Friday 12 December 2014

Why the number of failing schools can be a good thing

I've written a column for The Times on the primary school test results.

Yesterday’s league tables brought mixed news for England’s primary schools. Overall, standards are rising, particularly in literacy, with more children than ever achieving good results in the 3Rs. But nearly 800 schools — one in 20 — failed to achieve the target of 65 per cent of 11-year-old pupils reaching the expected standard in reading, writing and mathematics.

The better results are evidence that Michael Gove was right to set higher expectations for primary schools — last year the threshold was just 60 per cent.

It is also heartening that the gap in attainment between rich and poor pupils has narrowed further this year, reflecting a strong focus on disadvantaged pupils and increasing use of evidence of what works from bodies such as the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).

But there is still a big challenge. And it is only as a result of successive governments being prepared to open what was once a secret garden in education that we know its true extent. Kenneth Baker’s 1980s reforms and David Blunkett’s tougher targets in the 1990s helped to make possible the challenges set by the coalition. Don’t forget that fewer than half of pupils reached the expected literacy standard in 1996.

Read the full piece here

Thursday 20 November 2014

University funding challenge

In my latest Sutton Trust blog, I look at the funding options facing higher education as debts mount for students and the government.

Hearing the BBC radio news on Tuesday, it felt a bit like a delayed echo from the spring. The headlines were all about the three quarters of students who wouldn’t pay back their loans in full, and the fact that those earning the salary of a good teacher would be paying loans off into their early fifties.

These findings, which came from April’s Sutton Trust/IFS Payback Time? report, were an important part of the evidence base for the latest inquiry from the Higher Education Commission, chaired by the impressive Ruth Thompson, former Director General of higher education in the old Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

In April, the IFS also joined others in highlighting how little of the extra revenue raised by the increase in fees from just over £3000 to a new £9000 maximum was likely to be recouped from the Government because so many students would not repay their loans in full. Just over 56p in every pound loaned would be paid back.

What has changed since then is that the new tougher mortgage rules introduced by the Financial Conduct Authority mean that banks are no longer allowed to ignore student loan repayments when assessing mortgage suitability. As the FCA confirmed in June, this is now regarded as ‘committed expenditure’, reducing what graduates can borrow. Our IFS report showed a typical successful teacher paying back around £2000 a year after tax through their forties.

Aside from the increased loans to cover the higher fees, there were two other significant reasons for the low levels of repayment: the increase in the repayment threshold for the new loans – £21k rather than £15k – which means slower payments after graduation; and a real rate of interest of up to inflation + 3%, which increases the total amount borrowed even more. For our report, the IFS calculated that the average student will graduate with £44,000 worth of debt, but an average of £30,000 would be written off at age 51 or 52 for the 73% of students who had not by that stage repaid their loans in full.

The cross-party commission didn’t pull its punches. “The current funding system represents the worst of both worlds,” is how the study puts it. “The government is funding higher education by writing off student debt, as opposed to directly investing in teaching grants study….Students feel like they are paying substantially more for their higher education, but are set to have a large proportion of their debt written off by the government.”

But it is easier to diagnose the problem than to find a solution. And although ministers gamely defend the new system (even if they may believe the threshold was raised higher than was prudent) others believe change is inevitable, including the Select Committee recently. In this spirit, the Commission suggests several options:
  • Cutting tuition fees to a £6,000 maximum. This would reduce student debt, but it would leave an estimated £1.72bn funding gap for universities. This is the option that Ed Miliband was reported to favour, but which is apparently not backed by his shadow chancellor because of the cost.
  • A graduate tax which would see all graduates paying back a proportion of their income rather than what they borrowed. The Commission estimates this would require government to borrow £4bn to fill the gap between ending fees and the arrival of tax revenues. They also point out that it would reduce the link between a graduate and their studies. Some argue that the present system is a form of graduate tax.
  • An option favoured by some elite universities of removing the £9,000 upper limit on fees might allow more money for universities and more competition, but higher fees would mean even higher levels of public subsidy for loans (unless the universities took the risk for those loans, as some have suggested)
  • Different charges for different universities or courses could also reduce the number graduates from expensive courses with high fees even if they were essential for the economy.
  • They also looked at reducing the threshold or interest rate, while maintaining the status quo, and at a lifelong learning pot (akin to Singapore).

