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 more 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.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

University funding challenge

I've written this feature on university funding for the Jan/Feb 2015 edition of Public Finance.

As the general election looms, Nick Clegg’s decision to back a trebling of tuition fees could come back to haunt him. A study by the Higher Education Policy Institute think-tank in Oxford suggests 10 Liberal Democrat university seats could be vulnerable to student anger, after the party’s decision to support higher fees despite its manifesto pledge to phase them out.

here are also doubts that the expected financial savings will be made. There is growing evidence that graduates will face debts into their 50s, while the Exchequer may see little real benefit because nearly half of the loans will have to be written off.

To understand why, look again at the 2012 student funding package and how it differs from what went before. When Labour introduced income-related ­tuition fees of up to £1,000 in 1999, it also replaced the remaining maintenance grants with loans to be repaid at a rate of 9% of graduate income above £10,000 a year. In 2006, fees rose to £3,000, although universities were permitted to charge less. Fees were no longer income-related, though some maintenance grants were restored. Tuition fee loans were introduced and the graduate repayment threshold was raised to £15,000.

The coalition government trebled fees to a new maximum of £9,000, extending the income contingent loans accordingly. But two crucial additional changes were made. First, the repayment threshold was increased to £21,000. Conservative ministers wanted it to be £18,000, but the LibDems insisted on the higher level. The second was the addition of a real rate of interest. Previously debt rose with the retail price index (RPI).

Under the new system, undergraduates are charged RPI+3% while studying and then pay interest of up to RPI+3% on a sliding scale once they graduate. The result is that from this year, graduates will pay off their loans – now much larger after the fees hike – much more slowly than under the old system.

Read the full article here.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Election 2015: consensus and challenges

In my latest Sutton Trust blog, I look at education in the general election and beyond.

Maybe they will surprise us. Perhaps in the weeks that remain before the voters cast their ballots on May 7 there will be something radical said on education, such as pledging for-profit schools or cutting tuition fees. But I wouldn’t count on it. And in one sense that’s no bad thing.

Underneath the often overblown rhetoric about unqualified teachers, local authority control or curriculum change, there is a far more consensus and continuity with the main political parties than you might think. Indeed there has been a strong degree of continuity in approach since Kenneth Baker’s reforms of 1988.

And this sense of commonality may explain why this week’s Comres poll for ITV showed that only 7% of the public saw ‘improving the education system’ as a big priority for government, ranking it last behind immigration, the economy, the NHS, welfare, housing and other issues. Other polling has suggested that the two main parties are fairly evenly matched as ‘best’ to deal with the issue.

All the main parties broadly support a strong degree of autonomy for schools and will continue with academies. Labour may not introduce new free schools, but will allow new academies which are pretty similar. All the parties recognise the need for greater regional management of an increasingly autonomous system, even if there are degrees of difference in what would be devolved.

With Nicky Morgan as a more consensual education secretary, there is more focus on teachers and teaching by the Government, echoing a theme that her shadow Tristram Hunt has been keen to put on the agenda. Although there are loud exchanges about ‘unqualified teachers’, their numbers are relatively small and their relevance to the system is less important than the rhetoric might suggest.

Both parties back a College of Teaching, rather more fervently than the profession if our polling last May is anything to go by, and both recognise that more needs to be done to improve professional development, a subject to which we will return next week.

So, this consensus may bring a degree of stability in schools. Big changes to the exam system have yet to filter through, and schools will have to tighten their belts further even if the overall national budget continues to be protected. They will welcome a breathing space.

Yet all this tacit agreement may mask the problems that an incoming secretary of state will face. And it is in their competence addressing those problems that they will be judged as much as on any exaggerated dividing lines drummed up for the purpose of election debates.

The most obvious is the need for many more school places, which requires considerable investment and strategic planning, as well as training the teachers to take the new classes.  This week’s Local Government Association survey put the need at 880,000 – a 12% increase nationally. There is also a real challenge addressing potential teacher shortages in key subjects if the balance between Schools Direct and university-based provision is not better planned.

But other deeper seated issues also need to be addressed.  The first is the attainment gap that still prevails in both primary and secondary schools. True, there have been some improvements in recent years, and the combination of extra money through the pupil premium and Ofsted rigour is at least getting schools to focus on their disadvantaged pupils much more than before.

But this may not be enough in itself. The prevailing mood against top down reform has meant that there is still too little pressure on schools that aren’t doing enough for their disadvantaged pupils. The new EEF Families of Schools tool reveals the starkness of the differences between schools with similar characteristics.

