Robert Halfon: We need education and children to be front and centre in the leadership race

13 Jul

Robert Halfon is Chair of the Education Select Committee. He was the former Skills Minister and former Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party. 

With a large parliamentary majority for our next Leader to utilise, is it time for some more radical thinking when it comes to education?

Children’s futures have been damaged with school closures for most pupils over the Covid-19 lockdowns. Not nearly enough has been done to get the 124,000 ‘ghost’ children who’ve vanished from the school register back into school, or deal with the 1.7 million persistently absent children.

The attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their better off peers is still eighteen months, and getting worse. White working class boys and girls eligible for free school meals underperform at every single stage of the education system compared to almost all other ethnic groups.

When it comes to addressing social injustice in our education system, we know that many disadvantaged cohorts are not being fully supported. Only 17 per cent of children with special educational needs achieve a good pass in their English and Maths GCSEs. For excluded children, this figure drops to five per cent.

As the Education Select Committee’s new report (which I chair) on the outcomes for children in care found, only seven per cent of looked-after children achieve a pass in their GCSEs. Moreover, just two per cent of these children go on to do an apprenticeship and 41 per cent are not in education, employment or training.

Even the traditional argument for and against grammar schools comes down to an argument about selection, rather than focusing attention on how many more should be enabled to attend these schools and whether or not they should be expanded to also teach technical and vocational education.

Free Schools were meant to be exciting community schools set up by parents and community groups, yet many now have been absorbed into MATs and there aren’t enough in disadvantaged areas.

If anything indicates the level of stasis it is the Schools Bill. The majority of argument over its progress through the House of Lords has been about the process and intervention powers of the Department for Education over academies. Yes, of course there are worthy things in the proposed legislation such as the improvement of Maths and English, the national register for children not in school, and a crackdown on unregistered schools.

But can we not do more?

The Conservative ‘lines to take’ for Government ministers is repeating the mantra that there are close to 1.9 million children in good or outstanding schools. Of course this is positive news.

Yet we know there are millions of children not even in school to benefit from this education despite the best efforts of teachers and support staff and, as I’ve highlighted above, disadvantaged pupils do not seem to be benefitting.

I hope that all the leadership candidates use the next few weeks as an opportunity to consider whether our education system is fit for purpose and propose some radical and thoughtful ideas for debate.

First – school vouchers. Should we be considering how to increase parental choice? After all, this is what the Governor of Arizona is doing. He recently announced a proposal to ensure eligible students can receive scholarship funds (provided directly to the parents in the shape of a $7,000 voucher) to allow them to go to the best school that suits their needs.

Second – the national curriculum. Is it fit for purpose? Ken Baker argues that it is a “Victorian curriculum” which is “exactly the same…[as] was created in 1904. It is a curriculum that I don’t think suits the generality of education in our country.” It is as if we are still sitting behind wooden desks with Mr Gradgrind calling for, “Facts, facts, facts”.

If this approach were working, we wouldn’t see so many disadvantaged pupils failing to achieve the results they desperately need in order to succeed in the future.

We might also see an education system that overcomes the skills deficit. As the Education Committee’s report into adult skills found, over nine million adults lack basic skills in numeracy and literacy. Funding for 16-18 skills education has fallen by 11 per cent in real-terms over the past decade. Since 2010, there has been a 65 per cent decline in students taking Design & Technology.

All these issues combined have contributed to a status quo where the UK currently has a skills gap costing our economy £6.6 billion per year.

Third – assessment. Why not introduce some further thinking about the International Baccalaureate? For example, Tonbridge Grammar School teaches their students the Diploma programme of the International Baccalaureate which includes sciences, maths, language, literature, individuals and societies, and the arts as well as a core programme of Theory of Knowledge, a 4,000 word extended essay and a creative project.

Surely increasing the breadth of knowledge which children learn post-16 is something that should be encouraged.

Our education policy must not just be about managerialism. As we elect a new Leader and Prime Minister, let’s have some radical thinking and fierce debate.

The Children’s Inquiry

To borrow a phrase from Blackadder, if you don’t ‘have the stomach of a concrete elephant’, I strongly recommend you don’t read this book.

Written by Molly Kingsley and Liz Cole, founding members of the parents campaign group, UsForThem, it tells the story of how a small group of parents came together during the first lockdown when schools were closed for most pupils. Right from the start, these parents realised the damage that school shutdowns would mean for children.

They took on the educational establishment, fought the Secretary of State, battled with the National Education Union, and contacted politicians from all sides to take action and stop this damaging policy.

Over time, thousands more joined UsForThem. They are regularly heard in the media and read about in the national press. I’ve previously written about UsForThem on this very site.

Page after page lays bare the awful statistics of what happened to our children during lockdown: the impacts it had on their educational attainment, their mental health, the increased safeguarding risks and the damage to their lifetime chances.

In a painstaking way, the book also goes through the poor policy making decisions that were made and considers why no cost-benefit analysis was conducted to weigh up the risks of school closures against those of the huge damage to children.

The authors argue that in order for this never to happen again, children should be placed at the heart of decision-making, that the Children’s Commissioner should be granted additional enforcement powers, and that schools should be treated as part of the National Infrastructure.

As my Private Members Bill set out last year, by classing schools as part of the national infrastructure, it would mean that in order for any closures to happen, we would need a ‘triple lock’ of protections, including that the Children’s Commissioner would be consulted over any such proposals, with a power of veto, and a regular vote in Parliament every few weeks.

What is particularly interesting is that the book cites all those in politics, and academia, who passionately argued against school closures right from the start, but who were ignored by the establishment.

Many of those who opposed school closures were accused of being Covid conspiracy theorists or vaccine deniers, lumped in with people like Piers Corbyn, when all they wanted to do was to keep schools open and keep their children learning.