There is one other option that the Commission didn’t include, but which should be considered in this debate. This would involve reducing the maximum to £6000 for all students entitled to a full maintenance grant – around four in ten students – rather than the whole student population. Doing this would still require a government to plug a funding gap, but it would be rather smaller than cutting fees for all, and would also cut the level of loan default. Freezing the threshold for repayments might also help pay for it.

The argument for this change is that, despite improvements, there is still a significant access gap ranging from 2.5 fold between those from the richest and poorest neighbourhoods for all those entering higher education to nearly ten-fold for access to the best universities. Reducing the levels of debt for less advantaged students should be a priority of any review.

Those who argue against means-tested fees say that repayments are based on graduate earnings, so it is unfair to base them on parental income. Yet from 1998 to 2006, this is what happened. More to the point, it is what currently happens with maintenance grants and loans, where the idea that all young people are financially independent at 18 is not accepted. Moreover, our polling shows 2-1 backing among the public for the idea. As we think about the changes that might help rebalance our fees and loans system ahead of next May’s election, a measure which could also improve access should be on the table too.

Thursday 9 October 2014

Advancing apprenticeships

In my latest Sutton Trust post, I consider how to translate cross-party backing for apprenticeships into a serious offer for young people after the next election

This year’s party conferences were all about setting the scene for next May’s general election. But aside from the tax cuts, coalition in-fighting or forgotten deficits, there was a surprising degree of consensus on the importance of one issue that could be crucial to social mobility: apprenticeships.

Ed Miliband pledged that as many young people would start on good quality apprenticeships as go to university by 2025. The Prime Minister made the commitment to three million more apprenticeship starts in the next parliament.  Business Secretary Vince Cable promised to lift apprentice pay. This was an issue that was talked about at Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow.

Having placed apprenticeships as one of the ten core social mobility policies in our Mobility Manifesto, and, in partnership with Pearson, organised platforms to debate the issue at all three conferences, this was to be welcomed. Yet beneath the big numbers, the issue remains about what the pledges mean in practice.

For years, politicians have played a numbers game on apprenticeships. A good apprenticeship should offer a paid job (often at lower than average rates) with a strong combination of on-the-job and college-based training, preferably through day release, leading to a good qualification. They typically last two to three years.

But in the early years of the coalition the majority of new ‘apprenticeships’ were only at level 2 (GCSE standard) and many lasted a matter of months. Many of the new apprenticeships, especially those at higher levels, were also for older rather than younger people. These qualifications will often not have represented genuine training to enter employment, but certification of existing skills for those already working (essentially a rebranding of Labour’s Train to Gain offer).

That has started to change. No longer will shelf-stacking at Morrison’s be treated as being as much an apprenticeship as an elite course at British Aerospace or Rolls Royce. Apprenticeships cannot be a matter of months; they must last at least a year. The training element has been strengthened too.

But we are still a long way from where we need to be. The danger is that if politicians engage in a quick fix numbers game, quantity will once again trump quality. In that sense, a commitment to an extra 300,000 good quality apprenticeships each year at level 3 (A-level standard) or above in a decade’s time may be of more value than three million places over the next five years, if the vast majority are at level 2 and too few are for young people. The parties need to provide detail.

That’s why the analysis prepared by the Boston Consulting Group for the Sutton Trust last year, and the recommendations that emerged from our joint summit with Pearson in July are so important. They offer a route map of where we need to be if we are serious about making apprenticeships a world class brand rather than a catch-all title for courses at all levels.

Vince Cable told our fringe meeting in Glasgow that it was absolutely right to focus on advanced and higher apprenticeships for young people in any expansion. Matthew Hancock, the former skills secretary, told our July summit that he was expanding them significantly. Ed Miliband told the same summit that he wanted new technical degrees that would offer a more advanced apprenticeship route. He made the expansion of good quality apprenticeships – along the lines recommended in the Sutton Trust/BCG report – one of his six key policy commitments.

But it is going to be a real challenge moving from rhetoric to reality. For a start, a key part of the best systems would involve a fundamental change in the mindset of government and employers. We need to have progression within a three year apprenticeship, where level 3 or above is the goal, rather than getting young people to complete a separate level 2 apprenticeship before joining one that will lead to level three. That changes ambition, and recognises that different young people may need to start in a different place.