So, more needs to be done to get good teachers to underperforming schools outside the increasingly successful capital, as well as improving professional development generally. As we argue in our Mobility Manifesto, stronger incentives should build on the pupil premium awards to reward successful schools, and those that use evidence effectively. And there is a good case for revitalising leadership education by revitalising the National College of School Leadership, which many heads feel has lost its way as an amalgam with the old teacher training agency.

A second area ripe for change is in social mobility, which our research has consistently shown remains far too low in this country. In particular, we need to have fairer admissions in urban secondary schools, a revitalised national ‘gifted and talented’ programme for highly able students (our Sutton Scholars programme offers one model) and an opening up of the best independent day schools to talented children of all backgrounds.

This needs to be matched with a better co-ordinated approach to access to leading universities – where the gap remains nearly ten-fold between the poorest and richest families – that makes far more effective use of the £800m access funds now being spent. The new HEFCE networks are a start; using that funding wisely is the next step.

Ahead of all that, getting it right in the early years should pay dividends later on. All the parties are keen to promote their plans to improve childcare. That is a laudable labour market policy, helping family finances and improving employment opportunities particularly for women.

But it won’t necessarily support child development for disadvantaged children unless it is accompanied by a much more rigorous approach to the quality of education and care that they receive. With limited resources, as our Sound Foundations report argued last year, a government needs to balance the long-term economic benefits from getting that right against the more immediate benefits of a larger workforce.

If there is now a broader consensus on standards and structural issues in schools, whoever forms the government after May should have more room to move further on these issues. Hopefully, as they do so, they can develop a degree of cross-party agreement on lasting steps that will narrow attainment gaps and improve social mobility

Friday, 12 December 2014

Why the number of failing schools can be a good thing

I've written a column for The Times on the primary school test results.

Yesterday’s league tables brought mixed news for England’s primary schools. Overall, standards are rising, particularly in literacy, with more children than ever achieving good results in the 3Rs. But nearly 800 schools — one in 20 — failed to achieve the target of 65 per cent of 11-year-old pupils reaching the expected standard in reading, writing and mathematics.

The better results are evidence that Michael Gove was right to set higher expectations for primary schools — last year the threshold was just 60 per cent.

It is also heartening that the gap in attainment between rich and poor pupils has narrowed further this year, reflecting a strong focus on disadvantaged pupils and increasing use of evidence of what works from bodies such as the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).

But there is still a big challenge. And it is only as a result of successive governments being prepared to open what was once a secret garden in education that we know its true extent. Kenneth Baker’s 1980s reforms and David Blunkett’s tougher targets in the 1990s helped to make possible the challenges set by the coalition. Don’t forget that fewer than half of pupils reached the expected literacy standard in 1996.

Read the full piece here

Thursday, 20 November 2014

University funding challenge

In my latest Sutton Trust blog, I look at the funding options facing higher education as debts mount for students and the government.

Hearing the BBC radio news on Tuesday, it felt a bit like a delayed echo from the spring. The headlines were all about the three quarters of students who wouldn’t pay back their loans in full, and the fact that those earning the salary of a good teacher would be paying loans off into their early fifties.

These findings, which came from April’s Sutton Trust/IFS Payback Time? report, were an important part of the evidence base for the latest inquiry from the Higher Education Commission, chaired by the impressive Ruth Thompson, former Director General of higher education in the old Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

In April, the IFS also joined others in highlighting how little of the extra revenue raised by the increase in fees from just over £3000 to a new £9000 maximum was likely to be recouped from the Government because so many students would not repay their loans in full. Just over 56p in every pound loaned would be paid back.

What has changed since then is that the new tougher mortgage rules introduced by the Financial Conduct Authority mean that banks are no longer allowed to ignore student loan repayments when assessing mortgage suitability. As the FCA confirmed in June, this is now regarded as ‘committed expenditure’, reducing what graduates can borrow. Our IFS report showed a typical successful teacher paying back around £2000 a year after tax through their forties.

Aside from the increased loans to cover the higher fees, there were two other significant reasons for the low levels of repayment: the increase in the repayment threshold for the new loans – £21k rather than £15k – which means slower payments after graduation; and a real rate of interest of up to inflation + 3%, which increases the total amount borrowed even more. For our report, the IFS calculated that the average student will graduate with £44,000 worth of debt, but an average of £30,000 would be written off at age 51 or 52 for the 73% of students who had not by that stage repaid their loans in full.

