Thursday 13 October 2016

Under advisement

I've blogged about teachers' perceptions of Oxbridge at the Sutton Trust today.
What are we to make of the idea that some four in ten teachers rarely or never advise bright students to apply to Oxford and Cambridge? This finding in an NFER poll for the Sutton Trust published today has remained stubbornly unchanged since 2007.
And perhaps more troubling is the perception that teachers have of the proportions of undergraduates at our two most prestigious universities who come from state schools  – typically they say 20%, around a third of the actual percentage.
There is no doubt that there is still a real access issue at our best universities. At the top third, you are six times more likely to gain admittance if you come from the richest fifth of neighbourhoods than if you live in the poorest fifth. At our most selective universities, the odds are even lower. Yet the universities spend millions of pounds each year on outreach, and lots more on bursaries, designed to narrow these gaps.
It is good that Oxford now has 59% of students from a state school background, and Cambridge has slightly more. That’s a real improvement, but it still means that taking into account sixth form attendance, privately educated students are three times more likely to gain a place than their numbers in the population.
The Russell Group always argue the answer is attainment: A-levels achieved by those in the leafier communities outweigh those from the less advantaged by a significant margin at the top. Yet that’s not the whole story. The Sutton Trust identified a ‘missing 3000’ some years ago who make the grades but don’t get in to the top 13 universities. There is little sign that has changed.
And they’re the group who may lose out if teachers don’t encourage their brightest students to apply to Oxford and Cambridge, and other leading universities. Both universities are central to the leading professions and best salaries, and if we are to make a difference to social mobility at the top we need to see more young people of real ability from low and middle income homes getting to those great universities.
This isn’t about criticising teachers or Oxbridge dons. It is about both schools and the colleges and universities being prepared to look afresh at how they work and being open to making the changes that could break down these barriers.
Earlier this year, the Trust published a brief on admissions procedures at the two universities and made some fairly practical suggestions based on what state school headteachers with a track record of success at the universities, and some of the alumni from our summer schools had said to us.
University rather than college-based admissions are more common, but the distinctions that remain are more of a hindrance to state students than those from private schools with the right networks. What contextual admission offers that are made remain opaque and the information about bursaries and other financial aid is simply not known by too many schools. With a new VC at Oxford showing a strong commitment to fair access and change coming at Cambridge there is a real opportunity for a radical fresh look at what could make a difference.
But equally, schools need to do far more to stretch their highly able students. Grammar schools still have disproportionate Oxbridge entries compared to their numbers too. Every comprehensive should have a strong programme of enrichment for their brightest students from early on in their secondary education. The Sutton Trust works with students to provide such stretch through its Sutton Scholars programme, but programmes for what schools call the able, gifted and talented need to be as embedded in the culture of every comprehensive as much as their support for those with special educational needs.
Our Missing Talent report last year showed what happens where schools don’t do this: we identified thousands of students in the top 10 per cent at age 11 who had fallen outside the top 25 per cent by the age of 16. They could have been set fair for top universities, but had lost that chance. That’s why we need the government not only to require grammars to do much more to recruit bright disadvantaged pupils, we need them to be clear that this should be a part of the DNA of every comprehensive too. To his credit, Sir Michael Wilshaw has pushed this agenda in his time as chief inspector. But this needs drive from the whole government and as much focus as the Prime Minister has given to grammars and faith schools.
Of course, many schools and sixth form colleges do push their best students to aim high, and universities do run more programmes than ever to reach them. But today’s research shows that this needs to be a national drive if we are to make a real difference to social mobility at the top.

Thursday 15 September 2016

Lost in the grammars debate

I've blogged at the Sutton Trust website on the grammar schools debate

It was just three months before Tony Blair’s historic victory in 1997. Ben Chapman was fighting as the Labour candidate in the Wirral South by-election. And David Blunkett, the shadow education secretary, was visiting the Wirral County Grammar School. While he had a cup of tea with the headteacher, the late Eric Forth, then the schools minister, protested outside that Labour was no friend of grammars.

But, by then the opposition had decided to park the issue of grammar schools if it got into government. As Blunkett's special adviser, I helped devise the 1998 legislation that is now reported daily as the ‘ban’ on new grammar schools. I briefed its details to the media ahead of that Wirral visit. But ironically, while it did indeed stop new academic selection, the legislation also made it hard to close existing grammars without parental consent. And that was as much its primary purpose. Neither Blair nor Blunkett wanted to be distracted from their wider plans to improve education by a huge debate about the remaining 166 grammar schools. (A few have since merged so there are now 163).

Nearly twenty years later, the last few weeks have shown us why. Theresa May’s speech at Downing Street last week may have had four key points to it – including, interestingly, a plan to require private schools to justify their charitable status by engaging more fully in state school partnerships – but most of the acres of coverage and debate have focused on ‘plans’ for ‘new grammar schools’.

But there are real dangers in making this the big focus of education policy, let alone the cornerstone of the Government’s drive for social mobility.

The first – and most obvious – reason is that the evidence is pretty thin that grammar schools improve social mobility. In the Green Paper, the Government quotes from a lengthy 2008 Durham University report published by the Sutton Trust. That report looked at GCSE results in existing grammar schools and found that those from poorer backgrounds who are highly able do marginally better than similar pupils in comprehensives.

