27th May 2016 at 01:00
Sniffing out worthwhile international comparisons

Remember those heady days of coalition government when ministers promised all education reform would be evidence-based? Then, after the May 2015 general election, unencumbered by Liberal Democrat partners, the Tories pledged faster reform and a swift review of technical and professional education (TPE) under Lord Sainsbury.

So, what have we heard? Education secretary Nicky Morgan tells us: “England is not doing well when it comes to international comparisons in education.” Meanwhile, FE and skills minister Nick Boles cites the Netherlands, or even Norway, as a possible model for us to aspire to.

Well that’s evidence, isn’t it? Er…up to a point. The problem is, scratch below the surface of the data – as participants in the Learning and Skills Research Network (LSRN) annual forum on the future of TPE did earlier this month – and you will find all is not as well as it might be in the state of Denmark.

Heavyweight academics including Ewart Keep (director of the University of Oxford’s vocational research department, Skope), Richard Boniface (managing director of FE research specialists RCU) and Ann Hodgson (professor of post-compulsory education at the UCL Institute of Education) cautioned against the rush to act on international comparisons. Such nations were fraught with identical problems to the UK when it came to social exclusion, school failure and apprenticeship dropouts, they said.

Looking closer to home

However, there is a country over the border that offers a model of success that doesn’t require expensive junkets to the Far East or even a boat trip up the Rhine or round the fjords. Where is this haven of excellence? Er…Scotland. And where was this model for success developed? Er…England. Or all four nations of the United Kingdom, to be precise.

Professor Hodgson, who has just completed a paper with her colleague Professor Ken Spours comparing these nations, told the LSRN forum that Scotland had built “a coherent system in which institutions cooperate”. It was, she said, “predicated on institutions working together and seen as a single system”.

No one was claiming that Scotland had all the answers – indeed, it shared many of the achievement problems blighting other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries – but as a small nation it was gaining huge confidence, Professor Hodgson observed.

“They have a more integrated system across schools, the labour market and FE, and still continue with the modern apprenticeship,” she said. “There has been one trajectory for a long time and therefore it is able to improve. Policy stability has led to improvements.”

Sainsbury shops for evidence?

Meanwhile, word was out at the LSRN forum that any report on the “swift” Sainsbury review of TPE was to be delayed. It seems that policy wonks didn’t much like the nature of the evidence emerging. FErret asked when it would be out; “autumn at the earliest” came the reply.

To give ministers the benefit of the doubt, they may genuinely be seeking more hard evidence. But, for a lot of increasingly weary teachers, trainers and leaders, this all smacks of the usual tactics. Just look at the number of official reviews there have been on apprenticeships in the past six years – and it’s still a mess. Not to mention the fiasco over academisation.

As one forum participant told FErret after the opening LSRN symposium: “The government treats the search for evidence like internet shopping. It decides on the outcome it wants then looks for a product to suit. It’s as though there’s an enormous Amazon warehouse where, eventually, they’ll find something that fits.”

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