Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Scotland's access challenge

I blogged for the Sutton Trust on access in Scotland, linked to a new Trust report that attracted a lot of Scottish interest last week.

Nicola Sturgeon has placed education at the top of the government’s agenda. By making her deputy John Swinney responsible for education in her cabinet, she has given a clear signal of how highly she prioritises the issue. And in looking again at national testing, she is showing a willingness to put pupils’ interests first: good data is vital to educational equality, and must be part of what emerges.

But the scale of the challenge should not be underestimated. Today’s Sutton Trust report Access in Scotland from Sheila Riddell and her colleagues at Edinburgh University provides the most detailed data to date on the scale of the access challenge north of the border.

Some figures are familiar: between the most and least disadvantaged, there is a four-fold gap in university access in Scotland at age 18, compared with a 2.4 point gap in England. Others are encouraging: access to “higher tariff” universities is less polarised than in England, although this may in part reflect that a larger proportion of the Scottish sector are in this category, though it includes all the ancient universities . But what is new is the startling figure that of the growth in new entrants to higher education from the poorest areas over the last decade, fully nine in ten have been to sub-degree courses at further education colleges.

This is not to decry the efforts of colleges. As I learnt in my time as a member of the Scottish Commission on Widening Access, articulation from college to university is a tried and tested route into university. Colleges have displayed an enormous dedication to improving the education of poorer students. But in a system where half the students moving from college to university have to repeat at least one year,  there are clear issues about both the  nature of what has been learnt before university and the willingness of universities, particularly the Ancients, to credit that learning.

Sturgeon has commendably accepted many of the recommendations of the Commission, including the idea of an independent Commissioner for Fair Access – a cross between Les Ebdon and Alan Milburn, at least in their current roles – and the target that a fifth of higher education entrants by 2030 should be from the poorest fifth of neighbourhoods.

There is a danger that the access debate is simply clouded in the arguments around tuition fees. In truth, neither side has a strong enough case there. The absence of tuition fees has not obviously changed the access picture – and in other countries, the abolition of tuition fees has proved a welcome initial saving for middle class families rather than a spur to participation by the poor. But then it is hard to argue that incurring £50,000 debt on graduation in a debt-averse culture is the right answer either, even if a proportion of the fees are used to fund access and outreach and regardless of what protection may be in place for lower earning graduates.

That’s why it is not enough simply to accept radical targets. The means must be put in place too. And that means accepting also the more radical commission proposal that universities should formalise their contextual admissions work with institutional minimum thresholds that are targeted at disadvantaged students. Critics in Scotland have talked of social engineering, but the inspiration for this idea was the radical access work at St Andrews which I heard about when visiting the university.

At St Andrews, studying Physics and Astronomy has become so popular that the standard asking rates are AAAA in the Highers. Students from a widening participation background can join standard degree programmes but with a modified Gateway entry year, which has a lower asking rate for entry, typically BBBB. In their year of entry these students do about half their credits on traditional modules integrated with the rest of the intake, and about half their time on strongly tutored modules designed for this entry cohort. The early Gateway cohorts include some doctoral students.

That’s also why it is so important that the Scottish government continues to fund dedicated places at the Ancients for disadvantaged students, particularly when other places continue to be capped.  But the changes needed to meet the ambitious targets can’t just be about the Ancients. Some universities already meet the 20% target, but there is room for more higher and degree-level apprenticeships in addition to their existing offer, directly linked to employers and jobs. The overall scale of provision at Scotland’s universities deserves more debate too, with applications having risen faster over recent years than the number of places.

Of course, none of what universities or ministers might do is enough on its own. The real challenge lies in what happens in schools, where attainment gaps are evident from an early age. It is a good start providing comparable data through assessments, but that needs follow up with equally radical approaches through targeted funding, a strong drive to improve standards, and intervention and support for schools with poorer results, especially in disadvantaged areas.

But we need to go further in raising aspirations too. The Sutton Trust supports 250 students each year at its summer schools at Edinburgh and St Andrews. Other charities, like the Robertson Trust, play a vital role funding access programmes too.

It is simply not fair that 26% of places at ancient universities go to privately educated students, when less than 5% of Scottish students are educated at independent schools. We need to see a concerted drive to improve education for able, gifted and talented students in every state school from S1 (Year 7 in England) onwards too.

That’s the challenge behind today’s report. And it is one that matters for Scotland’s future success.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Getting it right on academies

Today's exchanges at Prime Minister's Questions on academies were undoubtedly a victory for a Labour leader who has too often struggled at the weekly Commons joust. But they did little to enlighten those who watched them on the strengths and weaknesses of academies - nor did we get a convincing reason why ministers want to force all schools to adopt their legal structure.

As one who was there at the birth of academies, I have been a longstanding supporter of their original concept - a radical shift in the governance of failing schools particularly to improve standards for disadvantaged pupils. But I have had no problem either with some of the changes since 2010 - it made sense to extend them to failing primaries,something I argued on this blog in the past; and I am a director of a multi-academy trust having been a governor of the successful school which helped create it, using the freedoms given to us by academy status.

It is because of my commitment to the original idea of academies that I was so keen that the Sutton Trust commissioned the now annual Chain Effects reports. Accountability and transparency have to be central to a policy founded on independence, and before Chain Effects in 2014 there were no such comparisons across established secondary chains. Since then, the DFE has published its own tables and Ofsted has started to produce reports on chains, although its powers to do so need strengthening in any future legislation.

Chain Effects has shown a mixed picture, though reading some of the comments by opponents of academies one might imagine it to damn all academies. It focuses on attainment and improvement for disadvantaged pupils, on the grounds that if academies are to succeed, they must be able to do at least as well as schools generally in enabling their poorest students to get good GCSE results.

