Wednesday 16 July 2014

Delivery depends on detail for new ministers

I've posted at the Sutton Trust on the reshuffle.

Reshuffles can be a brutal business. This week’s surprise move of Michael Gove, and his replacement by Nicky Morgan as education secretary, seemed particularly so. But no less surprising to those in education was the departure of David Willetts as universities minister to make way for Greg Clark.

Both had been highly able ministers, as well combative advocates in defence of their policies. And both leave significant legacies. For Gove, the media has focused on the growth of academies and free schools and the changes to the curriculum. With Willetts, raising tuition fees without any medium-term impact on the numbers of young people going to university was a clear political success. 

Yet, their legacies in tackling disadvantage and improving access may lie elsewhere, and it is important that their successors recognise these achievements as much as those with a higher profile.

It is true that there are now 4000 academies, scores of free schools and that the curriculum is being made more knowledge-focused, with exams toughened to match. The direction of travel towards greater school independence has been accelerated, but whether it leads also to rapid improvement will owe as much to other less celebrated changes. The best academies and free schools clearly make a difference, but there have also been significant failures.

As significantly, Gove – and his Liberal Democrat deputy David Laws – have championed the use of evidence to improve teaching, gradually increasing expectations that their pupil premium is used on what works, and this week’s Ofsted report suggests that is having some impact. The funding of the Education Endowment Foundation, our sister charity, was an important part of that process, and it is one that not only enjoys cross-party support but growing buy-in from school leaders and teachers.

Equally important in my view has been the continued use of floor targets to raise the minimum acceptable standard for schools – though the impact of planned changes to the core league table measure may not have been fully considered – and the development of Teaching School Alliances to support school-to-school improvement, a key feature of the London Challenge.

Although his critics presented his policies as intensifying competition, the reality of the growth of academies has been an explosion in multi-academy trusts and similar co-operative arrangements at a local level, of which the Teaching Schools are an important aspect.

For Nicky Morgan, the challenge will be to build on these aspects of the Gove legacy and to foster greater collaboration between schools, particularly isolated primaries and schools in regions as yet largely untouched by the reform bug in ways that may support the growth of academies, but also enable all schools to provide the academic curriculum now expected of them.

If there was one significant weakness in the Gove – and to an extent, the Laws – approach, it was in their willingness to use levers sufficiently. The pupil premium is being used more effectively, but why not do more to reward schools that make a real difference to their disadvantaged pupils, and cut the premium from those that persistently fail to do so? Why not expect more collaboration from converter academies, which gained financially from their conversion, so they are required in their funding agreements to play a part in wider school improvement, as the best converters already do?

Greg Clark faces challenges in higher education too. Although student numbers have held up, and the proportion of students from poorer backgrounds has continued to grow, there are significant concerns about the impact of student debt in the future. Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and others suggesting that the current likely repayments will barely cover the increased fees suggest that the overall funding model needs review; equally, while it may seem attractive to load repayments onto people’s salaries in their 40s rather than their 20s, the social implications of this extra burden may not have been thought through. The new minister will need to take another look at the arithmetic.

It will also be important to monitor the impact of the raising of the student numbers cap on recruitment to elite universities. While this may increase student places overall, some Russell Group vice-chancellors fear that it will make it harder to improve access, as A*AA or higher may become the norm in popular courses, with less room for contextual offers.

For both ministers – and the same is true for Nick Boles, who replaces Matthew Hancock as skills minister in improving apprenticeships – it is to be hoped that tackling social mobility and the impact of disadvantage should be as much a priority as it was for Gove and Willetts. Doing so means getting the detail right, as much as it does sketching the big picture