Thursday, 28 September 2017

How extending free childcare could harm social mobility

I blogged at the Sutton Trust website and HuffPo on problems with the government's free childcare plans
It is nearly twenty years since a long-cherished goal of early years campaigners was delivered by the Blair government: the right to free nursery education for all three- and four-year olds. Since then, much has changed in early years policy: mothers are entitled to more time off and families have benefited from tax credits. Sure Start children’s centres brought many services together too.
The free entitlement was to 12.5 hours a week of early years education, planned locally but largely delivered through private and voluntary providers (at the same time as vouchers were scrapped). That universal entitlement increased to 15 hours in 2010, and was extended in 2013 to less advantaged two-year-olds. The latest figures show that 93% of three year olds and 97% of four-year olds are taking advantage of the free provision. This month, children in working families had that entitlement extended to 30 hours a week.
But while extended access to childcare may do a lot to help the labour market and working mothers, and certainly represents a major increase in the state’s commitment to childcare support, it may make it harder to improve social mobility through such early interventions. The government is trying to introduce this at a time of austerity, so quality could suffer.
And that’s the nub of the problem. A third of eligible children – those from the poorest 40% of society – don’t currently take up free provision at age two and a tenth of poorer families don’t take up their entitlement at age three. The government has halted a commitment to improving the qualifications of those working with young children even though a third of such key workers haven’t got decent GCSE passes in English and maths.
Sure Start and children’s centres are being closed or stripped of many of their functions. Some benefits are being reduced for children, particularly in larger families. And funding is being reduced for the higher quality more expensive providers – maintained state nursery schools and reception classes – alongside the removal of a requirement that they should have a qualified teacher in the classroom.
The combination of these changes could see a reduction in quality and a widening of school readiness gaps just as there is some evidence that gaps have started to narrow. In particular, the restriction of the 30 hours to working parents could make it even harder for the children of mothers not in work to gain the developmental skills that could help them escape a cycle of disadvantage.
That’s why today’s new Sutton Trust report, Closing Gaps Early is so timely. Prof Jane Waldfogel and Dr Kitty Stewart praise the progress that has been made under successive governments but sound a strong cautionary note about what’s happening now.
There has been a growing recognition of the link between good quality nursery provision and school readiness. Our Sound Foundations report identified four key dimensions of good quality pedagogy for all children under three: stable relationships and interactions with sensitive and responsive adults; a focus on play-based activities and routines which allow children to take the lead in their own learning; support for communication and language; and opportunities to move and be physically active. Crucially, it stressed the importance of knowledgeable and capable practitioners, supported by strong leaders.
With gaps still as high as 17 percentage points between rich and poor children on the foundation profile when they start school, we can’t afford to relax the drive to improve the quality of early years staff and access for disadvantaged children to good provision from the age of two. One suggestion in today’s report is that all children should have three terms of very high quality provision prior to reception class, as the benefits of the longer entitlement are going disproportionately to children who are already doubly advantaged, by birth month and family background. If money is limited, it shouldn’t be spread too thin.
There is no doubt that the extended access to free childcare for working families is a real boon for those in work, especially those from modest incomes facing cuts in other family and tax credits, but as the new policy comes into effect it is vital that we keep a close eye on all its impacts, and ensure that lack of money doesn’t lead to loss of quality. If that happens, the progress of nearly twenty years could be placed in jeopardy and it Is the poorest children who will be the losers.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Helping the high attainers

This piece appeared in the TES print edition on 14 July 2017.

Nearly 20 years ago, as then education secretary David Blunkett’s special adviser, I helped to introduce a programme for gifted and talented pupils in urban secondaries. The initiative focused the efforts of many comprehensives on new ways of tailoring provision for more-able students. The programme sadly lost its way in the later years of the Labour government, though its legacy lives on in some schools and academies.

More recently, Sir Michael Wilshaw, as chief schools inspector, reported annually on how schools were catering for their more-able students. Ofsted inspectors now ask about the progress of high-attainers. But we are still grappling with many of the issues we faced nearly two decades ago – and we need to ask, are we doing enough through accountability to encourage schools to support high-attainers?

This summer, parents and businesses will learn that GCSE results are no longer as easy as ABC. Grading results on a 9-to-1 scale is the last in a series of steps that could have a profound effect on accountability in secondary schools. But whether the changes also help stretch able students as much as they support those with poorer test scores aged 11 remains an open question. There is a good case for addressing their needs more directly.

The debate around how to ensure that less-advantaged pupils of high ability fulfil their potential is not uncontroversial. Some say a focus on top test scorers at 11 – those in the top 10 to 20 per cent – means missing out on others with the potential to be just as successful. Others want the focus to be much more on low-attainers – those who don’t get the expected standards in English and maths – and argue that the £2.5 billion pupil premium should be entirely directed at them.

But this cannot be about pitching groups of students against each other. The Sutton Trust’s Missing Talent research showed that over a third of disadvantaged boys and a quarter of disadvantaged girls, who were in the top 10 per cent of pupils at age 11, were outside the top 25 per cent in their GCSEs. Meeting their needs was an argument for Progress 8 – the new GCSE school-success measure – in that every grade is now credited, so getting a student from a 2 to a 3 is rewarded as much as getting from a 3 to a 4 or a 6 to a 7 in the new grading scale. The system has its teething problems, but its intentions have been good. However, recent arguments about whether a 4 or a 5 is equivalent to a C grade, and the continued importance of floor targets, suggest that border lines haven’t disappeared.