Then, we need a cultural change. To some extent, it is already happening. Middle class newspapers openly promote apprenticeships in a way that they previously reserved for higher education. Politicians see them as a vote-winner. But we still are some way from parents of all backgrounds treating a good apprenticeship as being as valid an option for advancement as many university courses. With fewer than one in five employers offering apprenticeships, we are also a long way from the German system where one in two does so.

And we need to look at incentives: enhanced destination data to encourage schools to promote apprenticeships and more financial support to increase employer engagement, backed by greater simplicity in the range of qualifications and the right intermediary bodies. We may not be able to replicate the German system, but we should try to emulate their ambition. There is now a degree of welcome political consensus that apprenticeships will play a big role in the options offered to young people after the next election. We need to translate that cross-party ambition into an apprenticeship system that matches the best in the world.

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Change at the chalkface

I've written this feature on the Gove legacy for the October edition of Public Finance.

David Cameron's replacement of Michael Gove with Nicky Morgan as education secretary caused consternation among reformers whilst exciting enthusiasm in many staffrooms. Reformers fear his changes will be watered down by his successor; many teachers hope the relentless pressure of change will ease.

But Gove’s legacy may lie less in academies and free schools than in the changes to the curriculum, teaching and accountability. And a focus on classroom teaching by Morgan, with her more conciliatory tone to teachers, could reap real dividends.

Academies are funded directly by the government rather than local authorities, and have had greater freedoms over the curriculum, teachers’ pay and admissions, subject to regulation and funding agreements. By May 2010, the growing programme was targeted on underachieving secondary schools, with 203 such ‘sponsored academies’ already open and 60 more due that autumn.

Gove allowed successful schools to become academies and brought primaries into the programme. Many signed up for extra cash – typically £250,000 per secondary school – as they gained control of their local authority budgets. At a time of austerity, it was a no-brainer. In return, these ‘converter academies’ would work with weaker schools. Most say they do, though the extent to which they do so varies, and academy take-up has been much slower in primary schools.

Meanwhile, Gove also introduced ‘free schools’, essentially new academies set up in response to parental demand or innovative ideas from teachers, educational and faith-based charities. The government barred local authorities from establishing any traditional community schools.

Since 2010, the number of academies has grown rapidly. There are now over 4,000 academies, including nearly two-thirds of secondary and about one in eight primary schools, as well as dozens of technical academies – 30 university technical colleges and 37 studio schools with practical curriculums and close industry links for 14- to 19-year-olds.

Sponsored academies – of which there are now 1,100 – were intended to improve standards, particularly for the poorest students, which is why Gove required many failing primaries to change status, sometimes in the teeth of strong local opposition. Downhills primary school in Tottenham, north London – now the Harris Primary Academy Philip Lane – was a particular flashpoint and the scene of strong protests. The proportion of its pupils getting the expected level 4 in reading, writing and maths rose from 69% to 77% this summer – twice the national average improvement.

And, sponsored academies generally have improved faster than other schools, albeit from a lower base. Many belong to chains – groups led by an educational charity, a university or a successful school. Sutton Trust analysis in July found that disadvantaged pupils in nine of 31 chains studied had better results than the average for all schools, while improvements in 18 chains were faster than average. Some well-known chains, like Harris and Ark, each with 27 academies, do particularly well. But the study confirmed Department for Education concerns that other chains that had grown very rapidly since 2010 were underperforming.

The DfE capped 14 academy chains in March, including the 77-school Academies Enterprise Trust. They must focus on improving their existing schools before being allowed further expansion. Ministers also forced another academy chain, E-Act, to transfer 10 of its 34 schools to other sponsors. Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw has inspected weaker academies in co-ordinated swoops across chains, including AET, where half the 12 academies inspected were deemed inadequate. He has yet to be given the power by ministers to inspect chains as separate entities.

This mixed picture also extends to the 250 free schools now open, though few have been open long enough for a full judgment. Seventy-nine free schools opened this term and 76 more have been approved, but the programme still feels incoherent. It may be the default mechanism for new schools with rising demand for new places, but relatively few free schools result from parental action.

