Edward Peck: The Government is right to set its sights on technical education. But it needs serious investment too.

1 Sep

Professor Edward Peck is Vice Chancellor of Nottingham Trend University and a member of the Augar Review.

The Prime Minister and Secretary of State for Education have made bold statements about their commitment to revolutionising post-18 education. They want to open new opportunities for all those who do not attend university and, indeed, for some of those that do. There has been talk of a German-style system, boosting both the number undertaking technical education and the status of further education qualifications.

These speeches have been widely welcomed. Many employers are desperate for applicants to have the skills to drive up their productivity. Many adults are keen to gain those skills to boost their employment prospects, income and security. Many experienced providers of technical and vocational education, both universities and further education colleges, stand ready to offer more flexible routes to skills-based qualifications. There is the potential for an alignment of demand and supply that could deliver the revolution the Government seeks, driving economic growth, in particular in those seats in the Midlands and North where it has promised to “level-up”.

What could possibly go wrong? A repeat of the piecemeal and half-hearted approach to funding skills-based education and training that has undermined serious progress in this area for decades. Past generations of politicians have identified the importance of the issue but have baulked at the level of investment necessary to back good intentions with significant interventions.

What would work? The adoption of the proposal to introduce Lifelong Learning Loan Accounts, which was the cornerstone of the Augar Review into the future funding of post-18 education. These accounts would enable adults from the time they leave school up to pre-retirement age to access loans for fees and maintenance for approved skills programmes on the same terms as those available to undergraduate students.

Flexibility would be central, based on the needs of learners and employers. The loans would enable study for sub-degree qualifications, encompassing short accredited courses as well as longer apprenticeship-style programmes taken over several years. They would enable adults to study part time, to complete their studies over a period of time that fitted around their other commitments, to take the credits they had achieved already to another provider.

There is strong evidence to suggest that this approach would encourage adults to borrow to invest in their own future. The sharp increase in enrolments following the introduction of loans for postgraduate study in England has shown that the financial support package available to learners is crucial to unleashing demand.

Furthermore, research on the recipients of these loans shows that they were taken in roughly equal proportions across all social groups. This demonstrates an appetite across society for individuals to invest in their own future and that of their families.

Large numbers of universities and further education colleges provide the one day per week educational component of apprenticeship programmes funded under the Apprenticeship Levy. Much of this provision is moving online as apprentices return to work, more evidence of the responsiveness to the market that characterises much of our post-18 system.

Increased future flexibility in the ways in this levy could be utilised, in particular being deployed alongside employees’ own loans, could produce a new model of co-investment in skills developments that benefits both parties. This would also result in a better balance between state, employee and employer responsibility in the developing the key skills that the economy needs.

The Government has acknowledged the requirement for it to meet its part of the bargain, announcing a £2.5bn national skills fund. The opportunity is to commit this money to both meeting immediate skills needs through training grants and modelling how a new long-term approach based on Lifelong Learning Loan Accounts could be phased in over the lifetime of this parliament.

The Government is working on a White Paper that it is anticipated will set out a far-reaching and joined-up package of measures to transform technical and vocational education in this country over the long term.

However, without a similarly ambitious approach from the Treasury, history is in danger of repeating itself. This has held back growth and productivity in our economy in the past. Regrettable then, in the times of Brexit and Covid-19 recovery, it may well turn out to be disastrous for businesses, voters and politicians alike.

Labour’s hypocrisy over A Level results

18 Aug

Almost every publication, including this site, has been critical of the Government’s U-turn on school exams in England.

Gavin Williamson’s decision to move from Ofqual’s model, which resulted in 40 per cent of predicted marks being downgraded, to teacher-assessed grades for A Levels and GCSEs (unless the grades produced by the algorithm are higher) caused chaos among students and teachers.

Now it’s universities who’ll have to deal with the consequences, given that many teenagers have different marks to before and want to change which one they go to.

As you might expect from the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer has been scathing about the recent events. On his Twitter feed he is particularly fond of one word – “incompetent/ incompetence”, which he has accused the Government of being seven times since Sunday (heaven forbid there’s a thesaurus at Labour HQ).

After teacher-assessed grades (predicted grades) were accepted, he declared the changes a “victory for the thousands of young people who have powerfully made their voices heard this past week.”