To quote in full from the report: “We find that pupils eligible for [free school meals] appear to suffer marginally less educational disadvantage if they attend grammar schools. The difference is equivalent to about one-eighth of a GCSE grade; although this is statistically significant, it is certainly not large. It also seems possible that FSM pupils in grammar schools may typically be quite different from FSM pupils as a whole in ways that are not well measured, so we should be cautious about interpreting this as a strong endorsement of grammar schools.”[i]

At the same time, our more recent reports from 2013 showed that less than 3% of grammar school pupils come from an FSM background, 13% come from outside the state school system, largely independent preparatory schools. Perhaps more significantly, given the focus of the Prime Minister’s speech on those on modest incomes, the Anna Vignoles and IFS research[ii] showed a direct correlation between income and likelihood of grammar entry in each IDACI quintile.

In any case, at a political level, given the strength of opposition on the Conservative benches, there is no guarantee the 1998 legislation can be overturned in the Commons, let alone the Lords, where an alliance of crossbenchers, Labour and LibDems, as well as sceptical Tories could defeat it. Where Tony Blair could turn to the Conservatives when he faced a much larger rebellion over his 2006 education reforms, in the Commons, May can only count on the DUP, a single UKIP MP and hope that the SNP see this as a solely English matter.

Even if the government passes all its legislative hurdles, the likelihood is that the ‘dash’ for grammars, as the Sunday Times had it at the weekend, will be confined to existing grammar school areas. In reality, the number of grammar school pupils has steadily increased from 129,000 to 163,000 since 1997, or from 4.0 to 5.2% of all pupils. Adding new school buildings in those areas, without pretending they are satellite schools, and a few within their catchments in outer London, will hardly match the rhetoric of recent days. There is not much evidence of demand elsewhere.

Interestingly, within the hastily produced ‘Green Paper’ this week, there was one idea[iii] that could allow a practical way forward for highly able pupils – organising support hubs for the highly able within multi-academy trusts, composed of comprehensive schools. MATs already pool resources for A-level classes, and such a model could offer a way to boost support for able students without selection at 11 and with all the flexibility that a MAT offers.

Either way, it is important that the Government doesn’t lose sight of the needs of the highly able in comprehensives. Becky Allen’s Missing Talent research for the Trust is widely quoted by ministers, and shows that between the ages of 11 and 16, a third of working class boys who are in the top tenth at Key Stage 2 are outside the top quarter by the time they get to do their GCSEs. As the selection debate grips Westminster and Whitehall, no legislation is required to ensure they get a fair deal, just action in the name of social mobility.
[i] See pages 218-219; [ii] See page 38; [iii] See page 27

Wednesday 20 July 2016

Bacc to the future

I've blogged at the Sutton Trust website about new research on EBacc progress today.

Next month, hundreds of thousands of young people will learn their GCSE results. Their schools will be judged for the first time not on the proportion gaining five good GCSEs, but on the more complex Progress 8 measure (as well as English and Maths results). Crucial to the Progress 8 score will be the numbers who achieve the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) – English, Maths, two sciences, languages and history or geography.

In January, I blogged about some of my concerns about how well the changes will be understood by parents and employers, and that the challenge of gaining eight decent GCSEs could make it much harder for schools that have struggled successfully to improve the numbers gaining five good GCSEs, including many academies.

So, to some extent today’s research brief, Changing the subject, by Becky Allen and Dave Thompson at Education Datalab, is encouraging. The brief looks at what happened to schools between 2010 and 2013, including a group of 300 ‘curriculum change schools’ that substantially increased the proportion of their students taking languages, humanities and science subjects.

It shows that pupils at those schools – including disadvantaged students – benefited from the changes. Encouragingly for the government, there was some narrowing of the gap between rich and poor students, and an improvement in the numbers taking A-levels and other post-16 qualifications. Moreover, there was no adverse impact on English and Maths results.

That is all to be welcomed. What seems to have happened is that pupils of average ability at the age of 11 who might not previously have taken the full range of EBacc subjects are now being encouraged to do so at these ‘curriculum change schools’. The report also shows that if disadvantaged students were entered at the same rate as other students of similar ability, another 11,000 would be doing languages and 15,000 more taking humanities subjects. Triple science take-up had already been improving as a result of changes made a decade ago, and continues to improve, but there is still a 5,500 shortfall based on ability.

There are other issues raised by this study. The Government has set a target that 90% of all students should take the EBacc. As evidence that this is possible, they cite a handful of successful academies in London. But the reality is that even in these curriculum changers – keen enthusiasts for the reform – take-up is nowhere near 90%. 57% take a language, a considerable improvement from 26% previously. But some schools that forced all pupils to take a language have had to switch course. One head told us: “Results plummeted and a high level of disaffection was the result. By making the language element optional I now have students in year 10 taking French who want to study it and I expect to see results rise.”

What that suggests is that a goal of perhaps 70% would still be hugely ambitious, but would be more realistic. There is then the challenge of finding enough good specialist teachers, particularly for languages, physics and chemistry.

At the heart of the debate is some confusion over how best to ensure that disadvantaged students reach their potential. Those who argue that everyone – or nearly everyone – should take the full suite of EBacc subjects see this as the best way to ensure that able students don’t lose out. And as these schools show, there is real potential for growth in take-up. The gap we have identified is one such group, and these 300 schools should be a good benchmark for other schools.

So, tens of thousands more students could and should be doing the EBacc subjects. That would make sure that able students aren’t losing out. But equally we need to ensure that we are not entering students not taking the EBacc – more likely to be a third than a tenth of students – have a rigorous technical baccalaureate as an alternative. With the recent Sainsbury review likely to lead to strong reforms in this area, this could be a valuable entry route for such students.

