‘Poor but Bright’ v ‘Poor but Dim’


light-147810_640This post explores whether, in supporting learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, educators should prioritise low attainers over high attainers, or give them equal priority.





Last week I took umbrage at a blog post and found myself engaged in a Twitter discussion with the author, one Mr Thomas.



Put crudely, the discussion hinged on the question whether the educational needs of ‘poor but dim’ learners should take precedence over those of the ‘poor but bright’. (This is Mr Thomas’s shorthand, not mine.)

He argued that the ‘poor but dim’ are the higher priority; I countered that all poor learners should have equal priority, regardless of their ability and prior attainment.

We began to explore the issue:

  • as a matter of educational policy and principle
  • with reference to inputs – the allocation of financial and human resources between these competing priorities and
  • in terms of outcomes – the comparative benefits to the economy and to society from investment at the top or the bottom of the attainment spectrum.

This post presents the discussion, adding more flesh and gloss from the Gifted Phoenix perspective.

It might or might not stimulate some interest in how this slightly different take on a rather hoary old chestnut plays out in England’s current educational landscape.

But I am particularly interested in how gifted advocates in different countries respond to these arguments. What is the consensus, if any, on the core issue?

Depending on the answer to this first question, how should gifted advocates frame the argument for educationalists and the wider public?

To help answer the first question I have included a poll at the end of the post.

Do please respond to that – and feel free to discuss the second question in the comments section below.

The structure of the post is fairly complex, comprising:

  • A (hopefully objective) summary of Mr Thomas’s original post.
  • An embedded version of the substance of our Twitter conversation. I have removed some Tweets – mostly those from third parties – and reordered a little to make this more accessible. I don’t believe I’ve done any significant damage to either case.
  • Some definition of terms, because there is otherwise much cause for confusion as we push further into the debate.
  • A digressionary exploration of the evidence base, dealing with attainment data and budget allocations respectively. The former exposes what little we are told about how socio-economic gaps vary across the attainment spectrum; the latter is relevant to the discussion of inputs. Those pressed for time may wish to proceed directly to…
  • …A summing up, which expands in turn the key points we exchanged on the point of principle, on inputs and on outcomes respectively.

I have reserved until close to the end a few personal observations about the encounter and how it made me feel.

And I conclude with the customary brief summary of key points and the aforementioned poll.

It is an ambitious piece and I am in two minds as to whether it hangs together properly, but you are ultimately the judges of that.


What Mr Thomas Blogged

The post was called ‘The Romance of the Poor but Bright’ and the substance of the argument (incorporating several key quotations) ran like this:

  • The ‘effort and resources, of schools but particularly of business and charitable enterprise, are directed disproportionately at those who are already high achieving – the poor but bright’.
  • Moreover ‘huge effort is expended on access to the top universities, with great sums being spent to make marginal improvements to a small set of students at the top of the disadvantaged spectrum. They cite the gap in entry, often to Oxbridge, as a significant problem that blights our society.’
  • This however is ‘the pretty face of the problem. The far uglier face is the gap in life outcomes for those who take least well to education.’
  • Popular discourse is easily caught up in the romance of the poor but bright’ but ‘we end up ignoring the more pressing problem – of students for whom our efforts will determine whether they ever get a job or contribute to society’. For ‘when did you last hear someone advocate for the poor but dim?’ 
  • ‘The gap most damaging to society is in life outcomes for the children who perform least well at school.’ Three areas should be prioritised to improve their educational outcomes:

o   Improving alternative provision (AP) which ‘operates as a shadow school system, largely unknown and wholly unappreciated’ - ‘developing a national network of high–quality alternative provision…must be a priority if we are to close the gap at the bottom’.

o   Improving ‘consistency in SEN support’ because ‘schools are often ill equipped to cope with these, and often manage only because of the extraordinary effort of dedicated staff’. There is ‘inconsistency in funding and support between local authorities’.

o   Introducing clearer assessment of basic skills, ‘so that a student could not appear to be performing well unless they have mastered the basics’.

  • While ‘any student failing to meet their potential is a dreadful thing’, the educational successes of ‘students with incredibly challenging behaviour’ and ‘complex special needs…have the power to change the British economy, far more so than those of their brighter peers.’

A footnote adds ‘I do not believe in either bright or dim, only differences in epigenetic coding or accumulated lifetime practice, but that is a discussion for another day.’

Indeed it is.


Our ensuing Twitter discussion

The substance of our Twitter discussion is captured in the embedded version immediately below. (Scroll down to the bottom for the beginning and work your way back to the top.)



Defining Terms


Poor, Bright and Dim

I take poor to mean socio-economic disadvantage, as opposed to any disadvantage attributable to the behaviours, difficulties, needs, impairments or disabilities associated with AP and/or SEN.

I recognise of course that such a distinction is more theoretical than practical, because, when learners experience multiple causes of disadvantage, the educational response must be holistic rather than disaggregated.

Nevertheless, the meaning of ‘poor’ is clear – that term cannot be stretched to include these additional dimensions of disadvantage.

The available performance data foregrounds two measures of socio-economic disadvantage: current eligibility for and take up of free school meals (FSM) and qualification for the deprivation element of the Pupil Premium, determined by FSM eligibility at some point within the last 6 years (known as ‘ever-6’).

Both are used in this post. Distinctions are typically between the disadvantaged learners and non-disadvantaged learners, though some of the supporting data compares outcomes for disadvantaged learners with outcomes for all learners, advantaged and disadvantaged alike.

The gaps that need closing are therefore:

  • between ‘poor and bright’ and other ‘bright’ learners (The Excellence Gap) and 
  • between ‘poor and dim’ and other ‘dim’ learners. I will christen this The Foundation Gap.

The core question is whether The Foundation Gap takes precedence over The Excellence Gap or vice versa, or whether they should have equal billing.

This involves immediate and overt recognition that classification as AP and/or SEN is not synonymous with the epithet ‘poor’, because there are many comparatively advantaged learners within these populations.

But such a distinction is not properly established in Mr Thomas’ blog, which applies the epithet ‘poor’ but then treats the AP and SEN populations as homogenous and somehow associated with it.


By ‘dim’ I take Mr Thomas to mean the lowest segment of the attainment distribution – one of his tweets specifically mentions ‘the bottom 20%’. The AP and/or SEN populations are likely to be disproportionately represented within these two deciles, but they are not synonymous with it either.

This distinction will not be lost on gifted advocates who are only too familiar with the very limited attention paid to twice exceptional learners.

Those from poor backgrounds within the AP and/or SEN populations are even more likely to be disproportionately represented in ‘the bottom 20%’ than their more advantaged peers, but even they will not constitute the entirety of ‘the bottom 20%’. A Venn diagram would likely show significant overlap, but that is all.

Hence disadvantaged AP/SEN are almost certainly a relatively poor proxy for the ‘poor but dim’.

That said I could find no data that quantifies these relationships.

The School Performance Tables distinguish a ‘low attainer’ cohort. (In the Secondary Tables the definition is determined by prior KS2 attainment and in the Primary Tables by prior KS1 attainment.)

These populations comprise some 15.7% of the total population in the Secondary Tables and about 18.0% in the Primary Tables. But neither set of Tables applies the distinction in their reporting of the attainment of those from disadvantaged backgrounds.


It follows from the definition of ‘dim’ that, by ‘bright’, MrThomas probably intends the two corresponding deciles at the top of the attainment distribution (even though he seems most exercised about the subset with the capacity to progress to competitive universities, particularly Oxford and Cambridge. This is a far more select group of exceptionally high attainers – and an even smaller group of exceptionally high attainers from disadvantaged backgrounds.)

A few AP and/or SEN students will likely fall within this wider group, fewer still within the subset of exceptionally high attainers. AP and/or SEN students from disadvantaged backgrounds will be fewer again, if indeed there are any at all.

The same issues with data apply. The School Performance Tables distinguish ‘high attainers’, who constitute over 32% of the secondary cohort and 25% of the primary cohort. As with low attainers, we cannot isolate the performance of those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

We are forced to rely on what limited data is made publicly available to distinguish the performance of disadvantaged low and high attainers.

At the top of the distribution there is a trickle of evidence about performance on specific high attainment measures and access to the most competitive universities. Still greater transparency is fervently to be desired.

At the bottom, I can find very little relevant data at all – we are driven inexorably towards analyses of the SEN population, because that is the only dataset differentiated by disadvantage, even though we have acknowledged that such a proxy is highly misleading. (Equivalent AP attainment data seems conspicuous by its absence.)


AP and SEN

Before exploring these datasets I ought to provide some description of the different programmes and support under discussion here, if only for the benefit of readers who are unfamiliar with the English education system.


Alternative Provision (AP) is intended to meet the needs of a variety of vulnerable learners:

‘They include pupils who have been excluded or who cannot attend mainstream school for other reasons: for example, children with behaviour issues, those who have short- or long-term illness, school phobics, teenage mothers, pregnant teenagers, or pupils without a school place.’

AP is provided in a variety of settings where learners engage in timetabled education activities away from their school and school staff.

Providers include further education colleges, charities, businesses, independent schools and the public sector. Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) are perhaps the best-known settings – there are some 400 nationally.

A review of AP was undertaken by Taylor in 2012 and the Government subsequently embarked on a substantive improvement programme. This rather gives the lie to Mr Thomas’ contention that AP is ‘largely unknown and wholly unappreciated’.

Taylor complains of a lack of reliable data about the number of learners in AP but notes that the DfE’s 2011 AP census recorded 14,050 pupils in PRUs and a further 23,020 in other settings on a mixture of full-time and part-time placements. This suggests a total of slightly over 37,000 learners, though the FTE figure is unknown.

He states that AP learners are:

‘…twice as likely as the average pupil to qualify for free school meals’

A supporting Equality Impact Assessment qualifies this somewhat:

‘In Jan 2011, 34.6% of pupils in PRUs and 13.8%* of pupils in other AP, were eligible for and claiming free school meals, compared with 14.6% of pupils in secondary schools. [*Note: in some AP settings, free school meals would not be available, so that figure is under-stated, but we cannot say by how much.]’

If the PRU population is typical of the wider AP population, approximately one third qualify under this FSM measure of disadvantage, meaning that the substantial majority are not ‘poor’ according to our definition above.

Taylor confirms that overall GCSE performance in AP is extremely low, pointing out that in 2011 just 1.4% achieved five or more GCSE grades A*-C including [GCSEs in] maths and English, compared to 53.4% of pupils in all schools.

By 2012/13 the comparable percentages were 1.7% and 61.7% respectively (the latter for all state-funded schools), suggesting an increasing gap in overall performance. This is a cause for concern but not directly relevant to the issue under consideration.

The huge disparity is at least partly explained by the facts that many AP students take alternative qualifications and that the national curriculum does not apply to PRUs.

Data is available showing the full range of qualifications pursued. Taylor recommended that all students in AP should continue to receive ‘appropriate and challenging English and Maths teaching’.

Interestingly, he also pointed out that:

‘In some PRUs and AP there is no provision for more able pupils who end up leaving without the GCSE grades they are capable of earning.’

However, he fails to offer a specific recommendation to address this point.


Special Educational Needs (SEN) are needs or disabilities that affect children’s ability to learn. These may include behavioural and social difficulties, learning difficulties or physical impairments.

This area has also been subject to a major Government reform programme now being implemented.

There is significant overlap between AP and SEN, with Taylor’s review of the former noting that the population in PRUs is 79% SEN.

We know from the 2013 SEN statistics that 12.6% of all pupils on roll at PRUs had SEN statements and 68.9% had SEN without statements. But these populations represent only a tiny proportion of the total SEN population in schools.

SEN learners also have higher than typical eligibility for FSM. In January 2013, 30.1% of all SEN categories across all primary, secondary and special schools were FSM-eligible, roughly twice the rate for all pupils. However, this means that almost seven in ten are not caught by the definition of ‘poor’ provided above.

In 2012/13 23.4% of all SEN learners achieved five or more GCSEs at A*-C or equivalent, including GCSEs in English and maths, compared with 70.4% of those having no identified SEN – another significant overall gap, but not directly relevant to our comparison of the ‘poor but bright’ and the ‘poor but dim’.


Data on socio-economic attainment gaps across the attainment spectrum

Those interested in how socio-economic attainment gaps vary at different attainment levels cannot fail to be struck by how little material of this kind is published, particularly in the secondary sector, when such gaps tend to increase in size.

One cannot entirely escape the conviction that this reticence deliberately masks some inconvenient truths.

  • The ideal would be to have the established high/middle/low attainer distinctions mapped directly onto performance by advantaged/disadvantaged learners in the Performance Tables but, as we have indicated, this material is conspicuous by its absence. Perhaps it will appear in the Data Portal now under development.
  • Our next best option is to examine socio-economic attainment gaps on specific attainment measures that will serve as decent proxies for high/middle/low attainment. We can do this to some extent but the focus is disproportionately on the primary sector because the Secondary Tables do not include proper high attainment measures (such as measures based exclusively on GCSE performance at grades A*/A). Maybe the Portal will come to the rescue here as well. We can however supply some basic Oxbridge fair access data.
  • The least preferable option is deploy our admittedly poor proxies for low attainers – SEN and AP. But there isn’t much information from this source either. 

The analysis below looks consecutively at data for the primary and secondary sectors.



We know, from the 2013 Primary School Performance Tables, that the percentage of disadvantaged and other learners achieving different KS2 levels in reading, writing and maths combined, in 2013 and 2012 respectively, were as follows:


Table 1: Percentage of disadvantaged and all other learners achieving each national curriculum level at KS2 in 2013 in reading, writing and maths combined

L3  or below L4  or above L4B or above L5 or above
Dis Oth Gap Dis Oth Gap Dis Oth Gap Dis Oth Gap
2013 13 5 +8 63 81 -18 49 69 -20 10 26 -16
2012 x x x 61 80 -19 x x x 9 24 -15


This tells us relatively little, apart from the fact that disadvantaged learners are heavily over-represented at L3 and below and heavily under-represented at L5 and above.

The L5 gap is somewhat lower than the gaps at L4 and 4B respectively, but not markedly so. However, the L5 gap has widened slightly since 2012 while the reverse is true at L4.

This next table synthesises data from SFR51/13: ‘National curriculum assessments at key stage 2: 2012 to 2013’. It also shows gaps for disadvantage, as opposed to FSM gaps.


Table 2: Percentage of disadvantaged and all other learners achieving each national curriculum level, including differentiation by gender, in each 2013 end of KS2 test

L3 L4 L4B L5 L6
D O Gap D O Gap D O Gap D O Gap D O Gap
Reading All 12 6 +6 48 38 +10 63 80 -17 30 50 -20 0 1 -1
B 13 7 +6 47 40 +7 59 77 -18 27 47 -20 0 0 0
G 11 5 +6 48 37 +11 67 83 -16 33 54 -21 0 1 -1
GPS All 28 17 +11 28 25 +3 52 70 -18 33 51 -18 1 2 -1
B 30 20 +10 27 27 0 45 65 -20 28 46 -18 0 2 -2
G 24 13 +11 28 24 +4 58 76 -18 39 57 -18 1 3 -2
Maths All 16 9 +7 50 41 +9 62 78 -16 24 39 -15 2 8 -6
B 15 8 +7 48 39 +9 63 79 -16 26 39 -13 3 10 -7
G 17 9 +8 52 44 +8 61 78 -17 23 38 -15 2 7 -5


This tells a relatively consistent story across each test and for boys as well as girls.

We can see that, at Level 4 and below, learners from disadvantaged backgrounds are in the clear majority, perhaps with the exception of L4 GPS.  But at L4B and above they are very much in the minority.

Moreover, with the exception of L6 where low percentages across the board mask the true size of the gaps, disadvantaged learners tend to be significantly more under-represented at L4B and above than they are over-represented at L4 and below.

A different way of looking at this data is to compare the percentages of advantaged and disadvantaged learners respectively at L4 and L5 in each assessment.

  • Reading: Amongst disadvantaged learners the proportion at L5 is -18 percentage points fewer than the proportion at L4, but amongst advantaged learners the proportion at L5 is +12 percentage points higher than at L4.
  • GPS: Amongst disadvantaged learners the proportion at L5 is +5 percentage points more than the proportion at L4, but amongst advantaged learners the proportion at L5 is +26 percentage points higher than at L4.
  • Maths: Amongst disadvantaged learners the proportion at L5 is -26 percentage points fewer than the proportion at L4, but amongst advantaged learners the proportion at L5 is only 2 percentage points fewer than at L4.

If we look at 2013 gaps compared with 2012 (with teacher assessment of writing included in place of the GSP test introduced in 2013) we can see there has been relatively little change across the board, with the exception of L5 maths, which has been affected by the increasing success of advantaged learners at L6.


Table 3: Percentage of disadvantaged and all other learners achieving  national curriculum levels 3-6 in each of reading, writing and maths in 2012 and 2013 respectively

L3 L4 L5 L6
D O Gap D O Gap D O Gap D O Gap
Reading 2012 11 6 +5 46 36 +10 33 54 -21 0 0 0
2013 12 6 +6 48 38 +10 30 50 -20 0 1 -1
Writing 2012 22 11 +11 55 52 +3 15 32 -17 0 1 -1
2013 19 10 +9 56 52 +4 17 34 -17 1 2 -1
Maths 2012 17 9 +8 50 41 +9 23 43 -20 1 4 -3
2013 16 9 +9 50 41 +9 24 39 -15 2 8 -6


To summarise, as far as KS2 performance is concerned, there are significant imbalances at both the top and the bottom of the attainment distribution and these gaps have not changed significantly since 2012. There is some evidence to suggest that gaps at the top are larger than those at the bottom.



Unfortunately there is a dearth of comparable data at secondary level, principally because of the absence of published measures of high attainment.

SFR05/2014 provides us with FSM gaps (as opposed to disadvantaged gaps) for a series of GCSE measures, none of which serve our purpose particularly well:

  • 5+ A*-C GCSE grades: gap = 16.0%
  • 5+ A*-C grades including English and maths GCSEs: gap = 26.7%
  • 5+ A*-G grades: gap = 7.6%
  • 5+ A*-G grades including English and maths GCSEs: gap = 9.9%
  • A*-C grades in English and maths GCSEs: gap = 26.6%
  • Achieving the English Baccalaureate: gap = 16.4%

Perhaps all we can deduce is that the gaps vary considerably in size, but tend to be smaller for the relatively less demanding and larger for the relatively more demanding measures.

For specific high attainment measures we are forced to rely principally on data snippets released in answer to occasional Parliamentary Questions.

For example:

  • In 2003, 1.0% of FSM-eligible learners achieved five or more GCSEs at A*/A including English and maths but excluding equivalents, compared with 6.8% of those not eligible, giving a gap of 5.8%. By 2009 the comparable percentages were 1.7% and 9.0% respectively, giving an increased gap of 7.3% (Col 568W)
  • In 2006/07, the percentage of FSM-eligible pupils securing A*/A grades at GCSE in different subjects, compared with the percentage of all pupils in maintained schools doing so were as shown in the table below (Col 808W)


Table 4: Percentage of FSM-eligible and all pupils achieving GCSE A*/A grades in different GCSE subjects in 2007

FSM All pupils Gap
Maths 3.7 15.6 11.9
Eng lit 4.1 20.0 15.9
Eng lang 3.5 16.4 12.9
Physics 2.2 49.0 46.8
Chemistry 2.5 48.4 45.9
Biology 2.5 46.8 44.3
French 3.5 22.9 19.4
German 2.8 23.2 20.4


  • In 2008, 1% of FSM-eligible learners in maintained schools achieved A* in GCSE maths compared with 4% of all pupils in maintained schools. The comparable percentages for Grade A were 3% and 10% respectively, giving an A*/A gap of 10% (Col 488W)

There is much variation in the subject-specific outcomes at A*/A described above. But, when it comes to the overall 5+ GCSEs high attainment measure based on grades A*/A, the gap is much smaller than on the corresponding standard measure based on grades A*-C.

Further material of broadly the same vintage is available in a 2007 DfE statistical publication: ‘The Characteristics of High Attainers’.

There is a complex pattern in evidence here which is very hard to explain with the limited data available. More time series data of this nature – illustrating Excellence and Foundation Gaps alike – should be published annually so that we have a more complete and much more readily accessible dataset.

I could find no information at all about the comparative performance of disadvantaged learners in AP settings compared with those not from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Data is published showing the FSM gap for SEN learners on all the basic GCSE measures listed above. I have retained the generic FSM gaps in brackets for the sake of comparison:

  • 5+ A*-C GCSE grades: gap = 12.5% (16.0%)
  • 5+ A*-C grades including English and maths GCSEs: gap = 12.1% (26.7%)
  • 5+ A*-G grades: gap = 10.4% (7.6%)
  • 5+ A*-G grades including English and maths GCSEs: gap = 13.2% (9.9%)
  • A*-C grades in English and maths GCSEs: gap = 12.3% (26.6%)
  • Achieving the English Baccalaureate: gap = 3.5% (16.4%)

One can see that the FSM gaps for the more demanding measures are generally lower for SEN learners than they are for all learners. This may be interesting but, for the reasons given above, this is not a reliable proxy for the FSM gap amongst ‘dim’ learners.


When it comes to fair access to Oxbridge, I provided a close analysis of much relevant data in this post from November 2013.

The chart below shows the number of 15 year-olds eligible for and claiming FSM at age 15 who progressed to Oxford or Cambridge by age 19. The figures are rounded to the nearest five.


Chart 1: FSM-eligible learners admitted to Oxford and Cambridge 2005/06 to 2010/11

Oxbridge chart


In sum, there has been no change in these numbers over the last six years for which data has been published. So while there may have been consistently significant expenditure on access agreements and multiple smaller mentoring programmes, it has had negligible impact on this measure at least.

My previous post set out a proposal for what to do about this sorry state of affairs.



For the purposes of this discussion we need ideally to identify and compare total national budgets for the ‘poor but bright’ and the ‘poor but dim’. But that is simply not possible. 

Many funding streams cannot be disaggregated in this manner. As we have seen, some – including the AP and SEN budgets – may be aligned erroneously with the second of these groups, although they also support learners who are neither ‘poor’ nor ‘dim’ and have a broader purpose than raising attainment. 

There may be some debate, too, about which funding streams should be weighed in the balance.

On the ‘bright but poor’ side, do we include funding for grammar schools, even though the percentage of disadvantaged learners attending many of them is virtually negligible (despite recent suggestions that some are now prepared to do something about this)? Should the Music and Dance Scheme (MDS) be within scope of this calculation?

The best I can offer is a commentary that gives a broad sense of orders of magnitude, to illustrate in very approximate terms how the scales tend to tilt more towards the ‘poor but dim’ rather than the ‘poor but bright’, but also to weave in a few relevant asides about some of the funding streams in question.


Pupil Premium and the EEF

I begin with the Pupil Premium – providing schools with additional funding to raise the attainment of disadvantaged learners.

The Premium is not attached to the learners who qualify for it, so schools are free to aggregate the funding and use it as they see fit. They are held accountable for these decisions through Ofsted inspection and the gap-narrowing measures in the Performance Tables.

Mr Thomas suggests in our Twitter discussion that AP students are not significant beneficiaries of such support, although provision in PRUs features prominently in the published evaluation of the Premium. It is for local authorities to determine how Pupil Premium funding is allocated in AP settings.

One might also make a case that ‘bright but poor’ learners are not a priority either, despite suggestions from the Pupil Premium Champion to the contrary.



As we have seen, the Performance Tables are not sharply enough focused on the excellence gaps at the top of the distribution and I have shown elsewhere that Ofsted’s increased focus on the most able does not yet extend to the impact on those attracting the Pupil Premium, even though there was a commitment that it would do so. 

If there is Pupil Premium funding heading towards high attainers from disadvantaged backgrounds, the limited data to which we have access does not yet suggest a significant impact on the size of Excellence Gaps. 

The ‘poor but bright’ are not a priority for the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) either.

This 2011 paper explains that it is prioritising the performance of disadvantaged learners in schools below the floor targets. At one point it says:

‘Looking at the full range of GCSE results (as opposed to just the proportions who achieve the expected standards) shows that the challenge facing the EEF is complex – it is not simply a question of taking pupils from D to C (the expected level of attainment). Improving results across the spectrum of attainment will mean helping talented pupils to achieve top grades, while at the same time raising standards amongst pupils currently struggling to pass.’

But this is just after it has shown that the percentages of disadvantaged high attainers in its target schools are significantly lower than elsewhere. Other things being equal, the ‘poor but dim’ will be the prime beneficiaries.

It may now be time for the EEF to expand its focus to all schools. A diagram from this paper – reproduced below – demonstrates that, in 2010, the attainment gap between FSM and non-FSM was significantly larger in schools above the floor than in those below the floor that the EEF is prioritising. This is true in both the primary and secondary sectors.

It would be interesting to see whether this is still the case.


EEF Capture


AP and SEN

Given the disaggregation problems discussed above, this section is intended simply to give some basic sense of orders of magnitude – lending at least some evidence to counter Mr Thomas’ assertion that the ‘effort and resources, of schools… are directed disproportionately at those who are already high achieving – the poor but bright’.

It is surprisingly hard to get a grip on the overall national budget for AP. A PQ from early 2011 (Col 75W) supplies a net current expenditure figure for all English local authorities of £530m.

Taylor’s Review fails to offer a comparable figure but my rough estimates based on the per pupil costs he supplies suggests a revenue budget of at least £400m. (Taylor suggests average per pupil costs of £9,500 per year for full-time AP, although PRU places are said to cost between £12,000 and £18,000 per annum.)

I found online a consultation document from Kent – England’s largest local authority – stating its revenue costs at over £11m in FY2014-15. Approximately 454 pupils attended Kent’s AP/PRU provision in 2012-13.

There must also be a significant capital budget. There are around 400 PRUs, not to mention a growing cadre of specialist AP academies and free schools. The total capital cost of the first AP free school – Derby Pride Academy – was £2.147m for a 50 place setting.

In FY2011-12, total annual national expenditure on SEN was £5.77 billion (Col 391W). There will have been some cost-cutting as a consequence of the latest reforms, but the order of magnitude is clear.

The latest version of the SEN Code of Practice outlines the panoply of support available, including the compulsory requirement that each school has a designated teacher to be responsible for co-ordinating SEN provision (the SENCO).

In short, the national budget for AP is sizeable and the national budget for SEN is huge. Per capita expenditure is correspondingly high. If we could isolate the proportion of these budgets allocated to raising the attainment of the ‘poor but dim’, the total would be substantial.


Fair Access, especially to Oxbridge, and some related observations

Mr Thomas refers specifically to funding to support fair access to universities – especially Oxbridge – for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is another area in which it is hard to get a grasp on total expenditure, not least because of the many small-scale mentoring projects that exist.

Mr Thomas is quite correct to remark on the sheer number of these, although they are relatively small beer in budgetary terms. (One suspects that they would be much more efficient and effective if they could be linked together within some sort of overarching framework.)

The Office for Fair Access (OFFA) estimates University access agreement expenditure on outreach in 2014-15 at £111.9m and this has to be factored in, as does DfE’s own small contribution – the Future Scholar Awards.

Were any expenditure in this territory to be criticised, it would surely be the development and capital costs for new selective 16-19 academies and free schools that specifically give priority to disadvantaged students.

The sums are large, perhaps not outstandingly so compared with national expenditure on SEN for example, but they will almost certainly benefit only a tiny localised proportion of the ‘bright but poor’ population.

There are several such projects around the country. Some of the most prominent are located in London.

The London Academy of Excellence (capacity 420) is fairly typical. It cost an initial £4.7m to establish plus an annual lease requiring a further £400K annually.

But this is dwarfed by the projected costs of the Harris Westminster Sixth Form, scheduled to open in September 2014. Housed in a former government building, the capital cost is reputed to be £45m for a 500-place institution.

There were reportedly disagreements within Government:

‘It is understood that the £45m cost was subject to a “significant difference of opinion” within the DfE where critics say that by concentrating large resources on the brightest children at a time when budgets are constrained means other children might miss out…

But a spokeswoman for the DfE robustly defended the plans tonight. “This is an inspirational collaboration between the country’s top academy chain and one of the best private schools in the country,” she said. “It will give hundreds of children from low income families across London the kind of top quality sixth-form previously reserved for the better off.”’

Here we have in microcosm the debate to which this post is dedicated.

One blogger – a London College Principal – pointed out that the real issue was not whether the brightest should benefit over others, but how few of the ‘poor but bright’ would do so:

‘£45m could have a transformative effect on thousands of 16-19 year olds across London… £45m could have funded at least 50 extra places in each college for over 10 years, helped build excellent new facilities for all students and created a city-wide network to support gifted and talented students in sixth forms across the capital working with our partner universities and employers.’


Summing Up

There are three main elements to the discussion: the point of principle, the inputs and the impact. The following sections deal with each of these in turn.



Put bluntly, should ‘poor but dim’ kids have higher priority for educators than ‘poor but bright’ kids (Mr Thomas’ position) or should all poor kids have equal priority and an equal right to the support they need to achieve their best (the Gifted Phoenix position)?

For Mr Thomas, it seems this priority is determined by whether – and how far – the learner is behind undefined ‘basic levels of attainment’ and/or mastery of ‘the basics’ (presumably literacy and numeracy).

Those below the basic attainment threshold have higher priority than those above it. He does not say so but this logic suggests that those furthest below the threshold are the highest priority and those furthest above are the lowest.

So, pursued to its logical conclusion, this would mean that the highest attainers would get next to no support while a human vegetable would be the highest priority of all.

However, since Mr Thomas’ focus is on marginal benefit, it may be that those nearest the threshold would be first in the queue for scarce resources, because they would require the least effort and resources to lift above it.

This philosophy drives the emphasis on achievement of national benchmarks and predominant focus on borderline candidates that, until recently, dominated our assessment and accountability system.

For Gifted Phoenix, every socio-economically disadvantaged learner has equal priority to the support they need to improve their attainment, by virtue of that disadvantage.

There is no question of elevating some ahead of others in the pecking order because they are further behind on key educational measures since, in effect, that is penalising some disadvantaged learners on the grounds of their ability or, more accurately, their prior attainment.

This philosophy underpins the notion of personalised education and is driving the recent and welcome reforms of the assessment and accountability system, designed to ensure that schools are judged by how well they improve the attainment of all learners, rather than predominantly on the basis of the proportion achieving the standard national benchmarks.

I suggested that, in deriding ‘the romance of the poor but bright’, Mr Thomas ran the risk of falling into ‘the slough of anti-elitism’. He rejected that suggestion, while continuing to emphasise the need to ‘concentrate more’ on ‘those at risk of never being able to engage with society’.

I have made the assumption that Thomas is interested primarily in KS2 and GCSE or equivalent qualifications at KS4 given his references to KS2 L4, basic skills and ‘paper qualifications needed to enter meaningful employment’.

But his additional references to ‘real qualifications’ (as opposed to paper ones) and engaging with society could well imply a wider range of personal, social and work-related skills for employability and adult life.

My preference for equal priority would apply regardless: there is no guarantee that high attainers from disadvantaged backgrounds will necessarily possess these vital skills.

But, as indicated in the definition above, there is an important distinction to be maintained between:

  • educational support to raise the attainment, learning and employability skills of socio-economically disadvantaged learners and prepare them for adult life and
  • support to manage a range of difficulties – whether behavioural problems, disability, physical or mental impairment – that impact on the broader life chances of the individuals concerned.

Such a distinction may well be masked in the everyday business of providing effective holistic support for learners facing such difficulties, but this debate requires it to be made and sustained given Mr Thomas’s definition of the problem in terms of the comparative treatment of the ‘poor but bright’ and the ‘poor but dim’.

Having made this distinction, it is not clear whether he himself sustains it consistently through to the end of his post. In the final paragraphs the term ‘poor but dim’ begins to morph into a broader notion encompassing all AP and SEN learners regardless of their socio-economic status.

Additional dimensions of disadvantage are potentially being brought into play. This is inconsistent and radically changes the nature of the argument.



By inputs I mean the resources – financial and human – made available to support the education of ‘dim’ and ‘bright’ disadvantaged learners respectively.

Mr Thomas also shifts his ground as far as inputs are concerned.

His post opens with a statement that ‘the effort and resources’ of schools, charities and businesses are ‘directed disproportionately’ at the poor but bright – and he exemplifies this with reference to fair access to competitive universities, particularly Oxbridge.

When I point out the significant investment in AP compared with fair access, he changes tack – ‘I’m measuring outcomes not just inputs’.

Then later he says ‘But what some need is just more expensive’, to which I respond that ‘the bottom end already has the lion’s share of funding’.

At this point we have both fallen into the trap of treating the entirety of the AP and SEN budgets as focused on the ‘poor but dim’.

We are failing to recognise that they are poor proxies because the majority of AP and SEN learners are not ‘poor’, many are not ‘dim’, these budgets are focused on a wider range of needs and there is significant additional expenditure directed at ‘poor but dim’ learners elsewhere in the wider education budget.

Despite Mr Thomas’s opening claim, it should be reasonably evident from the preceding commentary that my ‘lion’s share’ point is factually correct. His suggestion that AP is ‘largely unknown and wholly unappreciated’ flies in the face of the Taylor Review and the Government’s subsequent work programme.

SEN may depend heavily on the ‘extraordinary effort of dedicated staff’, but at least there are such dedicated staff! There may be inconsistencies in local authority funding and support for SEN, but the global investment is colossal by comparison with the funding dedicated on the other side of the balance.

Gifted Phoenix’s position acknowledges that inputs are heavily loaded in favour of the SEN and AP budgets. This is as it should be since, as Thomas rightly notes, many of the additional services they need are frequently more expensive to provide. These services are not simply dedicated to raising their attainment, but also to tackling more substantive problems associated with their status.

Whether the balance of expenditure on the ‘bright’ and ‘dim’ respectively is optimal is a somewhat different matter. Contrary to Mr Thomas’s position, gifted advocates are often convinced that too much largesse is focused on the latter at the expense of the former.

Turning to advocacy, Mr Thomas says ‘we end up ignoring the more pressing problem’ of the poor but dim. He argues in the Twitter discussion that too few people are advocating for these learners, adding that they are failed ‘because it’s not popular to talk about them’.

I could not resist countering that advocacy for gifted learners is equally unpopular, indeed ‘the word is literally taboo in many settings’. I cannot help thinking – from his footnote reference to ‘epigenetic coding’ – that Mr Thomas is amongst those who are distinctly uncomfortable with the term.

Where advocacy does survive it is focused exclusively on progression to competitive universities and, to some extent, high attainment as a route towards that outcome. The narrative has shifted away from concepts of high ability or giftedness, because of the very limited consensus about that condition (even amongst gifted advocates) and even considerable doubt in some quarters whether it exists at all.



Mr Thomas maintains in his post that the successes of his preferred target group ‘have the power to change the British economy, far more so than those of their brighter peers’. This is because ‘the gap most damaging to society is in life outcomes for the children that perform least well at school’.

As noted above, it is important to remember that we are discussing here the addition of educational and economic value by tackling underachievement amongst learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, rather than amongst all the children that perform least well.

We are also leaving to one side the addition of value through any wider engagement by health and social services to improve life chances.

It is quite reasonable to advance the argument that ‘improving the outcomes ‘of the bottom 20%’ (the Tail) will have ‘a huge socio-economic impact’ and ‘make the biggest marginal difference to society’.

But one could equally make the case that society would derive similar or even higher returns from a decision to concentrate disproportionately on the highest attainers (the Smart Fraction).

Or, as Gifted Phoenix would prefer, one could reasonably propose that the optimal returns should be achieved by means of a balanced approach that raises both the floor and the ceiling, avoiding any arbitrary distinctions on the basis of prior attainment.

From the Gifted Phoenix perspective, one should balance the advantages of removing the drag on productivity of an educational underclass against those of developing the high-level human capital needed to drive economic growth and improve our chances of success in what Coalition ministers call the ‘global race’.

According to this perspective, by eliminating excellence gaps between disadvantaged and advantaged high attainers we will secure a stream of benefits broadly commensurate to that at the bottom end.

These will include substantial spillover benefits, achieved as a result of broadening the pool of successful leaders in political, social, educational and artistic fields, not to mention significant improvements in social mobility.

It is even possible to argue that, by creating a larger pool of more highly educated parents, we can also achieve a significant positive impact on the achievement of subsequent generations, thus significantly reducing the size of the tail.

And in the present generation we will create many more role models: young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who become educationally successful and who can influence the aspirations of younger disadvantaged learners.

This avoids the risk that low expectations will be reinforced and perpetuated through a ‘deficit model’ approach that places excessive emphasis on removing the drag from the tail by producing a larger number of ‘useful members of society’.

This line of argument is integral to the Gifted Phoenix Manifesto.

It seems to me entirely conceivable that economists might produce calculations to justify any of these different paths.

But it would be highly inequitable to put all our eggs in the ‘poor but bright’ basket, because that penalises some disadvantaged learners for their failure to achieve high attainment thresholds.

And it would be equally inequitable to focus exclusively on the ‘poor but dim’, because that penalises some disadvantaged learners for their success in becoming high attainers.

The more equitable solution must be to opt for a ‘balanced scorecard’ approach that generates a proportion of the top end benefits and a proportion of the bottom end benefits simultaneously.

There is a risk that this reduces the total flow of benefits, compared with one or other of the inequitable solutions, but there is a trade-off here between efficiency and a socially desirable outcome that balances the competing interests of the two groups.


The personal dimension

After we had finished our Twitter exchanges, I thought to research Mr Thomas online. Turns out he’s quite the Big-Cheese-in-Embryo. Provided he escapes the lure of filthy lucre, he’ll be a mover and shaker in education within the next decade.

I couldn’t help noticing his own educational experience – public school, a First in PPE from Oxford, leading light in the Oxford Union – then graduation from Teach First alongside internships with Deutsche Bank and McKinsey.

Now he’s serving his educational apprenticeship as joint curriculum lead for maths at a prominent London Academy. He’s also a trustee of ‘a university mentoring project for highly able 11-14 year old pupils from West London state schools’.

Lucky I didn’t check earlier. Such a glowing CV might have been enough to cow this grammar school Oxbridge reject, even if I did begin this line of work several years before he was born. Not that I have a chip on my shoulder…

The experience set me wondering about the dominant ideology amongst the Teach First cadre, and how it is tempered by extended exposure to teaching in a challenging environment.

There’s more than a hint of idealism about someone from this privileged background espousing the educational philosophy that Mr Thomas professes. But didn’t he wonder where all the disadvantaged people were during his own educational experience, and doesn’t he want to change that too?

His interest in mentoring highly able pupils would suggest that he does, but also seems directly to contradict the position he’s reached here. It would be a pity if the ‘poor but bright’ could not continue to rely on his support, equal in quantity and quality to the support he offers the ‘poor but dim’.

For he could make a huge difference at both ends of the attainment spectrum – and, with his undeniable talents, he should certainly be able to do so



We are entertaining three possible answers to the question whether in principle to prioritise the needs of the ‘poor but bright’ or the ‘poor but dim’:

  • Concentrate principally – perhaps even exclusively – on closing the Excellence Gaps at the top
  • Concentrate principally – perhaps even exclusively – on closing the Foundation Gaps at the bottom
  • Concentrate equally across the attainment spectrum, at the top and bottom and all points in between.