On the positive side, the 2015 report showed that this is happening in around a third of the chains examined. Some, including Ark, City of London and Harris – three chains that have been part of the academies programme almost since the start – were dramatically transforming the prospects of their disadvantaged pupils, with results well above the national average. Others that were clearly making a difference include the Outwood Grange academies in Yorkshire and the Mercers’ academies based on the Thomas Telford model. Around half of chains bettered the national average improvement for poorer pupils, six out of 34 significantly. But many others are middling or worse, and their performance raises important questions about how the programme is run and how it might move in the future.

When I blogged about Chain Effects last year, I suggested some reasons why this might be so. After all, early research by Steve Machin on the sponsored academies had been more positive. One reason was the pace of change. By 2010, there was a target of 400 academies with nearly 300 ready to open. Now there are 1600 sponsored academies and 3,700 converters, representing two thirds of secondaries and one sixth of primaries. And one reason for the success of the earliest academies was that the troubleshooting capacity of the education department and Andrew Adonis’s detailed project management, from No.10 initially and later as a minister, ensured that the crises that have affected so many chains recently were addressed quickly. But it was far easier to ensure the smooth opening of new academies when the numbers created each year were in the tens rather than the hundreds. The focus was on getting it right much more so than getting the numbers up.

After 2010, attention was initially directed at converting successful schools to academies. I supported giving them the right to do so at the time, and still do, but combined with the drive for free schools it created a capacity issue in the department that has never been adequately addressed since. There was also a real failure to insist that converters became system leaders in return for the £250,000 extra (money that local authorities ostensibly spent on their behalf) that they received in their budgets to sweeten the changes.

Now we have the latest phase of the policy. In some ways, it reminds me of how Charles Clarke moved from early scepticism about specialist schools to what would become an evangelical zeal for them as education secretary, so much so that he wanted all secondaries to become one. It turned a policy that had been achieving improvements into one that lacked differentiation and was killed off by Michael Gove in 2010, undermining an organisation that could have helped deliver mass academisation in a collaborative way in the process.

The truth is that there is no demand for forcing good schools to become academies, and there is no evidence that it will lift standards. Before the White Paper, a lot of  multi-academy trusts (MATs) had been emerging organically, often geographically based. They can play a valuable role creating economies of scale, through shared leadership and back office functions - indeed, those village schools causing Tory backbenchers to fret would be better protected in MATs with a shared head than they are now. But, while MATs can expand subject choice or improve professional development, the evidence that converting good schools to academies raises their standards is not there.

The danger of the compulsion policy is that, at a time when too many trusts are not adding value, the DFE loses focus on the failing schools, as they did in the early years of the coalition, as officials spend their time smoothing the legalities of conversions. Only this time the converters are not always going to be choosing their own fate. The weaker schools where academy status could improve their results will be the losers, as will their pupils, not least the poorest ones.

So what should ministers do now that they've announced all this, given that it is unlikely either the PM or Chancellor will want to drop the policy entirely? First, they need some tactical retreats. There is no good reason to remove the requirement of continuing parent governors, and that should be dropped. Of course, MAT boards and governing bodies need experienced directors, but they and their governing bodies need a voice of parents too. The second change they should make is to allow local authorities to create trusts with local partners to oversee academies at a sub-county or borough level, grouping perhaps a dozen primaries and a couple of secondaries together. Of course, local authorities shouldn't have majority control of the trusts any more than they do governing bodies now, but their involvement would help smooth the process where good schools are coming together. And third, the government should incentivise the change rather than mandate it, and quietly drop the wholly arbitrary 2022 deadline which makes it feel as if there is a gun to schools' heads. At some stage, a tipping point will emerge in any case if they get the incentives right.

But even that will not be enough. It still leaves the more prosaic problem of what to do with the 'middle tier' as local authorities lose their role in school standards. David Blunkett provided some good answers on that score in 2014, and the government would do well to dust them down. They should expand the number of regional school commissioners and introduce a board with local government as well as school representatives to improve accountability. And - unless they want to spend the next five years in the courts battling councils - they should leave land in trust locally.

And then they need to leave it to schools to come together in trusts themselves, helped by the legal conversion money provided by the government. DFE officials and particularly regional commissioners should focus where they can and should make a difference - on failing and coasting schools. Meanwhile, they should have a full independent evaluation of what works and what doesn't with MATs. And perhaps we could also hear no more daft statistics like the one repeated by the PM today about 88% of converters being good or outstanding, ignoring the fact that being so was a prerequisite of conversion at the start.

The tragedy of this issue is that there is a lot that is good and sensible in the white paper, where this plan provided its most toxic chapter. Ministers should allow themselves the space to advance those ideas, which can improve teaching, leadership and standards.  And there are also real issues ahead as the exam and accountability system is overhauled and detail is added to the national funding formula which very soon will require real attention from the top. Unless they address the academies issue quickly, they may soon find themselves overwhelmed.

Friday, 15 April 2016

Selective primaries

I've written this blog for the Sutton Trust website on primary school admissons.

On Monday, hundreds of thousands of parents in England will learn whether or not they have secured a place for their children at their preferred primary school. For many, that will be their nearest primary; for others it may be faith-based schools. For some, there may not even be places as the demographic birth bulge continues to impact on school place planning at a time when all new schools have to be free schools.

But behind the excitement and despair of National Offer Day there is a second story at play. The issue is not just one of school choice but also of educational inequality. Primary schools, even more than secondary schools, are already the subject of social selection, with distance from schools even more important with fewer recruits each year. Selection by house price is an inevitable – and probably unchangeable – aspect of a system where we rightly place a premium on being able to walk to school and minimise the dreaded school run.

Yet that’s not the whole story. There has been a lot written about admissions policies to secondary schools. Debate still rages about grammar schools, while Sutton Trust research has shown that many successful comprehensives could be regarded as socially selective. Rather less has been said about primary school admissions policies, yet the choices made at age five can impact on social mobility as much – if not more – than those made at age eleven.

Until today, that is. In an important new analysis for the Sutton Trust, Dr Rebecca Allen and her colleagues at Education Datalab have looked in detail at the data for primary school admissions and have discovered over 1500 primaries – just under one in ten – where the difference in free school meal intake is more than nine percentage points below that of the communities from which they recruit.

