Thursday 26 January 2012

Can you have too much data?

Nobody is a greater believer in the power of data than I am. During the Labour government, the real power of the tests and tables introduced by the Tories was unleashed, with success in raising minimum standards in schools and maximum NHS waiting times. The coalition have recognised the value, at least, of the former. But we also made the mistake of trying to have too many targets. Specifically, the Treasury started to impose its endless whims on departments, leading to some real problems, as with crude exclusion targets; some that seemed doomed to fail, like the bid to cut truancy; and many that were an irritant for departments and an unwelcome addition to their box-ticking for frontline professionals, but had little impact on service users.

With today's league tables, there is every chance the coalition are embarking on the erroneous course. I'm all in favour of the initiative, but having tried to open some of the extraordinary zip files buried within it, I do wonder quite how accessible it all is. On a smaller scale, today's tables present the same problem: we now know how well schools progress; how well they do at the top end, at the bottom end, and for average pupils; we now how well they do in Gove's favourite subjects, as well as in the subjects already reported separately of English, Maths and Science; we know the progress a school has made; and its level of improvement. All of this is valid and potentially useful. But we are told that this barrage of statistics will see schools avoiding 'gaming' which is apparently all that an improvement from 35 to 58 per cent in the proportion of students gaining five good GCSEs (or equivalents) including English and Maths since 1997 amounted to. Yet the DFE's own statistics show that even excluding BTECs that are worth four GCSEs, the total is 53 per cent this year for GCSEs or 52 per cent for academic GCSEs. Hardly all the result of gaming. Indeed sponsored academies and the London Challenge - two Labour programmes regularly praised by Gove - played a pretty large role.

But the Government is becoming a bit confused here. In fact, as Michael Gove's adoption of them recognises, schools responded to floor targets, particularly thosr for the five good GCSEs, precisely because they were deemed the most important in lifting them from poor to average. I hear from heads that the schools most likely to adopt the EBacc are those that are satisfactory and see this as a route to good. Again, these two measures are acting as floor targets. The danger of trying to judge schools on a much wider range of criteria through league tables - as opposed to Ofsted judgements which should do so - is that the parent has more information than they can absorb, and they are unable to process it. Five good GCSEs may have been a flawed measure, just as the KS4 English and Maths tests may not be perfect, but it is a simple and meaningful way of judging a school. When CVA was introduced, some schools saw it as an alternative to good GCSEs, yet few employers will look kindly on a clutch of Ds and Es - it may have shown progress but it was often not enough for those students, who needed real qualifications. I only hope that the perverse effect of the government's information overload is not a slowing of the pace of improvement.

Wednesday 25 January 2012

Vince Cable's department gets its university sums wrong again

There is but one conclusion to draw from today's rather belated HEFCE grant letter (these things are usually issued before Christmas) - that BIS, Vince Cable's business and skills department, has got its sums even more badly wrong than we realised over its student support package. There was a good reason why Labour had a lower starting threshold for student loans than the £21,000 adopted by the coalition in a hopeless bid to rescue Nick Clegg from ignominy for his broken promise: it was based on how quickly people could pay back when they were in work. There is a big difference between starting at £15,000 and at £21,000 in the speed of repayments.

By lifting the starting threshold so much, even with added interest repayments, the coalition has made it impossible to grow student numbers significantly. At the same time, the continued linking of loans to fees, rather than maintenance, with no effective agreements with other EU countries over collecting unpaid loans, has left another black hole in future BIS finances. No wonder they have announced an effective cutback of 15,000 places in today's remit letter to Hefce, the funding council. Or, rather, they haven't. This is what the letter which is signed by Vince Cable and David Willetts actually says:

In this context we want to work with the Council as follows. First, we need the Council to bring its sector-wide entrant controls into closer alignment with the Government's financial planning. HEFCE has historically set student number control limits across the sector slightly above the recruitment level assumed in the Government's expenditure plans. This recognises that the control is a maximum and some level of under recruitment, at the sector level, was to be expected. The aim of over allocating in this way was to achieve the Government's planned student numbers. The recent trend for strong recruitment across the sector now makes this approach unnecessary. Furthermore, it exposes Government to higher than budgeted costs which cannot be absorbed at a time of financial constraint. As a result, we are now asking the Council to reduce its entrant control maximum by 5,000 places in 2012/13. This brings it in line with our original spending plans and reduces the risk of over recruitment. It does not represent a reduction in the total number of students the Government expects to fund.

