How should England close its excellence gaps?



First edition: January 2018


This is an important turning point in the evolution of national education policy.

Departing Secretary of State Greening has only just published her social mobility plan Unlocking Talent: Fulfilling Potential (December 2017)

It was preceded by the wholesale resignation of the Social Mobility Commission’s Board, protesting at lack of political leadership and insufficient support.

New Secretary of State Hinds has been appointed amid rumoured plans to refresh and prioritise Government policy on improving education standards. Hinds himself is also keenly interested in social mobility.

Some sixteen months on, the Government still has not published a full official response to consultation on its pro-selection green paper Schools that work for everyone (September 2016) – which prompted almost universal criticism.

Greening is understood to have delayed publication, though a document has several times been promised ‘in due course’.

And we still await the outcome of DfE’s…

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The resurrection of specialist maths schools?



This extended post investigates resurgent interest in specialist maths schools, as displayed by the Tories under Theresa May. It:

  • Discusses developments during the first half of 2017, foregrounding the May Government’s draft industrial strategy, its spring budget and the Tories’ 2017 election manifesto.
  • Reviews the difficult history of 16-19 specialist maths free schools, beginning with their inclusion in the Chancellor’s 2011 autumn statement and concluding with initial signs of resurgence when May replaced Cameron as prime minister.
  • Assesses the performance of the two university-sponsored schools so far established.
  • Considers future prospects, given a hung parliament, identifying potential obstacles to full implementation and areas of likely compromise between now and 2022.
  • Highlights several factors that limit the overall effectiveness of the default model, as exemplified by the two schools already open.


Pre-election commitments, January to May 2017

Pre-announcing a draft industrial strategy

Early in 2017, the Prime Minister’s…

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The ‘ordinary working families’ fallacy




This post explores the emerging definition of learners from ‘ordinary working families’ and the evidence published to date about their educational performance and how well they are served in the education system.

It examines how learners from ordinary working families (hereafter referred to as ‘OWF learners’) fit within the broader visions for social mobility set out in recent speeches by the Prime Minister and her Education Secretary.

It questions why ministers are adopting what appears an overly complex hierarchy of disadvantage, distinguishing:

  • Above median income (AMI) learners: comparatively advantaged learners from families with equivalised household incomes above the median. Those from the wealthiest decile are occasionally singled out as a discrete sub-group.
  • OWF learners, from families with equivalised household incomes below the median and who are ineligible for the pupil premium.
  • Pupil premium learners: eligible for the deprivation element of pupil premium on the basis…

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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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