Today’s research brief is a valuable insight into what’s been happening with the EBacc. But it also provides food for thought as schools await their first Progress 8 results next month.

Saturday 2 July 2016

The need for reassurance

I've posted my reflections on what needs to happen for Europeans living in Britain on my Facebook page.

It is now more than a week since I heard the referendum result whilst in the beautiful Cork town of Kinsale. My anger and disbelief clearly made me a part of the so-called metropolitan elite, though I never knew the elite had 16 million members. Yet what I really felt was that I - like perhaps three million other EU citizens living in Britain - was not just a stranger in the country I made my home 32 years ago, but that a large proportion of the people in my adopted country were giving us all a collective two fingers.

What has happened since then has done little to shake that view. I have spoken to other EU citizens living in Britain this past week, and many of them are deeply worried about their futures. Some have families here, all are massively net contributors to the UK economy. Yet not one of the people who aspire to be prime minister has said anything to reassure these people or their families about their futures. At the extreme end, we have seen vile and vicious racist attacks on community centres, and xenophobic taunts to schoolchildren and people going about their everyday business who happen not to fit into the narrow acceptability of their bigoted tormentors. And to be fair such acts have been condemned, but - aside from the statesmanship of Sadiq Khan and Nicola Sturgeon - too few would be leaders have been ready to say that those who are here and working or long term residents are here to stay, that they are valued and welcome.

Rationally, I know I probably have little to fear as an Irish citizen. The Irish government is far more actively working on behalf of the 500,000 Irish born In Britain and with far more sense of what needs to happen than any English politician seems to have shown towards those who live and work in this country, those who keep its health and education services going, those who contribute more on average to our economy that those who would tell them to go. I can get dual British citizenship and the Common Travel Area in these islands may hopefully - though who really knows - survive in some form. But emotionally that is not how it feels at all.

It is not good enough to say that three million people who have made their lives in this country will be pawns in a negotiation over Brexit, as some implied this week. After all, their lives and those of their children will be blighted by fear of the unknown for several years. They need to know that a government that disgracefully denied 2.5 million of them - we Irish did get a vote - any say in their own futures during the referendum (as well as excluding 16 and 17 year olds) has at least got their back for the future. I have yet to hear anything saying that those who work here, and whose families have a stake in this country, are not to be kicked out if the political chess game goes the wrong way in the years ahead.

We have reached this point by accident, apparently. Quite clearly few of those who created this mess seem to have expected us to leave. There is a lot that needs to happen in the years ahead to save our economy, to support Scotland and Gibraltar, to preserve an open Irish border. But let us not make pawns of so many people's lives in the process. They need to know their futures. Whoever emerges from the current political shambles has a moral duty to give them the reassurance they deserve, and to do so quickly.

Thursday 30 June 2016

Brexit's mobility challenge

I blogged at the Sutton Trust on the implications of Brexit for education and social mobility.
It is not as simple as saying – as many do – that we are heading out of the European Union thanks to the disaffected poor who felt their needs were overlooked by the distant metropolitan elite.
As YouGov’s final polling showed, there was a huge age divide too – 71% of 18-24 year-olds were for remain versus 64% of the over-65s backing leave – and a marked difference between those with different levels of education – those with few formal qualifications voted Leave in as great a proportion as graduates voted remain.
There is undoubtedly a strong degree of disaffection among older poorer voters. And this underlines more than ever the importance of ensuring that educational and employment opportunities are available for their children. In a sense, intergenerational poverty could breed intergenerational disaffection if whoever emerges as our political leadership in the months ahead doesn’t address the social mobility issue head on.
We need to start young. The gaps in school readiness at age 5 – the bottom 10% are 19 months behind the richest 10% – continue through the education system. While the pupil premium and other education reforms have reduced the gaps at age 11, on traditional measures little has changed at GCSE and there are still eight-fold access gaps to our leading universities.
As I have argued before, there is a danger that those gaps will perpetuate in the new accountability regime – though there is also growing evidence that such gaps are far from universal – so it is increasingly important that rhetorical choices between apprenticeships, college and university are made a reality in ways that really make a difference to young people’s life chances.
This matters at several levels. The Sutton Trust has long championed the importance of changing the elites – and the referendum has arguably thrown that into sharp relief – where our research earlier this year found that the privately educated continue to dominate in the professions. Even in politics, half of the current cabinet went to private school, and that’s a lower proportion than the coalition cabinet.
Politics needs to become more representative – something the social mobility APPG will be discussing later this month – but so does the leadership of all those institutions that affect our lives.
But change needs to come at every level. We have seen a welcome embrace of transparency in school-level data over the last 25 years, with the chance now to compare schools on a like for like basis as never before. That has spurred real improvement, and with the pupil premium has placed the attainment of disadvantaged pupils centre stage.
Yet there still remains a real challenge narrowing the gap between London and other parts of the country, in part because of different attitudes to reform, but equally the result of differential access to good teachers and demographic differences. It may be no accident that the strongest Brexit votes came in coastal areas and North East cities where students end up with fewest qualifications. The urgency of addressing those inequities has never been greater.
Equally, there is a real challenge assessing the value of post-school opportunities. Colleges have been measured on ‘success rates’ for too long, rather than student outcomes. There are welcome moves to change this, though the danger is that the data is presented in ways that are not easily understood – a real danger too with the new GCSE rankings (replacing A-E with 1-9). The best colleges transform lives, but it is vital that in communities where colleges are the only source of post-16 education that the current patchwork of performance is transformed for the better.
More worrying, perhaps, is the emphasis on quantity over quality in the apprenticeships programme. Apprenticeships are back in vogue, which is a good thing. But for young people, it is not good enough that only 40% of them lead to a qualification at level 3 – A level equivalent – or above. Too few teachers will recommend apprenticeships, but until the government is clear that every young person starting a level 2 apprenticeship will progress to a level 3 without having to change course – as is the way in what are still (for now) our European partners – that won’t change.
And finally we need to shake the university sector out of its complacency and open it up to a transparency that has been alien to them for far too long. It is good that they are judged on impact in the research excellence framework, and that the teaching excellent framework will force them to think more about how they impart knowledge to those paying them £9000 a year in fees.
But it is quite appalling that universities can refuse to co-operate in publishing the data on earnings by course linked to tax data from HMRC, something that Anna Vignoles worked with IFS to show recently at an aggregate level. We will be working with MPs to get that changed in the higher education bill. Students have a right to know the worth of their courses, not least when our data has shown that on average higher apprenticeships may be an option as good – or even better – financially.
So if we are to ensure that the disillusionment that led to Brexit among their grandparents – and many of their parents – is not translated through the generations, we need to make sure not only that opportunity is available to young people across Britain, but that it is provided in a way that is open and honest about the strengths and shortcomings of different pathways. Brexit may have its long term economic downsides, but politicians of all parties need to find ways to ensure that the young who voted overwhelmingly to remain have the chance to use their talents to the full.