I've read a lot of officialese in my time, but this one takes the biscuit. As the National Union of Students notes in its response, the cuts come "from not repeating a planned stimulus of 10,000 places designed to combat the effects of recession, and also a change to controls on universities that over-recruit which will see 5,000 less places available."

At the same time, universities face bigger fines for over-recruitment than before, and there is no news yet on whether competition will be extended both at the upper level, by moving from free recruitment of those with AAB in their A-levels to ABB, and at the lower priced end, by extending the number of low cost places that can be bid for (or even lifting a cap for qualified students paying less than £6000 a year).

The Government was right to grasp the nettle of tuition fees, but it was wrong not to do its sums over its repayment terms for graduates. With a planned higher education white paper already ditched in the confusion, the coalition's higher education policy has lost its way.

Friday 13 January 2012

Can Gove change the culture on capability?

I had a weary sense of deja vu listening to Michael Gove on the radio this morning, talking about his plans to toughen up capability procedures. For the Today listeners, Gove highlighted his plans to 'allow' schools to remove poor teachers within a term rather than a year. Since they have been able to do so since 1998, when a fast-track process was introduced, which was later widening in its scope, this was not quite news. The real problem is partly that the procedures, thanks to the teaching unions, were more complex than they should have been - and Gove is easing this - and partly the same culture in schools that has made performance pay seem more like incremental progression in too many cases.

Gove's changes include:
  • giving schools more freedom over managing their teachers through simpler, less prescriptive appraisal regulations;
  • removing the three-hour limit on observing a teacher in the classroom (the so-called "three-hour observation rule”) so that schools have the flexibility to decide what is appropriate;
  • a requirement to assess teachers every year against the new, simpler and sharper Teachers’ Standards – the key skills that teachers need;
  • allowing poorly performing teachers to be removed in about a term – the process can currently take a year or more;
  • an optional new model policy for schools that deals with both performance and capability issues; and
  • scrapping more than 50 pages of unnecessary guidance
All this is perfectly sensible. However, unless there is a major cultural shift in schools, particularly primaries, they will be relatively meaningless. Heads often fear that unless they promote virtually all those eligible for progression they will cause discord in the staffroom. Equally, there is a sense among teachers that unless they get pay progression for excellence reasonably automatically, it is a sign of failure rather than a spur to do better. A growing minority of schools - particularly academies - have the confidence to challenge this consensus. But it remains too strong in too many schools, and it is the reason why the apparently radical reforms to performance pay - hugely contentious at the time - have been far too ineffectual. There is also a strong case for an annual reward scheme for schools showing the biggest improvements.

The truth is that it is this culture, as much as the complexity of the guidance, that explains why it can typically take a year to remove an incompetent teacher. Teachers are often given far more informal chances to improve than they would get in most other working environments before any formal process starts: of course they need the chance to improve, but it can become quickly apparent whether they are willing to do so. So, these Gove changes are perfectly reasonable, and build sensibly on changes introduced in the late 90s, but they will only effect the radical difference that their prominence in today's news bulletins promised if the freedom to manage teacher performance more flexibly translates into a new mindset in schools themselves.

I am quoted on this issue at the Financial Times and this post also appears at Public Finance.

