Thursday, 10 April 2014

Payback time for graduates and government

 In my latest Sutton Trust blog, I explain why I think the Government needs to think again on tuition fees, student debt and teaching grants.

When the coalition trebled university tuition fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year, it said it was making hard choices. Students would have to repay higher fees as graduates because the Government could no longer afford to subsidise their teaching grant, the argument went.

To some extent, I bought that argument at the time because the evidence of previous fee rises had been that they didn’t deter disadvantaged students, though I argued then that universities should cover loans above £6,000 and that there should be a better balance between teaching grants and fees than the Government planned. I also noted the problems in raising the repayment threshold.

But even I didn’t foresee quite how the new system would work in practice. Last month, the Government admitted that 45 per cent of debts under the new system are unlikely to be repaid, close to the level where the Exchequer would find itself worse off than before the fees increase.

Now, our new research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies reveals the true impact of the new loan system on middle income graduates like teachers,  as they continue paying off their student loans into their fifties. It highlights the ripple effect of the changes to the loan system and some unintended consequences.

Under the old system, a typical teacher would  have paid off their loans before their 40th birthday. Under the new system, they will still be making payments of over £2,000 a year throughout their forties and into their early fifties - the equivalent of an extra sixpence on their income tax. This is at a time when most will have children at school, and family and mortgage costs are at their most pressing.

As the lowest earners will repay less and high earners will be able to pay back their debts more quickly, avoiding many of the high interest charges introduced in the new system, it is those on middle incomes who will be most affected.

With this double debt trap of longer repayments for middle earning graduates and a potential loss for taxpayers, ministers should look again at the student loan system.

Students who graduate from 2015 will not have to start repaying their student loans until they are earning £21,000 a year (more than £5,000 higher than before). Payments are at nine per cent of income above that threshold. This means that while graduates in their twenties will tend to make slightly lower repayments, three quarters of graduates will continue paying back until their early fifties. At this point, most graduates will still owe tens of thousands of pounds, which the government will have to write off.

Typical graduates now have to repay £67,000 in cash terms (£35,000 in 2014 equivalent prices), twice what they paid under the old system. Since the loans now attract real interest rates from  before the student even graduates, nearly half will pay back more in real terms than they borrowed.

When the Government trebled fees, the Sutton Trust argued for a better balance: lower fees with a smaller cut to the university teaching grant. However, the increased repayment threshold and a strengthened access regulator were enough to win over most coalition backbenchers.

The argument is not about whether loans and fees should exist – I have always argued in favour of both since the mid-1990s - but what proportion of university funding should be paid by graduates rather than general taxation, and how much graduates should pay. I am now convinced that argument needs to be revisited in the light of the new data on defaults and repayment levels.

When the fees were introduced, we were told few universities would levy the maximum fee, and many would charge £6,000. In reality, most courses cost the maximum, another reason for the predicted default levels.

The Government already provides larger maintenance grants to lower income students. Indeed, when I worked with David Blunkett to introduce tuition fees of £1,000 a year in 1998, we means tested them then. Ministers should consider doing so again. Given that most graduates are having large amounts of debt written off, this could be done at relatively little cost to the Exchequer. That would allow lower fees for those in receipt of full maintenance grants, who come from low income households.

There is an important social mobility point here. It is true that the new system is ‘progressive’ in the sense that those graduates whose average income is just £24,000 or less gain significantly from the new system, and those below £28,000 gain marginally in real terms. But few jobs that require a degree pay so little across a lifetime. The argument made for an investment in higher education has been about earning more than non-graduates.

So it seems unfair to penalise most those strivers who have had to work hardest to improve their lot. With means-tested fees, they would be the real gainers.

It would also provide more impetus to deal with another issue that has seen little improvement in recent years. Although more disadvantaged young people are entering higher education, numbers from low and middle income backgrounds going our best universities have yet to see significant improvement.  Students from the most advantaged fifth of neighbourhoods are still seven times more likely to go to a Russell Group university than those from the poorest fifth.

Universities today use much of the money they are required to spend on access and outreach funding bursaries and fee subsidies to attract those students. Means-tested fees would allow them to focus those resources specific programmes to attract more of the thousands of young people who get the grades but don’t apply to the best universities.

As the experience of the Sutton Trust summer schools has shown, such interventions could make a real difference to those disparities in access.

The Government may have got its sums wrong on student debt, but it now has an opportunity to make the right calculations to improve social mobility.

I also had a column in The Times on the report and appeared on BBC TV News.

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Banding and Ballots

In my latest Sutton Trust blog, I revisit the case for banding and ballots in school admissions.

On Monday, hundreds of thousands of parents will learn which school their eleven year-old children will attend this September. For many, it will be their nearest school, and that will have been their first preference too. But for a significant minority, particularly in urban areas including London, the admissions system will have been fraught with anxieties and complexity.

Today’s London School of Economics report for the Trust, Banding and Ballots, provides the most detailed examination to date of the admissions policies of England’s 3000 secondary schools and academies since the move to greater independence by a majority of English secondaries. Examining admissions policies for 2012/13, it reveals a small but growing enthusiasm, notably among sponsored academies, for approaches designed to achieve a more comprehensive school intake.

If the weekend press is to be believed, this development has provoked a mixture of fear and fury among the middle classes, and perhaps too among estate agents who are happy to jack up the prices of homes in the catchment areas of popular schools. Yet those middle class parents who don’t live in what are often narrow catchments for good schools may not feel so aggrieved, and those from less advantaged homes who can’t afford to do so could benefit significantly. 

The researchers show that the main admissions criteria continue to reflect how near pupils live to the school (distance) or whether they already have brothers and sisters attending (sibling). However, the number of schools using banding – where pupils are tested and placed in different ability bands intended to provide a comprehensive intake – increased from 95 in 2008 to 121 in 2012/13. A further 42 schools were using random allocation in 2012/13.

This growth in the use of banding and ballots seems largely to have been driven by sponsored academies and free schools, which can set their own admissions policies. 17% of sponsored academies used one or both criteria, compared with 5% of all comprehensives.  

Today’s research follows reports by the Trust last year which showed that the proportion of pupils on free school meals in the 500 comprehensives with the best GCSE results was only half the national average. Other Trust research in December showed that a third of professional parents had moved house to be near a good school.