Speaking as an advocate for those at the top, I favour the third option.

It seems to me incontrovertible – though hard to quantify – that, in the English education system, the lion’s share of resources go towards closing the Foundation Gaps.

That is perhaps as it should be, although one could wish that the financial scales were not tipped so excessively in their direction, for ‘poor but bright’ learners do in my view have an equal right to challenge and support, and should not be penalised for their high attainment.

Our current efforts to understand the relative size of the Foundation and Excellence Gaps and how these are changing over time are seriously compromised by the limited data in the public domain.

There is a powerful economic case to be made for prioritising the Foundation Gaps as part of a deliberate strategy for shortening the tail – but an equally powerful case can be constructed for prioritising the Excellence Gaps, as part of a deliberate strategy for increasing the smart fraction.

Neither of these options is optimal from an equity perspective however. The stream of benefits might be compromised somewhat by not focusing exclusively on one or the other, but a balanced approach should otherwise be in our collective best interests.

You may or may not agree. Here is a poll so you can register your vote. Please use the comments facility to share your wider views on this post.







We must beware the romance of the poor but bright,

But equally beware

The romance of rescuing the helpless

Poor from their sorry plight.

We must ensure the Tail

Does not wag the disadvantaged dog!



May 2014

A Summer of Love for English Gifted Education? Episode 3: Improving Fair Access to Oxbridge


This post is a critical examination of policy and progress on improving progression for the highest attainers from disadvantaged backgrounds to selective universities, especially Oxford and Cambridge.




  • Uncovers evidence of shaky statistical interpretation by these universities and their representative body;
  • Identifies problems with the current light-touch regulatory and monitoring apparatus, including shortcomings in the publication of data and reporting of progress at national level;
  • Proposes a series of additional steps to address this long-standing shortcoming of our education system.



summer of love 1967 by 0 fairy 0

summer of love 1967 by 0 fairy 0

Regular readers may recall that I have completed two parts of a trilogy of posts carrying the optimistic strapline ‘A Summer of Love for Gifted Education’.

The idea was to structure these posts around three key government publications.

  • This final part was supposed to analyse another DfE-commissioned research report, an ‘Investigation of school- and college- level strategies to raise the Aspirations of High-Achieving Disadvantaged Pupils to pursue higher education’.

We know from the published contract (see attachment in ‘Documents’ section) that this latter study was undertaken by TNS/BMRB and the Institute for Policy Studies in Education (IPSE) based at London Metropolitan University. The final signed off report should have been produced by 28 June 2013 and published within 12 weeks of approval, so by the end of September. As I write, it has still to appear, which would suggest that there is a problem with the quality and/or size of the evidence base.

In the five months since the appearance of Part Two I have published a series of posts developing the themes explored in the first two-thirds of my incomplete trilogy.

But what to do about the missing final episode of ‘A Summer of Love’, which was going to develop this latter fair access theme in more detail?

My initial idea was to survey and synthesise the large number of other recently published studies on the topic. But, as I reviewed the content of these publications, it struck me that such a post would be stuffed full of descriptive detail but lack any real bite – by which I mean substantial and serious engagement with the central problem.

I decided to cut to the chase.

I also decided to foreground material about the highest reaches of A level attainment and progression to Oxbridge, not because I see the issue solely in these stratospheric terms, but because:

  • The top end of fair access is important in its own right, especially for those with a gifted education perspective. Oxford and Cambridge consistently declare themselves a special case and I wanted to explore the substance of their position.
  • There is compelling evidence that Oxford and Cambridge are amongst the weakest performers when it comes to fair access for the highest attaining disadvantaged learners. There are reasons why the task may be comparatively more difficult for them but, equally, as our most prestigious universities, they should be at the forefront when it comes to developing and implementing effective strategies to tackle the problem.
  • The Government has itself made Oxbridge performance a litmus test of progress (or lack of progress) on fair access and on higher education’s wider contribution to social mobility.

The first part of the post briefly reviews the range of measures and regulatory apparatus devoted to improving fair access. This is to provide a frame from which to explore the available data and its shortcomings, rather than an in-depth analysis of relative strengths and weaknesses. Readers who are familiar with this background may prefer to skip it.

The mid-section concentrates on the limited data in the public domain and how it has been (mis)interpreted.

The final section reviews the criticisms made by the SMCPC and, while endorsing them thoroughly, offers a set of further proposals – many of them data-driven – for ratcheting up our collective national efforts to reverse the unsatisfactory progress made to date.


A Troubling Tale of Unnecessary Complexity and Weak Regulation


A Proliferation of Measures

There is little doubt that we have a problem in England when it comes to progression to selective, competitive higher education (however defined) by learners from disadvantaged backgrounds (however defined).

We may not be unique in that respect, but that does not alter the fact that the problem is longstanding and largely unresolved.

The recent ‘State of the Nation 2013’ Report from the SMPCPC says ‘there has been little change in the social profile of the most elite institutions for over a decade’, adding that ‘while some of the building blocks are in place to lift children off the bottom, opening up elites remains elusive.’

Part of the problem is that the debates about these respective definitions continue to receive disproportionate coverage. Such debates are sometimes deployed as a diversionary tactic, intentionally drawing us away from the unpalatable evidence that we are making decidedly poor headway in tackling the core issue.

The definitional complexities are such that they lend themselves to exploitation by those with a vested interest in preserving the status quo and defending themselves against what they regard as unwonted state intervention.

I shall resist the temptation to explore the comparative advantages and disadvantages of different measures, since that would risk falling into the trap I have just identified.

But I do need to introduce some of the more prominent – and pin down some subtle distinctions – if only for the benefit of readers in other countries.

One typically encounters four different categorisations of competitive, selective higher education here in the UK:

  • Oxbridge – a convenient shorthand reference to Oxford and Cambridge Universities. These two institutions are commonly understood to be qualitatively superior to other UK universities and, although that advantage does not apply universally, to every undergraduate course and subject, there is some academic support for treating them as a category in their own right.
  • Russell Group – The Russell Group was formed in 1994 and originally comprised 17 members. There are currently 24 members, 20 of them located in England, including Oxford and Cambridge. Four institutions – Durham, Exeter, Queen Mary’s and York – joined as recently as 2012 and membership is likely to increase as the parallel 1994 Group has just disbanded. DfE (as opposed to BIS) often uses Russell Group membership as its preferred proxy for selective, competitive higher education, although there are no objective criteria that apply exclusively to all members.
  • Sutton Trust 30The Sutton Trust originally identified a list of 13 universities, derived from ‘average newspaper league table rankings’. This list – Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Durham, Edinburgh, Imperial, LSE, Nottingham, Oxford, St Andrews, UCL, Warwick and York – still appears occasionally in research commissioned by the Trust, although it was subsequently expanded to 30 institutions. In ‘Degrees of Success’, a July 2011 publication, they were described thus:

‘The Sutton Trust 30 grouping of highly selective universities comprises universities in Scotland, England and Wales with over 500 undergraduate entrants each year, where it was estimated that less than 10 per cent of places are attainable to pupils with 200 UCAS tariff points (equivalent to two D grades and a C grade at A-level) or less. These 30 universities also emerge as the 30 most selective according to the latest Times University Guide.’

The full list includes all but two of the Russell Group (Queen Mary’s and Queen’s Belfast) plus eight additional institutions.

‘The HEIs included in this group change every year; although 94% of HEIs remained in the top third for 5 consecutive years, from 2006/07 to 2010/11. The calculation is restricted to the top three A level attainment; pupils who study other qualifications at Key Stage 5 will be excluded. Institutions with a considerable proportion of entrants who studied a combination of A levels and other qualifications may appear to have low scores. As the analysis covers students from schools and colleges in England, some institutions in other UK countries have scores based on small numbers of students. As this measure uses matched data, all figures should be treated as estimates.’

This categorisation includes seven further mainstream universities (Aston, City, Dundee, East Anglia, Goldsmiths, Loughborough, Sussex) plus a range of specialist institutions.

Indicators of educational disadvantage are legion, but these are amongst the most frequently encountered:

  • Eligibility for free school meals (FSM): DfE’s preferred measure. The term is misleading since the measure only includes learners who meet the FSM eligibility criteria and for whom a claim is made, so eligibility of itself is insufficient. Free school meals are available for learners in state-funded secondary schools, including those in sixth forms. From September 2014, eligibility will be extended to all in Years R, 1 and 2 and to disadvantaged learners in further education and sixth form colleges. The phased introduction of Universal Credit will also impact on the eligibility criteria (children of families receiving Universal Credit between April 2013 and March 2014 are eligible for FSM, but the cost of extending FSM to all Universal Credit recipients once fully rolled out is likely to be prohibitive). We do not yet know whether these reforms will cause DfE to select an alternative preferred measure and, if so, what that will be. Eligibility for the Pupil Premium is one option, more liberal than FSM, though this currently applies only to age 16.
  • Residual Household Income below £16,000: This is broadly the income at which eligibility for free school meals becomes available. It is used by selective universities (Oxford included) because it can be applied universally, regardless of educational setting and whether or not free school meals have been claimed. Oxford explains that:

‘Residual income is based on gross household income (before tax and National Insurance) minus certain allowable deductions. These can include pension payments, which are eligible for certain specified tax relief, and allowances for other dependent children.’

The threshold is determined through the assessment conducted by Student Finance England, so is fully consistent with its guidance.

  • Low participation schools: This measure focuses on participation by school attended rather than where students live. It may be generic – perhaps derived from the Government’s experimental destinations statistics – or based on admissions records for a particular institution. As far as I can establish, there is no standard or recommended methodology: institutions decide for themselves the criteria they wish to apply.
  • POLAR (Participation Of Local Areas): HEFCE’s area-based classification of participation in higher education. Wards are categorised in five quintiles, with Quintile 1 denoting those with lowest participation. The current edition is POLAR 3.
  • Other geodemographic classifications: these include commercially developed systems such as ACORN and MOSAIC based on postcodes and Output Area Classification (OAC) based on census data. One might also include under this heading the Indices of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) and the associated sub-domain Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI).
  • National Statistics Socio-Economic Classification (NS-SEC): an occupationally-based definition of socio-economic status applied via individuals to their households. There are typically eight classes:
  1. Higher managerial, administrative and professional
  2. Lower managerial, administrative and professional
  3. Intermediate
  4. Small employers and own account workers
  5. Lower supervisory and technical
  6. Semi routine
  7. Routine
  8. Never worked and long term unemployed

Data is often reported for NS-SEC 4-7.

Sitting alongside these measures of disadvantage is a slightly different animal – recruitment from state-funded schools and colleges compared with recruitment from the independent sector.

While this may be a useful social mobility indicator, it is a poor proxy for fair access.

Many learners attending independent schools are from comparatively disadvantaged backgrounds, and of course substantively more learners at state-maintained schools are comparatively advantaged.

The Office For Fair Access (OFFA) confirms that:

‘in most circumstances we would not approve an access agreement allowing an institution to measure the diversity of its student body solely on the basis of the numbers of state school pupils it recruits….it is conceivable that a university could improve its proportion of state school students without recruiting greater proportions of students from disadvantaged groups.’

Nevertheless, independent/state balance continues to features prominently in some access agreements drawn up by selective universities and approved by OFFA.

There is a risk that some institutions are permitted to give this indicator disproportionate attention, at the expense of their wider commitment to fair access.


Securing National Improvement

Given the embarrassment of riches set out above, comparing progress between institutions is well-nigh impossible, let alone assessing the cumulative impact on fair access at national level.

When it came to determining their current strategy, the government of the day must have faced a choice between:

  • Imposing a standard set of measures on all institutions, ignoring complaints that those selected were inappropriate for some settings, particularly those that were somehow atypical;
  • Allowing institutions to choose their own measures, even though that had a negative impact on the rate of improvement against the Government’s own preferred national indicators; and
  •  A half-way house which insisted on universal adoption of one or two key measures while permitting institutions to choose from a menu of additional measures, so creating a basket more or less appropriate to their circumstances.

For reasons that are not entirely clear – but presumably owe something to vigorous lobbying from higher education interests – the weaker middle option was preferred and remains in place to this day.

The standard-setting and monitoring process is currently driven by OFFA, though we expect imminently the final version of a National Strategy for Access and Student Success, developed jointly with HEFCE.

A new joint process for overseeing OFFA’s access agreements (from 2015/16) and HEFCE’s widening participation strategic statements (from 2014-2017) will be introduced in early 2014.

There were tantalising suggestions that the status quo might be adjusted through work on the wider issue of evaluation.

An early letter referred to plans to:

‘Commission feasibility study to establish if possible to develop common evaluation measures that all institutions could adopt to assess the targeting and impact of their access and student success work’.

The report would be completed by Spring 2013.

Then an Interim Report on the Strategy said the study would be commissioned in ‘early 2013 to report in May 2013’ (Annex B).

It added:

‘Informal discussions with a range of institutional representatives have indicated that many institutions would welcome a much clearer indication of the kind of evidence and indicators that we would wish to see. Therefore a key strand within the strategy development will be work undertaken with the sector to develop an evaluation framework to guide them in their efforts to evidence the impact of their activity. Within this, we intend to test the feasibility of developing some common measures for the gathering of high-level evidence that might be aggregated to provide a national picture. We will also investigate what more can be done by national bodies including ourselves to make better use of national data sets in supporting institutions as they track the impact of their interventions on individual students.’

However, HEFCE’s webpage setting out research and stakeholder engagement in support of the National Strategy still says the study is ‘to be commissioned’ and that the publication date is ‘to be confirmed’.

I can find no explanation of the reasons for this delay.

For the time being, OFFA is solely responsible for issuing guidance to institutions on the content of their access agreements, approving the Agreements and monitoring progress against them.

OFFA’s website says:

‘Universities and colleges set their own targets based on where they need to improve and what their particular institution is trying to achieve under its access agreement…These targets must be agreed by OFFA. We require universities and colleges to set themselves at least one target around broadening their entrant pool. We also encourage (but do not require) them to set themselves further targets, particularly around their work on outreach and, where appropriate, retention. Most choose to do so. We normally expect universities and colleges to have a range of targets in order to measure their progress effectively. When considering whether targets are sufficiently ambitious, we consider whether they represent a balanced view of the institution’s performance, and whether they address areas where indicators suggest that the institution has furthest to go to improve access.

From 2012-13, in line with Ministerial guidance, we are placing a greater emphasis on progress against targets. We would not, however, impose a sanction solely on the basis of a university or college not meeting its targets or milestones.’

The interim report on a National Strategy suggests that – informally at least – many universities recognise that this degree of flexibility is not helpful to their prospects of improving fair access, either individually or collectively.

But the fact that the promised work has not been undertaken might imply a counterforce pushing in precisely the opposite direction.

The expectations placed on universities are further complicated by the rather unclear status of the annual performance indicators for widening participation of under-represented groups supplied by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

HESA’s table for young full-time first degree entrants shows progress by each HEI against benchmarks for ‘from state schools or colleges’, ‘from NS-SEC classes 4, 5, 6 and 7’ and ‘from low participation neighbourhoods (based on POLAR3 methodology)’ respectively.

HESA describes its benchmarks thus:

‘Because there are such differences between institutions, the average values for the whole of the higher education sector are not necessarily helpful when comparing HEIs. A sector average has therefore been calculated which is then adjusted for each institution to take into account some of the factors which contribute to the differences between them. The factors allowed for are subject of study, qualifications on entry and age on entry (young or mature).’

HESA’s benchmarks are clearly influential in terms of the measures adopted in many access agreements (and much of the attention given to the state versus independent sector intake may be attributable to them).

On the other hand, the indicators receive rather cavalier treatment in the most recent access agreements from Oxford and Cambridge. Oxford applies the old POLAR2 methodology in place of the latest POLAR3, while Cambridge adjusts the POLAR3 benchmarks to reflect its own research.

The most recent 2011/12 HESA results for Oxford and Cambridge are as follows:


Institution       State schools        NS-SEC 4-7     LPN (POLAR3)
Benchmark Performance Benchmark Performance Benchmark Performance
Oxford 71.2% 57.7% 15.9% 11.0% 4.7% 3.1%
Cambridge 71.4% 57.9% 15.9% 10.3% 4.5% 2.5%


That probably explains why Oxbridge would prefer an alternative approach! But the reference to further work in the Interim Strategy perhaps also suggests that few see these benchmarks as the best way forward.


National Targets

The Government also appears in something of a bind with its preferred measures for monitoring national progress.

When it comes to fair access (as opposed to widening participation) the Social Mobility Indicators rely exclusively on the gap between state and independent school participation at the most selective HEIs, as defined by BIS.

As noted above, this has major shortcomings as a measure of fair access, though more validity as a social mobility measure.

The relevant indicator shows that the gap held between 37% and 39% between 2006 and 2010, but this has just been updated to reflect an unfortunate increase to 40% in 2010/11.

BIS uses the same measure as a Departmental Performance Indicator for its work on higher education.  The attachment on the relevant gov.uk page is currently the wrong one – which might indicate that BIS is less than comfortable with its lack of progress against the measure.

DfE takes a different approach declaring an ‘Outcome of Education’ indicator:

‘Outcome of education:

i)             Percentage of children on free school meals progressing to Oxford or Cambridge*.

ii)            Percentage of children on free school meals progressing to a Russell Group university*.

iii)           Percentage of children on free school meals progressing to any university*.

iv)           Participation in education and work based training at age 16 to 17

*Available June 2013’

But progress against this indicator is nowhere to be found in the relevant section of the DfE website or, as far I can establish, anywhere within the DfE pages on gov.uk.



Oxbridge Access Agreement Targets for 2014/15

Perhaps the best way to link this section with the next is by showing how Oxford and Cambridge have decided to frame the targets in their access agreements for 2014/15

Oxford has OFFA’s agreement to target:

  • Schools and colleges that secure limited progression to Oxford. They use ‘historic UCAS data’ to estimate that ‘in any one year up to 1,680…will have no students who achieve AAA grades but, over a three-year period they may produce a maximum of two AAA candidates’. They also prioritise an estimated 1,175 institutions which have larger numbers achieving AAA grades ‘but where the success rate for an application to Oxford is below 10%’. In 2010, 19.4% of Oxford admissions were from these two groups and it plans to increase the proportion to 25% by 2016-17;
  • UK undergraduates from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds, based on ‘ACORN postcodes 4 and 5’. Some 7.6% of admissions came from these postcodes in 2010/11 and Oxford proposes to reach 9.0% by 2016/17.
  • UK undergraduates from neighbourhoods with low participation in higher education, as revealed by POLAR2. It will focus on ‘students domiciled in POLAR quintiles 1 and 2’. In 2012, 10.6% are from this group and Oxford proposes to increase this to 13.0% by 2016-17.

In addition to a target for admitting disabled students, Oxford also says it will monitor and report on the state/independent school mix, despite evidence ‘that this measure is often misleading as an indicator of social diversity’. It notes that:

‘30% of 2012 entrants in receipt of the full Oxford Bursary (students with a household income of £16,000 or less) were educated in the independent sector…The University will continue to monitor the level of students from households with incomes of £16,000 or less. It is considered that these are the most financially disadvantaged in society, and it is below this threshold that some qualify for receipt of free schools meals, and the pupil premium. The University does not consider that identifying simply those students who have been in receipt of free school meals provides a suitably robust indicator of disadvantage as they are not available in every school or college with post-16 provision, nor does every eligible student choose to receive them.

There are no national statistics currently available on the number of students whose household income is £16,000 or less and who attain the required academic threshold to make a competitive application to Oxford. In 2011-12, around one in ten of the University’s UK undergraduate intake was admitted from a household with this level of declared income.’

Meanwhile, Cambridge proposes only two relevant targets, one of them focused on the independent/state divide:

  • Increase the proportion of UK resident students admitted from UK state sector schools and colleges to between 61% and 63%. This is underpinned by the University’s research finding that ‘the proportion of students nationally educated at state schools securing examination grades in subject combinations that reflect our entrance requirements and the achievement level of students admitted to Cambridge stands at around 62%’.
  • Increase the proportion of UK resident students from low participation neighbourhoods to approximately 4% by 2016. It argues:

‘Currently HESA performance indicators and other national datasets relating to socio-economic background do not take adequate account of the entry requirements of individual institutions. Whilst they take some account of attainment, they do not do so in sufficient detail for highly selective institutions such as Cambridge where the average candidate admitted has 2.5 A* grades with specific subject entry requirements. For the present we have adjusted our HESA low participation neighbourhood benchmark in line with the results of our research in relation to state school entry and will use this as our target.’

Each of these approaches has good and bad points. Cambridge’s is more susceptible to the criticism that it is overly narrow. There is no real basis to compare the relative performance of the two institutions since there is negligible overlap between their preferred indicators. That may be more comfortable for them, but it is not in the best interests of their customers, or of those seeking to improve their performance.


Investigating the Data on High Attainment and Fair Access to Oxbridge

Those seeking statistics about high attainment amongst disadvantaged young people and their subsequent progression to Oxbridge are bound to be disappointed.

There is no real appreciation of the excellence gap in this country and this looks set to continue. The fact that gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged learners are typically wider at the top end of the attainment distribution seems to have acted as a brake on the publication of data that proves the point.

It is possible that the current round of accountability reforms will alter this state of affairs, but this has not yet been confirmed.

For the time being at least, almost all published statistics about high A level attainment amongst disadvantaged learners have come via answers to Parliamentary Questions. This material invariably measures disadvantage in terms of FSM eligibility.

Information about the admission of disadvantaged learners to Oxbridge is equally scant, but a picture of sorts can be built up from a mixture of PQ replies, university admission statistics and the DfE’s destination measures. The material supplied by the universities draws on measures other than FSM.

The following two sections set out what little we know, including the ever important statistical caveats.


High Attainment Data

  • In 2003, 94 students (1.9%) eligible for FSM achieved three or more A grades at A level. The figures relate to 16-18 year-olds in maintained schools only who were eligible for FSM at age 16. They do not include students in FE sector colleges (including sixth from colleges) who were previously eligible for FSM. Only students who entered at least one A level, applied A level or double award qualification are included. (Parliamentary Question, 6 April 2010, Hansard (Col 1346W))
  • In 2008, 160 students (3.5%) eligible for FSM achieved that outcome. The figures relate to 16-18 year-olds, in maintained schools only, who were eligible for FSM at age 16. They do not include students in FE sector colleges (including sixth from colleges) who were previously eligible for FSM. Only students who entered at least one A level, applied A level or double award qualification are included. (Parliamentary Question, 6 April 2010, Hansard (Col 1346W))
  • In 2008/09, 232 pupils at maintained mainstream schools eligible for FSM achieved three or more A grades at A level (including applied A level and double award), 179 of them attending comprehensive schools. The figures exclude students in FE and sixth form colleges previously eligible for FSM. (Parliamentary Question, 7 April 2010, Hansard (Col 1451W))
  • The number of Year 13 A level candidates eligible for FSM in Year 11 achieving 3 or more A grade levels (including applied A levels and double award) were: 2006 – 377; 2007 – 433; 2008 – 432; 2009 – 509. These figures include students in both the schools and FE sectors.(Parliamentary Question, 27 July 2010, Hansard (Col 1223W))


To summarise, the total number of students who were FSM-eligible at age 16 and went on to achieve three or more GCE A levels at Grade A*/A – including those in maintained schools, sixth form and FE colleges – has been increasing significantly since 2006.

2006 2007 2008 2009 2010 2011
Number 377 433 432 509 ? 546

The overall increase between 2006 and 2011 is about 45%.


Oxbridge Admission/Acceptance Data

  • The number of learners eligible for and claiming FSM at age 15 who progressed to Oxford or Cambridge by age 19 between 2005 and 2008 (rounded to the nearest five) were:
2005/06 2006/07 2007/08 2008/09
Oxford 25 20 20 25
Cambridge 20 25 20 20
TOTAL 45 45 40 45

Sources: Parliamentary Question, 13 December 2010, Hansard (Col 549W) and Parliamentary Question 21 February 2012, Hansard (Col 755W)


[Postscript (January 2014):

In January 2014, BIS answered a further PQ which provided equivalent figures for 2009/10 and 2010/11 – again rounded to the nearest five and derived from matching the National Pupil Database (NPD), HESA Student Record and the Individualised Learner Record (ILR) owned by the Skills Funding Agency.

The revised table is as follows:

  2005/06 2006/07 2007/08 2008/09 2009/10 2010/11
Oxford 25 20 20 25 15 15
Cambridge 20 25 20 20 25 25
TOTAL 45 45 40 45 40 40



Parliamentary Question, 13 December 2010, Hansard (Col 549W)

Parliamentary Question 21 February 2012, Hansard (Col 755W)

Parliamentary Question 7 January 2014, Hansard (Col 191W)

Although the 2010/11 total is marginally more positive than the comparable figure derived from the Destination Indicators (see below) this confirms negligible change overall during the last six years for which data is available.  The slight improvement at Cambridge during the last two years of the sequence is matched by a corresponding decline at Oxford, from what is already a desperately low base.]


Number %age FSM Number FSM
UK HEIs 164,620 6% 10,080
Top third of HEIs 49,030 4% 2,000
Russell Group 28,620 3% 920
Oxbridge 2,290 1% 30



These are experimental statistics and all figures – including the 30 at Oxbridge – are rounded to the nearest 10. The introductory commentary explains that:

‘This statistical first release (experimental statistics) on destination measures shows the percentage of students progressing to further learning in a school, further education or sixth-form college, apprenticeship, higher education institution or moving into employment or training.’

It adds that:

‘To be included in the measure, young people have to show sustained participation in an education or employment destination in all of the first 2 terms of the year after they completed KS4 or took A level or other level 3 qualifications. The first 2 terms are defined as October to March.’

The Technical Notes published alongside the data also reveal that: It includes only learners aged 16-18 and those who have entered at least one A level or an equivalent L3 qualification;  the data collection process incorporates ‘an estimate of young people who have been accepted through the UCAS system for entry into the following academic year’ but ‘deferred acceptances are not reported as a distinct destination’; and FSM data for KS5 learners relates to those eligible for and claiming FSM in Year 11.

  • Cambridge’s 2012 intake ‘included 50+ students who had previously been in receipt of FSM’ (It is not stated whether all were eligible in Year 11, so it is most likely that this is the number of students who had received FSM at one time or another in their school careers.) This shows that Cambridge at least is collecting FSM data that it does not publish amongst its own admission statistics or use in its access agreement. (Cambridge University Statement, 26 September 2013)
  • In 2012, Cambridge had 418 applications from the most disadvantaged POLAR2 quintile (4.6% of all applicants) and, of those, 93 were accepted (3.6% of all acceptances) giving a 22.2% success rate.(Cambridge University Admission Statistics 2012 (page 23))


To summarise, the numbers of disadvantaged learners progressing to Oxbridge are very small; exceedingly so as far as those formerly receiving FSM are concerned.

Even allowing for methodological variations, the balance of evidence suggests that, at best, the numbers of FSM learners progressing to Oxbridge have remained broadly the same since 2005.

During that period, the concerted efforts of the system described above have had zero impact. The large sums invested in outreach and bursaries have made not one iota of difference.

This is true even though the proportion achieving the AAA A level benchmark has increased by about 45%. If Oxbridge admission was solely dependent on attainment, one would have expected a commensurate increase, to around 65 FSM entrants per year.

On the basis of the 2010/11 Destination Indicators, we can estimate that, whereas Oxbridge admits approximately 8% of all Russell Group students, it only admits slightly over 3% of Russell Group FSM students. If Oxbridge achieved the performance of its Russell Group peers, the numbers of formerly FSM admissions would be over 100 per year.


Misleading Use of This Data

To add insult to injury, this data is frequently misinterpreted and misused. Here are some examples, all of which draw selectively on the data set out above.

  • Of the 80,000 FSM-eligible students in the UK only 176 received three As at A level…more than one quarter of those students….ended up at either Oxford or Cambridge – Nicholson (Oxford Undergraduate Admissions Director, Letter to Guardian, 7 March 2011)
  • ‘Of the 80,000 children eligible for free school meals in the UK in 2007, only 176 received 3 As at A level. Of those 45 (more than a quarter) got places at Oxford or Cambridge’ (Undated Parliamentary Briefing ‘Access and admissions to Oxford University’ )
  • ‘The root causes of underrepresentation of students from poorer backgrounds at leading universities include underachievement in schools and a lack of good advice on subject choices. For example, in 2009 only 232 students who had been on free school meals (FSM) achieved 3As at A-level or the equivalent.  This was 4.1% of the total number of FSM students taking A-levels, and less than an estimated 0.3% of all those who had received free school meals when aged 15.’ (Russell Group Press release, 23 July 2013).
  • ‘Such data as is available suggests that less than 200 students per year who are recorded as being eligible for FSM secure grades of AAA or better at A level. The typical entrance requirement for Cambridge is A*AA, and so on that basis the University admits in excess of one quarter of all FSM students who attain the grades that would make them eligible for entry.’ (Cambridge University Statement, 26 September 2013)
  • ‘According to data produced by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, of the 4,516 FSM students who secured a pass grade at A Level in 2008 only 160 secured the grades then required for entry to the University of Cambridge (ie AAA). Students who were eligible for FSM therefore make up less than 1% of the highest achieving students nationally each year.

Assuming that all 160 of these students applied to Oxford or Cambridge in equal numbers (ie 80 students per institution) and 22 were successful in securing places at Cambridge (in line with the 2006-08 average) then this would represent a success rate of 27.5% – higher than the average success rate for all students applying to the University (25.6% over the last three years). In reality of course not every AAA student chooses to apply to Oxford or Cambridge, for instance because neither university offers the course they want to study, e.g. Dentistry.’ (Cambridge Briefing, January 2011 repeated in Cambridge University Statement, 26 September 2013)



To summarise, Oxford, Cambridge and the Russell Group are all guilty of implying that FSM-eligible learners in the schools sector are the only FSM-eligible learners progressing to selective universities.

They persist in using the school sector figures even though combined figures for the school and FE sectors have been available since 2010.

Oxbridge’s own admission statistics show that, in 2012:

  • 9.6% of acceptances at Cambridge (332 students) were extended to students attending sixth form, FE and tertiary colleges (UK figures)
  • 10.5% of UK domiciled acceptances at Oxford (283 students) were extended to students attending sixth form colleges and FE institutions of all types

We can rework Cambridge’s calculation using the figure of 546 students with three or more A*/A grades in 2011:

  • assuming that all applied to Oxford and Cambridge in equal numbers gives a figure of 273 per institution
  • assuming a success rate of 25.6% – the average over the last three years
  • the number of FSM students that would have been admitted to Cambridge is roughly 70.

Part of the reason high-attaining disadvantaged students do not apply to Oxbridge may be because they want to study the relatively few mainstream subjects, such as dentistry, which are not available.

But it is highly likely that other factors are at play, including the perception that Oxbridge is not doing all that it might to increase numbers of disadvantaged students from the state sector.

If this favourable trend in A level performance stalls, as a consequence of recent A level reforms, it will not be reasonable – in the light of the evidence presented above – for Oxbridge to argue that this is impacting negatively on the admission of FSM-eligible learners.


Building on the work of the SMCPC


‘Higher Education: The Fair Access Challenge’

There is no shortage of publications on fair access and related issues. In the last year alone, these have included:

Easily the most impressive has been the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s ‘Higher Education: The Fair Access Challenge’ (June 2013), though it does tend to rely a little too heavily on evidence of the imbalance between state and independent-educated students.



It examines the response of universities to recommendations first advanced in an earlier publication ‘University Challenge: How Higher Education Can Advance Social Mobility’ (2012) published by Alan Milburn, now Chair of the Commission, in his former role as Independent Reviewer on Social Mobility.

The analysis sets out key points from the earlier work:

  • Participation levels at the most selective universities by the least advantaged are unchanged since the mid-90s.
  • The most advantaged young people are seven times more likely to attend the most selective universities than the most disadvantaged.
  • The probability of a state secondary pupil eligible for FSM in Year 11 entering Oxbridge by 19 is almost 2000 to 1; for a privately educated pupil the probability is 20 to 1.

New research is presented to show that the intake of Russell Group universities has become less socially representative in the last few years:

  • The number of state school pupils entering Russell Group Universities has increased by an estimated 2.6% from 2002/03 to 2011/12, but the commensurate increase in privately educated entrants is 7.9%. The proportion of young full-time state-educated entrants has consequently fallen from 75.6% to 74.6% over this period. The worst performers on this measure are: Durham (-9.2%), Newcastle (-4.6%), Warwick (-4.5%) and Bristol (-3.9%). The best are: Edinburgh (+4.6%), UCL (+3.3%), LSE (+3.0%) and Southampton (2.9%). The Oxbridge figures are: Cambridge (+0.3%) and Oxford (+2.3%).
  • Similarly, the proportion of young full-time entrants from NS-SEC classes 4-7 has fallen from 19.9% in 2002/03 to 19.0% in 2011/12. A table (reproduced below) shows that the worst offenders on this measure are Queen’s Belfast (-4.6%), Liverpool (-3.2%), Cardiff (-2.9%) and Queen Mary’s (-2.7%). Conversely, the best performers are Nottingham (+2.2%), York (+0.9%), Warwick and LSE (+0.8%). The figures for Oxbridge are: Cambridge (-1.0%) and Oxford (0.0%).


NC-SEC Capture.

  • An estimated 3,700 state-educated learners have the necessary grades for admission to Russell Group universities but do not take up places. This calculation is based on the fact that, if all of the 20 Russell Group universities in England achieved their HESA widening participation benchmarks, they would have recruited an extra 3,662 students from state schools. (The benchmarks show how socially representative each intake would be if it were representative of all entrants with the grades required for entry – though see Cambridge’s reservations on this point, above.) Some universities would need to increase significantly the percentage of state students recruited – for example, Bristol and Durham (26.9%), Oxford (23.4%) and Cambridge (23.3%).
  • Using the same methodology to calculate the shortfall per university in NS-SEC 4-7 students results in the table below, showing the worst offenders to require percentage increases of 54.4% (Cambridge), 48.5% (Bristol), 45.5% (Oxford) and 42,2% (Durham). Conversely, Queen Mary’s, Queen’s Belfast, LSE and Kings College are over-recruiting from this population on this measure.


NS sec Capture 2.

  • Even if every Russell Group university met the self-imposed targets in its access agreement, the number of ‘missing’ state educated students would drop by only 25% by 2016/17, because the targets are insufficiently ambitious. (This is largely because only seven have provided such targets in their 2013/14 access agreements and there are, of course, no collective targets.)
  • Boliver’s research is cited to show that there is a gap in applications from state school pupils compared with those educated in the independent sector. But there is also evidence that a state school applicant needs, on average, one grade higher in their A levels (eg AAA rather than AAB) to be as likely to be admitted as an otherwise identical student from the independent sector.
  • A Financial Times analysis of 2011 applications to Oxford from those with very good GCSEs found that those from independent schools were 74% more likely to apply than those from the most disadvantaged state secondary schools. Amongst applicants, independently educated students were more than three times as likely to be admitted as their peers in disadvantaged state schools. They were also 20% more likely to be admitted than those at the 10% most advantaged state secondary schools. As shown by the table below, the probabilities involved varied considerably. The bottom line is that the total probability of a place at Oxford for an independent school student is 2.93%, whereas the comparable figure for a student at one of the 10% most disadvantaged state secondary schools is just 0.07%.


NS sec Capture 3

When it comes to the causes of the fair access gap, subject to controls for prior attainment, the report itemises several contributory factors, noting the limited evidence available to establish their relative importance and interaction:

  • low aspirations among students, parents and teachers
  • less knowledge of the applications process, problems in demonstrating potential through the admissions process and a tendency to apply to the most over-subscribed courses
  • not choosing the right  A-level subjects and teachers’ under-prediction of expected A level grades
  • a sense that selective universities ‘are socially exclusive and “not for the likes of them”’

The Report states unequivocally that:

‘The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission is deeply concerned about the lack of progress on fair access. The most selective universities need to be doing far more to ensure that they are recruiting from the widest possible pool of talent. The Commission will be looking for evidence of a step change in both intention and action in the years to come.’

It identifies several areas for further action, summarising universities’ responses to ‘University Challenge’:

  • Building links between universities and schools: The earlier report offered several recommendations, including that universities should have explicit objectives to help schools close attainment gaps. No evidence is given to suggest that such action is widespread, though many universities are strengthening their outreach activities and building stronger relationships with the schools sector. Several universities highlighted the difficulties inherent in co-ordinating their outreach activity given the demise of Aimhigher, but several retain involvement in a regional partnership.
  • Setting targets for fair access: The earlier report recommended that HE representative bodies should set statistical targets for progress on fair access over the next five years. This was not met positively:

‘Representative bodies in the Higher Education Sector did not feel this would be a useful step for them to take, saying that it was difficult to aggregate the different targets that individual institutions set themselves. There was also a feeling among some highly selective institutions that the report overestimated the number of students who have the potential to succeed at the most selective universities.’

Nevertheless, the Commission is insistent:

The Commission believes it is essential that the Russell Group signals its determination to make a real difference to outcomes by setting a clear collective statistical target for how much progress its members are aiming to make in closing the ‘fair access gap’. Not doing so risks a lack of sustained focus among the most selective universities’.

  • Using contextual admissions data: The report argues that ‘there is now a clear evidence base that supports the use of contextual data’. Recommendations from the earlier report were intended to universalise the use of contextual data, including commitment from the various representative bodies through a common statement of support and a collaborative guide to best practice. There is no sign of the former, although the Commission reports ‘widespread agreement that the use of contextual data during the admissions process should be mainstreamed’. However it notes that there is much more still to do. (The subsequent SPA publication should have helped to push forward this agenda.)
  • Reforming the National Scholarship Programme: The earlier report called on the Government to undertake a ‘strategic review of government funding for access’ to include the national Scholarship Programme (NSP). The suggestion that the imminent HEFCE/OFFA National Strategy should tackle the issue has been superseded by a Government decision to refocus the NSP on postgraduate education.
  • Postgraduate funding reform: The earlier report recommended work on a postgraduate loan scheme and further data collection to inform future decisions. The current report says that:

‘…the Government appears to have decided against commissioning an independent report looking at the issue of postgraduate access. This is very disappointing.’

and calls on it ‘to take heed’. However, this has again been superseded by the NSP announcement.

The SMCPC’s ‘State of the Nation 2013’ report reinforces its earlier publication, arguing that:

‘…despite progress, too much outreach work that aims to make access to university fairer and participation wider continues to rely on unproven methods or on work that is ad hoc, uncoordinated and duplicative… These are all issues that the higher education sector needs to address with greater intentionality if progress is to be made on breaking the link between social origin and university education.

The UK Government also needs to raise its game… much more needs to be done… to address the loss of coordination capacity in outreach work following the abolition of Aimhigher.’

It recommends that:

‘All Russell Group universities should agree five-year aims to close the fair access gap, all universities should adopt contextual admissions processes and evidence-based outreach programmes, and the Government should focus attention on increasing university applications from mature and part-time students.’


What Else Might Be Done?

