Know Your Limits!



This extended post challenges the argument that all learners can be high attainers.

It sets out the various strands of this argument, highlighting the weaker links and illustrating them with the assistance of two case studies, both branded school improvement strategies.

It uses PISA 2015 data to demonstrate that none of the world’s leading jurisdictions is close to a position where more than a minority of learners is reaching high performance thresholds.


Summarising the argument

Not infrequently one encounters the statement that all learners are capable of excelling in their education, of becoming high attainers.

This may be articulated in relation to:

  • The learner, where it is typically associated with the dangers of ‘labelling’ individuals as (potentially) successful or otherwise. Unless we maintain consistent and universally high expectations of what learners are capable of achieving – so the argument runs – too many will underachieve, and so…

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Eight types of ambiguity



This short post outlines problems with ‘most able education’ – and what needs to change to bring about national improvement.

The broad premiss is that, following a period in which comparatively prescriptive, centralised, top-down programmes were de rigeur, the English education sector has become wedded to a market-driven philosophy and ‘school-led system-wide improvement’.

But this is failing to deliver in respect of ‘most able education’. There is insufficient capacity in the system, no proper infrastructure to network local practitioners, build their expertise and share effective practice. There is no co-ordinating entity.

We lack broad national consensus on the direction of travel. Several of the basic building blocks are missing. Everywhere there is fragmentation and dissonance. Profound ideological differences are an obstacle even to limited progress.

Unless we can shift from this position there is no realistic prospect of improvement. The quality of ‘most able education’ will remain a lottery…

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Pupil premium grammar schools



…Or ‘An exercise in policy design’.


This post considers proposals emerging for new selective schools that would select on the basis of ability or attainment and socio-economic disadvantage.

It covers the following ground:

  • The context provided by the selection green paper and the Opportunity Areas policy.
  • Recent Advocacy for ‘pupil premium grammar schools’ and similar entities.
  • Analysis of the model proposed.
  • An alternative, far more efficient model for the system-wide support of disadvantaged high attainers.


The selection green paper

Schools that work for everyone’ (September 2016) proposed increased between-school selection, including new fully or partially selective schools, but subject to certain conditions.

The introduction says:

‘We want more good schools, including selective schools, but we want selective schools to make sure they help children from all backgrounds.’

This immediately suggests some potential resistance to new selective schools reserved solely for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds.


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Investigating grammar streams


This post investigates the practice of introducing selective grammar streams into comprehensive schools.


  • Reviews recent advocacy for this practice.
  • Distinguishes grammar streams from other, related approaches to within-school selection.
  • Urges revision of the official distinction between ability and aptitude, based on the erroneous position taken by the School Adjudicator.
  • Places grammar streams in the wider context of the evidence base for and against streaming.
  • Adopts as a case study two grammar streams recently introduced by the United Learning Trust (ULT).
  • Concludes with a summary of key points and assessment of the potential value, or otherwise, of more grammar streaming as one dimension of government policy in the wake of the selection green paper.


Background – previous posts and the selection green paper

Publication of the green paper ‘Schools that work for everyone’ (September 2016) has generated much debate about the advantages and (mostly) disadvantages of…

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Rounding-up: Killer stats and 10-point plan



This post compiles some of the most recent and telling statistics about the state of high attainment in England.

It includes a brief summary of the policy position as it stands ahead of the government’s response to the selection green paper.

Finally it outlines a ten point improvement plan which does not involve building new grammar schools or otherwise increasing the number of selective places.


Statistical analysis

The sections below deal respectively with: outcomes of the latest international comparisons studies; the most recent KS2, KS4 and KS5 performance data; the state of play on KS5 destinations and  HE fair access; and recent evidence of the quality of provision in schools.

Much of this data quantifies conspicuous excellence gaps, between the achievement of disadvantaged high attainers and their peers.


