Parliament is in another frenzy as IPSA, the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, has had its 10% pay rise for MPs bitterly rejected by many of the future recipients before they voted to accept it in full.
IPSA says that it isn’t as good an offer as it looks since the golden goodbyes are being scrapped, fiddling expenses will become more difficult and the fantastic pensions are being trimmed a little. Sir Ian, the head of IPSA, says
In making this decision we are very aware of the strongly held views of many members of the public and by some MPs themselves.We have listened to those views.
We have made an important change to the way in which pay will be adjusted annually.
Over the last Parliament, MPs’ pay increased by 2%, compared to 5% in the public sector and 10% in the whole economy. It is right that we make this one-off increase and then formally link MPs’ pay to public sector pay.
The English school system is fractured right down the middle, with county schools on one side and government academies on the other. While county councils try to develop relationships with the whole family of local schools and get to know the staff in them and their particular issues, the Department for Education has thousands of schools and a strategic view that means they will only get involved when there is already a known issue. Hands on versus hands off: it is, after-all, what the academy system was all about, freeing schools from the dead hand of council control.
But do schools work best when no-one is watching too closely?
Birmingham schools get their OFSTED reports today, with the politicians and press focussing on the extremism, but the real issue is the governance of Academy schools and the fact that OFSTED found itself hoodwinked by the schools themselves. Now, the fact that Head-teachers routinely game the system to the school’s advantage should not be news to anyone involved in the education sector, but it seems to have surprised Michael Gove, the Education Secretary. Read More…
UCAS, the body which handles applications for university places, has released 2011 figures. The headline, reported throughout the press, is that applications this year are down by over 12% on last year. The increase in fees, payable after graduation by a form of additional income tax, is being blamed for the drop.
Shadow Education Minister Angela Burns has weighed in, saying that the preliminary data should act as a “harsh wake-up call”.
Toni Pearce, of the National Union of Students, blames the government:
“The confusion caused by the government’s botched reforms is causing young people to at the very least hesitate before applying to university.”
The Guardian misrepresents the data to suggest class differences:
Monday’s figures are just too stark to ignore. When the number of applicants from outside the UK is included, the fall is 9% — greater than it has been for at least six years. The figures show this decline in applicants comes from the pool of students most likely to be badly-off.
Everyone, it seems, thinks that university numbers should be on a one-way escalator to steadily greater proportions of our youngsters studying for degrees and that any drop is, by definition, a bad thing.
Everyone, it seems then, is wrong.
The figures, of course, do not indicate a collapse in student confidence. Although 12% seems a large drop, it should be understood in the context of dramatic rises in recent years, not least last year when many students put off a gap year to apply early. This artificially inflated 2010 figures by taking from what would have been this year’s applicants. Even with the fall, we are still only just below the 2009 rate, with a smaller pool of applicantants. (There has been a 6% drop in 17-year-olds over the last four years of increasing applications and two more years of falls — expect the same stories next year!)
The Real Issue
What the headline writers have failed to address is whether a growing number of graduates is really a good idea. The advantages are supposed to be that the UK needs more graduates for all the new graduate jobs that are being produced in the economy, and that there will be fewer jobs for lower skilled people.
Does the economy need more highly skilled workers? Yes, naturally. Highly skilled people have always been in demand throughout history. But there is a sleight of hand going on here. The problem is that the term graduate is not now synonymous with skilled, and graduate jobs do not often require high levels of skills. Twenty years ago, if you were an employer looking for a reasonably bright, trainable youngster, you advertised for someone with A-levels or good O-levels. Now that anyone who can hold a pen through sixth-form college is encouraged to start a degree, not having a degree is a serious hindrance.
Not because of the skills you did not pick up, but because employers will wonder why you weren’t up to a degree when all and sundry can graduate now.
Reaching Their Limits
When we have students maxing out at GCSE grade C going on to be awarded A-levels and then degrees, you might just wonder what it is they are learning at university. If the top three GCSE grades were beyond them, just what level was the intellectual challenge of the degree? Before you start to panic about the quality of our engineers, doctors and scientists, you can’t get on one of the technical degrees without very good grades: C’s won’t cut the mustard. But having a degree, by itself, is no guarantee of superior skill levels, with many course instructors unable to lift the academic standard to a suitable level without having most of their students failing and dropping out.
For many people, GCSE or A-level is their academic limit. Unfortunately, many of these teenagers are being mislead into thinking that by investing in an expensive three-year course their careers will be appropriately enhanced.
The evidence is against them though, as some school-leavers are starting to realise.
The country does need more skilled workers, but not more low-skilled workers with degree certificates and unrealistic expectations. The solution is not more accessible (read ‘easier’) degrees, but investment in Primary and Secondary education, with higher technical graduate salaries to persuade those bright enough to tackle the harder subjects,
or else encourage talented people from overseas to boost our ailing manufacturing economy.
This brouhaha will blow over soon, regardless. The hugely increased fees charged by middling universities will not last long, as students will expect value for money. Fees will fall to match the desirability or career benefit of the course and student numbers will drop, returning hard working students to the productive economy where they are needed.
Gove’s plan to remove BNP members from schools is an ominous restriction of political freedom.
Michael Gove, the Coalition Education Minister, has allowed his political instincts to take second place to following the vocal crowd, and has promised that schools will be allowed to sack BNP members from their staff. The rationale, if you can call it that, is that BNP membership is incompatible with the ethos of schools, and that clearing these outcasts from schools will be an unalloyed good.
But why stop at the BNP? Which other groups have politically incorrect views that the famously tolerant British should not tolerate?