There are two reasons why popular urban schools adopt these approaches, both of which have been explicitly allowed in the statutory admissions code since 2008, though the 2012 Code has tried to limit area-wide ballots. The first is to ensure that successful schools are not simply open to those wealthy enough to live in a catchment area entirely based on distance from the school. The second is used to ensure a good social mix in schools that have traditionally only drawn students from less advantaged circumstances.

But in doing so, they run up against the argument that such policies are unfair because a child living opposite the school might lose out. That’s why many of those using banding or ballots address such concerns by using an inner and outer catchment area, with those living closest to the school in the inner area, but access opened to a wider group of parents in the outer catchment. This is an approach taken by some schools and academies like Mossbourne Community Academy, in Hackney, which has 30% of its pupils on free school meals.

Of course, as the researchers point out, no system is perfect; there is no panacea. Purists would argue that area-wide random allocation would achieve the fairest mix, though that is ruled out in the code as a principal criterion and would be controversial. But a realistic approach recognises that systems which balance issues such as proximity to the school with more open and fairer admissions are more likely to win local support.

That said there are some clear principles that we recommend, building on the interviews that the researchers conducted for the report. The first is that a cooperative approach to admissions – as in Hackney, for example – can work well. In that borough, ten schools including academies and free schools, use banding. But there is a case for children having access to a single banding test, so they don’t have repeat tests. The absence of testing makes random allocation more attractive, though both produce similar results.

However, the effectiveness of any system will depend on who applies to it. So whatever system is used, it is important that there is outreach to less advantaged families, and that parents are aware not just of the school choices available, but also of their rights to free transport (clauses 95 and 96) to a choice of three schools within six miles of their home (or up to 15 miles for faith schools) if their child is eligible for free school meals.

Fair admissions are never easy, and no system is going to be perfect. But so long as some schools are more successful than others, it is important that opportunities to attend them are not limited to those with the deepest pockets. Today’s figures suggest that a small but growing number of schools and academies are trying to avoid do just that.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Coding + creativity = careers?

In my latest Sutton Trust blog post, I consider whether the new computing curriculum can help low and middle income students become tomorrow’s tech entrepreneurs.

It took some time for this government to embrace the importance of technology in education. Now that it has done so, it is making important changes to the curriculum, notably through the replacement of an ICT curriculum focused on office skills with a computing curriculum that teaches coding.

From 5, children will learn to code and programme, with algorithms, sequencing, selection and repetition; from 11, how to use at least 2 programming languages to solve computational problems; to design, use and evaluate computational abstractions that model the state and behaviour of real-world problems and physical systems; and how instructions are stored and executed within a computer system. The Design and Technology curriculum is also being modernised with the help of innovators like Sir James Dyson. At the same time new Tech level qualifications have been introduced to strengthen the quality of vocational qualifications available.

But is this enough to ensure that we are developing a generation of young people who can turn the computer literacy they acquire from the first touch of an iPad within months of leaving the pram into the opportunities that could provide them with a satisfying career? Already there are 1.3 million jobs in ICT, and many more that rely on it. In future, there will be many more as we increasingly use technology for our everyday tasks.

That was the theme of a fascinating Sutton Trust policy lunch which we held this week under Chatham House rules, where we brought some of the country’s leading experts on IT and education together with tech entrepreneurs and business people.

And if there was one area of consensus it was that the potential stifling of creativity in the curriculum is in danger of leaving us behind in a technology battle where European countries like Estonia and Ireland are racing ahead, not to mention places in East Asia, like Singapore, which are rapidly rebalancing their curriculum to marry knowledge with creativity and skills.

I have always felt that the creativity v knowledge battle in education was something of a phoney war. Being able to Google information requires some knowledge of context if you are not to make a fool of yourself. Equally, research skills and study skills are pretty much essential if you are going to acquire and use that knowledge.

But some of our lunch guests brought fresh eyes to this debate. One had seen how an unemployed young man with a love of rap music had been persuaded through his music to start creating apps and now trains others in the business power of digital technology. He had barely passed any GCSEs.

Another related how big IT firms like IBM are now as likely to recruit apprentices as university graduates, because they can train people more effectively on the job. Meanwhile, entrepreneurial head teachers who try to bring imaginative ideas like Biztown – where youth enterprise skills are brought to life – are told creating such an environment here would waste money.

And yet the PISA tests, on which the Government places so much weight, are as much a test of practical application as knowledge. Indeed, the next round of PISA will test collaborative problem solving. So, why aren’t we assessing this in our schools too?

Equally, there are real opportunities to improve professional development of teachers – still a major challenge as the quality of new teachers has been improved – through technology, just as there must be ways that peer-to-peer tutoring, a top scorer in the Sutton Trust/EEF toolkit, could expand into this area. This isn’t pupil-centred learning, but given the greater familiarity so many young people have with technology, it could be pupil-led.

So, embracing technology with more rigour is only part of the story. Technology in the classroom was a bit of a slow burner, as early investment in the 1990s was in PCs, which are now rapidly being replaced by tablets. As one guest noted, this means that in the future old fashioned skills of dictation may be back in vogue as typing and keyboard skills become as obsolete as the fax machine.

So, there was plenty of food for thought, and some challenges to our thinking on education, not least in a week when too much of the education discourse felt a little passé. But for us, there were also important questions too.

Technology could be a great leveller, in that those with good tech skills are greatly in demand. But is there an easy link between those with the skills and those who need the skills? Many companies are still recruiting overseas because they find it hard to do so in Britain. Technology is breeding many new start-ups, not least in places like Tech City, but how do we link those with good ideas, but without the connections or the capital, with those investors who can help them realise their promise?

If we can answer those questions satisfactorily, perhaps technology could be an important lever for the social mobility of the future.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Parent Power for all

In my latest Sutton Trust blog, I look at the new Parent Power? report published today.

A spate of reports in recent weeks has told differing stories about England’s education system. PISA’s international survey showed a school system that is standing still, with no improvement in our test scores or in our middling position in the ranks of the OECD.

However, the chief inspector’s annual report and the primary league tables last week suggested a more nuanced picture: inner London boroughs improving rapidly and narrowing the attainment gap, leaving many shires and coastal authorities languishing behind.

But while Sir Michael Wilshaw’s view of the ‘unlucky child’ being a victim of geography is backed by the recent improvements in the capital, there is undoubtedly also a case that ‘unlucky’ children lose out on access to many of the most successful schools because they are born into low or middle income households.

That is something confirmed by today’s remarkable new Sutton Trust report, Parent Power?,  by Professor Becky Francis, of King’s College London and Professor Merryn Hutchings, of London Metropolitan University. Drawing on YouGov interviews with 1,173 parents of school-age children, the report shows the extent to which parents’ ability to pick a good school is dependent on ability to pay.

