A call to rebuild the Department for Education and Skills

Professor Adrian Oldknow has long been one of the best informed and networked thinkers in the UK with regard to linking vocational (particularly CDT and STEM) education to the needs of the world of today and tomorrow. He is unusual in that he marries theory to practice and thinks in terms of  tangible projects and co-operation. He has built on some of my recent blogs in a way I could not hope to equal.

Below is the paper he has just produced to help the many groups with which he is in touch to structure their thinking.

Read, learn and ponder.

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A new British Technological Education & Skills Strategy and a new Department for Education & Skills for England?

Adrian Oldknow   [email protected]

As the new school year is beginning across the UK, and as politicians prepare for their impending Party conferences, we have an opportunity to take stock over how our nations, as a whole, can engage in helping schools to better equip their learners for the increasingly technological world ahead.  An encouraging sign this week has been the discussions between the scientific advisors of the four nations to harmonise their approach to vaccinating school pupils.  The Prime Minister’s speech on `levelling up’ skills across Great Britain from July is posted in full here.  It talks about the disparities both between and within the nations.  During lock down, we became increasingly aware of the disparities between the state education policies in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.  I hope that those disparities can be reviewed, perhaps independently, so that all stakeholders can contribute to putting the Great back in front of Britain when it comes to our provision of technological education and skills in all schools.  We have all the components we need to achieve this quite quickly if we can only develop a shared vision.  But there are currently significant fault lines being exposed which, unless rectified, will severely impede progress.

The Digital Policy Alliance’s 21stC Skills Forum formed a writing group in May 2020 to develop policy proposals prompted by the DBEIS Committee’s Inquiry into post-Covid recovery for the economy and employment.  Some of its early work is summarised in Philip Virgo’s blog `How can schools help the UK’s post-Covid recovery in the economy and employment?’.  This was updated a fortnight ago in `Towards a post-Covid skills policy.  Here Philip reports that he has developed a personal paper for the Conservative Science & Technology Forum: `How do we give the skills of the future to millions whose education has been disrupted and jobs destroyed?’  The blog contains the report and its recommendations.

In his earlier blog `Levelling up Digital Skills and Jobs in the Post-Lockdown Economy’ Philip addresses the specific skills needs of the digital sector of the economy.  BEIS is responsible for the Industrial Strategy which is being updated as `Build back better: our plan for growth’.  it has also recently announced a new Innovations Strategy.  DCMS now has several relevant strategies including AI, Data, and Digital Strategies with a team of 4 ministers including the Secretary of State, Oliver Dowden.  Its current work schedule is specified in the comprehensive `DCMS Outcome Delivery Plan 2021 to 2022’.  I have only just come across the notion of ODPs – Outcome Delivery Plans.  One of the first I found seems to have been developed in Northern Ireland as the `2018-19 End-Year Report : Improving wellbeing for all – by tackling disadvantage and driving economic growth’.  This is pre-Covid, and was instituted to help coordinate government “in the absence of a functioning Executive”.

Further digging revealed: `Delivering Excellence and Equity in Scottish Education: A Delivery Plan for Scotland’. Dated 28 Jun 2016, it states: “This delivery plan clearly sets out how the Scottish Government will work with partners to deliver excellence and equity for every child in education in Scotland.”   In 2006, Scotland asked the OECD to examine the performance of its school system within the framework of the OECD’s reviews of national policies for education.  “Scottish authorities were particularly interested in receiving advice about the adequacy of recent reforms in view of the experience of several countries facing similar challenges.”  Following criticisms about the way in which the Curriculum for Excellence CfE had been implemented in schools, the Scottish Government asked the OECD for a further review.  This was generally supportive of the aims and design of the curriculum, but said it needed greater clarity and a redesign of a its assessment to provide the breadth of education desired.  The BBC article of 21st June provides the detail.  The Scottish Government has published its response, accepted its recommendations and is restructuring the assessment of the CfE.

Both Wales and Northern Ireland have also been working with OECD on developing their curricula to bring them more up to date and relevant.  The launch of the Welsh curriculum in 2020 is recorded on the OECD site here.  The OECD Skills strategy for Northern Ireland is recorded here.