The pattern seems strongest in some – though not all – London boroughs and in areas outside London where there are strong faith-based, particularly Catholic, state schools. There does seem to be a higher propensity for some academies and free schools – which can vary admissions policies from the local authority – to be among the schools that come through as more socially selective.

Importantly, Dr Allen has looked not just at where this social selection is taking place but its impact on standards. So, 13% of Ofsted outstanding primary schools fit within her rigorous definition of social selectivity compared with 7% of those requiring improvement, and just 1% of those in the bottom 10% of performance in the tests at eleven are among the most socially selective, while 14% of those in the top 10% of performance are among top 10% most socially selective primaries.

So this matters to children’s life chances, especially those of poorer pupils where earlier Sutton Trust research has identified a 19 month school readiness gap. And while some education reformers dismiss admissions issues on the grounds that they’re ‘making all schools good’, the cold reality is that some primaries (just like some secondaries or universities) will always be better, and their intakes should reflect society better when the taxpayer is footing the bill.

But what do we do about it? Were we to take a coldly scientific position we might argue for a system of lotteries in primary schools, but while they have some merit as part of the admissions policies for popular urban secondaries, such an approach would be impractical in primary schools.

Instead, we need to look at how schools apply the admissions code. We make three suggestions today. The first is that schools – including faith schools – should consider prioritising pupil premium pupils ahead of others in their admissions criteria (they already do this for children in care). The second is that we need the Admissions Code to be properly enforced, particularly in parts of London where parents have been known to rent a flat close to a good school for the application process (and no longer). And finally, while we understand the wish of the Catholic and Anglican churches to maintain the ethos of their schools, we applaud those that have already decided to make a proportion of places available for those of other faiths – something required of new faith free schools.

The attention given to secondary school choices should not blind us from the impact of social selection in primaries. Today’s new report should help start a debate on how we ensure that the best state primaries are not the preserve of the better off.

Monday, 11 April 2016

Back to school for governors

I wrote this essay for Public Finance Perspectives ahead of the recent education white paper. Its relevance remains strong.

The transformation of school structures over the past decade has dramatically increased the importance of good governance in schools. Yet evidence from the school inspectorate, Ofsted, and others suggests that the rapid conversion of seven in 10 secondary schools and one in six primaries into academy schools has not always been matched by the improvements one would expect in strategic leadership.

This has thrown into sharp relief the role of school governors, who historically have played the role of non-executives in an educational context. It may also help explain why the ‘academy effect’ on standards has been patchy and far from universal.

Until 2010, the vast majority of schools were maintained by their local authority. That wasn’t the whole story: a significant minority (largely faith based) were voluntary aided, while others had a greater degree of independence as foundation schools. While schools were funded through the local authority, the government dictated which budget was for schools and which was for central services. School forums, including headteachers, governors and council officials, could vary such spending locally.

By the time the coalition government took office, around 280 schools – mainly once‑failing secondaries in disadvantaged areas – had become or were becoming academies. These schools, representing fewer than one in 10 secondaries, were funded through an education funding agency, had charitable status, usually had sponsors drawn from charities or business and had greater freedoms over pay, the curriculum, admissions and building development. Most had strong governance systems.

New landscape

It is worth briefly examining what happened next, as it has created a very different school governance landscape. Former education secretary Michael Gove radically changed the academies programme. He allowed primary schools and schools rated as successful by Ofsted to take on academy status; and he rebranded new academies and all new schools as ‘free schools’.

With primary academies, the focus was on turning around failing schools. However, a lot of time and energy was also expended in supporting good secondary converters and promoting new free schools, which increasingly are the government’s answer to shortages of school places rather than the hubs of innovation originally imagined.

For many converters, it was a financial no-brainer: their £5m or £6m budgets would be increased by around £250k a year at a time when those without significant numbers of disadvantaged pupils eligible for the pupil premium were otherwise expecting to have to lay off staff.

Although the new academies were expected to support weaker schools locally, this was not a condition of approval. As a result, innovation was slower than it might have been and the Department for Education (DfE) found it hard to get enough good sponsors for the rapidly growing number of failing schools required to become academies.

The DfE promoted some big chains, ahead of local partnerships, to replace failing schools, and they expanded more rapidly than was prudent. The worst offenders were subsequently berated by Ofsted and had to surrender some of their schools. Despite these problems, the government has extended the range of schools that it expects to become academies, including those that are coasting as well as those deemed to be failing by Ofsted.

Chain reaction

The result is a programme with mixed success. The Sutton Trust looks each year at the performance of academy chains for their disadvantaged pupils – those they were originally intended to help the most. In its 2015 Chain Effects report, it found that, after being part of chains for three years, sponsored secondary academies had lower inspection grades – and were twice as likely to be below the minimum standard set for schools by the government.

Comparing this with 2013 data, the trust found that the contrast between the best and worst chains had increased in 2014. And, when analysed against a range of government indicators on attainment, a majority of the chains still underperform against the average for all secondary schools on attainment for their disadvantaged pupils.

Notwithstanding this, there are some great success stories. The Ark and Harris chains, schools sponsored by the City of London, and the Outwood Academies established by a dynamic Yorkshire headteacher, Sir Michael Wilkins, spring to mind.

Overall, the analysis suggests that chains within geographic clusters (making it easier to share resources), a strong ‘business model’ – with clarity across the chain on issues such as curriculum, teaching and data – and with growth at a manageable pace have succeeded significantly faster than schools generally. But the rest have performed at or below the national average.

The Sutton Trust focused on chains that had been in operation for at least three years, and it may be that newer chains do better. A wider analysis by the National Foundation for Education Research of sponsored and converter academies found that, although progress between the ages of 11 and 16 in sponsored academies (those replacing failing schools) is better than in local authority schools, there is no significant difference between converters and the remaining local authority schools. Moreover, the additional sponsored academy gains largely reflect a wider use of vocational qualifications that ministers have since downgraded because they believe they overinflate GCSE scores.

