Top five questions for education new boy Damian Hinds

Rikama Education 10th January 2018

Damian Hinds has become the new Education Secretary, replacing Justine Greening. What are the questions waiting at the top of his in-tray? And what should he do differently to avoid the sudden exit of his predecessor?

1) How to get back the political initiative?

Damian Hinds will have to re-energise the Conservatives’ vision for education, finding something positive that will connect with the public.

From the perspective of 10 Downing Street, it must have seemed as though Labour was making much of the weather over schools and universities.

Parents were worried about being asked to bail out cash-starved schools. And Jeremy Corbyn’s promise to scrap tuition fees had seen Labour’s student vote reaching record levels.

Justine Greening seemed unenthusiastic about the prime minister’s Tory heartlands view of education, characterised by the push for more grammar schools.

But, it is suggested, there was impatience in Downing Street about the lack of any clear alternative vision or policy offer for parents.

There is a catch for Mr Hinds. His revival has to cost nothing and not take up legislative time consumed by Brexit.


2) Can anyone end the pain of tuition fees?

Theresa May has promised a major review of university funding and how much students should be expected to pay – as evidence that she was “listening” after the election.

Jo Johnson, the outgoing Universities Minister, had made no secret of his reluctance for any significant changes. But his departure opens the way for a much more far-reaching review.

The rising levels of fees, interest charges and student debt, have been like a recurrent political toothache, and Mr Hinds will be looking for an affordable way to neutralise the electoral pain.

It’s been the mouse-trap hidden in the in-tray for ministers of successive governments.

And he will have to see whether university bosses can really be more restrained over pay, after the chastening battles over “fat cat” salaries.


3) What will head teachers be demanding?

School funding gaps and teacher shortages are among the issues that heads see as most urgent.

They are exasperated that they have to keep juggling and struggling on with what they claim are inadequate budgets.

In the election it became a significant doorstep issue, not least because head teachers discovered the power of sending a letter home to millions of parents.

When it comes to plausibility, head teachers’ warnings of cuts to children’s lessons will always win out over politicians protesting that funding is at record levels.

It’s a challenge that the new education secretary will have to resolve. Otherwise he risks cold water being poured over any other initiatives, as heads tell ministers to get back to the basics of funding and staffing.


4) What does social mobility actually mean?

Damian Hinds and Justine Greening have something in common. They both say social mobility is a priority, as has the prime minister.

But what does it really mean? The government’s own social mobility commissioners walked out claiming so far it had been all talk and no progress.

Mr Hinds has previously highlighted the importance of investing in the early years, before the social divide begins to widen.

He has also pointed to the central importance of high-quality teachers to making sure that the disadvantaged get the best chances in school.

It might seem an age ago, but before the election the focus of social mobility was on the need to help “ordinary working families”, working hard on low incomes and without access to good schools.

Mr Hinds will have to decide how to make social mobility something more than rhetoric and good intentions.


5) How to balance tradition with reform?

As a former grammar school boy from the north-west of England, with a Hampshire constituency, Mr Hinds will be seen as representing a less metropolitan view of education.

He will be seen as closer to the views of Tory backbenchers, uncertain about the wholesale ditching of grammar schools.

Mr Hinds will also be expected to push through a change to free school regulations, promised in the Conservative manifesto, which would make it easier for faith groups to set up new schools.

This would allow religious free schools to give priority in admissions in the same way as existing local authority and academy faith schools.

Such a change, likely to increase the number of faith schools, will be opposed by humanists and secular campaigners.

But that could be the kind of opposition and clear blue water that would be relished by an education secretary wanting to assert his traditionalist credentials.

Ministers have always been advised to pick their enemies as carefully as their friends – and Mr Hinds will also have noted that Ms Greening’s bridge-building with the teachers’ unions did her no political favours.

And someone somewhere is going to write a headline about the benefit of “Hinds-sight”.

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Poor students ‘lose on grade predictions’

Rikama Education 19th December 2017

University admissions would be fairer if students applied after they knew their A-level results, says a social mobility charity.

The Sutton Trust says relying on predicted grades is working against talented, disadvantaged applicants.

This summer, almost three-quarters of applicants in the UK failed to achieve the grades forecast by their schools.

But the charity warns that poorer students are more likely to have their grades under-predicted.

Report author Dr Gill Wyness said it was vital that “disadvantaged students are able to play the admissions game on the same terms as their better-off peers”.

Most predictions wrong

Under the present admissions system, universities make offers of places based on the grades predicted by teachers.

The Sutton Trust says that this is a system that favours more ambitious, better-informed applicants, from wealthier families and high-achieving schools.

This year, 73% of predicted grades for 18-year-old applicants turned out to be higher than their actual results – but by the time results are received many decisions will already have been made by universities and students about their offers and choices.

While the overall trend is for grades to be over-predicted, the charity says that for poorer applicants, grades are more likely to be under-estimated.

There are about 1,000 disadvantaged students per year who overachieve, compared with teachers’ forecasts.