The NI curriculum requires “Through each area of learning, children develop the skills that they need for life and work:

Cross-curricular skills

  • communication
  • using mathematics
  • using ICT

Other skills

  • being creative
  • working with others
  • self-management
  • managing information
  • thinking, problem-solving and decision making.

At Key Stage 4, the statutory requirements are Learning for Life and Work, physical education, religious education and developing skills and capabilities.”

In 2018, the OECD published its first findings on the future of education and skills.

“Education can equip learners with agency and a sense of purpose, and the competencies they need, to shape their own lives and contribute to the lives of others. To find out how best to do so, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has launched The Future of Education and Skills 2030 project. The aim of the project is to help countries find answers to two far-reaching questions:

  • What knowledge, skills, attitudes and values will today’s students need to thrive and shape their world?
  • How can instructional systems develop these knowledge, skills, attitudes, and values effectively?”

On the face of it, then, we should be in a very good position to harmonise the way technological education and skills are provided in schools for all learners pre-16, and further developed post-16, across the four nations.  This would include both applying subject content from Science, DT, Computing and Maths to realistic problems, and the development of employability skills such as problem-solving, creativity, team-work, communication and critical thinking.  There is already a rich treasure house of freely available supporting materials on which to draw, as well as supporting organisations.

The Covid-19 pandemic has provided some unforeseen opportunities to speed up the development of a more flexible approach to learning and teaching supported by digital technology.  There is now a plethora of pre-written lesson resources and assessments online in every subject so that education can be provided at home and at school while Covid infections continue to fluctuate.

But there are also new resources, such as those developed by the Micro:bit Learning Foundation, which enable learners and teachers (and their families) to work collaboratively whether physically together or remotely.  Activities which used to be extra-curricular in Code Clubs, STEM Clubs and the like, can now be integrated into the normal teaching timetable and thus be available for all learners.  These can also be supported by `expert’ volunteers such as STEM Ambassadors, Enterprise Advisers, retired IET members and older learners such as HE students and apprentices.  Back in 2003, the DfES published its report on transforming through IT in schools: `Fulfilling the Potential’.  Now, nearly 20 years later, we are in an ideal position to achieve fulfilment.  That is why I hope that DCMS, DBIES, and HM Treasury can work with the four national Education Departments to develop the British Technological Education & Skills Strategy.   I just referred to the DfES – this was the Department for Education and Skills, which existed from 2001 to 2007.  Following the publication of the DfE White Paper `Skills for Jobs’, I would also suggest that this should be officially recognised by a change in name of the DfE back to the English Department for Education and Skills DfES.

Earlier, I made reference to the DCMS’ Outcome Delivery Plan 2021 to 2022 for the Treasury.  So, I started to hunt for an equivalent for education.  It is here: DfE Outcome Delivery Plan 2021 to 2022, dated 15th July 2021.  Schools Week carried an article on it on 23rd July: `Treasury marks DfE’s 11,500-word homework laying out its vision’.  Gavin Williamson’s Foreword is encouragingly straightforward:

Education will be the driving force to help unleash Britain’s potential and build back better after coronavirus (COVID-19).  This plan sets out what we will do to drive economic recovery, improve educational standards across our country, give children the best start in life and level up opportunity for all. Over the course of the next financial year, our investment will drive substantial, measurable improvement towards 4 strategic outcomes.” But it comes with a caveat: “ Our plan is centred on a clear, long-term vision, with agility on the detailed response, but commitment to a clear direction.”  It is the nature of that `clear direction’ which currently appears to separate the DfE from its other British neighbours.  The 4 strategic outcomes are:

  1. Drive economic growth through improving the skills pipeline, levelling up productivity and supporting people to work (cross-cutting outcome). The supporting departments are DCMS and DWP .
  2. Level up education standards so that children and young people in every part of the country are prepared with the knowledge, skills and qualifications they need. (No supporting departments.)
  3. Support the most disadvantaged and vulnerable children and young people through high-quality local services so that no one is left behind (cross-cutting outcome). The supporting departments are DCMS, DHSC, DWP, HO, MHCLG and MoJ.
  4. Provide the best start in life through high-quality early education and childcare to raise standards and help parents to work (cross-cutting outcome). The supporting departments are DWP and HMRC.

