Grade inflation or more hard work

Last summer 29.6% of students taking A level Physics gained an A* or A grade in the examination. However, just 10.6% of students taking Media, Film and TV Studies that achieved the same grades. It’s worth recalling these figures when reading the reports of grade inflation in universities with more students than ever achieving First class honours degrees. (source for A level data: Source for University data: HESA) Agreed, the extra 4,000 student studying Physics at A level in 2016 compared with 2010 may be partly responsible for the decline of 3.5% in the number of A* and A grades during the same period, but that is to be expected with a widening of the pool of entrants into the examination. However, the top grade is open to all. Maybe there is some degree of selection here with only those needing the subject for university traditionally taking it at A level.

So, does the increase in student numbers at universities mean there is grade inflation and more should mean greater numbers of lower grades? In the end it depends upon what you want the marking system to achieve. Traditionalists, may want a normal distribution curve of outcomes with a bunching around the middle grades and only limited numbers expected to achieve the highest grades or to fail. This system is great for identifying the really high flyers, but does it disincentive everyone else? Should degree class reward hard work and are students working harder now that have to bear the cost of their university education through the fee system? Has a competitive job market through the years of the recession also signalled to students that outcomes rather than just the university experience matters? This takes us back to the A level results. Are there too many A* and A grades in Physics? Of course not.

Perhaps students are becoming pickier at both choosing courses and even modules within courses with a view to outcomes? To what effect does ‘drop out’ among student affect the outcomes of those that remain. Do students realising they selected the wrong course, perhaps during clearing, quit in larger numbers. We know students from poorer backgrounds are more likely to quit. Is this because they received poorer advice about which course to pick at what university and ended up doing the wrong subject?

There is lots more to explore behind the simple headline data. But, maybe there has been some grade inflation and university quality control mechanisms need to ensure that outcomes keep pace with learning. After all, that is what the external examiner system was supposed to achieve. What do these figures also say about the claim that A levels were being dumbed down and students were arriving at university knowing less and less well equipped for university life? Interestingly I had a conversation on LinkedIn about this point with a teacher in Essex recently.

Personally, I think the outcomes are a tribute to our students, but universities do need to ensure that they monitor their learning outcomes to keep pace with changes elsewhere.

Abolish tuition fees?

When I wrote back in April about the iniquity of the hike in repayments rates on student fee debt to 6.1% hardly anyone noticed That’s the price you pay for being ahead of the game. Then came Labour’s abolish fees pledge during the general election and there is now a growing groundswell on the issue, further fuelled by the fall in applicant numbers reported by UCAS this week.

So far, few have tried to put the debate in even the wider education funding agenda, let along government funding policy as a whole. As I argued in my earlier piece, cutting student fees might mean losing or postponing some other project either in education or society more widely unless the funds can be generated from an increase in taxation somewhere else. There might also be the unintended, or I assume unintended, consequence of reducing further social mobility if the abolition of fees and their replacement with direct payment for university places by the government led to a cap on places. Those that could afford to pay for extra tuition might scoop the bulk of available places, leaving others less well-off to claim only any reserved places under government mandated schemes or unfashionable subjects in unpopular universities.

Earlier in the century there were schemes to help young people save for expenses like tuition fees so that they would not be the burden they now are seen to be. I am not sure what happened to them? It is interesting that the insurance market also never saw saving for tuition fees as a necessary product, presumably because parents with young children were seen as not having the level of disposable income to fund such schemes in advance. As I said in April, at the present time it would be more cost effective for families to increase their mortgages than to incur student debt in terms of current repayment levels.

The risk is that in the present political climate judgements will be made on votes to be won rather than sound economic or social policy. But, then fees were increased to £9,000 probably without much thought for either issue and certainly no rationale as to why a classroom subject would cost that sum to deliver. Anyway, the concern must be that a Conservative strategist sees abolishing fees as spiking Labour’s guns with young voters and so worth doing ahead of sorting out the mess with funding social care or even the NHS.

