Is Matthew Taylor right about universities?

The RSA’s Matthew Taylor has sparked an online debate with comments about Oxford, Cambridge and the Russell Group universities, saying that students should consider other, more creative, options.  He has subsequently clarified that he meant they should consider all options before making the leap into higher education.

I have great respect for Matthew and admire his willingness to speak his mind.  Many who have leapt on his comments (especially on Twitter) have suggested that he is ‘pulling up the ladder’ and that students taking heed of his comments will not benefit from the education that he had.

But is there a wider message in the comments (and subsequent response)?  Clearly, yes.  Higher Education is now a significant financial investment, not just the commitment of time and effort it once was.  Students cannot drift into a course and the subsequent at least £27k of debt for course fees.  It is right that they are now ‘consumers’ who have to ensure that they get good value for money.  They need to balance the benefits of the reputation of long established universities against the individual benefits of the course that they wish to study.  It is a hard choice to make at 18.  Those who have a platform to spread this message to students are right to do so.

Edited to add:  This article by Danny Dorling puts the above ideas far more eloquently and in greater content – I recommend having a read.

Disclaimer: I have worked at the RSA and benefited from a (heavily government subsidised) Russell Group education.


What will Prevent do?

Since 1 July, all schools and most other educational institutions have been subject to a new legal duty under the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015.

Schools have, in exercising their functions, to have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.  So what does that mean?

The DfE have published guidance for schools, which indicates that this duty is viewed as part of wider safeguarding.  At an event I attended recently, an Ofsted HMI confirmed that any issues with schools’ implementation of the guidance will result downgrading under their safeguarding judgement and potentially the overall judgement for a school.

So far, so clear.

But what was also clear at the recent Home Office organised events is that information flow from authorities to schools might be rather limited.  For example, information about local risks is provided at senior LA officer level, and then ‘cascaded as appropriate’ to schools.  Much is also restricted due to security clearance.

The conundrum therefore is how do schools formulate policy, train staff, assess effectiveness, etc. when information on local issues is so limited.  The answers were unsatisfactory:  either schools ‘would know’ or ‘would be told when necessary’.  It seems likely that this disconnect will become apparent next term, when we see the first Ofsted reports since the duty came into force.

Given the doom and gloom above, what practical advice was available?  Build a relationship with the relevant officer(s) in your local authority and police force: some higher risk areas have a specific Prevent co-ordinator.  Ask questions – get answers in writing.  If uncertain, keep policies and training ‘high level’ with regular updates as and when information is provided.  Think beyond Islamist extremism – far right extremism is becoming more common and is just as covered by the duty.  Ensure that governors know what you are doing, and encourage them to attend staff training to raise awareness.

If any further information becomes available, I will post again on this issue.

Advance notice or heightened state of alert?

The publication of the independent review into the allegations about Ofsted and the Inspiration Trust makes interesting reading on two levels.

Firstly, it is a stark reminder of the high stakes of Ofsted inspection.  Schools will do anything to keep inspectors happy, including a deputy head planning in advance how to keep parking spaces available.  So much energy is expended trying to second guess what inspectors will want to see.  This isn’t healthy for schools, staff or pupils.  What can we do to make this right?

Secondly, the report’s author clearly thinks something was going on but there isn’t evidence for a firm conclusion.  At several points the report makes clear that key individuals could not be contacted for their evidences.  Key emails and minutes were also mysteriously lost in school IT systems.  Surely without all the evidence the verdict should have been more equivocal.

The most interesting numbers in the Ofsted Annual Report

The headlines following publication of HMCI’s Annual Report for 2013/14 have focused on the story that Ofsted/DfE want told – more schools than ever are good or outstanding and primaries are forging ahead.

Page 37 of the section of the report about schools tells us something more interesting.  The inspection grades for the year completed are as follows:


7% Outstanding, 57% Good, 31% Requires Improvement, 5% Inadequate


11% Outstanding, 40% Good, 36% Requires Improvement, 14% Inadequate

With the numerous changes to inspection frameworks mentioned in my earlier posts, I would suggest that the broader ‘most recent inspection grade’ figures which are the ones being heavily quoted are rather misleading.  The figures above cover a good sample – 30% of schools – and were under the same framework.  The only caveat is that schools previously judged outstanding are not routinely inspected although a growing number are now receiving return visits.

What conclusion do you draw?

Dominic Cummings at the IPPR

The meeting room at the IPPR was full to capacity on Wednesday for a talk by former Whitehall SPAD Dominic Cummings.  No doubt most delegates were keen to hear nuggets of gossip from the Gove inner circle, and some might have been disappointed by his focus instead on presenting an insightful analysis of Civil Service flaws.

IPPR have put the talk out as a podcast if you want to listen it in full.  My post can’t provide an adequate summary of a nuanced set of arguments and I would suggest you stick with the talk to the end.

The solutions posed by DC in the talk will chime with anyone who has had to work with government departments.

1. A ‘mass refocusing’ cutting work that does not have to sit with a central department.  The example given was DfE’s careers work, which has been scaled right back in recent years but has proved difficult to eradicate all together.

2. Incentivising achievement of goals rather than a focus on micromanaging process.

3. Reducing headcount and reforming HR.

4. Separating policy development from delivery, including splitting the Perm Sec role into two.

5. Improving core skills of MPs/Ministers/Civil Service, particularly statistics.

6. Improving accountability, increasing the numbers of Ministers appointed via the House of Lords.  Enhancing Select Committee process.  Giving rights of audience in the Commons to Ministers who sit in the Lords.

7. Embed scientific advisors/evidence based policy.

8. Shrink numbers in the Cabinet and reform the Spending Review Process.  Consider having teams that are meant to actively challenge and work against policies.

Not a small task, and some of it buried in more eccentric theorising, but you have to hope that someone is listening and might take this forward in the next parliament.

Ofsted consultation

This week I’ve been working on a response to the current Ofsted on changes to the inspection framework.

It has struck me that this will be at least the fourth significantly changed framework in five years.  Whilst HMCI’s attempt to ‘raise the bar’ is to be applauded, does this succession of inspection frameworks actually lead to improvements in school standards?  Could Ofsted’s (shrinking) resources be better used focusing on inspector quality than reinventing frameworks and all the training and communications work that required?

I had heard it said that government cuts would lead to a period of stability.  If anything the opposite has been true for inspection.

LGA Ofsted report – pressure mounting

Today’s LGA press release – available here – shows the declining support for Ofsted  nationally and growing calls for substantial reform.  But is there any government will to take the necessary reforming measures?

The Education Select Committee used to have a standing inquiry into the work of Ofsted, but that seems to have tailed away recently.

Who would be suitably independent of the education ‘establishment’ to undertake the independent inquiry the LGA propose?