Wednesday 1 June 2016

Scotland's access challenge

I blogged for the Sutton Trust on access in Scotland, linked to a new Trust report that attracted a lot of Scottish interest last week.

Nicola Sturgeon has placed education at the top of the government’s agenda. By making her deputy John Swinney responsible for education in her cabinet, she has given a clear signal of how highly she prioritises the issue. And in looking again at national testing, she is showing a willingness to put pupils’ interests first: good data is vital to educational equality, and must be part of what emerges.

But the scale of the challenge should not be underestimated. Today’s Sutton Trust report Access in Scotland from Sheila Riddell and her colleagues at Edinburgh University provides the most detailed data to date on the scale of the access challenge north of the border.

Some figures are familiar: between the most and least disadvantaged, there is a four-fold gap in university access in Scotland at age 18, compared with a 2.4 point gap in England. Others are encouraging: access to “higher tariff” universities is less polarised than in England, although this may in part reflect that a larger proportion of the Scottish sector are in this category, though it includes all the ancient universities . But what is new is the startling figure that of the growth in new entrants to higher education from the poorest areas over the last decade, fully nine in ten have been to sub-degree courses at further education colleges.

This is not to decry the efforts of colleges. As I learnt in my time as a member of the Scottish Commission on Widening Access, articulation from college to university is a tried and tested route into university. Colleges have displayed an enormous dedication to improving the education of poorer students. But in a system where half the students moving from college to university have to repeat at least one year,  there are clear issues about both the  nature of what has been learnt before university and the willingness of universities, particularly the Ancients, to credit that learning.

Sturgeon has commendably accepted many of the recommendations of the Commission, including the idea of an independent Commissioner for Fair Access – a cross between Les Ebdon and Alan Milburn, at least in their current roles – and the target that a fifth of higher education entrants by 2030 should be from the poorest fifth of neighbourhoods.

There is a danger that the access debate is simply clouded in the arguments around tuition fees. In truth, neither side has a strong enough case there. The absence of tuition fees has not obviously changed the access picture – and in other countries, the abolition of tuition fees has proved a welcome initial saving for middle class families rather than a spur to participation by the poor. But then it is hard to argue that incurring £50,000 debt on graduation in a debt-averse culture is the right answer either, even if a proportion of the fees are used to fund access and outreach and regardless of what protection may be in place for lower earning graduates.

That’s why it is not enough simply to accept radical targets. The means must be put in place too. And that means accepting also the more radical commission proposal that universities should formalise their contextual admissions work with institutional minimum thresholds that are targeted at disadvantaged students. Critics in Scotland have talked of social engineering, but the inspiration for this idea was the radical access work at St Andrews which I heard about when visiting the university.

At St Andrews, studying Physics and Astronomy has become so popular that the standard asking rates are AAAA in the Highers. Students from a widening participation background can join standard degree programmes but with a modified Gateway entry year, which has a lower asking rate for entry, typically BBBB. In their year of entry these students do about half their credits on traditional modules integrated with the rest of the intake, and about half their time on strongly tutored modules designed for this entry cohort. The early Gateway cohorts include some doctoral students.

That’s also why it is so important that the Scottish government continues to fund dedicated places at the Ancients for disadvantaged students, particularly when other places continue to be capped.  But the changes needed to meet the ambitious targets can’t just be about the Ancients. Some universities already meet the 20% target, but there is room for more higher and degree-level apprenticeships in addition to their existing offer, directly linked to employers and jobs. The overall scale of provision at Scotland’s universities deserves more debate too, with applications having risen faster over recent years than the number of places.

Of course, none of what universities or ministers might do is enough on its own. The real challenge lies in what happens in schools, where attainment gaps are evident from an early age. It is a good start providing comparable data through assessments, but that needs follow up with equally radical approaches through targeted funding, a strong drive to improve standards, and intervention and support for schools with poorer results, especially in disadvantaged areas.