Although there are many worthy articles written about the rationality of government financing, in the end it comes down to plain old horse trading and what works politically. With the number of eighteen year olds set to fall, part-time students numbers already having been decimated and no EU students to pay for, the government could well explore a deal with universities of fees paid for home students, but higher full-cost fees for overseas and non-government funded students. The government could also rebalance the subject offering so as to demonstrate to Conservative voters that they have wiped out subject that shouldn’t be degrees and moved them into the new apprenticeship sector. That might play well with those that think there are too many students wasting three years at university. So, whether fees survive looks increasingly like a political decision based on electoral strategy and the date of the next general election.


Tuition Fees rethink

One of the most spectacular policy announcements of the recent general election campaign was Labour’s offer to scrap tuition fees for new students and abolish outstanding repayments for graduates. There was no attempt to link this to the NHS and social care funding crisis as the other great funding need. There was also no real vision for how this would sit alongside the need to remove the cap on public sector pay. However, it seems to have worked, like most much announcements, in this case attracting many young voters that would benefit from any removal of fees.

I notice that the Tory press has taken to blaming the Lib Dems for the present university student fee levels, this despite the fact that it was a decision of the coalition government, albeit taken by a Tory minister and presumably approved by both a Lib Dem Secretary of State and the Cabinet as a whole.

One of things that riled me at the time of the fee hike was the lack of any discussion on why classroom subjects should be assumed to cost the same as laboratory and practical subjects? I wonder if ministers thought the market would drive down prices but, as I have pointed out before, with demand far exceeding supply, there was no incentive for any university to anything other than tinker at the edges with the £9,000 fee levels.

So, are such fees justified for arts and humanities subjects? Well, much depends upon the size of the group and the number of hours taught. Fees at this level should allow for minority subjects cross-subsidised by more popular courses and lots of options within courses, even if only 25% of the fee income goes directly to teaching and the rest to legitimate university and departmental overheads. Of course the level of salary and the mix of experience of teaching staff also play a part, as they do in school finances. One cannot help feeling that universities are possibly also possibly funding future capital programmes and increasing their surplus funds from the fees being paid by current students. Both seem to me good reasons for re-assessing the balance between the price paid by students and the eventual cost to government.

I think university accounts should be much more transparent on how fee income is spent, especially between different types of course. Many years ago, I conducted research into the funding of teacher education courses and it was clear that at the £3,000 fee level universities that paid a fee to schools could not cover their costs and had them written off each year by the central administration. It would be interesting to repeat that exercise on the £9,000 fee level.

Personally, I think that there is a case for fees to be in the £6,000 range, to allow for funding of free nursery education that might be a casualty if fees were to be abolished, with a direct government top-up for specified STEM and other more expensive subjects that universities might need encouragement to develop. I certainly don’t want undergraduates subsidising either the summer conference trade or in most cases either research programmes or postgraduate taught courses.


Young graduates still not attracted to teaching in large enough numbers

The good news is that offers for secondary teacher preparation courses aren’t generally any worse than last month. Indeed, in the humanities, the loosening of recruitment targets have probably helped propel offers in history and geography to new high levels. Whether it is fair to  offer places to students to train as a history teacher and take on the extra debt involved when there are likely to be far more trainees than vacancies available in 2018 is a question that presumably everyone involved with teacher preparation is happy to answer in the affirmative. After all, the students know the risk they are running and aren’t callow eighteen year olds fresh from school.

Generally, there must be concern about what is happening to recruitment in the sciences and in particular Chemistry. After several good years recruiting, offers are back to the level last seen in 2013/14, although even that represent an improvement on the situation earlier this year. Hopefully, a significant proportion of those in the unspecified science category are really looking to be Chemistry teachers. We won’t know until the ITT census in the autumn whether or not it is actually the case.