There is a wealth of evidence outlined in The Children’s Inquiry which details how pupils were not significant vectors for the transmission of Covid-19. It also considers the examples set by other countries who kept their schools open and now have very different educational outcomes compared to the UK.

I hope this book is used as evidence in the forthcoming Covid Inquiry led by Baroness Hallett. I’m not optimistic. In the first draft of the Terms of Reference for the official Covid Inquiry, children were not even mentioned until I, and many others like UsForThem lobbied very hard for this group to be included.

For me, this is symbolic of how education is often seen as the poorer relation compared to other areas of policy like defence, or health spending. For example, since 2010, the National Health Service budget will see a 40 per cent rise whereas the Department for Education’s budget will only be increased by three per cent.

There has been much talk about protecting the NHS. I hope politicians of all parties will spend as much time protecting children’s futures as well.

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David Willetts: Jobs and living standards – thinking for the long term

7 Jun

David Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He was Minister for Universities and Science 2010-2014. His book A University Education is published by OUP.

The challenge to Boris Johnson’s leadership is of course the immediate political issue grabbing all the headlines. But behind the adrenalin rush of the day’s political crisis, there are still the long term issues which responsible parties of government have to think about and try to address. And behind today’s living standards crisis are still the deeper issues of how well the British labour market is doing and what it means for jobs and wages.

First, the good news. Britain is a high employment economy with a flexible labour market. We are still benefitting from Margaret Thatcher’s labour market reforms of the 1980s. Ironically, it was the threat to these from Jacques Delors in his notorious speech to the TUC which led to her Bruges speech starting the movement which led to Brexit.

But the EU did not actually impose substantially more regulations after that. Instead, the main interventions have been domestic – notably the minimum wage. And contrary to the fears that many of us had, including myself, it did not lead to a surge in unemployment.

There is however still the problem of the NEETS – people who are Not in Education, Employment or Training. It peaked in the 1990s at over a million young people aged 16-24. Now it is down to about 800,000.

Research we will shortly be publishing at Resolution Foundation suggests the fall is almost entirely amongst young women who are less likely to be having kids when they are young and, even if they do so, are more likely to carry on working. There has however been no real improvement among young men.

There has also been a shift in job satisfaction, especially amongst the low paid. In the past the low paid used to be more satisfied with their work than they are now. The minimum wage might have boosted their pay, but it also increased the pressures on them from managers and employers, especially if they are insecure contract workers.

Moreover there are still abuses of the labour protections which successive political parties have brought in – that is why the 2019 Conservative Manifesto promised a single effective body to enforce legal rights instead of the mish-mash of weak and under-resourced agencies we have at the moment. We should have a simpler, stronger system. It would be great if that pledge were now implemented.

Our employment rate for 16-64 year olds reached an all time peak of over 76 per cent before Covid struck. Although our employment rate is high, it is not yet back to its pre-Covid peak. The problem is that a swathe of older workers haven’t gone back to work. They appear to have opted for a quiet life and early retirement.

If they are still of working age and claiming unemployment benefits we should be expecting them to engage actively in job search, and they should be accessing the same range of back to work initiatives as younger unemployed people.

The biggest problem is that we are a low pay economy and that is above all because we are a low productivity economy. The living standards crisis has been building for years as our economy has underperformed. It is hard to boost living standards by tax cuts when Government borrowing is so high and productivity is so low. Instead, we boost living standards by a work force with more education and trainingm together with more business investment behind them.

We had a vivid example of this problem in the Chancellor’s package to help people with the rising cost of living. It was big and bold and widely welcomed. But it was all about transferring money to help people with these costs. There was nothing about actually investing in the home insulation and the innovative domestic heating systems which bring household costs down in the long run.

One reason for that omission is that the Treasury is scarred by the failure of successive green deals. The biggest single reason why they fail is that we are short of the trained workers to insulate the houses or install the new boilers. There is a lot of rhetoric about boosting vocational training, but we need to do more to deliver it in practice.

These jobs can’t all be created straightaway, but we need a plan of gradually increased funding to lower home heating costs by investment and innovation with a proportion of the budget going specifically on the vocational qualifications linked to those programmes. That would show we meant business about boosting living standards in the only way that makes those gains solid and sustainable.

Profile: Michelle Donelan – and her efforts to force British universities to stop short-changing their students

26 May

Michelle Donelan, born in 1984, decided at the age of six, during Margaret Thatcher’s last year in power, that she wished to be a politician.

When she was 15, Donelan addressed the Conservative Party Conference; aged 26 she fought a then safe Labour seat, Wentworth & Dearne; and five years later, in 2015, she entered the Commons by taking Chippenham off the Liberal Democrats.

She is now, as Minister of State for Higher and Further Education, pushing through reforms of university education which are of tremendous significance, but as yet unnoticed by the wider public, whose attention is more likely to have been caught by Partygate or the invasion of Ukraine.

According to another major Conservative figure in the university world, Donelan’s role is

“a bit Hermione Graingerish from Harry Potter. She’d be the one with the attention to detail telling the men to get their act together; the one who knows all the spells.”

The Government wishes to stop universities offering useless courses which load those who take them with debt, without leading to worthwhile careers.

This is not an attack on the arts. The three worst subjects at this country’s universities are business studies, computer science and law, which as one authority points out have “a very long tail of appalling results”.

Six computer science courses have drop-out rates of over 40 per cent, compared to a national average of about ten per cent: “You’re selling students a dream and not delivering.”

British universities have in recent decades seen scandalous grade inflation: the pretence that students are doing much better than they really are, with at the top of the scale, ludicrous numbers of first-class degrees awarded, and at the bottom, courses on which students are completely neglected, and either drop out or else receive such worthless qualifications that they have little or no prospect of obtaining graduate-level jobs, and also virtually no chance of repaying the student loans they have taken out.