The Sutton Trust is warning that they could lose out by bidding for places in less-prestigious universities than their final qualifications could have achieved.

But the charity says that better-off applicants, even if they miss out on grades, still tend to get on to more sought-after courses.

Instead of relying on predicted grades, the education charity says that universities should begin testing ways of changing the admissions timetable so that university applications could come after final school results.

In particular, the trust says this would benefit poorer, brighter applicants, giving them more of a level playing field.

Personal statements

The Sutton Trust is also challenging the use of personal statements in the applications process, in which students write about why they are applying.

The charity describes them as a “further barrier to entry for poorer students”.

There are warnings that disadvantaged students are less likely to have support in writing these essays and they will give a less favourable impression.

There have been previous attempts to change the timings for admissions.

But Universities UK says there are already opportunities for students to change after results are published.

“For those students who do do significantly better or worse than predicted, the clearing system operates on a post-results basis and allows applicants to change their mind and pick a different course or university,” said a spokesman.

It also warns that disadvantaged applicants are “most in need of impartial information, advice and guidance”, and if applications were made after they had left school, they would have even fewer schools “which is likely to make this situation worse”.

Helen Thorne, of the Ucas admissions service, said: “The current admissions system works well.

“In 2017, over 70% of students were placed at their first choice. Those who want to apply post-results can easily do so,” she said.

And such a shift in the admissions timetable would “require structural change to either the secondary or higher education systems”.

The Department for Education said it was up to universities, as independent bodies, to decide on their admissions processes.

“Everyone with the talent and potential should have the opportunity to go to university, regardless of background,” said a DFE spokeswoman.

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Plan for more grammar schools abandoned

Rikama Education 21st June 2017

The creation of a new wave of grammar schools in England is not included in the government’s plans for legislation.

The Queen’s Speech says the government will “look at all options” for new schools, but there are no signs of the legislation needed to remove the current ban on expanding selection.

The controversial plan to scrap free lunches for all infants is also absent.

This would remove the biggest source of extra funding promised for schools in the Conservative manifesto.

The government’s plans for the next two years no longer include their most high profile education reform – the expansion of selective education in England.

Budget shortages

The re-written plans now call for “every child to go to a good or outstanding school” – but it recognises that any proposals will depend upon being able to “command a majority”.

But the suggestion that “all options” remained open for new schools raised concerns from head teachers’ leader, Geoff Barton.

“We sincerely hope that this is not an attempt to revive its plans to expand the number of selective schools in England,” said the leader of the ASCL head teachers’ union.

Schools have been campaigning about budget shortages – with a letter being sent this week to two million families warning about funding cuts.

But the government’s biggest plan to find extra funding, announced in the Conservative manifesto, also seems to have been ditched.

The scrapping of free meals for all infants was meant to save about £650m, which would have been the majority of an extra £1bn per year to boost school budgets.

Jo Yurky, who ran a parents’ campaign over school cuts, said the lack of movement on funding had shown a “baffling disregard for the concerns of parents, teachers and school leaders”.

The government says it is pressing ahead with changes to how budgets are allocated to individual schools, through a new National Funding Formula.

The new formula is meant to resolve unfairness and anomalies in how funding is allocated.

There is also a commitment to improving vocational education and improving the level of skills in the workforce – training people for “high-skilled, high-wage jobs of the future”.

The ambition is for vocational exams to be given as much status as their academic counterparts – and there are plans for so-called “T-levels” for technical qualifications.

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IPads ‘help improve young pupils’ skills’

Rikama Education 24th May 2017

Young children’s maths, English and communication skills improve if they use iPads in school on a regular basis.

That is one of the key findings of the most in-depth research of its kind ever carried out in Northern Ireland.

The study – Mobile Devices in Early Learning – was carried out over two years and involved about 650 pupils in five Belfast primary schools and five nursery schools.

Schools which took part were in some of the most deprived areas of the city.

They were each supplied with sets of iPads for nursery, primary one, primary two and primary three classes.

Researchers from Stranmillis University College then assessed how pupils, parents, principals and teachers used them over the course of two years.

Among their key findings were that:

  • The introduction of digital technology has had a positive impact on the development of children’s literacy and numeracy skills
  • Contrary to initial expectations, principals and teachers report that the use of ipads in the classroom has enhanced children’s communication skills
  • Children view learning using handheld devices as play and are more highly motivated, enthused and engaged
  • Boys appear to be more enthused when using digital technology, particularly when producing pieces of written work

IPads helped young children to be more motivated and engaged in class, said Dr Colette Gray from Stranmillis, who was one of the study’s authors.

“It’s not a panacea or the holy grail, but is another method to reach children who might otherwise underachieve,” she said.

“For many children it does seem like a playful learning activity. Children, even if working alone, would talk to each others or talk to the teacher.

“There was actually an increase in communication in the classroom, which we didn’t initially anticipate.”

