Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Last Chance for EMA

Tomorrow in the Commons, MP's will take part in opposition day debate to apply some much needed parliamentary scrutiny to the coalition decision over the EMA. The decision scrap the EMA, unlike that over tuition fees last year, does not require a parliamentary vote because it is classed as a matter of departmental spending.

This odd fact seems to run in line with the relative lack of coverage that this cut has received. Late last year it was the decision to increase tuition fees, and the student reaction, which grabbed the headlines.

In fact, there has been a sustained, articulate and peaceful campaign from students, which has been matched by a huge online campaign through #saveema and the SaveEMA website.

Research out this week from the University and College Union (UCU) with the Association of Colleges (AoC) concluded that up to 7 out of 10 students receiving the EMA would end their studies if the payments stop.

The numbers involved are relatively small -Teenagers receive £30 a week if their household income is below £20,817, £20 a week between £20,818 and £25,521, or £10 a week between £25,522 and £30,810. In its first year or testing, in Hackney in 1999, 18,000 students took advantage of the policy and it played a significant role in raising achievement.

The total cost of the EMA does add up to a weighty £500 million pull on the public purse, but the qualitative nature of the results of the EMA mean that the net effect is difficult to measure.

The political disagreement over the policy rests on the coalition suggestion that the EMA does not in fact fulfil its stated goal of encouraging people to stay on in FE, and that much of the spending is what is called “dead weight” –money spent on pupils who would have gone to university either way. The crucial flaw in this analysis, as pointed out in the Commons, is that the sample from which these conclusions were drawn consisted of 91% white middle class students; clearly not representative of the demographic that the EMA is designed to support.

Brushing off the promises he made regarding EMA during the election, David Cameron has stated that "we are not abolishing EMAs – we are replacing EMAs with something more effective.” Channel 4’s Fact Check blog on the subject revealed that the something more effective is an increase to the Discretionary Support Fund, a less transparent measure which is administered and awarded by colleges. Fact Check concluded that Discretionary Support Fund is "only awarded once students are accepted on a course. Without the promise of extra funding, some poorer students may not risk applying."

The IFS have concluded “the costs of EMA are completely offset.” Of equal significance is the previous IFS research which shows that “EMA significantly increased participation rates in post-16 education among young adults who were eligible to receive it.

What is certain is that the towering piles of competing statistical analysis which surround this decision do not adequately shine a light on the real impact on students. It should not be forgotten that these are young people for whom education is not a foregone conclusion; this fundamental and universal support gives an important safety net for those who are not sure whether to take the risk. Far from quitting education, many may never take the risk in the first place.

From a quantitative perspective the policy has other benefits which are not suitably taken into account by the analysis. “This cost-benefit calculation does not include other benefits through other routes: for example, increases in educational attainment that might arise for the EMA recipients who would have stayed in education anyway, but now have more time to devote to studying” the IFS told Faisal Islam.

The claims made by Michael Gove last month on Radio 4, that “all the academic research shows that the current support is poorly targeted” is not a fair assessment of the real situation being faced by FE learners.

On many occasions since coming to power Michael Gove has expressed very strong his ambition to bridge the achievement gap between rich and poor students, this is to be welcomed. What we need from him now is chapter and verse on how any targeted replacement to EMA will bridge the gap and what calculations and forecast have been made to back this up.

Short of a huge rebellion on the Lib Dem benches, it is likely that the EMA will come to an end tomorrow. The aspirations of some of the most deprived students in our schools must not be allowed to fall through the cracks. PEN is hopeful that the debate will provide an opportunity for some meaningful and substantial debate on what form an effective alternative provision can take.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Cameron sees sense over School Sports Partnerships

The DfE announcement of the decision to axe funding for School Sport Partnerships, which passed an opposition day motion yesterday, proved immediately controversial. Unlike many education policy initiatives SSP’s have in a relatively short time produced astonishingly good results -over 90% of children taking part in at least over two hours of sport a week. Michael Gove’s decision to end ring fencing of the entire £162 million budget threatens every one of the 450 existing SSP’s, and the vast amount of extra sports work they do in communities across the country.

Gove’s decision, which has been the apparent source of intense debate at the heart of government, has drawn derision from across the political spectrum and as far afield as Canada. Yesterday the Government defeated a Labour motion to reassess the decision by a decent majority, seemingly indicating that this policy also has support among a good number of Lib Dem MP’s.

