Thursday 12 November 2015

Getting the student architecture right

I've looked at the possible impact of merging the Office for Fair Access into a new catch-all higher education regulator on my latest Sutton Trust blog.
Green and white papers are published for a variety of reasons, aside from the need to ‘consult’ prior to legislation. A new minister wants to make his or her mark. The government needs to save money. A department wants to show it is doing something, usually a new organisation with a new acronym. Whatever the reason, they are rarely all they seem, and the outcomes don’t always match their ambitious good intentions.
So how does the latest universities green paper, Higher education: teaching excellence, social mobility and student choice, match up? Among its new ideas is a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), a way of holding universities to account on an aspect of their delivery that is decidedly patchy, and a new Office for Students (OfS) which will be a ‘single, light touch regulatory system’ that will ‘empower students, drive quality, eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy and save taxpayer money’.
The detail may still be dependent on MPs’ approval, though the acronyms are already in place. But can the Office for Students (OfS) really do all of these things successfully, and what will it do as a single entity for social mobility that maintaining the successfulOffice for Fair Access, and expanding its remit a little, would not achieve? The new Office will not only see OFFA absorbed under its wing, it will also run the new teaching framework, absorbHEFCE’s regulatory role and provide quality assurance.
Sensibly, it will not take over the creaky behemoth that is theStudent Loans Company, and the department itself wants to change how the remaining teaching grant is allocated to universities. There must, however, be concern at the suggestion that raising the fee cap would no longer require a parliamentary vote, and could be done by power of the Secretary of State.
The new body will operate in the students’ interest, we are told, but it will be funded by universities. There is much that is good about the overall functions of the new entity – it will have specific duties to promote students’ interests, excellent teaching and fair access. It will also be the body charged with deciding which new providers can offer higher education and providing better information on choices.
Having had my time in Whitehall, I can see how logical all this may seem. Government loves having everything ‘joined up’. It promotes efficiency and collaborative working, the civil servants hum. It (ostensibly) saves money, the chancellor purrs. And it gives me something to be seen doing in parliament, the minister cheers.
But I’m not convinced it will meet another important objective of the green paper: improving social mobility. One of the less well publicised government targets (they’re back in favour again, apparently) is to double the percentage of disadvantaged students going into higher education from 13.6% in 2009 to 27.2% by 2020, and to improve access for minority ethnic students. The figure was 18.2% in 2014. Achieving this will require real focus, not least with potential cuts in the spending review of widening participation funds, and a drive that ensures the target isn’t met simply by plucking the lowest hanging fruit – there is still an eight fold access gap in our most elite universities, after all.
The record of ‘logical’ mergers in recent years is hardly encouraging. The Every Child Matters agenda under the Labour government was a worthy and logical attempt to join up education and children’s services. The result was a lost focus on education standards in many local authorities where a social services agenda dominated, or vice versa. The resultant loss of dedicated child protection teams as part of that agenda arguably contributed to the Baby P case in Haringey. The ‘logical’ merger of the National College of School Leadership with the Teaching and Development Agency has been accompanied by a teacher recruitment crisis and the near-destruction of a programmecredited by the OECD as ‘changing the landscape of school leadership.’ Both were affected by a loss of focus.
The Office for Fair Access has had a good record since its inception in 2004. Its access agreements have kept universities accountable in a very specific area that is vital to social mobility. The duty to report on access to parliament, combined with the power to prevent universities charging higher fees, have supported improvements in access from disadvantaged students despite the trebling of those tuition fees.
The green paper would not take away any of these powers, and it would maintain the access regulator’s post. Indeed there is an expectation that the regulator should look also at the destinations of access students, a welcome extension of the existing remit. Improved information for students would be a great boon too. But the new Office would absorb OFFA into an entity with lots of other complex responsibilities. The result could be a gradual erosion of independence and loss of impact in a body that is likely to spend much time on the complexities of competition. That would not be good for social mobility.
There is much to welcome in the new green paper, not least the stronger role for students and the overdue focus on teaching. But the danger is that in its desire to create a clean new ‘architecture’ the Office for Students ends up creating something closer to theWalkie-Talkie than The Shard. We need to be convinced otherwise.