The cross-party commission didn’t pull its punches. “The current funding system represents the worst of both worlds,” is how the study puts it. “The government is funding higher education by writing off student debt, as opposed to directly investing in teaching grants study….Students feel like they are paying substantially more for their higher education, but are set to have a large proportion of their debt written off by the government.”

But it is easier to diagnose the problem than to find a solution. And although ministers gamely defend the new system (even if they may believe the threshold was raised higher than was prudent) others believe change is inevitable, including the Select Committee recently. In this spirit, the Commission suggests several options:
  • Cutting tuition fees to a £6,000 maximum. This would reduce student debt, but it would leave an estimated £1.72bn funding gap for universities. This is the option that Ed Miliband was reported to favour, but which is apparently not backed by his shadow chancellor because of the cost.
  • A graduate tax which would see all graduates paying back a proportion of their income rather than what they borrowed. The Commission estimates this would require government to borrow £4bn to fill the gap between ending fees and the arrival of tax revenues. They also point out that it would reduce the link between a graduate and their studies. Some argue that the present system is a form of graduate tax.
  • An option favoured by some elite universities of removing the £9,000 upper limit on fees might allow more money for universities and more competition, but higher fees would mean even higher levels of public subsidy for loans (unless the universities took the risk for those loans, as some have suggested)
  • Different charges for different universities or courses could also reduce the number graduates from expensive courses with high fees even if they were essential for the economy.
  • They also looked at reducing the threshold or interest rate, while maintaining the status quo, and at a lifelong learning pot (akin to Singapore).

There is one other option that the Commission didn’t include, but which should be considered in this debate. This would involve reducing the maximum to £6000 for all students entitled to a full maintenance grant – around four in ten students – rather than the whole student population. Doing this would still require a government to plug a funding gap, but it would be rather smaller than cutting fees for all, and would also cut the level of loan default. Freezing the threshold for repayments might also help pay for it.

The argument for this change is that, despite improvements, there is still a significant access gap ranging from 2.5 fold between those from the richest and poorest neighbourhoods for all those entering higher education to nearly ten-fold for access to the best universities. Reducing the levels of debt for less advantaged students should be a priority of any review.

Those who argue against means-tested fees say that repayments are based on graduate earnings, so it is unfair to base them on parental income. Yet from 1998 to 2006, this is what happened. More to the point, it is what currently happens with maintenance grants and loans, where the idea that all young people are financially independent at 18 is not accepted. Moreover, our polling shows 2-1 backing among the public for the idea. As we think about the changes that might help rebalance our fees and loans system ahead of next May’s election, a measure which could also improve access should be on the table too.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Advancing apprenticeships

In my latest Sutton Trust post, I consider how to translate cross-party backing for apprenticeships into a serious offer for young people after the next election

This year’s party conferences were all about setting the scene for next May’s general election. But aside from the tax cuts, coalition in-fighting or forgotten deficits, there was a surprising degree of consensus on the importance of one issue that could be crucial to social mobility: apprenticeships.

Ed Miliband pledged that as many young people would start on good quality apprenticeships as go to university by 2025. The Prime Minister made the commitment to three million more apprenticeship starts in the next parliament.  Business Secretary Vince Cable promised to lift apprentice pay. This was an issue that was talked about at Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow.

Having placed apprenticeships as one of the ten core social mobility policies in our Mobility Manifesto, and, in partnership with Pearson, organised platforms to debate the issue at all three conferences, this was to be welcomed. Yet beneath the big numbers, the issue remains about what the pledges mean in practice.

For years, politicians have played a numbers game on apprenticeships. A good apprenticeship should offer a paid job (often at lower than average rates) with a strong combination of on-the-job and college-based training, preferably through day release, leading to a good qualification. They typically last two to three years.

But in the early years of the coalition the majority of new ‘apprenticeships’ were only at level 2 (GCSE standard) and many lasted a matter of months. Many of the new apprenticeships, especially those at higher levels, were also for older rather than younger people. These qualifications will often not have represented genuine training to enter employment, but certification of existing skills for those already working (essentially a rebranding of Labour’s Train to Gain offer).

That has started to change. No longer will shelf-stacking at Morrison’s be treated as being as much an apprenticeship as an elite course at British Aerospace or Rolls Royce. Apprenticeships cannot be a matter of months; they must last at least a year. The training element has been strengthened too.

