Tuesday, 20 February 2018

Under review

I have blogged on the PM's post-18 education review for the Sutton Trust and Public Finance.

It was 16 months before the 1997 election and Conservative education secretary Gillian Shephard had a problem. It was a time of austerity. University intakes were growing rapidly. New ways had to be found to fund higher education that didn’t simply involve the taxpayer.

So she approached David Blunkett, her Labour shadow for whom I then worked to support her in setting up a review – with explicit backing from Don Foster for the Liberal Democrats – under the late Ron Dearing. The review would report after the general election and would be wide-ranging in its outlook. But it is remembered for one thing: it led to the introduction by the new Labour government of tuition fees paid by students (then opposed by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats).

In 1998, the decision was also taken to convert all maintenance grants to loans (some had already been converted), but to means-test fees. Those who faced new fees also got higher interest-free loans repaid after graduation for those earning over £10,000 a year.

Since the Dearing review, we have had other big changes to the system. In 2006, fees were increased to a maximum of £3000 – after a big argument in the Labour Party against variable fees that led to the plans almost being defeated – and income contingent loans were explicitly available for fees. By then, Scotland had already abandoned fees. Means-tested maintenance grants were reintroduced and the repayment threshold was raised to £15,000.

Peter Mandelson set up the Browne Review in 2009, which reported to the coalition government after the 2010 election. It led to a £9000 fee maximum and no more variability in reality than the 2006 reforms despite the government saying it expected many students to pay just £6000. Repayments now started at £21,000 – a hugely expensive concession to the Liberal Democrats that ensured that many loans would never be repaid – and a real rate of interest was introduced that would only start to bite when inflation picked up more recently. Tinkering since then has seen maintenance grants scrapped and – at a cost of £3 billion a year – the barely noticed raising of the threshold to £25,000.

That’s the background to the latest review announced by Theresa May on Monday. But the background also includes rising student numbers – touching the 50% of young adults entering higher education by age 30 target set by Tony Blair in 1999 – and some narrowing of the access gap between disadvantaged and better off students. Perhaps more importantly, the political backdrop includes a popular pledge by Jeremy Corbyn to scrap fees that undoubtedly helped win seats like Canterbury and Reading East for Labour at last year’s election. So rather than seeking cross-party consensus, this review is more about neutralising a perceived party disadvantage.

But the confused history of fees is reflected in the confused nature of the review. A bizarre flurry of weekend briefing – propped up by the Secretary of State in his first TV interview on Marr – suggested that a key outcome of the review might be universities charging more for courses in expensive STEM subjects and less in humanities. Given the importance of STEM subjects to the economy this could perversely discourage students from doing those subjects and cold harm social mobility by encouraging poorer students to take cheaper courses. One can only assume its intention was to distract attention from reports that fees would fall to £6,000 a year, which ministers feared would raise expectations that might not be realised.

And the review has not exactly had an auspicious start. It is good that it is looking at the too often overlooked FE sector and at the paucity of apprenticeship options – barely 10,000 young people a year start higher or degree apprenticeships compared with 330,000 freshers at university – but it will be vital that the review panel feels able to take a hard look at the whole funding system and the interaction between different levers.

Modelling by London Economics for the Sutton Trust in November showed that it would cost about £1 billion to restore maintenance grants. It was a mistake to remove them, even if students got higher loans, and this should be the first priority for the panel. Then if the committee wants to look at fees and variability, they should be varied according to family income not the cost of the course. A model that would reduce average fees to £3,500 a year could – with restored maintenance grants – reduce debts for the 40% poorest students from over £50,000 to £12,700 and increase the proportion of loans repaid from 55% to 65%. The total cost of this would be up to £3 billion – about the same as the threshold change announced last October. Less radical means testing could cost less. There is also a need to get better value from the £800 million a year that universities spend on access and outreach in England, building a reliable evidence base on what works. But the priority should be leveraging this existing money to achieve better outcomes for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, rather than to risk stalling progress with cuts.

And then the review should take a long hard look at what’s on offer for those who go don’t go to university. For all the words about apprenticeships, the brutal reality is that less than a third of those taking higher apprenticeships are aged under 25 (let along being 18 or 19). Most apprenticeships for young people are limited level 2 programmes with few career prospects and patchy progression to higher levels. If anything, the apprenticeships levy is reinforcing a bias towards adults doing higher apprenticeships as the levy lacks the levers to prevent it being used simply to upskill existing staff. Addressing that issue and the quality of technical and paraprofessional education in colleges is as important to social mobility as changing the funding of higher education.