Instead, there is an eclectic mix of genuine teacher innovation and rebranding of existing options, including faith schools, former independent schools or new academies established by chains.
One celebrated success has been the London Academy of Excellence, a free school for sixth formers in Stratford, east London, supported by Eton and the independent Brighton College, which sent four of its 160 students to Oxbridge and 68 to Russell Group universities this year. However, the local college says it does well too: of the 75 students it admitted with the 5A* or A grades at GCSE required by LAE, 60 went to Russell Group universities and two to Oxbridge.

Other free schools have faced real difficulties. The Montessori Discovery free school in Crawley, Sussex, had to close in January after a damning Ofsted report. Anal ysis by independent factchecking organisation Full Fact of Ofsted data suggests a similar proportion of free schools were rated outstanding as other schools, but a higher proportion rated inadequate or failing, based on 40 free school inspections.

For all the arguments about academies and free schools, their impact may be more prosaic than their supporters or critics allow. Good chains have an effective model absent in weaker chains. But their success still reflects quality of leadership and teaching, and their consistent application, which may not simply be an academy effect when many schools are forming collective trusts and federations.

This is why other reforms may matter more. There is growing interest in using research evidence to inform school improvement. Since 2011, the Education Endowment Foundation, a sister charity of the Sutton Trust established with £135m of government money to help improve results for disadvantaged pupils, has used 75 randomised trials to test approaches to school improvement. Nearly half of school leaders now consult its research evidence.

Tougher accountability is making its mark too. Ofsted has put many coasting schools into special measures and placed more emphasis on good teaching, downgrading some previously top-rated schools. Gove toughened Labour’s floor targets, requiring weaker schools to achieve ever-rising minimum standards. Failure often prompts a requirement to become an academy.

However, the biggest upheaval has been to the curriculum and exams. This term, primary pupils face tougher spelling, grammar, punctuation and mental arithmetic lessons, in addition to phonics checks introduced in 2012, while secondary schools are introducing computer science, harder maths and more historical chronology. GCSE coursework, modularity and resits have been dropped, leading to a dip in English performance this year. Many vocational qualifications have been devalued or removed from the league tables.

From 2016, secondary schools will be judged on their best eight GCSE subjects, using average points, rather than the five best graded C or above as now. This builds on the English Baccalaureate, a league table measure of English, maths, science, languages and humanities results. The combined impact is intended to make exams harder and ensure that schools don’t game the league tables to conceal underlying weaknesses. However, they also make it much harder to make a fair judgment on the success of Gove’s reforms, and could force down results at once struggling schools and academies that were starting to improve.

Yet behind the flurry of change, there remains an underlying truth. The two things that make the most difference to a school’s success, particularly for poorer pupils, are the quality of its teaching and the calibre of its leaders.

Gove has introduced teaching schools, with a remit to improve teaching quality among groups of local schools, and expanded school-based teacher training. But for all the emphasis on new teachers – 35,000 are recruited each year, and their quality has been improving alongside that of school leaders – there is far too little done to improve the skills of the 450,000 serving teachers in England’s classrooms. In fact, there is much more variation in the quality of teaching within schools than there is between schools.

Improved professional development and teacher appraisal may not set reformers’ pulses racing, but they could make most difference at the chalkface. Sutton Trust research has shown that raising the quality of the weakest tenth of teachers to the average would lift England from a middling position in the OECD international league tables to the top five, and the trust is now working with the Gates Foundation to capture international best practice. That could deliver the revolution in standards that politicians want to see – in academies and community schools alike.

Thursday 11 September 2014

Mobility in the manifestos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday 16 July 2014

Delivery depends on detail for new ministers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday 29 May 2014

Cultural capital in the core curriculum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday 9 May 2014

A voice still to be heard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Given the fate of the GTC in England, which was finally abolished unloved in 2012, these are troubling numbers. Not only is there a lack of awareness and enthusiasm for the idea among teachers, there is an unwillingness to pay a modest price for membership among the majority of supporters.

