Thursday, 11 September 2014

Mobility in the manifestos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Delivery depends on detail for new ministers

I've posted at the Sutton Trust on the reshuffle.

Reshuffles can be a brutal business. This week’s surprise move of Michael Gove, and his replacement by Nicky Morgan as education secretary, seemed particularly so. But no less surprising to those in education was the departure of David Willetts as universities minister to make way for Greg Clark.

Both had been highly able ministers, as well combative advocates in defence of their policies. And both leave significant legacies. For Gove, the media has focused on the growth of academies and free schools and the changes to the curriculum. With Willetts, raising tuition fees without any medium-term impact on the numbers of young people going to university was a clear political success. 

Yet, their legacies in tackling disadvantage and improving access may lie elsewhere, and it is important that their successors recognise these achievements as much as those with a higher profile.

It is true that there are now 4000 academies, scores of free schools and that the curriculum is being made more knowledge-focused, with exams toughened to match. The direction of travel towards greater school independence has been accelerated, but whether it leads also to rapid improvement will owe as much to other less celebrated changes. The best academies and free schools clearly make a difference, but there have also been significant failures.

As significantly, Gove – and his Liberal Democrat deputy David Laws – have championed the use of evidence to improve teaching, gradually increasing expectations that their pupil premium is used on what works, and this week’s Ofsted report suggests that is having some impact. The funding of the Education Endowment Foundation, our sister charity, was an important part of that process, and it is one that not only enjoys cross-party support but growing buy-in from school leaders and teachers.

Equally important in my view has been the continued use of floor targets to raise the minimum acceptable standard for schools – though the impact of planned changes to the core league table measure may not have been fully considered – and the development of Teaching School Alliances to support school-to-school improvement, a key feature of the London Challenge.

Although his critics presented his policies as intensifying competition, the reality of the growth of academies has been an explosion in multi-academy trusts and similar co-operative arrangements at a local level, of which the Teaching Schools are an important aspect.

For Nicky Morgan, the challenge will be to build on these aspects of the Gove legacy and to foster greater collaboration between schools, particularly isolated primaries and schools in regions as yet largely untouched by the reform bug in ways that may support the growth of academies, but also enable all schools to provide the academic curriculum now expected of them.

If there was one significant weakness in the Gove – and to an extent, the Laws – approach, it was in their willingness to use levers sufficiently. The pupil premium is being used more effectively, but why not do more to reward schools that make a real difference to their disadvantaged pupils, and cut the premium from those that persistently fail to do so? Why not expect more collaboration from converter academies, which gained financially from their conversion, so they are required in their funding agreements to play a part in wider school improvement, as the best converters already do?

Greg Clark faces challenges in higher education too. Although student numbers have held up, and the proportion of students from poorer backgrounds has continued to grow, there are significant concerns about the impact of student debt in the future. Analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and others suggesting that the current likely repayments will barely cover the increased fees suggest that the overall funding model needs review; equally, while it may seem attractive to load repayments onto people’s salaries in their 40s rather than their 20s, the social implications of this extra burden may not have been thought through. The new minister will need to take another look at the arithmetic.

It will also be important to monitor the impact of the raising of the student numbers cap on recruitment to elite universities. While this may increase student places overall, some Russell Group vice-chancellors fear that it will make it harder to improve access, as A*AA or higher may become the norm in popular courses, with less room for contextual offers.

For both ministers – and the same is true for Nick Boles, who replaces Matthew Hancock as skills minister in improving apprenticeships – it is to be hoped that tackling social mobility and the impact of disadvantage should be as much a priority as it was for Gove and Willetts. Doing so means getting the detail right, as much as it does sketching the big picture

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Cultural capital in the core curriculum

In my latest Sutton Trust blog, I argue that there are important social mobility implications surrounding what children study in the core curriculum, in the wake of the Of Mice and Men Twitter storm.

Of Mice and Men may not be quite flavour of the month, but To Kill A Mockingbird certainly has the imprimatur of the Education Secretary. Michael Gove hit back on Monday after a Bank Holiday weekend Twitter storm denounced the supposed banning of Arthur Miller in favour of a British and Irish literary canon.

The facts of the case are murky: the Secretary of State has upped the compulsion on the study of British and Irish authors, so exam boards are apparently interpreting this as meaning that the greats of American literature that have been a staple of English classrooms are no longer an essential part of their GCSE syllabus.

This isn’t the first time such debates have occurred. But they still have important implications for the cause of social mobility and educational equality. Having a breadth of cultural knowledge and awareness is an important part of success in later life and engaging with the networks where power resides.

When I worked with David Blunkett during an earlier National Curriculum review there were voices arguing in favour of dropping compulsory Shakespeare and ending a requirement that all students should read at least one significant pre-1900 work of fiction. We resisted their siren call.

The rationale for doing so is clear. Despite the supposed homogeneity of our tech-obsessed lives, there remains a significant access gap when it comes to works of great literature, drama and poetry. For many young people, their primary access to their literary heritage – and a global canon of great writing - will be at school, and often before the age of 14. So it is right that there should be a clear entitlement to such access, just as there are fundamentals of history, geography, science and art where school is the gatekeeper to such knowledge.