It is undoubtedly the fact that the figure for offers to secondary courses would be far worse if all routes had the same offer to application ratio of School Direct Salaried. This year, just 17% of applicants are currently shown as placed or holding an offer. Last year, the figure at this point in the cycle was 18%. In numerical terms that means a drop from 1,310 last year to just 900 this year, with 740 of those only conditionally placed. By contrast, the School Direct Fee route has a ratio of 22% and SCITTs and higher education have placed or made offers to 28% of their applicants. Indeed, the much maligned university sector has accounted for 6,930 of the 13,150 offers made so far this year: that’s 53% of the total in a sector that was supposed to have been removed from teacher preparation by now under Mr Gove’s school-based training plans. In the primary sector, higher education accounts for just about half of the places and there are more offers for School Direct salaried places than in the secondary sector. However, we don’t know how many of these may be already working in schools in another capacity before transferring onto a teacher preparation programme.

Last month, I raised concerns about the situation in London where offers across both primary and secondary courses now total 4,370 compared with 4,800 at this point last year. Total applicant numbers in England are still below the 36,000 mark, more than 1,000 down on this point last year.

Although there are more 23 year olds applying this year than last, applications from younger graduates  of 21 or 22 still remain below last year and there are fewer career changers in their 30s this year. Last night, I saw two of the Royal Navy TV adverts, but I cannot recall when I last saw a TV advert for teaching: perhaps I am looking at the wrong channels.

With many schools being less likely to recruit applicants over the summer months, despite incentives to do so, the next month is likely to represent the final opportunity to improve on the predicted outcome for this year and a resulting challenging job market in 2018.


Reflections on teacher preparation questions

The following is the text of a talk I gave last evening to a group put together by the SSAT to discuss teacher preparation and teacher supply questions. 

The key question must be: was Lionel Robbins wrong to remove teacher preparation from the employers half a century ago? That decision to shut small monotechnic teacher training colleges run by local authorities and the main churches and place training almost completely in the higher education sector formed the pattern of teacher preparation for most of the next 30 years.

The change was accompanied by a move to an all-graduate profession, championed vigorously by the teacher associations; at the same time there was a rapid move towards graduate PGCE training for most secondary subjects and a more gradual change away from undergraduate training for the primary sector.

During the teacher supply crisis of the late 1980s the first of the employment-based routes appeared; Licensed and Articled Teacher programmes, followed later by the GTTP and RTTP. There was then the short-lived Fast Track Scheme and again, originally a product of the teacher shortages of the early 2000s, Teach First. All these were programmes characterised by closer links with employers than the higher education programmes of the time that were student focussed in terms of who was seen as the client.

As we have seen today none of these routes has solved the teacher supply problems. There were regular teacher shortages under the pre-Robbins training regime where, of course, universities had an input and were developing their PGCE programmes before Robbins reached his conclusion about the future direction of teacher preparation courses.

Since 2010, the policy has been firmly to support the development of school-led preparation courses. I would add that one development of the 1990s not so far mentioned was that of SCIITs. Groups of schools coming together to solve teacher supply issues. Some have now graduated from being precocious teenagers into respectable Twenty-year olds. The cluster of these around the Thames Estuary is no accident of history, but rather reflects the lack of higher education institutions in that part of the world, especially on the north bank of the Thames.

As someone that spent nearly 15 years in higher education preparing teachers in Worcester, Durham and Oxford; someone who created a SCITT in 1995 and someone that spent a year at the TTA trying to advise ministers on teacher supply matters, the issue of how to recruit and prepare teachers has and still is of serious concern to me.

We need more trainees each year than the total number of those employed by the Royal Navy after the latest defence cuts. That all uniformed sailors and officers combined. Indeed, we recruit each year into teaching somewhere near half the size of the British land army. We do, therefore, need to take this issue of entering our profession seriously, perhaps more seriously than we have done in the past.

