Thursday 22 December 2011

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all my blog readers. 

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Reforming the curriculum

The Government has started to realise how much harder it is to deliver change than it is to advance rhetoric. Any changes to the National Curriculum have been postponed until 2014 as ministers try to work out how their plans relate to each other. There has, it is true, been some good early work by the curriculum review team, albeit in the parameters set for them. However, there is still a real danger that in the Government's zeal to widen the academic requirements for the majority, the needs of the minority will be neglected.

The curriculum review are recommending that history, geography, the 'arts' and modern languages should all be compulsory until the age of 16, and that GCSEs should be taken over three rather than two years to allow time for the further study. The latter idea reflects existing practice, and is a good one, even if it belies the rhetoric criticising those who entered students for early GCSEs that seemed to come from government a few months ago. At the same time as requiring study in these additional subjects, schools will be expected to teach citizenship, technology and ICT, though it will be for them to decide how to do so. In line with the Wolf Review, but counter to the direction of travel of Lord Baker's University Technical Colleges, there is no room for serious vocational learning before 16.

All of this is certainly in line with the direction of travel signalled by the English Baccalaureate, and its weighting for particular GCSE subjects. And while the majority - perhaps four in five students - should certainly be able to take this range of academic subjects through to GCSE standard, there is a serious question mark over its appropriateness for the minority who will undoubtedly be turned off this mix. There needs to be a serious option of college-based vocational and pre-apprenticeship courses, with English and Maths, for the remainder. This means that it should not be compulsory for all to take the extended national curriculum through to 16.

This group may be 1 in 5 nationally, but they will number as many as half the cohort in some schools and academies. The latter, in theory, should be able to ignore these strictures. But the Department has its levers - including the EBac - to cajole them in a different direction. Meanwhile, what of the compulsory subjects without programmes of study? This is fine, so long as there are some clear expectations of what young people should know about civics and citizenship, as the research for the review team shows to be the norm in most countries, and which concepts are crucial in ICT. But the real problem is the exclusion of technology as a subject on a par with history and geography on the GCSE curriculum: the call for computer science, for example, is being sidelined. And citizenship is to be sidelined competely as an add-on to PSHE, as was the case before it became a compulsory subject. Democracy is to be an afterthought.

Today sees Ofqual reporting on the growing errors and ineptitude of some exam boards. There will be those who might ask whether it would make more sense to have a single board for England (with separate boards in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland) to deal with the GCSE and A-level syllabuses. That way, there could be some clear expectations and no room for gaming. When I suggested this before, I was accused of undermining the innovation delivered by competition. I do wonder whether we have not seen rather too much such innovation from examiners in recent weeks.

Thursday 15 December 2011

Primary schools: the right target?

Today's primary school league tables reveal that there are 1310 schools - about 1 in 12 of those reporting results - that are below the Government's floor target of 60% of pupils getting a level 4 in English and Maths. The government is right to focus on attainment at the end of primary school, as those not reaching this standard are unlikely to get good GCSE results later on. They are also right to include a progress measure within their target to address those schools that are coasting.

Floor targets were introduced by the Labour government and have been a significant success story, particularly in secondary schools, where they have helped raise the game of many. After the substantial improvements in primary school results between 1995 and 2000, the result both of stronger accountability measures and the emphasis provided by Labour's literacy and numeracy strategies, there were substantial improvements in test scores in both English and Maths. And while progress slowed for several years in the early 2000s before the Rose report renewed an emphasis on phonics, today's results show 82 per cent reaching Level 4 in English and 80 per cent in Maths (and 74 per cent in both). In 1995, the figures [pdf: Table 1] were 49 per cent and 45 per cent respectively. Whatever today's failings - and there are still a quarter of pupils who are not making the grade in one or both subjects - it is no mean achievement of thousands of schools and their teachers.

The problem is greatest for the poorest students in the weakest schools. Analysis for the new Educational Endowment Foundation based on last year's data has shown that only 40% of pupils on free school meals in below target schools gain a level 4 in English and Maths compared with 57% of FSM pupils in other schools and 81% of those not receiving FSM in non-target schools. Those are huge gaps, and a lot of work will be needed to close them.

The Government has rightly extended the academies programme to the primary sector, and is requiring the worst primaries to become academies. It is right to want them to link with strong sponsors. But it needs to strike a balance here: there are to be 1000 National Leaders of Education by 2015, and many of those can provide the challenge and help needed to improve schools, especially those that are improving and are close to the target. Mergers and federations provide opportunities that schools may embrace for financial as well as educational reasons. With a still limited capacity among sponsors, their efforts need to be well focused on the persistent low attainers and to be properly targeted.