But we are still a long way from where we need to be. The danger is that if politicians engage in a quick fix numbers game, quantity will once again trump quality. In that sense, a commitment to an extra 300,000 good quality apprenticeships each year at level 3 (A-level standard) or above in a decade’s time may be of more value than three million places over the next five years, if the vast majority are at level 2 and too few are for young people. The parties need to provide detail.

That’s why the analysis prepared by the Boston Consulting Group for the Sutton Trust last year, and the recommendations that emerged from our joint summit with Pearson in July are so important. They offer a route map of where we need to be if we are serious about making apprenticeships a world class brand rather than a catch-all title for courses at all levels.

Vince Cable told our fringe meeting in Glasgow that it was absolutely right to focus on advanced and higher apprenticeships for young people in any expansion. Matthew Hancock, the former skills secretary, told our July summit that he was expanding them significantly. Ed Miliband told the same summit that he wanted new technical degrees that would offer a more advanced apprenticeship route. He made the expansion of good quality apprenticeships – along the lines recommended in the Sutton Trust/BCG report – one of his six key policy commitments.

But it is going to be a real challenge moving from rhetoric to reality. For a start, a key part of the best systems would involve a fundamental change in the mindset of government and employers. We need to have progression within a three year apprenticeship, where level 3 or above is the goal, rather than getting young people to complete a separate level 2 apprenticeship before joining one that will lead to level three. That changes ambition, and recognises that different young people may need to start in a different place.

Then, we need a cultural change. To some extent, it is already happening. Middle class newspapers openly promote apprenticeships in a way that they previously reserved for higher education. Politicians see them as a vote-winner. But we still are some way from parents of all backgrounds treating a good apprenticeship as being as valid an option for advancement as many university courses. With fewer than one in five employers offering apprenticeships, we are also a long way from the German system where one in two does so.

And we need to look at incentives: enhanced destination data to encourage schools to promote apprenticeships and more financial support to increase employer engagement, backed by greater simplicity in the range of qualifications and the right intermediary bodies. We may not be able to replicate the German system, but we should try to emulate their ambition. There is now a degree of welcome political consensus that apprenticeships will play a big role in the options offered to young people after the next election. We need to translate that cross-party ambition into an apprenticeship system that matches the best in the world.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Change at the chalkface

I've written this feature on the Gove legacy for the October edition of Public Finance.

David Cameron's replacement of Michael Gove with Nicky Morgan as education secretary caused consternation among reformers whilst exciting enthusiasm in many staffrooms. Reformers fear his changes will be watered down by his successor; many teachers hope the relentless pressure of change will ease.

But Gove’s legacy may lie less in academies and free schools than in the changes to the curriculum, teaching and accountability. And a focus on classroom teaching by Morgan, with her more conciliatory tone to teachers, could reap real dividends.

Academies are funded directly by the government rather than local authorities, and have had greater freedoms over the curriculum, teachers’ pay and admissions, subject to regulation and funding agreements. By May 2010, the growing programme was targeted on underachieving secondary schools, with 203 such ‘sponsored academies’ already open and 60 more due that autumn.

Gove allowed successful schools to become academies and brought primaries into the programme. Many signed up for extra cash – typically £250,000 per secondary school – as they gained control of their local authority budgets. At a time of austerity, it was a no-brainer. In return, these ‘converter academies’ would work with weaker schools. Most say they do, though the extent to which they do so varies, and academy take-up has been much slower in primary schools.

Meanwhile, Gove also introduced ‘free schools’, essentially new academies set up in response to parental demand or innovative ideas from teachers, educational and faith-based charities. The government barred local authorities from establishing any traditional community schools.

Since 2010, the number of academies has grown rapidly. There are now over 4,000 academies, including nearly two-thirds of secondary and about one in eight primary schools, as well as dozens of technical academies – 30 university technical colleges and 37 studio schools with practical curriculums and close industry links for 14- to 19-year-olds.

Sponsored academies – of which there are now 1,100 – were intended to improve standards, particularly for the poorest students, which is why Gove required many failing primaries to change status, sometimes in the teeth of strong local opposition. Downhills primary school in Tottenham, north London – now the Harris Primary Academy Philip Lane – was a particular flashpoint and the scene of strong protests. The proportion of its pupils getting the expected level 4 in reading, writing and maths rose from 69% to 77% this summer – twice the national average improvement.

