14-19 hiatus

As 2016 draws to a close we are still awaiting a statement on the English Baccalaureate/ upper secondary curriculum from new Secretary of State. Justin Greening – the  consultation period for Ebacc ended almost a year ago.

Nicky Morgan’s – now largely shelved –White Paper Educational Excellence Everywhere reaffirmed the Cameron government’s objectives of a 90% participation rate in the Ebacc subjects, but with entry rates for Modern Foreign Languages (MFL)  continuing to fall  (in all other Ebacc areas they  continue to rise)  this has surely become unreachable? The Ebacc is not being prioritised as a performance indicator by Ofsted, leaving schools to concentrate on maximising their Progress 8 score.

Although Progress 8 is driven by Ebacc subjects, students do not have to do the complete Ebacc to maximise their scores. This explains why the provisional statistics for 2016 recorded a ‘neutral’ -0.03 overall average score for Progress 8, but only a 39.6% entry and a 24.5% pass rate for Ebacc. The Department for Education made no comment on this ambiguity.  Perhaps Secretary of State Greening would rather the EBacc slide off the agenda and avoid conceding victory to the well organised and high profile Bac for the Future campaign, we should still expect an announcement of some sort though.

But as a result of the way it has been constructed – and that Key Stage 2 SATs results are being used as the baseline for value added calculations, Progress 8 cannot be considered an improvement on the Ebacc or even the lesser of two evils. Indeed the recent Kings College research on the effects of the Key Stage 4 reforms,   sponsored by the NUT,  reports widespread concern by teachers about its reliability and workload implications. Examination data also shows that non Ebacc subjects continue to be marginalised and that large numbers of secondary schools are beginning their GCSE programmes during Year 9. 

Compared with Ebacc, there has been little, if any discussion about how to oppose Progress 8. Can it be reformed to allow a broader range of subjects to be included? Or should the main emphasis be on trying to find other value added measurements, rather than Key Stage 2 SATs?

2016 has seen the further erosion of vocational education at Key Stage 4 – the result of the Progress 8 requirements, but also Michael Gove’s qualifications cull   which has prevented schools using a ‘vocational track’ at KS4 as no qualification can now be equivalent to more than one GCSE, if it is to be included in league tables -the Wolf Report also recommended no more than 20% of a student’s timetable should be spent on vocation learning.

2016 however, saw the publication of a  post-16_skills_plan even though the planned consultation appears to have been delayed. The Plan sets out proposals for new technical route into employment (the term ‘vocational’ is to be discarded) with new qualifications planned for 15 employment areas. Though not due to begin until 2019 at the earliest, the technical route will be ‘college based’.

At first sight this would appear to have significant implications for school sixth-forms which have continued to provide vocational courses as alternatives to A-levels, but most of the Business Studies, Health and Social Care and ICT  ‘BTEC  type’ qualifications offered by schools are now classified as ‘Applied’ and will be  outside of the more occupationally specific technical track.

2016 also saw government continue to promote apprenticeships as an alternative to university for young people, the development of new ‘trailblazer’ specifications and the firming up of details for the employers levy.  Yet over half of apprenticeship starts continue to be only level 2 (GCSE equivalent) and less than a quarter are by those under 19. With any guarantee of progression or even future employment, most young people that can, will continue with the academic route with the aim of progressing to university.

During 2016 a great deal of debate has taken place about 14-19 education, especially the design and suitability for particular students, but there has been little progress with developing alternatives. Neither has there been a real appreciation of the type of labour market that young people seek to enter – the implications of changes in the occupational structure for the future of many technician level qualifications for example, or that large numbers continue to end up in jobs for which they are over-qualified

If the immediate focus should be on developing curriculum alternatives, then over the longer term,  because many young people are now no longer able to rely on education to ‘move on’, the real problem may be  its potential loss of legitimacy.