Some of the report’s findings on the prevalence of private tuition or parents’ willingness to pay for private education if they can afford it echo earlier polling for the Sutton Trust and other organisations, including the Independent Schools Council.

The report puts figures on a phenomenon we all know happens, but which has not been properly documented previously, one which contributes to the social segregation and inequality of our education system: the extent to which parents have moved house or used even more unorthodox methods, such as faking piety or accessing an accommodating address in a desirable catchment temporarily in order to cheat the system.

Perhaps unsurprisingly it is the middle classes who have the money and drive to make the move: almost a third of professional parents in social groups A and B has moved to an area which they thought had good schools, and 18% have moved to live in the catchment area of a specific school. A minority of parents with children at state schools also admitted to cheating the system:
·         2% of parents admitted to buying a second home and using that address so that their children could gain access to a specific school, including 5% of the upper middle classes
·         3% admitted using a relative’s address for that purpose, including 6% of the upper middle classes
·         6% admitted attending church services when they didn’t previously so their child could go to a church school, including 10% in the upper middle classes.

However, buying advantage is about more than getting into a desirable home. It is also about extending that advantage through enrichment activities while the child is still at school. And while some enrichment is free to all – open access to museums, galleries or parks, for example – other activities cost money and are disproportionately available to those who can pay for them.

Our report todays shows  that professional parents were also more likely to pay for weekly music, drama or sporting lessons and activities outside school, with more than two-thirds (68%) of professionals doing so compared with 47% of working class parents and 31% of the lowest income parents. The gap was narrower for free cultural activities such as a visit to a museum or gallery than for paid cultural activities like attending a play or a concert.

Addressing such inequalities of access requires action. Of course, councils should do more to tackle outright fraud, but more radical change is needed. The Sutton Trust has long argued that school admissions in urban schools should use ballots (or random allocation) or banding to achieve a fairer intake. Of course, no politician wants to see a revolt by parents who can’t get their children into the school next door, so a pragmatic approach would be to mix places allocated by proximity with those allocated by ballots or banding, as Haberdashers Askes Academies in South London have done.

But opening up such schools is not enough on its own. That’s why, when I worked for Tony Blair, I helped introduce a new right of access – clauses 95 and 96 of the guidance – for pupils eligible for free school meals to free travel to a choice of three schools rather than the one designated by the local authority. These rights are very poorly publicised at the moment. It is also crucial that schools reach out to less advantaged parents, ensuring they are well informed about their options, particularly if they embrace more comprehensive admissions policies.

The enrichment shortfall demands action too. Successive governments have given schools extra money for their poorer pupils, and this Government has codified it and increased the sums available through the pupil premium, worth £900 a pupil this year and £1300 in primaries next year.

The enrichment shortfall demands action too. Successive governments have given schools extra money for their poorer pupils, and this Government has codified it and increased the sums available through the pupil premium, worth £900 a pupil this year and £1300 in primaries next year.

One sometimes forgotten aspect of the London Challenge – the programme that was key to the differential improvement  in London schools – was the London Student Pledge where pupils at the capital’s schools not only benefited from improved teaching and leadership, but they were also promised the chance to go to an artistic or sporting event at a major London venue and the chance to take part in a play and in a public event, all by age 16. Enrichment was part of the package and should be part of the pupil premium deal too.

Parent power has supposedly been around since league tables and Ofsted reports gave parents the right to pick a preferred school. But it has benefited some more than others. True parent power must be about providing fair access to good schools and to the enrichment activities that help to create successful adults.

This post also appears on the Public Finance website.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Freedom to teach well?

In my latest Sutton Trust blog, I note that arguments over free schools miss the importance of reducing in-school differences in the quality of teaching.
The damning Ofsted report on the Al-Madinah free school in Derby has invigorated a lively debate on a flagship policy of the coalition. It should also prompt some soul-searching about the balance between structures and standards in school improvement policy.

Free schools were introduced in 2010 as part of a ramping up of the academy model introduced by Labour. Academies share a number of characteristics: they are funded centrally rather than through local government, which means they receive more of the funds that are otherwise pooled locally; they have freedoms to vary non-core subjects in the national curriculum. They can set their own pay scales; and like foundation and voluntary-aided schools, they have freedom over their land and buildings, though these remain in trust. Under the original model, all academies had to have sponsors: academy chains or trusts, universities, philanthropists or successful schools. An initial expectation that sponsors made a financial contribution was dropped.

Labour’s academies were largely targeted at failing secondary schools in disadvantaged areas. There were some exceptions: a small number of independent schools entered the state sector as academies and a couple of outstanding schools were allowed to convert in return for sponsoring weaker schools in new chains. The academy chain model developed at this time, with organisations like Ark, Harris and United Learning growing significantly.

The coalition extended this sponsor model to primary schools, though its initial focus was on allowing successful schools to convert: half the 3200 secondaries in England are now academies, though fewer than 10 per cent of primaries are. They also created a model for new academies which they called free schools. Legally, they are little different from academies, though opponents have seized on the fact that all their teachers do not have to have qualified teacher status. If they have a faith character, they are also expected to keep 50% of places for those of other or no faiths, though the nature of some faith schools is such that this stricture is unlikely to be invoked.

Sponsored academies have had positive research results, Stephen Machin and James Vernoit at the London School of Economics, in a 2011 report, which looked at the academies that started between 2001 and 2008, concluded:

Our results suggest that moving to a more autonomous school structure through academy conversion generates a significant improvement in the quality of their pupil intake and a significant improvement in pupil performance. We also find significant external effects on the pupil intake and the pupil performance of neighbouring schools. All of these results are strongest for the schools that have been academies for longer and for those who experienced the largest increase in their school autonomy. In essence, the results paint a (relatively) positive picture of the academy schools that were introduced by the Labour government of 1997‐2010. The caveat is that such benefits have, at least for the schools we consider, taken a while to materialise.

However, this research was focused on sponsored academies. The selling point – or problem, depending on your perspective - with free schools is that there is no single model. So just as the experience of the Derby Muslim school cannot be translated to the Bristol Cathedral School’s primary that was celebrated on the Today programme this morning, the success stories of some free schools won’t necessarily translate into successes for others run on very different lines. And that is as true of academy chains, where some models appear more successful than others.