Friday 24 July 2015

The academies' capacity challenge

I've blogged at the Sutton Trust this morning on the academies' capacity challenge.

The Government shows no sign of slowing its academies programme. One of Nicky Morgan’s first acts after the election was to launch an assault on ‘coasting schools’ with the expectation that many of them would become academies. Yet it is not at all clear that there is enough capacity in the system to transform all of those schools that are deemed failing or coasting into success stories.

That’s why the second annual Chain Effects report is so important today. In publishing it, we have focused once again on attainment and improvement for disadvantaged pupils. If academies are to succeed, they must be able to do at least as well as schools generally in enabling their poorest students to get good GCSE results.

On the positive side, the report shows that this is happening in around a third of the chains examined. Some, including ArkCity of London and Harris – three chains that have been part of the academies programme almost since the start – are dramatically transforming the prospects of their disadvantaged pupils, with results well above the national average. Others that are clearly making a difference include the Outwood Grange academies in Yorkshire and the Mercers’ academies based on the Thomas Telford model.

Other chains are showing substantial improvements, including the Bristol-based Cabot Learning Federation, the David Ross education trust and the Co-operative academies trust. But many others are middling or worse, and their performance raises important questions about how the programme is run and how it might move in the future.

I speak as someone who was there at the birth of academies. Indeed, the original term City Academy – the urban allusion was soon dropped – was one that I believe I coined in an early discussion with Andrew Adonis, whose idea it was to co-opt Kenneth Baker’s City Technology Colleges to the New Labour project and whose tenacity and attention to detail ensured success for most of the first sponsored academies.

By 2010, there was a target of 400 academies with nearly 300 ready to open. Even that was a tall order. One reason for the success of the earliest academies was that the troubleshooting capacity of the education department and Andrew’s detailed project management, from No.10 initially and later as a minister, ensured that the crises that have affected so many chains recently were addressed quickly.

But it was far easier to do so – and to ensure the smooth opening of new academies – when the numbers created each year were in the tens rather than the hundreds (not to mention all the free schools, UTCs and studio schools now being created too). The focus was on getting it right much more so than getting the numbers up.

After 2010, attention was initially directed at converting successful schools to academies. I supported giving them the right to do so at the time, and still do, but combined with the drive for free schools it created a capacity issue in the department that has never been adequately addressed since. And that’s the real challenge presented by our report today.

As it stands, nearly half of all the sponsored academies we looked at would be defined as ‘coasting’ for 2014 under the current definition (which doesn’t as yet allow for the performance of disadvantaged pupils).  But of more concern must be the thousands of primary schools that will require action once the changes come into effect. If they are to become academies with support from chains or other schools, where is the capacity to achieve this?

That’s why the report urges the Government to expand its pool of school improvement providers beyond academy sponsors, while introducing greater rigour and transparency for all sponsors. Russell Hobby, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, argues that the government should put as much effort into building new collaborative trusts and federations first, and perhaps then encourage the academy status, and that seems sensible in a system where fewer than one in six primaries is an academy. Indeed, the right collaboration seems as important as freedoms in the success of sponsored academies.

Our report also argues that new chains should not be allowed to expand until they have a track record of success in bringing about improvement in their existing academies. That too is important. ARK and Harris have around 30 academies each, but have expanded relatively slowly compared with other bigger chains. Such measured expansion has helped ensure their success. But it also highlights the difficulty the DFE faces in growing the numbers of good chains.

Our reports are not the only ones to suggest that the overall ‘academy effect’ is not large: that was a finding of a recent NFER report too. With so many schools now academies that should not be so surprising – the move from exceptionalism to universality had similar effects in specialist schools. But in the stories of those chains and academies that have transformed their less advantaged students’ prospects there are lessons in what can be achieved – with the right mix of leadership, good teaching, proper planning and a clear vision.

Tuesday 12 May 2015

A comprehensive Commons and Cabinet?

