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.