Donelan is at the heart of the effort to put this right. On 31 March she and Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, wrote to Lord Wharton, chair of the Office for Students, telling him that

“we welcome the OfS’s recent consultation on quality and the proposals to set stringent minimum numerical thresholds for student outcomes on continuation and completion rates and progression to professional employment or further study as part of your principles-based quality requirements”

It will at once be apparent that this is a field in which worthy aims are expressed in the most dreary terms. Not the least of Donelan’s qualities is her ability to put up with such language. The letter went on:

“In cases where low and unacceptable quality is confirmed, action should include, where appropriate, financial penalties and ultimately the suspension or removal of the provider from the register (and with it, access to student finance).”

The OfS today start putting “boots on the ground” – inspectors – in order to determine drop-out rates, and whether those students who stick it out to the end of the course manage then to get graduate-level jobs.

Universities which fail to achieve this for their students will be fined either half a million pounds or two per cent of their turnover, whichever is the greater. And if after two years they have failed to improve, they will lose student finance.

In other words, they will be forced to close. Donelan says she wants “real social mobility”, i.e. courses which set people on an an upward path, to replace the many courses which at present lead nowhere.

Here, it may be objected, is a big change from “learning for learning’s sake”. But universities have always been a mixture of pure and vocational learning, and it would be ludicrous to portray this as an assault on the former.

Donelan understands that students who sign up for vocational subjects do so in the hope of getting good jobs afterwards, and are being short-changed if they are so neglected at university that they learn next to nothing.

Universities will in future be expected to state, on their advertisements, the drop-out rate for each course, and the rate of progression to graduate employment.

Robert Halfon, Chair of the Education Select Committee, says of Donelan:

“She’s very good on detail. She’s passionate about vocational education. She’s been very good on anti-semitism and freedom of speech in universities. She’s acted quickly in order to stop a camp fire becoming a bush fire.”

Halfon strongly supports her campaign to crack down on universities which fail to look after their students:

“I think she should be tougher. Students should get compensation if they don’t get proper face-to-face teaching.”

Donelan’s officials say she gets to grips with the detail: “She understands about system change.” Here is a minister who goes through her boxes, knows what she is talking about, is entitled to attend Cabinet, and can be expected to go higher.

What she has not yet demonstrated is an ability to communicate with the wider public. Her manner of talking is sincere but rather dry.

One of her fellow MPs in Wiltshire said of her:

“She’s very nice. Quietly capable and ambitious in an unflashy way. Paranoid she’ll lose her seat so very hard-working locally. Not clear what her overall philosophy is.”

Another colleague described her as “a normal person, very hard-working, her officials would definitely say that”.

Her first promotion, after winning Chippenham, was to the Whips’ Office. In February 2020 Johnson made her Universities minister, and in September 2021 she was promoted within the same department to Minister of State.

She attends Cabinet and can be expected soon to rise on merit into it. Meanwhile she is one of the workhorses on whom the levelling-up agenda of the Government depends.

It is not difficult to get universities to admit ever larger numbers of students. To get them to teach those students properly, and thereby equip them for fulfilling careers, is altogether harder, and that is the task to which she has devoted herself.

The number of degree apprenticeships has almost doubled since 2018-19, and she is determined to maintain that rate of growth.

Donelan was born at Whitley, in Cheshire, educated at the local comprehensive school, and read history and politics at York. She worked as a marketing assistant on magazines, and from 2010-14 as marketing manager for World Wrestling Entertainment, which as she drily remarks on her website “proves a bit too popular in the school democracy workshops I run”.

For over a century, British vocational education has been recognised to be deficient. In her maiden speech in 2015, Donelan said “vocational training need to be pushed and promoted, with the stigma challenged”, and this cardinal reform is what she now bending every sinew as a minister to achieve.

Michelle Donelan: How to crack down on low-quality higher education

21 Jan

Michelle Donelan MP is Minister of State for Higher and Further Education.

When I was first appointed Universities Minister in 2019 I saw it as a tremendous opportunity. Not only because we have some of the best universities in the world, which we rightly celebrate, but because it would allow me to properly tackle the pockets of low-quality teaching that are less good.

We have all read the headlines about “Mickey Mouse” courses, sky-high drop out rates and courses that offer only a couple of hours of contact time a week. And when students are paying £9,250 a year, that is simply not acceptable.

So, this week, with the Office for Students (OfS), I have taken serious steps to stamp out these low-quality courses. For the first time, we will be setting tough minimum requirements for drop-out rates and progression to graduate jobs – enforced by fines and, ultimately, withdrawal of student finance. We will also be clearly labelling universities that are not up to scratch as “Requires Improvement” – while ensuring that our institutions with the best teaching are properly celebrated.

If we want people to be able to seize the advantage of the opportunities this country has to offer then we must give them the skills they need to succeed. Report after report has been written about the UK’s historic underinvestment in technical and vocational skills, the declining graduate premium and the need to rebalance the emphasis we place on higher and further education. Since being appointed to my new role last year, as Minister for both Higher and Further Education, addressing these challenges has been at the heart of my mission since I was appointed.

Like many people who were the first in their family to go to university, for me, university was about more than learning. Breaking through the barriers of background and geography, it was an experience that gave me the confidence to go out into the world knowing I had a world-class, high-quality education under my belt.

This is not just my experience; it is the experience of millions of others, including hundreds of thousands this year. After all, Britain is home to four of the top 10 universities in the world.