This week’s review may have had a pretty inauspicious start. But as the panel deliberates over the next year they have the chance to make a real difference to social mobility – if they get their priorities right.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Ministerial mobility

I blogged at the Sutton Trust on what the reshuffle means for education and social mobility.

Reshuffles are a funny – and brutal – business. For Prime Ministers, they rarely go according to plan, and this week’s was no exception. I’ve been in both the education department and at no. 10 while they have been happening, and seen the drama at first hand. For individual ministers, they may be a personal success – or tragedy. But for the general public, who would be hard placed to name more than a handful of cabinet ministers, any impact is a lot less than those in the Westminster bubble imagine.
Yet they can also tell us a lot about the direction of government, and the choices of minister can make a big difference to how particular issues are treated. That’s as true for social mobility as for any other issue.
Justine Greening has been a doughty champion of social mobility as education secretary, reflecting her own journey to become the first Conservative education secretary to be educated at a comprehensive. Her social mobility plan allowed her finally to define the issue on her own terms – away from the noises off about grammar and faith schools that dominated the pre-election discourse – and it was generally well-received. To explain her refusal to accept a sideways move to welfare secretary, Greening cited her commitment to social mobility, believing that she could do more for the cause (particularly the role of education) from the backbenches.
Her successor, Damian Hinds, has no silver spoon in his mouth either, but is more representative of the grammar school educated politicians who have played a much more prominent role in Theresa May’s cabinets than those of David Cameron. Hinds championed social mobility as a chair of the APPG in the early 2010s and showed a keen interest in the issue as a member of the education select committee. He is unlikely to dismantle the emphasis that Greening had introduced to the department on social mobility, though some of his solutions may be different.
Those changes were part of a wider reshuffle which has tilted the composition of cabinet meetings a bit more privately and Oxbridge-educated than before – though still a lot less than in Cameron’s day – and a bit away from the record achieved with May’s first cabinet as having the lowest proportion of privately educated members for a PM’s first cabinet since Clement Attlee in 1945.
But what of policies? In her social mobility plan, Greening set out a number of proposals which it would be surprising if they were not to continue – including the Future Talent Fund and the stronger focus on early literacy.
However, No 10 will also want to see a more robust advancement of the free school programme, as much laxity for new grammar schools as possible – the numbers attending existing grammars continue to rise – and more support for faith schools. The problem Hinds faces is that his room for manoeuvre on these issues is limited to the extent that new legislation is required – certainly the case for new grammars and abolishing Gove’s cap on faith admissions in new schools. He certainly needs to address the uneven performance of academy chains and revisit the rationale for free schools before applying the ‘rocket-boosters’ urged by some commentators.
But legislation is an overrated aspect of policymaking. A lot can be done by exhortation too. A second casualty of the reshuffle – perhaps less remarked than Greening’s – has been Jo Johnson, who was demoted to transport minister a day after gamely defending Toby Young’s appointment in the Commons. Some commentators see his move as connected to the Young business (and Young quit the next morning from his board membership at the Office for Students). But in reality it may have had more to do with Johnson’s reluctance to change the student funding model from that which had been introduced by David Willetts, beyond tinkering with interest rates and a very expensive raising of the repayment threshold.
And it is here that there may be more room for movement. The Sutton Trust has published a series of reports in recent months on higher education, with several important policy recommendations. There are three that could make a big difference: much greater use and transparency over contextual admissions; moving the sector towards post-qualification offers; and introducing means testing for fees as well as restoring maintenance grants. Sam Gyimah, the new universities minister, should take a fresh look at higher education access and funding, and surely has some licence to do so.
A second area where the new education secretary should focus urgently is on apprenticeships – in addition to implementing the technical skills reforms. The apprenticeship levy – a brave policy for a Conservative government – is in danger of being squandered. As our major pre-Christmas report Better Apprenticeshipsshowed, the quality of too many apprenticeships is poor; too few are taken young people; too many are accrediting existing skills; and progression for young people to apprenticeships that may be of some use is dismal. Done well, apprenticeships should be a route to social mobility for many; as they are now, they will be for too few.
And finally, Damian Hinds should look at what’s happening in the early years. A lot of headlines focus on the closure of Sure Start children’s centres – and that’s worrying – but the bigger issue is the quality of experience for disadvantaged toddlers in early education across all settings. They need the very best, but if the cash is spread too thin – as our recent report showed – the poorer kids will continue to start school at a distinct disadvantage and things will go downhill from there.
Damian Hinds may have had a few reporters searching urgently for his Wikipedia profile. But if he takes the bold steps needed in higher education, apprenticeships and early years, he has a chance not only to make his name; he can also make a big difference to social mobility.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Social mobility after Milburn