Education’s ‘Great Reversal’

They used to  focus  on skills shortages, but now more labour market commentaries are emphasising the under- utilisation of skills and qualifications;  particularly in relation to the excess supply of graduates compared to the number of ‘graduate jobs’ available.  More recently still, concern has focussed on the extent of unpaid student debt  – the consequence of graduates not earning enough to hit the pay back threshold, with estimates suggesting that with many graduates  trapped in low-paid jobs, up to half it may never be repaid.  This is Alison Wolf’s starting point and the justification for the Remaking of Tertiary Education[i] in which the influential Wolf calls for a sub-degree pathway providing more cost effective opportunities for young people to enter employment.

As Wolf correctly recognises, qualifications like Higher National Diplomas have long since disappeared as polytechnics have become degree issuing universities. Her proposals tail the Department for Education’s Post-16 Skills Plan[ii] which also outlines a new college based ‘technical’ pathway between academic education and work based apprenticeship training.

The problem is that (as Wolf acknowledges) the nature of the occupational structure is changing.  The expanding middle of the post-war period which generated most of the new technical jobs has been replaced by an ‘hour-glass’ or has gone increasingly ‘pear shaped’   – as more work has been automated and those who would have been expected to end up in ‘the middle’ being pushed down into less skilled and less well paid employment, but also finding that where this sort of employment continues to be available, employers are able to recruit graduates.

This is the reason for mass enrolment in higher education.  Despite the high fees, which were supposed to ‘price’ large numbers  out of HE, young people continue to enrol because even though having a degree may earn you less than it used to, in most cases it still provides  a ‘premium’ compared to being without. Unless a sub-degree qualification –which would be completed in two years and charge lower fees  -or a technical route, offers guarantees of a job and with few opportunities to complete more than a low-level and dead-end apprenticeship, there  would seem to be little chance that large numbers would reconsider anything but a university route.

Progressives should not support these ‘alternatives’ they are part of a  Great Reversal of education policy.  Despite its contradictions and distortions, mass participation in higher education, just like the comprehensive education that’s driven it, is a positive development and something not considered possible even  thirty years ago.  Higher education needs to be reorganised to accommodate these developments. Rather than offering different types of education, for different types of young people FE colleges and universities should be part of  local networks  of post-16 provision available to all and not only offering a variety of courses but a variety of assessment methods and different time frames.


[i] Remaking Tertiary Education: can we create a system that is fair and fit for purpose?


[ii] Department for Education/ Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. Post-16 Skills Plan


Important NUT research on the secondary curriculum

The NUT has just released King’s College research on the effects of government policies on the secondary curriculum. Based on a sample of 1800 secondary members and in depth school case studies, key findings show   amongst other things:

  • 74% of teachers consider the Ebacc requirements are dramatically narrowing the curriculum.
  • 84% worry that the excessive pressure of exams is taking its toll on young people’s well- being and mental health.
  • Three quarters of teachers believe that the new ‘one size fits all’ GCSEs will be less suitable for low attaining students and have made the curriculum uninspiring and anachronistic.
  • A general lack of confidence in ‘Progress 8’ – Government’s latest attempt to measure students’ progress and hold schools accountable for it, with widespread opposition to using unreliable KS2 SATs data as the basis for measuring progress at  GCSE.
  • 92% reporting their workload has increased as a result of the changes
  • Increased concern about job insecurity as the non-Ebacc subjects are scaled down or become no longer available as a learning option, particularly as a result of funding cuts.

Download  full report   here                                 thji9s7ysr

Still a ‘Great Training Robbery’

front_page_001Updated and revised. This ‘final’ version covers developments since the 2015 General Election – like the employer levy, The Post-16 Plan, the Institute of Apprenticeships, the further development of the Trailblazers. 

Despite these  however, provisional figures for 2015/2016 continue show that apprenticeships continue to be mostly ‘low skilled and dead end’ and for most young people,  remain a ‘Great Training Robbery.’ 

Download here 

The only social mobility will be downwards?

The latest report from Alan Milburn’s Social Mobility Commission continues to misunderstand why social mobility rates have largely snakes and laddershalted. It proposes several ‘educational’ solutions from extending school sixth form opportunities (nobody would disagree with this) to forcing schools in low-performing local authorities to take part in improvement programmes so that Ofsted targets can be met (there is no mention of the need for more grammar schools!)