But the plot thickened this afternoon when David Cameron gave a hint that he might intervene once again over education policy, saying that he was “looking carefully at the debate that was made yesterday” and that the government were “talking with head teachers and hope to make an announcement soon.” This was a remarkably different line from that taken by Michael Gove yesterday and oddly reminiscent of Andy Burnham’s suggestion that “the best way to resolve the argument is to ask head teachers about the effectiveness of SSP’s.”

The immediate reaction from the massed ranks of media commentators was that this language, a conciliatory response to a soft question was a clear indication that a policy U-turn was on the cards; Nick Robinson saying that “Prime Ministers are busy people and they don’t read debates unless they are worried about something.” In the aftermath of Prime Minister’s Question’s The PM’s spokesman told the BBC that the rethink was because the issue was “being raised by schools at a local level round the country.”

Having already vetoed ministerial decisions which have proved to unpalatable to the media or the public, Mr Cameron would do well to listen to the furore that has been created by this short-sighted decision.

The highly active Twitter campaign to save SSP’s reflects the genuine anger felt by the many thousands of people involved in school sport. A highly critical letter from a group of head teachers called the move “a destructive and a contradictory and self-defeating decision”. Teachers and Labour MP’s were not the only ones to spot the apparent contradiction at the heart of this decision. England goalkeeper David James pointed out David Cameron plans to jet off to Zurich to support England's World Cup bid when his government is about to cut off all funds to the country's school sports partnerships from next spring." This was quickly followed by another letter to the PM from 75 elite British athletes begging him to reconsider what they said risked “destroying everything schools, clubs and the national governing bodies of sport are doing to ensure this and future generations embrace sport."

Such a bulging letter box must have alerted David Cameron to the potential political damage this could cause in the run up to 2012. To do away SSP’s now would potentially make all talk of an Olympic legacy meaningless.

In yesterday’s Commons’ debate Shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham did a good job of setting out just what it would mean for schools to lose this provision. He called the move a “senseless act of vandalism defying all logic, leaving people speechless.” What was striking about the debate was the number of interventions from the floor which highlighted good practice in their own area. Many of these were again backed up by passionate petitions from constituents. If public reaction is a reflection of policies worth, then SSP’s must rank as a remarkably effective piece of legislation.

When challenged by Mr Gove to name a cut in the budget which would be acceptable cut to the SSP budget he argued that he would accept “proportional cuts which would keep the infrastructure in place.

This is an uncomfortable situation for Michael Gove who has come under unrelenting criticism and growing speculation that his may be the first head to roll in the coalition’s first reshuffle. Mr Gove has been given a challenging brief, and his reforms were always likely to drawn heavy fire from the opposition, and for this reason he will most likely be allowed to see his project through; nevertheless his motivations for this damaging decision are hard to fathom. At departmental budget level the numbers involved in SSP’s are fairly small, so the motivation cannot be purely financial.

At the core of his argument seems to be the belief that the infrastructure of the SSP system, which has been proven to be effective, is unnecessary bureaucracy which can be done away with.

Although this may, on paper, fit in with the DfE’s wider agenda of reducing prescription in terms of funding streams, it ignores the complex and unique requirements of sports provision across the education system. For example some SSP funding is used to coordinate the sharing of specialist sports coaches among sports colleges and schools with no specialist PE teacher. In other cases, this money pays for after school clubs in a range of sport that children may not get the opportunity to try. Without funding these services will simply cease.

The Prime Minster's words on the subject today were welcomed by all those involved in school sport. Further briefing this evening has revealed that the final decision won't be taken until overall local government funding is finalised. Let’s hope that beyond political point scoring that MP’s from all parties can do what is expected of them and work together to come up with a solution which preserves the integrity of the SSP programme. An initiative which is important for schools, valued by pupils and is delivering remarkable results.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Review of Key Stage 2 Tests

The Department for Education today released a statement confirming that the cross-bench peer Lord Bew will lead an inquiry into Key Stage 2 Sats.

The move was welcomed by teachers, who have long expressed concerns that the exams require excessive drilling of pupils. They are an ineffective measure for assessing the capacity of schools, especially those in more deprived areas.

The boycott of the exams earlier this year won broad support. Only yesterday it emerged that there were almost 23,500 official appeals against this year's English and Maths Sats results. Nearly ten percent of these complaints were upheld.

Having been roundly criticised, it is lightly that this report will lead to significant reform of the current assessment process.