But ministers have also missed a trick with their pupil premium. It was announced this week that the premium paid for FSM pupils will rise from £488 to £600 per pupil in 2012-13, with eligibility extended to those who may previously have been in receipt of free school meals. The slow rate of increase suggests it is unlikely the premium will reach Nick Clegg's promised level of £2,500 a year by 2015, but more importantly there are far too few levers with the premium, as there is no element of reward or sanction linked to the performance of FSM pupils. Ministers are very keen on the power of accountability, but ignore its lagging effect. More improvements could be secured if schools could see that the premium was genuinely linked to progress.

The basics matter enormously, and the biggest gainers from an emphasis on improving them will be the poorest pupils in these target schools. But the Government must make better use of its limited levers and restricted remaining resources if it is to be successful.

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Does Dr Lansley really know best, with his blitz of 60 NHS targets that exclude waiting times?

Today, the Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, has launched his 60 targets for the National Health Service. This from a Secretary of State who, in opposition, said that he would be getting rid of NHS targets. But, then, this was the same politician who misled voters (and, possibly, the Prime Minister) about his true intentions for the health service. Apparently his structural overhaul plans were hidden in an obscure speech somewhere that sadly didn't make it to the Tory manifesto writing meeting or the script for Conservative candidates.

To be fair, it is hard to find a lot to disagree with in the good intentions behind targets that range from reducing mortality rates for people with several different conditions enhancing the quality of life for carers. Few would argue that the NHS should not be doing all those things. But it is the presumptiveness behind the whole exercise that is more worrying.

Mr Lansley tells us in the same breath that all these measures matter to patients, whereas they care not whether they wait four or twelve hours in A&E on a trolley, or whether they are seen and treated in 18 weeks rather than 18 months by a consultant. On both these measures, of course, he is busily undoing a huge success of the Labour government in reducing patient waiting times drastically, whilst at the same time, incidentally, significantly improving patient outcomes and the quality of many hospitals and GP surgeries.

But, no, the word 'waiting' appears nowhere in the 56 pages of targets unleashed on the NHS today. 'Doctor'
Lansley thinks we mere mortals shouldn't worry our pretty little heads about how long it takes to get seen by a doctor, just as long as they are meeting wider outcome targets. Instead of objective measurable data on waiting times, we are instead expected to rely on the NHS version of those ghastly happiness surveys that have been foisted on us by No 10. Ministers will say that the 18 week guarantee is enshrined in the NHS constitution: if this is to be more than a paper promise, it should at least form one of the 60 targets that the NHS will apparently be judged on. As the Kings Fund has said:

With the spending squeeze beginning to bite, the number of hospital inpatients waiting more than 18 weeks for treatment is already at its highest level for more than three years and waiting times for A&E and diagnostic services have also risen. As the government has said that it is opposed to targets, it now needs to be clear about how this pledge will be measured and enforced.

The Government has already weakened the A&E target so that hospitals are expected to allow waits of no longer than four hours in 95% of cases rather than 98% under Labour. Yet, even in the summer months, this less rigorous target was breached by 29 hospitals, according to the Kings Fund, while longer diagnostic to treatment waits are creeping up.

The trend since June 2010 for the proportion waiting more than 6 weeks for diagnostics has been upward and the percentage waiting more than 6 weeks has risen from 1.13 per cent in August 2010 to 2.0 per cent in August 2011 – equivalent to a rise in the number of patients from 5,800 in August 2010 to more than 11,400 in August 2011.

The Kings Fund points out that, in 2007, a third of patients had waited more than six weeks, a measure of Labour's success in cutting waits since then. How many more hospitals will ignore maximum waiting times, now that the health secretary has said he doesn't think it matters to patients how long they wait? Meanwhile, we are told in today's document that are no indicators available yet for 'ensuring that people have a positive experience of care' and that these are being 'developed'. In other words, instead of using existing waiting times data as a benchmark (even the laxer A&E data), new figures will be dreamt up and approved by the omniscient Lansley to confirm that things are getting better.

But there is a bigger problem 'focusing' on so much data, and it is echoed to a lesser extent at education. Without a clear focus on a small number of straightforward national targets, one might as well have no targets. In Labour's early years, the Treasury bombarded departments with new targets that were intended to show that the extra money on offer would be well spent. It was only when these were heavily stripped back that they had any impact. Michael Gove has recognised at education, floor targets related to national tests at 11 and GCSEs helped lift standards significantly in weaker schools, just as maximum waiting times in the NHS helped measure systemic change there. Of course, there is always some gaming with any targets, but the reality is that in both cases, most of the improvements have been real and substantial. It is hard to see the same energy being devoted to all of Lansley's 60 targets announced today, not least at a time of real terms cuts in most areas. In the end, we may not be able to see the wood from the trees.

But we don't need to worry, do we? After all, Dr Lansley knows best. Doesn't he?