But as I have said many times, we need to stop the obsession about whether more or fewer people are going to university, and instead focus on getting people on to high quality, worthwhile programmes that will genuinely give them the skills they need to succeed in life – whether that is at a university, a college or on an apprenticeship. Universities my be great, thumping engines of social mobility – but they are far from the only route.

This Government is offering a Lifetime Skills Guarantee to help people train and retrain – at any stage in their lives. Last year, we published our Skills for Jobs White Paper, putting employers at the heart of our education system. Whether it is a record investment in our Further Education Colleges, establishing 21 Institutes of Technology to deliver advanced technical STEM courses, doubling the spending on apprenticeships since 2010 or setting up bootcamps to train another 10,000 new HGV drivers, we are delivering on that promise.

Looking forward, our Lifelong Loan Entitlement will, from 2025, make it as easy to get a student loan to do a year of electrical engineering at an FE college as it is to get a loan to do a three year degree in politics, opening up retraining opportunities to millions.

I am also determined to tackle the weak spots in our universities. As we all know, there are pockets of poor quality – the so-called “Mickey Mouse” degrees – that if they continue to proliferate, risk undermining the huge progress in social mobility that we have already made. Right now, at 25 universities and other providers, less than half of students who begin a degree can expect to graduate and find professional employment or further study within 15 months.

This is not about any particular subject. Whether it is music or mathematics, film studies or philosophy, engineering or economics, courses can be taught well or badly. For example, many students and parents do not know that while many universities offer computing courses with a drop-out rate of less than 15 per cent, there are still eight universities offering computing courses with drop-out rates above 40 per cent. In fact, it is not just the general public who are unaware of this, even students enrolled on these courses often have no idea that they have signed up to a poor quality programme.

What message does that send to those students who, like me all those years ago, do not have a long line of family members who went to university to advise them? I know for certain that I would not want my children on that kind of course, and I have no doubt that most people would feel the same as me.

Last November, I rebooted our Access and Participation regime, to refocus it on real social mobility. Access shouldn’t be about just getting someone in the door, but on to a course that they complete and that is rigorous enough to give them the skills they need in succeed in life. Under their new access and participation plans, universities will be required to reduce drop-out rates, revolutionise their work with local schools and set new targets to increase the proportion of students on degree apprenticeships and higher technical provision.

This week, working with the universities regulator, the Office for Students (OfS), I have gone further. When consumers buy a product in a shop, they expect two things when it comes to quality: first, that the product has satisfied minimum standards and second, that the product has proper labelling to inform them of the quality of what goes into it. The quality assurance plan published this week follows exactly the same principles.

The OfS will now be setting stringent minimum requirements for completion rates and graduate outcomes for every course. For full-time students studying a first degree, these will be that at least 75 per cent of students complete their studies, and that 60 per cent go on to a highly skilled job or further study. No longer will it be possible for a provider to rip off students with courses that do not improve their lives after graduation. Students will be able to select their course knowing that, like the food in their fridge or the car on their driveway, their course has reached a minimum acceptable standard for quality and outcome.

Alongside this, we are re-vamping a clear labelling system called the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF). This system will signal high quality to students and parents through a simple Gold, Silver or Bronze rating – celebrating all of the successes of our finest institutions.

For the first time ever, those universities with low-quality courses will receive a “Requires Improvement” rating, which clearly marks out those courses are being inadequate and allows students to make properly informed decisions about whether or not to take them. This brings our higher education sector in line with established best practice for schools, hospitals and elsewhere in the public sector.

As Conservatives, we believe that everybody regardless of background, deserves a genuine chance to improve their lives. In our universities, in our colleges and in our great apprenticeship providers we have much to be proud of. By taking the robust measures we have to improve quality and transparency, we can be confident that we will be ensuring that every student gets the higher education they deserve.

David Willetts: If we’re to have less migration into Britain – and more productivity – we must move around more within it

5 Nov

Lord Willetts is President of the Resolution Foundation. He is a former Minister for Universities and Science.

Behind last week’s Budget and the Prime Minister’s conference speech there are deep questions about how Britain is going to pay its way – and hence pay ourselves well too.

In the 16 years leading up to 2008, average earnings grew by 36 per cent. In the next 16 years up to the end of the period covered by the Budget, it is forecast they will have risen by just 2.4 per cent. One reason for the anger and frustration in our public discourse is quite simply that we have stopped delivering the great promise of capitalism – of increasing prosperity for us and our children.

The only viable way to get us back on the path to higher living standards is by boosting our productivity. GDP per hour worked is now about a quarter higher in France and Germany than ours. We ought to be able to catch them up: that is the challenge we should set ourselves.

There is a clear agenda for it in the Budget. Invest in human capital at all stages of our lives. Invest in physical capital with public spend on infrastructure at record levels. And invest in science and innovation where increased public spending should crowd in more private spending too. And, crucially, get business investment growing again.

That is an excellent agenda. But it may not on its own get to the deeper reason for the decline in performance of the British economy: we are not dynamic enough.

The rate of economic change has been declining. Our research at Resolution Foundation shows that over the decade before Covid struck, the rate at which labour moved from one broad economic sector to another was at a post-War low. Similarly, the rate of voluntary job moves in 2019 was a third lower than in 2001. Labour mobility, geographical mobility and social mobility are all linked. We are quite simply not moving enough.

We are anyway going to have change forced upon us, thanks to the need to decarbonise and advances in technology. We ought to be able to use these drivers of change to boost our performance rather than trying to hide from it. That is why we at Resolution Foundation have set up an inquiry in partnership with the LSE into the future of Britain’s economic model.

The health advice during Covid – “stay home” – in a way summarises what has been happening to our economy for two decades. It is a striking contrast with the 1980s when Norman Tebbit famously told us to “get on your bike”. We had record rates of creation of new jobs (and the painful loss of old ones) and record shifts between different industrial sectors.

