What’s happening in the English education system and how does it compare to Singapore’s system?

by Stacey Dingwall

At the end of last year, we looked at the state of the Scottish education system following the publication of some disappointing Pisa results for the country. In this blog, we focus on some of the issues recently highlighted within the English education system, and how the system compares to that of Singapore – a system that is frequently identified as a model for other countries.

Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment)

Although there was no significant change in England’s absolute score in the 2015 OECD survey of maths, science and reading, or in the country’s performance relative to other countries, England’s rankings did not experience the same decline seen in Scotland and Wales. While Scotland’s scores across all three areas were the lowest they had recorded in any other Pisa survey, pupils in England performed slightly above the OECD average in reading for the first time.

After a similar stagnation in scores were achieved in the previous Pisa survey, the Minister of Schools for England, Nick Gibb, promised reforms and funding in order to ensure that the country was able to better compete with the top performing countries. The 2015 results show that East Asian countries including Singapore continue to dominate the rankings, and are continuing to make advances.

Teaching

The success of Singapore’s education system has been attributed to its investment in its teachers. All of the country’s teachers are trained at its National Institute of Education and are selected from the top 5% of graduates. Teachers are required to commit to the profession for at least three years and are mentored by ‘master teachers’ at the start of their careers.

As we highlighted on the blog recently, the House of Commons Education Committee raised concerns about teacher training and recruitment in England in the report of their inquiry. The evidence the Committee received suggested that the government is failing to take “adequate” action to tackle what is described as “significant” teacher shortages in England. The report highlights data that more than 10% of teachers leave the profession after a year.

Teacher workload was also highlighted as a significant issue, and the Education Policy Institute gave evidence to the Committee that 60% of respondents to a survey they carried out identified it as a “key barrier” to accessing continuing professional development. EPI analysis also found that teachers in England average four days of CPD per year, compared to 12 in Singapore. Teacher CPD was identified as important for not only professionalism during the inquiry, but also for pupil outcomes.

The schools landscape

The quality of the teaching workforce in England is not the only area in which concerns have been raised over the impact on pupils. The education system in England is a complex one, and has become even more so in recent years with academies, free schools and the reintroduction of grammar schools. Government policy has not been consistent: the Education Bill and the academisation of all schools in England were both abandoned shortly after their announcement.

Last week’s Budget included the announcement of a one-off payment of £320m for 140 new free schools to be created, in addition to the 500 already pledged before 2020. However, there’s still no evidence that significant improvements at the primary level are associated with academy status, and differences at GCSE level between converter academies and other similar maintained schools are not statistically significant. At the end of last year, the EPI found that grammar school pupils’ higher GCSE attainment is not actually a result of better grammar school performance, but can actually be attributed to the high prior attainment and demographic of pupils at selective schools.

The EPI concluded that grammar schools are more likely to widen the attainment gap for disadvantaged pupils. It was further reported earlier this month by the Sutton Trust that a policy of ‘social selection’ is being operated in admissions to the best performing schools.

Research from the NFER has indicated that parents are confused about academies, and the different types that exist. A preference for schools to be accountable to local education authorities was also indicated, which conflicts with the government’s focus on expanding academies/free schools.

Singapore operates a centralised schools system, which is integrated and characterised by a prescribed national curriculum. English academies are not required to follow the national curriculum.

Funding for schools

Despite the Budget announcement, recent news in the education world has been dominated by claims from schools that they are underfunded. As we noted in a blog from last year, when the government announced its plans for total academisation, cuts of £600m to the Education Services Grant awarded to local authorities were also planned. Even though the policy has been abandoned, the cuts have not been reversed.

Analysis for the National Union of Teachers (NUT) found that under the government’s new ‘fair funding’ formula, 98% of schools would see cuts by 2020. Responding to the consultation on the formula, representatives from over a dozen Conservative-led councils said that they were “extremely concerned” over what they see as inadequate levels of funding.

At last week’s Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) conference, headteachers told education secretary Justine Greening that current funding levels have resulted in them having to cut some subjects and support services, and increase class sizes. The day before the conference, the heads of over 1,000 schools in England wrote to parents and MPs to report the same issues.

