping stones in place for those who haven’t yet made up their mind, want to deepen their interest in a subject and want to try out a variety of subjects when they are still young enough to do so. A binary choice between A Levels or T Levels would serve no one well.