It may be that critics are right to demand greater regulation, and certainly financial controls will be hugely important, but it is surely as likely that the biggest determinants of success and failure will lie in the quality of leadership (including in the sponsors) and the quality of teaching. The successful academy chains have very clear approaches to leadership and teaching. Moreover, international evidence is that variation in teaching standards is greater within schools than between schools.  OECD research highlighted by the National College has shown that as much as 80 per cent of the variation in achievement among UK students lay within schools, four times more than that between schools.

In a separate report for the Sutton Trust, Eric Hanushek from Stanford, with Stephen Machin and Richard Murphy at the LSE, have shown that English schools could improve their low position in international league tables in Reading and Mathematics and become one of the top five education performers in the world within 10 years if the performance of the country’s least effective teachers was brought up to the national average. Richard Murphy’s March report for the Trust highlighted how schools can use appraisal to improve performance, and it is an area where the Sutton Trust will do more research in the coming year.

The truth is, whatever the arguments over school structures, it is in improving the quality of our 430,000-strong teaching workforce that the greatest gains in standards can be made. Those free schools and academies that successfully narrow that gap are the ones that will succeed.

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Feeding the brain

In my latest Sutton Trust blog, I consider  the evidence behind moves to provide universal free school meals for 5-7 year-olds

When I worked for Tony Blair, I had the chance to work with Jamie Oliver in helping deliver his great plans to transform the quality of school lunches.

The combination of tough nutritional standards, better kitchens and trained chefs in schools helped bring about a radical improvement in the quality of what young people were eating. We also laid the groundwork for teaching cooking in schools, not just talking about the texture of food. The School Food Trust – now the Children’s Food Trust – helped promote the changes.
 
So, I have no illusions about the importance of nutritious food for children of all ages. It has to be part of the drive to improve diet and reduce obesity in schools. And I applaud the moves made by Michael Gove to improve school meals, following the report by the Leon restaurant founders Henry Dimbleby and John Vincent.
 
But to what extent can we make greater claims about the value of school meals? Many heads have seen it as important to provide good lunches to keep children in school at lunchtime. There is no doubt that an orderly canteen – and I’ve eaten in my share of good school dining halls in recent years – is often a mark of good school discipline and effective leadership.
 
More recently, there has been a growing movement towards providing free school meals for all children regardless of income. Last week, the Liberal Democrats announced that this would be universal entitlement for all 5-7 year-olds from September 2014, with a £600m a year price tag.
In making the announcement, ministers cited a research study by NatCen based on trials between 2009 and 2011 in Durham, Newham and Wolverhampton which showed that where there was a universal entitlement in primary schools, there was improved take up of meals among all pupils, more hot meals were eaten, and fewer crisps were consumed.
 
Perhaps more interestingly, Natcen concluded that “the universal pilot had a significant positive impact on attainment for primary school pupils at Key Stages 1 and 2, with pupils in the pilot areas making between four and eight weeks’ more progress than similar pupils in comparison areas.”
 
Moreover, these improvements were strongest among those from less affluent families.
Critics of the universal entitlement have questioned how these improvements materialised because, perhaps surprisingly, there was no improvement in pupil absence levels in the pilot schools. But supporters argue that this means that the greater productivity must be down to the daily dinners.
 
What has perhaps been less remarked upon is the extent to which the pilots – again, not surprisingly – had substantial deadweight costs. They were subsidising parents who had previously been happy to pay for school meals, as well as attracting new diners. The cost was £220 per primary pupil each year.
 
Natcen says this deadweight amounted to £3.8 million in one area (around one-third of the total running costs), £7.6 million in the other (just under half of the total running costs). Applied to a national programme, this could mean £250m of £600m in deadweight costs. Again, that may be a price worth paying if it delivers good results.
 
So, what of the Toolkit test – how does the free meals policy score compared to other interventions?
Natcen notes on page 146 of its report that the universal entitlement was better value than reading recovery programmes but poorer value than the daily literacy hour or than Jamie Oliver’s Feed Me Better campaign.
 
A comparison with interventions highlighted in the Sutton Trust/Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit suggests that good pupil feedback could add 8 months' learning with costs of up to £170 per pupil per year while peer to peer tutoring could add 6 months at similar cost. However, one to one tuition could cost £1200 per pupil and add 5 months’ learning.
 
The truth is that universal school meals may make some impact on attainment, but seem likely to do a lot more for diet and socialisation in school. Going back to Jamie’s crusade, I couldn’t argue against that, so long as the kitchens are in place and the school chefs trained.
 
But there is always going to be a challenge ensuring that limited funds are spent as effectively as possible. And the challenge is as great in Whitehall as it is at the chalkface.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Enda Kenny on Seamus Heaney

A nice tribute from An Taoiseach, Enda Kenny to the late Seamus Heaney today:

Seamus Heaney’s death brings great sorrow to Ireland, to language and to literature. He is mourned – and deeply – wherever poetry and the world of the spirit are cherished and celebrated.

For us, Seamus Heaney was the keeper of language, our codes, our essence as a people.

When he took his children to school in Ashford…. the headmaster wrote in the column marked ‘Occupation of Parent’, two small, quiet syllables…. ‘file’. As he put it himself, ‘there were no more alibis’.
 
Not too long ago he gifted us with his archive. Bound words…portable as altar stones…….unleavened elements.

Today, it would take Seamus Heaney himself to describe the depth of his loss to us as a nation.
We are blessed to call Seamus Heaney our own and thankful for the gift of him in our national life. He belongs with Joyce, Yeats, Shaw and Beckett in the pantheon of our greatest literary exponents.