One clear signal about which jobs to move to was larger pay gaps between jobs. Nowadays, the places with higher pay also have higher rents and as fewer people are owner-occupiers this directly reduces their incentive to move. The 1980s did see rising inequality but, at the same time, there were record increases in absolute incomes – including for the less affluent half of the population.

This poses acute dilemmas for any Conservative. We are the party of freedom, mobility, and enterprise. But we are also the party of community, belonging, and tradition. What is it to be – roots or wings? These are tensions we all feel within ourselves. And we may reach different views at different stages of our lives. Young people need their chance to fly the nest but this is getting harder – with the move to independent adulthood slower and harder.

The mood in the Party and perhaps in the country seems to favour the ties of place. If you were still living in the county of your birth you were 10 per cent more likely to vote Brexit. In this sense, rather paradoxically, it is the remainers who were the Brexiteers. The balance is tilting in the endless debate on whether people should move to the jobs or jobs to the people.

This is why universities – a crucial means of detaching us from the family home and giving us the chance to move on and move up – appear to have fallen out of favour. But the higher education route has long been used by the more affluent for whom the residential university served as a natural successor to boarding school. It is still the case that the more affluent a student’s family, the further their university is likely to be from their hometown.

The Conservative Party owes its long political success to its skill in balancing these conflicting instincts – leave or stay – and needs to find a way to do it now. One way of reconciling them over the past 20 years – migration – is now diminishing. If we didn’t want to move but there were new requirements for new jobs, some of them unappealing ones, then the new migrant came in to plug the gap. We brought them in to the places and occupations which were short of people, so we didn’t have to retrain or move around ourselves. Reduced reliance on them means we have to be more flexible and mobile.

There are other smart ways of resolving these conflicts without forcing people to face anything like the disruption of the 1980s. Birmingham and Lyons are cities of roughly similar size. But many more people can get to the centre of Lyons in half an hour because local transport is so much better. It creates a bigger labour market. There are towns stranded on the edge of major cities outside London which would really benefit from such investment. So this sort of transport spend really makes sense and we got some of it in the Budget.

Next, social housing is a real barrier to mobility. I remember from my time as an MP the appalling bureaucratic hassle if you are a tenant of one association and trying to move to another social tenancy in a different area. Easier and standardised rules for easier transfers would make a big difference. Meanwhile, stamp duty acts as a disincentive for home owners to move as well.

Then if we are to boost the prestige and values of vocational qualifications, we could also provide some maintenance loans for residential training courses. The original idea of the apprenticeship was that the apprentice left home to live with his or her new master. Conscription and apprenticeships have both declined as ways of semi-supervised living away from home. Instead, the university has become the dominant model. Rather than trying to suppress demand for university places we should try to enable other forms of vocational training to offer that residential experience as well.

The 2020s can a decade of renewed dynamism and mobility. Our Economic Inquiry is already identifying some reasons for optimism too. In the week of COP26, the happy accident that our renewable energy in wind and tide are distributed across the country will attract economic growth to those areas. Carbon capture and storage means ingenious repurposing of ageing industrial plant.

There is also a surge of young people into the labour market – the baby boom of the first decade of the new millennium will drive economic change just as Thatcherism rode an earlier tide of incoming young people born in the 1960s. Lots of new workers is a fantastic opportunity to move into new jobs in new sectors with higher productivity and higher earnings. The Conservative Party needs an agenda for dynamism and change. It is what the economy needs too.

Nick Maughan: Ministers must to more to encourage vocational alternatives to university

9 Oct

Nick Maughan is an investor and philanthropist.

Back in July, the Prime Minister evoked in a speech the importance of practical and vocational education to “transform people’s lives”. But can the Government walk the walk?

The UK has long rested on the laurels of its golden triangle universities of Oxford-London-Cambridge, and this year, record numbers of students have chosen to attend universities across the country. Compared to last year, close to ten per cent more students have secured places in higher education institutions.

One can easily understand how the pandemic has contributed to the increase. University degrees provide students with a sense of comfort, a safety net that is very much needed during these uncertain times.

While it is in many ways laudable to see so many young adults eager to embark on academic journeys, we must ensure that we are equally encouraging of those who choose the route of practical training. As more young people choose to attend university, fewer are likely to consider vocational training as an equally rewarding option.

The stigma surrounding vocational training sadly pre-existed the pandemic, but it is likely to be exacerbated by the heightened sense of insecurity amongst young people caused by their disrupted educations.

There continues to be a strong divide between the North of England and London, with a 26 per cent increase of London pupils attending universities (compared with 2012’s numbers), while numbers of pupils attending university from deprived areas such as the North East have fallen. This sharp distinction tells us that more advantaged young people in this country still see academia as the only viable option for advancement. This is not necessarily a sustainable or desirable state of affairs.

In response to the increase in applications, the Russell Group of universities have been sending more contextual offers to pupils attending poorly performing schools in deprived areas, lowering top universities’ entry requirements to recognise the difficulties experienced by some. However, what we also need is the promotion of alternative qualifications for all pupils.

The Higher National Diploma, for example, offers work-oriented two-year degrees, in which students learn professional skills that are easily transferable. As of today, and despite the diploma being recognised as a successful route to many high-tech industries, less than ten per cent young adults hold the qualification.

In comparison, some of our European neighbours achieve higher employment rates with fewer employees coming from academia. In Germany for example, more than 20 per cent of the working population went through vocational routes. Professional training in England is still too often seen as the poor cousin of academic qualifications. Our attitude to these programmes needs to change.