I set myself the challenge of drawing up a reform programme that would build on the SMCPC’s recommendations but would also foreground the key issues I have highlighted above, namely:

  • A significant improvement in the rate of progression for disadvantaged high-attaining learners to Oxbridge;
  • A more rigorous approach to defining, applying and monitoring improvement measures; and
  • The publication of more substantive and recent data

A determined administration that is prepared to take on the vested interests could do worse than pursue the following 10-point plan

  • 1. Develop a new approach to specifying universities’ fair access targets for young full-time undergraduate students. This would require all institutions meeting the BIS ‘most selective HEI’ criteria to pursue two universal measures and no more than two measures of their own devising, so creating a basket of no more than four measures. Independent versus state representation could be addressed as one of the two additional measures.
  • 2. The universal measures should relate explicitly to students achieving a specified A level threshold that has currency at these most selective HEIs. It could be pitched at the equivalent of ABB at A level, for example. The measures should comprise:
    • A progression measure for all learners eligible for the Pupil Premium in Year 11 of their secondary education (so a broader measure than FSM eligibility); and
    • A progression measure for all learners – whether or not formerly eligible for the Pupil Premium – attending a state-funded sixth form or college with a relatively poor historical record of securing places for their learners at such HEIs. This measure would be nationally defined and standardised across all institutions other than Oxbridge.
  • 3. In the case of Oxford and Cambridge the relevant A level tariff would be set higher, say at the equivalent of AAA grades at A level, and the nationally defined  ‘relatively poor historical record’ would reflect only Oxbridge admission.
  • 4. These two universal measures would be imposed on institutions through the new National Strategy for Access and Student Success. All institutions would be required to set challenging but realistic annual targets. There would be substantial financial incentives for institutions achieving their targets and significant financial penalties for institutions that fail to achieve them.
  • 5. The two universal measures would be embedded in the national Social Mobility Indicators and the KPIs of BIS and DfE respectively.
  • 6. Central Government would publish annually data setting out:
    • The number and percentage of formerly Pupil Premium-eligible learners achieving the specified A level thresholds for selective universities and Oxbridge respectively.
    • A ‘league table’ of the schools and colleges with relatively poor progression to selective universities and Oxbridge respectively.
    • A ‘league table’ of the universities with relatively poor records of recruitment from these schools and colleges.
    • A time series showing the numbers of students and percentage of their intake drawn from these two populations by selective universities and Oxbridge respectively each year. This should cover both applications and admissions.
  • 7. All parties would agree new protocols for data sharing and transparency, including tracking learners through unique identifiers across the boundaries between school and post-16 and school/college and higher education, so ensuring that the timelag in the publication of this data is minimal.
  • 8. Universities defend fiercely their right to determine their own undergraduate admissions without interference from the centre, meaning that the business of driving national improvement is much more difficult than it should be. But, given the signal lack of progress at the top end of the attainment distribution, there are strong grounds for common agreement to override this autonomy in the special case of high-achieving disadvantaged students.  A new National Scholarship Scheme should be introduced to support learners formerly in receipt of the Pupil Premium who go on to achieve the Oxbridge A Level tariff:
    • Oxford and Cambridge should set aside 5% additional places per year (ie on top of their existing complement) reserved exclusively for such students. On the basis of 2012 admissions figures, this would amount to almost exactly 250 places for England divided approximately equally between the two institutions (the scheme could be for England only or UK-wide). This would provide sufficient places for approximately 45% of those FSM learners currently achieving 3+ A*/A grades.
    • All eligible students with predicted grades at or above the tariff would be eligible to apply for one of these scholarship places. Admission decisions would be for the relevant university except that – should the full allocation not be taken up by those deemed suitable for admission who go on to achieve the requisite grades – the balance would be made available to the next best applicants until the quota of places at each university is filled.
    • The Government would pay a premium fee set 50% above the going rate (so £4,500 per student per annum currently) for each National Scholarship student admitted to Oxbridge. However, the relevant University would be penalised the full fee plus the premium (so £13,500 per student per year) should the student fail to complete their undergraduate degree with a 2.2 or better. Penalties would be offset against the costs of running the scheme. Assuming fees remain unchanged and 100% of students graduate with a 2.2 or better, this would cost the Government £1.125m pa.
  • 9. In addition, the Government would support the establishment of a National Framework Programme covering Years 9-13, along the lines set out in my November 2010 post on this topic with the explicit aim of increasing the number of Pupil Premium-eligible learners who achieve these tariffs. The budget could be drawn in broadly equal proportions from Pupil Premium/16-19 bursary, a matched topslice from universities’ outreach expenditure and a matched sum from the Government. If the programme supported 2,500 learners a year to the tune of £2,500 per year, the total steady state cost would be slightly over £30m, approximately £10m of which would be new money (though even this could be topsliced from the overall Pupil Premium budget).
  • 10. The impact of this plan would be carefully monitored and evaluated, and adjusted as appropriate to maximise the likelihood of success. It would be a condition of funding that all selective universities would continue to comply with the plan.

Do I honestly believe anything of this kind will ever happen?


flying pig capture



November 2013

Gifted Phoenix Twitter Round-Up Volume 12: Curriculum, Assessment, Fair Access and Gap-Narrowing


This is the second section of my retrospective review of the Gifted Phoenix Twitter feed covering the period from February 24 to July 7 2013.

4-Eyes-resized-greenjacketfinalIt complements the first section, which concentrated on Giftedness and Gifted Education.

This section includes material relating to other ‘specialist subjects’: curriculum and assessment, accountability, social mobility and fair access, disadvantage and gap-narrowing.

It provides a benchmark for consideration of forthcoming announcements about the National Curriculum , assessment and accountability which are expected next week.

This is a chronological narrative of developments over the last four months – my best effort at recording faithfully every key piece of information in the public domain.

I have divided the material as follows:

  • National Curriculum
  • Other Curriculum-related
  • National Curriculum Assessment
  • Qualifications
  • Performance Tables and Floor Targets
  • Ofsted
  • International Comparisons
  • Social Mobility
  • Fair Access
  • Careers
  • Pupil Premium
  • FSM gaps, Poverty, Disadvantage and EEF
  • Selection and Independent Sector

Please feel free to use this post as a resource bank when you reflect on and respond to the material we expect to be released over the next few days.

You might also like to visit some previous posts:


National Curriculum

Pressure from the Board of Deputies for special treatment for Hebrew, exempted from NC language list: http://t.co/CwlD2YAotp  – Tricky

Support in principle and claims that new NC History PoS is unworkable are not mutually exclusive: http://t.co/PZ1tiUQ2Md

Interesting study of competency-based learning in New Hampshire throws light on NC Expert Panel’s ‘Mastery’ vision: http://t.co/58dlXuFY17

MT @michaelt1979: DfE appointed experts to review National Curriculum – and then ignored all of their advice! Blog: http://t.co/zMwl3atP5b

National Curriculum “Cookery would only be compulsory in those schools with kitchen facilities” – surely not? http://t.co/Bu8TEZej0M

The vexed history of the draft ICT programme of study: http://t.co/dpovmo9UM8 – a microcosm of current autonomy/prescription tensions



What the NUT welcomes and doesn’t welcome about the draft National Curriculum: http://t.co/gdaijpaUaR – seems pretty representative

Latest from @warwickmansell on the shortcomings of the NC review (this time featuring the history PoS): http://t.co/sgWtXMlKzX

PQ reply on support for National Curriculum implementation: http://t.co/kLbGXRJz9p (Col 240W)

Cannadine on draft History PoS: http://t.co/465Ruv9kIy – includes a robust critique of the drafting process as well as the content

Confused story on climate change in draft NC: http://t.co/AbgPYZRkKP Does it give the lie to Gove’s claim at ASCL that PoS is uncontentious?

New Truss speech on National Curriculum: http://t.co/ZvFa0zf5Lw – Have I missed the golden nugget of news it contains?

More on climate change in the National Curriculum. I think it contradicts yesterday’s piece: http://t.co/DhWOHruVrm

Third in a triumvirate of climate change in the NC articles: http://t.co/dDB5eECBFs – basically it’s all about what’s on the face of the PoS



DfE has published the list of people consulted on the draft NC Programmes of Study published last month: http://t.co/VdnS8iWTlK

Yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate on the Design and Technology Curriculum: http://t.co/ASY1GWvuXZ (Col 285WH)

Richard Evans redemolishes the draft PoS for history: http://t.co/fq3vLX48IR  – Alleges explicitly that Gove himself wrote the final version

Next of the PoS in line for criticism is D&T (following up yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate): http://t.co/P3Gb9l3ARd



So we now have two levels of listing for participants in drafting NC PoS (for maths at least): http://t.co/dYt25UgIKI – awkward precedent

Link to the NUT’s National Curriculum Survey is at the bottom of this page: http://t.co/uD8dEOza8q

Government to extend National Curriculum exemption to all schools rated either outstanding or good by Ofsted: http://t.co/KYp4h0djrz

Engineers don’t like the draft D&T PoS: http://t.co/iJVOtbryvS (warning: story contains the most terrifying stock head-and-shoulders shot)



Don’t see anything wrong with pitching NC expectations high: http://t.co/UlYqXTY8df  – The issue is how you then manage the ‘mastery’ notion

Civitas defends Hirsch: http://t.co/r8p9JReyZQ – Yet more wearisome polarisation. As ever, the optimal path lies somewhere in between.

I see the endgame in this cycle as ditching the NC entirely, only for it to be reinvented half a generation later: http://t.co/3CsF6BFISN

Sadly it may be too late to rescue the draft NC from the poisonous clutches of ideology and political opportunism: http://t.co/3CsF6BFISN

FoI seeking correspondence with RAE and BCS over preparation of the draft ICT PoS draws a blank: http://t.co/W7ULIg694f

Curriculum for Cohesion response to the draft History PoS: http://t.co/1Qhjfo9hhg – as featured in this BBC story: http://t.co/hoqJtDNWKH



ASCL National Curriculum response calls for retention of levels (at least for KS3 core) or a pilot of alternatives: http://t.co/YB9ZRpLA7q

TES on ASCL and NAHT responses to NC consultation: http://t.co/4drArVSvgC – Is that the sound of chickens coming home to roost?

Apropos Natural England signing that draft NC protest letter, I see they’re currently subject to triennial review: http://t.co/zjXpdMdcee

South China Morning Post: Troubled England has much to learn from HK’s curriculum reforms: http://t.co/mESujyoOYR

UCET’s response to the National Curriculum consultation: http://t.co/J5ElUIkwWf

Latest protest letter about environmental education in the draft NC is signed by Natural England, a DEFRA NDPB: http://t.co/pehCetI1Oh



Full CBI response to National Curriculum Review: http://t.co/ztyUIGR8Ml  – says NC should be focused much more on outcomes:

Truss pushes school curriculum over NC http://t.co/DXcaF3jFGx We could do with guidance on how much time the prescribed PoS should consume?

FoI reveals NC Expert Panel cost £287.6K in fees and expenses for 342 days’ work http://t.co/BDhNDCcvOx – Hardly bargain basement?

Confirmation that the draft History PoS was written by DfE officials: http://t.co/7A6X8cu7SY (Col 881W)

2 years into NC Review, DfE reported to be taking draft D&T PoS back to the drawing board: http://t.co/Nas8LX1My0 – More humble pie consumed

Sec Ed carries a report of a March Westminster Forum event on MFL: http://t.co/QlaaCHYGvi



Bringing balance and diversity to the new history curriculum (courtesy of Curriculum for Cohesion): http://t.co/TCDX8ireIJ

So DECC also thinks there’s an issue with climate change in the National Curriculum: http://t.co/j5bIY3qgVJ – that raises the stakes a bit

There was a very small majority in NC consultation to change ICT to Computing – 39% yest; 35% no: http://t.co/KL0OKK9rkV

This new document on National Curriculum disapplication says only 23% of NC consultation responses supported it: http://t.co/dRFBGGPWS6

DfE consultation on the Order replacing ICT with Computing and disapplying parts of the NC from September 2013: http://t.co/xs6P6TXDcq

SCORE’s Report on Resourcing Practical Science at Secondary Level: http://t.co/zTYvwjZWTH

There’s been a desperate search for additional surveys demonstrating children’s lack of historical knowledge: http://t.co/B6VZQdD5bM

If Government doesn’t abandon NC in 2014/15 my guess is that will be in the 2015 Tory Manifesto: http://t.co/gmE4EHTXA4

@warwickmansell fisks Gove’s speech on curriculum reform: http://t.co/gmE4EHTXA4  Could 2013/14 disapplication pave the way for abandonment?

Gove seems to be suggesting that National Curriculum may need to change iteratively to reflect innovation http://t.co/EdWssxHd84 Unworkable?

Davey’s private letter about climate change in the NC is officially acknowledged in a PQ reply: http://t.co/fx76s9scQU (Col 358W)

Robinson breaks cover to criticise the National Curriculum (and promote his new book): http://t.co/o6h98R1UPn



HEFCE is funding a new programme to support MFL including raising aspirations and attainment in secondary schools: http://t.co/eg5pws1Pme

More of the shortcomings of the National Curriculum Review process laid bare by @warwickmansell: http://t.co/ZUpkvekz8V

More attacks on national curriculum history: http://t.co/OIy1l5dZyD



Twigg has just advocated almost complete fragmentation in curriculum, but says he’s against fragmentation! http://t.co/nepHKaziLH

Twigg’s decision to ditch entire National Curriculum isn’t getting media scrutiny it deserves http://t.co/AHcEL4pPoG  20,000 secret gardens!

Government response to consultation on the order replacing ICT with Computing: http://t.co/xs6P6TXDcq

New Labour policy to drop National Curriculum is directly at odds with ASCL’s preference for a universal entitlement: http://t.co/ZN83xoU2GO

Government response to consultation on NC disapplication: http://t.co/Dg9pbmmCZ6  (we’re going to do it anyway…)

Reports that draft History PoS significantly revised: http://t.co/etSGXxePOj – also being cleared by both PM and DPM!

Groups advising on training/resource implications of new NC PoS have a go at draft PoS instead. Beyond their remit? http://t.co/7Nqtr82JKo



NUT’s Advice on National Curriculum Disapplication 2013/14: http://t.co/zY7KvfkiES







Other Curriculum-Related

Direct link to new APPG Report on RE: ‘The Truth Unmasked': http://t.co/uClQGD59M9 – stops short of pushing (again) for RE in EBacc

Outcome of PSHE Review: http://t.co/9F6iBqXf4i – There will be no separate PoS. Links to consultation report and FAQ from this page

Yesterday’s Ministerial Statement on PSHE Education: http://t.co/X8n5KpejDv (Col 52WS)

PSHE consultation report doesn’t give percentage of respondents wanting some topics to be statutory http://t.co/IyECrBZ1Qg Likely a majority

Eurydice has published a timely new report on PE and sport at school in Europe: http://t.co/aEyu0fjTSM

Powerful case for statutory PSHE following the relatively pallid Review: http://t.co/he3CIbLRFV  – could be fertile Manifesto territory…

Google wants more emphasis on the STEM pipeline: http://t.co/f9p7rtxlcY  – How can government harness their enthusiasm (and spondoolicks)?

The Next Generation Science Standards: http://t.co/H0oaK6bLeR and an instructive insight into the drafting process: http://t.co/fgnsm5mjtM

Wonder why this PQ reply on school sport funding fails to confirm that it will be ringfenced: http://t.co/BoN08PB0UO (Col1196W)

Letter from Sex Education Forum et al about sex ed in the draft NC: http://t.co/B46EqtMrQ5 Weird decision to write to a paywalled organ (!)

A National Shakespeare Week and new bank of teaching materials? http://t.co/ixaFlV7VQ9 – There are more things in heaven and earth…

Westminster Hall debate on long-awaited National Plan for Cultural Education: http://t.co/7tqSlZKdcF (Col 94WH) – here ‘very soon indeed’

TES comment from YST on spending the £150m for school sport: http://t.co/OTSDTRUUvY – hard for them to add value without national framework

Yesterday’s short Lords’ Debate on PSHE: http://t.co/CXoOAafGNJ (Col GC403)

Sue Campbell repeats warnings about the patchiness that will result from uncoordinated support for school sport: http://t.co/BPsOr6FEnz

Ofsted’s PSHE Survey Report: http://t.co/0TkhFNm32M

New phonics document: Learning to Read through Phonics: Information for Parents: http://t.co/uVtjTzcyXA

Quiet news day on the education front, so all the better opportunity to engage with Mr Point (geddit?) http://t.co/994uBgIvG3 A neat riposte

Education Committee is taking evidence on school sports from 9.30am this morning: http://t.co/IYTM3RR8ap

Two Plashet School students review this morning’s Select Committee session on school sport: http://t.co/W1C3yFLI2N – excellently written

NLT press release on the increase in children’s online reading: http://t.co/uULtsGEYPV – says the report itself is ‘forthcoming’

Belated link to the Smith Institute Survey of Participation in School Sport: http://t.co/qIZO4OZdEm

Is it socially unacceptable to use bad grammar but fine to make mathematical errors? http://t.co/ukuxdCV5we

Lords Oral PQ on school sports: http://t.co/86omWG5x4d (Col 623)

Uncorrected Transcript of 14 May Education Committee Oral Evidence Session on School Sports: http://t.co/n9jMXd13vg

Direct link to ‘Learning the Lesson: The Future of School Swimming': http://t.co/zRByR2zVDE

What’s going on with this PM intervention over school sports funding? http://t.co/cxhfDZAy9G  – one could read a fair bit into it

Here’s Oxford’s press release on the Snowling phonics test research: http://t.co/1q3BkHS2kQ No link to paper (which isn’t yet peer-reviewed)

Labour wants to bring elements of PSHE into the National Curriculum: http://t.co/AzcNBcSW9x – but why are Home Office shadow team leading?

£7m over 5 years to support A level Physics: http://t.co/KyjajFgXdk and http://t.co/xq4LkvRJDK  – but no hint of priority for disadvantaged

Lords Oral PQ on PSHE: http://t.co/1iVQ0w5vyq (Col 1512) leaves the way open for change to the National Curriculum

By the way, whatever’s happened to the National Plan for Cultural Education? http://t.co/gGaB9ScUJb

The Cultural Education Plan will be published ‘within the next few weeks': http://t.co/0GkX1TjPZ2 (Col 620W)

Details of Further Maths Support Programme tender now on Contracts Finder: http://t.co/3QHq3rNfb7 – EOIs by 19/4 and Supplier Day on 2/5

Truss increases funding for Further Maths Support Programme: http://t.co/AwNsNN5gDS Current offer is here: http://t.co/nqsOofug0B

Sting in the tail here. That Further Maths Support Programme expansion will be tendered, so MEI may not get the gig: http://t.co/IB0gbZaAud

DfE is inviting bids to run the Further Maths Support Programme: http://t.co/jwBCbdK2Aa – up to £25m over 5 years

NATRE’s Survey of RE provision in primary schools: http://t.co/F1Qc0FpBeC

Short Lords Debate yesterday on Citizenship Education: http://t.co/nFuhwBiBf3 (Col 953)

Need to see how these various maths reforms amount to coherent strategy where whole’s greater than the sum of parts: http://t.co/AwNsNN5gDS

DfE has refreshed its school sports advice on http://t.co/fRKX7ciiSd  Press release on gov.uk http://t.co/xrGaWzl3Vl

Government held a roundtable meeting on arts education on 5 June: http://t.co/zYAuduZ0ST (Col 528W)



National Curriculum Assessment

Still no-one’s rising to the challenge I posed to design a new KS1-3 grading system: http://t.co/kZ2Ki7k18M – The silence is deafening

Today I have been mostly worrying about National Curriculum Assessment: http://t.co/ybJ13d8rVR I desperately need help from @warwickmansell

RT @localschools_uk: Ofsted “expected progress” measure flawed – higher grade students much more likely to achieve it: http://t.co/07TNk

Brian Lightman: we should not be trying to drive the curriculum through our assessment system: http://t.co/6Q8Sr3FMY1 – I agree

Many thanks to everyone RTing my post on future of NC assessment: http://t.co/ybJ13d8rVR – separate KS2 test syllabuses seem inevitable

Warwick Mansell on National Curriculum assessment: http://t.co/me1Ecnd9Ia – the perfect complement to my own post!



Apropos Levels going in 2016, we should imminently get announcement of who has KS2 marking contract 2014-2016: http://t.co/9aKktsQFwm

The Laws speech to ASCL confirms that Level 4b equivalent will become the new KS2 test ‘pass’ from 2016: http://t.co/OT91Q7KfCW

MT @emoorse01: Unpopular level descriptions are going. But what will replace them? http://t.co/P7zkKotuv9 inspired by @GiftedPhoenix Thanks!

Further KS2 grammar punctuation and spelling sample materials for level 6: http://t.co/MMDbkh14KF

“In particular we shall consider refreshing the p-scales”: http://t.co/3cVnw0uGUy (Col 344W)

@brianlightman tells #ascl2013 that abolition of NC levels creates a policy vacuum. ASCL to discuss further with DfE: http://t.co/2g7MKulC4m

2013 Performance tables will show percentage of children achieving KS2 Level 6, but not as percentage of entries: http://t.co/pHV2q4Vvle

New primary assessment and accountability regime (consultation awaited) won’t be confirmed until September http://t.co/VF0r5wEAR5 (Col 722W)

The primary school accountability consultation will still be published “shortly”: http://t.co/nrlWy3x5qx (Col 806W) Next week presumably.

New KS2 Writing moderation and exemplification materials levels 2-6: http://t.co/lzaMwFpTnN

Tokyo high schools are about to introduce a set of attainment targets: http://t.co/xsZ16I7KOd

New DfE research on KS2 Level 6 Tests: http://t.co/2FdvVGeoKY – Critical of lack of guidance; doesn’t mention disappearance of L6



Wonder why there’s no reference to primary accountability consultation in this new timeline for schools: http://t.co/19aW9z2t8W

How Level 6 tests are viewed in secondaries: http://t.co/Ie7nzkOWOA Gifted learners suffer badly from this poor transition practice

The list of Education Oral Questions for this afternoon: http://t.co/X5Dvwd2swc – Includes one from Ollerenshaw on Level 6 tests

113,600 pupils from 11,700 schools (21% of cohort) are registered for a 2013 KS2 L6 test: http://t.co/AfDYI0OsRW (Col 680W) Iffy

More about KS2 L6 tests: http://t.co/hXTS6d4XOO  NB: a 21% entry rate seems excessively high; NC levels will disappear by 2016

@warwickmansell Did you know about this? http://t.co/TXbaOZVtZE – I might have missed it but I saw no announcement. It looks as though…

@warwickmansell ..Pearson were the only bidder and have been awarded a £60m contract following negotiations…

@warwickmansell ‘Only one bid received which did not meet the minimum selection criteria. Negotiations were conducted with that bidder’

@DrFautley @warwickmansell NB that the estimated value of the contract was originally £50m – see: http://t.co/bCS3eMSUJi

What’s wrong with tests being marked abroad, provided quality is sustained and savings are passed on via lower fees? http://t.co/vjhtxgms5O



Worth comparing this Duncan speech on assessment with similar discussion on this side of the Atlantic: http://t.co/DSgzUXEl4i

5 Reasons to Keep NC Levels by @LKMco http://t.co/iYpPn2MTZc If no rabbit in the assessment consultation hat will Labour commit to keep them

This reaction from Crystal on SPAG raises awkward wider questions about current QA processes for statutory assessment http://t.co/q3aVOus50X

Given the furore over the grammar, spelling and punctuation test, any feedback on these L6 materials? http://t.co/iqDpS7vXT8 – helpful?

Wow! This post on National Curriculum levels is a bit of a rollercoaster ride: http://t.co/idrE54bxyO – I agree with substantial parts

For completeness sake, the press release on today’s grammar punctuation and spelling test: http://t.co/KbKXd5trYt

Timetable for the primary assessment/accountability consultation slips to ‘by the end of the summer term': http://t.co/oaL231aj69 (Col 383W)

New DfE research into KS2 Access Arrangements Procedures: http://t.co/H0Xt49YR1Y



The significance of progression in assessment reform: http://t.co/u2DsNj47PH – a timely reminder from Australia

(Slightly) veiled criticism from Economist for ‘endless fiddling with tests': http://t.co/LsmW6XSkC5

FoI reveals Standards and Testing Agency’s 2012/13 programme budget was £35.7m: http://t.co/iPNJzvRQRz

My piece ‘Whither National Curriculum Without Levels’ http://t.co/JNTYosr4nL We await a new KS2 grading structure



First Interim Report from the Evaluation of the Phonics Screening Check http://t.co/g4e1o9djiN conveys negative teacher feedback over value

This on NC Levels from DfE rather glosses over importance of internal assessment dovetailing with statutory grading: http://t.co/2wziieK5Bv

There doesn’t seem to be any defensive line on the odd dissonance between the NC and assessment timetables: http://t.co/L9U6ICI0MH

Confirmation that in 2015 pupils will be following the new NC but will be assessed against the old NC: http://t.co/3NQb9AAsGM (Col 357W)

Last night’s #ukedchat transcript on the removal of National Curriculum levels: http://t.co/zGKCjhnwiN – My post: http://t.co/JNTYosr4nL



STA received 240 complaints re non-registration of KS2 pupils for Level 6 tests post-deadline: http://t.co/zYAuduZ0ST (Col 531W)

If it’s not legally possible to keep NC and assessment out of kilter: http://t.co/AxlG0W61Sp  Could this delay NC implementation to 2015?

Breakdown of responsibilities in Standards and Testing Agency: http://t.co/fpVIEknny4  (Col 601W) Will be reducing from 3 divisions to 2





 Chris Wheadon on the difference between tiering and extension papers (via @warwickmansell ): http://t.co/lFJgjllA3Y

DfE has released an Equality Analysis of its planned GCSE Reforms: http://t.co/pXkyHnPZXF  – You can decide whether it stands close scrutiny

Seven new GCSE-equivalent 14-16 courses in engineering and construction: http://t.co/Zdri1TZAZx – Bet they’re not the last!

TES reports Ofqual has embarked on an international comparisons study of GCSE equivalents: http://t.co/HM4tr4b1gP

Truss IoE Open Lecture on A Level reforms: http://t.co/lucLs9KVHM plus the latest increment of maths support

What’s the difference between a Maths M Level and (part of) a stand-alone AS level? http://t.co/zzx6Z5YBGU

Not very revealing PQ replies about the decision to make AS level a stand-alone qualification: http://t.co/hUFtrO6zho (Col 142W)

TES interview with Ofqual’s Stacey throws further doubt on exam reform timetable and viability of untiered GCSEs: http://t.co/V6m5C1BvOH

New letter from Gove to Stacey on A level reform: http://t.co/MUepfQmyn8  – sounds like AS reform beyond content will be delayed

PQ asking which universities us AS level for admissions purposes: http://t.co/mBk6f2IrmU  (Col 594W) – Answer not that illuminating

Uncorrected evidence from Education Select Committee’s 12 March session on GCSE English results: http://t.co/soK7X9z3UR

SEN lobby coming to the forefront in arguments against removal of GCSE tiering (TES): http://t.co/gKnFgTTopB – Looks increasingly vulnerable

Ofqual’s response to the last Gove letter on the exam reform timetable: http://t.co/hdVyDaO26B

Glenys Stacey back before Education Select Committee at 10.40 this morning re GCSE English results: http://t.co/X5B7HIumzZ

So what alternatives are there to GCSE tiering, apart from core + extension model? Any of them substantively better? http://t.co/55eLxHkEjQ

Uncapped GCSE APS data for London Challenge, City Challenges, All secondary by ethnic group, 2007-2012: http://t.co/BoN08PB0UO (Col 1190W)

PQs from Glass and Stuart about HE support for standalone AS levels still getting short shrift: http://t.co/BoN08PB0UO (Col 1187W)

Uncorrected transcript of 26 March Education Select Committee session on GCSE English with Ofqual: http://t.co/iRF55cMZsB

Hansard record of yesterday’s Westminster Hall Debate on AS and A levels: http://t.co/QMJ35QD6ak (Col 33WH)

Today’s TES Editorial is about the perverse effect of comparable outcomes: http://t.co/fGeC5qdQ7V

Ofqual Note on GCSE English Marking in 2012 sent ahead of 26 March Session with Stacey: http://t.co/6QbFIGlQnx

O’Briain advocates core plus extension in GCSE maths: http://t.co/eRmYsc29fN – but his comments seem more likely to justify tiering

Ofqual’s GCSE English S+L proposals would mean a 60/40 split in favour of written papers (compared with 40/60 now): http://t.co/bigkAQQvw1

TES piece on OUCEA report on GCSE reforms: http://t.co/9B1HVEVatB – and here’s the paper itself: http://t.co/8EiV3onziZ

Government Response to Education Committee Report on KS4 Reform http://t.co/Qi4EDjx0W7 Nothing new; handy summary ahead of May consultations

So AS level will be a clear dividing line in educational policy ahead of 2015 election http://t.co/gsoN51rrS6 A one off or first of several?

Direct link to the OUCEA Report on research evidence relating to GCSE reforms: http://t.co/8EiV3onziZ  – think I may have tweeted this before

Ofqual’s secondary accountability consultation response:http://t.co/FjZiWK3Yee – Isn’t weighting Eng and Ma in the best 8 measure overkill?

Coverage of Cambridge Assessment’s call for GCSE scale scores: http://t.co/8ia6fY84At and http://t.co/K5vRXDyRbN and http://t.co/Po14hPyuL9

Another Cambridge Assessment Paper on GCSE tiering: http://t.co/aPra9aCzkB Sees merit in 2 separate levels in Ma and Eng: ie Tiering Plus!

Here’s a direct link to the Cambridge Assessment paper on GCSE scale scores: http://t.co/ldnOTOd0sA

Laws to Brennan on AS Levels: http://t.co/VMAsjOIAdN – internal analysis suggests AS have marginal additional predictive value

Reports of a new commitment from DfE to consult the other education departments on qualifications reform: http://t.co/8ZrMBlqUWX

Coverage of yesterday’s indication of more ceiling space for GCSE high attainers: http://t.co/nrh6KBcBxq and http://t.co/474RgDUgEb

Pretty much inevitable home countries split over GCSE/A Level: http://t.co/9x7dx7tFq9 and http://t.co/YLBPC43ohJ There’s plenty of downside

Here’s the study of the predictive value of GCSE versus AS that Laws quoted last week: http://t.co/3mbNOvtE8v

CUSU has written to Education Ministers about AS Levels: http://t.co/zpfyb98Mcv

TES say AQA is monitoring Twitter for evidence of cheating in its exams (but presumably not in other’s exams): http://t.co/wJFVPY2e8z

Leaked notion that son-of-GCSE grades go from 1 up to 8 reverses Gove’s 1-4 down illustration: http://t.co/oHJUQ4DAYW What’s the logic here?

Incidentally, introducing an I(ntermediate) level at age 16 begs a big question about the identity of E(ntry) level: http://t.co/znAH11STJU

Hmm – building in space for a hypothetical Grade 9 is most definitely a ‘speculative’ proposal! http://t.co/rr91ir37zc

Independent Editorial on I-Levels seems to be off the pace, or at least rather idiosyncratic: http://t.co/79QceNtdR2

Will there be pressure in future to keep Welsh and Northern Irish GCSEs available in English schools? What of IGCSE? http://t.co/CQvDzvT7e0

Twigg on I levels: http://t.co/xzpO3ppS0m

TES on I-levels: http://t.co/MI7mbLmKi0 – also says yesterday’s Estyn report on science is a threat to their PISA 2015 aspirations

Some distancing here from the new I-level moniker: http://t.co/0R8JB6S0VP – maybe we’ll have GCSE(E) instead!

Ofqual on A level review arrangements: http://t.co/aiKa18kbi2 and http://t.co/qLzlWkZKEX  Russell Group references conspicuous by  absence

Ofqual’s Interim Review of Marking Quality http://t.co/LXcht4zCQh + Literature Review on Marking Reliability Research http://t.co/zqWNfdc07c

Two newly-published interim research briefs from evaluation of the linked pair of GCSEs in maths (M LP): http://t.co/L6iTg2aE8w

Direct link to Education Select Committee report on GCSE English marking: http://t.co/mn5l58lXkE

This looks authoritative on today’s GCSE announcements: http://t.co/USfhSmP8SW  New line on reverse grading from 8 down to 1 still looks weak

So it appears tiering may be reprieved in maths, physics, chemistry biology: http://t.co/USfhSmP8SW  Annual 1K pupil sample tests in Ma/Eng

Update on Ofqual’s progress in investigating awarding organisations that also publish text books: http://t.co/wjN6ya5xMe (Col 124W)

DfE consultation says high achievers’ content is separately indicated in Maths spec. But why only Maths? http://t.co/Eog0u5rq10 (p7)

DfE GCSE content consultation says no specifications for any further subjects: http://t.co/Eog0u5rq10 (pp5-6)

Here is Ofqual’s Review of Controlled Assessment in GCSE, also released today: http://t.co/doP85MINLa

Ofqual is proposing new short course GCSEs, and there could be common content with full GCSEs: http://t.co/KHDBXOyyeV (p32)

Ofqual promises a separate Autumn consultation on setting grade standards from first principles: http://t.co/KHDBXOyyeV (p30)

Can’t see any justification from Ofqual’s for why the grading goes from 8 to 1, rather than vice versa: http://t.co/KHDBXOyyeV (pp26-29)

As expected, Ofqual proposes ‘improved’ overlapping tiers in Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Biology: http://t.co/KHDBXOyyeV  (pp13-17)

DfE GCSE Subject Content Consultation Document: http://t.co/Eog0u5rq10 and subject specifications: http://t.co/JdFkUvlwWk

Ofqual GCSE consultation press release: http://t.co/tUoMAGtZPQ and consultation document: http://t.co/KHDBXOyyeV

Today’s oral statement on GCSE reform: http://t.co/V6bah8Wf8l

Interesting if somewhat idiosyncratic list of the (14) experts consulted on the GCSE specifications: http://t.co/jU9mzRVeE6

As Wales and NI stick with integrated AS level, the UK-wide exam reform picture begins to resemble a dog’s breakfast: http://t.co/BDgyrEEGSW

My gov.uk notification says draft GCSE science spec has already been replaced with a new version: http://t.co/y7ZDv6qwu6 – what’s changed?

Russell Group will have an A Level Content Advisory Group (ALCAB) after all: http://t.co/khv5tOT9KK but no real detail about process

Set of fairly non-committal PQ replies about Welsh GCSEs: http://t.co/c55IFqatcr (Col 581W)

Handy NUT guide to proposed changes to GCSE: http://t.co/09DCibEJJT

GCSE MFL entries by language over the last decade: http://t.co/eKA5N4OOxA (Col WA90)

How well does AS predict A level grades? http://t.co/KMTGBHMvsE

Ofqual needs two new board members, pay is £6K a year: http://t.co/Jm53Ff2ltk



Performance Tables and Floor Targets

Bell criticises Russell Group-focused destination data: http://t.co/vcBS7VB9Mo – likely to be relegated to planned Data Warehouse/Portal?

AoC has complained to the UK Statistics Authority about the KS5 Performance Tables (TES): http://t.co/h7F0xy896G

Details of new primary floor targets from DfE: http://t.co/qlhoDYi5Eq – Level 4 becomes 4A/4B only until it’s discarded in 2016

Repitching Level 4 at current 4B must be precursor to using the higher threshold as new post-Levels end KS2 benchmark http://t.co/qlhoDYi5Eq

By the way, results in the new GSP test ‘are likely to be part of the floor standard in 2014′: http://t.co/qlhoDYi5Eq – why so provisional?

Sounds like there are also plans (long on the back burner?) to publish ‘families of schools’ data: http://t.co/OT91Q7KfCW

@headguruteacher On school accountability: http://t.co/zo3QD7kiRy – Can’t see universal performance indicators being sacrificed entirely

Direct link to IPPR Report on how performance table reforms have affected 14-16 vocational education: http://t.co/l1OoqsiJsm

Direct link to Demos Report on Detoxifying School Accountability: http://t.co/Z5SZk71vDE  plus press release: http://t.co/LSVGazLSex

Interim report tomorrow from Labour’s 14-19 review will apparently recommend abolition of EBacc: http://t.co/Vxo2h6BoYS

International comparisons of school accountability systems: http://t.co/J4fgxLEwHx





FAQs on Ofsted’s School Data Dashboard: http://t.co/SLJX93VUDl – Nothing on link with new Performance Tables proposals

Mumsnet users aren’t impressed by the Ofsted Schools Dashboard: http://t.co/GVN1JA2F0L

TES reports concern that data determining which LAs Ofsted inspects is out of date: http://t.co/FPtyc0uLjn

TES editorial suggests Ofsted should consider Montesquieu before undertaking school improvement alongside inspection: http://t.co/vgArtBkNsg

Ofsted will tomorrow publish data on the outcome of school inspections in first term under new framework: http://t.co/yLQJIZPO2H (Col 987W)

The promised Ofsted school inspection data for October to December 2012: http://t.co/Ampa57zT5M  plus press release: http://t.co/VFbVi2pkuI

38 sponsored academies inspected October-December 2012: 0 outstanding; 20 good; 13 require improvement; 5 inadequate: http://t.co/Ampa57zT5M

Ofsted has published the Data Dashboard/school governors Wilshaw speech: http://t.co/YRBrc9iiYP

Ofsted Survey: Improving Literacy in Secondary Schools: http://t.co/qi05eHb2hY

Update from NAHT on Ofsted data dashboard issues: http://t.co/lv259wSH8n

Following Derby and Portsmouth, Ofsted next blitz Coventry: http://t.co/6Tpf78JChe

Norfolk is next authority in line for the full Ofsted treatment: http://t.co/cxUENfpBqA

Ofsted’s letter to Portsmouth following mass inspection there is less emollient than the earlier one to Derby: http://t.co/6Gzl4uPN2V

Ofsted has published its response to a consultation on improving its own complaints procedures: http://t.co/XQY9jAdDbi

Omigod (literally!) Christian Today says “Sir Michael’s sins are too long to detail”: http://t.co/NLWvc5ohg5 but I think it’s ironic

Ofsted has written to Coventry about the outcomes of the recent LA-wide inspection there: http://t.co/6Gzl4uPN2V

In case you haven’t yet had a link to….Ofsted’s consultation document on early years inspection: http://t.co/6BSMUMjt4T

Not sure if this breakdown of grades for the 9 free schools so far inspected has been made public before: http://t.co/zY98hnQFcO (top link)

Papers from the Ofsted Board Meeting of 26 March: http://t.co/HSLtSywpvZ including a Performance Report on the last Quarter of 2012

All the Ofsted bumph on LA inspection: http://t.co/0uoTSOSgUB and http://t.co/L4uCbIymSV and http://t.co/9MVPli31GM

Norfolk gets a stiff letter from Ofsted, Here’s the full text courtesy of the EDP: http://t.co/AnXruhJytU

Ofsted has released a first set of monthly figures updating latest school inspection outcomes by phase and LA/region: http://t.co/H7dOL1k3TA

NAHT press release about Instead, its alternative inspection model: http://t.co/P0Gg7IOLS6

Interesting piece on the impact of a negative Ofsted on test outcomes: http://t.co/21vs0QbFeS

Ministers haven’t pinned down the criteria determining a decision to ask HMCI to inspect a local authority http://t.co/uIqHyNszr9 (Col 596W)

The Ofsted roadshow reaches Bristol: http://t.co/4xuYt3gIP7

Ofsted will on Monday start inspection of local authority school improvement services in Norfolk and Isle of Wight: http://t.co/Ak3qmFir13

Full DfE FOI response on evidence of effectiveness of Ofsted inspection: http://t.co/Wc6yzuU9qm Includes 2012 internal research review.