I was never as convinced of the evils of the C-D border line as some were. For employers or sixth-form admissions, a C proved to be far more valuable than a D. Focusing there did more than improve a school’s league-table scores. But the old system failed to accredit schools properly for getting students As rather than Bs, limiting opportunities for higher-achieving students to access Russell Group universities including Oxbridge.

As our Chain Effects 2017 report highlighted, there is still much to do. Sponsored academies are good at improving results for low-attaining disadvantaged pupils, but are weaker with their high-attainers. Given that these academies often serve the poorest communities, this disparity should be of concern.

All this matters to social mobility. The Office for Fair Access reported recently that disadvantaged young people remain far less likely to get to our best universities – and from there to access good professional and well-paid jobs – than those from better-off backgrounds.

The gap is still as much as 10:1 on some measures, though it has been wider. That isn’t just bad for those individuals, it is bad for society and bad for our economy to waste so much talent.

Before the election, the government saw an increase in grammar schools as the answer. But while grammars often do a good job for the disadvantaged students on their rolls, our research has shown that far too few such pupils are admitted in the first place.

Indeed, there is a gradient linked to income in grammar school admissions, not just a gap. Moreover, the evidence is that highly able pupils in the best-performing comprehensives do just as well.

Now that new grammar schools are on the policy back burner, policymakers must not forget the needs of able students from less-advantaged backgrounds. In fact, there is a real opportunity here for comprehensives to live up to their mission to cater for the needs of students of all abilities.

Three important steps could help: the first is to encourage fairer admissions to the most successful comprehensives – the top 500, based on GCSE results; these schools only take half the proportion of poorer pupils that live in their catchment.

Randomly allocating half the places in successful urban comprehensives – backed by outreach and travel support – could open such schools up to those who can’t afford the house-price premium attached to these schools.

The second is to excite and engage more able students with a curriculum with greater enrichment, as well as access to more demanding lessons and lectures – in partnership both with other schools and universities. The Sutton Trust has moved from working only with sixth formers to supporting able 12- to 15-year-olds through its Sutton Scholars programme. And the government should support schools and universities in trialling what is most effective for highly able students.

Finally, we need to look again at how schools report their results, and how their success is judged by Ofsted and regional schools commissioners. We shouldn’t just report the overall Progress 8 and Attainment 8 scores, but we should specifically report on the results and progress for high-attaining students.

We could then see exactly how the best comprehensives perform – encouraging others to emulate them – and how they compare with grammars on a fair measure. Ofsted and regional schools commissioners would look at these results alongside the main scores. But more importantly, this could do a lot to improve social mobility, too.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Evidence of intent

My latest Sutton Trust blog on the evidence behind the parties’ election proposals for education

While much of the policy noise of the election campaign has focused on social care and the winter heating allowance, there is quite a lot of educational policy in the parties’ statements of intent. Polling over the weekend showed it particularly important with parents and young voters.

Despite the narrowing of the polls as Thursday’s ballot approaches, the likelihood is still that a Conservative government will be re-elected. So, it is worth examining what they say – and do not say – in some detail. A lot of the attention has focused on two policies – grammar schools and free school meals – but there were also other important proposals there too.

Free school meals have become a surprising issue. Just as Theresa May has been keen to show she’s been making tough choices with pensioners’ spending, she is also planning to remove the relatively recent universal nature of free school meals for infants and return to linking them to poverty. Instead, less costly breakfasts will be provided to all.

When free school meals were made universal, much was made of the impact on educational standards. At the time, I looked at the detailed NatCen evaluation and argued that universal school meals may make some impact on attainment, but seem likely to do a lot more for diet and socialisation in school. Delivering 1-2 months’ progress, it had less impact than other less costly options.

The EEF’s evaluation of Magic Breakfast suggested a two month gain over a year. The results suggest that for pupils in relatively disadvantaged schools it is attending the breakfast club, not just eating breakfast, which leads to academic improvements. This could be due to the nutritional benefits of the breakfast itself, or the social or educational benefits of the breakfast club environment.

So, shifting to breakfasts on the face of it looks like a less costly way of delivering results – even allowing for the forensic work on costs by Becky Allen and Datalab. However, neither study focused as much on the nutritional benefits which is what has exercised Jamie Oliver and other celebrity chefs most. There’s also the very real issue of cost for those parents whose incomes are just above the FSM eligibility threshold and who will lose most in this change. By contrast Labour and the Liberal Democrats want to extend free meals throughout primary school, though this feels like a costly commitment when school budgets face so many other pressures.

Labour has made its most expensive and eye-catching promise in higher education, promising to axe tuition fees and restore maintenance grants. In doing so, it has cited the £44,000 average debt figure first calculated for the Sutton Trust by the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Sutton Trust research has also shown student debts in England are the highest in the English-speaking world.