The GTC foundered initially on a bitter dispute about the cost of affiliation – which, to be fair, was compulsory – and this led in the end to the Government paying all but a fraction of the annual affiliation fee.  As Estelle Morris, the schools minister who delivered the GTC that was a longstanding demand of many in the teaching profession, including the unions, has put it in the Guardian:

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

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

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

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

A Royal College can also sort out another concern for ministers: how to deal with really bad teaching. We would not tolerate an incompetent surgeon, but a bad teacher can have a devastating effect on a child’s life. If teaching is to be seen as equally professional as medicine, it must have equally exacting standards. A professional organisation, determined to maintain the proud reputation of excellent teaching, would have the credibility, sensitivity and authority to challenge and raise low standards.

Yet, for any Government to be ready to trust the new college, it will need not only to avoid being a union talking shop; it must positively become the true voice of the profession.

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 6 May 2014

Grammar schools must give poorer children a fair chance

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

Thursday 10 April 2014

Payback time for graduates and government

 In my latest Sutton Trust blog, I explain why I think the Government needs to think again on tuition fees, student debt and teaching grants.

When the coalition trebled university tuition fees to a maximum of £9,000 a year, it said it was making hard choices. Students would have to repay higher fees as graduates because the Government could no longer afford to subsidise their teaching grant, the argument went.

To some extent, I bought that argument at the time because the evidence of previous fee rises had been that they didn’t deter disadvantaged students, though I argued then that universities should cover loans above £6,000 and that there should be a better balance between teaching grants and fees than the Government planned. I also noted the problems in raising the repayment threshold.

But even I didn’t foresee quite how the new system would work in practice. Last month, the Government admitted that 45 per cent of debts under the new system are unlikely to be repaid, close to the level where the Exchequer would find itself worse off than before the fees increase.

Now, our new research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies reveals the true impact of the new loan system on middle income graduates like teachers,  as they continue paying off their student loans into their fifties. It highlights the ripple effect of the changes to the loan system and some unintended consequences.

Under the old system, a typical teacher would  have paid off their loans before their 40th birthday. Under the new system, they will still be making payments of over £2,000 a year throughout their forties and into their early fifties - the equivalent of an extra sixpence on their income tax. This is at a time when most will have children at school, and family and mortgage costs are at their most pressing.

As the lowest earners will repay less and high earners will be able to pay back their debts more quickly, avoiding many of the high interest charges introduced in the new system, it is those on middle incomes who will be most affected.

With this double debt trap of longer repayments for middle earning graduates and a potential loss for taxpayers, ministers should look again at the student loan system.

Students who graduate from 2015 will not have to start repaying their student loans until they are earning £21,000 a year (more than £5,000 higher than before). Payments are at nine per cent of income above that threshold. This means that while graduates in their twenties will tend to make slightly lower repayments, three quarters of graduates will continue paying back until their early fifties. At this point, most graduates will still owe tens of thousands of pounds, which the government will have to write off.

Typical graduates now have to repay £67,000 in cash terms (£35,000 in 2014 equivalent prices), twice what they paid under the old system. Since the loans now attract real interest rates from  before the student even graduates, nearly half will pay back more in real terms than they borrowed.

When the Government trebled fees, the Sutton Trust argued for a better balance: lower fees with a smaller cut to the university teaching grant. However, the increased repayment threshold and a strengthened access regulator were enough to win over most coalition backbenchers.

The argument is not about whether loans and fees should exist – I have always argued in favour of both since the mid-1990s - but what proportion of university funding should be paid by graduates rather than general taxation, and how much graduates should pay. I am now convinced that argument needs to be revisited in the light of the new data on defaults and repayment levels.

When the fees were introduced, we were told few universities would levy the maximum fee, and many would charge £6,000. In reality, most courses cost the maximum, another reason for the predicted default levels.

The Government already provides larger maintenance grants to lower income students. Indeed, when I worked with David Blunkett to introduce tuition fees of £1,000 a year in 1998, we means tested them then. Ministers should consider doing so again. Given that most graduates are having large amounts of debt written off, this could be done at relatively little cost to the Exchequer. That would allow lower fees for those in receipt of full maintenance grants, who come from low income households.

There is an important social mobility point here. It is true that the new system is ‘progressive’ in the sense that those graduates whose average income is just £24,000 or less gain significantly from the new system, and those below £28,000 gain marginally in real terms. But few jobs that require a degree pay so little across a lifetime. The argument made for an investment in higher education has been about earning more than non-graduates.

So it seems unfair to penalise most those strivers who have had to work hardest to improve their lot. With means-tested fees, they would be the real gainers.