The small panel will consist of the respected Lord Bew, two education experts, primary, secondary teachers and headteachers, some who boycotted the exams and observers from Ofsted.

The remit for the inquiry covers a variety of issues including how to make sure parents receive the best quality information and how to avoid the “perverse incentives” of teaching to the test. Key will be how best to retain accountability while implementing the coalition agenda of freeing schools from excessive external regulation.

Michael Gove has made it clear in the past that he is no fan of the tests in their current form, but believes in a need for 'rigorous' assessment at the end of KS2. Having rejected the calls from teaching unions for a system of internal assessment, it remains unclear which alternative the report will recommend.

The NUT welcomed the announcement, with Christine Blower calling the move “encouraging”, although she rightly criticised the fact that no practising teachers would be sitting on the panel.

The NAHT press release reflected the significance of the announcement for teachers who it saidfeel deeply about this review. In the minds of most, its outcomes will be the key measure of trust in the profession.”

In terms of an immediate impact for schools, this review will come too late to affect the 2011 tests, and it is unclear if the unions will continue their boycott, and if the government will seek to enforce participation in what may by then be a redundant system.

Today’s announcement should be applauded as it represents a willingness to engage in dialogue over a very issue important issue. We are encouraged by the inclusion of education practitioners at the decision making table. Drawing on the wisdom of leading education professionals and school leaders is such an important feature of good education policy making.

The report is due to publish its conclusions in the middle of next year

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Education in the Spending Review

The devil is in the detail. This was the cliché of choice for the pundits commenting on the long awaited Spending Review, which George Osborne announced yesterday.

In a speech that was peppered with small concessions designed to balance the bad news there was also a blinding amount of detail. This had the effect of obscuring the scale and breadth of cuts to the welfare system which will have a disproportionately large effect on the poorest 10% of our society.

From an education perspective the news was less severe than had been feared. The Chancellor made specific reference to his success in achieving a personal goal of seeing if it was possible “even when spending was being cut – to find more resources for our schools and for the early years education of our children.”

The decision to protect the education spending and increase the schools budget from £35bn to £39bn was a political one, but as with much of this budget, closer analysis of the figures revealed a more complex picture.

The supporting documents from the Treasury, which were released immediately after the speech revealed that the actual increase in funding was "£3.6 billion in cash terms by the end of the Spending Review period - this is a 0.1% increase in real terms in each year.”

A 0.1% increase in real terms will in many cases seem like a cut for school budgets used to a decade of year on year budget increases; however this settlement must be seen as broadly positive news considering the draconian cuts being faced by other departments.

Of real significance to the schools budgets will be effect of the 7.1% cuts to local government budgets. If schools are forced to face the brunt of the cuts which are devolved to LA's schools could still suffer.

On the morning of the announcement, a report surfaced indicating that the nature of the settlement “means 70% of the youth budget, which includes youth clubs and after-schools activities, will be cut. But the most alarming figure is that the 40,000 teachers now find themselves in insecure positions.” If the back room savings which this speech promised do result in teachers losing their jobs, it will be difficult to resolve this with the coalition pledge to protect front line services.

On capital spending, the Chancellor sought to frame the decision to do away with the “wasteful” BSF programme as rolling back expenditure to 1998-2005 levels - £15.8bn over the spending review period. The promise that “ there will be enough funding to meet demographic pressures and to address maintenance needs” does little to negate the undeniable impact of a real terms 60% cut to capital investment over the coming years.

An interesting element of the funding structure that these details reveal is that while the school budget is ring-fenced, the DfE its self will have its budget cut by 3.4% in real terms. Included in this is a huge 33% cut to DfE administration budget through “closing NDPBs, reducing headcount, reducing the costs of the DfE estate and cutting non-essential expenditure.”

Osborne argued, that “Sure Start services will be protected in cash terms” which of course amounts to a cut in real terms. The same kind of unclear language clouded the meaning of the decision to “replace education maintenance allowances with more targeted support.” The decision to scrap the EMA at a saving of £0.5bn may come to be seen as another disguised attack on the support for the poorest in our society.

There will be a real and gaping hole in the provision of services for those post 16 learners, with a huge cut of 25% to the FE budget and the Train to Gain programme scrapped.

It is unlikely that the promised increase in the numbers of apprenticeships and “targeted support” for those most in need, will balance out the cuts in this vital area. More so when you consider that many of these functions, now devolved to councils battling a 7.1% budget cut, are non-statutory.