However, it is questionable that the answer is ending all tuition fees. University students are far more likely to come from better off backgrounds – so there is a massive deadweight costs if this is intended to improve access – and the evidence suggests that participation among poorer students has continued to rise since tuition fees increased. Nevertheless, there are still substantial gaps – the latest UCAS research using a multiple equality measure across demographic quintiles suggests that 13.6% of young people from backgrounds with the lowest rate of entry to enter higher education went to university in 2016, compared with 52.1% from the highest entry or richest areas, almost a four-fold gap, and this gap rises to ten times in the top universities. There has also been a substantial reduction in part-time students, which seems to have accelerated since the £9000 fees were introduced, despite the introduction of loans for part-timers.

A more cost-effective and targeted approach would have restored maintenance grants for poorer students – which the Liberal Democrats also propose – but also means-tested tuition fees so poorer students borrowed less, though proponents of fees would point out that repayments are equitable given that they are linked to earnings. The problem has been that size of borrowing, and the high interest rates now charged, means that barely a quarter of graduates are likely to repay their loans in full.

In other policies, the Conservatives have maintained their commitment to lifting the ban preventing new grammar schools, justifying the policy by referring to its new calculation of ‘ordinary working families’ – roughly the middle third of families based on income – though all the evidence, including that published by the Sutton Trust, shows that poorer students and those just above FSM eligibility are much less likely to get admitted. The manifesto does not detail what measures are proposed to address this gap or the income-related gradient in who gets in.

As importantly, perhaps, the party has also proposed a review of school admissions more generally, though pointedly ruling out ‘mandatory’ lotteries. That doesn’t mean there could not be more encouragement of both random allocation and banding, both of which could provide a proportion of places in popular urban schools, and are the only realistic way to end the ‘selection by postcode’ criticised by Theresa May early in her premiership. The plan for more accountability at Key Stage 3 could fill a gap that has been there since those tests were scrapped in the late noughties.

Labour, meanwhile, has pledged to outlaw unpaid internships, something that is gaining traction as an issue across the political spectrum. Since our 2014 research estimating that an unpaid intern in London would need to £926 a month to make ends meet, there has been a growing clamour for change matched by a growing number of companies changing practice. It requires proper enforcement of minimum wage legislation matched by open and fair recruitment practices.

In Scotland, the Global Gaps report that we published in February has been much quoted over concerns about the income-related attainment and university access gaps in Scottish schools. The SNP manifesto was less focused on education issues that are a matter for Holyrood but there they have been strengthening their work on attainment gaps and accountability amidst opposition criticism of a dip in standards over recent years.

But for all the education policy promises, the biggest challenge facing a new government will be in school budgets and teacher recruitment. The Conservatives, mindful of a backbench revolt, have promised that no school will lose in cash terms from its new funding formula. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are promising to restore budget cuts in real terms too. But whoever gets elected on June 8, the likelihood is that schools will still face challenges getting the teachers they need in a world of rising pupil numbers.

Thursday, 30 March 2017

Nine to one - not as easy as ABC

I blogged at the Sutton Trust on the dangers of an increasingly complex accountability system

Back in 1995, I helped David Blunkett commit a heretical act – at least in the eyes of the teaching unions. With the help of the late David Frost and a closely argued column in The Times, we embraced the need for school performance tables. Yes, we would look at improvement and not just absolute results, but we would still publish both to hold schools accountable and to inform parents.

Over two decades on and we have a lot more data available to us. Admittedly some of it – the detail in the invaluable National Pupil Database – is restricted to those meeting stringent data protection rules. But parents can access a pretty good summary of how well a school is doing on the DFE website. The only problem is that it has become a lot more complex. And confused.

That confusion can only have been increased by the latest announcements from the DFE this week. This year is the first time that pupils will be judged on a new 1-9 scale, replacing the current A*-G scale. The idea is that this will allow finer judgements at the top where gaining a 9 will be a lot harder than an A* - indeed, Tim Leunig, the DFE’s chief analyst, mused to his Twitter followers that only two pupils in the country might get all top marks in the new system.

But it is not at the top that the confusion and concern has been concentrated. Rather it is at the borderline. An important feature of the new system was supposed to be an ending of the focus by schools on the dreaded D-C borderline. I’ve always been slightly bemused by this concern: after all, a C is far more impressive to an employer than a D and it is deluding young people to pretend that their E is of any use to them at all. There does, of course, need to be more focus on encouraging Bs and As, but as a minimum the C grade was a reasonable one.

And despite the introduction of Progress 8 – the hugely complex statistical measure of progress on which schools are now supposed mainly to be judged – yesterday’s news shows that the C grade remains important. Teachers have been struggling for months to understand whether a score of 4 or 5 will see them over the line in the new system.

Ministers had previously indicated that key school targets would focus on the tougher 5 grade – a good pass – but pupils who gained a 4 could be eligible for progression to the sixth form or college. On Tuesday, Justine Greening tweaked this yet again saying that the performance tables will include two pass rates – those getting a 4 and above and those getting a 5 or above – particularly for the English Baccalaureate scores.