So, although the evidence on academy attainment is complex, the findings do give an indication of the challenging and ever-shifting context within which school governance has been operating – and the issues that school trustees, directors and governors have had to grapple with.

Multi-academy tasking

Meanwhile, another important change is happening in the system, which could have a profound impact if it works. Ministers have shifted their focus – after the embarrassments of the failing chains – away from national academy chains to local multi-academy trusts (MATs), which now include three-fifths of academies.

Typically centred around a successful local school (in the same fashion as some successful chains), they are selling it as a way both to achieve economies of scale and to drive up standards through a collaborative approach. The MAT will have a chief executive overseeing several schools, often both primary and secondary, which can share business, back office and teacher training functions. Only one in six primaries are currently academies, so ministers are particularly keen to see MATs bring small primaries together, perhaps with a single head, to increase the programme.

Yet there may be as big an issue with the governance of the new MATs as there has been with the way many of the less successful chains have been run.

In local authority schools, parents, teachers and the occasional community governor often made up the governing body, which often exceeded 15 members – there are around 300,000 school governors in England. While they had significant responsibilities, including over the budget and hiring of the head, it was a less daunting task than the role of a MAT director, whose responsibilities are closer to those of a business non-executive director or charity trustee. Increasingly, governors are expected to be recruited on talent rather than on their links to the schools.

The ‘Trojan Horse’ schools scandal in Birmingham – where governors were accused of putting their personal and religious ideology ahead of the pupils – was one of a number of issues that prompted Sir Michael Wilshaw, the schools chief inspector, to launch a review last November of the quality of school governance. He wants mandatory training for governors and MAT trustees, with payments for chairs and vice-chairs to attract more good people to the roles.

“In short, the role is so important that amateurish governance will no longer do,” he said. “Governing bodies made up of people who are not properly trained and who do not understand the importance of their role are not fit for purpose in the modern and complex educational landscape.” While the DfE has ignored the payment proposal, it says it is spending £2.4m on the recruitment and training of governors.

Fit for governance?

Whether there are enough volunteers of the right calibre to provide the required strategic governance is the key question, as the government continues its rapid academy expansion. A National Governors’ Association/TES survey last year showed that half of governors do not have a day job, and a further 20% get no time off for governance. So there is an important role here for employers in encouraging staff to become governors, something the CBI says it supports.

With the much more business-like approach of the new boards, such expertise will be vital. Equally, it will be important that board members as well as governors reflect the wider community. A 2014 analysis by the University of Bath for the National Governors’ Association showed that 96% of governors are white and many are retired.

The reality is that a fundamental shift in the structural operation of schools has not been accompanied by anything like the rigour needed to improve governance both locally and in national academy chains.

As multi-academy board members, trustees and directors are expected to be largely strategically focused on finance, trust-wide policies, leadership recruitment and pay, trust development and expansion, whereas school governors should focus much more on the academic attainment of their students, probing behind ostensibly good headline results.

MAT boards also need to be smaller, with specialist committees on audit, finance and pay that are MAT-wide. Sir Michael says governors and trustees should avoid “marginal issues” of day-to-day management that ought to be dealt with by school leaders. Multi-academy trusts may have budgets of £20m or more – school budgets total £46bn nationally – so audit responsibilities are particularly important.

As the government shifts from chains to MATs as its preferred schools delivery model, there is a big demand for senior people in the public and private sectors to take on all these roles. It remains an open question though as to whether this scale of ambition can attract the right calibre of trustees and governors – with the experience and vision needed to oversee the effective use of so much public money.

Thursday, 21 January 2016

Losing focus

In my latest Sutton Trust blog post, I worry that plans for an over-complex accountability system could backfire.

All credit to Centreforum and Datalab for their detailed report this week showing the likely impact of the myriad changes to the exam accountability system planned over the next few years. They made a commendable effort to develop a new set of indicators that they argue allow us to judge schools in years to come against the standards achieved by other developed nations.

But in performing this service, their report also highlights something else which we should take on board on the day the government publishes the latest league tables. It shows how the system is in danger of losing long-term comparability, bamboozling parents with a level of complexity that is meaningful only to dedicated statisticians and mislabelling a host of improving schools as failures. Taken together – and a lot of the changes are phased - there is a real danger that they will damage rather than improve standards, not least for the poorest students.

The starting point for all these changes was built on an assumption – utterly false, it has to be said – that previous governments had tried to undermine exam standards to flatter school performance on their watch. True, there is much to be said for raising the bar in exams, just as has been done with floor standards, but the question will be whether the price is worth it. So, the new system will effectively lift the minimum threshold expected for GCSE students from a grade C to a level 5 on a new nine-point scale, making the minimum somewhere between a B and a C.

At the same time, there is a move to assess progress in the best eight subjects as a key standard, as well as giving extra credit for attainment in English and Maths. It is not clear how this related to an extraordinarily ambitious expectation that 90% of pupils – it was 100% in the Conservative manifesto, but was reduced after representations - will be expected to study the academic subjects which ministers call the English Baccalaurate., though it is not clear how many will get the EBacc – only 39% currently enter all the subjects and just 24% achieve five grade Cs in them.

The argument is that by raising the standard, our results will be closer to those in other OECD countries. In its report, Centreforum argues that 50 points would become the new equivalent of five good GCSEs, as a minimum expectation for schools.

All well and good. But in the process, we will no longer be able to compile time series showing how schools are performing over time. We will have no idea from the data whether standards are really better – Ofqual has established more credibility than the old Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, but both are just quangos. Crucially, too, while schools may have an expectation that more students gain the higher grade 5 as the norm, there is no real incentive to do so.

The D-C borderline was widely criticised, but it recognised that for employers and sixth form studies, there was a world of difference between the two grades. Can the same really be said about a 3, 4 or 5 in the new system? Equally, while there are more points for a top grade, is there sufficient incentive to stretch at the top? I understand that there will be a little extra gain moving from a B to an A though the differentiation between 7, 8 and 9 will be finer than the current A and A* but will this be enough to outweigh the incentives lower down the scale? Why not report the proportion of pupils gaining grade 7+ as well as the overall scores if we want to encourage stretch?