Tuesday 10 January 2012

Higher education predictions

I have contributed the following thoughts to the Guardian's website on higher education in 2012:

2012 will be the year when the government's HE changes are properly tested.  I think ministers will struggle to resolve the central tension in the government's approach to higher education: how to develop a market while paying the up front costs of higher loans. The redistribution of 20,000 places for those charging lower fees seems unlikely to do it, and FE colleges are finding it harder to gain university accreditation for their degree courses. Legislation due in the spring could see measures to try to force more of a market and a wider range of lower cost degree courses. The Open University will find itself accrediting many more courses than it does now.

If student numbers for 2012 are significantly down on 2011 figures {the final application figures are published later this month], there will be growing Lib Dem and Labour pressure for stronger access regulation that will be resisted by universities. At the same time, the reality of the fees will see renewed pressure to increase contact time with students. Parents and students will demand more teaching and tutorial time to justify the fees they are paying, and this will become a big issue in the autumn.

The UK will struggle in the international market, as Australian, other European and South East Asian competitor universities successfully highlight the 'hostility' of the UK government towards overseas students, and offer attractive packages including English booster courses, simpler visa facilities and postgraduate work experience. Ministers will be forced to rethink this aspect of their migration policy as they see the economic impact.

Wednesday 4 January 2012

The most read posts of 2011

The temptations of Twitter meant that I blogged rather less in 2011 than in the previous years. Nevertheless, I am grateful to the 9,400 unique visitors who made some 16,500 visits to the blog during the year, according to Google Analytics. For the record, here are the most visited posts (excluding those visiting the home page).

1. Eating out in Keynsham: just to show life isn't all politics and education!
2. Errors with EBacc haste: why Gove may be too academically focused.
3. Why Michael D is more likely than Martin McG to become Irish President: and why this Blog is a better bet than the Guardian in picking Irish winners.
4. Gove goes back to basics: The education secretary rediscovers the purpose of academies
5. Here's the proof: Labour DID improve social mobility: some cracking FT analysis
6. Clegg's real threat to coalition school plans: the Lib Dem leader in love with local authorities
7. Reforming the curriculum: will the changes work for every child?
8. Hidden by the hacking: end-of-term education manoeuvres: Gove does some summer U-turns
9. Danger of dumbing down GCSE statistics: Tory MPs talking down school improvements
10. Slow progress on free schools: A cautious start to a flagship programme

For the record, by far the biggest sources of visitors in 2011, aside from Google searches, was Twitter. But after those, I should thank Hopi Sen, whose excellent blog is back, Stumbling and Mumbling, Scenes from the Battleground, Matthew Taylor, Public Finance, Left Foot Forward, Slugger O'Toole  for Total Politics, The Guardian and the Spectator for adding to my traffic during the year.

Gove is right to tackle academy critics, but he needs to take his case to the parents

When I saw the letter from David Lammy and others, including the general secretary of the NUT, criticising DFE plans to convert Downhills Primary school, Lammy's old school, into an academy, I knew it would just be a matter of time before the whole incident formed the basis of a speech by the Education Secretary Michael Gove. It seemed like a gold-plated gift to Gove, delivered just in time for Christmas, and the Education Secretary has wasted no time opening it and showing it to all his friends.

In a speech today at Haberdashers' Askes Academy in South London, Gove highlights the protest using a splendid headline from the Hornsey Journal, ‘Campaigners: Hands off our failing school.’ Downhills has become a cause celebre from the critics of academies, who think it wrong that underperforming schools  should be forced to become academies.

