Friday 16 November 2012

Making the pupil premium go further

I've written this piece in my capacity as Director of Research and Communications for the Sutton Trust for the first edition of Teaching Leaders Quarterly:
Times are tough in schools, as across the public sector. But there is one element of the school budget that is growing, and is set to grow further. The pupil premium, worth £600 this year, is set to rise to £900 next year and could reach £1200 per pupil by 2015, the year of the next election. The average school receives £53,000 this year, and more than 2800 receive more than £100,000. The challenge for school leaders is in how to use that money where it will have most impact.
The premium was created by the Government to narrow the attainment gap between pupils in receipt of free school meals and their schoolmates, and to encourage successful schools to take more disadvantaged pupils. Although previous governments have provided extra resources for such pupils through extra funding to local authorities with high levels of poverty, this is the first grant that is paid to schools for each disadvantaged pupil, regardless of where the school is located.
There is certainly a real issue. England has one of the most divided education systems in the developed world.  Recent research has shown that our schools are among the most segregated in the OECD. According to Department for Education statistics, only 35 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals achieved five good GCSEs, including English and Maths, in 2011 compared to 62 per cent of all other pupils. At the end of primary school, 58 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals achieved the expected level in both English and mathematics in 2011, compared with 78 per cent of all other pupils. The premium is intended to narrow those gaps, which despite some small improvements, have remained stubbornly large over recent years.
Moreover, England is relatively unusual in having a gap that widens after the start of secondary school. The Government has not ring-fenced the pupil premium money, although schools are now expected to publish details of their pupil premium spending on their websites. The attainment of pupils in receipt of the premium will also be included in the league tables.
Nevertheless, with many budgets frozen, it can be tempting for school leaders to try to focus spending on simply maintaining or expanding staff numbers. And it is here that school leaders, including middle leaders heading teaching departments, have a particularly important role.

The National Foundation for Education Research, in a
survey of 1700 teachers in 1200 English schools for the Sutton Trust earlier this year, showed that little of the pupil premium allocation for 2012-13 – a sum worth £1.25 billion in total – was likely to be spent on activities proven to be the best bets for boosting attainment.
Eight per cent of teachers said the money would offset other budget cuts. 28 per cent said it would either be used to employ new staff or cut class sizes. A further 28 per cent didn’t know how the money would be used.
A more recent survey of 260 school leaders for Ofsted found that only one in ten school leaders said that the pupil premium had significantly changed the way that they supported pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds. School leaders commonly told inspectors that they were using the funding to maintain or enhance existing provision rather than to put in place new initiatives. The most common use was to pay for teaching assistants.
Yet the evidence shows that simply employing more teachers or assistants, and deploying them as they have been deployed in the past, is a costly but relatively ineffective way of boosting attainment. Researchers at Durham University assessed 21 different interventions for both impact on attainment and relative cost and helped the Sutton Trust to create a toolkit which a growing number of schools are using to set priorities for the premium. The toolkit will be updated and expanded by our sister organisation, the Education Endowment Foundation, in 2013.
The Sutton Trust/EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit shows that there are three strategies that schools can undertake with a high impact at relatively low cost. Using evidence from here and abroad, they calculate that each of these strategies can provide the equivalent of between six and nine months extra learning, at a cost of around £170 per pupil.
The single most cost-effective strategy identified is improving feedback from teachers to pupils. Providing effective feedback is challenging, but it is important that it is provided well. Research suggests that it should be specific, accurate and clear – in other words, provide an explanation as well as a judgement. It should compare what the student is doing now with what they were previously doing. It should encourage and support further effort, but it should also be given sparingly so that it is meaningful as too much feedback can stop learners working out what they need to do for themselves. Importantly, It should provide specific guidance on how pupils can improve.

Ensuring that feedback is consistently and effectively provided is not a cost-free exercise, but with regular professional development, it is estimated that it would cost £2000-£5000 a year per teacher, or as little as £170 per pupil.
The second most effective approach is what the academics call ‘meta-cognition’, or programmes that teach pupils strategies to plan, monitor and evaluate their own learning. This is often referred to in schools as ‘learning to learn’. These strategies involve students being aware of their strengths and weaknesses as a learner, being able to set and monitor goals and having strategies to choose from or switch to during learning activities.

The Toolkit recognises that this is not always easy. A teacher can support pupils’ work too much, so that they do not learn to manage their own learning but rely too much on their teacher’s prompts. The Toolkit suggests that a useful metaphor is scaffolding: you remove the support and dismantle the scaffolding to check that learners are managing their own learning well.

The third approach that is seen as having high impact at low cost is peer tutoring in Maths and English. This can take a number of different forms. In cross-age tutoring, an older pupil tutors a younger schoolmate. The EEF is piloting a project based at Durham University involving ten year-olds acting as tutors in maths for eight year-olds.
Peer-Assisted Learning is a structured approach for mathematics and reading with session of 25-35 minutes two or three times a week. Reciprocal Peer Tutoring sees pupils tutor and be taught by their classmates. The common characteristic is that learners take on responsibility for aspects of teaching and for evaluating their success.
These proven approaches are worth considering by schools as a way of making the pupil premium go far. By contrast, the evidence suggests that, as they are currently deployed, employing extra teaching assistants produces little impact, despite the relatively high cost, and that reducing class sizes could produce learning gains equivalent to three months, but at a much higher cost of £1000-£1200 per pupil on average.