The public policy think tank Pivotal conducted a survey that showed that close to 70 per cent of our sixth form pupils were unaware of many growing industries in this country that are hiring as we speak. The reason more of our young people don’t apply for jobs as vehemently as they apply for university courses is that we’ve instilled in them the dogma that success is achieved through school grades and degree classifications. This belief that has been fostered by parents, teachers and career advisors for decades.

An immediate solution would be to have in-school career advisors in as many schools as possible. Indeed, Pivotal’s survey also showed that 70 per cent of teachers find they have insufficient time to give their pupils career advice. But there is much more we could do. Professionals should be regularly invited to interact with young students, especially in the state sector, and discuss career opportunities inside and outside the traditional paths. This would require a joint effort from both government and the private sector, as well as charities, but would be beneficial to all.

Getting an Honours degree can be an exciting journey, but it is a pricey one, and for most it is a route which will take years to recover from financially. The costs saved by going down the vocational route can represent a huge advantage to young people which we should communicate to them more frankly.

At BoxWise, a non-profit social enterprise centred around boxing lessons recently launched by my foundation, we help disadvantaged young adults to upskill and embark on vocational training courses. I am a firm believer that all teenagers need tailored advice in order to make the right decisions at the right time. For some, reading philosophy will be the most suitable option. For others, it is a culinary training that will help them thrive and excel at something different from what they were taught at school.

After 18 months in the pandemic, the hospitality industry, for example, has been deserted by all kinds of potential applicants. Nonetheless, with services now opening again, restaurants and hotels are looking for young adults to start working. Because apprenticeships nurture long and stable careers, the young people training now are likely to be the leaders of the hospitality industry in future years.

Promoting vocational careers to all is also crucial for the UK’s employment figures. The country needs a technical and manual workforce as much as it needs academically minded people. The stigma attached to apprenticeships must be challenged with well-informed advice coming from professionals as well as teachers, requiring an effort from both the Government and private sector.

Everyone can find their place in the jobs market, but we must let young people know their options are broader than they have been taught to think.

Gavin Williamson: Skills, jobs and freedom. My priorities for this week’s Queen’s Speech – and the year ahead.

14 May

Gavin Williamson is Secretary of State for Education, and is MP for South Staffordshire.

The election results last week demonstrated that today’s Conservative party commands support across the length and breadth of the nation. Whether it was in Devon, Dudley or Durham, the voters who first put their faith in the Prime Minister in 2019 resoundingly confirmed that the Conservatives are they party they trust to deliver results, to create opportunity and to stand up for Britain.

And with the first part of our mandate delivered – to Get Brexit Done – attention is rightly turning to our commitment and determination to level up the nation.

The Education Bills that her Majesty announced in the Queen’s Speech are at the living, beating heart of that agenda. The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill will deliver fundamental reforms to our college and university system, making it as easy to study a vocational course, at any age, as it is to go to university.

The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill will put an end once and for all to the chilling effect of cancel culture in universities.

And alongside this legislation, we will be continuing to drive improvement in our schools, completing the revolution begun in 2010. We are supporting all schools to join strong multi-academy trusts, embedding a consistent culture on discipline and behaviour, and working with the Education Recovery Commissioner, Sir Kevan Collins, to develop an ambitious, long-term plan for recovery – on top of the more than £2 billion we have already invested for this purpose.

At the heart of our reforms is the new Skills Bill. Ever since I became Education Secretary, my mantra has been Further Education, Further Education, Further Education.

For too long in this country, technical and vocational education has played second fiddle to university. It’s left our economy short of the vital technical skills they need, our employers dependent on importing labour and too many of our citizens left behind by a culture that values academic qualifications above all else.

Our new Lifelong Loan Entitlement will change that, giving everyone the equivalent of four years of post-18 education to use over their lifetime – at their local college, or at university. This is levelling up in action, and it will turbocharge our economy by getting people back into jobs and Britain working again.

In addition to the Lifelong Loan Entitlement, the Bill contains measures to strengthen our great further education colleges, the engines of opportunity that lie at the centre of our towns. New legislation will put employers at the heart of our skills reforms, joining forces with further education colleges to ensure young people can be confident they are taking high-quality, work-relevant courses that will get them the good jobs they deserve.

We are going to make sure there is a better balance between the skills that local employers want from their workforce and those that are being taught by colleges so that young people have a valuable and top-quality alternative to university.

Rather than encourage people to leave home to find a rewarding career, we intend to empower them to find fulfilling and rewarding work wherever they live, invigorating communities and driving economic growth, up and down the country.

It is a natural progression to the ground-breaking reforms we have already been rolling out, such as our T level and apprenticeship programmes, and which will deliver the skilled individuals to boost the post-pandemic economy and bring down unemployment.

And finally, the Bill will strengthen the ability of the Office for Students to crack down on low quality courses, delivering on our manifesto commitment. Our universities, which have played such a vital role in developing the vaccines and treatments to beat Covid-19, must be a fundamental part of levelling up through the Lifelong Loan Entitlement.

The record number of people taking up science and engineering demonstrates that many are already starting to pivot away from dead-end courses that leave young people with nothing but debt – and our reforms will open the way for them to embrace the opportunities offered by degree apprenticeships, higher technical qualifications, modular learning and our flagship Institutes of Technology.

Whether in the Tory shires or the Red Wall, the people of Britain have more in common than not. They want good jobs, better living standards and to own their own home. They want to know that they can trust their local school to give their children a good education, that their streets at safe at night, they can get a GP appointment when they need one. And, fundamentally, they want a society that offers a fair deal, where hard work pays off and the talented can get ahead, whatever their background.

And, as they demonstrated in 2016, and again in 2019, they believe in Britain. They know that while we may not always be perfect, this country has historically been a force for good in the world, and continues to be one of the best, fairest and most tolerant places to live and work.