But we need to go further in raising aspirations too. The Sutton Trust supports 250 students each year at its summer schools at Edinburgh and St Andrews. Other charities, like the Robertson Trust, play a vital role funding access programmes too.

It is simply not fair that 26% of places at ancient universities go to privately educated students, when less than 5% of Scottish students are educated at independent schools. We need to see a concerted drive to improve education for able, gifted and talented students in every state school from S1 (Year 7 in England) onwards too.

That’s the challenge behind today’s report. And it is one that matters for Scotland’s future success.

Wednesday 20 April 2016

Getting it right on academies

Today's exchanges at Prime Minister's Questions on academies were undoubtedly a victory for a Labour leader who has too often struggled at the weekly Commons joust. But they did little to enlighten those who watched them on the strengths and weaknesses of academies - nor did we get a convincing reason why ministers want to force all schools to adopt their legal structure.

As one who was there at the birth of academies, I have been a longstanding supporter of their original concept - a radical shift in the governance of failing schools particularly to improve standards for disadvantaged pupils. But I have had no problem either with some of the changes since 2010 - it made sense to extend them to failing primaries,something I argued on this blog in the past; and I am a director of a multi-academy trust having been a governor of the successful school which helped create it, using the freedoms given to us by academy status.

It is because of my commitment to the original idea of academies that I was so keen that the Sutton Trust commissioned the now annual Chain Effects reports. Accountability and transparency have to be central to a policy founded on independence, and before Chain Effects in 2014 there were no such comparisons across established secondary chains. Since then, the DFE has published its own tables and Ofsted has started to produce reports on chains, although its powers to do so need strengthening in any future legislation.

Chain Effects has shown a mixed picture, though reading some of the comments by opponents of academies one might imagine it to damn all academies. It focuses on attainment and improvement for disadvantaged pupils, on the grounds that 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 2015 report showed that this is happening in around a third of the chains examined. Some, including Ark, City of London and Harris – three chains that have been part of the academies programme almost since the start – were dramatically transforming the prospects of their disadvantaged pupils, with results well above the national average. Others that were clearly making a difference include the Outwood Grange academies in Yorkshire and the Mercers’ academies based on the Thomas Telford model. Around half of chains bettered the national average improvement for poorer pupils, six out of 34 significantly. 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.

When I blogged about Chain Effects last year, I suggested some reasons why this might be so. After all, early research by Steve Machin on the sponsored academies had been more positive. One reason was the pace of change. By 2010, there was a target of 400 academies with nearly 300 ready to open. Now there are 1600 sponsored academies and 3,700 converters, representing two thirds of secondaries and one sixth of primaries. And one reason for the success of the earliest academies was that the troubleshooting capacity of the education department and Andrew Adonis’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 ensure the smooth opening of new academies when the numbers created each year were in the tens rather than the hundreds. 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. There was also a real failure to insist that converters became system leaders in return for the £250,000 extra (money that local authorities ostensibly spent on their behalf) that they received in their budgets to sweeten the changes.

Now we have the latest phase of the policy. In some ways, it reminds me of how Charles Clarke moved from early scepticism about specialist schools to what would become an evangelical zeal for them as education secretary, so much so that he wanted all secondaries to become one. It turned a policy that had been achieving improvements into one that lacked differentiation and was killed off by Michael Gove in 2010, undermining an organisation that could have helped deliver mass academisation in a collaborative way in the process.

The truth is that there is no demand for forcing good schools to become academies, and there is no evidence that it will lift standards. Before the White Paper, a lot of  multi-academy trusts (MATs) had been emerging organically, often geographically based. They can play a valuable role creating economies of scale, through shared leadership and back office functions - indeed, those village schools causing Tory backbenchers to fret would be better protected in MATs with a shared head than they are now. But, while MATs can expand subject choice or improve professional development, the evidence that converting good schools to academies raises their standards is not there.

The danger of the compulsion policy is that, at a time when too many trusts are not adding value, the DFE loses focus on the failing schools, as they did in the early years of the coalition, as officials spend their time smoothing the legalities of conversions. Only this time the converters are not always going to be choosing their own fate. The weaker schools where academy status could improve their results will be the losers, as will their pupils, not least the poorest ones.

So what should ministers do now that they've announced all this, given that it is unlikely either the PM or Chancellor will want to drop the policy entirely? First, they need some tactical retreats. There is no good reason to remove the requirement of continuing parent governors, and that should be dropped. Of course, MAT boards and governing bodies need experienced directors, but they and their governing bodies need a voice of parents too. The second change they should make is to allow local authorities to create trusts with local partners to oversee academies at a sub-county or borough level, grouping perhaps a dozen primaries and a couple of secondaries together. Of course, local authorities shouldn't have majority control of the trusts any more than they do governing bodies now, but their involvement would help smooth the process where good schools are coming together. And third, the government should incentivise the change rather than mandate it, and quietly drop the wholly arbitrary 2022 deadline which makes it feel as if there is a gun to schools' heads. At some stage, a tipping point will emerge in any case if they get the incentives right.

But even that will not be enough. It still leaves the more prosaic problem of what to do with the 'middle tier' as local authorities lose their role in school standards. David Blunkett provided some good answers on that score in 2014, and the government would do well to dust them down. They should expand the number of regional school commissioners and introduce a board with local government as well as school representatives to improve accountability. And - unless they want to spend the next five years in the courts battling councils - they should leave land in trust locally.