Confused? Parents will be. But more importantly, the whole thing threatens to undermine nearly three decades of school reform. Of course, the 5 A*-C measure was not perfect. But sometimes statisticians need to recognise that perfection may not be attainable if it reduces clarity. The data was a compromise, but with floor targets and minimum standards it did a lot to drive up standards, especially in the half of secondary schools where fewer than 30 per cent of pupils gained five good GCSEs twenty years ago. The danger is all this change makes it impossible to see where improvements are being sustained.

That matters to narrowing the attainment gap as well as to social mobility, because many of the schools which were performing badly in the past had a disproportionate number of disadvantaged pupils. Their decent results have spurred them to further improvement. Progress 8 is a tough sell to explain how well a school is doing because of its complexity and because of the distorting impact of a few individual pupils Now the nine to one scale is layered on top. Comparisons over time become meaningless and past successes may appear lost. All this at the same time as many of these schools bear the brunt of cuts and changes in funding.

I’ll be honest: I was a bit sceptical about the English Baccalaureate when it was introduced, in part because of concerns that it would hurt those improved schools. But research we published last year showed that it benefited early adopter schools and improved opportunities for poorer pupils. However, the target of 90% or 100% of pupils achieving it is not realistic, and the case for a technical option remains strong. But as a way of simply demonstrating a pupil’s or a school’s success in core subjects, it has proved to be not a bad idea. And crucially it is comprehensible.

But that is not the case with these latest changes. If even the head of the exams regulator admits that parents and employers will be “confused” by the new system, and that communicating what it means will be a struggle, there are real problems ahead. And it is not just individuals and pupils that could be the losers, it is the credibility of an accountability system that has delivered real improvements in our schools.

Thursday, 23 February 2017

The data deficit effect

In my latest Sutton Trust blog, how a dearth of data in Scotland propelled a Sutton Trust report onto the front pages.
A funny thing happened with the Sutton Trust's Global Gaps report a couple of weeks ago. John Jerrim’s excellent look at the different performance of highly able 15 year-olds from different social backgrounds gained some good – but not spectacular – coverage in the London media.
But on the same day it became the top political news story in Scotland. The report included breakdowns for the four UK nations and the Trust had targeted stories at outlets in each.
The Scottish data was marginally worse than that in England – and crucially it showed that science results had dipped over the last ten years significantly – but this was enough to create front page splashes in some papers and much bigger stories in Scottish editions than in their English counterparts.
Crucially, too, the opposition took the data and ran with it. The two year gap in performance between poor and better off teenagers hit a nerve, and fed a narrative that the Scottish government has been failing on education. So much so that both Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservative leader and Keiza Dugdale, the Labour leader, majored on the report at First Minister’s Questions.
That took the story into a second day of front page news and saw the BBC’s Scotland political editor filing a lengthy report for the evening news bulletins. By the time last Thursday’s Question Time was broadcast from Glasgow the story was still fresh enough to warrant a separate discussion.
I’ve been reflecting on why this happened. There were some strong political reasons. Opposition politicians clearly leapt on the report with a vigour long lacking in their London counterparts, and that certainly gave the story more legs than had it been solely a Sutton Trust press release and report.
Education is also a much bigger issue in Scotland, both because Nicola Sturgeon and her education secretary John Swinney have made narrowing the attainment gap their big issue in this term, which means that any signs of failure get seized upon.
But I think another factor is just as important – the data deficit North of the border. I became acutely aware of this when I served last year on the Commission on Widening Access in Scotland. The dearth of data was the main reason I subsequently commissioned researchers at Edinburgh to produce the Access in Scotland report for the Sutton Trust.
At school level, this data deficit is particularly significant. Swinney is now introducing a more rigorous – if controversial – testing system this autumn. Scotland scrapped national testing in the mid-2000s, along with Wales. The result was predictably disastrous in Wales, which has been edging back towards testing, and the PISA results suggest it saw a slide in Scottish results too.
Potentially the reintroduction of national testing could do a lot for research into social mobility in Scotland, something the critics of testing often wilfully ignore, as well as ensuring that aspirations for able disadvantaged students are stretching.
Combined with the introduction of a Scottish version of the Teaching and Learning Toolkit, currently being developed by the Education Endowment Foundation with Education Scotland, this could have a genuinely beneficial impact on less advantaged pupils’ results.
Contrast the dearth of data in Scotland (and Wales) with its abundance in England. The National Pupil Database is an invaluable resource with the potential to improve social mobility as it shows schools how others succeed in similar circumstances and with linkage to other databases including HMRC it allows researchers to measure how well students from different backgrounds progress from the start of school to the workplace.
PISA is useful for its comparability in that respect, but is not sufficient – hence the excitement surrounding our recent report. Gratifying as it was to have such great coverage, I look forward to the day when such data doesn’t cause so much of a stir in Scotland because there is much more data available on the progress of Scottish children – and teachers have the tools to compare their pupils with similar pupils elsewhere in the country.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Breaking the class ceiling