Much remains unclear about the true implications of this highly complex restructuring of the nations finances. The reality of how school budgets and bottom lines are ultimately effected may not become clear for some time. It is almost certain that other programmes not mentioned directly yesterday will face the axe in coming months. For example, the ending of School Sports Partnerships was announced in this separate press release.

Most interesting of all are the figures relating to the 'Fairness Premium' which was announced with much fanfare by Nick Clegg as one of the key prizes to justify the Lib Dem role in the coalition. Immediate analysis of the documentation seemed to dispute the claim that the fund is 'new money'. This was later confirmed by the definitive Channel 4 Fact Check which concluded “In June, David Cameron promised to 'take money from outside the education budget to ensure that the pupil premium is well funded'. But now it looks as if the lion’s share of the money is recycled from within the education department’s budget. A senior education department source told Fact Check £1.7bn of the £2.5bn comes from other education cuts – things like the educational maintenance allowance. Only £800m comes from elsewhere – the welfare budget.”

Not only is this policy of taking from one group of children to benefit another fundamentally regressive, it may present a very hard sell to Lib Dem activists who had been promised that this was a uncrackable red-line for the party hierarchy in the Coalition agreement.

There are real concerns about the longer term impacts of this restructuring and the significant cut in support for younger people in FE. What remains to be seen is how schools choose to allocate the many revenue streams for defined groups which will now fall under one 'Dedicated Schools Grant' and how the cuts to LA budgets impact on individual schools – something which is unquantifiable at this stage.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Michael Gove speaks to the Conservative Party Conference

On Tuesday Michael Gove stepped back into the political spotlight to deliver a rousing speech to delight the delegates at the Conservative Party Conference.

Proceeded on stage by Geoffrey Canada, CEO of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a influential American Charter School group, Mr Gove sought to position himself as a great education reformer set against a backdrop of entrenched interests. “The Conservative party is now the party of the teacher, the party of higher standards, the party that is driving the reforms” he said.

But the speech, which received two standing ovations, was also highly critical of the past government and so called “bureaucrats and ideologues” who Mr Gove insisted bore responsibility for “[crushing] the spirit of the best in the profession.”

In damning language he insisted that“these ideologues may too have been inspired by generous ideals - but the result of their approach has been countless children condemned to a prison house of ignorance”.

For many this was a thinly veiled attack on the unions and pressure groups which have sought to block the progress of his academies bill. This message was reinforced by key note speaker Geoffrey Canada, who used his address to suggest that unions “kill” teaching innovation.

However there were very obvious mixed messages in a speech which on one hand praised teachers as heroes and on the other claimed that drastic reform was needed to “free children from a culture of limited horizons, levelling down and low expectations.”

For the Education Secretary, the world is inhabited exclusively by passionate hard working teachers and outdated establishment dinosaurs who are hell bent hobbling him at every turn. In reality the situation is much more complex than that. It suits the coalition narrative to frame the debate in this way, but in reality much of the objections to the academies bill have come from teachers. Teachers who are dedicated not just to their pupils but to the education system as a whole.

Mr Gove must acknowledge the passion that education practitioners have for what happens in their school is not driven by a nefarious desire to maintain a unjust status quo, but by a real passion for pupils outcomes. Teaching groups represent those interests and teachers must be engaged and involved in this period of transition. To attack the broader education establishment in such strong language, as parts of this speech did, runs the risk of ostracising the teachers the coalition wish to engage with.

This apparent unwillingness to see the multiple shades of grey which define the realities of education policy was a theme which ran throughout this speech.

Mr Gove claimed that by “scrapping the curriculum quango” he is giving a 'new deal' to teachers and the freedom they deserve to influence the curriculum. This seems to contradict his claim that he wants to put classical literature such as Swift, Byron, Keats and Shelly at the centre of English teaching. Nor is it in line with his recent centrally issued diktat on music education. No one would argue against the benefits of either argument, but it is not possible for Mr Gove to inhabit both places. The coalition must be either in favour of a classical traditional curriculum or in favour of freedom for teachers to do what is best for their learners.

There was also confusion over his announcement that teachers would be given increased powers to intervene in events outside the schools gates, with the the NUT insisting that "pupils are already subject to disciplinary powers when outside of school grounds. Michael Gove's sweeping pledge is presently without substance." Schools minister Vernon Coaker was also critical stating that “teachers already have very clear powers to use reasonable physical force where necessary and to discipline pupils for bad behaviour on the journey to and from school. To imply otherwise is misleading and undermines the confidence of teachers.”