I've blogged at the Sutton Trust on the aftermath of Alan Milburn's weekend resignation as Social Mobility tsar
Anyone who thought Alan Milburn would go quietly underestimated the doughty champion of social mobility who first gained the ‘tsar’ role through his political nemesis Gordon Brown. Milburn brought his characteristic energy to publicising the challenge under Brown, and was appointed to head the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in 2012 by the coalition. Last weekend he showed the same energy and determination in the manner of his going.
But despite the fanfare of last week’s State of the Nation report – where the Commission again adapted a model developed by the Sutton Trust in our pioneering Mobility Map – the truth is that the Commission has faced a gradual emasculation since the 2015 election.
It first lost its child poverty role. Then the Scots bailed out. Commissioners who left weren’t replaced so that by last weekend, there were only four left to resign. And them, as Fraser Nelson noted at the Spectator, Milburn was effectively sidelined. His term came to an end in the summer and he wasn’t reappointed but three was no agreement on who should replace him. With characteristic chutzpah, Milburn delivered his final State of the Nation and persuaded his deputy, Gillian Shephard and the other remaining commissioners to resign with great fanfare through the Sunday papers.
Clearly Downing Street was caught off guard by the weekend’s events. But that didn’t stop some of its supporters getting their revenge across three pages of Monday’s Daily Mail ridiculing the need for social mobility and attacking the former tsar personally. However, whatever the process issues that preceded Milburn’s departure, it still raises critical questions about the future of social mobility policy under the current government.
As education secretary, Justine Greening is an undoubted true believer in the power of social mobility. Like an increasing number of her colleagues she comes from a modest comprehensive educated background and regularly reminds audiences of how the opportunities that are essential to social mobility helped her to succeed – as well as the inherent challenges in the process. We were also eagerly awaiting a social mobility plan from her department which will surely have been given extra scrutiny by No 10 after the weekend’s maelstrom.
Theresa May chose social mobility as her signature domestic issue in her first statement as Prime Minister outside no. 10 and she gave it policy flesh in her first speech on the issue. Unfortunately, the only policy for which the speech will be remembered was an attempt to extend grammar schools – a policy backed by very limited evidence that it could effect significant change. The speech also promised fewer restrictions on faith schools, threatened sanctions on private schools if they didn’t offer more help to state schools or poorer pupils, and sought to get more universities involved in the day to day running of schools.
This year’s general election – after which May no longer commanded a Commons majority – put paid to much of that agenda. Voluntary independent state school partnerships and a willingness by grammar schools more actively to recruit disadvantaged pupils may be a small but welcome legacy. But the conclusion many observers made after the weekend is that the all-consuming demands of Brexit have made it impossible to make serious progress on social mobility.
That is not entirely fair. Greening’s Opportunity Areas are a serious attempt to bring coordinated action to the areas identified by the Social Mobility Commission as having particularly poor social mobility, including places beyond the traditional inner city focus of such programmes. There have of course been many such place-based initiatives in the past – education action zonesExcellence in CitiesLondon Challenge (and other less successful challenge programmes) – and only the London Challenge delivered (or, some academics would say, coincided with) significant improvement.
The pupil premium remains an important support for schools working with disadvantaged pupils and the Education Endowment Foundation continues to test evidence on an endowment originally provided by Michael Gove. There have also been moves in the cabinet office to encourage firms to do more for social mobility.
However, what is missing – and Milburn highlighted this weekend – is a coherent approach across government. Theresa May rightly saw lack of opportunity as the cri de coeur of many who supported Brexit – and the mobility maps link closely to their votes. That insight needs to be reaffirmed even as the negotiations continue with Brussels.
The weekend events should there be seen an opportunity. It is a chance to revitalise the Social Mobility Commission and get it working effectively with those – like the Sutton Trust – already championing this cause through programmes and research. But it is also the chance to have a truly radical social mobility plan that takes on vested interests to prioritise policies that can make a real difference – it remains to be seen whether the much anticipated action plan from the DFE fits the bill.
Properly resourced nursery education for disadvantaged children (not an add on to a childcare strategy). The best teachers in schools where poorer pupils go. Fair admissions to all secondary schools. Effective use of the pupil premium, with proper support for disadvantaged pupils including high attainers and support for enrichment and activities that improve life skills. Fairer access to university with much better outreach and contextual admissions. A choice of good apprenticeships, especially at advanced and higher level for young people. And a fairer labour market, including the end to unpaid internships.
That’s the sort of radical but practical programme that could start to shift the dial on social mobility. But it requires real passion and commitment to the issue from the whole government and wider society to make it happen.