It would also provide more impetus to deal with another issue that has seen little improvement in recent years. Although more disadvantaged young people are entering higher education, numbers from low and middle income backgrounds going our best universities have yet to see significant improvement.  Students from the most advantaged fifth of neighbourhoods are still seven times more likely to go to a Russell Group university than those from the poorest fifth.

Universities today use much of the money they are required to spend on access and outreach funding bursaries and fee subsidies to attract those students. Means-tested fees would allow them to focus those resources specific programmes to attract more of the thousands of young people who get the grades but don’t apply to the best universities.

As the experience of the Sutton Trust summer schools has shown, such interventions could make a real difference to those disparities in access.

The Government may have got its sums wrong on student debt, but it now has an opportunity to make the right calculations to improve social mobility.

I also had a column in The Times on the report and appeared on BBC TV News.

Thursday 27 February 2014

Banding and Ballots

In my latest Sutton Trust blog, I revisit the case for banding and ballots in school admissions.

On Monday, hundreds of thousands of parents will learn which school their eleven year-old children will attend this September. For many, it will be their nearest school, and that will have been their first preference too. But for a significant minority, particularly in urban areas including London, the admissions system will have been fraught with anxieties and complexity.

Today’s London School of Economics report for the Trust, Banding and Ballots, provides the most detailed examination to date of the admissions policies of England’s 3000 secondary schools and academies since the move to greater independence by a majority of English secondaries. Examining admissions policies for 2012/13, it reveals a small but growing enthusiasm, notably among sponsored academies, for approaches designed to achieve a more comprehensive school intake.

If the weekend press is to be believed, this development has provoked a mixture of fear and fury among the middle classes, and perhaps too among estate agents who are happy to jack up the prices of homes in the catchment areas of popular schools. Yet those middle class parents who don’t live in what are often narrow catchments for good schools may not feel so aggrieved, and those from less advantaged homes who can’t afford to do so could benefit significantly. 

The researchers show that the main admissions criteria continue to reflect how near pupils live to the school (distance) or whether they already have brothers and sisters attending (sibling). However, the number of schools using banding – where pupils are tested and placed in different ability bands intended to provide a comprehensive intake – increased from 95 in 2008 to 121 in 2012/13. A further 42 schools were using random allocation in 2012/13.

This growth in the use of banding and ballots seems largely to have been driven by sponsored academies and free schools, which can set their own admissions policies. 17% of sponsored academies used one or both criteria, compared with 5% of all comprehensives.  

Today’s research follows reports by the Trust last year which showed that the proportion of pupils on free school meals in the 500 comprehensives with the best GCSE results was only half the national average. Other Trust research in December showed that a third of professional parents had moved house to be near a good school.

There are two reasons why popular urban schools adopt these approaches, both of which have been explicitly allowed in the statutory admissions code since 2008, though the 2012 Code has tried to limit area-wide ballots. The first is to ensure that successful schools are not simply open to those wealthy enough to live in a catchment area entirely based on distance from the school. The second is used to ensure a good social mix in schools that have traditionally only drawn students from less advantaged circumstances.

But in doing so, they run up against the argument that such policies are unfair because a child living opposite the school might lose out. That’s why many of those using banding or ballots address such concerns by using an inner and outer catchment area, with those living closest to the school in the inner area, but access opened to a wider group of parents in the outer catchment. This is an approach taken by some schools and academies like Mossbourne Community Academy, in Hackney, which has 30% of its pupils on free school meals.

Of course, as the researchers point out, no system is perfect; there is no panacea. Purists would argue that area-wide random allocation would achieve the fairest mix, though that is ruled out in the code as a principal criterion and would be controversial. But a realistic approach recognises that systems which balance issues such as proximity to the school with more open and fairer admissions are more likely to win local support.

That said there are some clear principles that we recommend, building on the interviews that the researchers conducted for the report. The first is that a cooperative approach to admissions – as in Hackney, for example – can work well. In that borough, ten schools including academies and free schools, use banding. But there is a case for children having access to a single banding test, so they don’t have repeat tests. The absence of testing makes random allocation more attractive, though both produce similar results.