But there was no doubting Mr Gove's passion for his brief, as he spoke of his desire to push through his reforms at pace, claiming that he couldn't live with himself if he didn't move quickly with his reforms, “children only have one chance. Five years for them is their entire life at secondary school.”

This was a speech in which Mr Gove sought to regain his title as one of the coalition’s high achievers and reassert the control of his brief that was lost during the fiasco over the cancellation of BSF. And there is no doubting the Secretary of States passion for his task.

Whether or not this passion reflects a willingness to engage dissenting voices will come to define Mr Gove's time as Education Secretary. In the face of controversial reforms, it will be crucial that teachers unions and education practitioners are engaged at the highest level of policy making, rather than excluded as barriers to change. The teaching community is a diverse and passionate body and to ignore its views is to deny its strength in diversity. A new curriculum or 'new deal' that does not draw on our full gamut of skills will be no more uniting than the work of the “bureaucrats and ideologues” maligned by Mr Gove.

Friday, 3 September 2010

PEN Summer Reading #5

Friday 3rd September

Over the last few days, as pupils and teachers head back into the classroom, the media has once again turned its attention to what is happening in our schools. Much of this weeks coverage was dedicated to the schools which are opening their doors for the first time as academies. This first round of academy transformations was either a qualified success or terrible failure, depending on your choice of newspaper. We can expect such partisan argument for the both sides of the debate until new schools start to generate useful data, which may take years.

The definitive numbers, taken from the DfE's own press release are:
  • 142 schools converting to become academies: 32 are opening this week and a further 110 schools have had Academy Orders signed which means they are on track to convert to academies over the coming months.
  • Of the 142, there are 7 primary schools which become the first ever primary academies to open. The Government has said that special schools will also be allowed to become academies from next year.
  • 64 new academies replace failing schools this September plus a further 10 opening by April 2011. This is record progress; it took five years for 15 city technology colleges to open, and four years for the first 27 academies to open."
Writing in The Telegraph, Michael Gove argues that his reforms will allow schools to "educate without the burden of bureaucracy".In The Independent Richard Garner mirrored the views of much of the media, questioning the judgement of rushing through the academies bill with the justification that schools were clamouring in their thousands to take advantage of the powers.
Some of the most measured analysis of the first wave of academy openings came from Chris Cook writing in the Financial Times.
Another take on the academies story from Conor Ryan, who argues that the Labour legacy of focusing the academy programme in failing schools has been a success for disadvantaged children.
Academies appear to have upped their game this year, across the board, posting better than expected improvements in GCSE results write Patrick Watson.
American education writer David Plunkett looks at the performance of the US charter schools which have inspired coalition education policy.
Report submitted by the Sutton Trust says that disadvantaged children should be given priority in order for schools to get incentive rewards of pupil premium.
The final PEN reading list item of the summer is a great resource from the NAHT, with a timetable of planned government policy changes and action in the coming year.

Friday, 27 August 2010

PEN Summer Reading #4

Friday 27th August

Alongside the usual avalanche of opinion on this week's GCSE results, this interesting piece from the BBC shows the most significant trends, based on real data. You can view the equivalent piece for A Levels here .
Guest post from the Chair of Governors at a London school points out that this years results actually show a relative improvement in the state sector compared to private, at both A Level and GCSE.
Writing on the Public Finance blog, Conor Ryan argues that when prospects are so bleak for those getting their results this week, the usual criticism of dumbing down should be eschewed in favour of congratulating our young people.
Writing in The Guardian Estelle Morris argues that we must not let the recession and cuts cause young people to lose faith in the power of education to change their lives.
Interesting interview with a headteacher who has used strong leadership and unconventional methods to turn around a challenging school.
Another school success story, The Independent reports that strong leadership helped Perry Beeches become "the most improved school ever over a three-year period".
Excellent article in Prospect magazine argues that introducing another type of school is not the way to improve educational standards system wide.
Great resource from The National College. Results of a research project which investigated a sample of schools which had improved pupil learning outcomes over at least three consecutive years under the leadership of the same headteacher.
Schools Minister Nick Gibb has made no secret of his admiration for this American academic and his views on core knowledge and 'cultural literacy'. Patrick Watson explores the detail behind these ideas.