TES reports that some private school emergency inspections are prompted by fears of religious extremism: http://t.co/Rs2VKph5Ee

Medway is next in Ofsted’s sights: http://t.co/URDpiAr1Qj

Ofsted press release on its inspection of Medway primary schools: http://t.co/URDpiAr1Qj

East Riding escapes relatively lightly following Ofsted scrutiny: http://t.co/6Gzl4uPN2V

Is Ofsted now acting as a school improvement broker, asks @Robt_Hill http://t.co/rirkTzCdit

Really useful data via Ofsted FOI on how academies’ inspection ratings change after achieving academy status: http://t.co/Ucldk1c5BG


International Comparisons

New OECD working paper on the Predictive Power of PISA test items: http://t.co/YLSiI6aBOu

RT @OECD_Edu: The ideas that shaped PISA, & the ideas that PISA shaped – Slidedeck for @SchleicherEDU TED talk http://t.co/vW3qlyXLQ4

Latest PISA in Focus on marking: http://t.co/hgNXEUYnNK

Schleicher presentation from OECD summit on using evaluation to improve teaching: http://t.co/cOIG1UR31y

What’s wrong with NC Levels: http://t.co/6sgLjPN212 Interested to see how the author’s alternative differs to mine: http://t.co/JNTYosr4nL

BBC reports that PISA test for schools is about to be launched: http://t.co/ECcHnUjaSI  – further background here: http://t.co/t4rBw5sssG

A whole range of US pilot material from the OECD (PISA) test for schools can be accessed here: http://t.co/5aGWuGlZxp

Today’s TES editorial is about our penchant for things American: http://t.co/X72zSyL6vT – but PISA is now driving a more eclectic approach?

‘You’ll be Shocked by How Many of the World’s Top Students are American': http://t.co/hHH1vihzNx (I wasn’t)

Tim Oates in TES on comparative study of high-performing education systems: http://t.co/hAbCyLSHZ1 – is the full analysis published?

PISA in Focus study on What Makes Urban Schools Different: http://t.co/PoGkZjegCe as reported here: http://t.co/FAEGWkKx3i

Interesting World Bank blog post about OECD’s ‘PISA for Development’ (building PISA use in developing economies): http://t.co/DULGaN96ru

Interesting NCEE article exemplifying data produced from the PISA Test for Schools: http://t.co/WED2ztV8vS

International comparisons of school accountability systems: http://t.co/J4fgxLEwHx

TES on PISA Tests for Schools: http://t.co/KQjAugyG8s – They’ll cost at least £5,250 a throw. Government ‘supportive’ but won’t impose

Forgot to mention you can check how our high achievers perform on PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS here: http://t.co/OvqmNIJO7J

PISA’s approach to assessing collaborative problem-solving (in 2015): http://t.co/Zn01bSsjvy

Here is Education at a Glance 2013 (all 440 pages): http://t.co/vMw2wWsonC and here’s the 10 page note on the UK: http://t.co/hEMaPeHNN5


Social Mobility

The ASCL page from which you can download all three of today’s publications about social mobility: http://t.co/wbXhX89uPx

On quick review ASCL social mobility documents are good in parts while ignoring the Excellence Gap concept: http://t.co/wbXhX89uPx

Upcoming ISER social mobility report: http://t.co/6mheoYoFQj Doesn’t yet show up on their website: http://t.co/vYtaj2Rqfi

NYT article on social mobility through HE access in the USA: http://t.co/qH8Xtd5bNB – unfortunately the paper it discusses is £

@brianlightman on schools’ contribution to social mobility: http://t.co/Yf8dDeVozB

Book of abstracts for today’s HEA social mobility conference http://t.co/clpTWHbsat – let’s hope the papers are published and free to access

Top strand of the IT pipeline is dominated by independent schools: http://t.co/qYmTqQbprT

Some fairly rigorous intervention is required before grammar schools will be a key to social mobility: http://t.co/rQ4RK2tUwU

Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission reminds us of its existence: http://t.co/E6zAQizcuU  – There’s plenty for it to address

BIS FOI Release concerning evidence of guidance on unpaid internships and unpaid interns: http://t.co/Soje8x3Asg

Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has issued a call for evidence to inform 1st annual report http://t.co/wkIx8QBfNo

Grammar schools and the myth of social mobility: http://t.co/ltOADwOJve – Exactly

Not exactly an enthusiastic answer to Hinds PQ on Government progress on social mobility: http://t.co/ZaSg2aw1e5 (Col 1097W)

DPM’s Opening Doors Press Release: http://t.co/3pSPybcQ5O – so glad to know who provided the double-deckers for the Talent Tour!

Full text of Milburn’s Scottish Speech setting out the stall of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission: http://t.co/EFBdc5xfYB

Yesterday’s Westminster Hall Debate on unpaid internships: http://t.co/HRvLNpmlfk (Col 161WH)

20 June Lords Debate on Social Mobility: http://t.co/Mo88u8Y7nW (Col GC139) When Government spokesman ditches his speech, that’s a bad sign

Public Attitudes Research on Social Mobility from the SMCPC: http://t.co/BvbgFBzdLI and press release: http://t.co/rqgfZlP9qV

The Grandparents Effect in Social Mobility: Evidence from British Birth Cohort Studies by Chan and Boliver: http://t.co/aNnf6OpqHE

Thirteen Economic Facts about Social Mobility and the Role of Education (US): http://t.co/nOSq5EV2oa


Fair Access

Ever wonder why state schools don’t send students to Oxbridge? Read this and weep: http://t.co/puvhYZhPen

It’s becoming harder to get a place on a UNIQ summer school than to gain admission to Oxford: http://t.co/ro7kV9vbtf

Oxford and Telegraph lock horns over statistical analysis of ‘summer born’ effect on admissions http://t.co/NS4pCYe1Cg

If there’s no problem with Oxbridge admissions let’s have full data transparency. Secrecy breeds conspiracy theories http://t.co/D2vrLdK22N

OFFA has appointed nine new members to its advisory group including Penelope Griffin of the Bridge Group: http://t.co/mQ78zvi3ol

Direct link to HEFCE’s ‘The Uses and Impact of HEFCE Funding for Widening Participation': http://t.co/0ZbP3GXklg

The sting in the tail of HEFCE’s report is on page 68: http://t.co/0ZbP3GXklg

THE says OFFA/HEFCE national access strategy interim report will propose coordinated outreach strategy: http://t.co/xNBhyJdWLd

The HEFCE/OFFA Interim Report on the National Strategy for Access: http://t.co/WDKbMqWt84 said to propose son of Aim Higher

BiS press notice about the OFFA/HEFCE Access Strategy Interim Report: http://t.co/rPXhuxVUqu

I’m struggling to understand how factual information about applications could be defamatory to universities: http://t.co/rjGrV5LGNL

Early stages of a FOI wrangle over those UCAS admission statistics: http://t.co/RqOpSvPD42

HEFCE has published a bit of extra material from the National Scholarship Programme evaluation they commissioned: http://t.co/781hQMQGn1

The long arm of RCT reaches across to the Sutton Trust’s fair access work: http://t.co/HI8K250mCu – RCT is the new fad/Heineken/Mr Tickle!

Why don’t independent schools introduce loans that aren’t repayable if you don’t enter a Russell Group university? http://t.co/yv9C7pb2uW

Is OFFA going soft on fair access? http://t.co/9MHSRpSNif – no ratcheting up of expectations in 2013-14

HEFCE confirms open recruitment for ABB+ grades (a third of students) Press release: http://t.co/eDGhU3uYym Circular: http://t.co/6qjma2yT8L

New HESA participation data http://t.co/dbUjMykxb4 Higher says 6 of 24 Russell Group HEIs met state school benchmarks http://t.co/5Kt4HLgsvF

Durham press release on that Boliver fair access research: http://t.co/29wqUO8Tz1 and the project that spawned it: http://t.co/AJtP0nm4Cv

Gove statement on the Boliver social mobility research http://t.co/MMXipicX2u Last line seems to contradict Government HE admissions policy

Sounds like IPPR’s HE Commission is developing an approach to fair access that Mr G will not find conducive: http://t.co/pvDZ6PjvRG

The proportion of UCAS applications from private and independent schools 2008 to 2012: http://t.co/JRfh8mQy0A  (Col 1067W)

THE reports a Mahmood speech yesterday. Labour would ‘urgently restore’ widening participation as policy priority: http://t.co/qZEN1QJ6Ed

Ivy League universities are becoming increasingly selective: http://t.co/C8uXBRJgoL

Latest Independent Commission on Fees Analysis of 2012/13 HE admissions: http://t.co/USds5tryru and Sutton Trust PN: http://t.co/SGsxcJIgYr

@conorfryan expands on this morning’s news about the potentially deleterious impact of tuition fees: http://t.co/CnA5SAahY3

HEFCE briefing and report on Non-continuation rates at English HEIs 2003-2011: http://t.co/y4JXksj87r

HEFCE estimates that 18,555 students achieved AAA+ at A level in 2009/10 and 96% entered HE: http://t.co/np7w9UBKcR  (Col 319W)

Laws says proportion of independent/selective students at Oxbridge is ‘unacceptably high': http://t.co/e40OVnnWf7 (Col 53WH)

Willetts speech in which he announces information packs to support fair access to HE http://t.co/E9WopWgLg3 Marginally positive

Number of Welsh comprehensive pupils admittted to Oxbridge is flatlining – and significantly lower than in 2008/2009: http://t.co/EgSxD63K25

Willetts’ ‘well done’ letters not going down too well: http://t.co/TutennonJw  Idea has a certain affinity with Dux. It won’t impress Milburn

Direct link to the BIS data on HE Participation Rates 2006/07 to 2007/12 (Provisional): http://t.co/cL5NP94rbe

OFFA’s comment on the HE participation data: http://t.co/idXGME8VVP

Imposing a universal embargo on admissions below BBB is hardly praiseworthy university admissions practice: http://t.co/lAkcV0ggIH

Good showing for non-Russell Group in Complete University Guide. Durham also outranks Oxbridge for English: http://t.co/OojYmR16DN

The latest application figures from UCAS: http://t.co/czw2XrXdmw

HEFCE Consultation Document on Student Number Controls 2014-15 onwards: http://t.co/KAUZLzAJYT – includes proposals for moving beyond ABB+

Early evaluation of Unistats from HEFCE: http://t.co/vVERy2JDEj and associated press release: http://t.co/KeHyisXWZx

Is ASCL against all use of contextual data in HE admissions, or concerned about which data is used for the purpose? http://t.co/IjspRbRGL6

Gove’s CPS Joseph Memorial Speech: http://t.co/qfd9TrRAeX  Says his policies are explicitly designed to improve FSM progression to Oxbridge

Direct link to Cambridge Undergraduate Admission Statistics for 2012 http://t.co/5BhG1nmwpC  – disadvantage is by POLAR quintile

Interesting comparison of fair access north and south of the border: http://t.co/LsYBEw0HY7 and http://t.co/Qi2JAn1z5n

Sutton Trust press release on impact of fees: http://t.co/hc1TqEPhpI and Lampl commentary on same: http://t.co/gwuMjHFnst

US debate on ‘affirmative action’ is peaking in expectation of the outcome of the University of Texas court case: http://t.co/P8CgECIvu1

Direct link to new Centre Forum report on access to postgraduate education: http://t.co/tpyjOEW7VI

Guardian preview of OFFA’s annual report (with HEFCE) due out today: http://t.co/yrsl3fqzXh  Expect the anodyne, not fireworks

OFFA’s press release on today’s report: http://t.co/xTWlhOYhuc and the Report itself, plus annexes http://t.co/xGUPzkvQBQ

Stock response from BIS to yesterday’s OFFA/HEFCE report: http://t.co/9KoZTdvNIn – wonder what the latest FSM to Oxbridge figure is…

IPPR’s HE Commission will propose a £1K HE Premium for up to 230K disadvantaged students from existing WP budget: http://t.co/8HqPG9AqOP

Missed this Guardian coverage of geographical disparities in Oxbridge admissions http://t.co/kstNax8Jkw and http://t.co/VC8VFgTp7o

IPPR’s HE Commission is pro-contextualised admissions; HEIs could admit unlimited numbers of student premium-eligible http://t.co/eaZbhFkuZC

Direct link to IPPR HE Commission summary (the download mysteriously provides only pages 112-144): http://t.co/eaZbhFkuZC

Here’s the full IPPR HE Commssion Report: http://t.co/N7wjVbktgO – Glitch now fixed thanks to @IPPR_Nick

WonkHE analysis puts the IPPR HE Commission Report (which I still can’t access in full) firmly in its place: http://t.co/A5E3cmzzPF

I like the IPPR HE Commission Report on both Student Premium and Contextualised Admissions: http://t.co/N7wjVbktgO but two tricks missed…

…first, the Student Premium needs to align with 16-19 support as well as the Pupil Premium as suggested here http://t.co/vopcXghiS6 and…

…second, HE outreach budget/effort (HE ‘pull’) needs to be integrated with the school/post-16 budget/effort (‘push’) to maximise impact.

Milburn quietly re-endorses contextualised admissions to HE while up in Scotland: http://t.co/qRpYIFpKWN

Next set of Destination Measures will be published on 20 June: http://t.co/BQIzJbIdAR (Col 231W)

Milburn will publish a report on Monday showing that fair access to prestigious universities has stalled http://t.co/YOOL8xUkKd

Direct link to new Social Mobility Commission policy paper: Higher Education: The Fair Access Challenge: http://t.co/GCBNqtcxRl

Excellent Report by Social Mobility Commission: http://t.co/GCBNqtcxRl – So good that it raises awkward questions about OFFA’s contribution

Today’s Social Mobility Commission report on Fair Access, but now with added data: http://t.co/IJ5YS8V7no  Can’t see FSM though

OFFA responds to Social mobility Commission Report on Fair Access to HE: http://t.co/NQzuqjydkw which shows OFFA’s having negligible impact

Now there’s a thought – link VCs’ pay to the achievement of their fair access targets: http://t.co/gnUjG3DAtm Warwick OKish on this measure?

THE reports the National Scholarship Programme could be vulnerable under the Spending Review: http://t.co/MrM50928uT

Updated Destination Measures general information: http://t.co/rJ64rECRro and Q&A: http://t.co/0M4ukptFzF

KS4/5 Destinations Data PN: http://t.co/fe8lpw4V8Y – SFR and tables: http://t.co/C7MEmY0lEe  FSM breakdown not published until 23 July

Russell Group on SMCPC Report on Fair Access http://t.co/QXrWgZ6ocd and @tessa_stone’s powerful response http://t.co/EppEi11oN5

THE reviews IntoUniversity: http://t.co/cbsZhVNN1V Successfully squeezing money from corporate sponsors to support fair access

Why 9 of these students: http://t.co/Cj0QXueVp3 rejected Oxbridge: http://t.co/opqCP24K2U – Still a trickle but could it become a flood?

Debate continues over affirmative action despite Supreme Court Ruling: http://t.co/Tw1jquylX2 and http://t.co/C6k4wezKdU

Here’s a brief report on Fair Access issues, especially some news about the Dux Award Scheme: http://t.co/krPc7Uweo4

National Scholarship Programme reduced back to £50m and focused exclusively on postgraduates: http://t.co/52iWzTrjOT

Progress of the Post-16 Education (Scotland) Bill which supports WP/fair access north of the border, passed yesterday http://t.co/kjZU5vQG5N

I’ve finalised my brief post of yesterday about the future of Dux Awards, now renamed Future Scholar Awards http://t.co/krPc7Uweo4

HEFCE analysis of trends in transition from undergraduate to postgraduate study 2002-2011: http://t.co/RMVP6znz5D

HEFCE’s Overview Report of Postgraduate Education in England and Northern Ireland 2013: http://t.co/MJIr5ik7fe

HEFCE’s invitation to submit pilot project proposals to support progression into postgraduate education: http://t.co/C6mZoCbHrx

Further detail of Government financial support for access by disadvantaged students to postgraduate education: http://t.co/1VU6MOkWWr

Think this is the report: http://t.co/b5ISODUQPl on the state/private school university experience referenced here: http://t.co/EPGDBA7hUX





Deed of variation to funding agreements will require academies to secure independent careers advice: http://t.co/B80SinZNAn (Col WA339)

Lords Oral PQ about careers guidance in schools: http://t.co/L7Q3cZiMD4 (Col 1267)

Updated statutory guidance for schools on Careers Guidance: http://t.co/X04WvS5Bru

Government response to Education Select Committee report on Careers Guidance for Young People: http://t.co/wipyXovbJS

RT @SecondaryCEIAG: Tony Watts forensically takes apart Government response to Education Committee report on careers http://t.co/kHKG8hPhfh

Yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate on Careers Guidance: http://t.co/WzQp3ZAI04 (Col 1WH)

Direct link to today’s National Careers Council publication: ‘An Aspirational Nation': http://t.co/TG0HacIsmj

New guidance for post-16 institutions on Securing Independent Careers Guidance: http://t.co/ubSsBOh8c9

Cridland on careers: http://t.co/sg6rVB0lOK – His topic at the GS Heads Association was ‘nurturing ability': http://t.co/WsAKS1mqBe

Yesterday’s backbench debate on careers advice in schools: http://t.co/kI8QEAP5W0 (Col 120)


Pupil Premium

Primary floor rises; schools rated by Ofsted below ‘good’ with attainment gap issues need Pupil Premium action plan http://t.co/jKDkZSUycK

DfE Evaluation of Summer Schools for Disadvantaged Pupils: http://t.co/eOd9JF7wKu  plus key findings for schools: http://t.co/sKqsISskUC

Who are these experts that will advise schools on their use of Pupil Premium? http://t.co/bA03gftEMb – What happened to ‘schools know best’?

Not much evidence in this Evaluation of Disadvantaged Summer Schools of a focus on improving attainment: http://t.co/eOd9JF7wKu

Pupil Premium intervention requires accredited ‘System Leaders’ (not all NLEs) to help schools produce action plans http://t.co/OT91Q7KfCW

Laws’ Pupil Premium intervention is basically the old Labour mantra: ‘intervention in inverse proportion to success’  http://t.co/OT91Q7KfCW

Fact Check revisits how much of a premium the Pupil Premium really is http://t.co/hg8MZIlY9o Big issue for current spending review I’d guess

FAQs for the 2013 Summer Schools for Disadvantaged Pupils: http://t.co/s21G1ZbKH8  – continuation announced by Laws yesterday

RT @fimclean: SAM Learning debate on how the £1.25 billion Pupil Premium affects school spending http://t.co/HleTnmUo7d

Hansard record of yesterday’s Westminster Hall debate on the Pupil Premium: http://t.co/jVYFyWRENc (Col 25WH)

Laws ratchets up pressure on schools to narrow gaps via the Pupil Premium http://t.co/R4MZyRcMnb – Schools know best approach is now history

Can you see the Pupil Premium reducing the FSM attainment gap to 12.5% any time soon? http://t.co/zKpfBJk5LO – No, me neither

@RobAnthony01 @miconm Then again there’s Deloitte’s ‘Insight 5′: http://t.co/boxxy21V6w (which rather undermines the Pupil Premium concept)

Just how much Pupil Premium is being pocketed by private tutors? http://t.co/XIswAp64nJ – Wouldn’t it make sense to cut out the 3rd party?

Guardian reports new Sutton Trust survey of Pupil Premium funding: http://t.co/Wz3FMP4q96 Presume details here later: http://t.co/SoVIOiRVqG

Here’s that belated Sutton Trust Pupil Premium Survey: http://t.co/OIwNumz8BN and press release: http://t.co/yUPzqPFfgX

The independent evaluation of the Pupil Premium will be published in July: http://t.co/UymKtQiLTq (Col 300W)

Young Foundation Report ‘Social Investment in Education’ urges using Pupil Premium to support said social investment: http://t.co/ojufJMnnfR

More detail of Pupil Premium accountability measures; John Dunford’s appointment as Pupil Premium National Champion: http://t.co/iWhWCt76gE

Limited support in this Pupil Premium evaluation for Ofsted’s complaint that high attainers are neglected: http://t.co/n4K4K771lF

Pupil Premium Evaluation says it’s too early to offer a judgement of the impact on pupil attainment: http://t.co/n4K4K771lF – Why so?

New Evaluation of the Pupil Premium: http://t.co/n4K4K771lF Identifies tensions between schools’ use and ‘external expectations’

Pupil Premium reinforcement illustrates how few strong policy levers exist in a ‘self-improving school system': http://t.co/iWhWCt76gE

There’s also more detail here about how Pupil Premium Reviews will work: http://t.co/dtejHrLnk9



FSM Gaps, Poverty, Disadvantage and EEF

EEF’s Evidence in Action Events: Discussion Paper on ‘Knowledge Mobilisation': http://t.co/kYhuJsZ3eC and report: http://t.co/1CpSW18zVh

If the EEF now deals with ‘Improving education outcomes for school-aged children’ isn’t that serious mission creep? http://t.co/pVR0ltTkBe

This implies that elevation of EEF to ‘What Works Centre’ extends its remit to all outcomes for 4-19 year-olds: http://t.co/pVR0ltTkBe True?

What the Education Endowment Fund was originally for: http://t.co/xYqAJYGJuY and http://t.co/chzsiw16lx

Essential reading for right-lurching politicians: The Lies We Tell Ourselves: Ending Comfortable Myths About Poverty: http://t.co/qiQlfobfKe

This is the Troubled Families evidence base: http://t.co/moLvZowzCA about which this report is so scathing: http://t.co/qiQlfobfKe

How the Pygmalion effect works: http://t.co/5sV6Xclq6B

A deeply troubling round-up of the impact of the various April benefits cuts: http://t.co/uGjYwII7b8

And here’s a benchmark report on 2012 UK poverty levels ahead of the new round of benefits cuts. Required reading: http://t.co/MiDBjew7Bj

Teach First commissioned IFS report on its choice of indicators of disadvantage http://t.co/faArHvgcd9 – TES on same: http://t.co/8M49PfNBRQ

Set of new EEF-funded projects: http://t.co/9yp7ddwyN5 – includes £700K for chess in schools. Who is evaluating the EEF?

Laws speech to ATL references a Liberal ‘ambition’ to halve the current FSM gap by 2020: http://t.co/nsurEnGHhY – remember that one!

IoE blog on why linking FSM gap-narrowing to the inspection framework may not be entirely fair or appropriate: http://t.co/uCgoKl06Sa

DfE Research Topic Note on EYFSP Pilot outcomes: http://t.co/UEWS7MO0oM – reports bigger EM and FSM gaps under new model

DfE publishing data shortly on attainment by age 19 broken down by pupil characteristics including FSM. Here is link http://t.co/RX0fVlrolp

New SFR 13/2013 shows increased FSM gap on 2+ A levels measure, one of Government’s social mobility indicators: http://t.co/Nx3EWkNlfp (p13)

Mongon on white working class underachievement: http://t.co/U8SQdhXk93 – advocates a localised, co-ordinated zone-based response

TES feature on underachievement in coastal towns: http://t.co/5EU995vVpp – 10 years on it’s as if Education Action Zones never existed

Is Universal Credit a disaster waiting to happen? http://t.co/VlflM8mHvl What’s the fallback for FSM eligibility if it can’t be made to work?

New Children’s Centre Evaluation (ECCE) baseline survey of families using centres in the most disadvantaged areas: http://t.co/Kj7LpgYdMP

Don’t understand how FSM eligibility could be cut back by councils if it’s passported on universal credit? http://t.co/0YH4F4dd4X

Government does not expect to introduce the FSM element of Universal Credit until after October 2013: http://t.co/Kmhk1F543K  (Col 479W)

Education Endowment Fund has so far funded 56 projects at a cost of £28.7m (full list provided): http://t.co/Wsgd5KLgmx (Col 959W)

New Good Practice Guide for the 16-19 Bursary Fund: http://t.co/VcLM5vVUiZ

Do low aspirations hold back low income students? http://t.co/vTiSTqayc2 – summary of Rowntree research

New Invitation to Tender for Education Endowment Foundation’s data-crunching activity: http://t.co/LmlPHaxZFR – deadline 31 May

New consultation document on allocation of discretionary element of 16-19 Bursary Fund: http://t.co/1uytICb53g

The proportion of FSM-eligible pupils at the first tranche of free schools: http://t.co/HFQfA6fEpg (Col 90W)

Year 1 Evaluation of the 16-19 Bursary Fund: http://t.co/Ffk5yFiD6r plus associated press release: http://t.co/jLiRfUOofr

Replugging my new post about support for FSM high achievers, applying US research to English settings: http://t.co/XREYgg8bmO

Apropos Sutton Trust report do we know how many Academies/free schools give admissions priority to FSM? http://t.co/RjT0iEUfY1 (footnote 22)

Wonder why Sutton Trust isn’t advocating priority FSM admissions to academies/free schools as well as ballots/banding http://t.co/MsISlp7Sh0

New DfE research report on impact of summer schools programme on disadvantaged learners: http://t.co/FZhTDtGBBA – not a ringing endorsement

IoE PN on Jerrim et al research on impact of genetics on reading achievement gap: http://t.co/0YEVA7Sjcv Exec summary http://t.co/raJBzgVmB0

FSM to Universal Credit is all about the transition: http://t.co/eWtxkkI0FQ  Protect entitlement of 168K losers already eligible to age 16?

UCET advice to ministers on closing the achievement gap and ITT: http://t.co/knzaQupHyy

Preview of HMC’sI themes in next week’s speech on disadvantage: http://t.co/HdC2whRFmd  Including disadvantaged high attainers hopefully

Twigg commits to admissions reform so all schools can give priority to disadvantaged learners. Good http://t.co/nepHKaziLH

Direct link to IPPR’s Excellence and Equity: Tackling educational disadvantage in England’s secondary schools: http://t.co/EG5UzaETS8

Interesting that the Education Endowment Foundation has released a statement on teaching assistants: http://t.co/Z4basqS7Ox

Schools, Pupils and Characteristics January 2013: http://t.co/wIpVZg8JT9 Primary FSM down 0.1% to 19.2%; secondary FSM up 0.3% to 16.3%

Series of Jamie Reed PQs following up on Ofsted’s ‘Unseen Children’ Report: http://t.co/1P0wSgQ0p9 (Col 236W)

No Rich Child Left Behind – on the ‘upper-tail inequality’ in US education: http://t.co/dg73xDwHWW

Report of an Expert Panel considering reform of the measure of socio-economic status deployed in NAEP: http://t.co/gOmSdrLxSn

Breaking the Glass Ceiling of Achievement for Low Income Students and Students of Color from The Education Trust (US) http://t.co/MGYMJglK44

“The distribution of opportunity in our education system is nutty”: http://t.co/oo7Ri27gnS – Fair point

Labour also reported to be proposing admissions reform: http://t.co/MunADl43Zz  – devil will be in the detail here

Funding of NZ schools according to socio-economic deciles under further scrutiny: http://t.co/jvHglmxt9H


Selection and Independent Sector

Thin end of the wedge if it’s OK for politicians to say one thing and do another when choosing private education?  http://t.co/8aQ8eXeEcl

So what feedback to we have on the CEM 11+ pilot in Bucks? Exactly how much less coachable is it? http://t.co/Rg1EwHj5rO – I’m sceptical

Subject to DfE approval Invicta GS to run Sevenoaks grammar annex – now seem OK sharing site with Trinity Free School http://t.co/xSs2Eh63Hg

All the papers seem to be reporting the Independent Schools Census 2013. I guess it’s published here towards tiffin: http://t.co/drLgzU0bQd

TES report on the Independent Schools Census 2013: http://t.co/XtxDOqe3Xs – and here is the Census itself at last: http://t.co/p6EKqHKqpr

Today’s Sutton Trust Research on Selective Comprehensive Schools: http://t.co/vipxLDdv7a  and associated press release http://t.co/MsISlp7Sh0

The Ethics of Tutoring: http://t.co/BYWpvluyfw  – refreshingly honest

Hang on! ‘Moronic repetition and preparation for cognitive ability tests’? Aren’t they supposed to be non-coachable? http://t.co/8FlcE4UCUr

Oxford Times profiles Tim Hands, incoming Chair of HMC: http://t.co/BvlmuGwlw0  – who sounds like he might make waves

I simply don’t believe that Chelmsford HS’s change of 11+ test will materially change its intake: http://t.co/wdZZci6dtn

I see Mr G is delivering ‘a fresh vision for the independent sector’ today: http://t.co/LzVIKMoXRc

Mr G’s speech turned out a different animal: http://t.co/MBsmWmynkh – I worry his high expectations are too narrow, like a hurdle in a race

Tony Little says he and others can’t see an overarching ‘big picture’ vision for the Government’s education reforms: http://t.co/XlRGAnzzB8

New GSA President joins the chorus of disapproval: http://t.co/61ltLEtM7s

Outside the elite institutions, the private sector in US education is dying out argues Chester Finn: http://t.co/ypeIcFjln5

Love the ambiguous ‘too’ in the final para of this on Eton and poverty of aspiration: http://t.co/tVEVEEos38

Fair Admissions Campaign Statement: http://t.co/8Qfoa2DSJ8 Will map religious and socio-economic selection. FAQs: http://t.co/Tp1svgyGfJ

Centre for Market Reform of Education on its Tutors Association Consultation: http://t.co/7iWZx3FRwL  More detail here http://t.co/85qoGqevWq

The rapid expansion of online tutoring in the UK: http://t.co/s7oDRmdqbe

These are the grammar school statistics: http://t.co/H27wwW5ik8 cited in today’s latest Mail article on the subject: http://t.co/J8n5Ct1JKH

Grammar schools and the myth of social mobility: http://t.co/ltOADwOJve – Exactly

I wonder if Hitchens would support the wholesale introduction of ‘contextualised admissions’ into grammar schools: http://t.co/QcougJ89fb

@headguruteacher I still stand by most of what I proposed in Jan 2011 – essentially an OFFA for (grammar) schools: http://t.co/8ZvhNo2RA0

Post on selection by @headguruteacher: http://t.co/sajaOw2nSN  Appears to suggest GS select on attainment, not on ability so FSM imbalance OK

The continuing expansion of grammar school places: http://t.co/7yqrNsW2Nb  – How many are adding 1FE+ post academisation?

A second, competing, proposal to run a satellite grammar school in Sevenoaks: http://t.co/KomIp9xlzO

Chris Ray calls for 11+ admission via assessment days: http://t.co/oKjIBRg8Ad – I agree

HMCI prods independent sector towards stronger partnership with state schools: http://t.co/M46q0kiJCg and http://t.co/mbIY0UAeJz





July 2013

‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’


This post reviews ‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’, a recent publication about support for low income high ability students by the National Association for Gifted Children (NAGC) in the United States, and considers its relevance to other national settings, especially England.

summer of love 1967 by 0 fairy 0

summer of love 1967 by 0 fairy 0

Although not formally part of the ‘Summer of Love’ series, this is linked to those posts. It offers a useful comparator for an upcoming report on supporting high-achieving disadvantaged learners towards higher education, third of a trio of publications that are staging-posts in the sequence.

It also offers some basis for judgement whether the wider narrative devotes sufficient attention to the equity dimension of gifted education. My Gifted Phoenix Manifesto asserts that it is essential to maintain equity-driven gap-narrowing in judicious balance with excellence-driven efforts to raise standards for all gifted learners regardless of background.

I am particularly interested in the implications for the design of suitable policy interventions. But also in the application in England of the Pupil Premium, additional funding determined by the number of disadvantaged pupils which schools are expected to use to reduce the attainment gap between them and their peers.

The key issue is whether or not the Premium is being utilised effectively to tackle excellence gaps between high attaining learners – and the prospects for further improvement in that quarter, should it be needed.

The NAGC report does not help in this respect, but I have taken the liberty of introducing additional material relevant to the topic, because it is so pivotal to the equity strand of the emerging ‘Summer of Love’ narrative. Put crudely, understanding what constitutes an effective intervention is of limited value if there is no resource or incentive to implement it.

While ‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’ remains the centrepiece of the post, I have also factored in other recent and relevant material from a variety of US and English sources, especially where it seems to me that the argument in NAGC’s publication is guilty of elision, or needs tempering to enhance its relevance to English settings.


The Summit

‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’ made its appearance in November 2012, the product of a two-day National Summit on Low-Income High Ability Learners which took place from 30-31 May, with support from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation.

The NAGC Website retains a page dedicated to the Summit including biographies of many of the participants and a multitude of background reading. The supporting resources include a list of Summit Presenter Recommended Readings and an Annotated Bibliography. Other useful contributions have been linked into the text below.

According to the Agenda:

  • The event began with an overview and expectation-setting session led by Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, Director of CTD at Northwestern University and current NAGC President;
  • There was a presentation on The Effects of Poverty on Educational Opportunity by Josh Wyner, Executive Director of the College Excellence Program at The Aspen Institute. Three respondents subsequently shared their thoughts on how poverty-related issues present amongst different US populations.
  • Paula Olszewski-Kubilius introduced the themes and rationale for an ensuing discussion focused respectively on school programmes and supplemental programmes that ‘work with promising learners from poverty’. Brief composite summaries of the featured school and supplemental programmes are provided. (Further links to each programme are supplied below.)
  • Following small group discussion and a first stab at delineating an emerging research agenda, the next session focused on ‘Building a Psychological Entity that Supports Commitment to High Achievement/Psycho-social Skills and Issues with Promising Learners from Poverty’.  This featured Angela Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania (whose presentation is here) and Frank Worrell, from the University of California.
  • The second day kicked off with a session on ‘Research and Policy: Next Steps for Action/Reinventing the System for High Ability Learners from Poverty’ with inputs from Chester Finn, President of the Thomas B Fordham Institute and Jonathan Plucker, then Director of the Center for Evaluation and Education Policy at Indiana University (whose presentation is here).
  • Finally ‘Overlooked Gems Then and Now: What’s Changed, What’s the Same’ – a comparison between the outcomes of an earlier NAGC venture into this territory and the current effort – was led by Joyce VanTassel- Baska from the College of William and Mary Center for Gifted Education.

The resulting publication ‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’ divides participants in a slightly different way, citing Olszewski-Kubilius, Duckworth, Finn, Plucker, Worrall and Wyner respectively as ‘Featured Presenters’, followed by 18 ‘Moderators, Panelists and Respondents’ and a further 35 ‘Participants’.

Of these 59, all are resident in the United States. Almost half are academics employed in US universities, a further 15 or so work in district, county or state education departments or state associations for the gifted. The remainder are associated with selected programmes featured in the publication or with the sponsors (whose programmes also feature).

It says that the Summit was intended to:

  • Share recent research on the education and development of low-income high ability learners;
  • Identify barriers that prevent them from reaching the highest levels of school achievement and ‘success in adulthood commensurate with their abilities’;
  • Share details of successful school-based and supplementary programmes;
  • Synthesise best practice for identifying and supporting low-income learners, ‘especially culturally and linguistically diverse students’; and
  • Generate a research agenda to inform future practice.

It explains that the Summit and Report together were designed to build on the earlier publication ‘Overlooked Gems: A National Perspective on Low-Income Promising Learners’ dating from 2007. NAGC’s page on the Summit carries a shorter summary of the proceedings of the April 2006 conference that generated this report.

‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’ is divided into a series of short chapters which dart around the territory and include a fair degree of duplication. So, in undertaking this analysis, I have taken the liberty of reorganising the material to focus respectively on:

  • The nature of the problem, as currently manifested in US education, including evidence of underachievement and analysis of the barriers to progress and participation by this target group. I have undertaken a good deal more ‘ground-clearing’ than appears in the report itself;
  • The skills and attitudes that can inhibit progress by such learners (which the Report calls ‘Psychosocial Issues’);
  • Effective policies, initiatives, programmes and practice – and the problems associated with replication and scaling (which are given rather cursory treatment);
  • The identified research agenda, insofar as this throws further light on the material already presented.

I have introduced commentary on different but associated material throughout the analysis, wherever it seems to fit best. Much is concentrated in the first part of the post, which considers in some detail the issues that ‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’ is designed to address.


Park Fauna by Gifted Phoenix

Park Fauna by Gifted Phoenix


Defining the Target Group

The report is rather remiss in not bothering to define with any exactitude what constitutes a ‘Low Income High Ability Student’ and in failing to engage with the issues that arise from the adoption of a definition.

The low income dimension is associated principally with eligibility for free and reduced-price lunches, the criterion applied to data published through the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The analysis also makes use of PISA data on the comparative performance of learners from different socio-economic backgrounds and how this varies between countries.

There is no comparison of these measures and no exploration of their good and bad points compared with alternative approaches to defining educational disadvantage.

Any treatment of these issues in England would be certain to include some commentary on the pros and cons of eligibility for free school meals (FSM) as a measure, compared with alternatives that utilise a localised geographical indicator, based on wards or neighbourhoods, or possibly even an alternative proxy derived from family background.

This analysis suggests that such issues are equally pertinent in the US:

‘Students are entitled to free lunches if their families’ incomes are below 130 percent of the annual income poverty level guideline established by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and updated annually by the Census Bureau (currently $21,756 for a family of four). Children who are members of households receiving food stamp benefits or cash assistance through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families block grant, as well as homeless, runaway, and migrant children, also qualify for free meals. Students with family incomes below 185 percent of poverty are eligible for a reduced price lunch…

…Researchers often use free or reduced price lunch (FRPL) enrollment figures as a proxy for poverty at the school level, because Census poverty data (which is used at the state and district level) is not available disaggregated below the school district level and is not collected annually…

While FRPL data is generally a reliable poverty indicator in the elementary grades, it is less so in the high school grades. Because free and reduced price lunch is an opt-in program at the majority of schools, researchers believe that high school students are greatly under-represented in school lunch program enrollment. High school students may refuse to enroll in FRPL due to a perceived stigma attached to the program.’

The high ability dimension is comparatively muddier, in that the report relies principally on attainment measures – the Advanced Level on NAEP assessments and, on one occasion, ‘the highest achievement levels’ in PISA assessments of reading maths and science (for background on the latter see this previous post).

This introduces into proceedings the oft-encountered confusion between ability and attainment/achievement, which are of course quite different animals. Indeed the difference between ability unfulfilled and ability already manifested through high attainment/achievement is absolutely pivotal to this topic.

The problem is that much of the available data relates to high achievement, as opposed to high ability. The resulting bias towards achievement data reproduces at macro level an issue often encountered in identification for gifted programmes, where attainment evidence is  paramount, resulting in neglect of learners with unfulfilled potential, often attributable to disadvantage.

It is strange that no use is made of data about the composition of the population served by gifted programmes of different kinds and levels, even though there must be abundant evidence that many of these are heavily skewed against learners from disadvantaged backgrounds.

There may even be aggregated national data available. If there is a gifted flag and a FRPL flag in the national data collection, what is the problem in establishing the relationship?