This is not to say we need wholesale to adopt the philosophy of E.D. Hirsch or still more his Amero-centric fact lists, but it is to say that it does matter that we have a core curriculum and an expectation  that every young person will have a basic entitlement to cultural knowledge as well English, Maths and Science.

There is, of course, a counter argument. Some say that the accumulation of knowledge and facts is rather less important than the acquisition of skills – learning to research, knowing how to study, the ability to communicate well, working in teams. The Sutton Trust/EEF toolkit rates meta-cognition, sometimes called ‘learning to learn’ – in plain terms, study skills – among the highest scoring interventions for raising attainment.

But I have always thought this to be an artificial divide. Without some basic knowledge, Google is an unholy mix of the irrelevant, the interesting and the positively ill-informed. Knowing what is likely to be correct is an important part of assessing the relevant over the ridiculous. A false dichotomy between knowledge and skills has emerged.

Yet it must equally be the case that learning such important skills through the curriculum is important. It is no good getting to university and finding oneself with hours of time intended for independent learning when you don’t know how to use that time as effectively as possible. This is not to excuse the dearth of contact time increasingly complained about but to note that the absence of such skills makes it far harder to make the most of university life.

As the former Chief Inspector of Schools, Christine Gilbert, made clear in her seminal review of personalised learning nearly a decade ago, personalised learning, which is particularly important for disadvantaged pupils, “should involve a broad and rich curriculum that takes account of prior learning and experiences and helps pupils to develop the full range of knowledge, skills, understanding and attitudes.”

That seems the right balance in a debate too often needlessly polarised. That’s why this weekend’s controversy highlights an issue about the curriculum – and the syllabuses of our competing exam boards – that is more important than the literary merits of John Steinbeck or Harper Lee. The National Curriculum should not simply be the preserve of whoever happens to be in power at the time of its revision. But nor should it be left to ‘independent experts’ whose instincts may be to strip the masters for modernity.

We need to have a proper mix of politicians of all parties, headteachers and subject specialists whose role is to decide on the subject matter of the curriculum and to reach consensus in doing so. It should not really be for David Blunkett or Michael Gove to decide the preferred authors in the curriculum, based on their personal prejudices or preferences.

Yet, whoever takes on responsibility for the curriculum should remember the fundamental responsibility they have to ensure that the next generation has access to a breadth of knowledge and skills that gives them the cultural capital that is as important to social mobility as good exam results

Friday, 9 May 2014

A voice still to be heard

I've written about the proposed College of Teaching for my latest Sutton Trust blog post.

An effective independent voice for the teaching profession is a dream that sometimes seems more elusive the closer it is to being realised. And if the experience of the General Teaching Council (GTC) for England is not to be repeated, supporters of the new College for Teaching need to take seriously the findings of our new poll today.

Advocates for what was originally called a Royal College of Teaching – but now seems to have lost the royal title if not the patronage of the Prince of Wales’ teaching institute – made their case in a carefully argued blueprint earlier this year:

In many other walks of life, professionals choose to belong to a Royal College or similar professional body which serves several critical functions: it sets standards of performance for the profession – the expectations that professionals have of one another; it translates these standards into training requirements for those entering the profession, and on-going professional development expectations for those who are qualified; it ensures that professional practice is grounded in the best up-to-date evidence; and it connects together leading researchers and practitioners so that each informs the other. In consequence, a professional body plays a crucial part in generating continuous improvement across the profession. We believe that a new College of Teaching would serve a similar function for the teaching profession.

Of course, they have a case. But independence and influence require two things to be effective:  influence requires the support of the vast majority of the profession; independence requires members rather than government to pay the bills.

Today’s National Foundation for Educational Research poll suggests the College has work to do in both respects.  As many teachers of the 1163 teachers questioned don’t know whether they support a Royal College as are in favour. 41 per cent of teachers support the College proposal, while 17 per cent are opposed and 41 per cent haven’t made up their minds yet. Support is higher among secondary teachers – at 45 per cent - than among primary teachers, where 37 per cent are in favour. It is also higher among school leaders.

When those who express support for the college concept were asked how much they would be prepared annually for membership, 26 per cent said they wouldn’t be prepared to pay for it and most of the rest were unwilling to pay more than £30 a year to be a member.

Given the fate of the GTC in England, which was finally abolished unloved in 2012, these are troubling numbers. Not only is there a lack of awareness and enthusiasm for the idea among teachers, there is an unwillingness to pay a modest price for membership among the majority of supporters.
The GTC foundered initially on a bitter dispute about the cost of affiliation – which, to be fair, was compulsory – and this led in the end to the Government paying all but a fraction of the annual affiliation fee.  As Estelle Morris, the schools minister who delivered the GTC that was a longstanding demand of many in the teaching profession, including the unions, has put it in the Guardian:

In retrospect, we seemed to define professional self-regulation as dealing with professional misconduct. So while this was devolved to the GTC, the responsibility to set professional standards, influence training and qualifications and build a framework for professional development were all retained by the government. Together with the unhelpful approach of some teaching unions, which treated its creation as a turf war, it wasn't perhaps surprising that the GTC didn't win the hearts and minds of the profession.