The citizens of this country care deeply about injustice, rightly abhor racism, and increasingly recognise that love is love – but they have little patience with the increasingly intolerant and puritanical strand of the far left, which seems to be perpetually ashamed of our flag, our nation and our history. They have no truck with nonsense such as the denigration of Churchill, the ‘cancelling’ of our great naval heroes such as Drake and Nelson, or the renaming of buildings named after David Hume, a pillar of the Scottish Enlightenment, or the reforming Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who amongst other things implemented universal primary education for our children.

Our universities have a long and proud history of being spaces in which differing views or beliefs can be expressed without fear of censure, in recent years this has come under threat. There are increasing concerns of a chilling effect, with students and academics who dare to disagree with the campus consensus facing abuse, intimidation and even threats of investigation, dismissal or expulsion.

While the majority of academics and students believe in free speech, too many universities have allowed a small minority of activists to determine what can and cannot be said, for example by making law-abiding student societies pay security costs to invite mainstream speakers, rather than standing up to those willing to threaten violence to shut down speech.

I wrote a year ago that if universities didn’t protect free speech, the Government would. That is why we have introduced our Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill, delivering on our manifesto commitment to protect free speech and academic freedom in universities. The Bill will strengthen existing duties on universities to promote free speech, extend these duties to students’ unions and establishing a director in the Office for Students to protect and promote these rights – including levying fines where necessary.

The programme of reforms my Department is implementing delivers for citizens across our electoral coalition. It rewards the new voters who have put their faith in us for the first time, trusting us to deliver the opportunity, prosperity and better lives that Labour has so sadly failed to provide for them. And it reassures our traditional voters that the torch of liberty, democracy and freedom burns as brightly within the Conservative party today as it ever did. As the Prime Minister has said, we are going to unite and level up our nation, and education is at the core of that mission.

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.

Ben Everitt: Why the plan for a new technical university in Milton Keynes offers a fresh model for higher education

16 Sep

Ben Everitt is the MP for Milton Keynes North.

We have world class universities in this country, which provide some of the highest calibre graduates around. We must maintain and protect our best institutions. But speaking to businesses in my constituency, they tell me that what they want isn’t always graduates. It’s workers with technical skills, an understanding of the industry they want to work in, and who are ready to work in teams and who can communicate.

That’s why this Government is right to be taking a hard look at the system of higher and further education in this country. It isn’t ‘anti university’ to be asking whether the current system provides the best opportunity for those going through it, for the businesses who will employ them, and for the taxpayer. It’s making an argument for a world class higher and further education system for everyone, in a wider variety of forms.

And when we think about what that looks like, we don’t have far to go. We should take inspiration from one of this Conservative Government’s proudest achievements – Free Schools. These schools, often set up in the poorest areas of the country by innovative teachers and heads, were distinctive not just because they were new, but because they offered something different.

Like the best businesses, they spotted a gap in the market and they provided a solution to fill it. And many of them – such as Michaela Community School, run by the outstanding Katharine Birbalsingh – have been successful precisely because they have maintained this focus over time, rather than doing everything.

We have some of that in higher education, but not enough. In my constituency, for example, the Open University does a brilliant job because it focuses on a specific remit – providing flexible distance learning to those who don’t want to, or aren’t able to, undertake traditional three year full time undergraduate degrees. To adapt the Steve Jobs maxim, it does not try to do everything – it does one thing, and does it well. But we need more innovation from the higher education sector, not more of the same.

It’s why I’m such a strong supporter, alongside my fellow Milton Keynes MP Iain Stewart, of the new proposed technical university in my constituency, Milton Keynes University (MK:U). This institution, modelled on the best technical universities in Germany and the United States, has identified a clear gap, which is the shortage of digital and STEM skills in the economy throughout Milton Keynes. I’m privileged in my constituency to sit in the middle of the Oxford to Cambridge Arc – a zone of immense prosperity and economic growth that is home to world class businesses and innovation.

But what Milton Keynes needs is people who can work in these businesses – and who have qualifications that are industry ready. And that’s what MK:U will deliver. By 2021, MK:U plans to be delivering degree apprenticeships in the critical shortage areas of data science, cyber security, digital technology, and management. By 2024, when the university is fully on stream, it will continue to deliver at least half of its provision via degree apprenticeships.

It will also work closely with the new South Central Institute of Technology to deliver high quality technical qualifications at what are called Level 4 and 5 – above the level of school qualifications, but quicker to achieve and more industry-focussed than traditional degrees.

The reason I’m so confident in the success of MK:U is that the team there have been overwhelmed by interest from businesses. Over a hundred major employers, who between them employ over 700,000 people in the UK alone, are backing MK:U, including top-level support from Arriva, Bosch, BT, Capita, Grant Thornton, Network Rail, PwC, Sainsburys, and Santander – who specifically cited MK:U as a key element in its decision to locate its new £150 million Digital Hub in Milton Keynes, and has committed £10 million capital funding and £20 million of in-kind support, to MK:U.

MK:U is backed by Cranfield, the world recognised postgraduate university with a long track record in scientific and business research, and another example of an institution that knows what it does and does it well. Like Cranfield, and like the OU, MK:U will keep to its mission. It won’t offer a wide range of liberal arts and humanities degrees. It won’t chase faddish new disciplines and courses merely to attract students. It will focus on driving prosperity in the Arc, and for the UK more widely.

I know that Ministers in the Education and Communities departments, and in the Treasury are studying the proposal closely as we approach the Spending Review. It has the potential to make a real difference – and to provide a model that other, ‘Free’, universities could follow too.

Julian Brazier: The time is now for university reform. Here’s how we fix Britain’s broken institutions.

28 Jul

Sir Julian Brazier is a former Defence Minister, and was MP for Canterbury from 1987-2017.