But there are two other causes for concern in this upheaval. The first is that parents and employers – who have a fair idea what an A, B or C means – are likely to be left utterly baffled by the new grading system. Instead of enhancing accountability for them, it is likely to reduce it. And the second is that it is likely to leave many schools that have greatly improved their threshold scores thanks to floor targets started by Labour and maintained by the current government floundering once again, giving an appearance of failure from which – lacking the resilience of the much touted King Solomon Academy – they may find it hard to recover. Disadvantaged students for whom five good GCSEs was a real and worthwhile achievement may find their efforts deemed worthless again.

Of course, over time, it may be that the new system becomes the rigorous accountability mechanism that is the hope of its creators. The worry is that in the journey towards that point, too many passengers find themselves abandoned en route.

And none of this addresses the issues in primary school. In an act of incomprehensible madness, the system of levels by which primary schools have been judged for 20 years – and which are well understood in schools - is to be abandoned in favour of ‘scaled scores’ – supposedly ensuring consistency of standards from one year to the next – while schools can do what they like.

Most seem to want to keep levels, and the Centreforum report works on the reasonable assumption that level 4b (slightly higher than the current ‘expected’ grade) will be the benchmark. The level of ambition in primary schools is welcome, and 4b a better guide to GCSE success than anyone getting a level 4. But comparability is being lost, schools won’t have a common currency and needless chaos is being introduced where some modest adjustment would have been enough.

Sir Michael Wilshaw was absolutely right when he said at the Centreforum launch on Monday: “There will be many who think your ambitions for the future of English education are too bold and too unrealistic. I am not one of them. We simply have to aim high. Unless we can compete with the best jurisdictions in the world, all our hopes for a fair, cohesive and prosperous society will come to very little.”

However, all this tinkering with the way we measure success is in danger of overwhelming a system that should be focused on improving attainment and reducing gaps for disadvantaged pupils. The commendable focus of the last five years will be lost in a blizzard of incomprehension and new statistics. The irony is that all this change may leave us none the wiser, and set back the cause of education reform for a generation.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Getting the student architecture right

I've looked at the possible impact of merging the Office for Fair Access into a new catch-all higher education regulator on my latest Sutton Trust blog.
Green and white papers are published for a variety of reasons, aside from the need to ‘consult’ prior to legislation. A new minister wants to make his or her mark. The government needs to save money. A department wants to show it is doing something, usually a new organisation with a new acronym. Whatever the reason, they are rarely all they seem, and the outcomes don’t always match their ambitious good intentions.
So how does the latest universities green paper, Higher education: teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice, match up? Among its new ideas is a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), a way of holding universities to account on an aspect of their delivery that is decidedly patchy, and a new Office for Students (OfS) which will be a ‘single, light touch regulatory system’ that will ‘empower students, drive quality, eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy and save taxpayer money’.
The detail may still be dependent on MPs’ approval, though the acronyms are already in place. But can the Office for Students (OfS) really do all of these things successfully, and what will it do as a single entity for social mobility that maintaining the successfulOffice for Fair Access, and expanding its remit a little, would not achieve? The new Office will not only see OFFA absorbed under its wing, it will also run the new teaching framework, absorbHEFCE’s regulatory role and provide quality assurance.
Sensibly, it will not take over the creaky behemoth that is theStudent Loans Company, and the department itself wants to change how the remaining teaching grant is allocated to universities. There must, however, be concern at the suggestion that raising the fee cap would no longer require a parliamentary vote, and could be done by power of the Secretary of State.
The new body will operate in the students’ interest, we are told, but it will be funded by universities. There is much that is good about the overall functions of the new entity – it will have specific duties to promote students’ interests, excellent teaching and fair access. It will also be the body charged with deciding which new providers can offer higher education and providing better information on choices.
Having had my time in Whitehall, I can see how logical all this may seem. Government loves having everything ‘joined up’. It promotes efficiency and collaborative working, the civil servants hum. It (ostensibly) saves money, the chancellor purrs. And it gives me something to be seen doing in parliament, the minister cheers.
But I’m not convinced it will meet another important objective of the green paper: improving social mobility. One of the less well publicised government targets (they’re back in favour again, apparently) is to double the percentage of disadvantaged students going into higher education from 13.6% in 2009 to 27.2% by 2020, and to improve access for minority ethnic students. The figure was 18.2% in 2014. Achieving this will require real focus, not least with potential cuts in the spending review of widening participation funds, and a drive that ensures the target isn’t met simply by plucking the lowest hanging fruit – there is still an eight fold access gap in our most elite universities, after all.
The record of ‘logical’ mergers in recent years is hardly encouraging. The Every Child Matters agenda under the Labour government was a worthy and logical attempt to join up education and children’s services. The result was a lost focus on education standards in many local authorities where a social services agenda dominated, or vice versa. The resultant loss of dedicated child protection teams as part of that agenda arguably contributed to the Baby P case in Haringey. The ‘logical’ merger of the National College of School Leadership with the Teaching and Development Agency has been accompanied by a teacher recruitment crisis and the near-destruction of a programmecredited by the OECD as ‘changing the landscape of school leadership.’ Both were affected by a loss of focus.
The Office for Fair Access has had a good record since its inception in 2004. Its access agreements have kept universities accountable in a very specific area that is vital to social mobility. The duty to report on access to parliament, combined with the power to prevent universities charging higher fees, have supported improvements in access from disadvantaged students despite the trebling of those tuition fees.
The green paper would not take away any of these powers, and it would maintain the access regulator’s post. Indeed there is an expectation that the regulator should look also at the destinations of access students, a welcome extension of the existing remit. Improved information for students would be a great boon too. But the new Office would absorb OFFA into an entity with lots of other complex responsibilities. The result could be a gradual erosion of independence and loss of impact in a body that is likely to spend much time on the complexities of competition. That would not be good for social mobility.
There is much to welcome in the new green paper, not least the stronger role for students and the overdue focus on teaching. But the danger is that in its desire to create a clean new ‘architecture’ the Office for Students ends up creating something closer to theWalkie-Talkie than The Shard. We need to be convinced otherwise.