And then they need to leave it to schools to come together in trusts themselves, helped by the legal conversion money provided by the government. DFE officials and particularly regional commissioners should focus where they can and should make a difference - on failing and coasting schools. Meanwhile, they should have a full independent evaluation of what works and what doesn't with MATs. And perhaps we could also hear no more daft statistics like the one repeated by the PM today about 88% of converters being good or outstanding, ignoring the fact that being so was a prerequisite of conversion at the start.

The tragedy of this issue is that there is a lot that is good and sensible in the white paper, where this plan provided its most toxic chapter. Ministers should allow themselves the space to advance those ideas, which can improve teaching, leadership and standards.  And there are also real issues ahead as the exam and accountability system is overhauled and detail is added to the national funding formula which very soon will require real attention from the top. Unless they address the academies issue quickly, they may soon find themselves overwhelmed.

Friday 15 April 2016

Selective primaries

I've written this blog for the Sutton Trust website on primary school admissons.

On Monday, hundreds of thousands of parents in England will learn whether or not they have secured a place for their children at their preferred primary school. For many, that will be their nearest primary; for others it may be faith-based schools. For some, there may not even be places as the demographic birth bulge continues to impact on school place planning at a time when all new schools have to be free schools.

But behind the excitement and despair of National Offer Day there is a second story at play. The issue is not just one of school choice but also of educational inequality. Primary schools, even more than secondary schools, are already the subject of social selection, with distance from schools even more important with fewer recruits each year. Selection by house price is an inevitable – and probably unchangeable – aspect of a system where we rightly place a premium on being able to walk to school and minimise the dreaded school run.

Yet that’s not the whole story. There has been a lot written about admissions policies to secondary schools. Debate still rages about grammar schools, while Sutton Trust research has shown that many successful comprehensives could be regarded as socially selective. Rather less has been said about primary school admissions policies, yet the choices made at age five can impact on social mobility as much – if not more – than those made at age eleven.

Until today, that is. In an important new analysis for the Sutton Trust, Dr Rebecca Allen and her colleagues at Education Datalab have looked in detail at the data for primary school admissions and have discovered over 1500 primaries – just under one in ten – where the difference in free school meal intake is more than nine percentage points below that of the communities from which they recruit.

The pattern seems strongest in some – though not all – London boroughs and in areas outside London where there are strong faith-based, particularly Catholic, state schools. There does seem to be a higher propensity for some academies and free schools – which can vary admissions policies from the local authority – to be among the schools that come through as more socially selective.

Importantly, Dr Allen has looked not just at where this social selection is taking place but its impact on standards. So, 13% of Ofsted outstanding primary schools fit within her rigorous definition of social selectivity compared with 7% of those requiring improvement, and just 1% of those in the bottom 10% of performance in the tests at eleven are among the most socially selective, while 14% of those in the top 10% of performance are among top 10% most socially selective primaries.

So this matters to children’s life chances, especially those of poorer pupils where earlier Sutton Trust research has identified a 19 month school readiness gap. And while some education reformers dismiss admissions issues on the grounds that they’re ‘making all schools good’, the cold reality is that some primaries (just like some secondaries or universities) will always be better, and their intakes should reflect society better when the taxpayer is footing the bill.

But what do we do about it? Were we to take a coldly scientific position we might argue for a system of lotteries in primary schools, but while they have some merit as part of the admissions policies for popular urban secondaries, such an approach would be impractical in primary schools.

Instead, we need to look at how schools apply the admissions code. We make three suggestions today. The first is that schools – including faith schools – should consider prioritising pupil premium pupils ahead of others in their admissions criteria (they already do this for children in care). The second is that we need the Admissions Code to be properly enforced, particularly in parts of London where parents have been known to rent a flat close to a good school for the application process (and no longer). And finally, while we understand the wish of the Catholic and Anglican churches to maintain the ethos of their schools, we applaud those that have already decided to make a proportion of places available for those of other faiths – something required of new faith free schools.

The attention given to secondary school choices should not blind us from the impact of social selection in primaries. Today’s new report should help start a debate on how we ensure that the best state primaries are not the preserve of the better off.

Monday 11 April 2016

Back to school for governors

I wrote this essay for Public Finance Perspectives ahead of the recent education white paper. Its relevance remains strong.

The transformation of school structures over the past decade has dramatically increased the importance of good governance in schools. Yet evidence from the school inspectorate, Ofsted, and others suggests that the rapid conversion of seven in 10 secondary schools and one in six primaries into academy schools has not always been matched by the improvements one would expect in strategic leadership.

This has thrown into sharp relief the role of school governors, who historically have played the role of non-executives in an educational context. It may also help explain why the ‘academy effect’ on standards has been patchy and far from universal.

Until 2010, the vast majority of schools were maintained by their local authority. That wasn’t the whole story: a significant minority (largely faith based) were voluntary aided, while others had a greater degree of independence as foundation schools. While schools were funded through the local authority, the government dictated which budget was for schools and which was for central services. School forums, including headteachers, governors and council officials, could vary such spending locally.

By the time the coalition government took office, around 280 schools – mainly once‑failing secondaries in disadvantaged areas – had become or were becoming academies. These schools, representing fewer than one in 10 secondaries, were funded through an education funding agency, had charitable status, usually had sponsors drawn from charities or business and had greater freedoms over pay, the curriculum, admissions and building development. Most had strong governance systems.