I think everyone agrees that preparation needs to be closely linked to schools. Schon’s reflective, self-critical problem solver cannot develop away from the problems they are solving. In this case teaching and learning for groups of young people grouped in what we have historically termed ‘classes’. That’s what makes teaching different from tutoring, lecturing or child-minding – all not doubt respectable occupations, but not teaching. Of course, teachers do other things as well and work with individuals, but it is not the core of their daily task.

So, here are some questions;

Would it help if entry to the profession was at the start of the preparation course? This might mean a salary for all and not just Teach First and School Direct Salaried trainees. Given the numbers, would The Treasury ever agree to this?

But what if applicants vote with their feet? In 2015, there were 15,000 fewer applicants through the UCAS scheme compared with the GTTR scheme in 2005. Indeed, there probably only 5,000 more than in the disastrous year of 2001 that saw the start of the teacher supply crisis of that period. Such numbers either leave little room for choice of candidate or create a new problem of maintaining entry standards leaving unanswered the question of who fills the empty classrooms?

The majority of trainees are still between the ages of 20-23. Not far short of half of those placed on courses in 2015 fall into this group,, almost all probably new graduates. It would be interesting to know how they chose their route into teaching. Were School Direct urban places better taken up by this group than those offered by schools in coastal locations? Does the offer of a job after training matter? If so, are the School Direct salaried route and Teach First doing better at attracting applicant to teaching than university-based programmes?

The purists among us might say, give all teacher preparation to school-based programmes, but others might take the Augustinian view that they weren’t ready to do so just yet as the risks might be too high until we have more understanding of what brings people into teaching in sufficient numbers and then helps keep them in the profession.

It is worth noting that in 2010 EBITT numbers in the DfE census were recorded as just under 6,400 whereas in 2014 School Direct (both salaried and fee routes) recruited just over 9,200 primary and secondary trainees out of the 26,000 postgraduate entrants. In 2015, this had increased to 10,252 by November of whom 3,166 were on the salaried route (1,400 secondary and 1,600 primary)

Perhaps, of even more concern to me is that in 2015, schools bid for 2,252 maths training places. In 2016 the initial allocations are for 2,171 places despite there being 500 more maths places in the Teacher Supply Model for 2016: the only subject with an increase. Fortunately, that situation isn’t replicated in other subjects, but it raises the issue of how to manage need in a market, especially where the price to providers may have been reduced.

I am sure we will explore this further issue further in our discussion along with the role of government; the different regional effects and the increased desire to open up other careers to women with no parallel drive to make professions that are staffed by women more gender balanced in their workforce.

My two nightmares are firstly that all our possible women teachers are persuaded to become bankers, engineers or even police officers now that is to become an all graduate occupation and secondly that some successful business person in China decides to set up a chain of English-style schools and scoops the whole of our trainee pool. So, perhaps I am alone in thinking the slowdown in China might be a good thing for the teaching profession in England.

University numbers still increasing

The first look at 2015-16 recruitment to undergraduate higher education courses four weeks after the start of clearing has been published by UCAS. According to the data in the report, acceptances to the 2015-16 entry year at this point are 511,730. Across the UK This is an increase of 12,610 (3 per cent) compared to the 2014-15 entry year (at the equivalent point in the 2014 cycle).  Acceptances to the 2015-16 entry year were 7 per cent more than to 2013-14 and 16 per cent more than to 2012-13. The total increase of 12,610 to the 2015-16 entry year (compared to the 2014-15 entry year) was split between an increase of 10,800 in acceptances to enter HE immediately and an increase of 1,810 in deferred entry (from the previous cycle).