I wrote this for the Sutton Trust blog....
Education Secretary Justine Greening recalled yesterday how she’s missed out on a banking job because she hadn’t taken a gap year. “I was too embarrassed to admit that I simply couldn’t afford one,” she told an event organised jointly by the Sutton Trust and PriceWaterhouseCoopers on Wednesday.
Outlining her vision for social mobility, she admitted that she was fortunate to get a job at PWC and to progress to become an MP and a cabinet minister despite her modest beginnings. And she was perhaps fortunate to face that particular mobility barrier as the guilty bank was Barings.
As the first comprehensive educated Conservative education secretary, Justine Greening has shown an admirable determination to place social mobility at the top of her political agenda. Yesterday she announced funding for new research schools in her flagship social mobility programme of Opportunity Areas. The new schools will be run by the Education Endowment Foundation with the York-based Institute for Effective Education and will help transmit evidence on what works across other schools in their locality to address educational inequalities.
Today’s GCSE results show some signs that disadvantaged students are doing better in school – more are doing the EBacc than before and English and Maths results are improving. But the gap in attainment in the core subjects remains stubbornly high and the new Progress 8 measure underlines just how far behind many disadvantaged students are even allowing for where they started. Those gaps are still much more pronounced outside London.
The extent of the challenge was laid bare on Tuesday in a new report, Class Ceiling, from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility. The APPG, for which the Sutton Trust acts as the secretariat, took as its starting point the Leading People 2016 report last year which showed how across most major professions over half of all the top jobs are taken by those who went to private schools, and many were also Oxbridge graduates.
A lot of the coverage on the APPG focused on the call for a ban on unpaid internships, something the Trust has also called for in the past linked to research on the cost working without pay. Justine Greening was instinctively against a ban when questioned about this yesterday. But unless firms that hire people for months unpaid start to pay at least the minimum wage these opportunities will remain beyond those unable to access the Bank of Mum and Dad or with a family home near their workplace.
The APPG’s recommendations, based on evidence from a host of professions over the last six months, also urged fairer and more transparent recruitment practices by employers, including contextual practices that place attainment and successes achieved in the context of disadvantage, including underperforming schools and less advantaged neighbourhoods.
They argued that employers should be conscious of the impact of recruiting from a narrow pool of universities in the graduate ‘milk round’, and the social mix of institutions, building on the work already being done in some elite professions.
This is not without controversy, as some rather excitable Daily Mail coverage showed, wrongly suggesting that employers should ignore qualifications and ban all internships. In fact, as with similar programmes in universities, this is about recognising that an able young person who went to a tough school and got good results will have had to show far more grit and resilience than a pupil who went to a fee paying school.
However, this doesn’t mean that they necessarily have the same social skills. And this remains a challenge. Our research has also shown that not only do privately educated graduates earn more than those with similar degrees who went to state schools. It underlines the importance of developing those skills and school and university, particularly for those the Education Secretary likes to call ‘rough diamonds’.
It is great that social mobility is now so high up the government’s agenda. And there are clearly lots of things schools need to do to improve opportunities for disadvantaged young people, not least for those whose ability shines at eleven but isn’t properly harnessed through secondary school.
But this is not just an agenda for schools. It is about what business and universities do to foster and develop talent – and to remove the financial and social barriers that prevent success

Thursday, 13 October 2016

Under advisement

I've blogged about teachers' perceptions of Oxbridge at the Sutton Trust today.
What are we to make of the idea that some four in ten teachers rarely or never advise bright students to apply to Oxford and Cambridge? This finding in an NFER poll for the Sutton Trust published today has remained stubbornly unchanged since 2007.
And perhaps more troubling is the perception that teachers have of the proportions of undergraduates at our two most prestigious universities who come from state schools  – typically they say 20%, around a third of the actual percentage.
There is no doubt that there is still a real access issue at our best universities. At the top third, you are six times more likely to gain admittance if you come from the richest fifth of neighbourhoods than if you live in the poorest fifth. At our most selective universities, the odds are even lower. Yet the universities spend millions of pounds each year on outreach, and lots more on bursaries, designed to narrow these gaps.
It is good that Oxford now has 59% of students from a state school background, and Cambridge has slightly more. That’s a real improvement, but it still means that taking into account sixth form attendance, privately educated students are three times more likely to gain a place than their numbers in the population.
The Russell Group always argue the answer is attainment: A-levels achieved by those in the leafier communities outweigh those from the less advantaged by a significant margin at the top. Yet that’s not the whole story. The Sutton Trust identified a ‘missing 3000’ some years ago who make the grades but don’t get in to the top 13 universities. There is little sign that has changed.
And they’re the group who may lose out if teachers don’t encourage their brightest students to apply to Oxford and Cambridge, and other leading universities. Both universities are central to the leading professions and best salaries, and if we are to make a difference to social mobility at the top we need to see more young people of real ability from low and middle income homes getting to those great universities.
This isn’t about criticising teachers or Oxbridge dons. It is about both schools and the colleges and universities being prepared to look afresh at how they work and being open to making the changes that could break down these barriers.
Earlier this year, the Trust published a brief on admissions procedures at the two universities and made some fairly practical suggestions based on what state school headteachers with a track record of success at the universities, and some of the alumni from our summer schools had said to us.
University rather than college-based admissions are more common, but the distinctions that remain are more of a hindrance to state students than those from private schools with the right networks. What contextual admission offers that are made remain opaque and the information about bursaries and other financial aid is simply not known by too many schools. With a new VC at Oxford showing a strong commitment to fair access and change coming at Cambridge there is a real opportunity for a radical fresh look at what could make a difference.
But equally, schools need to do far more to stretch their highly able students. Grammar schools still have disproportionate Oxbridge entries compared to their numbers too. Every comprehensive should have a strong programme of enrichment for their brightest students from early on in their secondary education. The Sutton Trust works with students to provide such stretch through its Sutton Scholars programme, but programmes for what schools call the able, gifted and talented need to be as embedded in the culture of every comprehensive as much as their support for those with special educational needs.
Our Missing Talent report last year showed what happens where schools don’t do this: we identified thousands of students in the top 10 per cent at age 11 who had fallen outside the top 25 per cent by the age of 16. They could have been set fair for top universities, but had lost that chance. That’s why we need the government not only to require grammars to do much more to recruit bright disadvantaged pupils, we need them to be clear that this should be a part of the DNA of every comprehensive too. To his credit, Sir Michael Wilshaw has pushed this agenda in his time as chief inspector. But this needs drive from the whole government and as much focus as the Prime Minister has given to grammars and faith schools.
Of course, many schools and sixth form colleges do push their best students to aim high, and universities do run more programmes than ever to reach them. But today’s research shows that this needs to be a national drive if we are to make a real difference to social mobility at the top.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Lost in the grammars debate