Friday, 24 July 2015

The academies' capacity challenge

I've blogged at the Sutton Trust this morning on the academies' capacity challenge.

The Government shows no sign of slowing its academies programme. One of Nicky Morgan’s first acts after the election was to launch an assault on ‘coasting schools’ with the expectation that many of them would become academies. Yet it is not at all clear that there is enough capacity in the system to transform all of those schools that are deemed failing or coasting into success stories.

That’s why the second annual Chain Effects report is so important today. In publishing it, we have focused once again on attainment and improvement for disadvantaged pupils. If academies are to succeed, they must be able to do at least as well as schools generally in enabling their poorest students to get good GCSE results.

On the positive side, the report shows that this is happening in around a third of the chains examined. Some, including ArkCity of London and Harris – three chains that have been part of the academies programme almost since the start – are dramatically transforming the prospects of their disadvantaged pupils, with results well above the national average. Others that are clearly making a difference include the Outwood Grange academies in Yorkshire and the Mercers’ academies based on the Thomas Telford model.

Other chains are showing substantial improvements, including the Bristol-based Cabot Learning Federation, the David Ross education trust and the Co-operative academies trust. But many others are middling or worse, and their performance raises important questions about how the programme is run and how it might move in the future.

I speak as someone who was there at the birth of academies. Indeed, the original term City Academy – the urban allusion was soon dropped – was one that I believe I coined in an early discussion with Andrew Adonis, whose idea it was to co-opt Kenneth Baker’s City Technology Colleges to the New Labour project and whose tenacity and attention to detail ensured success for most of the first sponsored academies.

By 2010, there was a target of 400 academies with nearly 300 ready to open. Even that was a tall order. One reason for the success of the earliest academies was that the troubleshooting capacity of the education department and Andrew’s detailed project management, from No.10 initially and later as a minister, ensured that the crises that have affected so many chains recently were addressed quickly.

But it was far easier to do so – and to ensure the smooth opening of new academies – when the numbers created each year were in the tens rather than the hundreds (not to mention all the free schools, UTCs and studio schools now being created too). The focus was on getting it right much more so than getting the numbers up.

After 2010, attention was initially directed at converting successful schools to academies. I supported giving them the right to do so at the time, and still do, but combined with the drive for free schools it created a capacity issue in the department that has never been adequately addressed since. And that’s the real challenge presented by our report today.

As it stands, nearly half of all the sponsored academies we looked at would be defined as ‘coasting’ for 2014 under the current definition (which doesn’t as yet allow for the performance of disadvantaged pupils).  But of more concern must be the thousands of primary schools that will require action once the changes come into effect. If they are to become academies with support from chains or other schools, where is the capacity to achieve this?

That’s why the report urges the Government to expand its pool of school improvement providers beyond academy sponsors, while introducing greater rigour and transparency for all sponsors. Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, argues that the government should put as much effort into building new collaborative trusts and federations first, and perhaps then encourage the academy status, and that seems sensible in a system where fewer than one in six primaries is an academy. Indeed, the right collaboration seems as important as freedoms in the success of sponsored academies.

Our report also argues that new chains should not be allowed to expand until they have a track record of success in bringing about improvement in their existing academies. That too is important. ARK and Harris have around 30 academies each, but have expanded relatively slowly compared with other bigger chains. Such measured expansion has helped ensure their success. But it also highlights the difficulty the DFE faces in growing the numbers of good chains.


Our reports are not the only ones to suggest that the overall ‘academy effect’ is not large: that was a finding of a recent NFER report too. With so many schools now academies that should not be so surprising – the move from exceptionalism to universality had similar effects in specialist schools. But in the stories of those chains and academies that have transformed their less advantaged students’ prospects there are lessons in what can be achieved – with the right mix of leadership, good teaching, proper planning and a clear vision.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

A comprehensive Commons and Cabinet?

I've blogged at the Sutton Trust on the educational backgrounds of the new MPs and Cabinet.

The election result on May 7 may have surprised pundits expecting a hung parliament. But it was equally interesting in what it says about Britain today, and who now gets to become an MP. Across the political spectrum, the diversity that really started in the late 90s has now become embedded in both main parties, and not just in an improved gender and ethnic balance, but also in a more socially representative group of MPs.

Over several elections, the Sutton Trust has been tracking the educational backgrounds of MPs and cabinet ministers, and there are some interesting trends visible in our Parliamentary Privilege research brief this week. For a start, newly-elected MPs are much more likely to have been to comprehensive schools in 2015 than those who were re-elected from the 2010 intake. And our analysis of the new Cabinet –widely quoted in the press this week – showed a doubling in the proportion of ministers attending Cabinet who had been to non-selective state schools.

table blog 3

Of course, this doesn’t mean that a private education is not still an advantage for Parliament or the Cabinet, just as it is at the top of professions from the law to the City. Half of David Cameron’s Cabinet was privately educated, seven times the proportion of the population who attend independent schools, and 32% of MPs were too, over four times the national average.

Moreover, while Conservative MPs are a bit less likely to have been privately educated – at 48% probably the first time their proportion has dipped below half – a number of Labour’s new intake had an independent education, pushing their proportion up slightly to 17%.

When people talk about parliamentary privilege in education, they often couple an Oxbridge education with having been to public school. However, the two groups are not synonymous and we would expect MPs to be better educated than the population at large. Still, it is still interesting that more than a quarter of MPs went to Oxford or Cambridge and a further 28% attended another Russell Group university. Half the Cabinet also has an Oxbridge education. Interestingly, among the new SNP group of 56 MPs – at least the 40 whose educational backgrounds were publicly available – few had a private education and Glasgow was perhaps unsurprisingly their main political training ground.