However, the effectiveness of any system will depend on who applies to it. So whatever system is used, it is important that there is outreach to less advantaged families, and that parents are aware not just of the school choices available, but also of their rights to free transport (clauses 95 and 96) to a choice of three schools within six miles of their home (or up to 15 miles for faith schools) if their child is eligible for free school meals.

Fair admissions are never easy, and no system is going to be perfect. But so long as some schools are more successful than others, it is important that opportunities to attend them are not limited to those with the deepest pockets. Today’s figures suggest that a small but growing number of schools and academies are trying to avoid do just that.

Wednesday 5 February 2014

Coding + creativity = careers?

In my latest Sutton Trust blog post, I consider whether the new computing curriculum can help low and middle income students become tomorrow’s tech entrepreneurs.

It took some time for this government to embrace the importance of technology in education. Now that it has done so, it is making important changes to the curriculum, notably through the replacement of an ICT curriculum focused on office skills with a computing curriculum that teaches coding.

From 5, children will learn to code and programme, with algorithms, sequencing, selection and repetition; from 11, how to use at least 2 programming languages to solve computational problems; to design, use and evaluate computational abstractions that model the state and behaviour of real-world problems and physical systems; and how instructions are stored and executed within a computer system. The Design and Technology curriculum is also being modernised with the help of innovators like Sir James Dyson. At the same time new Tech level qualifications have been introduced to strengthen the quality of vocational qualifications available.

But is this enough to ensure that we are developing a generation of young people who can turn the computer literacy they acquire from the first touch of an iPad within months of leaving the pram into the opportunities that could provide them with a satisfying career? Already there are 1.3 million jobs in ICT, and many more that rely on it. In future, there will be many more as we increasingly use technology for our everyday tasks.

That was the theme of a fascinating Sutton Trust policy lunch which we held this week under Chatham House rules, where we brought some of the country’s leading experts on IT and education together with tech entrepreneurs and business people.

And if there was one area of consensus it was that the potential stifling of creativity in the curriculum is in danger of leaving us behind in a technology battle where European countries like Estonia and Ireland are racing ahead, not to mention places in East Asia, like Singapore, which are rapidly rebalancing their curriculum to marry knowledge with creativity and skills.

I have always felt that the creativity v knowledge battle in education was something of a phoney war. Being able to Google information requires some knowledge of context if you are not to make a fool of yourself. Equally, research skills and study skills are pretty much essential if you are going to acquire and use that knowledge.

But some of our lunch guests brought fresh eyes to this debate. One had seen how an unemployed young man with a love of rap music had been persuaded through his music to start creating apps and now trains others in the business power of digital technology. He had barely passed any GCSEs.

Another related how big IT firms like IBM are now as likely to recruit apprentices as university graduates, because they can train people more effectively on the job. Meanwhile, entrepreneurial head teachers who try to bring imaginative ideas like Biztown – where youth enterprise skills are brought to life – are told creating such an environment here would waste money.

And yet the PISA tests, on which the Government places so much weight, are as much a test of practical application as knowledge. Indeed, the next round of PISA will test collaborative problem solving. So, why aren’t we assessing this in our schools too?

Equally, there are real opportunities to improve professional development of teachers – still a major challenge as the quality of new teachers has been improved – through technology, just as there must be ways that peer-to-peer tutoring, a top scorer in the Sutton Trust/EEF toolkit, could expand into this area. This isn’t pupil-centred learning, but given the greater familiarity so many young people have with technology, it could be pupil-led.

So, embracing technology with more rigour is only part of the story. Technology in the classroom was a bit of a slow burner, as early investment in the 1990s was in PCs, which are now rapidly being replaced by tablets. As one guest noted, this means that in the future old fashioned skills of dictation may be back in vogue as typing and keyboard skills become as obsolete as the fax machine.

So, there was plenty of food for thought, and some challenges to our thinking on education, not least in a week when too much of the education discourse felt a little passé. But for us, there were also important questions too.

Technology could be a great leveller, in that those with good tech skills are greatly in demand. But is there an easy link between those with the skills and those who need the skills? Many companies are still recruiting overseas because they find it hard to do so in Britain. Technology is breeding many new start-ups, not least in places like Tech City, but how do we link those with good ideas, but without the connections or the capital, with those investors who can help them realise their promise?

If we can answer those questions satisfactorily, perhaps technology could be an important lever for the social mobility of the future.