International comparisons studies

My last educational posts, published in the first half of December 2016, were devoted to analysis…

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PISA 2015: England’s results investigated



This post investigates what PISA 2015 results reveal about:

  • Progress towards the government’s 2020 national performance targets; and
  • Trends in the comparative performance of England’s high attainers.

It complements a parallel post about the TIMSS 2015 results – Troubling TIMSS trends (December 2015).


About PISA

The results of the 2015 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) were published in early December 2016. PISA is a triennial survey of the educational achievement of 15 year-olds overseen by the OECD.

The survey was first undertaken in 2000, so this is the sixth cycle, but there were problems with UK response rates in 2000 and 2003, so this analysis relies on trends over the four cycles between 2006 and 2015.

Seventy-one jurisdictions are listed as participants in the 2015 survey, compared with 65 participants in 2012.

In England the 2015 survey was conducted between November and December 2015 with a sample…

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Troubling TIMSS trends



This post reassesses

  • Progress against the government’s national performance targets and
  • The comparative performance of England’s high attaining pupils

following publication of  the TIMSS 2015 international comparisons study.



The results of the 2015 Trends in Maths and Science Study (TIMSS) were published at the end of November 2016.

TIMSS is a quadrennial exercise, first undertaken in 1995 and most recently in 2011.

Four assessments are conducted: maths and science at age 9/10 (Year 5) and maths and science at age 13/14 (Year 9).

Fifty-seven countries participated in TIMSS 2015, though numbers undertaking each assessment varied (49 in Y5 maths; 47 in Y5 science and 39 in each of the Y9 assessments).

The National Report makes much of the 20-year trend since 1995, but there were no Y5 assessments in 1999 and in 1995 they drew pupils from both Y4 and Y5. There is greater continuity in…

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The perennial problem of primary high attainers



This post features analysis of the 2016 primary transition matrices, but mostly raises awkward questions.



Publication of the 2016 primary performance tables is imminent, together with revised national figures for achievement of the KS2 higher standard and new breakdowns by pupil characteristics, including receipt of pupil premium.

We also await the results of the TIMSS 2015 international comparisons study, which will show whether the proportion of pupils achieving the advanced benchmark in maths and science at age 9/10 has improved since 2011.

But the evidence already released paints a worrying picture of primary high attainment in 2016.

This includes:

  • The provisional data on high scaled scores in SFR39/2016 and

This short post synthesises that evidence, providing a staging post from which to launch analysis of the…

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Making sense of centres of excellence



This post probes the ‘centres of excellence’ proposal in the selection green paper.

Schools that work for everyone’ (September 2016) includes within its chapter on selection three proposals for ‘existing selective schools to do more to support children at non-selective schools’

This context is critical for understanding much of the confusion over centres of excellence. They are ostensibly a means by which existing (and potentially new) selective schools can extend their provision to learners attending other institutions.

Some wrongly believe they create additional de facto selective schools. I do not qualify with ‘ostensibly’ because I accept that argument, but because:

  • It is not strictly necessary for a selective school to be involved and
  • It seems doubtful whether selective school pupils could participate in such a centre alongside their non-selective peers.

The proposal in question is designed to ‘encourage multi-academy trusts to select within their trust’. But this…

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Advancing by slow degrees



This post reports five-year trends in the admission of disadvantaged students to selective universities, as revealed by the government’s key stage 5 destinations data.

This half decade coincided almost exactly with the lifetime of a government that was strongly committed to social mobility through higher education. What does the destinations data reveal about the progress it made – and what lessons might be drawn by those of us still striving to make a difference?



In October 2016 DfE published a statistical first release containing provisional key stage 5 destinations data for academic year 2014/15, so creating a five-year sequence of data stretching back to 2010/11.

The release – Destinations of KS4 and KS5 pupils: 2015 (provisional) – received scant attention from the education commentariat, coinciding as it did with the publication of two other bulletins containing provisional 2016 GCSE and A level results.

But this dataset is…

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