The public debate about the future of universities has moved a long way in the last year or two. Michelle Donovan’s excellent recent speech was an important step: the first time a spokesman for any British government has acknowledged that university is poorly serving a substantial proportion of students.

It has since been underlined by a strong statement from Gavin Williamson. The concerns expressed by think tanks, individual writers and the House of Commons Education Committee, which concluded that only half of recent graduates were in graduate level jobs, have been brushed aside unanswered by the university lobby.

Instead, apologists for the universities repeatedly cite statistics about the value of degrees, based on averages which mix the highest performers with those struggling at the margin. Worse, they focus on high participation rates around the world, simply ignoring the two major ways in which the UK is out of line. First, in almost every other country, most students study from home, roughly halving the cost of a campus-based course, and, second, and more importantly, most students in those countries with high HE rates study vocational subjects.

These two factors make comparison with HE participation rates abroad misleading. It is interesting, however, to look at Switzerland and Germany because both are, in one important respect, like us and unlike the majority; they deliver the bulk of their vocational education outside universities, making their statistics more comparable to ours than say France, Italy, Spain or indeed America. Germany and Switzerland have much lower HE participation rates than the UK and both have low unemployment – and exceptionally high productivity.

The Government understands this. As it moves towards reform, a model is emerging based on a shift towards vocational courses at universities, combined with more FE and apprenticeships. More vocational courses are being floated by government as the gateway (along with cuts in vice chancellors’ salaries where appropriate) to assistance from a new bailout fund.

But that limited lever can only apply for the duration of the Covid crisis and only to those institutions seeking financial help. Yet, the crisis is driving record numbers of school leavers into applying for HE this year, despite the Government’s laudable efforts to sustain the sagging jobs market and build up positive alternatives like apprenticeships.

The tanker is drifting further off course. So, the urgent question is, how can the Government enforce its laudable aims without fatally compromising the independence of universities?

My suggestion is that they formally split courses into three categories: two academic, STEM and Arts/other, together with a third, vocational category. Then a set of minimum admission standards should be applied within each of the three categories for eligibility for student loans and other government support. This would leave universities free to control their admissions, but effectively block them offering places to those below the relevant national standard. There could be a limited system of exemptions based on foundation courses for mature students.

The setting of standards would be controversial, but the following broad approach would be a significant improvement on the existing “money for old rope” approach. STEM courses should require a good A level grade in mathematics – it is unrealistic to expect anyone to benefit from a degree in engineering or computer science without a sound mathematical base. In a few cases, like the biological sciences, a minimum overall A level combination might substitute for a maths result.

At a time when the economy desperately needs more STEM graduates, it is in nobody’s interests to allow youngsters to study subjects which they lack the mental capacity to master. We need better maths and science teaching in schools – and more more pupils, including more girls, studying STEM subjects – not to offer false hopes afterwards, as many universities are doing. Too many good universities are already spending the first year of physics and engineering degrees on remedial maths.

The hardest to set nationally would be the arts sector. The Government might wish to avoid the temptation of comparing classics with PPE or geography, to choose three subjects entirely at random, and just set a minimum standard across the board, say three Cs at A Level.

Finally, standards for vocational courses could be set in consultation with industry. Such consultation might suggest that FE or apprenticeships are more appropriate, except for those with the strongest academic base. Certainly, most students should study in their local city or town (other than those living in the most remote areas), to keep costs and debt down.

In her speech, Michelle raised concerns about universities recruiting school leavers for courses that do nothing to improve their life chances. These split into two categories – those on the wrong course and those who should not be at university. Introducing national standards would rescue the most vulnerable group, the latter category, and, incidentally, make permanent the laudable recent ban on unconditional offers. It would have a second important effect too – many of the non-vocational courses would wither because of the paucity of applicants likely to achieve the new standard.

None of this would interfere with universities’ independence, but the package would stop a minority of universities cynically exploiting those most unable to benefit, by shackling them with a lifetime of debt and lost aspirations. It would also save the taxpayer a great deal of money as most student loans are unlikely to ever be fully repaid.

The standards could also be applied to overseas students, so that our doors remain wide open to the brightest and the best – but not to low achievers who currently automatically qualify for a two-year additional stay.

The Government also has an opportunity to drive good leadership by vice chancellors in a quite different way. The honours system sends powerful messages, and two filters could be applied to applications for senior university staff, apart from the obvious main category of awards for academic and research achievement.

First there is an opportunity to highlight those VCs like Karen Cox at the University of Kent, who have acted unilaterally before the government guidelines were published. She announced a large personal pay cut – and imposed the same on her senior colleagues – while protecting low-paid staff. That is real leadership.

The second filter is highlighted by the contrast between Oxford University, on the one hand, where Louise Richardson has consistently resisted Chinese investment with compromising strings. She has also defended dons like Nigel Biggar against woke lynch mobs.

At Cambridge, on the other hand, Stephen Toope, the Vice Chancellor, has presided over the creeping takeover of critical parts of his empire by cheque-waving Chinese organisations and turned a blind eye to the impact on academic independence.

At the same time, he has taken a strong stand in favour of a BAME academic who published profoundly racist material, citing the importance of free speech, and yet allowed a don to be ejected for disagreeing with the woke mob and Jordan Peterson to be denied a visiting professorship, because he was once photographed with a student who was wearing an offensive tee-shirt.

Making Louise Richardson a Dame – and blocking any efforts by the HE Blob to get an honour for her Cambridge counterpart – would send a clear message that Conservatives believe in academic freedom.

We have a great deal to be proud of in our university sector, with the highest-ranking institutions in the world, alongside America, but – in the interests of the rising generation – elements of the system badly need reform. At last, we have a government willing to take action. Here are some ideas for a plan.