The five primary schools which received ipads and took part in the study were Black Mountain PS, Donegal Road PS, Gaelscoil na Móna, Holy Trinity PS and Elmgrove PS.

The primary three teacher at Elmgrove PS, Hannah Maxwell, said that using iPads had helped to engage many of her pupils.

“We don’t replace pen and paper with the iPad,” she said.

“It’s all about having a balance between using the iPad and using old school methods.

“They’re using different methods and trying different things to learn.

“It does take planning but the benefits are shown at the end of it.”

The principal of Elmgrove, Jayne Jeffers, said using iPads had improved many pupils’ academic performance.

“We have found that attainment has increased in a lot of areas because the children are more engaged,” she said.

“All of the children we have in school now have been born knowing about smartphone technology and mobile technology.

“We have a duty as a school to prepare children for their future and that includes digital learning.

“We have two nursery units and the children are using iPads there right the way up to P7.

“We are situated in inner east Belfast and there would be a lot of deprivation in the local area, but we’re trying to give them every advantage we can.”

The study also found that although some teachers were initially nervous, many had developed their own confidence by using iPads extensively in class.

There were concerns, however, that parents needed to know more about the safe use of technology if young children were using one outside school.

The total cost of the project, which was funded by Belfast Regeneration Office, was £299,400.

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New 9-1 GCSE grades ‘creating uncertainty for schools’

Rikama Education 19th April 2017

Reforms to the GCSE grading system in England has created “huge uncertainty” for schools, the NASUWT union says.

The union says the new 9-1 GCSE grades will increase the pressure on pupils and narrow the range of educational opportunities for young people.

The new grading system is being phased in from this summer, starting with maths and English, with grades 9-1 replacing grades A*-G.

The government maintains the changes will drive up standards.

Education Secretary Justine Greening says a grade four will be seen as a “standard pass” and a grade five as a “strong pass”.

But the NASUWT’s annual conference in Manchester heard that the introduction of a new grading system was causing unnecessary confusion, with negative consequences for pupils and teachers.

Paul Daly, a maths teacher at Whitworth Park school in Spennymoor, County Durham, told the BBC pupils would be taking the new maths GCSE imminently, amid confusion about grade boundaries.

“We still haven’t got our head around what the grade boundaries are because no-one will provide us with any.

“So we’re giving them mock exams and then telling them ‘we think that your grade might be a four, or might be a five, or it might be a six, or it could be anything because we don’t know because we haven’t been told anything about grade boundaries.

“All we know is, compared to last year, the marks are very, very low and very few people are scoring very high marks in the exams.”

Mr Daly said students were often anxious and confused, and that low scores like 25% meant “a bit of a counselling session goes on” after mock exams.

“You sit down with the kids and you try to make them feel like actually they’re doing well, they’re working hard and ‘I know that last year you would have got a grade B, you’re that kind of student, you would have got a grade B last year.

“‘This year I think you’re probably going to get a five but I have no clue because I don’t have any grade boundaries, I have nothing to judge it off, so as much as I want to make you feel better, I can’t give you any guarantees.”

Languages teacher Candy Mellor from Marden High School in North Tyneside is preparing for the new GCSEs which will be taken for the first time in her subject next summer.

“I feel very sorry for the Year 10s who have only got two years’ preparation for this new exam that we’re still learning about.

“We are making up examinations that we think that it’s going to be like for our Year 10s to practice – but we just don’t know what it looks like.

“But I can start thinking about my Year 7s, so they’ll get five years’ preparation, whereas the Year 10s have got two where we’re still working it out and confused.

Claire Taylor from Woodlawn Special School, in North Tyneside, says her pupils, who have special needs, will not even be able to access the new exams.

“I’ve got no young person who is able to take the current maths GCSE at present.”

This makes them “feel different” from their peers, she says.

“They’re already struggling, given the fact that they have a learning disability or a physical disability […] and they are now standing out even further from the crowd because they can’t access the same type of curriculum and the same type of opportunities and qualifications as other young people across the education system.”


Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT, said the changes – brought in under Michael Gove when he was education secretary – had been driven by “political imperative”, rather than the needs of young people.

“The government has consistently sought to portray GCSEs as ‘broken’ and ‘dumbed down’ qualifications in order to push through its vision of an elitist, narrowly focused curriculum and qualifications system which risks failing to meet the needs of the majority of young people.

“The changes to exam grading have created huge uncertainty for pupils, teachers, parents and employers which will be difficult for schools to manage.

“Schools already buckling from excessive workload are now facing even more bureaucratic reform and young people, already experiencing rising rates of anxiety and mental ill health, will face even greater pressure to perform.”

A Department for Education spokesman said the new GCSEs would provide “more rigorous content” and the new grading system provided “greater stretch” for the highest performers.

“These changes will help young people ‎to compete with the best in the world and deliver the skills that employers tell us they need.

‎”Nothing has changed with regard to schools being held to account for the proportion of children achieving a strong pass and we are working with Ofqual ‎to support teachers as we implement the new system.”

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