In his letter to the Guardian, Lammy et al wrote:

...the secretary of state for education has become the playground bully, using draconian legal powers to force schools into academy status, removing democratically elected governing bodies, circumventing the important role of local education authorities and creating more opportunities for those in the private sector to take over England's schools.It is clear that the Haringey schools mentioned in your article and, we understand, many more around the country are being used to promote the government's academy agenda. Department for Education officials are instilling fear in schools and putting them under intense pressure to convert voluntarily rather than face the stigma of being forced to become academies run by external sponsors as so-called failing schools. This use by Michael Gove of legal powers, departmental staff and resources to pursue a political agenda has nothing to do with school improvement and must cease forthwith. Decisions about schools are best made by people from the communities they serve. This undemocratic programme is no more than political dogma and has nothing to do with localism or communities.
Gove uses today's speech to hit back, citing the work of Tony Blair and Andrew Adonis, who battled to convert failing secondaries, as well as the success of CTCs to justify his extension of the Academies programme. He tells us that there are now over 1500 academies, though only 335 are led by sponsors. And the truth is that, while it may be a legitimate criticism to question the DFE resources spent on persuading outstanding schools to take a £25k cheque to pursue the legal formalities needed to convert to academy status, rather than simply letting them get on with it, the drive to replace failing primary schools with sponsored academies is genuinely an extension of the Blair programme, and one that is needed.

There is a hard core of primary schools that have remained stubbornly below par for years, and they need to be given a new start, sponsored by a successful school, an established sponsor or as part of a trust arrangement. In his speech, Gove says there are more than 1,000 primaries - 1 in 18 - where fewer than 40 per cent of pupils reach Level 4 in reading, writing and mathematics. The status quo is not enough for them. Nor, frankly, is it good enough to expect 'other solutions' to be tried before moving to academy status if the problems are that entrenched.  

Whether Downhills is still among the worst is less clear. Results from 2011 show that Downhills is no longerbelow the Government's floor target for Level 4 English and Maths any more: it had some pretty miserable results in 2008 and 2009, participated in the 2010 boycott, but got just above the target at 61% last year - the floor is 60%. Progress in the latest Ofsted monitoring inspection, after a dismal report last January, suggests progress is now satisfactory, though it suggests a lot still to be done. It is a school that clearly needs a strong drive forward - but its pupils would benefit from some political agreement about its future rather than being the pawns in this ideological battle.

Yet Gove's arguments would be a lot stronger if he were able to distinguish in his own mind between the genuinely hard graft required to convert failing schools to academy status - and the scars on his back in this case are mere scratches compared to those endured by Adonis and DFES officials in the early 2000s - and the legal niceties needed to enable others to do so. I think it is great that good schools have been enabled to convert: I just feel that they could have been expected to do more as academies, given the financial incentive provided - many schools gained £300-£500k in the process

Gove admits in his speech that only 18 out of 1194 converters are sponsoring other academies (and two of those started doing so under Ed Balls), though around 400 participate in trusts and chains. By conflating the figures for sponsor-led and converter academies, he is undermining his own strong case for action in the failing primaries. And by failing to pursue his own expectation that outstanding converters would significantly help weaker schools, he has played a weak hand in exploiting any potential leverage from the conversions.

In such battles, the education secretary needs to turn on one of his better traits: his charm. Gove should not be making his case to the converted at the brilliant Haberdashers' Academy. He should meet with Lammy and be ready to argue his case to parents of children at schools like Downhills. Since the DFE is rather short of the sponsors it needs for all its target primaries, a process of engagement, where governors and parents get the chance to meet sponsors, many of whom will be other school heads, could go a long way to separate the ideologues from those they have swayed.

All that said, this is now a good time for Labour's Shadow Education Secretary, Stephen Twigg to take a strong stand on academies. On failing primaries, there should be no quibbles from the two Eds. Twigg should be ready to argue the case for primary academies to play a central role in reducing school failure, and to act as a persuader with recalcitrant Labour councils where there is an issue. This is not to say that he should back every imposition unquestioningly but that where it is clear that academy status is best he should work to prevent it becoming a party political football.

Michael Gove's speech today makes many of the right arguments. He now needs to find ways to make that case directly to the parents and teachers in the primary and secondary schools whose pupils still desperately need a new start, and to engage them in finding the right academy-based solutions. He deserves backing in making the case. But if he is to win this battle, he must also recognise that this has to be his top priority for schools reform in the coming years.