I've blogged at the Sutton Trust on the educational backgrounds of the new MPs and Cabinet.

The election result on May 7 may have surprised pundits expecting a hung parliament. But it was equally interesting in what it says about Britain today, and who now gets to become an MP. Across the political spectrum, the diversity that really started in the late 90s has now become embedded in both main parties, and not just in an improved gender and ethnic balance, but also in a more socially representative group of MPs.

Over several elections, the Sutton Trust has been tracking the educational backgrounds of MPs and cabinet ministers, and there are some interesting trends visible in our Parliamentary Privilege research brief this week. For a start, newly-elected MPs are much more likely to have been to comprehensive schools in 2015 than those who were re-elected from the 2010 intake. And our analysis of the new Cabinet –widely quoted in the press this week – showed a doubling in the proportion of ministers attending Cabinet who had been to non-selective state schools.

table blog 3

Of course, this doesn’t mean that a private education is not still an advantage for Parliament or the Cabinet, just as it is at the top of professions from the law to the City. Half of David Cameron’s Cabinet was privately educated, seven times the proportion of the population who attend independent schools, and 32% of MPs were too, over four times the national average.

Moreover, while Conservative MPs are a bit less likely to have been privately educated – at 48% probably the first time their proportion has dipped below half – a number of Labour’s new intake had an independent education, pushing their proportion up slightly to 17%.

When people talk about parliamentary privilege in education, they often couple an Oxbridge education with having been to public school. However, the two groups are not synonymous and we would expect MPs to be better educated than the population at large. Still, it is still interesting that more than a quarter of MPs went to Oxford or Cambridge and a further 28% attended another Russell Group university. Half the Cabinet also has an Oxbridge education. Interestingly, among the new SNP group of 56 MPs – at least the 40 whose educational backgrounds were publicly available – few had a private education and Glasgow was perhaps unsurprisingly their main political training ground.

So what are we to make of all this? Of course, we should welcome evidence of improved mobility for state educated parliamentarians, and the Cabinet and Commons should be the richer for this wider experience, just as it has been improved by having a growing number of women MPs and those from BME communities. But just as the 29% of female MPs and 6% of BME MPs in the new Commons are not yet representative of the community as a whole, neither should we rest on our laurels when even in this new intake the newly elected MPs are four times more likely to be privately educated than average.

Some will say that this is all about class envy publicising this information, and some candidates refuse to make public their educational backgrounds perhaps for that reason. That isn’t what it is about at all. Rather it is to recognise that access to our best schools – and that includes our best comprehensives and grammar schools – is too often related to ability to pay, including the means to buy a house in a popular catchment area. So we need this more representative group of MPs to address these issues, supporting fairer admissions to comprehensives and needs blind access to independent day schools. The issue is one of fair access.

Equally, we should be less concerned that Oxbridge and the Russell Group has such a grip on political life than we should be that access to those leading universities is still so heavily skewed towards the richest communities. A child from the top fifth of neighbourhoods is still more than six times more likely to go to a leading university than one from the bottom fifth, and when it comes to the top 13 (including Oxbridge) that gap widens to nine-fold. There are too many bright youngsters from less advantaged areas who are not getting as far as applying to these universities, let alone being admitted to them.

So that’s the challenge for our ‘comprehensive’ Commons and Cabinet – will they do more to promote fair access to our best schools and universities, so they can be trailblazers for many more young people from modest backgrounds to reach the centres of political power in Britain today?

With the right policies, they can open doors for others to follow.

Friday 17 April 2015

Mapping mobility

I've written this new blog post for the Sutton Trust website to coincide with a new index of social mobility across England's 533 constituencies.

The outcome of the general election on May 7th may be up for grabs. But one thing is certain – it will usher in a whole new cadre of MPs. We looked in February at the backgrounds of some of these candidates, and will look at the House of Commons in the future. But, what of the constituencies they represent? How well do advance social mobility?

That’s the background to today’s new social mobility index. The index looks at all 533 English constituencies – data is much better in England than in the other UK nations - and highlights the big differences that exist across the country in the chances of young people getting ahead in life.  With an interactive map, you can see how each constituency ranks on key measures.