So what are we to make of all this? Of course, we should welcome evidence of improved mobility for state educated parliamentarians, and the Cabinet and Commons should be the richer for this wider experience, just as it has been improved by having a growing number of women MPs and those from BME communities. But just as the 29% of female MPs and 6% of BME MPs in the new Commons are not yet representative of the community as a whole, neither should we rest on our laurels when even in this new intake the newly elected MPs are four times more likely to be privately educated than average.

Some will say that this is all about class envy publicising this information, and some candidates refuse to make public their educational backgrounds perhaps for that reason. That isn’t what it is about at all. Rather it is to recognise that access to our best schools – and that includes our best comprehensives and grammar schools – is too often related to ability to pay, including the means to buy a house in a popular catchment area. So we need this more representative group of MPs to address these issues, supporting fairer admissions to comprehensives and needs blind access to independent day schools. The issue is one of fair access.

Equally, we should be less concerned that Oxbridge and the Russell Group has such a grip on political life than we should be that access to those leading universities is still so heavily skewed towards the richest communities. A child from the top fifth of neighbourhoods is still more than six times more likely to go to a leading university than one from the bottom fifth, and when it comes to the top 13 (including Oxbridge) that gap widens to nine-fold. There are too many bright youngsters from less advantaged areas who are not getting as far as applying to these universities, let alone being admitted to them.

So that’s the challenge for our ‘comprehensive’ Commons and Cabinet – will they do more to promote fair access to our best schools and universities, so they can be trailblazers for many more young people from modest backgrounds to reach the centres of political power in Britain today?

With the right policies, they can open doors for others to follow.

Friday, 17 April 2015

Mapping mobility

I've written this new blog post for the Sutton Trust website to coincide with a new index of social mobility across England's 533 constituencies.

The outcome of the general election on May 7th may be up for grabs. But one thing is certain – it will usher in a whole new cadre of MPs. We looked in February at the backgrounds of some of these candidates, and will look at the House of Commons in the future. But, what of the constituencies they represent? How well do advance social mobility?

That’s the background to today’s new social mobility index. The index looks at all 533 English constituencies – data is much better in England than in the other UK nations - and highlights the big differences that exist across the country in the chances of young people getting ahead in life.  With an interactive map, you can see how each constituency ranks on key measures.

It also points the way to some of the policies that those candidates who get elected in May should embrace if we are to enhance those limited life chances.

For example, the proportion of poorer children whose development is seen as good varies from 72% in Lewisham to 19% in Kenilworth and Southam. This is a big issue: our earlier research has shown a 19 month gap nationally in school readiness between the richest and poorest five year olds. Last year’s Sound Foundations report highlighted the importance of having well qualified staff to provide the sort of vocabulary and stimulus too often missing in deprived homes. More recently, we showed a link between good nursery education and taking the right A-levels.

Of course, these inequalities persist through primary school and unusually by international standards they continue through secondary school. And our index confirms that the London effect is making a difference, with 30 of the top 50 constituencies for mobility being in the capital. We’ve seen lots of explanations for why London schools, once falling behind, are now ahead of the national average, including the way schools worked together in the London Challenge programme, stronger improvements in literacy and numeracy at primary schools and the wider ethnic mix that has brought greater aspiration into the capital’s classrooms.

But underlying all this we need to improve the quality of teaching in schools. Sutton Trust research has shown that poorer pupils gain 18 months’ worth of learning with very effective teachers over a school year, compared with six months with poorly performing teachers. In other words, a great teacher can produce a whole year’s extra learning. Professional development is not a sexy subject for politicians, but getting it right with a strong entitlement for all England’s 450,000 teachers could make a massive difference to school standards.

Attending good universities is important for the top jobs, and changing mobility at the top of our professions, politics and the City. Our index finds big differences between areas when it comes to sending young people from the poorest neighbourhoods to the third of most selective universities, including the Russell Group and Oxbridge.

Students nationally are nearly seven times more likely to go to a top-tier university if they live in the richest fifth of neighbourhoods compared to the poorest fifth, and the gap is even wider for Oxford, Cambridge and other elite institutions. The index shows big variations between constituencies on this measure.

But getting to a good university is not enough. Research has shown that state school pupils can outperform their private school counterparts if they get admitted, though those from disadvantaged areas may need extra support to succeed while there. But they then need a level playing field in internships and work experience, if they are to get on. In our index, we looked at the success of less advantaged graduates in getting professional jobs, finding Harrogate and Knaresborough had the best record and Stoke-on-Trent North the poorest.

However, the important test of success today is getting a good job after school or university. For some young people that should mean apprenticeships, and our polling shows that parents and teachers share our view that there should be more available at A-level and degree standard. For others it will be doing the right degree at the right university.

Those choices should be known by every student, yet our research has shown that while good careers advice has a positive impact on results and choices, far too much of it is below par. We need a big improvement in the specialist advice on subjects like elite university admissions and the availability of apprenticeships for schools to guide their pupils in the right direction.

Social mobility has stalled in Britain, though we have seen progress in recent years – including improvements in primary test scores and access to higher education. But whatever combination of parties is in power after May still has a major job if they want to ensure young people can succeed regardless of their background.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Helping the highly able