Of course, it’s very easy for Labour to take the high road in these times, but its own position on exam results hasn’t been clear exactly.

In April, for instance, Angela Rayner, the party’s Deputy now, but Shadow Education Secretary then, criticised predicted grades, telling FE News:

“we have always said predicted grades are not always accurate, and can disproportionately affect the children who need the most support”.

In August 2019, she also said:

“Predicted grades are wrong in the vast majority of cases, and disadvantaged students in particular are losing out on opportunities on the basis of those inaccurate predictions.

Similarly, Kate Green, the now Shadow Education Secretary, was sceptical about predicted grades – and argued for grades to be standardised in July:

“Labour has argued for years that predicted grades already create significant challenges for disadvantaged students, and without fair standardisation and appeals many more students could be unfairly affected by calculated grades. The Government and Ofqual must urgently act to ensure that young people from ethnic minority and disadvantaged backgrounds do not lose out under this system”.

However, she has since called the results a “farce that is incredibly cruel to young people”, adding that teacher-assessed grades were the right way forward.

Indeed, she celebrated their implementation, Tweeting: “Well done to all students, parents and teachers who have campaigned for this u-turn. I am so pleased GCSE & A level results will be on basis of teacher assessment as you and @UK Labour called for.”

For all the horror about England, too, some have pointed out the party’s silence over results in Wales.

On Good Morning Britain, Rayner said the fact that 40 per cent of students had their marks downgraded was “completely unfair” and “completely flawed”. Starmer, too, launched a video which said “The Tories’ incompetent handling of this year’s exams” was “robbing a generation of their future”.

But given that 42 per cent of grades were downgraded in Wales, as a result of a similar algorithm, where was the video about Welsh Labour robbing futures?

For some Tory MPs, Labour’s complaints are too little, too late. 

Robert Halfon, Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, told me: the “opposition parties mostly accepted the grading system that the Government and Ofqual had chosen, as did the trade unions. It’s easier to jump on a bandwagon after the event, but there were very few who were actually calling this out from the beginning.”

His colleague Jonathan Gullis echoed this sentiment, saying: “As a member of the Select Committee, we had spoken with Ofqual, and as I remember there were no serious concerns raised other than making sure that grades would be handed out as fairly as possible in exceptional circumstances.”

Speaking of Starmer, he added “[he] once again jumps on any bandwagon going. We heard nothing from him in the build up to results day about the system; in fact, the Shadow Education Minister, now Deputy Leader, was in favour of what Ofqual was doing. But once again Sir Keir Starmer is more interested in trying to please the people of Twitter and the mainstream media.”

Perhaps the Labour leader knows more about “incompetence” than he thinks…

Labour’s hypocrisy over A Level results

18 Aug

Almost every publication, including this site, has been critical of the Government’s U-turn on school exams in England.

Gavin Williamson’s decision to move from Ofqual’s model, which resulted in 40 per cent of predicted marks being downgraded, to teacher-assessed grades for A Levels and GCSEs (unless the grades produced by the algorithm are higher) caused chaos among students and teachers.

Now it’s universities who’ll have to deal with the consequences, given that many teenagers have different marks to before and want to change which one they go to.

As you might expect from the leader of the opposition, Keir Starmer has been scathing about the recent events. On his Twitter feed he is particularly fond of one word – “incompetent/ incompetence”, which he has accused the Government of being seven times since Sunday (heaven forbid there’s a thesaurus at Labour HQ).

After teacher-assessed grades (predicted grades) were accepted, he declared the changes a “victory for the thousands of young people who have powerfully made their voices heard this past week.”

Of course, it’s very easy for Labour to take the high road in these times, but its own position on exam results hasn’t been clear exactly.

In April, for instance, Angela Rayner, the party’s Deputy now, but Shadow Education Secretary then, criticised predicted grades, telling FE News:

“we have always said predicted grades are not always accurate, and can disproportionately affect the children who need the most support”.

In August 2019, she also said:

“Predicted grades are wrong in the vast majority of cases, and disadvantaged students in particular are losing out on opportunities on the basis of those inaccurate predictions.