Our thoughts and prayers are with Marie, Michael, Christopher, Catherine Anne and the extended Heaney family. I want them to know that, on this sad day, there are no words to describe adequately our nation’s and poetry’s grief at the passing of Seamus Heaney. Nor indeed, of our shocking pride, in ár bpríomh fhile.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

Nashville: Music City for the weekend


Friends and colleagues were bemused. Nashville?!, the word said with barely disguised incredulity, the query left unsaid. We had paid a fleeting visit in 1996, but had seen far too little as the bus tour of the South had us staying out of town. Having visited dozens of cities, including New Orleans and Memphis, the self-styled Music City lived up to expectations and must rank among the top of places to spend a long weekend. Not only for the music, though that is great - and more varied than sceptics might expect - but also for a good sense of its own history.
We just had three nights in the town that has become synonymous with country music, but could happily have spent seven. There was so much to see, and so much music to enjoy. And with the TV series Nashville, and its music produced by T Bone Burnett, the city is enjoying a tourist boom especially at venues featured on the show.
Of course, we visited the Country Music Hall of Fame. There is a lot of kitsch, of course, with plenty of rhinestone outfits and dazzling boots, but there is also a good mix of country music and social history, including the role of the depression and the Dust Bowl, and a nod to Cecil Sharp and the roots of country in Britain and Ireland. A special exhibition on Bakersfield was fascinating, showing the California town brought forth more than Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, and was as important as Nashville in its day.
Sitting alongside the Steinway in RCA Studio B where Elvis recorded most of his records (only a few were recorded at Sun City in Memphis) - and where the Everly Brothers and many country legends recorded their hits – felt like being a part of pop history. And walking the corridors of the Ryman Auditorium – original home of the Grand Ole Opry – evoked a sense not only of music history, but also the politics and culture of the South. It saw political rallies, Presidents passing though, great opera singers like Caruso and McCormack, and the full impact of women’s suffrage and civil rights politics in its day.

There was music coming from every doorway on Broadway from 11am until late, and the standard in the honky tonks was pretty good. But we had real treats with a group of up and coming singers at The Listening Room café, which serves good food too, wonderful bluegrass at the Station Inn in the Gulch (expect to pay just $30 for cover, a pizza and two beers), and superb blues at the Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar in Printers’ Alley. Unfortunately, we had no chance of getting into the Bluebird Cafe, since the TV series made its name.

We had seats near the stage for a varied mix of acts at the Grand Ole Opry – most impressive was Holly Williams, granddaughter of Hank Senior, but there was a mix of rock and traditional country, good Cajun music and a few ageing legends still in good voice too – interspersed with the in-you-face advertising that characterises American radio. The Opry is now 11 miles out of town, but worth the $25 cab ride for a unique experience. The two hour show is split in four sections, and gets through a dozen acts a night.

But Nashville has more than music. The Tennessee State Museum (free admission) is currently hosting an excellent temporary exhibition of civil war documents, and a well presented permanent exhibition on the civil war and the political and social history of the state. I hadn’t realised there were Black politicians elected to the Tennessee legislature in the 20 years after the Civil War, though none from then to the 1960s, as the appalling segregationist laws took hold.


A 12-mile $30 taxi ride out of town took us to Andrew Jackson’s home, The Hermitage, a well-preserved early 19th century home in a 1200 acre farm, with surviving slave quarters preserved on site. Jackson was the first US President elected my popular white male franchise and helped found the Democratic Party, but was also a slave owner and a pretty unscrupulous politician in many ways. An admirable warts and all approach is taken at the site, which is one of the most visited Presidential homes in the US.

We stayed at the charming century-old Hermitage Hotel . Its old-fashioned, well-equipped and cosy rooms, delightful staff and a location in walking distance of most attractions, make it a great base in the city, though there are plenty of less expensive alternatives downtown.
Two useful things that Nashville does, which others could emulate. First, while we were there the stores were enjoying a boom thanks to a state tax holiday, on clothing worth below $100 and on computer equipment up to $1500 value and school supplies. It may give a fillip to families, but is undoubtedly helping trade and the local economy too (although it is also true that the biggest lines were at the Apple store). Its temporary nature – three days only – suggests a more productive approach than a long-term VAT holiday.

Second, the city (as does Miami) has set fares from the airport to Downtown and other zones, and to the Opry. Such a scheme could provide reassurance at British and European airports (especially, to pick two from the top of my head, Prague and Madrid, where the taxi drivers are particularly helpful – to themselves).

Friday, 5 July 2013

Why not have pupil premium rewards too?

In my latest Sutton Trust post, I welcome increased pupil premium accountability, but wonders why ministers don’t also reward schools that successfully deliver for their disadvantaged pupils.

News that the Government is finally putting flesh on its pupil premium accountability measures should mean that the ministerial subsidy for poorer pupils starts to acquire some teeth. On Tuesday, Schools Minister David Laws announced that Ofsted would place greater emphasis on schools’ performance on disadvantaged pupils. Schools where those students were not making good progress could lose their outstanding status.

He also detailed new ways that schools would be held accountable in performance tables for the performance of the one in five pupils who are eligible for the £900 a year grant, which goes both to pupils on free school meals and those who have recently been eligible. On average schools receive £5000 a year per pupil through the dedicated schools grant, but some inner London councils get more than £7000 per pupil.

Statistics show that 38.5% of these pupils reached the five good GCSE benchmark in 2012 compared with 65.7% of other pupils, a gap of over 27 percentage point. In future, the league tables will include data on the attainment of disadvantaged pupils, their progress and the gap with their peers. So that schools with small numbers of pupil premium recipients are more fairly held to account, there will be three year rolling averages alongside data for individual years.

Add to that the appointment of the former headteachers’ union leader John Dunford as a pupil premium champion, and the package is undoubtedly a considerable advance on a situation where schools were effectively left to spend the extra cash as they chose.

To be fair, the National Foundation for Education Research survey of teachers for the Sutton Trust his year showed that teachers – and heads in particular – are starting to turn to research, particularly the Sutton Trust/Education Endowment Foundation Toolkit, in deciding how to spend the money.

67 per cent of school leaders – up from 52 per cent last year – said their school now consults research in deciding their pupil premium priorities. 43 per cent of school leaders whose schools consider research evidence use the Sutton Trust/EEF Toolkit. Schools are less likely to spend the money on reducing class sizes – a relatively unproven method – and more likely to spend it on early intervention (proven, but expensive) and one-to-one tuition. However, the most cost effective measures, such as training to improve feedback between teachers and pupils, an important part of teacher development, are also still relatively rarely cited too, as are peer-to-peer tutoring schemes, where older pupils typically help younger pupils to learn.

A separate independent evaluation by social researchers TNS-BMRB and the universities of Manchester and Newcastle for the DFE this week suggested that 45 per cent of schools use academic research and 70 per cent use evidence to inform spending decisions. Three quarters of school use additional staff to support disadvantaged pupils.

The pupil premium is one of the Government’s most important flagship policies, as important to the Liberal Democrats in the coalition as Free Schools are to the Conservatives, though both policies featured in the manifestos of both parties as well as the coalition agreement. 

That makes it all the more surprising that ministers didn’t go further in their announcements this week and start to tie a proportion of pupil funding to school success in meeting the measures against which schools will in future be judged. To be fair, it is unclear that the pupil premium will rise much above its current level of £900 per pupil. George Osborne merely said it would keep pace with prices, in his Spending Review statement. It had been expected to increase to £1200 a year by 2015.