Certainly the Office for Civil Rights publishes information (page 9) about the ethnic composition of gifted programmes nationally.

Their March 2012 summary notes that almost three-quarters of students enrolled in gifted and talented education (GATE) are either White (62%) or Asian (10%) whereas the overall enrolment rates for these populations in areas offering GATE programming are 49% and 5% respectively. Contrastingly, 16% of GATE enrolments are Hispanic and 10% Black, while the comparable overall enrolment rates are 25% and 19% respectively.

Across the sample, only 4% of African-American and 5% of Hispanic students are enrolled in gifted programmes.

This introduces a second problem, in that there is evidence throughout that the report is relying disproportionately on material – both data and research – about the under-representation of (and limited support for) learners from minority ethnic backgrounds in gifted programmes, as opposed to material that relates directly to learners of any ethnic background who are from low-income families.

This is understandable, given the prominent historical focus on minority provision in the US. There are signs that the focus is beginning to shift, given recent data about the increasing size of income achievement gaps compared with minority achievement gaps (see below).

England has already moved to perceiving this issue predominantly through the lens of financial disadvantage, an adjustment that also came about in recognition that some minority ethnic achievement gaps are narrowing (although others remain pronounced) and that financial disadvantage is apparently the core problem.

This approach is not without its critics, since other explanations of minority ethnic gaps may tend to be underplayed as a consequence.

On the other hand, the historical emphasis on minorities may have tended to obscure and even aggravate achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged learners in majority populations. In England, white working class boys are a particular cause for concern.

While there is clear and significant overlap between minority ethnic and financially disadvantaged populations, whether in the US or England, they are by no means synonymous in either country, so prominent health warnings are necessary whenever such assumptions are made.

I have made similar observations in respect of New Zealand, where minority ethnic issues are so prominent in educational discourse – including discourse about gifted education – that they appear to overshadow the issue of financial disadvantage.

To give this report credit, it does point out quite clearly that, while poverty and ethnicity overlap, they are by not the same thing. Three general assumptions are expressed:

  • ‘Poverty and minority status are not the same. Although there is overlap, poverty manifests differently based on geography, ethnicity, and race.
  • Poverty is pervasive and includes students from rural, White, urban, African American, Hispanic, Asian, and other cultural backgrounds.
  • Typical characteristics of gifted students may manifest differently in low-income, high-ability learners.’

Earlier in the report, 2010 Census data is quoted revealing that 38% of African-American, 32% of Hispanic, 17% of White and 14% of Asian children ‘live in low socio-economic circumstances’. (It is not stated whether this is defined by FRPL or some alternative indicator).

It might have gone further in clarifying that the broader construct of disadvantage reflects the complex interaction between these factors and several others, not least gender, parental level of education, incidence of special educational needs, English as an additional language and even month of birth. As in the UK, it is quite likely that social class may also be a factor.

The large number of variables that may impact on disadvantage in any one individual reinforces the danger of embarking on analysis that gives particular prominence to any single factor, even if evidence suggests that it is the main driver.

It is also a salutary reminder that the response to disadvantage – whether or not within gifted programmes – must be tailored to individual circumstances. The data and research evidence may point to significant trends, but programmes will stand or fall on their capacity to address each learner’s unique needs.

It follows that regular assessment of those needs and how they are changing over time is an essential element of effective practice (and one that is probably underplayed in Unlocking Emergent Talent).


Park Flora 1 by Gifted Phoenix

Park Flora 1 by Gifted Phoenix


Analysis of the Problem

The initial Overview section of the report identifies these constituent elements of the problem it seeks to address:

  • Relatively few US students of any description are achieving levels of excellence, whether defined in terms of NAEP Advanced Level or the highest levels of PISA assessment.
  • Poverty has a negative impact on educational achievement. The report draws first on evidence of the impact of socio-economic disadvantage on achievement gaps in the US, compared with other countries, drawn from analysis of PISA 2006 and 2009. The point could have been illustrated pertinently by this diagram

OECD Numbers Final.xlsx

Incidentally, the UK is close to the OECD average (14.0) on this measure

  • Within the US there are also achievement gaps at every level, including ‘excellence gaps’ as evidenced by NAEP. Three different measures are cited:

‘Between 1998 and 2007, 1.7% or fewer of free and reduced lunch program-eligible students scored at the advanced level on the eighth-grade NAEP math exam compared to between 6% and 10% of non-eligible students.

Since 1998, 1% or fewer of 4th-, 8th-, and 12th- grade free or reduced lunch students, compared to between 5% and 6% of non-eligible students scored at the advanced level on the NAEP civics exam.

Since 1998, 1% or fewer of free and reduced lunch program-eligible students scored at the advanced level on the eighth-grade NAEP writing exam while the percentage of non-eligible students who achieved advanced scores increased from 1% to 3%.’

  • Some evidence is also offered to support the argument that US schooling does not currently improve or sustain the performance of the top-achieving students compared with comparatively lower achievers, nor does it close the gap in performance between high- and low-income high-achieving students, as measured by attendance at selective universities, graduation and completion of a postgraduate degree.
  • High ability students (as opposed to high-achieving students) are not perceived as a priority within US education policy. Moreover:

‘Success in closing achievement gaps amongst lower achieving students does not appear to impact gaps amongst groups of top students’.

This is compounded because efforts to address equity in education often fail to embrace those ‘who are already showing advanced ability and/or achievement’ while the overall commitment to supporting gifted education per se is described as ‘tenuous’. The level of support depends where one lives and remaining funding is often under threat.


A very recent US publication ‘Breaking the Glass Ceiling of Achievement for Low-Income Students and Students of Color’ from The Education Trust (May 2013) provides more in-depth analysis of the excellence gap data (though its coverage is frustratingly incomplete and it too is guilty of unhelpfully interweaving minority ethnic and economically disadvantaged data).

It also relies on NAEP advanced level data for FRPL-eligible students, examining trends from 2003 to 2011, particularly in maths and reading at grades 4 and 8 respectively.

  • In 4th grade maths, the percentage of low-income learners achieving the advanced benchmark increased from 1% to 2% between 2003 and 2011; meanwhile the percentage of high-income learners improved from 6 to 12%, thus widening the gap. A similar pattern was seen in 8th grade maths.
  • In 4th grade reading, the percentage of low-income learners achieving the advanced benchmark remained at 2% between 2003 and 2011, whereas high-income learners improved slightly, from 11% to 13%. The gap also widened at 8th grade.

Meanwhile, gaps were typically narrowing at the ‘below basic’ benchmark (though there was no significant change in 4th grade maths at this level).

This study also analyses progress at the 90th percentile of performance, so independently of the NAEP advanced benchmark, finding some evidence of gap-narrowing (which isn’t quantified for low-income students).

By 2011 there are wide gaps in performance between low-income and high-income learners: 21% for 4th grade maths, 26% for 8th grade maths, 24% for 4th grade reading and 21% for 8th grade reading. But these are invariably smaller gaps than apply at the 10th percentile for low-achieving learners.

Only at 12th Grade is this pattern reversed. At that age, the gap at the 90th percentile in maths is 24%, compared with 18% at the 10th percentile; in reading the 90th percentile gap is 21% compared with 19% for the 10th percentile.

So the overall picture is perhaps somewhat less clear-cut than the selective facts provided in ‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’ would suggest.


The pattern is by no means identical in England. I included materials about England’s own excellence gaps in this recent post, which draws particularly on Jerrim’s work on PISA reading assessments.

His work reveals that, on this measure at least, countries display significantly different profiles when it comes to the relationship between background and achievement at different deciles of achievement:

‘He comments on the difference between the US – where the association between background and achievement is relatively strong across the achievement deciles – and Finland, where the association is comparatively weak.

In England there is a relatively strong link between socio-economic background and high achievement:

‘Socio-economic test score differences at the 80th percentile are greater here than in 18 out of the other 22 OECD countries considered (and significantly so on 11 occasions). The same is not true, however, at the bottom of the PISA reading test distribution, where England is actually ranked above the median, having smaller socioeconomic test score differences.’

…He finds that, while the average gap has declined [over time] and that is repeated at the bottom end of the achievement distribution, this is not true at the top.

…He finds that the narrowing of the gap appears to have been driven by a relatively greater decline in achievement amongst those from advantaged backgrounds but:

‘Whereas the apparent decline in performance for the top SES quintile seems to have occurred quite evenly across the achievement distribution… the decline suffered by the most disadvantaged group is most apparent at the top end.’

It would be fascinating to pursue further the apparent disparities between the US and England that this amalgamation of sources begins to uncover, but we must content ourselves for the time being with the broader truth that both countries have significant issues with their socio-economic excellence gaps that urgently need addressing.


What can Education Contribute to Gap-Narrowing?


How much Difference Does Education Make?

There is nothing at all in ‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’ about the relative impact of educational interventions on disadvantage compared with other strategies, such as tackling the root causes of poverty by redistributing wealth. It seems to be taken for granted that the interventions described will address the problems identified, as long as such effective practice is more widely adopted.

The omission is curious, since Plucker’s presentation to the Summit is unfailingly explicit about the fundamental importance of reducing poverty to tackling the excellence gap.

Plucker poverty 1 Capture


Plucker poverty 2 Capture








Another recent publication, ‘Improving Performance of Low-Achieving and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students’, written by Ben Levin for the Global Cities Education Network, sets the context nicely:

‘The relationship between these social factors and school outcomes has been known for a long time. And at least since the Coleman Report (done in the United States in the mid-1960s), there has been a vigorous debate about how much schools can actually do to overcome these differences. That debate continues, with some contending that schools are rather powerless in the face of social disadvantage and others claiming that schools can do a great deal to overcome social inequities. According to various estimates in the research literature, anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the variance in student achievement is due to factors outside the school, and anywhere from 20 to 50 percent of the variance is explainable” (in statistical terms) by factors inside the school.’

Levin goes on to point out that there is huge variance between schools’ performance at any given socio-economic level – and that there are similar disparities between countries, as revealed by the PISA data. Although system-wide improvement is feasible, significant achievement gaps remain in even the most successful countries.

The assumption that school factors may account for up to 50% of variance seems relatively optimistic from a UK perspective. For example, the 2010 BERA Paper ‘Social Equality: can schools narrow the gap?’ warns:

‘However, school effects must not be overstated, as they have sometimes been by national policy-makers. According to studies in the UK, typically between 10-20 per cent of the variance in attainment between pupils is related to school factors – though this does not mean all variance is down to school-level factors, since some will be attributable to teachers.’

In addressing the contribution that gifted education can make to reducing excellence gaps, we would do well to inject a dose of realism about the overall impact of such interventions, while not succumbing to the temptation to underplay their potential significance.


The latter position can be all too easy to reach in the light of some contributions to this debate. In recent months, significant attention has been paid to discussion of Sean Reardon’s comparatively pessimistic assessment.

In July 2011 he published The Widening Opportunity Gap Between the Rich and Poor: New Evidence and Possible Explanations which examines the changing relationship between family economic background and educational achievement since the 1970s.

He compares learners from families at the 90th percentile of the income distribution (around $165,000) with those at the 10th percentile (around $15,000). This is of course a significantly more polarised distinction than exists between those eligible for FRPL and those ineligible.

He notes that income inequality has become much more pronounced since the 1970s, such that a family with school-age children at the 90th percentile in 1970 earned five times the amount of a family at the 10th percentile. Nowadays, the multiple is 11. As a consequence, wealthy families now have a comparatively higher proportion of income to invest in their children’s development.

He argues that:

  • The income achievement gap is almost twice the size of the achievement gap between black and white students whereas, in the 1960s, this ethnic achievement gap was almost twice as large as the income-related gap. Hence family income has become a significantly better predictor of success in school than ethnic background.
  • The increasing gap does not seem attributable to differences in parents’ educational level – the relationship between these two factors has remained fairly stable since the 1960s. Consequently, family income is now almost as strong an indicator of children’s achievement as their parental level of education.
  • The size of the gap is at least partly attributable to a significantly stronger association between income and achievement for families with above average incomes, where the effect is now some 30-60% larger than it was for children born in the 1970s.
  • The gap is already sizeable when US children enter kindergarten but then remains relatively stable throughout the remainder of their schooling, neither increasing nor decreasing, so schooling appears to make relatively little difference (though Reardon appears to compromise this position slightly elsewhere.)
  • Evidence suggests that the increase is partly associated with increasing parental investment in children’s cognitive development at the top end of the distribution. Children from wealthier families are better prepared to succeed in school when they enter kindergarten, and they retain this advantage throughout their subsequent schooling.

Reardon’s research has recently been given fresh impetus by an article in the New York Times which glosses his argument thus:

‘The most potent development over the past three decades is that the test scores of children from high-income families have increased very rapidly. Before 1980, affluent students had little advantage over middle-class students in academic performance; most of the socioeconomic disparity in academics was between the middle class and the poor. But the rich now outperform the middle class by as much as the middle class outperform the poor. Just as the incomes of the affluent have grown much more rapidly than those of the middle class over the last few decades, so, too, have most of the gains in educational success accrued to the children of the rich.’

He suggests that wealthier parents are increasingly focussed on the school success of their children because such success has become increasingly important in an environment where a university degree is no longer a guarantee of a good job. Upward social mobility is much harder to secure, so parents are increasingly competing to secure their children’s success.

The level of this investment is significantly higher amongst high-income families than amongst middle and low income families. The gap between the rich and the middle class – ‘upper tail inequality’ – is a new and unfamiliar condition and little thought has been given to addressing it.

Wealthier parents are gaining this advantage through:

‘More stable home environments, more time for parents to read to their children, access to higher-quality child care and preschool and — in places like New York City, where 4-year-old children take tests to determine entry into gifted and talented programs — access to preschool test preparation tutors or the time to serve as tutors themselves.’

It is this fundamental ‘opportunity gap’ that needs to be addressed, rather than the achievement gap evident in schools, which is partly a consequence of it.

Breaking the link between education and family background might involve replicating the behaviour of wealthy families, by investing heavily in the development of high-quality childcare and pre-school experience, paying relatively more attention to improving the quality of parenting than to improving the quality of teachers.

In the light of this there is arguably negligible benefit in investing in subsequent educational interventions that support low-income high-ability learners, because the damage has already been done and later investment is unlikely to level the playing field sufficiently to make a real difference.

But, as noted above, comparisons between the 90th and 10th percentiles by income – as opposed to eligibility and non-eligibility by FRPL or FSM – are bound to result in a relatively pronounced effect.

Moreover, it is not clear whether Reardon’s conclusions apply equally at all levels of achievement. There might be some reason to believe that the effects he describes are somewhat less pronounced in the case of disadvantaged learners who are relatively high attainers, or who have the potential to be so.

And some might argue that an intervention tailored to individual need, which also includes an explicit focus on parental education, might stand a better chance than most of having a positive effect at least commensurate with its cost.


Inter-school Variance Still Matters at the Micro-Level

Given the temptation to surrender to negativity, it is important that we do not lose sight of Levin’s point about inter-school variance (as well as inter-national variance). There must be scope for improvement if we can bring more schools (and more countries) up to the level demonstrated by the strongest performers.

This of course raises further difficult questions about the transferability and replicability of effective practice –whether between schools or between countries – that must be set aside as beyond the scope of this post.

Let us continue on the brave assumption that, given the right inputs and distribution processes, improved outcomes can be spread and embedded within a much wider range of settings – and that the right inputs and processes are understood and available to us.

Inter-school variance in support for high-achieving low-income learners has been discussed in another recent US publication. ‘A Level Playing Field: How College Readiness Standards Change the Accountability Game’ reports the findings of a three-year study of 35,000 high attaining learners in elementary and middle schools. The sample was drawn from the top 10% of achievers from each school.

The analysis compares the performance of high-achieving learners from high-poverty and low-poverty schools respectively (as defined by the top and bottom quartiles according to the percentage of learners eligible for FRPL).

It is important to note that high achievers in high-poverty schools are not necessarily from a disadvantaged background, though that is significantly more likely. The same goes for advantaged high achievers in low poverty schools. The study is rather quiet about this issue, though its findings are nevertheless significant.

Two measures are used: improvement in outcomes over time, measured through maths and reading achievement on Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) tests, and projected ACT College Readiness Benchmarks in maths and reading, which were derived from a study that linked MAP scores with these benchmarks.

Key findings were:

  • The vast majority of middle school high-achievers were projected to achieve the ACT benchmarks – 95% in low-poverty schools in both maths and reading; and over 85% in maths and over 80% in reading in the high-poverty schools. So, on this measure, while there is a disparity, the gap between high and low poverty schools is relatively small.
  • As for improvement in performance, the research finds that high- and low-poverty schools ‘produce roughly consistent rates of improvement over time in both reading and mathematics’. The achievement gap between the high- and low-poverty schools did not widen during the study period (though it didn’t narrow either).
  • There is, however, very significant variation between schools on this measure, both in the low-poverty and the high-poverty samples:

‘For example, at the beginning of the study, the average high-achieving math student in a high-poverty school started out performing at about the 90th percentile relative to national (NWEA) achievement norms. But if such a student attended a school that produced 10th percentile growth, that student would enter middle school performing at only the 77th percentile, whereas a comparable student at a 90th percentile growth school would enter middle school performing at the 93rd percentile. For these two students, the differences in opportunities could be quite large.

In short, given the large variance in growth across schools, it is quite clear that factors other than poverty largely control the relative growth of high achievers generated by any given school. This trend is interesting because it is counterintuitive. Given the advantages in resources available to wealthier schools, many might expect that students attending such schools would show superior growth over time. This was not necessarily the case.’

It follows that transferring from a high-poverty to a low-poverty school will not necessarily produce a dramatic improvement in high achievers’ performance. And it is a mistake to assume that low poverty equates to high quality, or vice versa for that matter. Quality operates independently of the relative poverty of the intake.

  • The study calculates that, if all high-poverty schools were able to produce the growth achieved by schools in the 75th percentile of the sample, the college-readiness gap between high- and low-poverty schools would be eliminated. The Preface comments:

‘Perhaps the best news coming from this study is that many high-poverty schools meet and exceed that target. The top high-poverty schools show growth that not only equals the best low-poverty schools but also dwarfs the meagre returns achieved by the worst ones. In fact, the 22 high-poverty elementary schools with the best growth rates entirely erased and surpassed their achievement gap relative to the 27 low-poverty schools with the lowest growth rates. And the 13 high-poverty middle schools with the highest rates of growth closed and surpassed their achievement gap relative to the 16 low-poverty schools with the lowest growth rates.’

So, to sum up, when it comes to narrowing achievement gaps – including excellence gaps -education may not matter that much at the macro level when compared with other key variables, but which school matters considerably at the micro level for the individual gifted learner.

Moreover, if all schools could perform at the level of the best, that would have a significant effect within the relatively narrow limits of education’s contribution to the overall equation. So attention shifts to the optimal way of transmitting effective practice between settings (or it would had we not set aside the difficult questions about this). This issue is another missing link in the argument set out in ‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’.

In passing, it is worth noting that one of the policy recommendations in ‘A Level Playing Field’ would be very familiar to those involved in English gifted education:

‘Moving forward, this study encourages policymakers to reframe the national discussion about how to best serve high achievers by recognizing that the nation’s “elite students” should not be defined solely as the top 1%, 5%, or 10% in the standardized testing pool, and that each and every school has its own group of elite students.’

There is real value in framing policy to address the needs of the most able pupils in every school, even though this population would vary considerably compared with national norms. This takes one stage further the arguments in the report in favour of local norms.

Not only should interventions be tailored to the needs of individual learners, but they should also be sufficiently flexible to be adopted in every school, since no school should be allowed to assume that it has no gifted learners. If exceptions are permitted, it follows that high-ability learners within them who are held back by disadvantage will miss out on their entitlement.

This has been an extensive detour and it is high time that we returned to the substance of ‘Unlocking Emergent Talent’.


Park Flora 2 by Gifted Phoenix

Park Flora 2 by Gifted Phoenix


Barriers to Overcome

The report identifies seven barriers to participation by disadvantaged learners in programmes suited to their educational needs which, it says, are particularly problematic for those catered for by public (as opposed to private) schools.

  • Narrow conceptions of giftedness that perceive it as an inherited and fixed trait rather than malleable and potentially evidenced through unfulfilled potential. The Report speaks of ‘already-developed ability’ as opposed to ‘potential to achieve’, but this is inaccurate and confusing since the distinction is fundamentally between selection on the basis of achievement (which favours those from advantaged backgrounds) and selection on the basis of ability (which should not do so, assuming that ability is evenly distributed within the population). The report avoids confronting this issue of the distribution of ability head on (see below), though it does acknowledge the deleterious effect of limited exposure to ‘a literacy-rich home’ and ‘challenging curriculum and enriched learning opportunities’.
  • Misconceptions about disadvantaged high-ability learners which boil down to low expectations and over-emphasis on what these learners lack by way of ‘economic, social and cultural capital’ rather than their strengths. These impact negatively on teacher nominations for gifted programmes, often dictated by poor identification practice that fails to utilise qualitative evidence and does not take account of learners’ different cultural backgrounds.
  • Limitations of pedagogy and curriculum which do not foreground talent development but tend to underestimate learners’ capabilities, concentrating overmuch on tackling ‘perceived academic deficits’ through ‘drill to build up missing basic skills and content knowledge’. It is also suggested that US schools do not offer a sufficiently culturally responsive curriculum that reflects the experiences, heritage, language and values of minority ethnic groups as well as of ‘majority cultures living in geographically depressed areas’.
  • Poor identification practice, including using a narrow range of evidence, failing to take account of the limited learning opportunities formerly made available to such students, perhaps by applying inappropriate national norms, relying overmuch on nominations from inexperienced teachers who have had no appropriate training, and failing to offer learners more than one opportunity to demonstrate their ability and to take proper account of improvement over time.
  • Introducing obstacles to programme participation, such as expecting learners to travel outside their own area or expecting them to meet associated transport costs. Sometimes parents’ inability to press for appropriate educational adjustments or secure access to the best quality schooling can also prove problematic.
  • The Gifted Label which can damage relationships between the learner and his peers, even resulting in rejection and/or bullying. Consequently, potential gifted learners may avoid the imposition of the label, or be dissuaded if their own background is under-represented in the gifted group.
  • Limited access to out-of school opportunities, which – in the US particularly – have been used by parents to compensate for ‘the shortage, or absence, of advanced courses in their children’s schools’. There is an extensive tradition of such provision in the US, especially summer schools and shorter weekend and holiday courses, often linked to talent search procedures. But the vast majority require payment of tuition fees, so they are largely enclaves for the advantaged middle classes.

All of these are familiar in the English setting, though the last is somewhat less pronounced, simply because the range of opportunities of this kind is significantly more limited here, and there may be a stronger tradition of schools providing their own out-of-hours learning opportunities.

They are all perfectly valid, but they stand as proxy for the more substantial barrier that I have alluded to above: the assumption that ability (as opposed to achievement) is unequally distributed in the population, whether by ethnicity, gender or socio-economic background.

This issue is now so toxic that there is often a tendency to ignore it. There are continuing research traditions which make it their business to detect perceived differences in intelligence or ability, and to conclude that these impact significantly on educational achievement.

But, even if these arguments can be made to stand up (and they are open to challenge on a variety of grounds), the fundamental difficulty is that they serve to reinforce precisely the low expectations that lie at the root of the problem.

It follows that there is much virtue in starting from the fixed and incontrovertible assumption that, while the distribution of achievement is undoubtedly affected by gender, ethnic and socio-economic background, the distribution of ability is not.

Then the equity-driven side of the equation for gifted educators is far more straightforward to grasp and aim towards: it is simply to ensure that entry to gifted programmes is broadly representative and that success – whether demonstrated by a measure of high achievement, progression to selective higher education or any other outcome – is evenly distributed.

If too few low-income learners are admitted to a gifted programme, this may well be indicative that identification procedures are over-reliant on attainment measures, as opposed to evidence of hidden or emergent potential.

If too few low-income learners are successful within a gifted programme, this may well be indicative that the content and/or assessment is inappropriately weighted against learners from such a background.

This is not to argue for fixed quotas, or affirmative action, but simply to advance a straightforward corrective to the ‘deficit thinking’ that is outlined in the report.

It is only by following these arguments through to this ultimate position that we can effectively counter the hold of unfairly low expectations on our efforts to narrow and ultimately eliminate unhelpful excellence gaps.


Psychosocial Factors

The report poses two questions: which non-cognitive factors are most significant in determining the success of low-income high ability students, and which of these most lend themselves to improvement through education?

It calls for more research into the characteristics of successful learners with this background, which is perhaps tantamount to admission that the treatment subsequently offered is both provisional and potentially incomplete.

As a precursor to that treatment, it offers an outline drawn from research on African-American and Latino gifted students which may not be fully transferrable to the low-income population (the emphases are mine):

‘These students had high educational and career aspirations and were extremely motivated to accomplish them. They demonstrated a strong work ethic and commitment to study. Their families were emotionally supportive and they had extended family and other adults such as teachers, coaches, mentors, and church leaders to turn to for additional support and guidance. High self-esteem gave them the confidence to actively seek advice and assistance from adults outside the family when they needed it. They had a peer network of other students with similarly high goals and commitment to academic achievement who provided psychological, emotional and social support to remain on track despite setbacks or obstacles. They were confident in their own racial identity and open to multicultural experiences, including friendships.’

The subsequent text does not dwell on the importance of support networks within and beyond the family, concentrating exclusively on the learners’ own characteristics. Nor does it treat all of those, selecting instead the following list which it suggests are ‘especially critical and malleable’:

  • Mindsets, or beliefs about intelligence and ability. Those who see their capability as fixed are disadvantaged compared with those who believe they can improve their performance through effort. This is allied with the concept of ‘grit’, or resilience, associated with recognition of the significance of persistent effort over time. Educational settings can encourage learners to appreciate the contribution to success made by their own effort and persistence.

‘Grit’ is currently receiving significant attention. Duckworth’s presentation concludes with an admirably brief summary of the conclusions from her research into this phenomenon

Duckworth grit Capture

  • Motivation, which is associated with students’ belief that they can do well in school, and that doing well is important to them and will contribute significantly to their life chances. Motivation is associated with high expectations from educators, who give learners opportunities to succeed, so building their confidence and motivation to succeed further.
  • Some other factors are identified as particularly relevant to high achievers, though the commentary suggests that findings associated with minority ethnic groups are being applied here to low-income students without too much supporting evidence. Factors include: negative stereotypes of groups to which the learner belongs, which can impact on their engagement and performance; a perceived choice between achievement and affiliation with a group of friends or peers, and the risk that choosing the former lays the student open to isolation and bullying; and the capacity to develop ‘dual identities’ to reconcile conflicting expectations and norms.

There is a fairly extensive literature in England about the impact of aspirations and attitudes – whether the learner’s or their parents’ – on learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, though the extent to which these vary according to ability or prior achievement is relatively less explored.

It will be interesting to compare the findings from the forthcoming ‘Investigation of school and college-level strategies to raise the aspirations of high-achieving disadvantaged pupils to pursue higher education’ with other more generic material and also with the list above.

A 2012 study by Gorard et al: ‘The impact of attitudes and aspirations on educational attainment and participation’ offered a meta-analysis covering 13 different kinds of aspiration, attitude or behaviour (AAB), four of which were relevant to parents (parental involvement, parenting style, parental expectations and parental substance abuse).

Five more relate to a learner’s own attitudes and aspirations: self-concept or esteem (self- perception and evaluation of one’s worth or goodness), self-efficacy or locus of control (belief in one’s ability to achieve and that one’s actions can make a difference), aspiration (what one hopes will happen in the future), motivation (the reason for a decision and strength of purpose in carrying it out) and attitude (one’s feelings about school and education).

The remaining four are behavioural: engagement with extra-curricular activities, engagement with paid work, substance abuse and poor behaviour.

The survey sought evidence of a causal relationship between each of these and attainment/participation, having determined that such a relationship involves four aspects:

  • There is an association, or correlation between the two variables;
  • The AAB pre-existed any improvement in attainment/participation and can be used to predict subsequent changes;
  • Controlled interventions have altered the level of an AAB, so producing changes in attainment/participation that cannot be otherwise explained; and
  • There is a plausible account of how the AAB influenced attainment/participation.

The authors comment:

‘The evidence in most areas is generally too immature at present to estimate the effect sizes or the costs of any type of intervention. It is important, therefore, that future work moves towards estimates of both, which can then be broken down into estimates of cost-effectiveness for specific sub-groups of learners, such as low attainers and families of low socio-economic status (SES).

Much of the work found in this review on the causes of attainment was conducted in the USA. Its results are relevant to the experience on this side of the Atlantic, but it would be helpful to see more of this kind of work, concerning both participation and attainment, being carried out in the UK, and reflecting the country’s specific context and culture.’

This parallel summary report ‘The Role of Aspirations, Attitudes and Behaviour in Closing the Educational Attainment Gap’ concludes:

‘The existing evidence supports the use of interventions focused on parental involvement in children’s education to improve outcomes. The immediate focus should be on rolling out and closely monitoring such interventions.

There is mixed evidence on the impact of interventions focused on extra-curricular activities, mentoring, children’s self-belief and motivation. Further development of such interventions should be trialled alongside evaluations of their effectiveness.

There is little or no evidence of impact for interventions focused on things like addressing children’s general attitudes to education or the amount of paid work children do during term time. Such interventions might be pursued for other reasons, but the evidence does not currently support their use to raise attainment.’

While there are clear differences between the typologies adopted – and the English research relates to all disadvantaged learners rather than just high-ability learners – there is cause for caution.

While ‘psychosocial factors’ may be significant, the evidence base is thin and, without such evidence, we may be tempted to exaggerate their impact relative to other factors that may more readily explain achievement and excellence gaps.


Park Flora 3 by Gifted Phoenix

Park Flora 3 by Gifted Phoenix


Effective Policies, Initiatives, Programmes and Practice

The report comes at effective provision in three overlapping chapters, devoted to programme models, policies and initiatives and best practices respectively.

Six effective practices are identified from analysis of a range of different school-based and supplementary programmes (one or two of which are called slightly into question by the analysis above):

  • Gateway function: a focus on preparation for subsequent educational experience, often at critical transition points, so helping to ‘increase access, create additional entry points into, and address “leaks” in existing pipelines of talent development’.  Ideally provision should comprise ‘comprehensive talent development paths…that begin in pre-school (or earlier) and continue through Grade 12 and beyond.
  • Selection criteria matched to level of developed talent: provision for younger learners is more inclusive and less selective than provision for older students. Selection criteria draw on multiple evidence sources to produce a holistic assessment, including quantitative data based on local norms rather than rigid national cut-off scores.
  • A challenging enriched curriculum that requires higher-level thinking skills: learners with developing abilities can benefit from challenge as much as the highest-achieving students. This often demands professional development to raise teachers’ expectations and develop their differentiation skills.
  • Significantly extended learning time beyond the school day: this may be as important in tackling underachievement amongst potentially high-achieving students as for those performing at lower levels.
  • Components that compensate for the benefits enjoyed by more advantaged students: this might include tutoring, mentoring and counselling, internship opportunities and careers advice.
  • Expanded student support networks: providing opportunities for learners to work with similar students from other schools or localities, so creating a stronger peer network. This might be complemented by mentor support and parental education, so as to strengthen family support.

This is followed by a series of seven ‘policies and action initiatives’:

  • Increase expectations, by introducing and working towards clearer definitions of advanced levels of learning on state tests, focusing simultaneously on increasing the proportion of learners achieving those levels and narrowing achievement gaps. Similar goals should be set in respect of NAEP and PISA measures of advanced performance. Also ensure that high-quality teaching is available to these learners, especially in high-poverty schools.
  • Support high achievement through a range of strategies including more specialist STEM schools, implementing a ‘gifted education pedagogy’, additional focus on gifted education in initial teacher education and subsequent professional development, extending access to Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, improved access to out-of-hours supplementary programmes,
  • Start early and sustain, by supporting pre-school and elementary school enrichment activity, identifying high achievers and then providing them with consistent support throughout their time in school. This will demand focus on instilling psychosocial skills ‘supportive of continued commitment to high achievement’.
  • Provide additional support alongside the school curriculum, such as mentoring, tutoring, advice on university entry and access to role models.  Given the significance of family support, programmes must develop parents’ understanding and advocacy.
  • Remove barriers to programme participation, ensuring that definitions and identification processes are inclusive of ‘marginalised and under-identified gifted students’, that information is translated into community languages and that districts and schools are supportive of learners progressing through the curriculum at their own pace.
  • Focus wider school reform on high ability: ensure that efforts to address achievement gaps incorporate excellence gaps, that Response To Intervention (RTI) and grouping strategies address these learners’ needs and that success is measured in a way that incorporates high achievement. Effective practice must be shared, so that successful programmes can be replicated and adapted elsewhere.
  • Invest in research to determine ‘the conditions under which interventions are effective and with whom’. It is critical that these are cost-effective and scalable. (There is a brief and not too helpful section on replicability and scalability which rather vaguely suggests exploration of distance education models and the development of ersatz supplementary education within school settings, possibly built on partnership between organisations offering supplementary programmes and school districts.)

Finally, there is a third series of ‘best educational practices’ which highlights material earlier in the text. In summary it advocates:

  • Inclusive, culturally responsive and holistic identification practice, supported by teacher education.
  • Culturally responsive programmes and services incorporating development of both cognitive and psychosocial skills.
  • Positive cultures in schools that ‘exalt individual differences of all kinds and value and reward high academic achievement create [sic] contexts in which low-income, high-ability students from all backgrounds can thrive’.

There is also a final exhortation:

‘A list of best practices will remain just that unless it is coupled with a commitment to looking at low-income and culturally and linguistically diverse students from a different lens and from a perspective that emphasises strengths instead of weaknesses, differences rather than deficits, possibilities as opposed to limitations, and solutions instead of obstacles.’

The Appendix to the report provides separate summaries of eight different programmes featured at the Summit. This is both a small sample and a mixed bag, containing some very small programmes and some rather large ones. There are also two projects focused exclusively on supporting learners from minority ethnic backgrounds.

The links below are to project websites where these are available:

  • Project Excite, a year-round out-of-school programme for minority learners in Grades 3-8 provided by Northwestern University and two local school districts.
  • Project Nexus, a former programme of the Maryland State Education Department (2005-2008) helping to prepare low-income students for higher education.
  • The Scholars Program, provided by Sponsors for Educational Opportunity (SEO), a year-round out-of-school programme supporting urban students in New York and San Francisco to progress to selective universities.
  • The TEAK Fellowship, a year-round out-of-school programme for talented New York City students from low income families supporting admission to high school and university.
  • The Young Scholars Program, operated by Fairfax County, Virginia to support low-income high ability learners in grades K-2, preparing them for subsequent gifted programmes.


Moving Forward

The report admits to ‘a lingering concern’ associated with the interaction of different variables – it specifies rural/urban/surburban, race and culture – and the implications for effective provision. This is welcome in light of some of the reservations expressed above.

It also quite rightly rejects ‘categorical designations’ because they ‘fail to capture the variation in levels of poverty, opportunity and education within the subgroups included in each category’. A one-size-fits-all approach will not work.

It proposes a research agenda that foregrounds our limited understanding of the characteristics of successful learners from low-income backgrounds since:

‘Although we can speculate on obstacles and impediments, there is not a deep understanding of how these intersect with race, culture, gender and domain of talent.’

There is surely a risk that the interaction of so many different factors – elements of disadvantage, as well as variations in background, schooling and personal attitudes – is so complex and individualised that it will not be possible to draw general conclusions that can be consistently applied across this population?

The research agenda proposes further work to investigate the characteristics of successful learners, the development of psychosocial skills, the removal of barriers (professionals’ perceptions and assumptions, identification, family and community beliefs) and effective provision (appropriate curriculum and instruction, the characteristics of successful programmes, scaling and replication and teacher education).

One cannot help feeling that, rather than providing a basis for extensive further work of this nature, any available funding might be better spent in devising cost-effective and scalable interventions that start from our current understanding of effective practice – and evaluating them formatively and summatively so as to refine that understanding and adjust the programmes accordingly.

But maybe this is the tension between giftedness and gifted education once more raising its ugly head. Or maybe it is my bias against research and in favour of policy-making; or perhaps a little of both.

Still, a focus on the tangible and immediate – on inputs and processes and their success in generating efficiently the right mix of positive outcomes – is likely to generate more substantive and more immediate returns than in-depth psychological study.


Apple Blossom by Gifted Phoenix

Apple Blossom by Gifted Phoenix


Drawing the Strands Together


Unlocking Emergent Talent and Elements of Effective Provision

Unlocking Emergent Talent is a helpful resume of what is currently understood as effective practice in identifying and meeting the needs of high ability low income learners, but it does not add conspicuously to our collective understanding of such practice.

It also displays some shortcomings, in substituting evidence about minority ethnic students to fill gaps in the evidence base for low-income students and, to a lesser extent, in not consistently differentiating findings about high-achieving students from findings about high-ability students.

It does not fully address, or else skips over, a series of substantive issues including:

  • Different definitions of ‘high ability’ and ‘low income’ and the issues associated with selecting one of several alternatives.
  • The wider evidence base on excellence gaps, which presents a rather more complex picture than that presented in the report.
  • The range of factors that contribute towards disadvantage and the complex manner in which different factors interact and impact on the learner.
  • The relatively limited contribution that education can make to tackling disadvantage and the correspondingly significant impact of poverty on educational achievement.
  • Variation in the quality of support between settings, the impact of reducing this variance (and associated questions about our capacity to spread and embed effective practice).
  • The distribution of ability within the population.
  • The value of parental engagement compared with learners’ own ‘psychosocial skills’, and the significance of those skills relative to other variables.
  • Cost and efficiency and their influence on the shape of interventions to support the target group.
  • Identifying the right blend of in-school and out-of-hours provision.
  • Considering the relative advantages and disadvantages of stand-alone provision for disadvantaged learners, integrated support for advantaged and disadvantaged alike, or a mixed economy.

All that said, it provides a helpful framework against which to assess current practice and from which to begin to develop new practice. From a domestic perspective it supplies a reasonable reference point for consideration of the relatively similar English publication we expect in September.

The read-across will not be perfect. The English report will be dedicated specifically to support for progression to higher education and its focus is exclusively 11-18 year-olds. It will adopt a relatively liberal definition of ‘high-achieving’ which is broad in terms of the range of achievement it embraces, but does not otherwise accommodate those whose ability is not yet translated into high achievement. It is likely to concentrate substantively on in-school and in-college strategies, as opposed to external programmes.

Nevertheless, my forthcoming review will undoubtedly be aided by this prior excursion into broadly similar territory on the other side of the Atlantic.


The Pupil Premium

That said, one further critical issue will not be assisted by the comparison: whether available funding, principally in the form of the Pupil Premium, is allocated in such a manner that high-achieving disadvantaged learners receive their fair share of support – and whether such funding is making a real difference to their expectations of progression to higher education, and especially to selective universities.

I have raised in at least one previous post the question whether:

‘Gifted learners from disadvantaged backgrounds will receive the same level of benefit from the Premium as other disadvantaged learners, notably those who are not likely to achieve national benchmarks at Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4.