The government insists that funding for schools is higher than ever before, at £40bn for 2016-17 and rising to £42bn in 2019-20 to take account of rising pupil numbers. However, Labour argue that as the budget does not provide for funding per pupil to increase in line with inflation, it actually represents a real-terms reduction in the funds spent for every pupil. In December, the National Audit Office published a report which said that as the government was only offering flat cash funding per pupil over the next five years, “Schools have not experienced this level of reduction in spending power since the mid-1990s”.

The latest data from the World Bank indicates that Singapore allocated a lower percentage of its GDP in 2012 than the UK: 3.3% vs 5.6%.

The future?

In an article published just before the Budget, Theresa May published an article which spoke of her government’s ambition to “make Britain the world’s greatest meritocracy”. Meritocracy is a key policy of the Singapore education system, and is identified as one of the main reasons for the system’s success. With evidence continuing to point towards disadvantaged pupils being denied the opportunities of their peers, and schools declaring that they don’t have enough funding to provide vital services, it’s clear that there is still some way to go before this ambition can begin to be realised.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other education articles. 

 

 

Education Bill scrapped: the local government impact

by Stacey Dingwall

This week saw the UK government officially drop plans for the Education Bill it announced during the Queen’s Speech earlier this year. Initially announced by then Chancellor George Osborne during last year’s Autumn Statement, the Bill would have seen all state schools in England removed from local authority control and forced to become academies by 2020.

Academies: the government’s U-turn

As we reported at the time, reaction to the plans was broadly negative. Critics of academies point to the lack of evidence that academies are successful in raising attainment, particularly among pupils from deprived areas.

Despite tweeting in March that “Full academisation will empower great teachers & leaders giving them autonomy and accountability to let their schools succeed”, then education secretary Nicky Morgan announced only two months later that the negative reaction from the education sector had convinced the government to drop plans for total academisation.

Of course, a matter of mere months can be a long time in politics, particularly in a year that has seen the country divided by Brexit and the complete overhaul of a government that was only elected one year prior. While the scrapping of the Education Bill could seem abrupt, in fact it fits in with the wider determination Theresa May has shown in trying to shape policy direction since she took office six months ago. Indeed, the Education Bill is just one of the policies – and departments – that the new PM has scrapped so far.

What does this have to do with grammar schools?

Aside from academies and free schools, the other key issue dominating English education policy is that of grammar schools. Overturning the Labour government’s ban on introducing new grammars is one of four proposals in education secretary Justine Greening’s ‘Schools that work for everyone’ consultation paper. Ever since the government’s proposal to bring back grammar schools was leaked in September, the plans have been met with widespread criticism, including by outgoing Ofsted chief Michael Wilshaw.

Current education secretary Justine Greening says that scrapping the Education Bill is not directly linked to the grammar schools plans. However, others, including the Labour opposition benches, suspect that it indicates that the government is having second thoughts again – this time on reintroducing grammars.

Funding cuts

While the scrapping of the Bill means that local authorities will retain control over state schools, it has created an issue in terms of funding. When the government announced its plans for total academisation, cuts of £600m to the Education Services Grant awarded to local authorities were also planned. Sir Richard Watts, Chair of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, has urged the government to reverse this decision, stating that while the Board is pleased that councils’ concerns over education reform have been listened to, implementing the cuts would seriously hamper local authorities’ ability to ensure children are able to access a range of educational services.

Aside from providing access to things like speech therapy and music lessons, the funding also helps councils to plan for new school places each term. A lack of school places is an ongoing concern in England, with a predicted shortfall of 10,000 primary places across the country within four years. Research published last week also indicted that half of secondary schools are oversubscribed, particularly those rated the highest by Ofsted.

The looming funding cut has also been criticised by Conservative-led councils, who argue that the funding is vital to their provision of school improvement services. Following the scrapping of the Bill, schools will be legally required to run school improvement services from next year. It remains to be seen just how they will be able to achieve this following yet another reduction on funding from central government.

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Budget 2016 – 5 messages for local government

One pound coin on fluctuating graph. Rate of the pound sterling

By Heather Cameron

Last week George Osborne revealed the details of his 2016 Budget, at the centre of which was a major deterioration of the forecast for productivity growth. Last year, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) projected an average growth in productivity per hour of 1.9% between 2015-16 and 2020-21; that average is now 1.7%.