It also points the way to some of the policies that those candidates who get elected in May should embrace if we are to enhance those limited life chances.

For example, the proportion of poorer children whose development is seen as good varies from 72% in Lewisham to 19% in Kenilworth and Southam. This is a big issue: our earlier research has shown a 19 month gap nationally in school readiness between the richest and poorest five year olds. Last year’s Sound Foundations report highlighted the importance of having well qualified staff to provide the sort of vocabulary and stimulus too often missing in deprived homes. More recently, we showed a link between good nursery education and taking the right A-levels.

Of course, these inequalities persist through primary school and unusually by international standards they continue through secondary school. And our index confirms that the London effect is making a difference, with 30 of the top 50 constituencies for mobility being in the capital. We’ve seen lots of explanations for why London schools, once falling behind, are now ahead of the national average, including the way schools worked together in the London Challenge programme, stronger improvements in literacy and numeracy at primary schools and the wider ethnic mix that has brought greater aspiration into the capital’s classrooms.

But underlying all this we need to improve the quality of teaching in schools. Sutton Trust research has shown that poorer pupils gain 18 months’ worth of learning with very effective teachers over a school year, compared with six months with poorly performing teachers. In other words, a great teacher can produce a whole year’s extra learning. Professional development is not a sexy subject for politicians, but getting it right with a strong entitlement for all England’s 450,000 teachers could make a massive difference to school standards.

Attending good universities is important for the top jobs, and changing mobility at the top of our professions, politics and the City. Our index finds big differences between areas when it comes to sending young people from the poorest neighbourhoods to the third of most selective universities, including the Russell Group and Oxbridge.

Students nationally are nearly seven times more likely to go to a top-tier university if they live in the richest fifth of neighbourhoods compared to the poorest fifth, and the gap is even wider for Oxford, Cambridge and other elite institutions. The index shows big variations between constituencies on this measure.

But getting to a good university is not enough. Research has shown that state school pupils can outperform their private school counterparts if they get admitted, though those from disadvantaged areas may need extra support to succeed while there. But they then need a level playing field in internships and work experience, if they are to get on. In our index, we looked at the success of less advantaged graduates in getting professional jobs, finding Harrogate and Knaresborough had the best record and Stoke-on-Trent North the poorest.

However, the important test of success today is getting a good job after school or university. For some young people that should mean apprenticeships, and our polling shows that parents and teachers share our view that there should be more available at A-level and degree standard. For others it will be doing the right degree at the right university.

Those choices should be known by every student, yet our research has shown that while good careers advice has a positive impact on results and choices, far too much of it is below par. We need a big improvement in the specialist advice on subjects like elite university admissions and the availability of apprenticeships for schools to guide their pupils in the right direction.

Social mobility has stalled in Britain, though we have seen progress in recent years – including improvements in primary test scores and access to higher education. But whatever combination of parties is in power after May still has a major job if they want to ensure young people can succeed regardless of their background.