But as the Government moves towards a National Funding Formula – also announced by the Chancellor - it will need to decide how to allocate the substantial extra resources already allocated by many local authorities to schools with large numbers of disadvantaged pupils. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has pointed out that pre-pupil premium extra funding in the system attached to deprived pupils amounts to £2000 in primary schools and £3000 in secondary schools.

If the Government really wants to incentivise more effective use of the premium, it should consider rewarding schools that do well in the new league table rolling average measures, and provide them with additional funding that they can use to reward the staff responsible or to make other improvements within the school. Such team-based rewards can be more popular and much less expensive than performance related pay for individual teachers.

The right rewards with advanced accountability could combine to give the pupil premium real teeth.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

I argue in a new Centreforum report that university endowments can make a contribution to postgraduate funding.

Sutton Trust research has highlighted the growing importance of postgraduate degrees in today’s labour market. Stephen Machin and Joanne Lindley have shown that 11% of 26-60 year-olds in the workforce now holds a postgraduate qualification, up from 4% in 1996.[1]

They also showed that somebody with a Master’s can on average expect to earn over £200,000 more over a 40 year working life than someone only holding a Bachelor’s degree.[2] The Sutton Trust report highlighted how the recent growth in UK postgraduates, dominated by international students, poses a threat to social mobility.

This makes it all the more important that postgraduate courses are affordable to the brightest graduates, regardless of financial circumstances. Universities and government need to think imaginatively about how to fund them. Without action to enable bright students from all backgrounds to access postgraduate qualifications based on their ability rather than their ability to pay, this could become yet another barrier for those from low and middle income homes.

The Trust supports targeted state-backed loans for postgraduates. But Government is concerned about affordability, given the growing cost of the current student loan scheme. One way to keep costs lower would be develop income-related bursaries funded by universities through their alumni alongside means-tested loans for postgraduates.

Tim Leunig’s earlier research for Centreforum has shown that while there is some funding available through university bursaries, research councils and other sources, fewer than 4% of students on taught master’s programmes receive sufficient funding to cover their fees in full.[3] Most universities offer some partial bursaries, but these are often a fraction of the costs of fees and living costs, which can be £18-£20,000 a year, depending on the course.[4] This is an expensive proposition for graduates with debts already set to exceed £40,000 from their undergraduate studies.

In the United States, many universities, including the Ivy Leagues, fund undergraduates from low and middle income homes fully through their endowment funds. Many also use their endowments to provide targeted support for postgraduates (as well as to develop new buildings and facilities, often their primary purpose in the UK.)

With a state regulated system of undergraduate fees and loans in the UK, and substantial mandated access funds linked to the new fees regime, there is a strong case for focusing a growing endowment pot on postgraduate studies and research. For this to happen, UK universities need to grow their endowments. Only Oxford and Cambridge currently have endowment funds comparable in size to the top 20 US universities, with the next largest, Edinburgh, significantly smaller at £248m.[5]

The 2004 Thomas report led the Labour Government to introduce a match-funding scheme designed to stimulate greater fundraising by English universities from alumni, and the development of larger endowment funds.[6] That scheme, which ran from 2008-11, had some success: annual fundraising by UK universities rose from £513 million to £694 million.[7]

But the potential is much greater. While US Ivy Leagues have always had large endowments, much American alumni fundraising is relatively new. Many state-funded universities have only developed their funds in the last 50 years: for example, the University of Florida increased its annual donations from $2m in 1976 to produce an endowment fund now worth $1.3 billion.[8]

Only 1.2% of UK graduates donate to their universities regularly, compared with 9% of US alumni. A Higher Education Funding Council for England report in 2012 proposed a target of 5% for the UK within the next 10 years, with some universities achieving double digit rates, to put the UK onto the US track.[9]

Explicitly linking some of those funds to support for postgraduates could make giving more attractive to some donors. Some universities already do this. Sheffield has alumni fund scholarships, funded by donations from 1500 alumni each year, worth £2000 each, and targeted at bright students who might not otherwise be able to study there.[10] However, such scholarships remain small scale: in 2013, they plan to provide them to 15 students, but only provided 6 in 2012.[11] Others with larger endowments say they are relatively generous. Oxford, with £3.7 billion in university and college endowment funds, says that 62% of its research students and 17% of its students on taught Master’s courses receive full scholarships covering fees and living expenses.[12]  

Such endowments may not cover all postgraduate costs, but they could make a significant contribution, when coupled with targeted student loans for those of modest means. Sheffield targets its scholarships to those who received maintenance grants as undergraduates. A similar approach more widely applied to those able enough to study as postgraduates would help ensure such support was well targeted where it was needed most.

Government may not want to cover the full cost of postgraduate studies and living costs, given the prevailing climate. While wealthier UK and overseas graduates may be able to turn to family funds, those for whom a postgraduate degree is the final rung on the social mobility ladder are unlikely to have access to such resources. Such students should have access to more means-tested bursaries, funded by universities through alumni fundraising. For that to happen, universities will need to improve their fundraising capacity. Government should make it easier for them to do so: the tax system needs to be simpler for large donations, and more pump priming should be available to enhance fundraising capacity.

Postgraduate studies are the next social mobility frontier. It is now widely accepted that we need to do more through nursery education, schools and undergraduate access to enable bright young people from low and middle income homes to fulfil their potential. They must not encounter a brick wall when it comes to postgraduate study. A new partnership between alumni, universities and government could help ensure they don’t.

The Centreforum report Postgraduate Education: better funding and better access is edited by Tom Frostrick and Tom Gault and available at the Centreforum website.

[1] Stephen Machin and Joanne Lindley, ‘The Postgraduate Premium’, Sutton Trust 2012
[2] This is a gross figure, so it doesn’t allow for lost earnings, fee costs, extra taxes due or inflation, as some other analyses showing smaller premiums have done.
[3] Tim Leunig, ‘Mastering Postgraduate Funding’, Centreforum 2011
[4] Cambridge suggests these figures for most courses at http://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/students/studentregistry/fees/costs/coursecost/costs2013v9.pdf . Taught course fees for home or European students at Sheffield and Newcastle universities are typically £5000-£6000 a year, with research fees starting at around £4000 a year, but often much higher depending on the course.
[5] http://www.suttontrust.com/research/university-fundraising-an-update, drawing on data from ‘Caritas Higher Education Yearbook’ data in the UK and the US ‘Chonicle of Higher Education’.
[6] ‘Increased Voluntary Giving to Higher Education’, DfES, 2004,
[8] ‘Increased Voluntary Giving’, p.25 and University of Florida website for latest data http://www.uff.ufl.edu/AboutUFF/Endowment.asp
[9] ‘Review of Philanthropy’
[11] Information supplied by University of Sheffield. The University also uses alumni funding to provide £3000 scholarships for undergraduates.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Opening up our comprehensives

My latest Sutton Trust post looks at the drive to encourage more schools to use ballots in their admissions policies.