While Outcome 1 is concerned with improving the skills pipeline, its substance only addresses learners post-16, in line with the `Skills for Jobs’ white paper: “We want the post-16 skills system to give people the skills they need to get great jobs in the sectors the economy needs. Our reforms will create a coherent system of high-quality and high-value provision across further education (FE) and higher education (HE). We are strengthening higher technical training, giving more people the opportunity to take high-quality level 4 and 5 qualifications that lead to strong career outcomes.”

I expected to find Outcome 2 to match seamlessly with Outcome 1, but the opposite appears to be the case.  While the `skills’ word appears in the title, it is not mentioned again in the text which follows:

Our vision: Our vision is to improve the opportunities available to children and young people across the entire country – particularly in areas outside London and the South East. Raising educational standards, especially in areas of historical underperformance, is the best way to deliver on this agenda and, within this, our most effective lever is improving weak schools.

Furthermore, this outcome also considers how we begin to address the impact of the pandemic on the disruption to pupils’ education. We have identified 5 priorities that will drive our ambition to level up education standards across the country and support children and young people affected by learning loss due to the pandemic.

Our strategic outcome: To achieve this outcome, we are focusing on the following areas:

  1. Support children and young people to catch up on lost learning due to COVID-19 disruption.
  2. Raise the quality of teaching and leadership in all areas of the country.
  3. Support schools to deliver brilliant lessons for every child and provide support on discipline and behaviour.
  4. Raise school standards right across the country and support every school to join a strong family of schools, especially in areas where standards are weak.
  5. Help schools drive the best value from school funding.

There are no other departments supporting this outcome delivery.

As well as the omission of skills, there is nothing about any form of innovation in teaching and learning, nor of meeting the needs of employers.  Schools in England are already receiving substantial support from the Careers & Enterprise Company and its network of Enterprise Coordinators and Advisers across the LEPs.  The Gatsby Educational Foundation supports schools with Benchmarks which help them improve Careers Education, which Ofsted inspects.  Ofsted also inspects the school’s curriculum design, which must be broad and balanced and supported by a distinctive ethos.  But the issue which is dominating the 5-16 curriculum is that of assessment.  Proposals to discontinue assessed coursework at GCSE were introduced in 2012 by the then Education Secretary, Michael Gove.  These were strongly criticised by both employers and teachers, as reported by the BBC: `CBI complains of ‘exam factory’ schools’.  In 2016, the BBC reported `CBI head calls for GCSEs to be scrapped’.  When Covid intervened in March 2020, English state secondary schools, which had previously been assessing coursework, were teaching `reformed GCSEs’, examined only by terminal examinations, with few exceptions.

This is already having an effect on which parts of curriculum content are being taught.  The mathematics curriculum contains quite a substantial element of what we now call Data Science, including the analysis of large data sets.  This was ideal for extended pieces of coursework, especially when the data had significance for the students.  The Royal Society has already identified this as a matter of concern.  The Computing and DT curriculum includes the design of electronic devices using UK designed tools such as BBC micro:bits and Raspberry Pis.  While this was also ideal material for assessed coursework projects, it is not readily testable in exam papers.  So, there is considerable concern over the future of GCSE Computing.