And, sponsored academies generally have improved faster than other schools, albeit from a lower base. Many belong to chains – groups led by an educational charity, a university or a successful school. Sutton Trust analysis in July found that disadvantaged pupils in nine of 31 chains studied had better results than the average for all schools, while improvements in 18 chains were faster than average. Some well-known chains, like Harris and Ark, each with 27 academies, do particularly well. But the study confirmed Department for Education concerns that other chains that had grown very rapidly since 2010 were underperforming.

The DfE capped 14 academy chains in March, including the 77-school Academies Enterprise Trust. They must focus on improving their existing schools before being allowed further expansion. Ministers also forced another academy chain, E-Act, to transfer 10 of its 34 schools to other sponsors. Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has inspected weaker academies in co-ordinated swoops across chains, including AET, where half the 12 academies inspected were deemed inadequate. He has yet to be given the power by ministers to inspect chains as separate entities.

This mixed picture also extends to the 250 free schools now open, though few have been open long enough for a full judgment. Seventy-nine free schools opened this term and 76 more have been approved, but the programme still feels incoherent. It may be the default mechanism for new schools with rising demand for new places, but relatively few free schools result from parental action.

Instead, there is an eclectic mix of genuine teacher innovation and rebranding of existing options, including faith schools, former independent schools or new academies established by chains.
One celebrated success has been the London Academy of Excellence, a free school for sixth formers in Stratford, east London, supported by Eton and the independent Brighton College, which sent four of its 160 students to Oxbridge and 68 to Russell Group universities this year. However, the local college says it does well too: of the 75 students it admitted with the 5A* or A grades at GCSE required by LAE, 60 went to Russell Group universities and two to Oxbridge.

Other free schools have faced real difficulties. The Montessori Discovery free school in Crawley, Sussex, had to close in January after a damning Ofsted report. Anal ysis by independent factchecking organisation Full Fact of Ofsted data suggests a similar proportion of free schools were rated outstanding as other schools, but a higher proportion rated inadequate or failing, based on 40 free school inspections.

For all the arguments about academies and free schools, their impact may be more prosaic than their supporters or critics allow. Good chains have an effective model absent in weaker chains. But their success still reflects quality of leadership and teaching, and their consistent application, which may not simply be an academy effect when many schools are forming collective trusts and federations.

This is why other reforms may matter more. There is growing interest in using research evidence to inform school improvement. Since 2011, the Education Endowment Foundation, a sister charity of the Sutton Trust established with £135m of government money to help improve results for disadvantaged pupils, has used 75 randomised trials to test approaches to school improvement. Nearly half of school leaders now consult its research evidence.

Tougher accountability is making its mark too. Ofsted has put many coasting schools into special measures and placed more emphasis on good teaching, downgrading some previously top-rated schools. Gove toughened Labour’s floor targets, requiring weaker schools to achieve ever-rising minimum standards. Failure often prompts a requirement to become an academy.

However, the biggest upheaval has been to the curriculum and exams. This term, primary pupils face tougher spelling, grammar, punctuation and mental arithmetic lessons, in addition to phonics checks introduced in 2012, while secondary schools are introducing computer science, harder maths and more historical chronology. GCSE coursework, modularity and resits have been dropped, leading to a dip in English performance this year. Many vocational qualifications have been devalued or removed from the league tables.

From 2016, secondary schools will be judged on their best eight GCSE subjects, using average points, rather than the five best graded C or above as now. This builds on the English Baccalaureate, a league table measure of English, maths, science, languages and humanities results. The combined impact is intended to make exams harder and ensure that schools don’t game the league tables to conceal underlying weaknesses. However, they also make it much harder to make a fair judgment on the success of Gove’s reforms, and could force down results at once struggling schools and academies that were starting to improve.

Yet behind the flurry of change, there remains an underlying truth. The two things that make the most difference to a school’s success, particularly for poorer pupils, are the quality of its teaching and the calibre of its leaders.

Gove has introduced teaching schools, with a remit to improve teaching quality among groups of local schools, and expanded school-based teacher training. But for all the emphasis on new teachers – 35,000 are recruited each year, and their quality has been improving alongside that of school leaders – there is far too little done to improve the skills of the 450,000 serving teachers in England’s classrooms. In fact, there is much more variation in the quality of teaching within schools than there is between schools.