New landscape

It is worth briefly examining what happened next, as it has created a very different school governance landscape. Former education secretary Michael Gove radically changed the academies programme. He allowed primary schools and schools rated as successful by Ofsted to take on academy status; and he rebranded new academies and all new schools as ‘free schools’.

With primary academies, the focus was on turning around failing schools. However, a lot of time and energy was also expended in supporting good secondary converters and promoting new free schools, which increasingly are the government’s answer to shortages of school places rather than the hubs of innovation originally imagined.

For many converters, it was a financial no-brainer: their £5m or £6m budgets would be increased by around £250k a year at a time when those without significant numbers of disadvantaged pupils eligible for the pupil premium were otherwise expecting to have to lay off staff.

Although the new academies were expected to support weaker schools locally, this was not a condition of approval. As a result, innovation was slower than it might have been and the Department for Education (DfE) found it hard to get enough good sponsors for the rapidly growing number of failing schools required to become academies.

The DfE promoted some big chains, ahead of local partnerships, to replace failing schools, and they expanded more rapidly than was prudent. The worst offenders were subsequently berated by Ofsted and had to surrender some of their schools. Despite these problems, the government has extended the range of schools that it expects to become academies, including those that are coasting as well as those deemed to be failing by Ofsted.

Chain reaction

The result is a programme with mixed success. The Sutton Trust looks each year at the performance of academy chains for their disadvantaged pupils – those they were originally intended to help the most. In its 2015 Chain Effects report, it found that, after being part of chains for three years, sponsored secondary academies had lower inspection grades – and were twice as likely to be below the minimum standard set for schools by the government.

Comparing this with 2013 data, the trust found that the contrast between the best and worst chains had increased in 2014. And, when analysed against a range of government indicators on attainment, a majority of the chains still underperform against the average for all secondary schools on attainment for their disadvantaged pupils.

Notwithstanding this, there are some great success stories. The Ark and Harris chains, schools sponsored by the City of London, and the Outwood Academies established by a dynamic Yorkshire headteacher, Sir Michael Wilkins, spring to mind.

Overall, the analysis suggests that chains within geographic clusters (making it easier to share resources), a strong ‘business model’ – with clarity across the chain on issues such as curriculum, teaching and data – and with growth at a manageable pace have succeeded significantly faster than schools generally. But the rest have performed at or below the national average.

The Sutton Trust focused on chains that had been in operation for at least three years, and it may be that newer chains do better. A wider analysis by the National Foundation for Education Research of sponsored and converter academies found that, although progress between the ages of 11 and 16 in sponsored academies (those replacing failing schools) is better than in local authority schools, there is no significant difference between converters and the remaining local authority schools. Moreover, the additional sponsored academy gains largely reflect a wider use of vocational qualifications that ministers have since downgraded because they believe they overinflate GCSE scores.

So, although the evidence on academy attainment is complex, the findings do give an indication of the challenging and ever-shifting context within which school governance has been operating – and the issues that school trustees, directors and governors have had to grapple with.

Multi-academy tasking

Meanwhile, another important change is happening in the system, which could have a profound impact if it works. Ministers have shifted their focus – after the embarrassments of the failing chains – away from national academy chains to local multi-academy trusts (MATs), which now include three-fifths of academies.

Typically centred around a successful local school (in the same fashion as some successful chains), they are selling it as a way both to achieve economies of scale and to drive up standards through a collaborative approach. The MAT will have a chief executive overseeing several schools, often both primary and secondary, which can share business, back office and teacher training functions. Only one in six primaries are currently academies, so ministers are particularly keen to see MATs bring small primaries together, perhaps with a single head, to increase the programme.

Yet there may be as big an issue with the governance of the new MATs as there has been with the way many of the less successful chains have been run.

In local authority schools, parents, teachers and the occasional community governor often made up the governing body, which often exceeded 15 members – there are around 300,000 school governors in England. While they had significant responsibilities, including over the budget and hiring of the head, it was a less daunting task than the role of a MAT director, whose responsibilities are closer to those of a business non-executive director or charity trustee. Increasingly, governors are expected to be recruited on talent rather than on their links to the schools.

The ‘Trojan Horse’ schools scandal in Birmingham – where governors were accused of putting their personal and religious ideology ahead of the pupils – was one of a number of issues that prompted Sir Michael Wilshaw, the schools chief inspector, to launch a review last November of the quality of school governance. He wants mandatory training for governors and MAT trustees, with payments for chairs and vice-chairs to attract more good people to the roles.

“In short, the role is so important that amateurish governance will no longer do,” he said. “Governing bodies made up of people who are not properly trained and who do not understand the importance of their role are not fit for purpose in the modern and complex educational landscape.” While the DfE has ignored the payment proposal, it says it is spending £2.4m on the recruitment and training of governors.

Fit for governance?

Whether there are enough volunteers of the right calibre to provide the required strategic governance is the key question, as the government continues its rapid academy expansion. A National Governors’ Association/TES survey last year showed that half of governors do not have a day job, and a further 20% get no time off for governance. So there is an important role here for employers in encouraging staff to become governors, something the CBI says it supports.

With the much more business-like approach of the new boards, such expertise will be vital. Equally, it will be important that board members as well as governors reflect the wider community. A 2014 analysis by the University of Bath for the National Governors’ Association showed that 96% of governors are white and many are retired.

The reality is that a fundamental shift in the structural operation of schools has not been accompanied by anything like the rigour needed to improve governance both locally and in national academy chains.