This week, the Sutton Trust revived the argument for school ballots as a way of admitting a significant proportion of places to popular urban schools. Of course, it is not an uncontroversial idea, but it seems the best and easiest way to introduce some fairness into a system where our highest performing comprehensive schools and academies are more socially segregated than other schools in their area.

After all, the evidence suggests that low and middle income students do better academically and socially if there is a mix of students from different income backgrounds in a school.

When I was Tony Blair’s education adviser, in 2005, I still remember the Times front page when they picked up our plans to allow ballots – random allocation of places where a school is oversubscribed – and fair banding across all abilities to achieve a comprehensive intake. The Times chose to illustrate banding, a move designed to achieve a comprehensive intake, with an 11-plus exam paper. The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, became convinced that we were planning a return to grammar schools and took some dissuasion on the point.

I tell this story because ballots, a simpler measure without any tests, have their own perception difficulties. Most newspapers prefer the term ‘lotteries’ which has obviously negative connotations. But it has also been confused by the Brighton system, which allied some very tightly defined catchment areas with ballots to assist some families losing out under a traditional neighbourhood system. The losers were unhappy, and the winners stayed silent, and the way the catchment areas were drawn meant little change to social segregation.

Yet, less arbitrary catchments can work. Some academies have been quietly getting on with it. After I did the Today programme on Monday, Liz Sidwell, the former schools commissioner and a dynamic former head of the Haberdashers’ Hatcham Academy in South London, tweeted to remind us that her school uses a mix of neighbourhood admissions and a ballot, splitting the two components 50:50. With huge local popularity for the school, this clearly makes sense. It’s the sort of model that the Trust would like to see more widely.

On Monday, we also highlighted another South London academy, Platanos College in Stockwell, a ‘converter academy’ where nearly 60 per cent of its pupils receive free school meals, yet 80 per cent of all its pupils gained five good GCSEs including English and Maths in 2012, including 77 per cent of those on free school meals. Platanos uses banding, whereby a proportion of places are allocated to pupils of low, medium and high abilities to ensure that it takes a good mix of students.

And although the Department for Education keeps quiet about it, academies and other schools that are their own admissions authorities – around two thirds of all secondary schools are in that category with a surge in converter academies – are allowed to use fair banding or ‘random allocation’ within the statutory admissions code, though the code bans local authorities from using ballots (Code, pages 13-14). Some academies may also give preference to pupils entitled to free school meals, just as all schools are required to do for children in care. (Code, page 10, note 22).

Balloting is neither as unpopular with parents nor as rare as some suggest. Earlier polling by the Sutton Trust showed that almost as many parents backed ballots as a fair oversubscription criterion as proximity to the school, when given those two options for popular schools, with a majority making it the better option for faith schools. Moreover, research by RAND Europe for the Trust showed they are used in other countries, including for admissions to US Charter Schools and Swedish free schools and universities.

Yet the reality is that the vast majority of comprehensives still admit on the basis of proximity to school, or an often ill-defined definition of religiosity in the case of faith schools, where ballots among members of a faith would be less arbitrary.

Doing nothing should not be an option. Our research shows that the proportion of pupils from low income families, as measured by free school meal take-up, which is a measure of the social mix of the school, at our top 500 comprehensives is less than half the national average.

More significantly, 95 per cent of the top 500 schools take fewer pupils on free school meals than their local average.  Of the 16.5 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals, just 36 per cent of them gained five good GCSEs last year, compared with 63 per cent of other pupils.

With higher house prices close to good comprehensives and academies, the bottom line in England is, as Sir Peter Lampl put it on Monday, how good a school you go to depends on your parental income. This applies from independent boarding school fees to inner city school catchments. A significant number of comprehensives and academies are not academically selective, but are socially selective because of the neighbourhoods or faith communities they serve.

Covert selection needs more than covert permissiveness in the Code. Ministers should actively encourage popular schools, particularly in urban areas, to consider ballots or banding. That way we could have a fairer – and more comprehensive – school system. Unless our best schools are open to all, we will never improve our low levels of social mobility.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

No legislation is no bad thing

This is my latest Sutton Trust blog post

When I was a special adviser at the Department for Education in the late 1990s, it was seen as a measure of a Department’s success the extent to which it achieved legislation in the Queen’s Speech. This essentially macho test often led to more legislation than was strictly necessary to achieve policy goals.

Many people forget that although the Labour government needed legislation to restrict most infant class sizes to 30, it needed no legislation to introduce the literacy and numeracy hours in primary schools. The latter were the result of a mix of persuasion and accountability, and were arguably more effective as a result.

And legislation was too often used as a way to trumpet changes that could have been introduced less dramatically. Trust schools – the centrepiece of Tony Blair’s 2005 education reforms – were a good example. As with Michael Gove’s first academies legislation, the essential architecture was already in place, and what changes were needed could have been introduced with less fanfare through regulations.

So, it is no bad thing that there was no education legislation in this year’s Queen’s Speech. Of course, that didn’t stop the Government using the occasion from getting Her Majesty to remind Parliament of changes already in train, such as the curriculum overhaul or performance pay for teachers.

But nobody would argue that Michael Gove is any less powerful because he hasn’t got a fifty or a hundred clause bill to take through Parliament over the next twelve months. And I doubt any of his junior ministers – who would be tasked with the legwork – is overly concerned either.

However, what it does mean is that it is all the more important that changes the Government is introducing get the scrutiny they deserve, and that they are subjected to the sort of rigorous evaluation – usually through randomised control trials – that the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation are using.

That is important not just for ministers who want to ensure that their reforms are making a difference to results, particularly for the poorest pupils, but also if they are to gain buy-in from teachers and headteachers.

With more than half of all secondary schools now having academy status, as well as a growing number of free schools and university technical colleges, schools are getting used to having more freedoms than before. And while complex legislation can be important on some issues – such as ensuring a fair admissions code – it is a blunt instrument over issues such as the curriculum or performance related pay.