In my latest Sutton Trust blog, I look at the debate around the highly able in state schools.
This week saw a flurry of activity on the issue of promoting the interests of highly able – or gifted and talented – students in state schools. With Ofsted issuing its second stinging review in two years, and Tristram Hunt announcing plans for a new ‘gifted and talented fund’ if he is elected, the issue of able students from low and middle income backgrounds has been placed firmly on the national agenda.
Ofsted’s report found that most schools had been slow in taking forward Ofsted’s previous recommendations, especially for 11-14 year-olds, and notes a degree of complacency in some. Half of all schools visited made no special provision for the highly able. Too often in those schools, the inspectors recorded a sense that ‘expected progress’ was not good enough.
It may be, as Ofsted suggests, that the new Progress 8 measure (which replaces five good GCSEs as the Level 4 benchmark from 2016) will start to change such attitudes, though a focus on the extent to which high attaining pupils (who are already singled out in the performance tables) gain at least 5As at GCSE and get into Russell Group universities and Oxbridge would be a far sharper measure. More to the point, as the Government moves towards ever less comprehensible measures on the attainment gap, there is a danger that the new data’s impenetrability to the public will reduce rather than increase accountability.
However, the bigger issue goes beyond measures of accountability. It is about the extent to which schools recognise that their most able students – those in the top 5-10% nationally, particularly from low and middle income backgrounds with whom the Sutton Trust is most concerned – need extra nurturing just as much as those who may start school as low attainers. When David Blunkett launched the first ‘gifted and talented’ provision and plans for what became the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth he saw such provision as an essential part of truly comprehensive education.
With government funding, many schools developed gifted and talented programmes, and accompanying support for Aim Higher summer schools meant that the needs of the highly able started to have a government focus that extended beyond grammar schools or even promotion of setting by subject ability, into masterclasses, university links, accelerated AS levels and other activities.
Sadly, the early energy of those programmes dissipated in the late 2000s, in part with the disbandment of the Warwick-based national centre in 2007 – I have met a number of young people at Oxford and Cambridge from modest home backgrounds whose ambitions were raised in their early teens by attending Warwick – and the lost focus that accompanied a changed contractor for the programme. Any remaining support for teachers was scrapped in 2010, ending the national drive for highly able students.
That’s why Tristram Hunt’s commitment this week to establish a national ‘gifted and talented’ fund is so welcome. It draws on ideas in our Mobility Manifesto last year and is an idea we would like to see adopted by all the political parties in the May election. Essentially his new fund would enable promising ideas to be evaluated, with schools bidding to draw down funds, using some of their own money to match government support.
The Sutton Trust has already started to develop a new programme in this space. Sutton Scholars, which started at University College, London is extending to Cambridge, Nottingham and Warwick offering an intensive two years of support to bright low and middle income students during the early years of secondary school, so they take the right subjects at GCSE that will lead on the A-levels that are in demand at leading universities.
The Trust supports over 2,100 students a year at our 10 UK and 2 US summer schools, and we greatly increase their chances of going to top universities. But we also know that we are not reaching enough able young people early enough in their education so that they have the ambition to apply for those summer schools and similar access programmes in the sixth form.
Whoever wins the next election should see provision for the highly able before GCSEs as an important a part of the access agenda as outreach in the sixth form or fee bursaries for undergraduates. We are not doing enough to harness the talents of all our young people. Ofsted’s timely report this week should be a wake-up call to all the parties in the months to May.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

The education of politicians

In my latest Sutton Trust blog, I look at why the educational background of candidates matters.

This was the week when education became an election issue. David Cameron and Nicky Morgan unveiled their plans for turning mediocre schools into academies, reviving school numeracy and school spending. Ed Miliband and Liam Byrne edged towards explaining how Labour would deliver a promise to cut tuition fees to £6000 without upsetting the universities.

In this week when the politics of education was in full flow, it seems appropriate to look more closely at the education of politicians, and specifically at those candidates whom their parties think have a fair chance of being elected on May 7th.

Today’s Sutton Trust research brief Parliamentary Privilege looks at the school and university education of 260 candidates who were already selected by mid-December 2014 either to replace sitting MPs from their own parties or in seats that their party is targeting. This means that we have a bigger range of candidates for the parties than current polling would suggest any is likely to win, but it also gives us statistically significant samples for Labour, the Conservatives and UKIP which restricting their number to seats expected by the pundits to switch would not allow.

And the picture it gives is not encouraging. For all the talk of changes to Parliament after May, the educational picture is likely to remain pretty much unchanged.

There may be a slight reduction in the proportion of privately educated MPs, but it will probably remain around a third. Slightly fewer of the Conservative candidates we looked at are privately educated than are the current MPs, but the total remains around half; nearly a fifth of Labour’s candidates are privately educated compared to a tenth in the current House; and a third of the UKIP candidates we looked at also went to an independent school.

You would expect a higher proportion of our politicians to be university educated than the population as a whole. Among the candidates, 55% went to a Russell Group university, five times the national average. More interestingly, 19% went to Oxbridge compared to less than 1% of UK adults.

Of course, the challenge for us all is to open up more places at our best universities for able young people from low and middle income backgrounds, to ensure that our elites – not just politics, but the law, medicine, the city and media – are more representative. As James Turner described last week, that’s what Sutton Trust summer schools and other access programmes are doing.

But the concern many have had is that so many of today’s politicians have come from a route that goes from PPE at Oxford through a political job (perhaps as a researcher or special adviser) into becoming an MP. 40% of our sample of candidates had what might be seen as a career in politics before wanting to become a politician.

That’s not good for democracy. But then we have made it that much less attractive for people in non-political careers to enter politics than before. Expenses and funding scandals, constant ridicule and widespread disdain may have been brought by some politicians on the political class, but it still makes it unattractive to many to give up a secure and relatively quiet job for the life of modern MP.

The Russell Brands of this world may say it doesn’t matter: politics doesn’t change things. But the truth is that it does. Even this week’s education debates could lead to improved local schools or more affordable university degrees. Such changes affect individual lives.

I have personally argued often elsewhere that we need to see practical changes that could eliminate a lot of the stench from today’s politics: more state funding than exists currently, flat allowances for MPs depending on where they live, a less unwieldy second chamber, fairer voting systems.  Politicians have only themselves to blame for not grasping those nettles.

But constitutional change is not enough. We need to change attitudes among young people and improve opportunities to engage them in the political process and debate. Better citizenship and more debating in schools could help.

Moreover, fundamental change will mean ensuring that the path to politics is widened by fairer access to those universities that so often lead into political careers, paid internships opened up beyond the friends of MPs and a more active engagement with all the parties in widening their candidate base so that they engage people of all social classes as actively as they have sought to ensure more female and BME candidates in recent decades.

Politics itself should be a part of the election debate. Hopefully, our research brief today can help put it there.