Behind all these approaches is the recognition that at the heart of school improvement lies good teaching – how teachers do their job in the classroom, and how they enable pupils to learn effectively. Strategies focused on improving teaching feature much more highly in the Toolkit than structural changes like block scheduling or ability grouping. Nobody would argue that this is a novel insight. But it now has the benefit of being backed up by all the best international evidence.
Research for the Sutton Trust by leading UK and US academics has shown that English schools could move into the world’s top five education performers within a decade if the performance of the least effective tenth of teachers were brought up just to the average.
For middle leaders that is as much an in-school challenge as one between schools. Variations in teaching quality within schools are often greater than those between schools. So, a strong focus across all teachers on proven teaching and learning strategies could pay real dividends in how much pupils learn and on their results.
Traditionally in Britain there has been too little connection between research and the classroom. Too much research has felt remote from classroom life, and too many teachers have been unaware of the latest research where it could improve their teaching. The Sutton Trust/EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit makes research accessible as never before, and provides leaders with the tools to make the most of limited resources.
When the NFER asked teachers how their school decided which approaches and programmes to adopt to improve pupils’ learning, only 36 per cent of teachers said their school looked at research evidence on the impact of different approaches and programmes.
The Toolkit is recognised by the National Association of Head Teachers, the Department for Education and Ofsted as a good resource for schools in deciding how to spend the pupil premium. Employing its insights could ensure that the premium pays real dividends in the classroom – and for your less advantaged pupils.

Friday 9 November 2012

Valuing the vocational

I've written this post for the Sutton Trust blog

This week, the Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee called for apprenticeships to be seen as equal to study at university.

As the Committee noted in a hard-hitting report, the problem under successive governments has been a focus on the quantity of qualifications rather than their quality. Many of the old Train to Gain qualifications were effortlessly rebranded as apprenticeships. This has fed an attitude in England that sees the vocational as inferior.

In their report, the MPs argue: “There remains an underlying assumption that vocational training is only for those unable to take an academic route. This is wrong and must be changed.”

They make a host of practical suggestions, including giving the academic and the vocational route equal prominence in careers advice, as well as useful reforms to the apprenticeship system.

But the problem is surely rather more fundamental in Britain. Vocational education is too often seen not only as something for those with few GCSEs, but also treated in a narrow sense that owes more to the world of 50 years ago than Britain today.

Yet a true vocational system should be about preparing people not only for crafts and trades, but for careers in business and the professions. Martin Doel, the chief executive of the Association of Colleges, argued in an Institute for Public Policy Research pamphlet last year that we should create a master craftsmen role – akin to the German meister – in the UK apprenticeship programme, something that would certainly help to change perceptions.

Indeed, in Germany, apprenticeships are not simply seen as being as good as a university education; in many careers they are seen as superior.

There are two important aspects to the German system that set it apart. The first is that it has a long tradition of very high standards policed by business and the professions in a way that the Sector Skills Councils have never really been able to emulate here.

The second - more troubling aspect for some - is that they depend very heavily on a system of licensing that appears anathema in our more open economy. As Bagehot in the Economist has put it: “The bedrock of Germany's apprenticeship system is corporatism and restricted practice.”

In his speech to the Sutton Trust social mobility summit last May, the opposition leader Ed Miliband first introduced his ideas of the ‘forgotten 50%’ – those young people who don’t go to university, but for whom learning a trade or a craft used to be a strong vehicle for social mobility. He said:

“I also want to challenge some of the assumptions about social mobility. A few months ago I met a group of apprentices working at Jaguar Land Rover. They told me how lucky they felt to be working on racing car prototypes. They had found a path into a really exciting job. One where they would be trained, stretched and expected to make use of their talent.

“They were at the beginning of a career.  One which will lead to better wages, better prospects and a better life than perhaps their parents had. But they told me they felt they were the lucky few…In Germany, middle-class parents boast about their kids doing great apprenticeships. But in Britain, too often people think that if they don’t go to university, they are written off by society.”

Ed Miliband was right to say that social mobility must be about more than a good university education for those who should be able to benefit from it. It should also be about ambitious apprenticeships, top-class technical education and pre-eminent professional training.

That is why the Sutton Trust will be working with the Boston Consulting Group in the months ahead to investigate whether there are lessons we can learn from abroad that have an application here.

Of course, we will look at Germany. But, while the strengths in quality of German vocational education may well outweigh its corporatism, we accept that many aspects of a German system with a tradition that stretches back to Bismarck may not be so easy to import.

So we will also look at Singapore, a country with a similar exam system to Britain that has revamped its poorly regarded vocational system since 1992 through the creation of the Institute for Technical Education (ITE). According to the OECD, the ITE has transformed the content, quality and image of vocational education. Enrolment has doubled and ITE students now constitute about 25% of the post-secondary cohort. Pay levels and job prospects for ITE graduates are also strong.

We’ll keep you posted on what we learn.