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Jo Johnson, Minister for Universities and Science, hit the proverbial nail on the head as he set out his vision for the Higher Education sector on Wednesday this week. As well as a renewed focus on quality teaching, “universities”, he said, “need to develop business-outreach into a core function that has influence over curriculum design.”

In his speech, the minister drew particular attention to the importance of science, technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) and to this list we should also add the creative industries, which are worth £77bn per year to the UK economy and are growing at just under 10%. The health of our economy and the UK's long term success hinge on the quality and matching of skills as argued by the City Growth Commission. Central to addressing the mismatch between the demand and supply of graduate skills is appropriate curriculum design right across the system. 

However, as our recent OPSN event with the Wellcome Trust concluded, the education and skills sector fail to protect good curriculum design as the very foundation of the whole learning system (see points 1 – 5 below):

  1. Curricula – equipping pupils with a body of knowledge and sets of skills structured to allow progression along clear pathway of learning, from early years to Further and Higher Education.
  2. Pupil assessment – means of testing progression and (inevitably only a sample of) learning.
  3. Qualifications – measures of pupil attainment
  4. Accountability – mechanisms through which schools’ quality of teaching and learning are monitored.
  5. Regulation – systems and processes designed to ensure standards in qualification design and delivery; teaching and learning; and fair access to educational opportunities.

Instead, the system confuses the respective stages, resulting in overemphasis in accountability and regulatory regimes (4) and (5), rather than pupil learning and development (1) and (2). Qualifications (3) become a shorthand proxy for all of the above, and – observing Goodhart’s Law – we witness system wide gaming and a distortion of the whole process (e.g. grade inflation and limited subject choice). 

OPSN, a programme of work at the RSA, looked at patterns of subject ‘choice’ by observing patterns of GCSE entries for every local authority in England using 2013/14 enrolment data. We focused our analysis on marked variation in subject entries, particularly triple science and modern foreign languages. Most concerning of our findings was that academic choices often seem [TH1] to be dependent on whether pupils live in a wealthy or poor area – a product, we argued in ‘Lack of Options’ of schools limiting subject availability (or pushing lower quality ‘equivalent’ qualifications) in part because of concern to maximise pupil attainment (3) for the sake of the performance as rated by the accountability (4) and regulatory (5) components of the system.

While some of these practices have sought to be addressed by recent policy changes, OPSN argues that open data on a range of indicators – rather than targeting specific measures - will help to minimise distorting behaviours in education. We were therefore pleased to hear Jo Johnson’s speech include reference to the little known Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act passed in March, a ‘Christmas tree’ like piece of legislation that will allow linkage of DfE, BIS, HMRC and DWP data. This data will enable us to assess the returns to education and skills training and investment at a local, regional and national level, and allow for more sophisticated predictive analysis to support learners in making appropriate choices.

As well as better data, another solution to system distortion might be the wider use of aptitude testing as an end-of-school assessment. The speakers on the panel, including Tim Leunig (DfE/LSE), Linda Luxon (Royal College of Physicians), Yvonne Baker (Science Learning Centre), Amanda Spielman (Ofqual) and Roger Taylor (Chair, OPSN and RSA Fellow) were surprisingly positive about the extent to which this approach could be a more accurate, credible signal to prospective employers or admissions tutors.  This way, the speakers agreed, a focus could return to good curriculum design – the foundation of learning and skills development, and a system that works for people, providers and the economy as a whole.

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