Saturday 7 March 2015

Helping the highly able

In my latest Sutton Trust blog, I look at the debate around the highly able in state schools.
This week saw a flurry of activity on the issue of promoting the interests of highly able – or gifted and talented – students in state schools. With Ofsted issuing its second stinging review in two years, and Tristram Hunt announcing plans for a new ‘gifted and talented fund’ if he is elected, the issue of able students from low and middle income backgrounds has been placed firmly on the national agenda.
Ofsted’s report found that most schools had been slow in taking forward Ofsted’s previous recommendations, especially for 11-14 year-olds, and notes a degree of complacency in some. Half of all schools visited made no special provision for the highly able. Too often in those schools, the inspectors recorded a sense that ‘expected progress’ was not good enough.
It may be, as Ofsted suggests, that the new Progress 8 measure (which replaces five good GCSEs as the Level 4 benchmark from 2016) will start to change such attitudes, though a focus on the extent to which high attaining pupils (who are already singled out in the performance tables) gain at least 5As at GCSE and get into Russell Group universities and Oxbridge would be a far sharper measure. More to the point, as the Government moves towards ever less comprehensible measures on the attainment gap, there is a danger that the new data’s impenetrability to the public will reduce rather than increase accountability.
However, the bigger issue goes beyond measures of accountability. It is about the extent to which schools recognise that their most able students – those in the top 5-10% nationally, particularly from low and middle income backgrounds with whom the Sutton Trust is most concerned – need extra nurturing just as much as those who may start school as low attainers. When David Blunkett launched the first ‘gifted and talented’ provision and plans for what became the National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth he saw such provision as an essential part of truly comprehensive education.
With government funding, many schools developed gifted and talented programmes, and accompanying support for Aim Higher summer schools meant that the needs of the highly able started to have a government focus that extended beyond grammar schools or even promotion of setting by subject ability, into masterclasses, university links, accelerated AS levels and other activities.
Sadly, the early energy of those programmes dissipated in the late 2000s, in part with the disbandment of the Warwick-based national centre in 2007 – I have met a number of young people at Oxford and Cambridge from modest home backgrounds whose ambitions were raised in their early teens by attending Warwick – and the lost focus that accompanied a changed contractor for the programme. Any remaining support for teachers was scrapped in 2010, ending the national drive for highly able students.
That’s why Tristram Hunt’s commitment this week to establish a national ‘gifted and talented’ fund is so welcome. It draws on ideas in our Mobility Manifesto last year and is an idea we would like to see adopted by all the political parties in the May election. Essentially his new fund would enable promising ideas to be evaluated, with schools bidding to draw down funds, using some of their own money to match government support.
The Sutton Trust has already started to develop a new programme in this space. Sutton Scholars, which started at University College, London is extending to Cambridge, Nottingham and Warwick offering an intensive two years of support to bright low and middle income students during the early years of secondary school, so they take the right subjects at GCSE that will lead on the A-levels that are in demand at leading universities.
The Trust supports over 2,100 students a year at our 10 UK and 2 US summer schools, and we greatly increase their chances of going to top universities. But we also know that we are not reaching enough able young people early enough in their education so that they have the ambition to apply for those summer schools and similar access programmes in the sixth form.
Whoever wins the next election should see provision for the highly able before GCSEs as an important a part of the access agenda as outreach in the sixth form or fee bursaries for undergraduates. We are not doing enough to harness the talents of all our young people. Ofsted’s timely report this week should be a wake-up call to all the parties in the months to May.

Thursday 5 February 2015

The education of politicians

In my latest Sutton Trust blog, I look at why the educational background of candidates matters.

This was the week when education became an election issue. David Cameron and Nicky Morgan unveiled their plans for turning mediocre schools into academies, reviving school numeracy and school spending. Ed Miliband and Liam Byrne edged towards explaining how Labour would deliver a promise to cut tuition fees to £6000 without upsetting the universities.

In this week when the politics of education was in full flow, it seems appropriate to look more closely at the education of politicians, and specifically at those candidates whom their parties think have a fair chance of being elected on May 7th.

Today’s Sutton Trust research brief Parliamentary Privilege looks at the school and university education of 260 candidates who were already selected by mid-December 2014 either to replace sitting MPs from their own parties or in seats that their party is targeting. This means that we have a bigger range of candidates for the parties than current polling would suggest any is likely to win, but it also gives us statistically significant samples for Labour, the Conservatives and UKIP which restricting their number to seats expected by the pundits to switch would not allow.

And the picture it gives is not encouraging. For all the talk of changes to Parliament after May, the educational picture is likely to remain pretty much unchanged.

There may be a slight reduction in the proportion of privately educated MPs, but it will probably remain around a third. Slightly fewer of the Conservative candidates we looked at are privately educated than are the current MPs, but the total remains around half; nearly a fifth of Labour’s candidates are privately educated compared to a tenth in the current House; and a third of the UKIP candidates we looked at also went to an independent school.

You would expect a higher proportion of our politicians to be university educated than the population as a whole. Among the candidates, 55% went to a Russell Group university, five times the national average. More interestingly, 19% went to Oxbridge compared to less than 1% of UK adults.