For the Premium does not currently operate as an individual entitlement following the learner. The Government has issued no advice to schools to suggest that it should be deployed in this fashion…

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has argued that each eligible learner should receive a Pupil Premium Entitlement, so ensuring that the funding directly benefits those eligible for it. The IPPR argues that this should pay for:

‘extra catch-up tuition, small group tuition or one-to-one teaching to stretch the most able low-income pupils’.’

While there has been no apparent shift towards such an entitlement, other levers have been brought to bear to increase the general emphasis on gap narrowing. Ofsted inspectors will be monitoring the attainment gap in every school and will not rate a school outstanding unless it is closing that gap. Schools that are struggling will be required to appoint a head teacher from a successful school to advise them.

Ofsted has reinforced the message that schools should have:

‘Carefully ringfenced the funding so that they always spen[d] it on the target group of pupils’.

And, when it comes to high achievers, has expressed the desire that they have:

‘Never confused eligibility for the Pupil Premium with low ability, and focused on supporting their disadvantaged pupils to achieve the highest levels’.

One might reasonably expect that the imminent Ofsted report on provision for highly able learners, next in line for publication in the ‘Summer of Love’, will incorporate some further coverage of this kind, including some guidelines to differentiate effective and less effective practice. That messaging should then be traceable across to the third and final publication, where it should be an important feature.

It remains to be seen whether the other key accountability lever School Performance Tables, will be used to incentivise schools to support their higher achievers. The consultation on secondary school accountability – recently closed – proposed the publication of generic attainment data for pupils attracting the Premium, but did not commit to differentiating that by prior achievement.

We know that the current method of delineating such achievement, National Curriculum levels, is set to disappear in 2016 and, although there has been a commitment to a new system for grading high attainment in the core subjects at the end of KS2, we do not yet know how that will be done.

The Government has published a series of short case studies of effective use of the Premium, one of which features the gifted and talented programme at Paignton Community and Sports College. It doesn’t offer any startling insights into best practice, but it does confirm official endorsement for deploying some of the available funding in this fashion.

There is evidence elsewhere that the broad message has already been taken on board. A new scheme administered by the National College of Teaching and Leadership ‘Closing the Gap: Test and Learn’ supports school-based research into effective approaches to narrowing the gap. It is beginning with a consultation phase in which schools have been asked ‘which group of pupils should we be most attending to?’

The initial results make positive reading.

Curee consultation Capture

As things stand, one might reasonably expect that a significant proportion of the funded projects will be focused on our target group.

But there are also issues associated with the fact that the Pupil Premium is not available in post-16 settings, where entirely different funding arrangements apply. There is no mechanism for securing consistent support across the transition between 11-16 and 16-19 education for the substantial proportion of students who progress to higher education via two separate institutions with a break at 16 (or, for that matter, for those who change institutions at some other point in their school careers, most often as a consequence of moving house).

There have been suggestions that this might change. Press coverage in May 2012 reported that consideration was being given to a Student Premium for all pupils eligible for free school meals who passed the EBacc. The funding, worth up to £2,500 a year, would be confirmed at the age 16, subject to confirmation of a university place, but would not be available until the student entered higher education.

Then the Government’s report on progress in the first year of its social mobility strategy mentioned:

‘Options for reform of the National Scholarship Programme and other forms of student support, including a possible ‘HE Premium’, alongside other models… and whether we can give greater certainty of the support available to individuals at the point they are considering applying to university.’

No reforms of this nature have so far been forthcoming.

Towards the end of the first post in the Summer of Love series, I proposed a targeted intervention programme supported by an annual Pupil Premium topslice. The funding would be transferred into a personal entitlement or voucher that could be passported on the individual learner, following them across into a post-16 setting if necessary.

There is a precedent for such a topslice in the form of the £50m of Pupil Premium funding set aside for summer schools. A further £50m topslice represents just 2% of the total sum available for the Pupil Premium in 2014-15.

It should be possible to generate a matched contribution from a separate 16-19 funding source if necessary, though the total amount required would be relatively small.

Let us end with some traditional but provisional ‘back-of the envelope’ costings,

In the early secondary years the funding might be targeted at broader awareness-raising for all Premium-eligible learners achieving Level 5 at KS2 in English and Maths (or the equivalent in the new assessment regime). This is currently some 14% of the Year 6 cohort so, assuming a total year group of 600,000, some 84,000 learners annually across Years 7-9.

From Year 9/10 onwards it might be focused more tightly on a tailored programme for each Premium-eligible learner with the capacity to enter a selective higher education course, or a selective university, or to achieve a specified benchmark, such as A levels at Grades AAB+. In 2010-11, just 7% of all state school students achieved these grades (though admittedly in ‘facilitating subjects’ only).

I cannot find a reliable estimate of the proportion formerly eligible for free school meals, but modelling undertaken by HEFCE in 2011 (Annex D) suggests very small numbers in POLAR Quintile 1 (2,741 aged under 21) achieved this outcome (and not only in ‘facilitating subjects’ either). It is highly unlikely that the national cohort of Premium-eligible learners considered likely to achieve this would exceed 5,000 per year group.

So we might expect a steady-state national cohort of around 250,000 in Years 7-9 and some 20,000 in Years 10-13. A sum of £50m would enable one to allocate:

  • £1,500 per year to learners in Years 10-13 (20,000 x £1,500 = £30m)
  • An average of £6,000 per year per school for learners in Years 7-9 (3,000 x £6,000 = £18m) though the sums provided would be weighted to reflect distribution while avoiding ‘penny packages’

So leaving sufficient change for formative and summative evaluation, possibly even a thorough randomised control trial!



May 2013

Where is New Zealand’s Excellence Gap? – Part 2


This is Part 2 of a Post for the Blog Tour associated with New Zealand’s Gifted Awareness Week 2012. If you missed Part 1 you can find it here


I have set aside until now any discussion of the nature and application of deciles so as not to confuse the treatment of the substantive issue.

For, if it wasn’t bad enough to take New Zealand to task for apparently using ethnic background as a proxy for socio-economic disadvantage, I feel there is also some cause for concern in its tendency to use a school-level measure of disadvantage as a proxy for individual disadvantage.

The two issues are related, in that they potentially create a ‘double whammy’ situation for disadvantaged European/Pakeha learners who have the misfortune to attend a relatively advantaged school.


What are Deciles?

But non-Kiwi readers will first require an explanation of how deciles are derived and how they work.

New Zealand’s Ministry of Education explains that:

‘A decile indicates the extent to which a school draws its students from low socio-economic communities. Decile 1 schools are the 10% of schools with the highest proportion of students from low socio-economic communities. Decile 10 schools are the 10% of schools with the lowest proportion of these students.’

It follows that deciles are not always a reliable measure of the individual socio-economic backgrounds of pupils in a school. A significant minority of the pupils at a low decile school may be relatively advantaged and vice versa.

Deciles are calculated following each 5-yearly New Zealand Census, though schools can apply for a review betweentimes. The calculation is based on the smallest census areas (known as ‘meshblocks’) in which a school’s students live.

It is based on five percentages:

  • households with adjusted income in the lowest 20% nationally;
  • employed parents in unskilled and semi-skilled occupations;
  • crowded households (ie less than one bedroom per couple, per single person aged 10 or over, or per pair of children aged under 10);
  • parents with no school or tertiary qualifications and
  • parents who directly received income support from specified sources.

These five factors are weighted to reflect the number of students per meshblock, so those housing more students will have a relatively greater impact on the school decile.

Schools are placed in rank order for each of the five factors, receiving a score for each. The five scores are totalled and the total scores are used to divide schools into the 10 deciles, each containing the same number of schools. No further weighting is applied.

The published Schools Directory contains the decile alongside each entry, so parents are fully aware of a school’s decile and that knowledge may influence their admissions preferences.

The Ministry’s guidance on applying for a change of decile notes:

‘In the past, boards and principals seeking a review have provided information on such things as rurality, fluid rolls, the incidence of single parent families or students with special needs. While such matters certainly impose organisational problems on a school, they are not factors that are used to determine the decile.

The decile does not indicate the “average” socio-economic status of families that contribute to the school roll, but focuses on five specific factors that have been shown to affect academic achievement.’

Deciles are used to determine the funding received by a school. Indeed, several different funding elements are allocated on this basis:

  • Targeted Funding for Educational Achievement (TFEA) (deciles 1-9)
  • Special Education Grant (SEG) (deciles 1-10)
  • Careers Information Grant (CIG) (deciles 1-10)
  • Kura Kaupapa Māori Transport (deciles 1-10)
  • Priority Teacher Supply Allowance (PTSA) (deciles 1-2)
  • National Relocation Grant (NRG) (deciles 1-4)
  • Decile Discretionary Funding for Principals (deciles 1-4)
  • Resource Teachers of Learning and Behaviour (RTLBs) Learning Support Funding (deciles 1-10)
  • RTLBs for years 11-13 (deciles 1-10)
  • School Property Financial Assistance scheme (deciles 1-10)
  • Study Support Centres (deciles 1-3)
  • Social Workers in Schools (deciles 1-5)
  • District Truancy Service (deciles 1-10)

Some sources suggest that deciles impact on some 15% of schools’ operational funding overall, but the first element in the list above seem by far the most significant for the purposes of this post.

Lakeside courtesy of Chris Gin

Targeted Funding for Educational Achievement

Targeted Funding for Educational Achievement (TFEA) is:

‘a resource provided to assist boards of decile 1–9 schools to lower barriers to learning faced by students from low socio-economic communities. It is calculated and funded on a per pupil, decile related basis’

So, whereas a significant proportion of school funding is dependent on school decile, the TFEA element of that funding is derived on a per capita basis. The text is ambiguous but, as far as I can establish, this sum is payable for every student on the school roll, rather than only for students below a specified personal threshold of disadvantage.

If so, there will be an inevitable element of deadweight in lower decile schools and a degree of rough justice in higher decile schools, because that is the way a proxy operates.

The current rates for TFEA are set out below, with figures provided inclusive and exclusive of Goods and Services Tax.

As one can see, the rate varies significantly according to school decile. The highest rate for decile 1 schools is approaching 50% more than the highest rate for decile 2 and 3 times as much as the highest rate for decile 3.

For decile 5 and below, the sums available are relatively insignificant and, for the highest decile, they disappear entirely.

The History of Deciles and TFEA

There is useful background about the development of this system in a December 2003 Inquiry into decile funding by the Education and Science Committee of the New Zealand House of Representatives

TFEA was first introduced in 1995 but, until 1997, it was awarded only to low decile schools. It was the first tranche of funding awarded using the decile system – all the other elements above have been added subsequently.

The 18 funding steps in the TFEA system were already present at the time of the inquiry. (The three different rates for schools in each of deciles 1-4 are presumably calculated by dividing each ranked decile into three equal parts, but the text does not state this.)

When the Inquiry was held in 2003, deciles were derived from six indicators rather than five, the sixth being the proportion of students of Maori or Pacific Islands origin within the meshblock.

Some of the Inquiry’s respondents were reportedly critical of this:

‘Some contended that as Maori and Pacific Island families are over-represented in statistics reflecting socio-economic disadvantage, there may be a ‘double counting’ of disadvantaged minority groups, thus skewing the decile rankings of some areas.’

 In other words, because Maori and Pasifika were already over-represented in the other five ethnically-neutral elements of the calculation, there was a risk that areas with a significant Maori/Pasifika population would benefit disproportionately.

Some of the Inquiry’s members felt this:

 ‘creates an incentive for schools to push the boundaries regarding the proportion of Maori and Pacific Island students on their roll’

though why that should be a bad thing is never explained.

Such was the sensitivity of any adjustment that it was referred to a much wider review of targeted programmes. The Minister responsible declared that:

‘The objective of the review is to give ministers and the public assurance that policy is being developed on the basis of need, not on the basis of race’

showing that the Government of the time was thoroughly alert to the risk that I have been discussing in this post.

But the report of the first results makes it clear that the review did not examine the full range of education policy. The Minister says:

‘The Labour-led government firmly believes in giving everyone a fair go. Unlike the National party, we are committed to lifting Maori and Pacific Island job prospects, educational achievement and health.

We will continue to use targeted programmes and policies for specific ethnic groups that prove effective at addressing proven needs, just as we do for other groups of New Zealanders who need specific help, such as the elderly or those in rural communities.

These reviews have confirmed that for most of these programmes, targeting by ethnicity is appropriate, as there is good evidence that this sort of targeting is addressing need effectively. Because of this these programmes will not be changed.

In fact, the review concludes that change is required in only a single area – the calculation of deciles.

Even so, the Minister feels it necessary to announce additional targeted support to sweeten the pill:

There is increasing evidence and research that suggests that lifting educational achievement for Maori and Pasifika students is better done through tailored programmes that address certain factors – such as giving teachers the support and the skills to teach students from different backgrounds who have different needs.

We are investing in these sorts of programmes already. As well, I am announcing today two new initiatives, worth $11.5 million over three years, that will support more effective teaching. The first will develop, pilot and establish a national approach to training educators who teach teachers. The second will apply recent research findings about what works in the classrooms for Maori and Pasifika students to ten pilot studies involving teachers in clusters of schools.’

The first part of this quotation explains why there has been continuing emphasis on targeted support for Maori and Pasifika learners under successive Governments.

But it begs the question whether other disadvantaged students would not benefit from similar tailored programmes, rather than relying principally on the distribution of weighted funding to low decile schools.

Meanwhile, the Inquiry into decile funding also recommended that the Ministry of Education should undertake research into the effectiveness of TFEA in improving the learning outcomes of disadvantaged students and disseminate best practice guidance to schools (and schools should also account for how they spend this resources):

 ‘Due to the absence of research in this area, we have been unable to determine how effective the Targeted Funding for Educational Achievement scheme is at improving the outcomes of students who face barriers to learning due to their socio-economic status. We believe that such research is important to ensure that decile-based funding is achieving its stated goals.’

I have not been able to track down any research commissioned in response to this recommendation.

In a submission to the Inquiry the New Zealand Council for Educational Research argues that:

Closing the overall gap in student achievement levels in relation to schools serving different socioeconomic communities is a somewhat different purpose from that of improving the learning outcomes for individual low-achieving students, in whichever decile school they attend. There is overlap between these two, which is evident in some of the views expressed by those in high decile schools concerned about meeting the needs of their lower-performing students….

Trying to assess individual student learning needs and provide funding accordingly on an individual basis would prove to be enormously expensive. The testing required would withdraw money from the public funding available which many in the sector already regard as inadequate for the higher expectations we now have that every student will achieve a level of educational performance which will be satisfying, and provide a useful basis for meaningful employment and social participation.

If such a system were used only for those students thought to face additional learning barriers, and based on school applications, then it would face the same problems of lack of fairness and inconsistency that were apparent in the system replaced by the decile rankings, and would not reach all those who might need it.

Individual vouchers would prove costly and very difficult to administer, and put school principals under great pressure, as the experience of principals with parental expectations related to the average per student funding of the ORRS scheme used in special education shows (Wylie 2000). Nor have individual vouchers for students proved to make a difference for student learning… What does make a difference is to build on what we know to ensure teachers are well equipped with the knowledge, curriculum and assessment resources, and time to work with individual students, and to work together to share knowledge of individual students, and to improve their practice.’

This suggestion that individual low-achieving students should be targeted rather misses the point. Isn’t the first question to address why individual disadvantaged students should not be targeted in this manner?

The assumption that the only solution lies in vouchers is also misplaced, as the English Government’s decision to adopt a Pupil Premium demonstrates. As far as I can see, there is fundamentally no reason why TFEA could not be awarded to schools on the basis of individual student need. All that would be required is a robust definition of need which could be applied to all learners.


Te Anau courtesy of Stuck in Customs

Distribution of pupils by ethnic background according to School Decile

There is no doubt that pupils from different ethnic background are very differently distributed within high and low decile schools.

The July 2011 data gives the following rounded percentages (the totals also include learners from other backgrounds):

European/Pakeha Maori Pasifika Total
Deciles 1-3 8 44 60 22
Deciles 8-10 50 16 12 39

It is quite clear that funding and policies targeted at low decile schools will disproportionately benefit learners from Maori and Pasifika backgrounds.

Unfortunately, I have been unable to track down any data showing the distribution of economically disadvantaged learners between schools in different deciles. We cannot see the extent to which learners’ personal background reflects the decile of the institution that they attend.

There is bound to be significant overlap between these two given the way New Zealand school admissions operate and how deciles are calculated, but the match will only be approximate – there will be a minority of individually disadvantaged learners attending schools above decile 3 and, similarly, advantaged leaners attending schools below decile 8.

So we have a second proxy in play that will tend to put disadvantaged learners from European/Pakeha backgrounds who have the misfortune to attend mid and high decile schools further towards the back of the queue.

If TFEA funding was tied explicitly to meeting the needs of the disadvantaged pupils who attract it – which is not strictly the case with the Pupil Premium in England – a significant proportion of the deadweight in the current allocation could be eradicated.

It would also help ensure that gifted learners from disadvantaged backgrounds were equal beneficiaries, since there is otherwise a risk that the funding is tied almost exclusively to eradicating New Zealand’s ‘long tail of underachievement’ at the lower end of the attainment spectrum.

The Range at Night courtesy of Stuck in Customs


What do we know about New Zealand’s Disadvantaged Gifted Learners?

As far as I can discover online, relatively little is known about the size and composition of New Zealand’s population of disadvantaged gifted learners.

New Zealand’s guidance does not rely on a fixed percentage definition of gifted learners, pointing out that different approaches to identification can result in very different outcomes – the variance is from 1-15% of the school population, assuming that the guidance is rigorously observed in every single school.

If we estimate, for the sake of illustration, a mid-point of around 8% then, on the assumption that giftedness is evenly distributed in the school population – and on the basis of 2011 school rolls – New Zealand’s national gifted and talented population would include some 61,000 gifted and talented learners all told.

  • Overall, over 33,000 European/Pakeha learners will be gifted and talented, approaching 14,000 learners from a Maori background and around 6,000 from a Pasifika background
  •  About 13,400 of those will be attending disadvantaged decile 1-3 schools. Over 6,000 of them will be from a Maori background, approaching 3,600 from a Pasifika background and around 2,600 of them European/Pakeha.

While there is apparently no hard data, we do know – from the sources I have already quoted – that pupils from Maori and Pasifika backgrounds and from disadvantaged backgrounds (whether or not represented by the proxy of low decile schools) are heavily under-represented.

That seems fairly typical of gifted and talented populations worldwide.

Another conclusion we might reasonably draw is that, with approximately this number of disadvantaged gifted and talented learners concentrated in a relatively small land mass, it ought to be feasible to design a single personalised intervention programme to support them all, funding permitting of course…

How Might We Learn More?

Although there are significant political and professional hurdles to overcome, most of the elements are seemingly in place to secure useful national data about New Zealand’s gifted disadvantaged learners.

New Zealand’s National Administration Guidelines require school boards to:

‘on the basis of good quality assessment information, identify students and groups of students:

i.        who are not achieving;
ii.        who are at risk of not achieving;
iii.        who have special needs (including gifted and talented students)’

Such groups must include Maori students by virtue of a separate requirement:

‘in consultation with the school’s Māori community, develop and make known to the school’s community policies, plans and targets for improving the achievement of Māori students’

There are no other specific requirements relating to the ethnic or socio-economic composition of these groups.

However, where a school has students enrolled in Years 1-8, the board is required, from 2011, to use New Zealand’s National Standards to:

‘Report in the board’s annual report on:

              i.     the numbers and proportions of students at, above, below or well below the standards, including by Māori, Pasifika and by gender (where this does not breach an individual’s privacy); and

ii.     how students are progressing against the standards as well as how they are achieving.’

The New Zealand Government seems to have decided in favour of the public dissemination of such data, despite professional fears about the creation of school league tables and their capacity to mislead the public

The Ministry of Education is reportedly compiling a report based on the first round of data, to be published in September. The Prime Minister has argued that there is parental demand for such data, which will in any case be made available by the media, who can access it under the Official Information Act.

The twin requirements on school boards to identify gifted and talented learners and report achievement against the standards provides a mechanism which could potentially be used to collect data about the incidence of gifted and talented learners, broken down by ethnicity and gender, and their performance (recognising the limitations of the four-level scale deployed within the standards for this purpose).

Such data would certainly be analysed by school decile – so using the familiar proxy for personal disadvantage – which would permit the derivation of approximate data about the numbers and distribution of gifted disadvantaged learners, though with the shortcomings we have identified above.

If the Government were also prepared to specify that the data collection should include disadvantaged learners identified on the basis of a personal measure of disadvantage, that would of course be far preferable.

Meanwhile, the lack of national data collection on this basis would not prevent the collection of sample data by the gifted education community from schools willing to supply it.

Whakapapa River courtesy of ed37

How Might New Zealand’s Gifted Disadvantaged Learners Be Supported?

What follows is a personal perspective from a distance of several thousand miles – only New Zealand’s gifted educators will know whether these ideas make sense in their particular national context, but here goes anyway!

In researching this post, I have come across several interesting initiatives that were new to me, including the University of Auckland’s Starpath Project and  the First Foundation which seem commendably focused on disadvantage regardless of the ethnic background of the disadvantaged young people they are supporting (though in both cases, school decile seems to be an integral part of the identification process).

A map of such existing provision would help to identify the gaps that need to be filled, and inform any intention to draw existing provision into a single framework servicing the entire gifted disadvantaged population.

Other possibilities include:

  • Ensuring that national and school policy statements explicitly recognise the complex relationship between ethnic background, disadvantage and several other key variables such as gender, special educational need, even month of birth.
  •  Making clear the downside of a proxy-driven approach – specifically that some key parts of the disadvantaged gifted population are overlooked while other, relatively less disadvantaged learners will benefit in their place.
  •  Introducing strategies to encourage schools to identify gifted and talented learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. For example, guidance could promote the idea that schools’ gifted and talented populations should broadly reflect their intake. Schools’ decisions could be audited, perhaps on a sample basis. Effective school level strategies could be developed and disseminated nationally;
  •  Developing greater understanding of how disadvantage impacts on gifted learners, including those from non-Maori and non-Pasifika backgrounds. Is there a distinct poor European/Pakeha population whose needs are not being met? Do Asian learners from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to overcome these more readily, as is the case with some Asian populations in England? If so, what can be learned from that?
  •  Developing personalised solutions that address the very different causes of disadvantage faced by gifted learners, ensuring that support for Maori/Pasifika dimensions is proportionate and part of a sophisticated toolkit of strategies available to schools. These could be targeted on the basis of a needs analysis process, as embodied in the recently published questionnaire)
  •  Developing guidelines for the providers of generic non-targeted out of school programmes to ensure that they too provide support for a population that  is broadly representative by gender, ethnic background and other such variables, rather than disproportionately serving one group or another.
  •  Monitoring and evaluating the impact of this strategy and progress towards specified outcomes, tied explicitly to reducing the excellence gap.

For what it’s worth, current interest in charter schools seems largely irrelevant to this discussion because the terms of reference are explicit that such schools will not be selective, so they will not be able to prioritise disadvantaged gifted learners in their admission arrangements.

Whereas in England free schools for students aged 16-19 are not caught by the Government’s moratorium on new selective schools, there doesn’t seem to be a similar escape clause in New Zealand. So charter school pilots might serve at best as models and laboratories for disadvantaged learners of all abilities.

Assuming, of course, that they will really serve disadvantaged learners, rather than acting as a magnet for the middle classes.

The Prospects Are Good

There is evidence to suggest that new Zealand’s disadvantaged gifted learners are already relatively well-placed.

Another PISA publication called ‘Against the Odds: Disadvantaged Students Who Succeed in School’ uses PISA 2006 science results to inform an analysis of resilient students from disadvantaged backgrounds who score highly on the PISA assessment.

The report uses two definitions of resilience:

  • A within-country definition which looks at those students who fall within the bottom third of their country’s distribution by socio-economic background but who nevertheless score within the top third of PISA entrants in that country;
  •  An across-country definition which looks at students who, as above, fall within the bottom third of their national distribution by socio-economic background but who performed in the top third of all PISA entrants after controlling for socio-economic background.

New Zealand is one of a handful of countries in which the proportion of such students is close to 50%. These resilient students ‘are more motivated, more engaged and more self-confident than their disadvantaged low-achieving peers’.

This finding is supported in domestic studies by Nadine Ballam:

‘Socioeconomic adversity was found to be more intrinsically valuable than damaging in terms of talent development and self-identity. This challenges stereotypic perceptions that may be commonly held about individuals who come from financially disadvantaged backgrounds. It also broadens the picture of what has traditionally been suggested to be characteristic of people living in low socioeconomic situations. Participants reported that drive and determination, a strong work ethic, and an appreciation for things that may be less significant to more financially advantaged young people were the most intrinsically beneficial elements of their financial constraints. While many participants also experienced some negative impacts related to their socioeconomic circumstances, it appeared that their determination to change their situations tended to counteract any long lasting influence that these effects may have had…

Further findings from this study revealed that physical assistance provided in the form of tangible resources and opportunities actually contributed to the participants’ overall sense of wellbeing. However, it could well be that more focus is also required on the intrinsic aspects, and on supporting and empowering these young people to develop a strong and secure sense of their own identity, whatever this may mean for the individual within the context of their challenging situations.’

For many disadvantaged young people, that identity will include belonging the Maori or Pasifika communities, but for others it will not.

Last Words

This post has explored a perceived tendency for New Zealand to use ethnic proxies for personal educational disadvantage rather than relying on a more targeted measure.

It has:

  • Examined how this is evidenced in key documents and considered whether the available data supports or contradicts the tendency.
  • Suggested that the pre-eminent use of deciles to target funding and support compounds the problem.
  • Pointed out the implications for gifted disadvantaged learners and for the country’s efforts to tackle the excellence gap between the attainment of its advantaged and disadvantaged gifted learners.
  • Cautiously proposed some starting points for further information-gathering about the size and distribution of New Zealand’s gifted disadvantaged learners and for designing a coherent response to their needs.

The result is a jigsaw puzzle with several pieces still missing.

When I do finally visit New Zealand I hope to find out whether the adoption of Maori and Pasifika background as a proxy for disadvantage is a reality.

If so, is it a ‘truth that dare not speak its name’ or an openly acknowledged accommodation that reflects the historical guilt of one community and the historical suffering of two more?



June 2012

Where is New Zealand’s Excellence Gap? – Part 1

This post is my contribution to the Blog Tour for New Zealand’s Gifted Awareness Week 2012. It asks:

  • Whether New Zealand is too ready to adopt proxies for educational disadvantage and
  • If that hinders its capacity to narrow the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged learners, especially the ‘excellence gap’ between gifted learners from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds.

It is written with half an eye to the New Zealand audience, while the other half is trained on a global readership. The former may find I am telling them too many things they already know; the latter may feel that some essential background material is lacking. I have tried to steer a middle way.

I present this analysis with all due humility – as appropriate for a non-Kiwi who has never once visited New Zealand and is relying exclusively on material available online – but in the genuine hope that it will stimulate further discussion and debate.

I have divided the text into two parts on an entirely arbitrary basis, simply because it is too long to form a single post.

Reflections on Last Year’s Post

In 2011 my contribution to the New Zealand Gifted Awareness Week (NZGAW) Blog Tour was a two-part analysis – here and here –  of how vouchers could be applied to gifted education, featuring the proposals in Step Change: Success the Only Option.

As we all know, education vouchers are a controversial market-based education reform, increasingly prevalent in the United States but with a relatively limited foothold elsewhere. They are as yet almost entirely unknown in gifted education.

I am afraid I was rather dismissive of the politically-inspired proposals within ‘Step Change’, though I did not dismiss outright the potential of voucher schemes to support gifted education. Despite the shortcomings of the Step Change scheme, its originators deserve some credit for framing the suggestion in the first place.

I thought my post was rather provocative, but it raised barely a whimper.

Vouchers may excite policy wonks but they are some distance away from the everyday concerns of busy educators. As far as New Zealand colleagues were concerned,  they were little more than a theoretical irrelevance, because the Step Change proposals had been ditched, publicly and unceremoniously, by the time I published my post.

In Search of a Topic for 2012

Charter schools are the latest ‘big idea’ imported into New Zealand, currently receiving consideration by a dedicated working group. At this early stage it is hard to know whether the report it will produce in due course is destined for the same treatment as ‘Step Change’, though that is a distinct possibility.

I could have written about charter schools but, in reflecting on them as a possible topic, I found myself distracted by a much more fundamental, sensitive and controversial question to which I did not have the answer.

Unlike vouchers – and probably charter schools too – it goes to the very heart of New Zealand’s educational policy and practice, and is directly relevant to how New Zealand policy makers and practitioners envision and implement gifted education.

Quite rightly in my view, New Zealand places very strong emphasis on a socially and culturally inclusive approach to education, and gifted education is no exception. It is rightly expected that gifted learners will be drawn from across society, including from Maori, Pasifika and disadvantaged backgrounds.

But, although this expectation is expressed in terms of ethnicity and disadvantage, it often seems – at least from this distance – that the issue is being addressed almost entirely in terms of ethnicity.

It seems that there is, quite rightly, a big investment in meeting the needs of Maori and Pasifika learners, including gifted learners, much of it on the basis that belonging to those cultures is synonymous with disadvantage.

Now I perfectly understand that learners from those backgrounds are heavily and disproportionately represented amongst the socio-economically disadvantaged population in New Zealand.

But I am also sure that there is a minority of relatively advantaged Maori and Pasifika learners and, perhaps more to the point, a significant number of socio-economically disadvantaged learners who are not from Maori and Pasifika backgrounds.

I wondered whether this appearance is reflected in reality and, if so, why New Zealanders have reached a position where Maori and Pasifika cultural backgrounds have become an imperfect proxy for socio-economic disadvantage.

I was curious if, as a consequence, poor learners from other backgrounds are relatively neglected, perhaps even overlooked. I wondered whether that circumstance might apply equally to gifted education.

This topic seems almost taboo in New Zealand educational circles. I am sure that many readers will feel I am trespassing into territory I do not understand – and clumping around in hobnailed boots where angels fear to tread.

It may be that the evidence overall does not support this analysis, in which case I am more than ready to adjust it accordingly. But I feel the need to pose the questions nevertheless.

A Drive to Remember courtesy of WanderingTheWorld

 New Zealand’s Educational Policy and Priorities

To get a grasp on how national educational priorities are articulated within Government, I began with the Ministry of Education’s Briefing to the Incoming Minister (December 2011).

The Executive Summary illustrates beautifully the disparity between expectation and implementation I outlined above.

The opening paragraph expresses the overarching aim thus (the emphasis is mine):

‘Our over-riding goal is a world-leading education system that equips all learners with the knowledge, skills and values to be successful citizens in the 21st Century. Although New Zealand’s education system has many strengths, with systematic under-achievement for Maori, Pasifika and other learners from poorer backgrounds, we are a considerable way from achieving that goal. New Zealand’s highest achieving learners compare with the best in the world, but those groups least well served by New Zealand’s education system achieve outcomes comparable with the lowest performing OECD countries.  The social consequences of this are all too clear. The economic consequences are equally unacceptable.’

This text might be criticised because it implies that Maori, Pasifika and poor learners on one hand and high achievers on the other are two mutually exclusive populations but, that aside, it states New Zealand’s fundamental educational problem with admirable clarity.

But, having stated the problem in this manner, the next few paragraphs make no further reference to those ‘other learners from poorer backgrounds’, implying that there is no policy solution targeted specifically at them.

Instead, the issue is addressed entirely in terms of ethnic background:

‘The attainment gaps between learners of different ethnicities are stubborn and in danger of being viewed as inevitable. They are not…

the issue of Maori and Pasifika underachievement is pervasive and needs to be addressed in every setting, and in schools of every decile…

….Educational achievement for all is the single most important issue facing New Zealand education and in order to achieve a step change in outcomes for Maori and Pasifika we need to be relentless in our focus on good education outcomes for every single child and adult learner.  We need to “stress test” all of our current policy settings, including funding mechanisms, programmes and interventions and ask if they are doing all they can to address this fundamental weakness in New Zealand’s education system.’

The original point about the distribution of disadvantage is reinforced later in the Briefing, within an analysis of performance against key indicators by ethnic group:

‘Despite some overall improvements, the gap between our high performing and low performing students remains one of the widest in the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). These low performing students are likely to be Maori or Pasifika and/or from low socioeconomic communities.

Disparities in education appear early and persist throughout learning. The Table below highlights some of this participation and achievement disparity between Maori, Pasifika and non-Maori/Pasifika…Although there is a relationship between socio-economic status, ethnicity and achievement, these are not pre-determinants for success or failure. There is a spread of achievement within these groups.’

We will return to the Table later. For now the critical point is the recognition of a complex relationship between ethnicity, socio-economic disadvantage and achievement.

Given that understanding, one might expect the next stage of the argument to be insistence on a personalised approach, designed to meet the very different needs of disadvantaged learners, who are affected in complex ways by the interaction of these and several other variables.

Instead, we are told that that a key challenge has to be addressed:

We must support Maori, Pasifika and students with special needs to realise their inherent potential to achieve educational success.   This goal requires giving full effect to the Government’s strategies for these groups: Ka Hikitia: Managing for Success, the Pasifika Education Plan and Success for All – Every School, Every Child.’

Special needs makes it into the equation, but what has happened to those from disadvantaged backgrounds who have the misfortune to sit outside the Maori and Pasifika communities?

This is by no means an isolated example. The same elision features in the Ministry of Education’s Statement of Intent 2012-17 which again identifies four priority groups:

Improving education outcomes for Maori learners, Pasifika learners, learners with special education needs and learners from low socio-economic backgrounds’

But when the ‘operating intentions’ are spelled out, we seek in vain for separate and specific reference to targeted support for the latter group:

‘We will improve education outcomes for our priority groups by focusing on the evidence of what works best. We will use policy, accountability and funding levers to maximise improvement for these learners. To make the system work, it is critical to have and use information that informs best practice and makes it possible to target support and resources effectively….

We will report regularly on the progress the system is making towards improving its performance for and with Māori learners, using Ka Hikitia – Managing for Success as the framework. We will implement a refreshed version, Ka Hikitia – Managing for Success 2013-2017, based on emerging research and evidence. This will further focus the Ministry’s activity and that of education providers to improve the education system for and with Māori.

As part of the refresh of Ka Hikitia – Managing for Success, specific targets will be set and communicated. These targets will address the Government’s priorities and will align with the Better Public Services result areas. Targets will be set to increase the proportion of:

    • Māori children participating in early childhood education
    • Māori learners with NCEA Level 2 or an equivalent qualification
    • Māori 25- to 34-years-old, with a qualification at level 4 or above on the New Zealand Qualifications Framework…

…We will implement a new, updated Pasifika Education Plan for 2013-2017, which will support the education system to perform better for Pasifika learners, and to focus on sustainable and continuous improvement. The plan will set ambitious targets to increase Pasifika participation in early childhood education and the percentage of Pasifika learners with NCEA Level 2 or an equivalent qualification, aligning with the Better Public Services result areas.

Setting, and then achieving, the goals and targets of the plan will be a joint project between the Ministry and the Ministry of Pacific Island Affairs. We will work with education agencies to ensure their plans for increasing Pasifika learners’ achievement align with the Pasifika Education Plan….

…We will continue to implement Success for All – Every School, Every Child to ensure all learners with special education needs are able to learn and succeed in the education setting of their choice.

The Government has set a performance target of 80% of schools demonstrating inclusive practice of learners with special education needs by the end of 2014, with the remaining 20% demonstrating good progress. No schools should be doing a poor job of providing an inclusive learning environment for these learners.’

Are we to conclude that, for learners from low socio-economic backgrounds who fall outside the other ‘target groups’, there is no need for targeted intervention? If so, what is the rationale for this decision and where is the evidence presented?

The Remarkables courtesy of WanderingTheWorld

The Elision is Repeated in NZ Gifted Education Documents

Some of the key reference documents for New Zealand’s gifted educators perform exactly the same trick, though this is not universally true. The older documents appear more inclusive, perhaps suggesting that the socio-economically disadvantaged did not disappear from view until midway through the last decade.

The Ministry of Education’s publication: Gifted and Talented Students: Meeting their needs in NZ Schools (2000) notes that:

‘New Zealand is a multicultural society with a wide range of ethnic groups.  The concept of giftedness and talent that belongs to a particular cultural group is shaped by its beliefs, values, attitudes, and customs. The concept varies from culture to culture. It also varies over time.

It is important that each school incorporates relevant cultural values into its concept of giftedness and talent. These values will also influence procedures used for identifying students from different cultural groups and for providing relevant programmes. Culturally diverse and economically disadvantaged students are grossly under-represented in programmes for the gifted and talented. Schools must make a special effort to identify talented students from these groups.’

It moves on to consider identification issues for each of a series of vulnerable groups and offers specific guidance on identifying disadvantaged gifted learners:

‘Students from Low Socio-economic Backgrounds

Disadvantaged gifted and talented students (or gifted and talented students from low socio-economic backgrounds) are difficult to identify and are seriously underrepresented in programmes for the gifted and talented. Since the performance of these students generally declines the longer they are at school (by comparison with students from more advantaged backgrounds), it is critically important to identify them as early as possible. Attention should focus on early childhood education and on the junior school.

Traditional identification methods tend to be ineffective with this group of students. Standardised tests of achievement and intelligence may penalise students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Non-verbal tests of general ability, such as the Standard Progressive Matrices, are more culturally fair although they do not predict academic performance as well as some tests.

The accuracy of teacher identification can be increased with the use of checklists designed specifically for identifying disadvantaged gifted students. Peer nominations have proved promising, particularly where peers have identifi ed areas of special ability outside the classroom, such as art, music, sport, and leadership. Of particular value, however, has been the responsive learning environment approach for this group of students. When coupled with early identification and intervention, it is usually the most effective method.’

But, moving ahead to 2008, while the ERO Report on ‘Schools’ Provision for Gifted and Talented Students’ follows the earlier Ministry publication in advocating identification processes that:

‘Identify special groups, including Maori, students from other cultures/ethnicities,            students with learning difficulties     or disabilities, underachievers, and those from low socio-economic backgrounds’,

when it comes to reporting on and exemplifying effective practice, the latter group simply vanishes.

  • In establishing indicators of good practice for defining and identifying giftedness, ERO sought evidence that Maori and multicultural concepts were incorporated and that students identified ‘reflected the diversity of the school’s population’.
  • Only 5% of schools could demonstrate a ‘highly inclusive and appropriate’ approach on these terms, with a further 40% deemed ‘inclusive and appropriate’. Practice in the remaining 55% of schools therefore fell short of this expectation.
  • The ensuing discussion of good practice references the incorporation ‘of Maori or multicultural concepts of giftedness and talents’ in schools’ definitions (the majority of schools had not demonstrated this).
  • Just 15% of schools included Maori theories and knowledge in their identification process and even fewer – 12% – incorporated ‘multi-culturally appropriate methods’.
  • ‘Identified gifted and talented students reflected the diversity of the school’s population at just under half the schools. This diversity included ethnicity, year levels, gender, and curriculum areas’.

Socio-economic factors are neither explicitly identified in ERO’s template of effective practice, nor referenced explicitly in the practice they surveyed. There is a clear problem in respect of Maori and multicultural representation, but the issue of socio-economic representation is entirely invisible.