How about UKIP with their dodgy views about foreigners? Or islamist affiliations who want a European caliphate? Sinn Fein or Plaid Cymru members who want to break up the Union? Tories? A teacher who doesn’t want to sign up to the school’s statement of ‘shared values and beliefs’?
Don’t laugh at this last one, though. This has already happened! I have been told during a ‘training’ session that anyone who voiced an opinion in the staff room that a Sixth Form College should focus more on A Levels, and less on vocational courses, would not be tolerated. The suggestion was that such a teacher should be ‘encouraged’ to leave unless they buttoned up and signed up.
If the aim of this new policy is to allow heads to sack teachers who use their position to proselytise their political views, then Gove would be pleased to know that this behaviour would already be in breach of contract. I am certain that most teachers with odious views are not actually members of a political party, and also that many members of the BNP are not as unlikeable as their simpleton leader. I am also pretty sure that an hour a week with a maths teacher who holds radical views is more likely to be educational than dangerous for children. They will benefit from seeing a range of political views from the staff instead of the current, uniform Guardianista viewpoints.
OK, I know slippery slope arguments are often spurious, but in this case the motivation behind the policy seems to be a response to pressure groups to keep ‘keep them away from our children’. A success here will encourage an extension to teachers who openly support the BNP but have not joined as members, or have resigned. After that, then, which other ‘opinions’ would become adopted as thought crimes, punishable by summary dismissal?
While I would not mourn the departure of some staff, dismissal for supporting a legally established and state funded political party seems a bit too Orwellian for comfort.
If you don’t speak up for others’ political freedoms now, who will speak up for yours when they come for you?
Much of the current focus in the education press is on the threat to funding for Universities, with the Telegraph reporting a plan to allow badly run universities to go bust and close, and the LibDem Minister Vince Cable announcing that his department will in the future only fund the highest quality university research.
Cable’s plan is especially barmy, even if he does have a crystal ball to sort the research wheat from the chaff (who saw the value of lasers, developed solely to test a subtle prediction of Einstein’s, or knew that the quantum physics of the 1920s would lead to the digital revolution?)
If only the top research centres survive, where will the career progression for freshly qualified post-docs be? Where will Ph.D. students find posts to cut their teeth on and develop their skills? Why would the most talented students in schools be attracted to research instead of banking?
Britain’s research base is still world class, which is a near miracle given how much is done with so few resources. But the structure of our research base is lean already. If Vince Cable seems intent on reducing it back further, he will find that it is not the fat he is cutting away. Real and irreversible damage to the country will be done. It will not be easily reversed by cash injections in a few years time when the damage becomes apparent.
The ongoing crisis in school Physics teaching was not improved much by the last government, leaving most lessons taught by biologists or chemists. Most English teachers have first class degrees, but a quarter of new Physics teachers have third class degrees, more than any other subject. This is for two main reasons.
First, physicists are drawn to the abstract and the impersonal, and so not many are cut out for the intense social experience that is teaching. This leaves teacher training colleges accepting almost anyone who applies.
Second, few qualified physicists and engineers are willing to work for the kind of salary that is intended to be attractive to people with English or History degrees. Industry pays what is needed to attract those with shortage skills.
The Education Minister, though, has a cunning plan: bar those with a third class degree from funded teacher training places. This will, apparently, make teaching more attractive to the better educated and improve the quality and standing of teaching as a profession. And, to give Gove some credit, there is some logic in this.
Modern students deciding on their career choices do see the most difficult to enter professions as the most desirable, so the elite students gravitate to Medicine, with its history of insufficient training places to train all the physicians we need. The restricted entry leads to high levels of salary and a social standing out of all proportion to the skills actually needed to work as a GP.
So Gove’s solution is to raise the entry bar for prospective teachers, without a corresponding pay rise for those with shortage skills. Pay has not risen above inflation for the last decade, and it is still impossible for many schools to fill their Maths and Physics posts with specialists as a result.
The problem Gove has, though, is that teaching is a profession accepts anyone with a non-honours pass degree from a university which may only ask for two grade E’s at A Level. Rejecting third class honours wholesale says that a Third in Physics from Oxford or in Engineering from Imperial College is not as desirable as a Lower Second Class degree in Textiles:Knit from the University of Westminster.
An engineering company short of skills or experience would offer a rewards package to attract the best people to apply, and then employ the best amongst the applicants.
Teaching will not become a desirable career for the best qualified and most able people until the salaries reflect the level of ability needed for each post. It takes more money to employ a good mathematician or physicist than it does to get high quality English teachers.
Does Gove have the courage to introduce differential pay in the face of the unions? The current funding squeeze is the perfect cover with the unions weakened, and will be the only chance for a generation. I won’t be holding my breath.
MPs have tabled an Early Day Motion to raise awareness of the importance of the shortage of Physics teachers. I’ve written before about the chronic and worsening shortage of Physics teachers (here, here and here), and the attempts by the TDA to hide the decline in which they claimed that all specialist teacher recruitment targets had been met, and it is worth while keeping the issue alive.
Although EDMs don’t often get debated on the floor of the Commons, they do get picked up by the media, and perhaps ministers, if they are well supported, so use the link here to contact your MPs and ask them to sign this one.
The full text is below:
Physics Teachers (no. 467)
“That this House expresses its concern at the lack of specialist physics teachers and the consequent drastic drop in the number of entrants to physics A-level; recognises the threat this poses to UK physics and engineering and therefore to the UK economy; and calls for greater incentives to attract physics graduates into teaching in order to create access to high-quality physics teaching for every child.”