Of course, the challenge for us all is to open up more places at our best universities for able young people from low and middle income backgrounds, to ensure that our elites – not just politics, but the law, medicine, the city and media – are more representative. As James Turner described last week, that’s what Sutton Trust summer schools and other access programmes are doing.

But the concern many have had is that so many of today’s politicians have come from a route that goes from PPE at Oxford through a political job (perhaps as a researcher or special adviser) into becoming an MP. 40% of our sample of candidates had what might be seen as a career in politics before wanting to become a politician.

That’s not good for democracy. But then we have made it that much less attractive for people in non-political careers to enter politics than before. Expenses and funding scandals, constant ridicule and widespread disdain may have been brought by some politicians on the political class, but it still makes it unattractive to many to give up a secure and relatively quiet job for the life of modern MP.

The Russell Brands of this world may say it doesn’t matter: politics doesn’t change things. But the truth is that it does. Even this week’s education debates could lead to improved local schools or more affordable university degrees. Such changes affect individual lives.

I have personally argued often elsewhere that we need to see practical changes that could eliminate a lot of the stench from today’s politics: more state funding than exists currently, flat allowances for MPs depending on where they live, a less unwieldy second chamber, fairer voting systems.  Politicians have only themselves to blame for not grasping those nettles.

But constitutional change is not enough. We need to change attitudes among young people and improve opportunities to engage them in the political process and debate. Better citizenship and more debating in schools could help.

Moreover, fundamental change will mean ensuring that the path to politics is widened by fairer access to those universities that so often lead into political careers, paid internships opened up beyond the friends of MPs and a more active engagement with all the parties in widening their candidate base so that they engage people of all social classes as actively as they have sought to ensure more female and BME candidates in recent decades.

Politics itself should be a part of the election debate. Hopefully, our research brief today can help put it there.

Thursday 22 January 2015

University funding challenge

I've written this feature on university funding for the Jan/Feb 2015 edition of Public Finance.

As the general election looms, Nick Clegg’s decision to back a trebling of tuition fees could come back to haunt him. A study by the Higher Education Policy Institute think-tank in Oxford suggests 10 Liberal Democrat university seats could be vulnerable to student anger, after the party’s decision to support higher fees despite its manifesto pledge to phase them out.

here are also doubts that the expected financial savings will be made. There is growing evidence that graduates will face debts into their 50s, while the Exchequer may see little real benefit because nearly half of the loans will have to be written off.

To understand why, look again at the 2012 student funding package and how it differs from what went before. When Labour introduced income-related ­tuition fees of up to £1,000 in 1999, it also replaced the remaining maintenance grants with loans to be repaid at a rate of 9% of graduate income above £10,000 a year. In 2006, fees rose to £3,000, although universities were permitted to charge less. Fees were no longer income-related, though some maintenance grants were restored. Tuition fee loans were introduced and the graduate repayment threshold was raised to £15,000.

The coalition government trebled fees to a new maximum of £9,000, extending the income contingent loans accordingly. But two crucial additional changes were made. First, the repayment threshold was increased to £21,000. Conservative ministers wanted it to be £18,000, but the LibDems insisted on the higher level. The second was the addition of a real rate of interest. Previously debt rose with the retail price index (RPI).

Under the new system, undergraduates are charged RPI+3% while studying and then pay interest of up to RPI+3% on a sliding scale once they graduate. The result is that from this year, graduates will pay off their loans – now much larger after the fees hike – much more slowly than under the old system.

Read the full article here.

Thursday 15 January 2015

Election 2015: consensus and challenges

In my latest Sutton Trust blog, I look at education in the general election and beyond.

Maybe they will surprise us. Perhaps in the weeks that remain before the voters cast their ballots on May 7 there will be something radical said on education, such as pledging for-profit schools or cutting tuition fees. But I wouldn’t count on it. And in one sense that’s no bad thing.

Underneath the often overblown rhetoric about unqualified teachers, local authority control or curriculum change, there is a far more consensus and continuity with the main political parties than you might think. Indeed there has been a strong degree of continuity in approach since Kenneth Baker’s reforms of 1988.

