Assessment

Levers of change: Ways that policymakers can shape the education system

With a general election looming there is much debate in the world of education about the next government’s decisions on what our children learn. But deciding this is only part of the issue for any new government. Just as important is understanding how they can actually implement those decisions. Knowing the advantages and drawbacks of all the different levers at government’s disposal is vital. In this blog, AQA’s head of external affairs Reza Schwitzer discusses what these levers are and their pros and cons.

Making change
The national curriculum
Assessment content
Ofsted
Accountability measures
Statutory or non-statutory guidance
Direct funding/grants
 Embedding topics in teacher training and CPD
Voluntary arrangements
Conclusion
Date07/12/23
AuthorReza Schwitzer

Making change

An election next year (or soon after) could well mean a new Education Secretary with new ideas on what we teach our children, be it subject specific ones such as relationship and sex education, or a more wide-ranging curriculum review.

Determining new content is difficult but arguably harder is actually implementing those changes.

Knowing how to do this requires a solid understanding of all the levers of change at the government's disposal.

There are quite a few available so let's take a look at how the main ones work, their benefits and drawbacks.

The national curriculum

This one is the most obvious.

The benefit is essentially that writing content into the national curriculum ensures that it is taught - and that what children learn in Leeds is consistent with what they learn in Exeter.

Or does it?

One potential drawback is that it only technically applies to LA-maintained schools. Academies and free schools, which account for around 80% of secondary schools, don’t have to deliver the National Curriculum (even though in practice most do).

Perhaps more saliently, the more you write into the national curriculum, the quicker it becomes out-dated and needs reviewing again.

And, of course, the more you will be directly prescribing what young people are taught rather than trusting the professional judgement of teachers.

Assessment content

Broadly speaking, for GCSEs and A levels, the DfE specifies the subject content, Ofqual sets out how that should be assessed, and exam boards then write conforming qualification specifications which include their own take on how that is best achieved.

The benefit of this lever is that it removes some of the burden from government and encourages innovation by exam bodies which in turn offers a degree of consumer choice.

But the danger is that the tail could wag the dog.

An over-reliance on assessment may dictate teaching, when in fact, what we want young people to learn should determine what we assess them on.

Ofsted

There are areas of curriculum content that Ofsted has a role in verifying are taking place – PE is a good example.

The national curriculum requires children to experience a breadth of sports. This breadth cannot always be measured in a final assessment.

Having a visit from an inspector can record what is happening on the ground and gives students an opportunity to demonstrate what they know and can do.

A benefit of using Ofsted as a lever is that schools take it very seriously and inspectors can see whether schools are teaching the curriculum and not just, for example, to pass a test.

However, inspections capture just a moment in time and can be a blunt tool. There has also been criticism of an overreliance on Ofsted findings to drive change.

Accountability measures

These can be an effective policy tool for driving change and are set directly by the DfE.

They are a practical expression of what the government deems valuable in education and what schools ‘ought’ to provide for students in terms of teaching.

Their benefit is that although they incentivise the school curriculum, unlike statutory guidance, they do not impinge directly on school’s operational autonomy.

The main downside is that accountability measures can create perverse incentives such as schools teaching just those subjects and qualifications that are covered by the measures and nothing else.

In this way, they can in reality be just as prescriptive as some of the earlier measures discussed, especially if the consequences of performing poorly against such measures are severe.

Another issue is that if the accountability framework is changed very frequently, this can create an unstable environment for schools’ planning.

Statutory or non-statutory guidance

Statutory guidance, such as that covering the National Curriculum, is legally binding and enforceable, creates uniform provision and sets out clear accountability structures.

But, it can be complex to understand. The rigidity of statutory guidance also means that if circumstances change there is little room for discretion and it is difficult to adapt quickly.

Non-statutory guidance, for example like that regarding careers guidance, has the opposite qualities. It is generally easier to understand and implement. Its flexibility makes it more adaptable if needs change.

But, this flexibility can also lead to inconsistent provision and, as it is not legally binding, there may be confusion about whether it should be followed with no direct consequences for failing to do so.

In practice, choosing between the two depends on the context and goals.

Direct funding/grants

The DfE can identify areas in education it wants improved or groups of students it wants to attract to key subjects then fund ways of doing so.

One example is the hubs offering free or subsidised CPD and training to those teaching, or wishing to teach, subjects such as Computing, maths, English, languages and music.

The benefits of this form of funding is that it can solve specific problems such as subject specialist teacher shortages which in turn can attract students to follow specified courses.

The huge drawback is obviously that money does not grow on trees.

Another problem is that direct grant funding is usually best-used as a short-term fix. For example, having lots of learning hubs dotted around the country, funded by individual grants, may not be the most efficient long-term solution.

 Embedding topics in teacher training and CPD

One way to make it more likely that something is taught in schools is to ensure teachers learn to teach it.

This will not work for specific content like, say, the Vietnam War, because it won’t be relevant to 99% of those doing initial teacher training.

But it can work for more thematic subjects. For example, if you want young people to learn more about the role of women across all subjects, you could infuse it into initial teacher training and ongoing CPD.

Voluntary arrangements

Instead of just having top-down directives, teachers and leaders could be empowered to decide how important topics are taught.