I've blogged at the Sutton Trust website on the grammar schools debate

It was just three months before Tony Blair’s historic victory in 1997. Ben Chapman was fighting as the Labour candidate in the Wirral South by-election. And David Blunkett, the shadow education secretary, was visiting the Wirral County Grammar School. While he had a cup of tea with the headteacher, the late Eric Forth, then the schools minister, protested outside that Labour was no friend of grammars.

But, by then the opposition had decided to park the issue of grammar schools if it got into government. As Blunkett's special adviser, I helped devise the 1998 legislation that is now reported daily as the ‘ban’ on new grammar schools. I briefed its details to the media ahead of that Wirral visit. But ironically, while it did indeed stop new academic selection, the legislation also made it hard to close existing grammars without parental consent. And that was as much its primary purpose. Neither Blair nor Blunkett wanted to be distracted from their wider plans to improve education by a huge debate about the remaining 166 grammar schools. (A few have since merged so there are now 163).

Nearly twenty years later, the last few weeks have shown us why. Theresa May’s speech at Downing Street last week may have had four key points to it – including, interestingly, a plan to require private schools to justify their charitable status by engaging more fully in state school partnerships – but most of the acres of coverage and debate have focused on ‘plans’ for ‘new grammar schools’.

But there are real dangers in making this the big focus of education policy, let alone the cornerstone of the Government’s drive for social mobility.

The first – and most obvious – reason is that the evidence is pretty thin that grammar schools improve social mobility. In the Green Paper, the Government quotes from a lengthy 2008 Durham University report published by the Sutton Trust. That report looked at GCSE results in existing grammar schools and found that those from poorer backgrounds who are highly able do marginally better than similar pupils in comprehensives.

To quote in full from the report: “We find that pupils eligible for [free school meals] appear to suffer marginally less educational disadvantage if they attend grammar schools. The difference is equivalent to about one-eighth of a GCSE grade; although this is statistically significant, it is certainly not large. It also seems possible that FSM pupils in grammar schools may typically be quite different from FSM pupils as a whole in ways that are not well measured, so we should be cautious about interpreting this as a strong endorsement of grammar schools.”[i]

At the same time, our more recent reports from 2013 showed that less than 3% of grammar school pupils come from an FSM background, 13% come from outside the state school system, largely independent preparatory schools. Perhaps more significantly, given the focus of the Prime Minister’s speech on those on modest incomes, the Anna Vignoles and IFS research[ii] showed a direct correlation between income and likelihood of grammar entry in each IDACI quintile.

In any case, at a political level, given the strength of opposition on the Conservative benches, there is no guarantee the 1998 legislation can be overturned in the Commons, let alone the Lords, where an alliance of crossbenchers, Labour and LibDems, as well as sceptical Tories could defeat it. Where Tony Blair could turn to the Conservatives when he faced a much larger rebellion over his 2006 education reforms, in the Commons, May can only count on the DUP, a single UKIP MP and hope that the SNP see this as a solely English matter.

Even if the government passes all its legislative hurdles, the likelihood is that the ‘dash’ for grammars, as the Sunday Times had it at the weekend, will be confined to existing grammar school areas. In reality, the number of grammar school pupils has steadily increased from 129,000 to 163,000 since 1997, or from 4.0 to 5.2% of all pupils. Adding new school buildings in those areas, without pretending they are satellite schools, and a few within their catchments in outer London, will hardly match the rhetoric of recent days. There is not much evidence of demand elsewhere.

Interestingly, within the hastily produced ‘Green Paper’ this week, there was one idea[iii] that could allow a practical way forward for highly able pupils – organising support hubs for the highly able within multi-academy trusts, composed of comprehensive schools. MATs already pool resources for A-level classes, and such a model could offer a way to boost support for able students without selection at 11 and with all the flexibility that a MAT offers.