As a result, a further £3.5 billion of savings from public spending is to be found in 2019/20. While Osborne has suggested these savings are equivalent to 50p in every £100 the government spends, experts have warned that the figure is closer to £2 or £3 for services that haven’t been protected.

What does it mean for local government?

Despite no direct cuts for local government, it remains unclear where these savings will come from. And with ring fencing of much public spending, local government may yet again bear the brunt of these cuts one way or another.

Business rates

Concerns have been raised over the announcement to extend business rate relief, the revenue from which is 50% retained by councils. It was revealed that this will remove £7 billion from the total take in England over the next five years; 600,000 small businesses will pay no rates at all from next year.

While good news for small businesses, there are fears it could leave a huge hole in local government finances as all locally raised business rates are to be fully devolved by the end of 2020. This will be accompanied by the phasing out of central government grants, and the devolution of additional spending responsibilities.

The government says that “local government will be compensated for the loss of income as a result … and the impact considered as part of the government’s consultation on the implementation of 100% business rate retention in summer 2016.”

But details of how such compensation will work remain unknown. The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has suggested that the government’s plans for reimbursing local government is “nigh on impossible”.

According to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF), if protection for council budgets isn’t extended to beyond the devolution of business rates, councils stand to lose £1.9bn per year, or 2.9% of their total revenues.

Benefits cuts

Further cuts to welfare spending could also have a knock-on effect. The Chancellor outlined controversial plans to reform Personal Independent Payments (PIP) for disabled people, to save £1.3 billion. Overall, £4.4 billion will be cut from benefits for disabled people over the course of the parliament.

The cuts to PIP have been described as ‘devastating’ for disabled people, with many relying on them to live independently. They could therefore lead to increasing pressure on already stretched local services.

Even the government’s own party members criticised these cuts, which have since led to the shock resignation of Iain Duncan Smith and a government U-turn on the reforms to PIP, which will now not go ahead.

But there is no alternative plan to fill the hole left by this U-turn so local government may still need to brace themselves for cuts elsewhere.

Education

Under the education reforms, every state school in England is to become an academy by 2020 or have a plan in place to do so by 2022, ending the century-old role of local authorities as providers of education.

But, as our recent blog has highlighted, there are ongoing concerns over the academy programme with little evidence to justify it.

The plans have been criticised by councils and teaching unions. Chairman of the Local Government Association (LGA) children and young people board, said:

We have serious concerns that regional schools commissioners still lack the capacity and local knowledge to have oversight of such a large, diverse and remote range of schools.”

Ofsted rated 82% of council maintained schools as good or outstanding, while the results of recent HMI inspections of academies has been described as “worrying”. The findings also highlighted a “poor use of public money”, something that has been reiterated by the LGA.

In response, the LGA noted that “councils have been forced to spend millions of pounds to cover the cost of schools becoming academies in recent years”.

Devolution deals

There was some better news for local government in the form of new devolution deals with the West of England, East Anglia, and Greater Lincolnshire. The West of England and East Anglia will each receive a £900 million investment fund over 30 years to boost economic growth, while Greater Lincolnshire’s deal is worth £450 million.

New powers over the criminal justice system are also to be transferred to Greater Manchester and business rates are to be fully devolved to the Greater London Authority next year, 3 years before everyone else.

The LGA welcomes these deals as recognition of the economic potential of all local areas and calls for a return to the early momentum in which similar deals were announced last year.

Flood defences

Another positive for local government was the £700 million funding boost for flood defences by 2020-21, including projects in York, Leeds, Calder Valley, Carlisle and across Cumbria, to be funded by a 0.5% increase in the standard rate of Insurance Premium Tax.

Considering the extent of recent winter flooding, this was welcomed by local government as a “step in the right direction”.

However, the LGA has stated that councils will need further help from government once the full cost of recent damage emerges. It has also called for flood defence funding to be devolved to local areas so the money can be spent on where it is really needed.

Final thoughts

So despite no direct cuts for local government, and the welcome boost to local economies and flood defences, it remains to be seen whether local government will lose out financially in the longer term.


Read our related blog on the total academisation of schools.

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Is the total academisation of schools in England a good idea?

by Stacey Dingwall

In one of the major announcements made as part of last week’s Budget, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, declared that all schools in England must become academies by 2020, or at least have official plans to do so by 2022. Any schools who fail to comply with this timetable will be forced to do so under new powers adopted by the government.