Improved professional development and teacher appraisal may not set reformers’ pulses racing, but they could make most difference at the chalkface. Sutton Trust research has shown that raising the quality of the weakest tenth of teachers to the average would lift England from a middling position in the OECD international league tables to the top five, and the trust is now working with the Gates Foundation to capture international best practice. That could deliver the revolution in standards that politicians want to see – in academies and community schools alike.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Mobility in the manifestos

My latest Sutton Trust blog highlights the importance of social mobility in the 2015 party manifestos.

Justine Greening, the development secretary, remembered her days working at Morrison’s, and warned that her party needed to do more to improve social mobility, in last week’s Spectator. Frances O’Grady, the TUC general secretary, spoke this week of a ‘Downton Abbey-style society’ that ‘bears down on working class people’s voice and aspirations.’ The new children’s minister Sam Gyimah recalled a period of undergraduate penury while at Oxford in an interview in the  Independent .

And, as Lee Elliot Major noted in his recent blog, Alan Milburn’s latest report catalogued once again the extent to which our elites are dominated by those who are privately and Oxbridge-educated, drawing heavily on Trust research.

All these public figures know what they are talking about. They have gone from modest beginnings to become senior figures in British public life. Their pronouncements have the greater credibility because of that life experience. But the overall message is the same: we’re not doing nearly enough in Britain to improve social mobility.

That’s why today’s Mobility Manifesto matters so much. The problem is illustrated starkly by two statistics that highlight the entrenched nature of these inequalities. At age five, there is already a 19 month gap in school readiness between the richest and poorest children.  A young person from the richest fifth of neighbourhoods is ten times more likely to go to a Russell Group university than a child from the poorest fifth.

As the manifesto points out, these disparities continue into adulthood and, despite good higher education access, as the OECD’s Andreas Schleicher pointed out this week, too much of how well you do in later life is still determined by your parents' income.

The manifesto offers ideas across the educational spectrum, from early years through to better apprenticeships and fairer university access. Some proposals many not make any party pledge card, such as improved career guidance, but are no less important for that, and should feature in every party’s overall education policy. Some ideas go with the grain of political consensus – sharpening the pupil premium, backed by more evidence-based policy or a professional development guarantee for teachers. Others like an enrichment voucher for less advantaged parents extend its logic.

Others are clearly more controversial, such as our Open Access proposals to open up the 100 leading independent day schools, yet those who criticise the idea don’t offer any serious alternatives or the idea that comprehensive schools should have fairer admissions.

For the manifesto, we asked YouGov to test public reaction to one perennial issue on which political hand-wringing is often most pronounced: school admissions. Most schools use distance from the school as the main criterion for admissions to their school. They have to prioritise children in care, and often prioritise brothers and sisters of existing pupils too. But in ‘comprehensive schools’, distance rules.

Last year, we showed again the consequences of this approach. The 500 comprehensives – maintained schools and academies – with the best GCSE results took half as many disadvantaged pupils as the national average. Only one in ten of the top 500 bucked that trend. A few weeks ago, Lloyds Bank calculated that the average premium in house prices in the catchment area of top schools is £22,000, and it is often much more.

Of course, in rural areas and market towns, a neighbourhood admissions policy is probably the only practical solution. But that’s not true in the cities. We showed earlier this year that a small but growing number of academies is using random allocation (ballots) or ability banding (across the range of abilities) to achieve a fairer intake. These tend to be oversubscribed schools where a catchment area is a moveable measure and increasingly arbitrary as a result.

We’ve said that we want to see ballots for school admissions for some time, but what do parents think? Given the scenario of a popular comprehensive academy with 100 places and 400 applicants, the poll of 1169 parents across Britain (obtained from an overall general sample of British respondents) showed that 28% of parents thought all the places should be allocated by a ballot or randomly, 41% thought places should go to those living nearest the academy and 19% thought that half the places should be allocated by ballot and half by distance. In total 47% believed that ballots should play a part in the oversubscribed school’s admissions. Equally, by a margin of 41% to 29%, parents believed that that all children should have the opportunity to go to private school, regardless of family income, at the Government or taxpayer’s expense.

What this suggests is that when presented with a realistic scenario – and the best urban comprehensives are heavily oversubscribed – the public recognises that things might need to be done differently to be fairer. We’re hoping the political parties are open about the challenges, and that they will be brave and ambitious in their plans to tackle social mobility for the 2015 general election.

We’ll be taking this message to the three main party conferences over the next month, where leading figures from each party will debate different proposals from our manifesto. Whatever the result of next Thursday’s Scottish referendum, the problem of poor social mobility will still be with us. That’s why our manifesto ideas should have prominence in their manifestos for 2015.