There is a glimmer of hope on a way to reconcile the issue of accreditation of practical coursework in the technological subjects in the 5-15 curriculum in English schools.  Firstly, the choice of qualifying subjects for the EBacc needs to give equality of esteem to Science, DT, Computing, and Maths.  Then this needs to be recognised at each of KS1, KS2, KS3 and KS4 by the provision of a weekly practical session in which learners undertake cross-curricular activities contributing to a portfolio of teacher graded coursework, accredited by a nationally recognised skills award – along the lines of the very successful Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme.  Recently, the DfE Apprenticeships and Skills Minister, Gillian Keegan, was interviewed by Jon Snow on Channel 4 News: `Drive to tackle inequality ‘put off track a bit’ by pandemic, education minister says’ about skills and regional disparities.  Somewhat surprisingly she did not address the question, but chose instead to concentrate on defending reforms in GCSE assessment.  She mentioned a review in around 2015/16 which found that “more of the teaching time was going on the coursework and actually taking up the teaching time. So that’s why we want to go back to the system we had in our day probably which was largely exams and then coursework for those subjects which required coursework. Obviously, exams are the fairest system. They are the fairest way to assess a young person’s ability.”

So, we can move forward within the DfE’s 2021 to 2022 Outcome Delivery Plan if the content of Outcome 2 is revised to support the post-16 skills aspects of Outcome 1 by recognising the vital importance of the technological subjects to the UK economy and employment.  We hope schools will support this by adjusting timetables to claw back some of time previously spent on coursework in the four technological subjects into a new technological skills strand where all learners have the opportunity to demonstrate their capability within a separately accredited scheme.

Returning to the Prime Minister’s `levelling up’ speech – the key questions are whether levelling-up funding will have any impact on the educational differences between regions and on preparing all learners with the experiences and skills they need to take up the post-16 opportunities to which he refers? To achieve parity in skills provision in UK schools requires the four nations to each agree to a common approach.  It appears that on education policy, England is not only out of step with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but also the OECD, G7 and most competitor countries.  An example is the Digital Schools Awards Scotland scheme, which now extends to Wales and Northern Ireland, but not England.  At the heart of the matter is a fundamental difference of opinion on the future direction of education between that prevailing in the OECD, and the current DfE Minister for School Standards, Nick Gibb.   In September 2018, the Times Educational Supplement reported that `Gibb attacks ‘too political’ Pisa rankings body’.  “it’s almost assumed that you want to have a competence-based curriculum; I talk to other education ministers from around the world … who have been advised by the OECD to go down this route that we know doesn’t workSo, we have to challenge it, and I’ve started challenging it internationally and I am a lone voice.”

It seems that this Government must decide as soon as possible whether or not its educational strategy for English schools should move to be competence-based, in line with the other three nations of the UK.   Saturday’s Weekend Essay in the Times `Spoon-fed pupils are far from ready for our high-tech future’ explores this further: “The ideological divide in education at the moment is not between left and right, it is between “knowledge” and “skills”. Like Michael Gove, the former education secretary, Gibb champions a “knowledge-rich curriculum”. He denounces what he calls “generic skills” such as creativity, team working and problem solving as “one of the most damaging myths in education”. These are, he suggests, peddled by “progressives” who want to take the education system backwards.”  Its author, Rachel Sylvester, is the Chair of the recently formed Times Education Commission.  In July, The Times also published a comment on `What sluggish Britain can learn from PolandInvestment in skills has put Poles on a path to prosperity that might lead it to outstrip the UK.’  In November 2020, Lord Young of Graffam published: `The PM’s conversion to technical education must be a turning point’.  Nearly 40 years ago, David Young was responsible for the Thatcher government’s Technical and Vocational Education Initiative TVEI.  He writes: “To remedy the complete lack of balance in our education system, the government should build a technical training network and transfer resources from university education to this network.  Countries far poorer than ours have a far more relevant education system. I can only hope that the conversion of our prime minister is real and marks a major turning point in our education system.”

In the light of the forthcoming party conferences, and rumoured reshuffles, I hope the Government can quickly move on to making the UK once again a world-leader in technological education and skills in schools and beyond.  We have many experienced people who could be advising Government on a plan of action.  These include former DCMS Secretary, Matt Hancock, former DBEIS Secretary, Greg Clark, and former Royal Society President, Lord Rees, as well as former CBI Director General, John Cridland.  The DHSC has a Minister for Innovation, Lord Bethell of Romford.  Perhaps Education should also have a Minister for Innovation, too?  There is an excellent candidate in the current Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, Kemi Badenoch!

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