As multi-academy board members, trustees and directors are expected to be largely strategically focused on finance, trust-wide policies, leadership recruitment and pay, trust development and expansion, whereas school governors should focus much more on the academic attainment of their students, probing behind ostensibly good headline results.

MAT boards also need to be smaller, with specialist committees on audit, finance and pay that are MAT-wide. Sir Michael says governors and trustees should avoid “marginal issues” of day-to-day management that ought to be dealt with by school leaders. Multi-academy trusts may have budgets of £20m or more – school budgets total £46bn nationally – so audit responsibilities are particularly important.

As the government shifts from chains to MATs as its preferred schools delivery model, there is a big demand for senior people in the public and private sectors to take on all these roles. It remains an open question though as to whether this scale of ambition can attract the right calibre of trustees and governors – with the experience and vision needed to oversee the effective use of so much public money.

Thursday 21 January 2016

Losing focus

In my latest Sutton Trust blog post, I worry that plans for an over-complex accountability system could backfire.

All credit to Centreforum and Datalab for their detailed report this week showing the likely impact of the myriad changes to the exam accountability system planned over the next few years. They made a commendable effort to develop a new set of indicators that they argue allow us to judge schools in years to come against the standards achieved by other developed nations.

But in performing this service, their report also highlights something else which we should take on board on the day the government publishes the latest league tables. It shows how the system is in danger of losing long-term comparability, bamboozling parents with a level of complexity that is meaningful only to dedicated statisticians and mislabelling a host of improving schools as failures. Taken together – and a lot of the changes are phased - there is a real danger that they will damage rather than improve standards, not least for the poorest students.

The starting point for all these changes was built on an assumption – utterly false, it has to be said – that previous governments had tried to undermine exam standards to flatter school performance on their watch. True, there is much to be said for raising the bar in exams, just as has been done with floor standards, but the question will be whether the price is worth it. So, the new system will effectively lift the minimum threshold expected for GCSE students from a grade C to a level 5 on a new nine-point scale, making the minimum somewhere between a B and a C.

At the same time, there is a move to assess progress in the best eight subjects as a key standard, as well as giving extra credit for attainment in English and Maths. It is not clear how this related to an extraordinarily ambitious expectation that 90% of pupils – it was 100% in the Conservative manifesto, but was reduced after representations - will be expected to study the academic subjects which ministers call the English Baccalaurate., though it is not clear how many will get the EBacc – only 39% currently enter all the subjects and just 24% achieve five grade Cs in them.

The argument is that by raising the standard, our results will be closer to those in other OECD countries. In its report, Centreforum argues that 50 points would become the new equivalent of five good GCSEs, as a minimum expectation for schools.

All well and good. But in the process, we will no longer be able to compile time series showing how schools are performing over time. We will have no idea from the data whether standards are really better – Ofqual has established more credibility than the old Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, but both are just quangos. Crucially, too, while schools may have an expectation that more students gain the higher grade 5 as the norm, there is no real incentive to do so.

The D-C borderline was widely criticised, but it recognised that for employers and sixth form studies, there was a world of difference between the two grades. Can the same really be said about a 3, 4 or 5 in the new system? Equally, while there are more points for a top grade, is there sufficient incentive to stretch at the top? I understand that there will be a little extra gain moving from a B to an A though the differentiation between 7, 8 and 9 will be finer than the current A and A* but will this be enough to outweigh the incentives lower down the scale? Why not report the proportion of pupils gaining grade 7+ as well as the overall scores if we want to encourage stretch?

But there are two other causes for concern in this upheaval. The first is that parents and employers – who have a fair idea what an A, B or C means – are likely to be left utterly baffled by the new grading system. Instead of enhancing accountability for them, it is likely to reduce it. And the second is that it is likely to leave many schools that have greatly improved their threshold scores thanks to floor targets started by Labour and maintained by the current government floundering once again, giving an appearance of failure from which – lacking the resilience of the much touted King Solomon Academy – they may find it hard to recover. Disadvantaged students for whom five good GCSEs was a real and worthwhile achievement may find their efforts deemed worthless again.

Of course, over time, it may be that the new system becomes the rigorous accountability mechanism that is the hope of its creators. The worry is that in the journey towards that point, too many passengers find themselves abandoned en route.

And none of this addresses the issues in primary school. In an act of incomprehensible madness, the system of levels by which primary schools have been judged for 20 years – and which are well understood in schools - is to be abandoned in favour of ‘scaled scores’ – supposedly ensuring consistency of standards from one year to the next – while schools can do what they like.

Most seem to want to keep levels, and the Centreforum report works on the reasonable assumption that level 4b (slightly higher than the current ‘expected’ grade) will be the benchmark. The level of ambition in primary schools is welcome, and 4b a better guide to GCSE success than anyone getting a level 4. But comparability is being lost, schools won’t have a common currency and needless chaos is being introduced where some modest adjustment would have been enough.

Sir Michael Wilshaw was absolutely right when he said at the Centreforum launch on Monday: “There will be many who think your ambitions for the future of English education are too bold and too unrealistic. I am not one of them. We simply have to aim high. Unless we can compete with the best jurisdictions in the world, all our hopes for a fair, cohesive and prosperous society will come to very little.”

However, all this tinkering with the way we measure success is in danger of overwhelming a system that should be focused on improving attainment and reducing gaps for disadvantaged pupils. The commendable focus of the last five years will be lost in a blizzard of incomprehension and new statistics. The irony is that all this change may leave us none the wiser, and set back the cause of education reform for a generation.