Similarly, Kate Green, the now Shadow Education Secretary, was sceptical about predicted grades – and argued for grades to be standardised in July:

“Labour has argued for years that predicted grades already create significant challenges for disadvantaged students, and without fair standardisation and appeals many more students could be unfairly affected by calculated grades. The Government and Ofqual must urgently act to ensure that young people from ethnic minority and disadvantaged backgrounds do not lose out under this system”.

However, she has since called the results a “farce that is incredibly cruel to young people”, adding that teacher-assessed grades were the right way forward.

Indeed, she celebrated their implementation, Tweeting: “Well done to all students, parents and teachers who have campaigned for this u-turn. I am so pleased GCSE & A level results will be on basis of teacher assessment as you and @UK Labour called for.”

For all the horror about England, too, some have pointed out the party’s silence over results in Wales.

On Good Morning Britain, Rayner said the fact that 40 per cent of students had their marks downgraded was “completely unfair” and “completely flawed”. Starmer, too, launched a video which said “The Tories’ incompetent handling of this year’s exams” was “robbing a generation of their future”.

But given that 42 per cent of grades were downgraded in Wales, as a result of a similar algorithm, where was the video about Welsh Labour robbing futures?

For some Tory MPs, Labour’s complaints are too little, too late. 

Robert Halfon, Chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, told me: the “opposition parties mostly accepted the grading system that the Government and Ofqual had chosen, as did the trade unions. It’s easier to jump on a bandwagon after the event, but there were very few who were actually calling this out from the beginning.”

His colleague Jonathan Gullis echoed this sentiment, saying: “As a member of the Select Committee, we had spoken with Ofqual, and as I remember there were no serious concerns raised other than making sure that grades would be handed out as fairly as possible in exceptional circumstances.”

Speaking of Starmer, he added “[he] once again jumps on any bandwagon going. We heard nothing from him in the build up to results day about the system; in fact, the Shadow Education Minister, now Deputy Leader, was in favour of what Ofqual was doing. But once again Sir Keir Starmer is more interested in trying to please the people of Twitter and the mainstream media.”

Perhaps the Labour leader knows more about “incompetence” than he thinks…

Iain Dale: Butler and the police, and why Williamson will be feeling anxious this week

14 Aug

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

I have no problem in saying I am concerned at the number of times law abiding black people are stopped by the Police just because they happen to be driving a nice car, or indeed, for seemingly no apparent reason than the colour of their skin. There’s no point in pretending we don’t have a problem here because we do.

However, we’re getting to the point where individual police officers now feel they can’t stop someone who is black for fear of being accused of racism.

Take the example this week, when Dawn Butler, the Labour MP, complained that she was in a car which was stopped because (she thought) the driver and she were black. She released a video she had recorded on her phone to try to prove her point. She had no complaint about how the police spoke to her, but nevertheless made it all about race.

The police patiently explained that the car was stopped because the officers had mistakenly typed the registration plate into the national computer and it came up with the fact that the car had come from North Yorkshire. Once they had realised their mistake and typed in the correct number, they apologised and Butler and her friend went on their way.

She then released the video on social media, and there then descended a vicious war between those who defended the police and those who defended her. The police have been quite robust in defending the officers concerned, and have pointed out they could not have stopped the car due to their racial profile, given the car had tinted windows. And so the debate goes on…

– – – – – – – – – –

I can imagine how anxious Gavin Williamson will have been this week. The last thing he will have wanted is to go through what John Swinney, the Scottish Education Secretary, has been through in Scotland over the release of exam results.

Only 24 hours before the A Level results were released, the Education Secretary announced a major change and said that if a student was unhappy with their grades they could either resit the exam in October or take the result of their mock exam. What he didn’t do is say that they could accept the predicted grades from their teacher.

This has caused outrage. Teachers have said that they are best placed to predict grades, and in some cases they may well be right, but not in all. Just at a human level, teachers will tend to give higher grades rather than lower ones. Is a teacher really going to want to fail anyone? If they did so, it would reflect on them and their own teaching abilities. But in real life, people do fail.

I sympathise wholly with anyone who hasn’t got the grades they were expecting or felt they should have been awarded. The trouble is, there is no perfect system. OfQual has released figures which demonstrate that the overall grades this year are on a par, or even slightly better, than the last two years.