Either way, it is important that the Government doesn’t lose sight of the needs of the highly able in comprehensives. Becky Allen’s Missing Talent research for the Trust is widely quoted by ministers, and shows that between the ages of 11 and 16, a third of working class boys who are in the top tenth at Key Stage 2 are outside the top quarter by the time they get to do their GCSEs. As the selection debate grips Westminster and Whitehall, no legislation is required to ensure they get a fair deal, just action in the name of social mobility.
[i] See pages 218-219; [ii] See page 38; [iii] See page 27

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Bacc to the future

I've blogged at the Sutton Trust website about new research on EBacc progress today.

Next month, hundreds of thousands of young people will learn their GCSE results. Their schools will be judged for the first time not on the proportion gaining five good GCSEs, but on the more complex Progress 8 measure (as well as English and Maths results). Crucial to the Progress 8 score will be the numbers who achieve the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) – English, Maths, two sciences, languages and history or geography.

In January, I blogged about some of my concerns about how well the changes will be understood by parents and employers, and that the challenge of gaining eight decent GCSEs could make it much harder for schools that have struggled successfully to improve the numbers gaining five good GCSEs, including many academies.

So, to some extent today’s research brief, Changing the subject, by Becky Allen and Dave Thompson at Education Datalab, is encouraging. The brief looks at what happened to schools between 2010 and 2013, including a group of 300 ‘curriculum change schools’ that substantially increased the proportion of their students taking languages, humanities and science subjects.

It shows that pupils at those schools – including disadvantaged students – benefited from the changes. Encouragingly for the government, there was some narrowing of the gap between rich and poor students, and an improvement in the numbers taking A-levels and other post-16 qualifications. Moreover, there was no adverse impact on English and Maths results.

That is all to be welcomed. What seems to have happened is that pupils of average ability at the age of 11 who might not previously have taken the full range of EBacc subjects are now being encouraged to do so at these ‘curriculum change schools’. The report also shows that if disadvantaged students were entered at the same rate as other students of similar ability, another 11,000 would be doing languages and 15,000 more taking humanities subjects. Triple science take-up had already been improving as a result of changes made a decade ago, and continues to improve, but there is still a 5,500 shortfall based on ability.

There are other issues raised by this study. The Government has set a target that 90% of all students should take the EBacc. As evidence that this is possible, they cite a handful of successful academies in London. But the reality is that even in these curriculum changers – keen enthusiasts for the reform – take-up is nowhere near 90%. 57% take a language, a considerable improvement from 26% previously. But some schools that forced all pupils to take a language have had to switch course. One head told us: “Results plummeted and a high level of disaffection was the result. By making the language element optional I now have students in year 10 taking French who want to study it and I expect to see results rise.”

What that suggests is that a goal of perhaps 70% would still be hugely ambitious, but would be more realistic. There is then the challenge of finding enough good specialist teachers, particularly for languages, physics and chemistry.

At the heart of the debate is some confusion over how best to ensure that disadvantaged students reach their potential. Those who argue that everyone – or nearly everyone – should take the full suite of EBacc subjects see this as the best way to ensure that able students don’t lose out. And as these schools show, there is real potential for growth in take-up. The gap we have identified is one such group, and these 300 schools should be a good benchmark for other schools.

So, tens of thousands more students could and should be doing the EBacc subjects. That would make sure that able students aren’t losing out. But equally we need to ensure that we are not entering students not taking the EBacc – more likely to be a third than a tenth of students – have a rigorous technical baccalaureate as an alternative. With the recent Sainsbury review likely to lead to strong reforms in this area, this could be a valuable entry route for such students.

Today’s research brief is a valuable insight into what’s been happening with the EBacc. But it also provides food for thought as schools await their first Progress 8 results next month.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

The need for reassurance

I've posted my reflections on what needs to happen for Europeans living in Britain on my Facebook page.

It is now more than a week since I heard the referendum result whilst in the beautiful Cork town of Kinsale. My anger and disbelief clearly made me a part of the so-called metropolitan elite, though I never knew the elite had 16 million members. Yet what I really felt was that I - like perhaps three million other EU citizens living in Britain - was not just a stranger in the country I made my home 32 years ago, but that a large proportion of the people in my adopted country were giving us all a collective two fingers.

What has happened since then has done little to shake that view. I have spoken to other EU citizens living in Britain this past week, and many of them are deeply worried about their futures. Some have families here, all are massively net contributors to the UK economy. Yet not one of the people who aspire to be prime minister has said anything to reassure these people or their families about their futures. At the extreme end, we have seen vile and vicious racist attacks on community centres, and xenophobic taunts to schoolchildren and people going about their everyday business who happen not to fit into the narrow acceptability of their bigoted tormentors. And to be fair such acts have been condemned, but - aside from the statesmanship of Sadiq Khan and Nicola Sturgeon - too few would be leaders have been ready to say that those who are here and working or long term residents are here to stay, that they are valued and welcome.

Rationally, I know I probably have little to fear as an Irish citizen. The Irish government is far more actively working on behalf of the 500,000 Irish born In Britain and with far more sense of what needs to happen than any English politician seems to have shown towards those who live and work in this country, those who keep its health and education services going, those who contribute more on average to our economy that those who would tell them to go. I can get dual British citizenship and the Common Travel Area in these islands may hopefully - though who really knows - survive in some form. But emotionally that is not how it feels at all.

