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