Over-complexity militates against successful reform. When Estelle Morris first introduced performance pay in 2000, the intervention of the teaching unions ensured the whole process was wrapped in endless bureaucracy.

Leave aside for a moment the perfectly valid issue of the impact of PRP on attainment – though Gerard Kelly’s recent TES piece show why in this case there are other issues to consider – the real problem is that legal issues come to outweigh the flexibility that allows heads to reward good teachers in a straightforward way. A less complex system may prove to be more effective in overcoming the culture against PRP in some schools. And we might then have some serious research on the issue too.

But those increasingly independent state schools will equally need to be persuaded on the curriculum – including on the detail now planned in subjects like history – and on other issues where ministers feel strongly. As they do so, it is important that they use evidence rather than past practice or even DFE guidance to make their decisions.

That’s why the increasing popularity of the Sutton Trust/EEF Toolkit is so important. Next week, we plan to publish new evidence of just how popular it is becoming. But in the meantime, we should reflect that giving Michael Gove and schools a break from the 2014 Education Act is not only no bad thing, it may allow the breathing space needed for genuine reform to take place.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Are fees putting off working class boys?

In my latest Sutton Trust blog, I look at new evidence suggesting that working class boys may be being deterred more than girls by higher university tuition fees.

Students are well into the first year of higher tuition fees. While 54,000 fewer young people started university in 2012 than in 2011, the Government has been congratulating itself that the dip was not much greater.

And the water has been muddied by the changes in student controls that took effect just as the £9000 fee cap was introduced. Moreover, this year’s applications suggest that there is some improvement on last year’s dip.

So is all well in the world of higher fees?

The truth is it is too early to tell. And a new report this week from the Independent Commission on Fees highlights a number of areas where there is some cause for concern.

The first is what’s happening to boys, particularly working class boys. The Commission’s study of UCAS acceptance data has shown not only that the gender gap continues to widen, but that it appears even more pronounced in the lower participation neighbourhoods.

Women are now a third more likely to enter higher education than men, according to HEFCE, and the gender gap seems to have widened as a result of the new fees regime. Among UK residents, 143,600 women aged 19 and under were accepted to English universities in 2012 compared with 118,952 young men.

This represents a decline since 2010 of 2.6% for girls and 4.0% for boys, and a 5.9% decline for girls and a 7.5% decline for boys since 2011.

But in the 40% of English neighbourhoods where university participation is lowest, there were 1700 fewer boys aged 19 and under who were accepted for places in 2012 than in 2011. This represents a decline of 5.4% in the number of young men from these areas going to university this year. By contrast, the fall in the number of young women from these neighbourhoods going to university was smaller, at just 3.7%.

Perhaps of more interest, since it discounts any surge into 2011 to avoid the higher fees, when compared with 2010, the number of young male acceptances fell by 1.4%, while young female acceptances increased by 0.9%. By contrast, between 2009 and 2010, male and female acceptances rose.

In England, while the overall change in the gender gap in the less disadvantaged neighbourhoods was 1.6 percentage points between 2010 and 2012, the overall change in the gender gap in more disadvantaged neighbourhoods was greater, at 2.3 percentage points.

Although the decline in male participation in the most advantaged neighbourhoods was even larger, 20,000 more boys go to university each year from the two top fifth neighbourhoods than from the two bottom fifth neighbourhoods.

It means that the female: male ratio is now nearly 57:43 in the less advantaged neighbourhoods whereas it is closer to 53:47 in the more advantaged neighbourhoods.

With 2013 applications, UCAS has suggested that this gap is persisting. Its January applications report noted that 18 year women remain a third more likely in England to apply to university than men, but this rises to 50 per cent in disadvantaged areas.

If this is the case, it suggests that the information about the new loan repayments may be proving more attractive to young women than to young men, or that young men from disadvantaged areas are less likely to believe that the cost of a degree is worth it. Either way, there is a challenge here for policymakers to meet.

The Commission’s new report has two other important findings that should cause policymakers to take pause. The first is the familiar data on mature students – those aged 20 and over – who had 7.6% fewer acceptances in 2012 than in 2010, more than twice the 3.3% decline for younger students as a whole.

The decision to allow part-timers to have access to student loans hasn’t seen full-timers move to part-time courses either. HEFCE has shown a dramatic drop in part-time numbers, with 105,000 fewer students since 2010, or a 40% drop.

This is important for access, as studying later is an important route to social mobility for those from less advantaged backgrounds, and it is vital that the impact of fees on this group is not neglected just because the reductions among young people are smaller.

As the new President of Birkbeck College, Baroness Bakewell, put it at the weekend:
Part-time study is crucial for our society. It improves skills and kick-starts new careers – exactly what we need for the economy, employers and individuals during these difficult economic times. In response to the dramatic downturn in part-time students nationwide, unprecedented support is needed now to ensure part-time study thrives in future.
 

And the other key finding is perhaps a warning shot at this stage, but one that will need closer scrutiny as the university-level data becomes clear.

While there has been an increase in the numbers of young people from the most disadvantaged areas going to the least selective universities, there has been minimal improvement in the numbers going to the Sutton Trust’s list of the 30 more selective universities (which includes the 24 Russell Group members) and a small dip in the numbers going to the Sutton Trust 13 most selective group.

While the only rises to the Sutton Trust 30 were in the lower participation neighbourhoods, the only quintile showing a dip in acceptances to the Sutton Trust 13 was the lowest participation group. This means that there is a widening gap between this group and other more advantaged areas, and those from the richest fifth of neighbourhoods are ten times more likely to attend these universities than those in the poorest fifth of neighbourhoods.

Closer scrutiny of patterns among individual selective universities will be important here. Already, there is some evidence from HESA data that in 2011, the proportion of new undergraduates from state schools and colleges at the 13 top universities slipped for the fourth year in succession.

There is clearly an important issue for the most selective universities and their recruitment from the poorest neighbourhoods – and it is one that the Sutton Trust will return to shortly. The Trust has also commissioned the Institute of Fiscal Studies to examine the potential impact of students leaving university with debts likely to exceed £40,000 on their ability to afford graduate study, buying a house, and having children. Their findings will be published later this year.

So, the truth is that the jury is still out on fees. We need to see whether these findings for 2012 become clearer trends in the next few years. It is vital, meanwhile, that Government, universities and schools do all they can to reach young people with the ability and potential to benefit from university, particularly in areas where university participation is already low.