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Technical and Further Education Bill

Written evidence submitted by the Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education (CMRE) (TFEB 11)

Technical and Further Education Bill

The Centre for the Study of Market Reform of Education (CMRE) is an international education research and policy think tank based in Westminster, London.

CMRE exists for the study of education reform, to offer independent perspective on policy and system design. We research and disseminate evidence on how to improve the quality and efficiency of education services; achieve optimal outcomes for young people; and maximise the benefits of education to society as a whole – in order to improve understanding of what is required if pupils, institutions, and the system as a whole are to succeed.

CMRE is a not-for-profit enterprise. The Centre receives no funding from any political party, or department of government. It operates entirely on contributions from individual supporters and sponsorship.

Summary

1. The Technical and Further Education Bill sets out how the reforms to post-16 Technical Education outlined in the Skills Plan (published alongside the Sainsbury Review in July 2016) will be implemented. Its provisions extend the new Institute for Apprenticeships’ remit to cover classroom-based technical education in addition to apprenticeships. As in the Sainsbury Review recommendations, it is proposed that the Institute should be responsible for a framework of 15 technical education routes, which will provide access, through appropriate training, to skilled occupations where there is a substantial requirement for technical knowledge and practical skills. Also consistent with the recommendations of the Review, it is further proposed that the Institute will determine which qualifications should be required on these routes by establishing expert review panels to set standards and specify the knowledge, skills and behaviours required for different occupations. The Bill exceeds the Review’s recommendations, however, in proposing that the Institute approve technical education qualifications in relation to one or more occupations for which there is a published standard – a process by which the copyright for relevant course materials will pass to the Institute. The intention appears to be to award fixed-term licenses to operate these qualifications via open tender. Should such a measure be introduced, a radical change to technical education in England would result.

2. Recently CMRE published a research report setting out the evidence and arguments for choice and competition in qualifications markets, as against provision via procurement or franchising. The report is by Gabriel Heller Sahlgren and is entitled Who's to produce and who's to choose? Assessing the future of the qualifications and assessment market (Heller Sahlgren 2016). It makes the case that a monopoly or franchising outcome would be more likely to increase costs at the same time as decreasing innovation and raising the possibility of system failure. In the event that the government decide upon the procurement/franchising route, it also offers suggestions as to how it might minimize these risks. In light of the provisions in the Bill, CMRE recommends that these should be noted.

Commentary on the provisions

3. ZA11 requires the Institute to publish standards for occupations which the Institute considers appropriate, and for each standard to describe the occupation and the outcomes which a person will be expected to attain to successfully achieve the standard. The standards must be drafted by a group of persons who have been approved by the Institute.

4. We would suggest that this needs expanding to ensure proper representation in these groups. In Germany, under the terms of the Vocational Training Act, the competent authorities are obliged to set up vocational education and training committees consisting of six representatives of trade unions, six employers’ representatives and six teachers at vocational schools. The vocational education and training committees must be informed and heard in all important matters concerning vocational education and training. This is a model with much to commend it and we would only add that in addition the voice of those with expertise in designing qualifications and assessments should also be included.

5. New section A2DA allows the Institute to approve technical education qualifications in relation to one or more occupations for which there is a published standard. Under section A2DA, the Institute may make any appropriate arrangements for ensuring that the qualifications are available to be approved. This may include entering into contracts with other persons and requiring such conditions as the Institute sees fit. The approval process will include the transfer of copyright for relevant course documents to the Institute. A2IA(3) subsequently gives the Institute the power to assign or grant a licence of the copyright to another person.

6. We believe the Bill should provide further direction as to how the Department sees this in practice. Our reading is that this is intended to take forward the proposals in the Skills Plan that there should only be one technical qualification for each occupation and these qualifications then tendered to awarding organisations for delivery on a fixed term licence basis.

7. We do not believe such an approach would be in the best interests of learners, employers or Government.

8. As discussed in CMRE’s report on this, empirical evidence from other complex public service markets suggests that choice and competition can work well even in cases where price competition is allowed, provided there is proper attention to system design. In fact, current market dynamics suggest that choice of alternative qualifications has generated some improvements. In addition, the presence of multiple providers has effectively decreased the risk of system failure in ways that neither a single government board nor the suggested franchising model could have achieved. Accordingly, rather than abolishing the market, we argue instead that the government should focus on optimising mechanisms geared to quality improvement.

9. We further argue that since user choice would be abolished in a franchising model, it would be useful to carry out customer satisfaction surveys from randomly selected colleges that use different awarding organisations. The idea would be to measure subjective interpretation of the quality across different organisations. And, again, since unintended consequences are common in policymaking, we believe any potential new procurement regime should be trialled prior to subjecting the qualifications and assessment system to radical reform.

10. In addition, the report notes that the introduction of procurement/franchising would be likely to have negative consequences or innovation. Whereas competition between awarding organisations acts as a stimulus to innovation, procurement/franchising discourages this because it only provides ex ante competition in the tendering process, whereas user choice forces organisations to compete for colleges’ business on an ongoing basis.

11. Historically, it appears that competition has helped to ensure a measure of innovation in the sector (see Croft and Howes 2012). End-users and educators were able to take their ideas of new syllabuses to different exam boards. Some of their ideas were rejected; others were rejected before later being accepted by another board. The existence of several boards ensured that one negative response would not necessarily kill the innovations before they were even tried. Successful innovations by one board have then often spurred others to improve their own products (see Cambridge Assessment 2012). In addition, awarding organisations in today’s market have invested heavily in developing more robust and secure technology to ensure a secure and effective system overall, spurred by strong reputational concerns. While this is merely suggestive evidence, it is consistent with the idea that choice and competition may help spur innovations in qualifications and assessment.

12. We also believe the fact that a system of multiple organisations considerably decreases the risk of system failure is an important reason why it should not be replaced with a franchising model that concentrates the supply of qualifications and assessment in each subject. We also remind the Committee that when the previous Government suggested a similar approach to GCSE reform (the English Baccalaureate Certificates) the then CEO of Ofqual wrote in her advice to the Secretary of State that structural change at a time of significant qualification reform could lead to greater instability ; delays to the delivery of the proposed qualifications ; and potentially too limited a choice of providers in future.

13. As Oates (2014) points out, English education policies have too often lacked proper trial phases, which allow evaluation of what has and hasn’t worked before policy designs are finalised. This is in contrast to, for example, Singapore, which tends to test most policies prior to national implementation. As in the case of our reform proposals for the existing user-choice model, we would urge the government to trial the system rigorously prior to implementation. This should be done irrespective of the design specifics of any new procurement system. There are always unintended consequences involved in policymaking. Regardless of what a potential new procurement regime would look like, we believe it is important to trial the arrangements to ensure that any unintended consequences are identified and addressed, prior to subjecting the entire qualifications and assessment system to such a radical reform.

References

Heller Sahlgren, G. 2016. Who’s to produce and who’s to choose? Assessing the future of the qualifications and assessment market. London: CMRE.

Croft, James and Anton Howes. 2012. When qualifications fail: reforming 14-19 assessment. London: CMRE.

Oates, T. 2014. ‘The "qualifications sledgehammer": why assessment-led reform has dominated the education landscape’, in Tests worth teaching to: incentivising quality in qualifications and accountability, edited by Gabriel Heller Sahlgren. London: CMRE, pp. 28-45.

Cambridge Assessment. 2012. ‘Written evidence submitted by Cambridge Assessment.’ Written evidence submitted to the Education Select Committee Inquiry on ‘The administration of examination for 15-19 year olds in England’. Education Committee, House of Commons, London.

28 November 2016

 

Prepared 28th November 2016