However, it appears that 35 per cent of grades have been downgraded from the teachers’ predictions. That’s slightly less than in Scotland, but still a massive number, which will give the Government’s opponents a lot to chew on.

The students I feel for particularly are those from disadvantaged backgrounds, who may be at a higher risk of being underestimated because of the fact that their schools might not have had such great results in the past.

I genuinely hope universities and colleges are as flexible as they can be and will still accept those students who results might not quite have been what had been expected. It’s scant comfort to those who didn’t get the grades they thought they would get to say that this happens each year.

Understandably, those who didn’t get the grades will seek to blame Covid. My advice, for what it is worth is for them, to work bloody hard over the next two months and resit the exams in October. I hope schools will provide every support for them to do so.

– – – – – – – – – –

Reshuffle speculation is always rife at this time of year, and at least it gives political journalists something to write about during August.

They can rest their pens this summer, though. I am hearing that a reshuffle is being pencilled in for January and not before, on the basis that it will be quite clear by then which ministers need shifting or removing.

I doubt whether the names on the chopping board will change in the meantime, but I reckon there will be at least eight cabinet ministers who will be experiencing a few months of “squeaky bum” moments between now and then.

With less than a month to reopen schools, Johnson needs Labour to back his message

10 Aug

Perhaps no one saw it coming, but the battle to reopen schools during the Coronavirus crisis has been one of the hardest for the Government. This is partly as a result of the teaching unions, which have done everything they can to obstruct the plans, even telling schools not to engage with governmental proposals in June.

More recently the 450,000 member-strong National Education Union (NEU) has compiled a 25-page “workplace checklist” for schools, consisting of 200 demands. The document has been criticised for being “impossible” to meet, with ex-Education Secretary Justine Greening saying that the “NEU needs to focus on finding solutions, not problems.” Hear, hear.

With little under a month to go until schools are due to reopen, the extent to which Boris Johnson is concerned about the situation was obvious this weekend in his article for the Mail on Sunday. He warned that keeping “schools closed a moment longer than is absolutely necessary is socially intolerable, economically unsustainable and morally indefensible”, adding that “social justice demands” their reopenings. 

It was a dramatic plea to parents, and Labour, spelling out the damage closures are doing, from socioeconomic to health implications.

While a recent YouGov poll found that 57 per cent of the British public thinks that schools should fully reopen over the summer holidays, a firm 25 per cent answered that they shouldn’t, and 18 per cent said “not sure”. So Johnson is right to push the issue – today he is expected to visit a school, in which he will repeat his pledge that they must reopen, and there will also be a PR drive from the Government.

In general, the problem the Government has is trying to emphasise encouraging statistics to the population, in regards to risk. It has found it much easier to convey the dangers of the virus – and subsequent need to “stay home” – than the rationale for getting life back to normal.

In regards to schools, a lot of media coverage has focussed on a Lancet study, which said that without a proper track and trace programme, there could be a huge second wave of Covid-19. This was a worst case scenario assessment, yet it seems to have stuck in the nation’s mind, as have the predictions of scientists such as David King, formerly chief scientific adviser to the Government, who warned that “we are nowhere near the point” where school reopenings “can be done safely”. This made several strong headlines, despite the fact King has been shown to oppose the Government generally

The more in-depth evidence suggests that schools are one of the safest places to reopen in society. Data indicates that children have extremely low risk of getting ill from Coronavirus; a study of over 55,000 hospital patients found that only 0.8 per cent were under the age of 19, and crucially they do not seem to transmit it in the same way as adults. Research of Covid-19 in the French Alps showed that a child who tested positive for the virus did not give it to over 100 people they had contact with while having symptoms.

One reason Johnson has to feel particularly confident about school reopenings is extensive research carried out by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health across 100 institutions. It showed that “there is very little evidence” of Coronavirus transmission where pupils have returned, and corroborated a separate review of 35 studies from around the world showing that children and schools only play a “minor role” in the spread of the disease.

Furthermore, there is the fact that many schools in Europe successfully reopened. The UK was incredibly lucky in that it did not go first in this process, and thus could respond to data coming from other countries; if there had been mass outbreaks, you can bet that we would have heard about it. That Europe has been successful in reopenings has largely been ignored in the media – and by the opposition.