Even more interesting was the breakdown of qualifications of those accepted. For acceptances recorded as holding entry qualifications in the ABB+ set: 90,160 were holding GCE A levels, -150 (no change to the nearest per cent); 46,330 were holding BTECs, +3,430 (+8 per cent);13,960 were holding SQA Highers or Advanced Highers, +270 (+2 per cent) and 3,930 holding an International Baccalaureate, +310 (+8 per cent)

For acceptances not recorded as holding entry qualifications in the ABB+ set: 156,420 were holding GCE A levels, -440 (no change to the nearest per cent; 53,610 were holding BTECs, +1,040 (+2 per cent); 10,580 were holding SQA Highers or Advanced Highers, -200 (-2 per cent) and 1,710 were holding an International Baccalaureate, +60 (+3 per cent).

So, in both the upper and lower qualification band sets ABB+/not ABB+ the number with GCE A levels effectively remained static and the increase in student numbers came from other qualifications including both the BTEC vocational qualification set and the IB. In percentage increase the BTEC set showed the largest percentage increase. This is despite the presumed attractiveness of the growing apprenticeship opportunities for this group.

The growth of 16% between 2012-13 and 2015-16 entry periods, despite the increase in the fees to around £9,000, shows the continued resilience in the attractiveness of a university degree to potential students. Once more detailed tables are published it will be possible to see how the increase has bene distributed across the different universities. Have the Russell Group taken more students overall, leaving other newer universities to fill places with these extra applicants or has the increase been seen across all institutions. It will also be interesting to see how the numbers of students attracted to different subjects has changed over the past few years as acceptances have increased. Presumably, a large percentage of the increase in home student is among those from families with no previous family member having attended a higher education institution. This would mean a continued widening of the social base of those going attending higher education, despite the increase in fees.

What, I wonder would Labour do about the repayments from these and other students paying back fees if they were to offer to re-introduce free university education to all, including the wealthy? After all, a university education is still much cheaper than many sixth form courses in the private sector.

What’s wrong with career changers?

An analysis of data provided by UCAS yesterday on applications to teacher preparation courses, and offers made to applicants, suggested that this year recruiting to teacher preparation courses will be even more of a challenge than last year. There is now a risk that unless the 5,000 applicants with interview requests outstanding or awaiting offer have a different success rate to those applying earlier in the year even primary courses may not meet their targets across England.

By 16th June some 23,000 applicants had been placed, conditionally placed or were holding offers against a target in excess of 29,000 graduates, excluding Teach First. With no more than 10 weeks to go before courses start, and the skills tests to pass, not to mention the school holidays, it will need an unprecedented effort to hit the targets in all subjects even at the lower level indicated by the DfE’s Teacher Supply Model; the NCTL allocations in many subjects are just pie in the sky now.

Bearing in mind that these are places on courses for those that want to become teachers ,the conversion rates on the different courses are interesting:

HE 23%
HE 19%
All applicants 20%

School Centred courses appear to have made a higher percentage of offers to applicants than other routes. In primary, the School Direct training route has made the same percentage of offer to applicants as higher education, but in secondary courses higher education has made a higher percentage of offers despite having seen its number of places decline compared with last year.

The interesting outcome is the apparent low percentage of offers to career changers applying for the School Direct Salaried route where offers appear below the totals achieved in many years under the former Graduate Teacher Programme. Only around one in eight applications to the secondary courses have been accepted. This means that only 910 applicants have been placed, conditionally placed, or were holding an offer on the 16th June for secondary School Direct Salaried places. In primary the total is 1,500 offers.

It is worth exploring whether this means that career switchers are less suitable for teaching, despite their greater experience than new graduates, and older graduates applying for the other routes? The NCTL should also make clear whether any salaried places have been returned by schools and re-allocated to other routes following the recent requests for providers of all types to take additional places in many subjects and the primary phase.

It is also worth noting that the DfE/NCTL decision to allow all legitimate bids in physics and mathematics doesn’t seem to be working. As a result, it is important to know whether it is distorting the regional picture with more places being accepted in some parts of the country than others.

The Royal Society paper on Vision published yesterday recognised the need for more teachers. These figures show that in the areas they mentioned this isn’t happening. Time for plan B?