The only reference to disadvantage is in terms of schools:

‘In general, high decile schools were more likely to have good quality provision for their gifted and talented students than low decile schools. Similarly, urban schools were more likely to have good quality provision for their gifted and talented students than rural schools.’

which leads to a recommendation that the Ministry:

‘Provide targeted, high quality professional development to rural and low decile schools on providing for gifted and talented students’

We shall return later to the issue of support differentiated according to school decile, since that too is a questionable proxy for individual socio-economic disadvantage.

The current TKI Gifted site follows the 2000 publication up to a point:

‘Disadvantaged gifted and talented students (or gifted and talented students from low socio economic backgrounds) are difficult to identify and are seriously underrepresented in programmes for the gifted and talented. Since the performance of these students generally declines the longer they are at school (by comparison with students from more advantaged backgrounds), it is critically important to identify them as early as possible. Attention should focus on early childhood education and on the junior school.’

But it carries no links to programmes or resources that explicitly address this issue.

The letter signed by various New Zealand organisations and just issued to Members of Parliament references their commitment to a vision that:

‘All gifted and talented learners have equitable access to a differentiated and culturally responsive education. They are recognised, valued and empowered to develop their exceptional abilities and qualities.’

But there is no mention of disadvantaged gifted learners in the associated recommendations for practice, though there are references to research in ‘Pasifika concepts of giftedness and Maori perceptions and understanding of giftedness’.

This formulation cannot be criticised on the grounds that it focuses exclusively on Maori and Pasifika disadvantage. Rather, the emphasis on disadvantage is missing entirely – and only the need to account for different cultural perceptions remains.

There is a fascinating – and in my view telling – extract in The Extent, Nature and Effectiveness of Planned Approaches in New Zealand Schools for Providing for Gifted and Talented Students (2004).

It appears during a discussion of cultural issues, and specifically the representation of Maori and Pasifika students:

Socioeconomic factors. Keen (2001) hypothesized that the under-representation of Mäori and other Polynesian children that emerged in his research could be related to socioeconomic status rather than ethnicity. He notes that children of beneficiaries and unskilled labourers are also under-represented amongst the gifted and that “a disproportionate number of Mäori fall within these occupational categories” (p. 9). Similarly, Rata (2000) maintains that ethnicity has been credited with a greater influence than it actually exerts and that poverty is principally responsible for the educational and social inequalities that exist in New Zealand. However, Blair, Blair, and Madamba (1999) argue that it is virtually impossible to separate the potential effects of ethnicity and social class, while Bevan Brown (2002) and Glynn (cited in Bevan-Brown, 2002) maintain that it is a pointless exercise anyway as both these dimensions need be taken cognisance of in any educational provisions for poor Mäori students with special needs and abilities.’

It appears that, around the turn of the century, various experts were arguing that poverty rather than ethnicity was the real problem that required addressing in relation to under-representation in gifted populations.

Others regarded these two factors (quite wrongly in my view) as indistinguishable. Others saw the issue entirely through the lens of support for Maori learners, and so entirely missed the point.

Is this the real heart of the issue? Have the arguments advanced by Keen and Rata been set aside too readily in an effort to address the under-representation of Maori and Pasifika gifted learners?

Earlier in this Report we are told:

‘It is beyond the scope of this review of the literature to examine the recommendations for each potentially under-represented group of gifted and talented students; however, given the cultural diversity of New Zealand, issues related to the identification of minority cultures, and specifically, Mäori students, are of utmost importance. This is discussed in the section on cultural issues of this literature review.’

Is that the nub of the problem, and have we identified the turning point in New Zealand’s gifted education discourse?

Waterfalls at Midnight courtesy of Stuck in Customs

Is this Conflation of Ethnicity and Disadvantage Borne Out By the Data?

I want to turn to the statistical evidence about the extent of disadvantage in New Zealand, the composition of the disadvantaged population and the impact of disadvantage on educational outcomes.

The Extent of Disadvantage and Breakdown by Ethnic Background

I haven’t found it an easy matter to derive estimates of New Zealand children living in poverty broken down by ethnic background. Such statistics are less readily available than one might expect.

The 2010 Social Report defines low income as 60% of the 2007 household disposable income median, minus a 25% deduction to account for housing costs. The total is adjusted to reflect inflation so it remains level in real terms.

In the year ending in June 2009, 15% of New Zealand’s population had incomes below this threshold. However 22% of children aged 0-17 lived in households with incomes below this level.

The Report does not provide an analysis by ethnic background because sample sizes are said to be too small to provide a robust time series. I am no statistician but this seems a rather convenient and only partially accurate excuse.

The August 2011 publication ‘Household Incomes in New Zealand: Trends in Indicators of Inequality and Hardship 1982 to 2010’ informs us that:

  • New Zealand does not have an official poverty measure – the Report uses the 60% of median household income and also a 50% median household income measure. It notes that both are regularly used by the EU and OECD
  • Of New Zealand’s total population of 4.26m (2010) some 500,000 to 750,000 are in poverty depending on which definition is adopted.
  • The childhood poverty rate is 22% to 25% depending on the definition adopted. Of the 1.07m dependent children under 18 in New Zealand (2010) between 170,000 and 270,000 were in households in poverty
  • Over the period 2007-2010, one in three Maori children one in four Pasifika children and one in six European/Pakeha children were living in poverty.

(For those readers outside New Zealand, ‘Pakeha’ is the Maori word for New Zealanders of European descent.)

The Social Report tells us that, at 2006, 72% of 0-17 year-olds were reported as of European or ‘Other’ origin (‘Other’ including ‘New Zealander’); 10% were reported as Asian, 24% as Maori and 12% as Pacific Peoples.) Some were obviously reported as belonging to more than one ethnic group.

Using the Statistics New Zealand Table Builder, one can derive estimated numbers of 0-14 year-olds and 15-19 year-olds by ethnic background in 1996, 2001 and 2006.

So the totals for 0-19 year-olds in 2006 are:

European or Other (including New Zealander) – 645,300 + 222,370 = 867,670

Maori – 215,300 + 65,980 = 281,280

Pacific peoples – 110,300 + 31,830 = 142,130

Asian – 83,600 + 35,840 = 119,440

Recognising the inaccuracy of the figures – one can roughly estimate an order of magnitude for the number of children from each background (other than Asian) living in poverty, by applying the proportions given in the Social Report:

European or Other (including New Zealander) – 16.67% of 281,280 = 46,890

Maori – 33% of 281,280 = 92,820

Pacific Peoples – 25% of 142,130 = 35,530

One can conclude that:

  • the total number of children living in poverty in New Zealand is relatively small in absolute terms, but constitutes a significant proportion of the total population of New Zealand children.
  • While only a minority of Maori and Pasifika children live in poverty…
  • In numerical terms, roughly twice as many Maori live in poverty as European/Pakeha but the latter significantly exceed the size of the Pasifika-in-poverty population.
  • Almost 50,000 young New Zealanders – well over 4% of the total national population of 0-19 year-olds – are neither Maori nor Pasifika yet live in poverty.

It is this group that seems most at risk of neglect when it comes to the delivery of education interventions, including gifted education interventions.

Data on Educational Performance by Ethnic and Socio-Economic Background 

Ethnic Background

As noted above, the Ministry of Education’s Brief to the Incoming Minister carries a Table showing several indicators of relatively poor Maori/Pasifika educational performance. This is reproduced below.

These figures tell a bleak story and they are reinforced elsewhere, though the data does not always give a consistent picture.

The Social Report 2010 provides evidence of performance by both ethnic background and disadvantage, but unfortunately no analysis of the relative impact of each of these two factors.

In relation to ethnic background:

  • The proportion of secondary school leavers who left school with an upper secondary qualification at NCEA Level 2 or above: in 2008, 71% of all school leavers achieved this benchmark. The comparable figures by ethnic background were: European – 75.2%; Maori – 50.4%, Pacific peoples – 62.9%.
  • The proportion of the population aged 15 and over enrolled at any time during the year in formal tertiary education leading to a recognised NZ qualification: during 2009, 426,000 young people achieved this benchmark (12.4%). The age standardised ethnic breakdown was: Maori – 17.1%; Pacific peoples – 12.1%; Europeans – 11.4%. The age standardised percentages for enrolment in bachelor’s degree courses was: Europeans – 3.5%; Maori – 3.1%; Pacific peoples – 3.0%. Females from Maori and Pacific backgrounds were more likely to be enrolled than males from European backgrounds.

Education Counts provides an analysis of the proportion of students leaving school with a university entrance standard in 2010. Overall, 42% of leavers achieved this measure. The ethnic breakdown was: Asian 65.3%, European/Pakeha 47.5%, Pasifika 25.8%, Maori 20%.

Data from PISA 2009 adds a further dimension. The NZ Ministry of Education publication ‘PISA2009: Our 21st Century Learners at Age 15’ provides useful evidence of the impact of ethnic background on achievement in literacy.

We learn that:

  • Overall, 16% of New Zealand’s students achieved level 5 and above on the PISA 2009 literacy test and 14% achieved below Level 2. The former is comparable with or exceeds the outcome in other high-scoring countries but the proportion of weaker readers is relatively larger than in most other high-scoring countries other than Australia and Japan.
  • 19% of Pakeha/European students achieved level 5 and above, as did 16% of Asian students. The comparable figures for Maori and Pasifika were 7% and 4% respectively. Conversely, the figures for those achieving below Level 2 were 11% Pakeha/European, 18% Asian, 30% Maori and 48% Pasifika.
  • Amongst the eight highest-performing countries, New Zealand had the widest gap between the scores of its top 5% and its bottom 5% of performers.

Punctuated Sky courtesy of Chris Gin

Socio-economic Disadvantage

The Social Report 2010 reveals  the proportion of secondary school leavers who left school with an upper secondary qualification at NCEA Level 2 or above in terms of school decile, showing that 57% of pupils at relatively disadvantaged schools in deciles 1-3 achieved this benchmark, compared with 67% at schools in deciles 4-7 and 82% at schools in deciles 8-10.

Education Counts similarly deploys school decile when considering the proportion of students leaving school with a university entrance standard in 2010. It notes:

‘A clear positive correlation between the socio-economic mix of the school the student attended and the percentage of school leavers attending a university entrance standard…Students from schools in deciles 9 and 10 were three times more likely to leave school having achieved a university entrance standard than students from schools in deciles 1 and 2’


There is a large variation in the proportion of school leavers achieving a university entrance standard amongst schools within each decile.’

This is exemplified in the table below. If similar distinctions occur in the achievement of disadvantaged pupils in these schools, then the shortcomings of a decile-based approach are clear.

Interestingly, New Zealand’s domestic analysis of PISA 2009 does not examine variations according to socio-economic background, so we must turn to the original PISA 2009 Results (Volume 2).

This provides useful international comparisons of:

  • The percentage variation in student performance in reading explained by students’ socio-economic background (the strength of the gradient showing the association between student performance and background) and
  • The average gap in reading performance of students from different socio-economic backgrounds (the slope of the gradient measuring by how much student performance changes when socio-economic status changes).

The table reproduced below shows that, on the first of these measures, New Zealand is three points above the OECD average of 14%, so in the upper part of the distribution but not too far distant from other high performing countries (eg Singapore 15%, Shanghai 12%, Korea 11%, Canada 9%.

But on the second measure, New Zealand’s score of 52 exceeds that of every other country in the table. Competitors’ scores include: Singapore 47, Korea 32, Canda 32, Finland 31, Shanghai 27 and Kong Kong 17.

The text tells us:

Where the slope of the gradient is steep and the gradient is strong, the challenges are greatest because this combination implies that students and schools are unlikely to “escape” the close relationship between socioeconomic background and learning outcomes. In these countries, this strong relationship also produces marked differences in performance between students from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds. Where the slope is steep and the gradient weak, the relationship between socio-economic background and learning outcomes is an average tendency with many students performing above or below what is expected by this general trend.’

Only Belgium and New Zealand demonstrate ‘high average performance and large socio-economic inequalities’.

I sought in vain for a publicly-available and reliable outcome measure – whether of achievement or destination – that would throw further light on the existence of an excellence gap between advantaged and disadvantaged high attainers.

But one can reasonably assume that the relationships identified in this PISA analysis apply at each level of performance, so that New Zealand’s excellence gap is likely to be fairly pronounced.

Cross-referencing Data on Ethnic and Socio-Economic Underachievement

Maybe I haven’t been looking in the right place, but educational achievement data that cross-references ethnic and socio-economic background seems conspicuously thin on the ground.

This Table offers a beguiling glimpse into analysis across both these variables. It too uses school deciles as a proxy, but groups them into five quintiles:

From this we can infer that, although European/Pakeha tend to achieve more highly:

  • Maori in decile 7-10 schools (quintiles 4-5) and Pasifika in decile 5-10 schools (quintiles 3-5) are more likely to achieve a university entrance standard than European/Pakeha in decile 1-2 schools (quintile 1)
  • Maori and Pasifika in decile 9-10 schools (quintile 5) are more likely to achieve a university entrance standard than European/Pakeha in decile 1-6 schools (quintiles 1-3)

However, the overall variation we have already noted between schools in the same decile on this measure suggests that there will be similar variation as far as disadvantaged students are concerned (to the extent that they are represented in higher decile schools). It is perhaps likely that the strongest schools in deciles 1-5 will tend to out-perform the weakest in deciles 6-10.

So we have evidence of a significant ethnicity-based performance gap and a significant socio-economically based performance gap with a degree of overlap between them, though not to the extent that one entirely explains the other.

The New Zealand Institute’s NZahead report card explains it thus:

‘New Zealand’s overall strong performance in PISA masks three important problems.  First, wide disparities in student achievement exist between ethnic groups.  Māori and Pacific peoples’ average PISA scores are much lower than the average for Pakeha/European students…. the gap has not been narrowing fast enough over the years for Māori and not at all for Pacific peoples.

Over the seven years from 2004 to 2010 Māori and Pacific candidates for NCEA at all three levels and for University Entrance were consistently less successful than European and Asian candidates.  For example in 2010, 61% of Māori and 52% of Pacific candidates gained NCEA Level 3 compared to 79% for NZ European and 78% for Asian candidates.

Second, wide performance disparities exist for students from different socio-economic backgrounds.  In Education at a Glance 2011, New Zealand is shown to have the greatest difference in reading performance between students from different socio-economic backgrounds out of all OECD countries.  Although the relationship between students’ background and school performance is evident in all countries, New Zealand is the least successful at mitigating the effect a student’s background has.

Third, too many young New Zealanders are becoming disengaged and not remaining in education as long as their OECD peers.’

These are clearly overlapping problems but here they are presented as quite distinct, which rather begs the question why they are confused together when it comes to the implementation of educational policy solutions.


June 2012


Which Way Now for UK Gifted Education: Response to Current Government Policy I

This is the third part of a short series of posts about the future direction of gifted education here in the United Kingdom.

The series marks the formal establishment of GT Voice, the new UK-based support network for gifted education, as a steering group is elected to replace the interim working group.

Part One explored some fundamental questions about the nature and purpose of gifted education, to stimulate debate amongst GT Voice members about these core issues.

Part Two reviewed the recent history of gifted education in England, to uncover implications for our current position and the future direction of GT Voice.

Part Three considers the impact to date of the Coalition’s wider education policies on gifted education, to identify some key themes and issues that GT Voice will need to engage with during the lifetime of this Government.

Scope and Purpose

I had intended to cover the full span of the Government’s education policies in a single post, but there is simply too much to cover. So this section addresses policies that support disadvantaged learners and social mobility in schools, further and higher education.

The final part will examine school-level policies on: accountability and reporting; learning and teaching; and structures, choice and diversity

It is not the purpose of this post to unfairly criticise and so undermine the Government’s education policies, but to use evidence from a variety of reliable sources to explore objectively how those policies might impact – whether positively or negatively – on gifted disadvantaged learners, including those who are already high achievers.

We have noted already that the Coalition Government has not published a policy statement defining its approach to gifted education and it does not seem likely that it will do so, beyond stating its commitment to improving the education of all learners, regardless of ability.

As far as we can establish, there is no longer any central co-ordinating function for gifted education available anywhere within central government – and no repository of gifted education expertise within government or contracted to it.

This reinforces the potential significance of GT Voice as a source of advice and guidance at all levels in the education system. It is ideally placed to offer support to schools and other education settings, to providers and commissioners of gifted education services at all levels and to national education policy makers and service providers.

Those in the first two categories will also benefit from membership of GT Voice; there will be mutual benefit for many of those in the third category from either a partnership or a more flexible working relationship.

GT Voice should seek to establish a relationship with central government, helping it to ensure that its policies are properly joined-up and do not have unintended negative consequences for high achieving and high ability learners, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

For it is clear that several of the Government’s wider educational policies impact significantly on G&T education. My analysis of the November 2010 White Paper ‘The Importance of Teaching’ gives a full overview of all relevant proposals in the schools sector.

This post will explore how some of those policies have developed to date. It draws heavily on the Government’s social mobility strategy ‘Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers’, published in April 2011 and also relevant parts of the Higher Education White Paper ‘Students at the Heart of the System’ (June 2011).

This treatment concentrates exclusively on English educational policy. In future I hope to consider comparatively the position in the smaller devolved administrations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Support for Disadvantaged Gifted Learners

Although there is no overt policy statement, the academic progress of disadvantaged gifted learners is evidently a high priority for the Government.

DfE’s published business plan includes just nine ‘impact indicators’ for the full span of its work, one of which is:

‘Outcome of Education: Two indicators: first the percentage of children on FSM progressing to 1) Oxford or Cambridge; 2) Russell Group; 3) all universities; and second, destinations of young people.’

The comparable BIS business plan has, as one of its 13 impact indicators:

‘The gaps between non-free school meal and free school meal 15 year olds going on to higher education and between state and independent school students who go on to the 33% most selective higher education institutions.’

One might reasonably ask why these two government departments are defining success in different ways, rather than working collaboratively towards agreed outcomes. By pursuing subtly different objectives they surely reduce the Government’s overall chances of achieving either.

But, leaving that aside, achievement of these outcomes is dependent on securing improvements in all phases of education, as well as in several other areas of social policy set out in the Coalition’s social mobility strategy.

To demonstrate significant progress against the indicator within the education sector, schools, post-16 institutions and universities will need to:

  • improve the attainment of disadvantaged learners at all key stages, so that a higher proportion eventually achieves the entry requirements for selective universities;
  • improve the aspirations, motivation, self-esteem and information, advice and guidance available to these learners so they have the skills and self-belief to compete successfully for places at selective universities. This involves support for their parents, carers, teachers, schools and wider communities, as well as for the learners themselves;

and, assuming that these bring about an increased supply of eligible candidates,

  • ensure that selective universities respond by increasing the proportion of students they accept from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The Social Mobility Strategy addresses each of these elements – and I have adopted this tripartite distinction as a broad framework for the analysis below.

Improving Attainment

The Strategy explains that the Government will take a two-pronged approach to improving attainment, raising universal standards through system-wide reform and pursuing: ‘a relentless focus on narrowing gaps in attainment between children from different backgrounds, with a new Pupil Premium to help raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils’.

Several reforms are described as contributors to bringing about higher standards across the board, including improving the quality of teaching, increasing school autonomy and reviewing the national curriculum. We will explore these in the final post in this series.

Apart from the Pupil Premium (and related funding reforms), which clearly take centre stage, the strategies identified as helping to narrow attainment gaps – and so more relevant to the current post – are admissions reform and the Education Endowment Fund.

The Pupil Premium

The Pupil Premium is a funding supplement paid as specific grant to local authorities and directly to academies and free schools in respect of learners known to be eligible for free school meals (FSM) – our fundamental measure of disadvantage – as well as for looked after children and children whose parents serve in the armed forces.

It applies only to learners aged 4-16, so those in Year R (Reception) and Years 1-11, but not those in Years 12-13, regardless of whether they attend school sixth forms or 16-19 institutions.

The rate in 2011/12 is £430 per pupil, a single flat rate, except in the case of armed forces children where it is £200.

Consultation is currently under way over expansion of eligibility for 2012/13 and succeeding years. It is proposed that the Premium will be extended to include learners who are no longer FSM-eligible but who were eligible either in the last three years or in the last six years. The most generous of these options would bring 24% of all learners aged 4-16 within scope compared with 17% currently.

The proposed level of the Premium in 2012/13 is not part of the consultation, though it is made clear that there will be a trade-off between the value of the Premium and the proportion of eligible learners.

The Premium for FSM-eligible learners will remain as a single flat rate but the consultation invites views on shifting to a variable rate to reflect costs in different parts of the country. Such variations will not be introduced before 2014/15.

The size of the 2012/13 Premium will be announced later this term. So we have no information about the value of the Pupil Premium beyond 2012, other than that the total budget will increase four-fold, to £2.5 billion a year by 2014/15.

If the sum available increases at a steady rate, there will be £1.25 billion for 2012/13. Depending on decisions about eligibility, that may be sufficient to increase the Premium rate to over £600.

Assuming that the rate of FSM eligibility does not increase significantly, it seems likely that the Premium might eventually reach something between £1,000 and £1,500.

It will be less than half the maximum £3,000 originally suggested by the Policy Exchange which proposed such a Premium and about half of the £2,500 figure adopted by the Liberal Democrats prior to the Coalition Government assuming power.

Of course we do not know what level of expenditure is necessary to reduce significantly attainment gaps in an English context (and such a calculation would need to take fully into account the wider school funding situation). But we do know, from PISA studies of international comparisons, that there is a relatively weak correlation between per pupil spending and educational outcomes.

The social mobility strategy says that the Premium will:

  • ‘provide headteachers with the money they need to provide an excellent and individually tailored education for these children’
  • ‘make it more likely that good schools will want to attract less affluent children; and
  • ‘make it more attractive to open Free Schools in disadvantaged areas’

but there is as yet no empirical evidence to justify these claims.

Moreover, there is some reason to doubt that the Premium can and will be used by schools to provide ‘an individually tailored education’.

Schools are entirely free to decide how they will spend the Premium. The social mobility strategy says that the Government will ‘make available best practice on what works’ including findings from an independent longitudinal evaluation. It gives examples of some interventions that have had a positive impact, including intensive 1:1 tutoring in English and maths, parental engagement activities, mentoring and revision programmes.

The Sutton Trust has produced a Pupil Premium Toolkit which draws on research evidence to argue that the most effective low cost strategies are effective feedback, meta-cognition and self-regulation strategies, peer tutoring and peer-assisted learning. Early intervention and one-to-one tutoring are also relatively effective but costly.

From September 2012, schools will be required to publish online how they have used the Premium and school performance tables will report separately some aspects of the performance of Premium-eligible learners. The social mobility strategy says the Government will expect schools to be accountable to parents for how the Premium is used, but this is not further explained and may simply refer to the performance tables.

The key concern for GT Voice must be whether gifted learners from disadvantaged backgrounds will receive the same level of benefit from the Premium as other disadvantaged learners, notably those who are not likely to achieve national benchmarks at Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4.

For the Premium does not currently operate as an individual entitlement following the learner. The Government has issued no advice to schools to suggest that it should be deployed in this fashion. Especially while the per pupil value of the Premium is low, schools are quite likely to pool the funding, using it to provide generic support that will not exclusively benefit those learners who attract the Premium.

Moreover, schools’ spending behaviour will be influenced by how they are judged in performance tables and through the wider accountability regime. We shall examine the full impact of those reforms in the next post but, in summary, although some further differentiation is being introduced into the tables, it is relatively crude and so insufficiently sharp to isolate the performance of disadvantaged high achievers.

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has argued that each eligible learner should receive a Pupil Premium Entitlement, so ensuring that the funding directly benefits those eligible for it. The IPPR argues that this should pay for:

‘extra catch-up tuition, small group tuition or one-to-one teaching to stretch the most able low-income pupils’.

In another publication, the IPPR elaborates:

‘Under this scheme, local authorities would set out a menu of approved activities upon which the money could be spent. The child’s parent and the lead teacher would have to agree at the end of each school year how the following year’s Pupil Premium Entitlement would be spent. This would encourage the development of an individual learning plan for each child and would act as a lever to engage parents, which we know is an important factor in a child’s learning’.

Such an approach is close to my own thinking and provides a basis for linking the Premium to Pupil and Parents’ Guarantees, should a future Labour Government decide to maintain the Premium and revive the Guarantees. (We noted in Part Two the signs that the Guarantees look set to be restored in Labour’s emerging education policy.)

The IPPR’s proposal might be criticised on the grounds that:

  • schools should be free to pool the funding if they can achieve economies of scale, more flexible use of resources and, ultimately, a relatively greater impact on the attainment of more Premium-eligible learners;
  • especially while the value of the Premium is low, an entitlement attached to the pupil is relatively less attractive to schools and would unhelpfully fetter their discretion to do what is best for their learners

but, on the other hand, it would help to ensure that gifted disadvantaged learners receive personalised support as a consequence of the Premium, rather than risk being set aside as a lower priority, on the grounds that they will anyway achieve the performance benchmarks against which schools are most commonly judged.

It will be critical for GT Voice to monitor closely the evolution and impact of the Pupil Premium, and to be ready with recommendations about how to rectify any perverse consequences for eligible gifted learners.

Admissions Reform

This policy is essentially part of the Pupil Premium. The social mobility strategy says the Government is:

‘considering carefully how the admissions process can be improved for these children. This could mean certain schools being able to take on more of such pupils, in order to concentrate resources and specialise in their particular educational and supportive needs’.

The Government has subsequently concluded a consultation on a new draft Admissions Code which includes the following footnote:

‘Free Schools and Academies may also, where their funding agreements permit, give priority in admission arrangements to children eligible for Free School Meals (in future, the Pupil Premium). [Further guidance will be produced on this policy area following consultation]‘

And this has since been amplified in a speech by the Deputy Prime Minister, though we have yet to see the detail:

‘We are also taking unprecedented steps to make sure disadvantaged pupils actually get into these schools. Along with academies, free schools will, for the first time, be able to give them special priority in their admissions.

How can we be confident they will? Because, crudely, these pupils receive the pupil premium. The more of them the school takes, the more money it gets.

That’s a simple, but crucial, financial incentive. No one has reformed the admissions code like this for years. In future, free schools must use this power to do all they can to make sure that they have the same proportion of Free School Meals pupils as the local average – at least’.

It appears then, that both free schools and academies will be able to admit pupils eligible for the Pupil Premium ahead of others, but their only incentive to do so will be the financial bonus provided by the Premium.

This is much more permissive than a requirement, but – reading between the lines – it may be that schools taking this route must then agree to work towards achieving the ‘local average’ for FSM eligibility, however that is to be defined.

This they are likely to do anyway, since the financial incentive will only become significant on the admission of a critical mass of Premium-eligible learners – a few token disadvantaged pupils will make too little difference to schools’ budgets.

It is conceivable that some oversubscribed schools in or near areas of high disadvantage may specialise in Premium-eligible learners, or even select all their pupils on that basis, though it is a moot point whether the Coalition could accept that while continuing to resist an expansion of academic selection.

It is also intriguing to explore whether this provision might be extended to selective grammar schools. If it were, that might help considerably to restore their reputation as engines of social mobility: a reputation that has suffered in recent years as they have increasingly become a haven for middle class parents.

And there is the prospect of selective 16-19 free schools, including a bid in progress for a sixth form college in Newham which is explicitly for gifted disadvantaged learners.

So, within the constraints of a policy that prevents the creation of more selective schools for 11-16 year-olds (but not an increase in places at existing selective schools), there is some scope for admissions policies to benefit gifted disadvantaged learners. And GT voice is in an excellent position to advise and support schools that decide to go down this route.

Education Endowment Fund

The Education Endowment Fund has been established to: ‘encourage innovative approaches to raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils in underperforming schools’.

It is administered by the Education Endowment Foundation, founded by the Sutton Trust and the Impetus Trust. The Government has provided a grant of £125m which the Foundation hopes to increase to £200m over the Fund’s 15-year lifespan.

A very high proportion of this – up to 10% – will be spent on project evaluation. This is surprising given the Government’s interest in pushing the maximum resource down to schools and may well attract criticism, for it should be possible to undertake effective evaluation without imposing a £20 million topslice.

The Foundation is seeking innovative solutions that have an explicit focus on improving attainment, are replicable and scalable. It has begun its first funding round, inviting bids for grants of £50,000 plus for approval by June 2012.

At least for the time being, it appears that the EEF has been subverted to the more pressing policy of improving under-performing schools. For at least the first two years, all projects must wholly or mainly benefit FSM-eligible learners in schools which are below the Government’s floor targets.

Although the Foundation’s guidance does not say so explicitly, it is likely that successful projects will be those that help these schools climb above the targets.

In primary schools, these are expressed in terms of the percentage of pupils achieving level 4 in KS2 English and maths and making two levels of progress between KS1 and KS2.

In secondary schools, they are defined in terms of the percentage of pupils achieving 5 A*-C GCSE grades at KS4 including English and maths and making three levels of progress between KS2 and KS4

One might reasonably infer that successful projects are most likely to prioritise the marginal learners who can help schools achieve these targets rather than gifted learners who already comfortably exceed them.

It will be important that GT Voice monitors the development of the Education Endowment Fund as an instrument to develop innovative approaches to raising the attainment of gifted disadvantaged learners, especially given the pressures on the Foundation to prioritise elsewhere.

For there is a risk to the achievement of the Government’s own impact indicators if insufficient attention is paid to developing new and better ways of improving the attainment of gifted, disadvantaged learners with the capacity to progress to selective universities.

Improving aspirations, motivation and self-esteem

We now move on to the second priority identified through the social mobility strategy – improving the aspirations, motivation, self-esteem and information, advice and guidance available to these learners so they have the skills and self-belief to compete successfully for places at selective universities.

The strategy highlights a duty on schools in the current Education Bill to secure access for pupils to independent, impartial careers advice, including advice on routes to further and higher education.

Schools are also expected to offer complementary activities such as talks, visits and taster sessions, while universities will be expected to make clear information available to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Post-16 and post-19 ‘destinations measures’ introduced into performance tables will incentivise schools to provide high-quality advice.

The Strategy refers to the wide range of organisations engaged in aspirations-raising activity and its variability in terms of quality and coverage. Because this is ‘crowded territory’ the Government will not introduce its own provision but will ‘support and promote’ existing activity.

(That said, the text goes on to establish that the Government’s own National Citizen Servicewill be part of this market. NCS pilots are under way, but the Education Select Committee has drawn attention to the high unit costs and the unlikely prospect that the Government will be able to make it universal, as it intends, without significant adjustment.)

This is slightly odd, in that the logical intervention would be a flexible framework to improve the supply, quality and co-ordination of provision, much like that which has been suggested on this Blogbut perhaps this is seen as over-interventionist by a Government committed to markets and autonomy.

Changes to the careers service have been highly controversial. The Government announced the introduction of a new all age careers service from April 2012. Schools might be expected to use this service to fulfil their new statutory responsibility, but they can also choose another supplier.

Because there is no ring-fenced funding within school budgets to support this activity and apparently limited Government funding to support the student element of the all-age service, there are fears that schools will be forced to secure online rather than face-to-face advice, regardless of the provider they choose.

The July 2011 Report of the Government-appointed Advocate for Access to Higher Education (the Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes) made several recommendations about careers, including that the Government:

‘should act urgently to guarantee face to face careers advice for all young people in schools’.

The Education Select Committee has also called for face-to face provision:

‘Online career guidance, which allows young people to explore at their own pace and according to their own interests, is valuable; and we heard praise for the online careers services offered by DirectGov. However, this is no substitute for personal advice, given on the basis of an understanding of a young person’s circumstances and ambitions. We recommend that the all age careers service should be funded by the Department for Education for face to face career guidance for young people.’

In a recent Parliamentary debate on the matter, the Government refused to guarantee face-to-face careers support on the grounds that it was still considering the full range of recommendations in the Advocate’s Report.

But Hughes himself said:

‘I can hold back my colleagues from voting with the Opposition only because of the undertaking he has given’.

It therefore seems highly likely that the Government will be forced to give way on this issue. Assuming that this happens, key beneficiaries will include gifted disadvantaged learners needing clear and objective guidance to inform their progression into higher education and beyond.

Although the Government will itself engage in quality assurance, GT Voice is well-placed to unite with other organisations, such as The Bridge Group, in ensuring that the all-age careers service and its competitors in the market are equipped to provide high quality, independent advice to disadvantaged gifted learners, so that the service they receive is comparable with that available to more advantaged young people attending independent schools.

As part of its efforts to broker relationships between schools and suppliers of gifted education services, GT Voice might consider including providers of information, advice and guidance.

16-19 Education

Many gifted learners from disadvantaged backgrounds will transfer from schools at age 16 into 16-19 institutions. The Government is raising the compulsory leaving age to 17 from 2013 and 18 from 2015 but, for the time being, it remains true that disadvantaged gifted learners will more easily progress into higher education if they continue education in a post-16 setting rather than leaving school to seek employment.

Since post-16 employment is scarce in the current economic environment, there is perhaps less of an incentive to leave than has historically been the case but, nevertheless, it must be financially viable for learners to continue in post-16 education.

Since the Pupil Premium continues only to age 16, what provision is in place to ensure that Premium-eligible learners continue to receive support?

This question can be posed in relation to institutional funding and also to the support available to learners themselves, in lieu of income from employment or the benefits they would receive if unemployed.

In the case of the former, the Government claims (Col 52) that

‘£770 million is being spent on supporting the education of disadvantaged 16 to 18-year-olds. That is £150 million more than would previously have been available to schools and colleges specifically for the education of the most disadvantaged 16 to 19-year-olds. Nearly 550,000 young people will benefit from that student premium’.

However, this briefing from the Young People’s Learning Agency (YPLA) makes clear that:

  • the increase of £150 million per year relates to 2014/15 and also includes support for low attainers;
  • although at least 500,000 learners will benefit in 2011/12, it is not possible to ‘provide a figure comparable to the pre-16 pupil premium’ because this involves two separate elements of the funding formula. The YPLA says it will review the formula to make funding for disadvantaged learners more transparent.

There is to be an open consultation on the 16-19 funding formula. Reports of the preceding informal consultation suggest that it may indeed identify something akin to a ‘post-16 pupil premium’, but it remains to be seen whether this would be passported on previous eligibility for FSM, or based on some other measure of disadvantage.

If the latter, obvious questions arise about continuity of support. It also remains to be seen whether the Government can match the rate of Premium provided pre-16 and load the same expectations on post-16 institutions in relation to how the funding is used.

There are potentially strong arguments for a continuous system of support through to age 19, especially given the imminent raising of the participation age. If the Government is measuring the success of their support for disadvantaged learners at least partly in terms of their higher education destinations, the continuation of targeted support through to university admission is much more likely to generate more positive results.

But support provided direct to the post-16 learner is at least as important as institutional funding in this context. The Government’s route here has been much more contentious because of its decision to abolish the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), on the grounds that it was poorly targeted, replacing it with a new 16-19 Bursary Fund.

The evidence on which this decision was based has been hotly contested, but there are also concerns about the operation of the Fund. The social mobility strategy argues that it:

‘…will be sufficient to pay bursaries of up to £800 a year to all young people who were eligible for free school meals in year 11 who choose to stay on in post-16 education or training’ (p47)

but post-16 providers have discretion to decide who receives a bursary and its value, so there is no guarantee that formerly FSM-eligible learners will receive it and, even if they do, they are quite likely to get significantly less than £800.

This arrangement has not escaped the censure of the Education Select Committee:

‘It will be difficult to ensure that bursary funds are matched efficiently to need and that inconsistencies which will inevitably arise do not erode confidence in the scheme or distort learners’ choices of where to study. The Committee is not persuaded that a strong enough case has been made for distributing £180 million in student support as discretionary bursaries rather than as a slimmed-down, more targeted entitlement. We believe that the Department should have conducted an earlier, more public assessment of the options for better targeting of student support.’

As new post-16 funding arrangements are introduced, it behoves GT Voice to interest itself in their impact on disadvantaged gifted learners as they progress from school to selective universities. In many respects, post-16 is the ‘missing link’ between the school and HE sectors and we neglect it at our peril.

Improving fair access to university

This is not the place to explain the detail of the Government’s controversial reform of higher education tuition fees. Regardless of the built-in support for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, there is a risk that they and their parents will perceive that they are likely to incur a higher level of debt and, since working class people are inherently more debt-averse than others, they will be deterred from participation in higher education.

It may or may not be possible to counteract this effect through informational campaigns highlighting the economic value to the individual of an investment in higher education, as well as the beneficial repayment terms for those on low incomes and the availability of offsetting support while the student is attending the course.

At institutional level, the Government faces a major challenge in turning round the admissions behaviour of some universities, as this previous post illustrated:

  • In 2005/06, the universities with the worst records on fair access were, in order of shame: Newcastle, Warwick, Durham, Loughborough, Oxford, Nottingham, Sheffield, Bristol, Bath, Cambridge and York. In all 11, the percentage of FSM-eligible entrants was under 2%.
  • By 2007/08, the comparable list in order of shame was: Bath, Cambridge, Exeter, Oxford, York, Southampton, Bristol, Newcastle, Warwick. Two fewer universities, but seven of those with under 2% representation in 2005/06 were still under 2% two years later.
  • Over this period, the percentage of FSM-eligible students actually declined at Bath, Bristol, Cambridge, Exeter, Oxford, Southampton and York universities.
  • In 2005/06 Oxford took 20 FSM-eligible students and Cambridge 25 (all figures are rounded to the nearest 5) giving 45 in all at Oxbridge; by 2007/08, Cambridge had fallen to 20 while Oxford remained at 20, so the total number at Oxbridge had fallen to just 40 [the total has since risen again to 45 in 2008/09].
  • However, in percentage terms, in 2007/08, Bath was a worse performer than Oxford and Cambridge and Exeter were worse performers than Oxford.

Access Agreements

Under the new funding arrangements, all universities charging annual fees above £6,000 must confirm annual Access Agreements with the Office For Fair Access (OFFA) .

OFFA announced the outcome of the first round of Agreements in July 2011. These apply to academic year 2012/13.

OFFA estimates that national funding in support of Access Agreements will be £512.6 million, up significantly from £407.3 million in 2011/12. This will be supplemented by a further £52.4 million from the Government’s own National Scholarship Programme.

£299.1 million of the funding from Access Agreements is allocated to bursaries and scholarships to support eligible students, while £77.6 million is for outreach activities and £51.6 million for retention of students once admitted.

The institutional breakdown shows that Oxford and Cambridge together will spend – through Access Agreements and the NSP combined – some £24.2m in 2012/13. It will be interesting to see what increase in formerly FSM-eligible students this produces.

One concern is that the targets within Agreements are perhaps not as tight as they might be. Perversely, there is no requirement placed on universities to specify how many formerly FSM-eligible students they will aim to admit. OFFA failed to impose this indicator of disadvantage – or any other single indicator of disadvantage – consistently across all institutions, so universities are free to use their own preferred indicators.

It follows that the Government has significantly less leverage than it might have secured over universities that are admitting few formerly FSM-eligible learners. This compounds fears about the relative weakness of the OFFA regime and its capacity to challenge recalcitrant universities.

