Changing the guard at the Department for Education and the labours of Halfon

Now the dust is beginning to settle this week after the skirmishes surrounding the leadership of the Conservative party, it appears that the Department for Education (DfE) will begin to turn around in a major way.  Prime minister Sunak’s pledge to introduce a wider curriculum ‘British Baccalaureate’ scheme for post-16 education could see the end of A-levels. But could it also see the end of T-levels and any BTecs that survive the cull? It appears radical and is well overdue. But it might easily turn out to be an invisibility cloak that simply hides the systemic problems and inequalities underneath.

The new team at the Department for Education follows a period where too many ministerial cooks without a recipe were not even able to get as far as making a broth to spoil. New Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan,  is the fifth incumbent since the 2022 summer of madness started.  She may turn out to be a breath of fresh air unfettered by any direct experience of education other than attending state funded schools and gaining a business degree from a post-92 university. However, she otherwise has wide experience in the world of work from a car factory floor to senior positions in marketing. One suspects she will see advancement through skills education as an attractive priority that drove her own advancement.    

The rest of her team took a little time to be finally installed as Nick Gibb and Robert Halfon were brought back into the ministerial fold as Ministers of State. This is a step up in status and responsibilities. The short period of having a demoted position of Under-Secretary of State for Skills, Further and Higher Education, held by Andrea Jenkyns, is over. It appears that Robert Halfon is taking this role from a more elevated position.  Nick Gibb is returning to his role for schools and will concentrate on schools standards. However, the remit for schools is shared with Kelly Tolhurst who is retained as Minister of State for Schools and Childhood.  The unelected  Diana Barran (aka Baroness Barran) helps out as Under-Secretary of State for the School and College System.

The twelve labours of Halfon.

Robert Halfon appears to have a much more challenging role. It seems he has been sent into the unknown on a quest to carry out a series of seemingly impossible tasks.

His very effective stint as chair of the Education Committee saw him in regular conflict with the government over policy and direction. He now appears to be poacher turned game keeper.  His remit includes the overall strategy for post-16 education and includes T-levels, higher technical education, apprenticeships and traineeships, Institutes of Technology, and adult education. Importantly, he must contend with education quality, student experience and widening participation in higher education, student finance, including the Student Loans Company, international education strategy and the Turing Scheme.  Post-16 education reform may well turn out to be a herculean labour too far.

A broader curriculum beckons.

Since 1951, the post-16 A-level emphasis has been on too few subjects and a narrowing of education down an arts or science route.  This leads to students aligning with one of the ‘two cultures’ first identified by Charles (C P) Snow in 1959 whereby arts were divided from science. Originally a Rede Lecture it grew into an influential book.

To counter this, TEFs has long advocated reform of the narrow A-level agenda in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in favour of a system similar to the Highers in Scotland and Leaving Certificate in Ireland, see  ‘A radical overhaul of examinations is needed as soon as possible’ (TEFS 15th January 2021). Both have a much broader educational offering with the added advantage of assessments for university entry happening a year earlier.  This would satisfy the call for post qualification admissions to university.

The current government may well be heeding such calls, that are coming from many quarters, and do something about it. But they will meet considerable resistance from those advantaged by the status quo and it may become a herculean labour.

The taming of the baccalaureate ‘Cerberus’.  

Halfon might feel that he brought this ‘Cerberus’ into being and now he must somehow capture it and bring it to the surface.  He has previously advocated the abolition of GCSEs and in 2019, came up with some radical proposals reported by the BBC in, ‘Pointless’ GCSEs should be scrapped, says senior MP’.

“Get rid of GCSEs, which seem to me pointless. Instead, there should be some kind of assessment to show how far you’re progressing,”

Instead, he proposed widening of the curriculum to age eighteen and a baccalaureate system to replace A-levels. This would combine arts, sciences and vocational subjects and the only exams would be at age eighteen. See TEFS 22nd October 2022 ‘Attainment gaps and questioning the purpose of examinations’.

He is now faced with the challenge of completely reforming the post-16 education system to resemble the baccalaureate qualifications common elsewhere in Europe. But he will find many challenges and fights along the way.

Rishi Sunak was quick to pledge the introduction of a ‘British Baccalaureate’ among other policy reforms that includes new technical institutions focusing on apprenticeships and T-levels.

The idea’s origins go back a long way but its current incarnation emanates from the Times Education Commission, who published their findings in June after a year of deliberations by over 600 experts. The main recommendation was the introduction of a “British Baccalaureate, an equally rigorous but broader qualification than A-levels including both academic and vocational routes or a combination of the two”.

However, it is difficult to see how Halfon can reconcile this three-headed beast of ideas; T-levels that are exclusive of A-levels, a wider curriculum, and widening participation.

Let us hope that the baccalaureate does not become an invisibility cloak thrown over the current ‘dogs breakfast’ (TEFS 19th November 2021) of offerings that causes the inequalities it fosters to remain hidden from view.

Taming the widening participation beast.

If the idea of the ‘British Baccalaureate’ wasn’t tough enough, he will also have to contend with the fallout from reforms in widening participation by the Office for Students (OfS). The consultation on ‘A new approach to regulating equality of opportunity in English higher education’ closes next Thursday the 10th of November 2022. It includes setting targets for universities that will challenge the admissions criteria currently dominating in most universities. Changing to more inclusive contextual offers to promote widening participation could make one head of the beast very angry.

The organisational ‘schizophrenia’ at universities.

Universities will find their efforts sharply divided as they try to answer to two masters. The research and innovation role of universities will remain separate from the education role in the minds of the government. This other side of the remit for universities resides over in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and  remains unchanged with Nusrat Ghani replacing George Freeman  as Minister of State for Science and Investment Security. She will have the daunting task of fostering science and research across a wide range of activities whilst trying to retrieve the EU Horizon Europe funding that is fast disappearing over its own horizon.

With the division of ministerial responsibilities in very different departments, it is obvious that the management of universities will divide their own attention and resources likewise. This is particularly the case for the research intensive institutions, with the Russell Group higher in the pecking order behind the pre-92 institutions.  Others will have research focused in some areas but will find it increasingly hard to compete for funds.  The REF 2021 funding may be spread more broadly across the sector, but substantial strategic funding will fall to the larger institutions with better facilities and reserves. But they could become too complacent by relying on the ‘reputational premium’ they offer to students based on their research driven rankings. Other teaching focussed outfits may sneak ahead on the inside track.

The perverse result is that institutions doing both find themselves suffering from an organisation’s ‘schizophrenia’.  Staff are pressured and pulled in two directions at once. Back in 2018, TEFS discussed ‘Research and Teaching: The price of researchers not teaching’.  There is a growing trend of relegating teaching to less experienced temporary staff and pressurising more established senior staff into greater research activity. By recognising the danger of teaching becoming ‘trivialised’ in the process, Ofqual is upping the ante on their regulatory demands. But the division of labour is intensifying as student numbers rise, and unit costs must fall with a freeze on fee income. This can only be bad for students who aspire to more contact with, and being taught by, the leading researchers in their field. Instead, they are rounded up and herded into ever larger classes. Those with less time to study and fewer advantages may become lost in the crowd.

Recognising the effect reforms have on students, and how they cope in time, is not a strength of the government. 

The author, Mike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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