Her argument is that a new College should be responsible for teaching quality – which it should champion and is the subject of the Trust’s new partnership with the Gates Foundation – and teacher qualifications if it is to be a serious professional body. And though she doesn’t say it, it must not become a playground for the unions. As she adds:

There can be no better way of enhancing the reputation of the profession than to establish in the minds of the public that it is teachers' professional skills not the structural change so loved by governments that will improve standards for children.

Another prominent supporter of the College, the Conservative MP Charlotte Leslieenvisages a professional body getting a grip on poor standards:

A Royal College can also sort out another concern for ministers: how to deal with really bad teaching. We would not tolerate an incompetent surgeon, but a bad teacher can have a devastating effect on a child’s life. If teaching is to be seen as equally professional as medicine, it must have equally exacting standards. A professional organisation, determined to maintain the proud reputation of excellent teaching, would have the credibility, sensitivity and authority to challenge and raise low standards.
Yet, for any Government to be ready to trust the new college, it will need not only to avoid being a union talking shop; it must positively become the true voice of the profession.

The recent blueprint is quite bold in the range of tasks it envisages the College acquiring. It talks of expecting its members to embark on a ‘professional journey’ from subject knowledge to leadership, with certification en route. It plans to run professional development itself and also kitemark external courses. It wants to curate research (something the Sutton Trust/EEF Toolkit is already doing) and share knowledge.

To do all this, it envisages a voluntary membership paying £70-£130 a year in membership fees, which as the blueprint rightly notes, is lower than many comparable bodies, yet is rather more than teachers told NFER they would be willing to pay.

Supporters of the College argue that when the benefits of membership are explained, support rises as does teachers’ willingness to pay a reasonable fee. And there is clearly much to be said for a truly effective teachers’ professional body.

However, all these ambitions will not be realised unless the idea sparks real enthusiasm among those whose support it most needs.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Grammar schools must give poorer children a fair chance

I wrote this piece arguing that grammar schools must do more for social mobility, for the Guardian's Comment is Free.
Around half of England's 164 grammar schools plan to prioritise bright pupils from poorer families in their admissions policies. They have provoked a predictable backlash from some who see this as social engineering.
Yet the heads are right to embrace fairer admissions. And even those who would prefer all schools to be comprehensive should welcome these measures. Indeed, it is crucial that the grammars go further if they are going to play a stronger role in supporting social mobility.
Research for the Sutton Trust has shown that the number of grammar school pupils who come from outside the state sector – largely fee-paying preparatory schools – is more than four times the number eligible for free school meals. Only 6% of pupils in England go to prep schools, whereas 16% are entitled to free meals – but just 600 of the 22,000 children entering grammar schools between 2009 and 2011 were from these least advantaged homes, whereas 2,800 had been privately educated.
Of course grammar schools are selective, and many children from poorer homes have already fallen behind their better-off peers by age 11. That gap needs narrowing. Yet when our researchers looked at all pupils reaching the expected standard for a 14-year-old in the end-of-primary English and maths tests, they found that only 40% of able free-school-meal pupils gained admission to grammars, compared with 66% of other pupils.
Nor is it just poor pupils losing out. The research showed that the higher your family's income, the greater your chance of being admitted to a grammar. There is a good reason for this: parents who can afford it pay to make sure their children pass the test. For the richest parents, it will be £9,000-a-year prep school fees. For others, it will be £20 an hour or more for a private tutor. For many, these sums are more than they can afford.
That's why fairer admissions in grammar schools, far from giving less privileged pupils an unfair advantage, would simply help level the playing field. But while this is a welcome first step, more needs to be done. Admissions policies are only one part of the equation.
Grammar schools should reach out to a wider group of schools and pupils if the link between income and access is to be broken, while all primary schools in selective areas should encourage their bright pupils to apply in the first place. Admissions tests should reduce any bias that could disadvantage pupils from under-represented backgrounds.
To their credit, many grammar schools are acting here too: the Sutton Trust is working with the King Edward VI foundation in Birmingham and others to improve outreach programmes, while many schools are switching to less coachable tests.
Grammar school heads say they want to end the tutoring culture. But, with a quarter of pupils receiving private tuition, that may be wishful thinking. That's why grammar applicants should be entitled to free sessions to help familiarise them with the test, so those from low-income families don't lose out.
Critics will say that we should abolish rather than ameliorate selection. But the reality is that no major political party will scrap the remaining grammars without a groundswell of parental support: in this respect, the coalition parties and Labour are at one. So where grammars remain, it is vital that they do more to open their doors to bright children from low- and middle-income homes.
Others will say that we should focus instead on social selection in comprehensives or fee-paying independent schools. We also want to see independent day schools opened up on the basis of merit rather than money.
But grammar schools still educate one in 20 secondary pupils, and many have a good record in getting their students into our best universities. So it is crucial that they are open to bright children of all backgrounds.

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).