The Higher Education White Paper ‘Students at the Heart of the System’ (June 2011) confirms that OFFA will be strengthened:

‘…so that it can provide more active and energetic challenge and support to universities and colleges…. We will ask the new Director to advise on whether OFFA’s current powers are the right ones to achieve its statutory goals, or whether some clarification or extension is required. This could include, for example, the power to instruct an institution to spend a specific amount on access or retention from its additional fee income; a more flexible range of sanctions; or to make public an assessment of any institution that the Director feels is not making sufficient progress against its Access Agreement.’

Some clarification of the targets regime might be hoped for through this route. The Advocate for Access has also gone some way towards challenging this state of affairs, arguing that OFFA should:

‘assess higher education institutions’ annual progress on access and widening participation by measuring results against objective benchmarks rather than by statements of future intent’

but he makes no effort to define those benchmarks. Since DfE and BIS have impact indicators expressed in terms of FSM eligibility, one might reasonably expect them to be exerting some pressure in that direction.

National Scholarship Programme, Contextual Admissions, Competitive Funding

The Advocate is, however, more concerned about the operation of the National Scholarship Programme. Rather than distributing scholarships to universities, Hughes argues that they should be given mainly to schools and post-16 institutions.

Each year, schools and colleges would be informed of their allocations three years ahead. Scholarships would be awarded to disadvantaged students achieving specified grades, or potentially on the basis of demonstrated potential, say in Year 10 or Year 11.

Hughes draws a parallel with the Texas 10% scheme under which the University of Texas offers a scholarship to the top 10% of every graduating class in every school. Under this arrangement, students need only secure the High School Diploma to be admitted to a Texas university of their choice.

This is a rather muddled and ill-defined idea which would require considerable work to be viable and acceptable to universities. It will be interesting to see whether it is rejected out of hand by the Government or whether they propose a hybrid model.

Otherwise, the White Paper adds relatively little to the package of fair access measures though, like the social mobility strategy, it cautiously encourage universities to use contextual data when admitting disadvantaged learners. The White Paper says:

‘The use of contextual data to identify candidates with the ability and potential to succeed on a particular course or at a particular institution is not a new phenomenon…The Government believes that this is a valid and appropriate way for institutions to broaden access while maintaining excellence, so long as individuals are considered on their merits, and institutions’ procedures are fair, transparent and evidence-based.’

However, one new proposal elsewhere in the White Paper potentially drives a coach and horses through the fair access arrangements. This is the idea of allowing competition between universities for high-achieving students:

‘We propose to allow unrestrained recruitment of high achieving students, scoring the equivalent of AAB or above at A-Level. Core allocations for all institutions will be adjusted to remove these students. Institutions will then be free to recruit as many of these students as wish to come…This should allow greater competition for places on the more selective courses and create the opportunity for more students to go to their first choice institution if that university wishes to take them. We estimate this will cover around 65,000 students in 2012/13. AAB will represent a starting point, but our ambition is to widen the threshold over this parliament, ensuring that the share of places liberated from number controls altogether rises year on year’.

These high-achieving students will be drawn disproportionately from advantaged backgrounds. Arrangements for competition currently lie outside the scope of the Access Agreements just agreed with the universities, so there is no expectation that a proportion will be drawn from disadvantaged backgrounds. Moreover, there was nothing in the White Paper to suggest that contextual admissions could or should be applied in the case of these places.

The Advocate for Access calls only for close monitoring of such arrangements.

Collaboration and Complexity

Finally, it is worth noting that the Advocate for Access is rightly seized of the case for the regional co-ordination of fair access, recommending that a commitment to regional collaboration should be an OFFA-imposed requirement.

It is not clear who will meet the costs which would presumably have to be topsliced from the funding made available to support students.

Moreover, regional collaboration is not sufficient for admission to selective universities, which take in students from throughout the entire country. A student in the South West who wants to attend Durham University derives no benefit from regional collaboration.

A flexible national framework is really essential to maximise the chances of success and minimise financial inefficiency. I have already spelled this out in a previous post.

We have not yet heard from Alan Milburn, appointed ‘The Independent Reviewer on Social Mobility’, who has indicated that access to higher education will be his priority in his first year in the role, now to be expanded to cover Child Poverty and pave the way for a new Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.

Although Milburn was expected to publish his first report in September 2011, the Social Mobility Strategy appears to delay this to Spring 2012. It remains to be seen what space if any he has left to add further ideas and suggestions to the pot. There is already a surfeit of cooks in this territory.

The sheer range of these strategies puts great pressure on the Ministerial Group on Social Mobility, chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister, to co-ordinate activity and ensure that it joins seamlessly together.

The sheer complexity of this policy area is problematic and the chances are that it will continue to develop over the coming months as the White Paper consultation ends and the Government responds to Hughes’ report.

Some have even suggested that the Liberal Democrats will deliberately focus on this area as part of their wider strategy to secure a bigger say on the political direction of the Coalition.

It will be incumbent on GT Voice to take a watching brief and to engage in dialogue with the parallel Bridge Group over how the two can work together in this territory.

Measuring success

We end where we began, with the question of how we define success.

The social mobility strategy devotes a fair bit of attention to measuring progress against different elements of the plan. The indicators it proposes may be regarded as interim measures, contributing towards the ultimate achievement of the HE destination outcomes defined by DfE and BIS

Rather strangely, the specified progress indicators for both these elements of attainment-raising in schools are the percentages achieving KS2 level 4 in English and maths, 5+ GCSEs at grades A*-C including English and maths and 2+ A levels or equivalent of any grade.

These are not particularly relevant to the academic achievement trajectory one would expect of those progressing to a selective university, or even to any university. Such learners need to be securing level 5+ at KS2, A*/A grades at GCSE and grades A*-B at A level.

So there is a fundamental mismatch between the Departmental impact indicators and these declared progress indicators for attainment.

There is also an aspiration – not quite a commitment – to ‘closing the gap between state schools and the independent sector’. This will be supported by ‘a more aspirational indicator comparing the attainment of children in independent school with those in state schools’, which presumably underpins the BIS impact indicator. No further details have emerged to date.

We know that a post-19 destinations measure will be introduced for those completing KS5 in 2012/13. This will include higher education destinations and officials have proposed that it should separately identify selective universities, attracting some criticism as a consequence, in recognition of the risk of perverse incentives.

A London Councils working group objected that separate reference to Oxford and Cambridge:

‘has the potential to skew the real value of courses. Courses offered by other universities, for example, are often ranked higher than the equivalent Oxbridge courses (engineering at Imperial for example). Furthermore, certain courses may be unavailable at Oxbridge such as specialist art or drama courses or the wide range of vocational courses including nursing. Specific reference to Oxbridge destinations could reinforce the intense focus many schools place on Oxbridge as a preferable destination; this has the potential to hinder informative and impartial advice on the full range of options available to young people.

There is no indication to date that any of this destination data will be differentiated to show the progress of learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, though that will presumably be essential.

Final words

One’s overall impression is of a huge policy agenda that requires significant further refinement before it is coherent enough to stand a really good chance of achieving the outcomes expected of it by the Government. There has been some movement in the right direction, but not yet enough.

Because of the time-lags involved, it may be that the Government will never be held to account if there is only a marginal increase in the proportion of disadvantaged gifted learners progressing to selective universities. In the short term, it can always deploy the excuse that change takes time to effect and that slow progress is at least partly attributable to the shortcomings of its predecessor.

Nevertheless, GT Voice and the Government have a shared interest in trying to make these reforms work. There are some real opportunities for GT Voice to make its mark in shaping, as well as supporting both policy and delivery.


September 2011

On Fair Access to Grammar Schools and Higher Education – Part 2


This is Part Two of a post examining fair access to selective education for gifted learners from disadvantaged backgrounds in England.

Part One brought us up-to-date with recent policy developments in fair access to competitive universities and reviewed different analyses of the most recent data.

In Part Two, I want to consider fair access to grammar schools and to explore what can be learned from a comparison with the parallel issue in higher education.

This will include an element of data analysis and some proposals for how selective fair access might be improved in the current educational policy environment. The proposals are my response to a challenge issued in the Fabian Society’s Next Left Blog to offer solutions to ‘the challenges of educational inequality’.

This post is not concerned directly with the question whether the outcomes of selective education are better or worse than those of comprehensive education.

Those wishing to know more about this are strongly encouraged to read ‘Evidence on the effects of selective education systems‘ an October 2008 report for the Sutton Trust by the CEM Centre at the University of Durham

I have drawn on this study for the historical and data-related sections of my post and commend it strongly, apart from one aspect which I address below.

A Brief History of English Selective Education

The selective dimension of the English school system polarises opinion and – if we were to mix metaphors for effect – has recently been a hot potato which most politicians have handled with kid gloves for fear of stepping into a minefield.

Potentially it could be almost as toxic for the Conservative-Liberal Coalition as higher education student finance is proving to be, though that is compounded by the decision of some Liberals to jettison their pre-election pledges,

In the early part of last century, a selective grammar school sector became established as an alternative to fee-paying public schools for the wealthy and state-run elementary schools which provided a free but basic education for the working class

Grammar schools concentrated on achievement of the School Certificate, so providing an access route to higher education and the professions. Scholarships to grammar schools began to provide a ladder of social mobility for a few children from poor backgrounds.

The landmark 1944 Education Act sought to establish a tripartite system of 11-18 grammar schools for those with academic ability, technical schools for those with technical aptitude and non-selective 11-15 secondary modern schools with a vocational slant.

In the event, few technical schools were opened, though the concept has recently re-emerged in the guise of university technical colleges . This new incarnation is non-selective however, intended for 14-19 year-olds and must be sponsored by a university or further education college.

Entrance to grammar school depends on success in an ‘eleven-plus’ (11+) examination, originally planned to select some 25% of the school population. The sector grew rapidly in the post-war years and, by the mid-1960s, there were over 1,000 grammar schools in England and Wales.

But at this point, the Labour Government issued a Circular (10/65) advising all local authorities to plan for comprehensive secondary education. In 1970, the Conservative Government responded with Circular (10/70) which explicitly confirmed that authorities could provide education through a combination of grammar, secondary modern and all-ability comprehensive schools rather than removing selection entirely.

Then Labour returned to power, but although Circular 4/74 reinforced the original approach of 10/65, the new tripartite arrangement of secondary modern, comprehensive and grammar schools now established in many authorities was accepted as the status quo.

The expansion of comprehensive education relative to grammar schools meant that, by 1980, some 80% of 11-16 year-olds were educated in comprehensive schools and 5% in all-through grammar schools, though a further 5% were in former grammar schools that were still phasing in comprehensive arrangements.

To give two personal examples of the kinds of transition involved:

  • In the 1970s I entered a three form entry (90 pupils a year) selective boys’ grammar school which became a six form entry boys’ comprehensive as I entered the sixth form (now known as Year 12);

  • In the early 1980s I taught in a co-educational comprehensive which had previously been a girls’ grammar school. This was particularly challenging because Year 9 and below were coeducational and comprehensive while Year 10 and above were single-sex and selective.

In 1992, specialist secondary schools were introduced which could select up to 10% of their intake according to their aptitude for the relevant specialism. There were various not very convincing attempts during the years that followed to establish a clear distinction between selection by aptitude and selection by ability so as to justify why one was acceptable while the other was not.


Recent developments

The 1997 Labour Government were urged in opposition to abolish selective schools, but instead introduced legislation to permit the remaining grammar schools to become comprehensive following a parental ballot. Only one such ballot has ever been called and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it came out in favour of continued selection.

While the Conservatives where in opposition, the case for expanding selective education was made regularly by the Party’s right wing. This continues now that they are part of the governing Coalition: Ann Widdecombe has most recently articulated this perspective.

But official Conservative policy during the last Labour Government was that there will be no increase in the number of selective secondary schools. This is also the official policy of the Coalition Government.

The legislation permitting the introduction of free schools provides that they must be non-selective and, while grammar schools are eligible to convert to academies and can retain their selective admissions criteria, no other academies may introduce selection.


  • The Coalition supports admissions by ‘fair banding’ in cases where school places are oversubscribed. Fair banding involves all students taking an admissions test after which they are allocated to one of several ability bands. The school then admits broadly the same proportion of pupils from each ability band. This mechanism is intended to increase the proportion of poor pupils in the best comprehensive schools, but it is logically hard to justify introducing selection by ability in this context while refusing to introduce it in others where it does not already exist.

  • We know from the November 2011 Schools White Paper – analysed in an earlier post – that the School Admissions Code is to be revised and simplified by July 2011 and, presumably prior to revision, there will be consultation on whether academies and free schools can prioritise admission of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

What Does Fair Access Mean in Schools?

The schools sector provides quite a different context for fair access and a different definition of the term.

The context is dictated by school admissions, which are governed by the current edition of the statutory School Admissions Code. The original version of the Code points out that:

‘The Education and Inspection Act (EIA) 2006 requires local authorities to promote fair access to educational opportunity, promote high standards and the fulfilment by every child of his educational potential, secure choice and diversity and respond to parental representations.’

It goes on to explain what constitutes fair access:

‘Admission authorities and governing bodies must ensure that their admission arrangements and other school policies are fair and do not unfairly disadvantage, either directly or indirectly, a child from a particular social or racial group, or a child with a disability or special educational needs… Admission authorities must also ensure that their admission arrangements comply with all other relevant equalities legislation… Admission authorities and governing bodies should develop and implement admission arrangements, practices and oversubscription criteria that actively promote equity, and thus go further than simply ensuring that unfair practices and criteria are excluded…

All governing bodies must ensure that their other policies and practices do not unfairly disadvantage certain social groups or discourage some groups of parents from seeking a place at the school for their child. Local authorities must work with all governing bodies to ensure that admission arrangements which appear fair are not then undermined by other school policies, such as a requirement for expensive school uniform, sportswear or expensive school visits or other activities, unless arrangements are put in place to ensure that parents on low incomes can afford them. Governing bodies of schools which are their own admission authority need to address this too.’

These important statutory requirements should be borne in mind as we focus below on fair access to grammar schools, but the Code also has specific provisions relating to selection:

‘Like all other maintained schools, the admission authorities for designated grammar schools are required to act in accordance with this code. Grammar schools are permitted to select children on the basis of high academic ability, and to leave places unfilled if they have insufficient applicants of the required standard. Most assess ability by means of a test, but they may apply any fair and objective means of assessing ability they consider appropriate…

Methods of allocating places for oversubscribed grammar schools vary. Some admission authorities allocate available places in rank order of performance in the entrance test; admission authorities for these schools must not give priority to siblings …Others set a pass mark and then apply other oversubscription criteria to determine which of the candidates who have passed will be offered a place; admission authorities for these schools may use any permitted oversubscription criteria. Grammar schools must not use oversubscription criteria prohibited by this Code.’

In relation to banding the Code says:

‘Banding, like other oversubscription criteria, only operates when the number of applications exceeds the number of places. Schools which use banding must not apply another test of ability once applicants are allocated to bands; they must not give priority within bands according to performance in the test. The admission authority must apply its other oversubscription criteria (such as random allocation) to each band to allocate places….

Pupil ability banding is used by some admission authorities to ensure that their intake includes a proportionate spread of children of different abilities. Banding arrangements are effective practice in schools providing fair oversubscription criteria, provided arrangements are fair, objective and not used as a means of unlawfully admitting a disproportionate number of high ability children.’

Grammar Schools Today

There are 164 maintained selective grammar schools in England. This figure is unchanged since 1999. Three-quarters of local authorities are fully comprehensive, but there is at least one grammar school in thirty-six authorities.

Thirty-three grammar schools are in a single large local authority – Kent – and there are more than ten apiece in Buckinghamshire and Lincolnshire. Seven London authorities retain selection, accounting for 19 grammar schools between them.

As a consequence of this uneven distribution – as well as the incidence of admission across local authority boundaries – the percentage of learners within authorities retaining selective education is highly variable. In 2006, over 40% of pupils resident in Slough, Buckinghamshire and Trafford were attending grammar schools, but less than 5% of pupils resident in Devon, Cumbria, Liverpool, Essex and Wolverhampton were doing so.

At that time some 20% of those attending grammar schools crossed a local authority border to do so. The proportion will be significantly higher in urban areas like London which is divided into several small local authorities.

Because the incidence of selective schools is uneven, the level of selection for particular schools will differ widely, depending on the ratio between the number of applicants and the number of places. In other words, some schools are much more selective than others. It follows that grammar schools are a relatively broad church.

Data on Fair Access to Grammar Schools Over Time

The key data pertaining to fair access gives the incidence of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) our standard – if rather imperfect – indicator of pupil disadvantage.

This first table – FSM at grammar school 1995-2009 is not as reliable as I would like. It has been constructed from several different replies to Parliamentary Questions and the assumptions underpinning the data for different years are not always entirely consistent.

Nevertheless, the table is sufficiently accurate to illustrate two key points:

  • Over the last 15 years, the percentage of FSM-eligible pupils at grammar schools has continued to fall. Indeed, at around 2.0% it is almost exactly half what it was in 1995.

  • Over the same period, FSM eligibility has declined much less significantly across all secondary schools, suggesting that grammar schools are becoming significantly more socially selective relative to all schools.

This supports the argument advanced by the Conservative Opposition in May 2007 when justifying why they would no longer call for an expansion of grammar schools. The Shadow Minister stated that ‘the 11-plus entrenches advantage’, adding ‘we must break free from the belief that academic selection is any longer the way to transform the life chances of bright poor kids’.

It is important to note in this context that grammar schools are not necessarily the most socially selective schools: we know from the Sutton Trust study that just 17 of the 100 schools with the lowest FSM-eligible intakes at that time were grammar schools.

This is partly because grammar school pupils tend to come from areas with a significantly lower than average rate of FSM eligibility. However it is clear that academic selection does not necessarily imply greater social selection.

Indeed, there need not be any significant correlation between academic selection and social selection.

The Sutton Trust study asserts that ability is correlated with socio-economic background though without supplying evidence to support that claim. While achievement and attainment certainly are correlated with socio-economic background, an equivalent correlation with ability is much more doubtful.

Indeed, the Government’s own gifted and talented policy was and remains predicated on the assumption that ability is evenly distributed by gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background, and schools are expected to recruit gifted and talented populations that broadly reflected their intake.

The Sutton Trust study has wrongly assumed that ability is the same as attainment/achievement whereas it is quite different.


Comparing Fair Access in Different Grammar Schools

This second table – FSM by grammar school March 2010 –  is also from a PQ answer and shows the full extent of variation in the FSM-eligible populations of different grammar schools.

One can see that 20 of the 164 grammar schools (12.2%) have less than five FSM-eligible pupils in the entire school.

In the remaining 144 schools, the rate varies from 0.5% (St Ambrose College Trafford) to 10.9% (Stretford Grammar School in the same Borough).

Altogether, over 90 of the schools (some 56%) have a FSM-eligible population below the average 2.0%.

There is significant variation between grammar schools in the same local authority. In Kent, the range is from 5.2% to negligible (less than 5); in Birmingham the range is from 9.7% to 1.6%; and we have already noted the example of Trafford.

The pattern in London boroughs is also interesting. Only one of the schools with fewer than 5 FSM-eligible pupils is in London, but the highest incidence is just 3.8%, whereas secondary-level FSM eligibility across all Greater London boroughs is running at 23%, six times higher than in its grammar schools.

While the situation is variable there is sufficient evidence to show that, far from being engines of social mobility, most grammar schools have become quite the opposite.

Comparing Fair Access in Schools and Universities

What can we learn from a comparison between fair access in schools and higher education – and is there scope for applying some of the solutions adopted in the latter to the former?

It is clear that, whereas fair access to higher education is seen as central to Government policy on social mobility – having been brought to the fore by the intense debate over student finance – fair access to schools is currently less prominent, and fair access to grammar schools is not overtly on the Government’s agenda.

The planned revisions to the school admissions code may serve to raise its profile, as will the commitment to consult on options for free schools and academies to give priority in their admissions criteria to FSM-eligible learners.

It is not yet clear whether the Government intends to make this a ‘non-negotiable’ as part of its commitment to promoting social mobility. For it could choose to introduce a parallel requirement to that which requires schools to give admissions priority to children in care.

It may be left as an option for consideration, should free schools need to demonstrate that they are not middle class enclaves (as many of their opponents suggest they are) or should academies and free schools be attracted by the opportunity to earn more of the Pupil Premium, particularly as it increases beyond its initial level of £430 per pupil per annum.

Going back to comparison, one can see that, whereas in HE the narrative is about removing barriers that already exist, the current focus in the schools sector is very much on maintaining a level playing field: apart from the promised consultation, there is no active policy to address imbalances in school intakes.

If one wished to be more interventionist, one might argue that there is scope to introduce an ‘office for fair access’ to schools and a requirement for schools to conclude an access agreement with that office showing how they will:

  • increase the proportion of FSM-eligible learners in their intake so it is comparable with similar schools and/or reflects the rate of FSM eligibility in the locality

  • undertake outreach to explain to primary school parents that there are no obstacles to their FSM-eligible children’s attendance

  • offer tasters, summer schools, mentoring and other provision to make their schools attractive to such children and their parents

  • provide information, advice and guidance to clarify the processes involved in attending their school

  • ensure that none of their policies and practice – for example requiring expensive school uniforms and equipment – are inhibitors to the attendance of FSM-eligible learners and

  • in line with the planned consultation, possibly adjust their admissions requirements to give priority to FSM-eligible children (or definitely do so if the Government opts to make this a requirement)

One could even contemplate a National Scholarships Scheme for schools, to help parents meet the not inconsiderable costs associated with attending many grammar schools (and arguably maintained in part to create a sense of exclusiveness and so a barrier to access for the poor, despite the clear provisions of the Admissions Code which prohibit this).

It would help if the office and the scholarships were centrally co-ordinated but, unfortunately, the Government’s insistence on devolving funding to schools to use autonomously rather militates against such central solutions. A shame, for they would undoubtedly secure financial efficiencies and economies of scale more than equivalent to the necessary outlay on administrative bureaucracy.

Fair Access to Grammar Schools: a modest proposal

The operation of ‘fair access’ in a selective context – whether a university or a school -brings us back to a leitmotif of this blog: the balance between excellence and equity and how it should be maintained.

Loyal readers will recall that I presented this as one of the underpinning themes in gifted and talented education worldwide – and it applies in spades to this discussion.

The data shows that there is a worrying imbalance between excellence and equity in a significant proportion of grammar schools – equally as severe as that which exists in some selective universities – and this really needs to be addressed if the Government is serious about social mobility.

How might one translate some of the suggested responsibilities of an ‘office for fair access to schools’ into a meaningful policy proposal?

Here is some back-of-the-envelope policy-making which I offer for consideration by the Next Left Blog:

  • Many of the outstanding and good-to-outstanding schools that are responding to the Government’s invitation to become academies are grammar schools (some 70 at the last count).

  • It could be made a condition of funding for these schools, captured in their funding agreements, that they should negotiate and work towards explicit targets for improving their FSM-eligible intake to the average level of FSM eligibility across the local authorities from which they recruit

  • They will need to address this through a SMART action plan which sets out and costs all the activity they will undertake to secure this – and how it will be evaluated.

  • In addition to the ‘office for fair access’ responsibilities above, they will also need to evaluate closely their 11+ selection arrangements to ensure that they are as little biased against those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and as little coachable as possible. The Government could even go as far as researching and introducing a standard suite of 11+ tools that fit this description.

  • In the case of all grammar schools, the requirement on outstanding schools converting to academy status to provide support to neighbouring schools should be fulfilled through relationships with the maintained primary schools with the highest rates of FSM eligibility in their locality. Collaboration should be focused explicitly on the ‘office for fair access’ tasks, concentrated on outreach, advice and support for parents and learners, to raise aspirations and demystify the process by which the learners gain access to the schools concerned.

  • Through this outreach, all grammar schools should ensure that all FSM-eligible learners with the capability to enter them receive the same degree of familiarisation and practice with their 11+ selection tests as wealthier parents can acquire from private tutors (often paying over £25 per week for the privilege).

  • In return, schools will earn an increased share of the Pupil Premium for every FSM-eligible child they admit. This will be significant given that the income for many from this source is currently negligible – almost non-existent. This should be sufficient to meet the costs of outreach and provide in-school support for FSM-eligible learners once admitted.

  • Grammar schools which made good progress on this agenda might be allowed to expand by increasing their intake and even by opening satellite schools but this would subject to the condition that at least 50% of the new places are reserved for FSM-eligible learners who pass the 11+. This would further increase the Pupil Premium funding available to the schools

  • Ideally, the schools would form a national network to spread best practice between them and to pool resources where necessary, in the absence of national co-ordination by Government. Pupil Premium income might need to be topsliced for this purpose.

Final thoughts

This still has several rough edges but, in principle, it provides a basis for grammar schools to once again become true engines of social mobility. Such a transformation would go a long way towards making them more politically acceptable, while also ensuring that grammar school academies continue to supply commensurate support to the maintained sector in their neighbourhoods.

It should attract the support of the Right Wing Conservatives and the more pragmatic of the Labour Opposition. For the abolition of selection will never happen. We must work together to restore grammar schools to their proper role as powerhouses of social mobility, rather than colluding in their continuation as guardians of elite education for the middle classes – a kind of independent education on the cheap.


January 2011



Celebrating the PENTA UC Programme in Chile

The Centre for the Study of Talent Development (Centro de Estudios y Desarrollo de Talentos) is based at the Santiago campus of the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile (la Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile).

It is also known as PENTA UC, after its principal service: an intensive enrichment programme which began in 2001 and currently supports about 950 11-18 year-olds, some 70% of them drawn from ordinary state schools in and around Santiago. The vast majority (93% at the last count) graduate from the programme, many to take up undergraduate places at the University.

PENTA UC is designed to complement students’ normal schooling. Participants enrol on five courses and three workshops annually, spread across Friday afternoon/Saturday sessions and a two-week summer school. This is equivalent to some 300 hours a year.

I first encountered PENTA UC in World Conference seminars given by its staff. But I did not appreciate the level it had reached until I came across its website while researching an article on G&T education in the Americas.


Potential participants go through a structured identification and selection process with two slightly different routes depending on whether they are nominated by their school or by their parents.

The Centre invites all teachers responsible for co-ordinating the school-based nominations process to a training day designed to help them identify the students most likely to benefit from PENTA UC. The co-ordinators cascade their training to other teachers, so ensuring that nomination is undertaken by each school as a whole.

Alternatively, parents can nominate their children direct to the University. Both routes converge when nominated students attend the a selection day. They take a range of tests to assess their general cognitive skills and motivation. Final selection takes into account the students’ family income. Most students are admitted to the first year of the programme, but older students can be admitted to subsequent years if there are vacancies.


PENTA UC seeks to strengthen students’ learning skills, support their personal and social development and improve their self-confidence and self-esteem. It is designed specifically to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to overcome their difficulties and so fulfil their academic potential.

Students are offered a broad curriculum, including subject-specific and cross-curricular courses, skills development (including IT skills and English language training) and personal development workshops. There are also opportunities to develop wider interests through activities such as drama, chess, sports, art and music.

Students choose their own courses, guided by their nominated co-ordinator, who also acts as the link with their families. The co-ordinator monitors students’ progress, providing support where it is needed and ensuring the right level of challenge is maintained throughout the programme. The co-ordinator will sometimes work directly with individual students to address significant concerns.

The academic programme is largely determined by the topics offered by teachers. PENTA UC currently employs 109 teachers, 40% of them drawn from the University Faculty. The remainder are subject experts drawn from the wider community.

All courses are planned and developed with the involvement of Centre staff, to ensure a consistent pedagogical approach. Most take place on the University campus – students have access to its laboratories, computer rooms, library and sporting facilities.

A typical semester programme will include courses in maths, physics, chemistry, astronomy, architecture, biology, language, history, psychology, philosophy, economics and sociology. Many courses include field trips to locations where the students can experience the practical application of ideas they have studied in the classroom. Outstanding students even have the opportunity of early access to undergraduate courses.


The programme is divided into two main cycles, one for older and one for younger students. The academic year comprises two semesters and a summer school.

Each semester, students attend courses weekly from 15:00 to 18:00 on Fridays and from 9:00 to 12:00 on Saturdays. There is also a Saturday workshop from 12:00 to 14:00, giving a weekly commitment of eight hours in total, for a duration of 15 weeks. This is equivalent to 240 hours of study.

The Summer School takes place in the first half of January (this is the Southern Hemisphere). Students attend an intensive course from 9:00 to 13:00 from Monday to Friday supplemented by cultural and recreational activities on some afternoons. This amounts to 60 hours in total.

Each year of study includes:

  • An induction day for all newly-admitted students and their families with a formal welcome ceremony, a tour of the university campus and a ‘course fair’ where students get details of the courses and workshops available in the upcoming semester prior to choosing those they wish to attend. There is also a separate parental briefing, intended to secure their commitment to students’ continuing involvement in the programme.
  • A ‘learning fair’ at the end of the second semester when students present the work they have undertaken to fellow students, their parents, teachers and headteachers and the wider community.
  • A graduation ceremony for students leaving the final year of the programme. Each student receives a diploma: 2007 was the first year in which students graduated who had attended throughout their time in school.

Support for teaching staff and other services

All newly-appointed lecturers and experts receive initial advice about course design, development and evaluation, as well as more generic guidance on meeting the needs of gifted students. Detailed handbooks are available for all staff (and also for students).

Classroom observations are undertaken each semester and all course leaders receive feedback from a supervisor about what they do well and how they might improve. There are also more general training courses each semester, as well as opportunities for course leaders to provide more general feedback.

In 2008, the Centre introduced a ‘PENTA UC Honours Scholarship’ which meets the entire cost of completing an undergraduate degree at the University. To be eligible for this award, students must have attended the programme for at least five years, come from a low-income family and achieve a score of at least 750 on the university selection test.

Since 2003, the Centre has offered advice and support to other universities wishing to set up their own programmes on the PENTA UC model. Similar undertakings are now in place at five other institutions.

The Centre opens up its summer school to a wider student intake which uses the same screening process as the year-round programme. The summer-only students attend courses alongside the regular students.

It has also recently developed a school-based programme for younger gifted pupils, designed to strengthen their mathematical, language, creative and analytical skills.

The Centre offers a variety of courses for serving teachers, including a distance learning option and an innovative internship model which involves teachers attending PENTA UC as a student for a semester, then using the experience to develop gifted programmes for introduction in their own schools.

There is also a a regular programme of lectures and workshops for professionals and a counselling and guidance service for students and their families.

A small-scale research programme is maintained with support from post-doctoral students recruited from outside Chile. Studies typically inform the evaluation and development of the PENTA UC model in the light of wider thinking about effective gifted education worldwide.

Final thoughts

Much of this post has been sourced from materials translated by computer from Spanish. I apologise for any mistakes in the detail which arise from this process. Readers wishing to access further details in the original language can find the main website here.

Those of us who have been involved in researching, designing and managing similar centres and programmes worldwide will recognise as familiar most of the elements of PENTA UC. But it is comparatively rare for all of them to be secured and sustained in a single organisation – especially one with the longevity of PENTA UC. We can potentially learn much from its experience.

It would be wrong to regard Chile as a developing country – it is relatively wealthy compared with many of its South American neighbours – but disadvantaged students in Santiago typically face significantly higher levels of deprivation than we experience in the bigger cities of Europe, the United States and Australasia, where the majority of similar entities have been established. Moreover, PENTA UC is making a real difference to the life chances of poor Chileans, while many similar operations in richer countries benefit disproportionately the wealthy middle classes.

PENTA UC will not be perfect by any means: I am sure that its leaders have already identified several shortcomings that they wish to eliminate as the Centre prepares to enter its second decade. Such commitment to honest self-evaluation and improvement is laudatory.

I don’t want this review to sound patronising, but to have introduced and sustained so sophisticated an operation in a country of just 17 million inhabitants seems to me a really tremendous achievement that deserves to be widely known and even more widely celebrated.


September 2010

On the Composition of Gifted and Talented Populations

The English School Census

I have been reviewing the most recently published data on England’s national gifted and talented population.

This provisional analysis (in Tables 6A-C of SFR 09/2010) is drawn from the January 2010 School Census.

Maintained schools currently complete a termly census which includes a question requiring a snapshot of their gifted and talented populations.

It would be good to have a second question giving a breakdown between gifted and talented respectively. Crudely speaking, we use those terms to distinguish academic ability on one hand and practical talent – whether in sports, arts, vocational skills, leadership – on the other.

But there is constant pressure to minimise the bureaucratic burden that the Census imposes on schools and we have been fortunate to retain the one question we have since 2006.

This single question is more helpful than it may seem. The statisticians can cross-reference G&T status against many other variables by using the unique pupil identifiers that are built into our system.

The G&T question – and indeed the Census as a whole – is sure to be under review by the new Coalition Government, committed as it is to radical pruning of what it perceives to be ‘needless bureaucracy’. So this may be the last set of national gifted and talented data.

Some general data about English schools and their pupils

Overseas readers may welcome a short treatment of the generic data in this publication. It gives a sense of the scale of the English school sector relative to national or state systems with which they are familiar – and sets the context for the G&T-specific data to follow.

  • We have around 8.1million pupils, including 4.1million in state-funded primary schools, 3.3million in state-funded secondary schools and 0.6 million in the independent sector;
  • There are about 17,000 state-funded primary schools, 3,100 state-funded secondary schools and 2,400 independent schools;
  • Some 18.5% of pupils in state-funded nursery and primary schools and 15.4% of those in state-funded secondary schools are eligible for free school meals. (This is our standard indicator of socio-economic disadvantage);
  • Just over 25% of pupils in our state-funded primary schools are of minority ethnic origin, as are over 21% of those in our state-funded secondary schools; and about one in six primary school pupils and one in nine secondary school pupils has a first language other than English.

Data about the gifted and talented population

In the January 2010 snapshot, there were 366,000 identified gifted and talented pupils in primary schools and 477,000 in secondary schools, giving a total of 843,000. (The data does not include nursery, special and independent schools or the further education sector but – were it to do so – the overall English gifted and talented population would probably be around one million learners.)

This is 8.9% of all state-funded primary school pupils and 14.7% of all state-funded secondary school pupils. So roughly one in eleven primary pupils and one in seven secondary pupils is identified as gifted and talented.

While secondary schools are expected to identify all those who meet our published criteria for the national top 5% of gifted learners (which focus predominantly on high achievers and urgently need updating), all schools are otherwise free to determine their G&T populations in line with a broad framework for identification set out in the guidance.

Thus primary schools have full flexibility within this framework, while secondary schools have flexibility with regard to:

  • talented learners
  • high achievers who do not quite meet the 5% criteria
  • learners with high ability which is not yet translated into high achievement.

This level of school autonomy is often criticised as a weakness – because identification can be variable depending on which school a learner is attending (and by no means all schools follow best identification practice) – but it is very much consistent with the bottom-up approach to education reform preferred by the Coalition Government.

The tables show that the total G&T population has increased from 780,000 in 2008 and 820,000 in 2009 continuing a year-on-year improvement since the data was first collected.

This will be partly attributable to a clearer understanding of the flexibilities outlined above (many schools mistakenly believed that they could identify no more than 10% of their pupils) and a fall in the number of schools – especially primary schools – which refuse to identify on ideological grounds.

The composition of the gifted and talented population

In terms of gender, very slightly more boys than girls are identified in primary schools, but the reverse is true in secondary schools where the imbalance is slightly more pronounced. These proportions have changed little over the last three years.

Turning to ethnic background, the most outstanding feature is that pupils of Chinese origin are very heavily over-represented in schools’ gifted and talented populations, with over 20% of all primary-age pupils and over a quarter of all secondary-age pupils identified.

White pupils are slightly over-represented in G&T populations in both sectors, but this masks serious under-representation of gypsy, Roma and traveller populations – the worst-performing group in English schools.

There is some degree of under- and over-representation for other minority ethnic groups, but overall we find that 24% of the G&T population in the primary sector and 19% of the secondary sector G&T population come from a minority ethnic background – not wildly out of kilter with the figures for minority ethnic incidence in the sectors as a whole.

When it comes to socio-economic background, we see that 12.1% of the gifted and talented population are eligible for free school meals (compared with 18.5% of all pupils in nursery and primary schools). This represents 6.2% of all pupils eligible for free school meals.

There was, however, a significant increase in the proportion of FSM-eligible G&T pupils in 2010 compared with previous years.

In the secondary sector, only 7.2% of the gifted and talented population are eligible for free school meals (compared with 15.4% of all pupils in secondary schools). This is some 7.5% of all pupils eligible for free school meals. This is a slight improvement on previous years.

So, to summarise:

  • gender balance is good
  • ethnic balance is good overall, but masks significant under- and over-representation in certain minority ethnic groups and
  • the socio-economically disadvantaged are significantly under-represented, especially so in the secondary sector, but there has been some improvement, particularly in the primary sector.

Is this a problem?

Our English identification guidance starts from the broad but vitally important premiss that ability (not achievement) is evenly distributed across the school population, regardless of gender, ethnic and socio-economic background.

It suggests that schools’ G&T populations should broadly reflect their intakes as a whole arguing that, if there is significant under-representation, this is probably evidence that the school is over-emphasising attainment in their identification procedures rather than underlying ability.

In other words, they are not managing to pick out their underachievers, including those underachieving as a consequence of social disadvantage.

It also advises that they look carefully at the breakdown of their populations – to ensure that they do not compensate for under-representation on the gifted side by over-representation amongst their talented students.

To put it crudely, they must ensure that their gifted population is not exclusively white/Chinese/advantaged and that poor and black students are not only found amongst those with sporting talent.

An expert in the field once told me that under-representation of disadvantaged groups, especially those from lower socio-economic backgrounds, is a problem the world over and that no-one has cracked the problem. Where there is an attainment gap between rich and poor, it is almost inescapable that this will be reflected in any identified G&T population, so identification of such a population is of limited value.

We will return to the second half of that statement in a future post. As for the first part, I have no firm evidence but I like to think that the English policy has resulted in a more balanced population than exists in many other countries.

I often wonder why it has not been adopted elsewhere since, although by no means perfect, it is very much preferable to the alternative: implicit acceptance that gifts and talents are unevenly bestowed between different genders, races and classes.

Clearly our approach has not been a complete success. This is probably because:

  • some schools see it as an ideological imposition which fetters their discretion to identify G&T learners on the basis of their intimate knowledge of those learners;
  • there is a continuing tendency in weaker schools to over-emphasise attainment data in the identification process and/or place over-reliance on identification instruments which are culturally biased;
  • there is less understanding than there might be of the way in which different class, ethnic and cultural norms impact on the demonstration – and sometimes deliberate masking – of learners’ gifts and talents.

I firmly believe we must all renew our efforts to address anomalies in the composition of G&T groups, whether at school, state or national level.

Gifted and talented programmes can potentially be valuable policy tools for governments that seek to narrow the excellence gap and improve social mobility (and G&T programmes will only be taken seriously by many governments in that guise).

But, conversely, G&T programmes could just as easily serve to widen such gaps rather than narrow them. In which case, they are part of the problem, not part of the solution – and become particularly vulnerable to closure when spending cuts are most severe.


September 2010