Which brings us to one of Labour’s role in the schools crisis. At the beginning of the pandemic, many people had hoped for a more united front between the two main parties in fighting the virus. But Starmer has always schools as an opportunity to undermine the Government, recently telling ministers they have a month to fix the Coronavirus test-and-trace system in readiness for reopenings.

Kate Green, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, has already refused to say whether schools were safe, despite adding that it was “essential” for them to reopen – at a time when many parents and teachers need reassurances from all political sides. Labour clearly thinks that this approach makes them look caring – extreme caution will always appear the most righteous route – and yet it ignores the evidence that schools can reopen safely, as well as how devastating these closures will be in the long-term.

With the Government having published extensive guidelines to get schools open, alongside the increased data on children’s low transmission, there really should not be a delay in pressing ahead now. And if Labour has objections, to echo Greening’s words, it must focus “on finding solutions”. Surely that is not too much to ask.

With less than a month to reopen schools, Johnson needs Labour to back his message

10 Aug

Perhaps no one saw it coming, but the battle to reopen schools during the Coronavirus crisis has been one of the hardest for the Government. This is partly as a result of the teaching unions, which have done everything they can to obstruct the plans, even telling schools not to engage with governmental proposals in June.

More recently the 450,000 member-strong National Education Union (NEU) has compiled a 25-page “workplace checklist” for schools, consisting of 200 demands. The document has been criticised for being “impossible” to meet, with ex-Education Secretary Justine Greening saying that the “NEU needs to focus on finding solutions, not problems.” Hear, hear.

With little under a month to go until schools are due to reopen, the extent to which Boris Johnson is concerned about the situation was obvious this weekend in his article for the Mail on Sunday. He warned that keeping “schools closed a moment longer than is absolutely necessary is socially intolerable, economically unsustainable and morally indefensible”, adding that “social justice demands” their reopenings. 

It was a dramatic plea to parents, and Labour, spelling out the damage closures are doing, from socioeconomic to health implications.

While a recent YouGov poll found that 57 per cent of the British public thinks that schools should fully reopen over the summer holidays, a firm 25 per cent answered that they shouldn’t, and 18 per cent said “not sure”. So Johnson is right to push the issue – today he is expected to visit a school, in which he will repeat his pledge that they must reopen, and there will also be a PR drive from the Government.

In general, the problem the Government has is trying to emphasise encouraging statistics to the population, in regards to risk. It has found it much easier to convey the dangers of the virus – and subsequent need to “stay home” – than the rationale for getting life back to normal.

In regards to schools, a lot of media coverage has focussed on a Lancet study, which said that without a proper track and trace programme, there could be a huge second wave of Covid-19. This was a worst case scenario assessment, yet it seems to have stuck in the nation’s mind, as have the predictions of scientists such as David King, formerly chief scientific adviser to the Government, who warned that “we are nowhere near the point” where school reopenings “can be done safely”. This made several strong headlines, despite the fact King has been shown to oppose the Government generally

The more in-depth evidence suggests that schools are one of the safest places to reopen in society. Data indicates that children have extremely low risk of getting ill from Coronavirus; a study of over 55,000 hospital patients found that only 0.8 per cent were under the age of 19, and crucially they do not seem to transmit it in the same way as adults. Research of Covid-19 in the French Alps showed that a child who tested positive for the virus did not give it to over 100 people they had contact with while having symptoms.

One reason Johnson has to feel particularly confident about school reopenings is extensive research carried out by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health across 100 institutions. It showed that “there is very little evidence” of Coronavirus transmission where pupils have returned, and corroborated a separate review of 35 studies from around the world showing that children and schools only play a “minor role” in the spread of the disease.

Furthermore, there is the fact that many schools in Europe successfully reopened. The UK was incredibly lucky in that it did not go first in this process, and thus could respond to data coming from other countries; if there had been mass outbreaks, you can bet that we would have heard about it. That Europe has been successful in reopenings has largely been ignored in the media – and by the opposition.