But rates of social mobility largely reflect wider economic inequalities rather than overturning them. The relatively high rates of upward mobility in the post-war years coincided with the growth of ‘middle’ managerial and professional occupations during this period which required recruitment from below – an increase in absolute mobility.

Contrary to the arguments in this report that  there will be a shortage of workers to fill 15 million more highly skilled jobs by 2022,  any growth  of managerial and professional jobs has been far outpaced by the increases in levels of education – around 1 in 4 people under 35 now having university degrees – and the huge growth   in the number of people who can perform them.

With such a large surplus of graduates, rather than moving up, large numbers now fear  being pushed down as further increases in the power of digital and robotic technology  mean that  fewer still will  likely to progress to employment commensurable with their qualifications.

Milburn’s report does on the other hand includes some hard data about the extent of inequality in the UK and this alone makes it a useful contribution


Welcome to the Institute of Apprenticeships and Technical Education!

Olympics - Previews - Day - 3 She might have ditched the Cameron government’s Acadamisation plans but Education Secretary Justine Greening is going ahead with its  Post-16 Skills Plan [i] – legalities were formalised in The Technical and Further Education Bill on Oct 27th.

The Plan commits itself to create 15 distinct ‘pathfinder’ routes into employment each with a single ‘college based’ Tech Level qualification and/or an apprenticeship -designed by employers’ representatives. The technical and apprenticeships routes, which will run alongside, but be equal in status to academic A-levels and will be the responsibility of a new Institute of Apprenticeships and Technical Education.  The new institute, which  currently exists as the Institute of Apprenticeships but, so far,   with only a shadow structure will:


  • Determine the occupations for apprenticeships and technical education qualifications

  • Approve ‘standards’ and ‘technical education qualifications’ and groups to develop them

  • Own the ‘standards’ from which qualifications development will be based

  • Hold copyright of approved technical education qualifications.

The first of the routes will come into being in September 2019 and will be two-year college based programmes suitable from the age of 16, as well as those 19+, with close alignment to – or maybe even interchangeable with – the new ‘Trailblazer’ apprenticeship standards. The report says all routes will be delivered for teaching by 2022.

It all sounds relatively unproblematic: Or does it?  There are some major issues.

The government, like most previous ones – in attempts to improve its standing, vocational education has been constantly reformed since the 1980s –considers the main problem is that there are too many different qualifications resulting in employers being confused and reluctant to get involved. But governments have tried to do this before. Remember New Labour’s disastrous and expensive Specialist Diplomas (!) These were supposed to replace all other vocational qualifications and were also linked to employer based sector skills councils.

It isn’t clear either, what will happen to the existing Tech Level qualifications, let alone those designated as Applied Level – but included in Post-16 performance tables and studied by around 100,000 students. The Tech Levels were also the result of Michael Gove’s own attempts to streamline vocation qualifications and to make them more rigorous.

The Plan excludes any indication of whether schools will be involved –concentrating entirely on colleges. With school funding largely based on the number of students, school are unlikely to want their ‘non-academic’ sixth formers to transfer to colleges and will look to create their own alternatives. Also, years of cuts have left colleges starved of funds.

Despite being linked together through the new Institute, the college based and apprenticeship routes remain very different. While full-time  vocational learning is mostly dependent on the levels of resources available, the government has failed to persuade employers ( an apprenticeship is a job paying a wage) to expand the number of Advanced and Higher Level apprenticeships – relying on the continued growth of Level 2 (GCSE equivalent) often amongst existing employees to meet its 3 million target.

The Skills Plan like previous vocational initiatives continues to talk about the need for more ‘technician level’ skills, but studies of the labour market increasingly suggest that ‘middle’ and ‘technician’ level jobs are continuing to disappear and where they do exist are increasingly being filled by university leavers unable to find ‘graduate jobs’ – the main reason why employers do not want to expand apprenticeships.

 It’s true that other European countries do have well established technical routes – and as a result  they have less people going to university – but for how much longer and to what effect remains to be seen.  Meanwhile  the new Institute will have a big job on it hands!

[i] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/536043/Post-16_Skills_Plan.pdf