Thursday, 30 November 2017

Apprenticeships must not simply accredit existing knowledge

I've written this piece for FE Week on a new Sutton Trust apprenticeships report.

The government says it wants to see three million more apprenticeships by 2020. Promises of improved quality, and the push on large employers through the levy, are meant to ensure that the ambitious numbers deliver a better trained workforce.

But the reality may fall far short of the rhetoric. Last week, new figures showed a big drop in apprenticeship starts between April and July this year. Today’s Sutton Trust report Better Apprenticeships highlights how the levy could produce perverse incentives. Analysis by Lorna Unwin and Alison Fuller notes that one way employers can circumvent the levy is by converting existing employees into apprentices. Of course, in doing so they may give them new skills, but without robust checks they may simply accredit existing knowledge.

That was something that bedevilled Gordon Brown’s flagship training programme, Train to Gain, in the first decade of this century.

When I was education adviser to Tony Blair in Downing Street, we were desperate to remove the substantial deadweight cost caused both by such accreditation or paying a subsidy for existing training. Yet in their 2009 report, the National Audit Office found that half of employers using the money from the programme said they would have arranged similar training without public subsidy.

The levy was supposed to address the latter point by shifting the costs to employers, but the danger is that it does little to develop new skills. Moreover, the public perception of apprenticeships is that they are targeted at young people – largely school leavers – and that they are a practical way for them to gain good qualifications, earning while they do so. But, in reality, the latest government survey suggests two thirds of apprentices are conversions.

It is vital that there are tough minimum expectations in every apprenticeship, so that they give apprentices the expertise and capability to adapt to a rapidly changing labour market and they do not become a bureaucratic burden on business to be dodged by clever accountants.

This is not the only problem with how apprenticeships have developed in England. Instead of being a high quality programme targeted at enabling young people to start a fulfilling career, they have become a catch-all title for training at all levels. So, over 40 per cent of all apprentices are aged over 25, largely at work. Of course, adults at work need upskilling, but they are not apprentices, and those positions should be targeted at young people, particularly those entering the workforce.

And then, among apprenticeships for young people, 60 per cent of places are at intermediate level. New analysis by Sandra McNally for today’s report, of the experience of those aged 16 in 2003 who subsequently embarked on apprenticeships, suggests that fewer than one in four of those who start a level 2 apprenticeship progress to level 3.

The Sutton Trust will be campaigning through 2018 so that in future anyone completing level 2 should automatically progress to level 3, unless they opt out. The focus on apprenticeship starts rather than overall apprentice numbers in the government target does a disservice to young people. McNally’s research also shows that those doing advanced apprenticeships are less likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds, but those doing level 2 are more likely to be disadvantaged, so such automatic progress is vital to their social mobility. One interesting point in last week’s figures was that intermediate starts had fallen faster than advanced starts, suggesting that a seamless progression could be valued by employers, even if they don’t like the levy.

Good apprenticeships can lead to earnings on a par with academic qualifications, from level 3 through to higher apprenticeships. So, the focus should be on creating more such opportunities for young people and supporting progression to them.

The apprenticeship levy was a brave move for a Conservative government. But unless the government – and the Institute for Apprenticeships as both a quality and access guarantor – gets to grips with apprenticeships now, the danger is that no government will be so brave again. And more importantly, a generation of young people will be the big losers.

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