Which brings us to one of Labour’s role in the schools crisis. At the beginning of the pandemic, many people had hoped for a more united front between the two main parties in fighting the virus. But Starmer has always schools as an opportunity to undermine the Government, recently telling ministers they have a month to fix the Coronavirus test-and-trace system in readiness for reopenings.

Kate Green, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, has already refused to say whether schools were safe, despite adding that it was “essential” for them to reopen – at a time when many parents and teachers need reassurances from all political sides. Labour clearly thinks that this approach makes them look caring – extreme caution will always appear the most righteous route – and yet it ignores the evidence that schools can reopen safely, as well as how devastating these closures will be in the long-term.

With the Government having published extensive guidelines to get schools open, alongside the increased data on children’s low transmission, there really should not be a delay in pressing ahead now. And if Labour has objections, to echo Greening’s words, it must focus “on finding solutions”. Surely that is not too much to ask.

The Government toughens up on school reopenings

3 Jul

Public compliance has been essential in the Government’s fight against Coronavirus, and although it has arguably been successful in imposing lockdown, getting life back to normal looks rather more challenging. Case in point: the enormous difficulties the Education Secretary has had in trying to reopen schools.

After months of confusion and resistance from parents, teachers, unions, the Labour Party, and seemingly everyone with an opinion, Gavin Williamson put his foot down earlier this week.

On LBC, he said that parents who would not send their children back to school in the upcoming academic year (beginning September) would be fined, unless they have a “good reason” or subject to a local spike. It’s the first time the Government has exerted real authority on the matter. 

Crucially, the Government substantially enhanced its guidance for how schools can reopen safely. Some of these steps include administering Covid-19 tests to all schools and colleges, creating “bubbles” between year groups so that they have different lunch and break times, and adapting classrooms, so that windows are open and tables are facing the same way.

Even so, one suspects that the unions still won’t be happy… One of the worst parts of the school saga is that it was completely hijacked by their noisy selves. At every step, they polarised the issue to deeply unhelpful levels, including telling teachers not to engage with planning officials, in doing so obscuring the voices of those who wanted to work through perfectly reasonable concerns.

One worry was simply about consistency in health advice. As one headteacher told ConservativeHome a few weeks ago: “it’s quite worrying when the Government guidance goes from ‘Stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives, do not go anywhere near anybody’ to then suddenly ‘actually you don’t really need to socially distance with little ones anyway, so it will be fine’. That doesn’t feel like a confidence-giving statement.”

Many felt that the guidance had not gone far enough – and lacked a realism about young children’s ability to socially distance.

Moreover, the headteacher said that the Department of Education had been poor in terms of educational resources, adding: “nowhere… does it say what schools should be doing to provide online provision for children who are not at school. So every school in the country has translated that differently and is offering something different, and it becomes a pure lottery.”

Such concerns – that the schools closures were highlighting inequalities in the educational system – became central to more recent debates on reopening schools. There’s a sense that the focus has shifted, with the societal consequences of staying off school (domestic violence, mental health, parents’ inability to work, and the rest) outweighing the direct health risk of Covid-19, hence why the Government has now offered a £1 billion Covid catch-up package – in addition to £14 billion being invested over the next three years.

Much of the Government’s insistence on schools going back is no doubt directed by health experts’ increasing belief that children do not transmit, or pass, Covid-19 to the same extent as adults; a phenomenon increasingly highlighted through the safe reopening of schools elsewhere in Europe.

But, as with all things Coronavirus-related, there are no certainties, so the Government cannot reassure teachers and educational staff in the way it would like. Ultimately it’s worth remembering, though, that it cannot legislate around every difficulty that this virus might bring, and at some point we are – not just schools – simply going to have to get on with things.

Labour, too, has to take responsibility for the difficulties in reopening schools. The party saw the issue as a political football from the start, allowing the unions to dominate the Left’s response. For all who hoped of some national solidarity during a pandemic, watching these unhelpful criticisms – especially given the socioeconomic damage leaving schools closed will cause – was deeply depressing.

Even now Kate Green, the Shadow Education Secretary, has laid into Williamson on fines, warning that they will affect poorer patients. But faced with some of the biggest resistance in the Covid-19 crisis – and an issue that’ll leave all children worse off for years, the Education Secretary simply had to get tough. “About time,” many will think.