Whilst you might not get the levels of consistency provided by the routes above, on some issues this might lead to more genuine innovation around some of the issues facing education.

Conclusion

So, these are just some of the bigger levers for policy change.

Knowing they exist and the ramifications of applying them is the first stage in decision making by any government wishing to bring about a change in trajectory.

Read more:
What do driverless cars and auto-markers have in common?
Comparative judgement: The pros and cons
What comes first, the question or the mark scheme?

Adaptive Assessment

Adaptive Assessment: A missing ingredient in the resit recipe?

The number of students resitting their maths GCSE is growing, but the proportion getting a grade 4 or higher is falling. This situation is not only dispiriting for the young people striving to get the qualifications they need, but also for the teachers working hard to help them. How can outcomes for this cohort be improved? Bart Crisp, associate director at the Centre for the Use of Research and Evidence in Education, thinks adaptive assessment may be part of the solution.

Read Moreicon / report
SEND

Student success: Every little achievement counts

Baroness Morgan is calling for students to be given ‘self-belief’ lessons as a way of developing their characters and preparing them for the future. She is not the first to notice that a student’s sense of their own ability and their level of success are part of a virtuous circle. But how can teachers get the snowball rolling for students with SEND or in alternative provision? In this blog, former headteacher, John Tomsett, pulls out a swimming certificate he earned more than half a century ago to use as an inspiration for others.

Art and Design

Progress 8 – How much can it flex?

Progress 8 has come in for criticism in recent months for the way it combines with the Ebacc to skew schools’ focus towards academic subjects at the expense of creative and technical options. Both Labour and a Lords committee have called for reform to boost uptake of declining subjects such as D&T, dance and drama. In the second of two blogs looking at Progress 8, AQi examines whether the accountability measure could be realigned to address these concerns and if so, how could that be done?

Education Policy

Progress 8 – Schools’ flexible friend?

Eight years after Progress 8 came into existence it is facing calls to be updated. Some say reforming the schools accountability measure can halt the decline in take up of the arts, while others want it to boost numbers taking vocational and technical subjects. Are its shoulders broad enough to take on such a load? In the first of two blogs on Progress 8, AQi looks at how it came into being, what problems it was designed to solve and whether it is flexible enough to be reformed.

Assessment

2023: A year in review

As we wrap up a year full of exciting developments in education, it is the perfect time to take stock of what has gone on. In this blog, editor of AQi, Anil Dawar, reflects on some of his highlights for 2023.

Briefing

Levers of change: Ways that policymakers can shape the education system

With a general election looming there is much debate in the world of education about the next government’s decisions on what our children learn. But deciding this is only part of the issue for any new government. Just as important is understanding how they can actually implement those decisions. Knowing the advantages and drawbacks of all the different levers at government’s disposal is vital. In this blog, AQA’s head of external affairs Reza Schwitzer discusses what these levers are and their pros and cons.

Read Moreicon / chart
Assessment

Extended Project Qualifications: What do the statistics say about student growth?

A former student from Nottingham College won top prize in AQA’s Project Excellence Awards 2023/24 for her Extended Project Qualification on Queerness and Vampirism. Jessica Burton is now embarking on the next stage of her education journey on Cambridge University’s Foundation Year in Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, thanks in part to the UCAS points earned through her EPQ. With that in mind, it seems the ideal moment for AQi to explore what the statistics say about how completing an EPQ can improve progression to Higher Education, degree course outcomes and social mobility.

Assessment

Digital exams: A chance to make assessment more accessible for all

A recent symposium on inclusive educational assessment at Hughes Hall, Cambridge, attracted experts from across the country. AQA lead researcher Dr Katy Finch was in the audience listening to leading academics from the fields of social exclusion, autism, dyslexia and neurodiversity. In this blog, Dr Finch draws on ideas discussed that day to deliberate on the opportunities digitising assessment offers those facing barriers in mainstream education and asks: Can we use Digital Exams as a chance to make assessment more inclusive for everyone?

Education

The Baker Reforms: What is their legacy 35 years on?

In 1988, Lord Baker created arguably the most important piece of education legislation since the war. The impact of the Education Reform Act is almost undeniably greater than anything that has come since. Its significance was immediately apparent but, if anything, it may be even more significant now. AQi investigates the legacy of the Baker education reforms 35 years on.

Assessment

Post exam analysis: How to improve student experience

Every year, once exam season ends, AQA experts look at student scripts to assess how well the exam papers were constructed. AQA’s 2023 Maths GCSE performed particularly well, even though grading returned to 2019 standards and the Advance Information used in 2022 was not there. Andrew Taylor, head of maths curriculum and Shaun Procter-Green, maths assessment lead, tell how their work redesigning the papers paid off, allowing students to better show off their skills.

Join the conversation on Twitter

Follow us for discussion and new post alerts

Download a PDF version.

Download a copy of this content to your device as a PDF file. We generate PDF versions for the convenience of offline reading, but we recommend sharing this link if you'd like to send it to someone else.

Sign up to our newsletter

Sign up for news and alerts

Pages
BlogsPublicationsData StoriesEventsAbout
Hosted and Curated by AQA with AQA logo
© 2024 AQA