And this sense of commonality may explain why this week’s Comres poll for ITV showed that only 7% of the public saw ‘improving the education system’ as a big priority for government, ranking it last behind immigration, the economy, the NHS, welfare, housing and other issues. Other polling has suggested that the two main parties are fairly evenly matched as ‘best’ to deal with the issue.

All the main parties broadly support a strong degree of autonomy for schools and will continue with academies. Labour may not introduce new free schools, but will allow new academies which are pretty similar. All the parties recognise the need for greater regional management of an increasingly autonomous system, even if there are degrees of difference in what would be devolved.

With Nicky Morgan as a more consensual education secretary, there is more focus on teachers and teaching by the Government, echoing a theme that her shadow Tristram Hunt has been keen to put on the agenda. Although there are loud exchanges about ‘unqualified teachers’, their numbers are relatively small and their relevance to the system is less important than the rhetoric might suggest.

Both parties back a College of Teaching, rather more fervently than the profession if our polling last May is anything to go by, and both recognise that more needs to be done to improve professional development, a subject to which we will return next week.

So, this consensus may bring a degree of stability in schools. Big changes to the exam system have yet to filter through, and schools will have to tighten their belts further even if the overall national budget continues to be protected. They will welcome a breathing space.

Yet all this tacit agreement may mask the problems that an incoming secretary of state will face. And it is in their competence addressing those problems that they will be judged as much as on any exaggerated dividing lines drummed up for the purpose of election debates.

The most obvious is the need for many more school places, which requires considerable investment and strategic planning, as well as training the teachers to take the new classes.  This week’s Local Government Association survey put the need at 880,000 – a 12% increase nationally. There is also a real challenge addressing potential teacher shortages in key subjects if the balance between Schools Direct and university-based provision is not better planned.

But other deeper seated issues also need to be addressed.  The first is the attainment gap that still prevails in both primary and secondary schools. True, there have been some improvements in recent years, and the combination of extra money through the pupil premium and Ofsted rigour is at least getting schools to focus on their disadvantaged pupils much more than before.

But this may not be enough in itself. The prevailing mood against top down reform has meant that there is still too little pressure on schools that aren’t doing enough for their disadvantaged pupils. The new EEF Families of Schools tool reveals the starkness of the differences between schools with similar characteristics.

So, more needs to be done to get good teachers to underperforming schools outside the increasingly successful capital, as well as improving professional development generally. As we argue in our Mobility Manifesto, stronger incentives should build on the pupil premium awards to reward successful schools, and those that use evidence effectively. And there is a good case for revitalising leadership education by revitalising the National College of School Leadership, which many heads feel has lost its way as an amalgam with the old teacher training agency.

A second area ripe for change is in social mobility, which our research has consistently shown remains far too low in this country. In particular, we need to have fairer admissions in urban secondary schools, a revitalised national ‘gifted and talented’ programme for highly able students (our Sutton Scholars programme offers one model) and an opening up of the best independent day schools to talented children of all backgrounds.

This needs to be matched with a better co-ordinated approach to access to leading universities – where the gap remains nearly ten-fold between the poorest and richest families – that makes far more effective use of the £800m access funds now being spent. The new HEFCE networks are a start; using that funding wisely is the next step.

Ahead of all that, getting it right in the early years should pay dividends later on. All the parties are keen to promote their plans to improve childcare. That is a laudable labour market policy, helping family finances and improving employment opportunities particularly for women.

But it won’t necessarily support child development for disadvantaged children unless it is accompanied by a much more rigorous approach to the quality of education and care that they receive. With limited resources, as our Sound Foundations report argued last year, a government needs to balance the long-term economic benefits from getting that right against the more immediate benefits of a larger workforce.

If there is now a broader consensus on standards and structural issues in schools, whoever forms the government after May should have more room to move further on these issues. Hopefully, as they do so, they can develop a degree of cross-party agreement on lasting steps that will narrow attainment gaps and improve social mobility