The policy, Osborne claimed, would “set schools free from local bureaucracy” and is part of his government’s plan to “make sure that every child gets the best start in life”. As the plan was announced, Education Secretary Nicky Morgan tweeted that “Full academisation will empower great teachers & leaders giving them autonomy and accountability to let their schools succeed”. Writing in a white paper published the following day, her department stated that removing schools from local authority control would help to “empower local communities, putting children and parents first and clearly defining the role of local government”.

More academies – the reaction

Reactions to the announcement were broadly negative, with the reform attracting criticism from local authorities, the shadow education secretary, unions, teachers, think tanks and parents, amongst others. Alongside Conor Ryan, Director of Research at the Sutton Trust, many pointed towards the fact that limited evidence exists of academies’ ability to improve the attainment levels of disadvantaged pupils, which was their original purpose. A loss of accountability to parents was also raised as a concern by some, including the Local Government Association, who stated that they opposed the handing over of “significant” powers in areas – including the curriculum – to “unelected civil servants”.

It was also noted that the government has decided to go ahead with the reform despite a recent letter to Morgan from Sir Michael Wilshaw, the Chief Inspector of Schools in England and head of Ofsted, which described the results of recent HMI inspections of academies as “worrying”. Wilshaw also wrote that many of the inspected multi-academy trusts displayed the same weaknesses as the worst performing local education authorities, and that the large salaries paid to the chief executives of these trusts was a “poor use of public money”.

Ongoing concerns

The Budget announcement comes almost two years after we first looked at issues with the academies programme on the blog. At that time, we reported on concerns that money which could be spent on addressing the shortage of school places in London was instead being used to open academies in areas where there was no urgent need for more places.

International experience: America and the Netherlands

After facing similar criticism to the English programme of failing to improve the attainment of poorer pupils, some are suggesting that the American charter schools programme, which heavily influenced the creation of the academies programme, is in decline. The Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, continues to be a vocal opponent of the movement, despite facing legal challenges over his refusal to guarantee space to new and expanding charter schools.

Speaking at a town hall meeting in South Carolina in November 2015, former charter supporter and potential Democrat presidential nominee Hillary Clinton voiced her opinion that charter schools do not engage with the “hardest-to-reach” kids, or if they do, “they don’t keep them”.

Writing for the Institute of Education, University College London blog, Toby Greany and Melanie Ehren considered the experience of the Netherlands, a country whose schools system has higher rates of autonomy than England. Two issues experienced by the Dutch Schools Boards, which were set up to oversee groups of primary schools, are highlighted as particularly relevant for England:

  1. Some Boards have been placed into special financial measures due to their failure to correctly predict their pupil numbers; this, it is argued, could befall academies in England who cover more than one local authority area.
  2. Due to limited engagement with teaching staff and parents, the Boards have not managed to fully embed themselves as legitimate in the eyes of society.

Evidence update

Since our 2014 blog, both the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) and Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) have published new evidence on academies, focusing on their impact on pupil attainment. In their May 2015 review of available evidence, the NFER noted several difficulties in evaluating the performance of academies due to several gaps in the evidence. The review concluded that while there is some evidence to suggest that sponsored secondary academies have had a positive impact on attainment, no significant difference in progress could be found between converter academies and similar non-academy schools. In addition, no conclusive evidence was found of the impact of academisation on primary pupils’ attainment.

In a think piece published alongside the evidence review, the NFER concluded that further expansion of the academies programme by the government would require the following factors to justify it:

  • a clearly articulated theory of change
  • the right evidence
  • evaluation
  • sufficient capacity
  • accountability

Given the reaction to the Budget’s announcement, it can be assumed that most are of the opinion that the government has not yet managed to provide sufficient justification for its decision.


Further reading from our blog on the English education system:

Government’s free schools programme comes under fire again

free school

By Stacey Dingwall

The government’s already controversial free schools programme in England ran into trouble again this week, with the publication of an Ofsted inspection report on Greenwich Free School which found that “too few students make good progress across the different subjects taught in the school”, alongside Labour Party analysis which suggests that 70% of the schools are still not full two years after opening. Continue reading