It is not good enough to say that three million people who have made their lives in this country will be pawns in a negotiation over Brexit, as some implied this week. After all, their lives and those of their children will be blighted by fear of the unknown for several years. They need to know that a government that disgracefully denied 2.5 million of them - we Irish did get a vote - any say in their own futures during the referendum (as well as excluding 16 and 17 year olds) has at least got their back for the future. I have yet to hear anything saying that those who work here, and whose families have a stake in this country, are not to be kicked out if the political chess game goes the wrong way in the years ahead.

We have reached this point by accident, apparently. Quite clearly few of those who created this mess seem to have expected us to leave. There is a lot that needs to happen in the years ahead to save our economy, to support Scotland and Gibraltar, to preserve an open Irish border. But let us not make pawns of so many people's lives in the process. They need to know their futures. Whoever emerges from the current political shambles has a moral duty to give them the reassurance they deserve, and to do so quickly.

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Brexit's mobility challenge

I blogged at the Sutton Trust on the implications of Brexit for education and social mobility.
It is not as simple as saying – as many do – that we are heading out of the European Union thanks to the disaffected poor who felt their needs were overlooked by the distant metropolitan elite.
As YouGov’s final polling showed, there was a huge age divide too – 71% of 18-24 year-olds were for remain versus 64% of the over-65s backing leave – and a marked difference between those with different levels of education – those with few formal qualifications voted Leave in as great a proportion as graduates voted remain.
There is undoubtedly a strong degree of disaffection among older poorer voters. And this underlines more than ever the importance of ensuring that educational and employment opportunities are available for their children. In a sense, intergenerational poverty could breed intergenerational disaffection if whoever emerges as our political leadership in the months ahead doesn’t address the social mobility issue head on.
We need to start young. The gaps in school readiness at age 5 – the bottom 10% are 19 months behind the richest 10% – continue through the education system. While the pupil premium and other education reforms have reduced the gaps at age 11, on traditional measures little has changed at GCSE and there are still eight-fold access gaps to our leading universities.
As I have argued before, there is a danger that those gaps will perpetuate in the new accountability regime – though there is also growing evidence that such gaps are far from universal – so it is increasingly important that rhetorical choices between apprenticeships, college and university are made a reality in ways that really make a difference to young people’s life chances.
This matters at several levels. The Sutton Trust has long championed the importance of changing the elites – and the referendum has arguably thrown that into sharp relief – where our research earlier this year found that the privately educated continue to dominate in the professions. Even in politics, half of the current cabinet went to private school, and that’s a lower proportion than the coalition cabinet.
Politics needs to become more representative – something the social mobility APPG will be discussing later this month – but so does the leadership of all those institutions that affect our lives.
But change needs to come at every level. We have seen a welcome embrace of transparency in school-level data over the last 25 years, with the chance now to compare schools on a like for like basis as never before. That has spurred real improvement, and with the pupil premium has placed the attainment of disadvantaged pupils centre stage.
Yet there still remains a real challenge narrowing the gap between London and other parts of the country, in part because of different attitudes to reform, but equally the result of differential access to good teachers and demographic differences. It may be no accident that the strongest Brexit votes came in coastal areas and North East cities where students end up with fewest qualifications. The urgency of addressing those inequities has never been greater.
Equally, there is a real challenge assessing the value of post-school opportunities. Colleges have been measured on ‘success rates’ for too long, rather than student outcomes. There are welcome moves to change this, though the danger is that the data is presented in ways that are not easily understood – a real danger too with the new GCSE rankings (replacing A-E with 1-9). The best colleges transform lives, but it is vital that in communities where colleges are the only source of post-16 education that the current patchwork of performance is transformed for the better.
More worrying, perhaps, is the emphasis on quantity over quality in the apprenticeships programme. Apprenticeships are back in vogue, which is a good thing. But for young people, it is not good enough that only 40% of them lead to a qualification at level 3 – A level equivalent – or above. Too few teachers will recommend apprenticeships, but until the government is clear that every young person starting a level 2 apprenticeship will progress to a level 3 without having to change course – as is the way in what are still (for now) our European partners – that won’t change.
And finally we need to shake the university sector out of its complacency and open it up to a transparency that has been alien to them for far too long. It is good that they are judged on impact in the research excellence framework, and that the teaching excellent framework will force them to think more about how they impart knowledge to those paying them £9000 a year in fees.
But it is quite appalling that universities can refuse to co-operate in publishing the data on earnings by course linked to tax data from HMRC, something that Anna Vignoles worked with IFS to show recently at an aggregate level. We will be working with MPs to get that changed in the higher education bill. Students have a right to know the worth of their courses, not least when our data has shown that on average higher apprenticeships may be an option as good – or even better – financially.
So if we are to ensure that the disillusionment that led to Brexit among their grandparents – and many of their parents – is not translated through the generations, we need to make sure not only that opportunity is available to young people across Britain, but that it is provided in a way that is open and honest about the strengths and shortcomings of different pathways. Brexit may have its long term economic downsides, but politicians of all parties need to find ways to ensure that the young who voted overwhelmingly to remain have the chance to use their talents to the full.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Scotland's access challenge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Getting it right on academies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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