The Transatlantic Excellence Gap: Part 2 – England

In Part 1 we considered the Excellence Gap in the USA through the  publication ‘Mind the (Other) Gap’

We now turn our attention to the UK where a new Conservative/Liberal Coalition Government assumed power in May 2010.

The Secretary of State’s Vision

When Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, appeared before the Education Select Committee in July 2010, he set out his vision for education reform.

The entire session is available on video here. At around 11 minutes in, Gove says:

‘One of the problems that this country has had historically is that we’ve been very good at educating a minority – the gifted and talented – quite well, but the majority of children have not been educated as well as they should have been.’

He doesn’t give any evidence to support this claim or say to what period it refers.

To give him credit, Gove goes on to repeat a general commitment to improving educational equity and closing achievement gaps. He cites Feinstein’s research in a soundbite that was later picked up by the national press:

‘Children of low cognitive ability from wealthy backgrounds overtake children of high cognitive ability from poor backgrounds before they even arrive at school. In effect, rich thick kids do better than poor clever children, and when they arrive at school, the situation as they go through gets worse.’

Whether this can be taken as a commitment to address the excellence gap remains to be seen.

How Good is the UK at Educating High Achievers?

If we consider the international comparisons evidence on high achieving students, the evidence that we educate them better than our international competitors is very mixed:

  • In PISA 2006, the UK is well above the average in terms of the percentage achieving the highest benchmark in science, slightly above the average in reading and somewhat below the average in maths. The gap between the UK and the top performers was relatively narrow in science but significantly larger in maths – and larger still in reading;
  • In TIMSS 2007 16% of English pupils at Grade 4 attained the advanced benchmark for maths – well above the median of 5% but falling far short of Singapore’s 41%; some 8% of English pupils reached the advanced benchmark at Grade 8 – once more significantly above the median of 2% but falling far short of Taiwan at 45%;
  • Also in TIMSS 2007, 14% of English pupils achieved the advanced benchmark for science at Grade 4, compared with a median of 7% and the highest achieving Singapore at 36%; the English score increased to 17% at Grade 8, far exceeding the median of 3% but still well behind Singapore at 32%; and
  • In PIRLS 2006, England at 15% was close behind Russia and Singapore, each with 19% achieving the advanced benchmark in literacy – and well ahead of the median of 7%.

We also know from the PISA 2006 science data that, in a typical country, about 25% of top performers are drawn from socio-economic background below the national average. At 24.9%, the UK is almost exactly average.

The percentage rises to a third or more in the likes of Japan, Finland, Austria and Hong Kong; it falls as low as 20% in Portugal, Greece, France and the USA.

Taken together, this suggests that the UK/England is above average in educating its high achievers and not atypical in terms of its excellence gap, but that it lags far behind the world leaders – typically the knowedge-based economies that invest most heavily in gifted education.

Domestic Evidence of England’s Excellence Gap

The Select Committee did not get to hear Gove’s favourite statistic to demonstrate educational inequity – that in 2007 just 45 students receiving free school meals entered Oxford or Cambridge Universities.

The fact that he deploys this so regularly gives one reason to hope that the excellence gap is something he cares about and is determined to address.

The figure can be sourced to an answer to a Parliamentary Question he asked in February 2010 while in Opposition. The reply shows that Oxford and Cambridge are not the only institutions that take in relatively few disadvantaged learners – Bristol, Durham, Exeter and York were amongst others with similarly low intakes.

All the evidence demonstrates that this situation is largely – but not exclusively – attributable to the lower attainment of disadvantaged students. Another recent PQ answer stated that, in 2009, just 509 students who had been eligible for free school meals in Year 11 went on to achieve 3 or more A grades at A level or the equivalent. Oxbridge therefore has a very small pool in which to fish.

Previous answers, based only on those taking post-16 qualifications at school, suggest that non-FSM students are three times more likely (10.5%) to achieve this benchmark than their FSM peers (3.5%).

If we go back to KS4, we find that, in 2009 only 1,254 pupils eligible for FSM achieved 5+ GCSEs at A*/A or equivalent, compared with 45,294 of those ineligible. This is equivalent to 9% of non-eligible pupils and just 1% of those eligible for FSM.

Research undertaken for the Sutton Trust on attrition rates suggest that two-thirds of FSM pupils amongst the top-performing 20% of all pupils at Key Stage 2 (age 11) are no longer amongst the top-performing 20% at Key Stage 4 (age 16) and half of those do not progress to university at 18.

So we can reasonably conclude that a sizeable excellence gap exists in England.

Will Government policy to tackle inequity help to narrow the Excellence Gap?

The Coalition has set out its Programme for Government and this includes several actions that should help to narrow general attainment gaps over time, for example:

  • the extension of the academies programme and introduction of free schools;
  • the introduction of a pupil premium for disadvantaged pupils up to age 16
  • the reform of school league tables

In his evidence to the Select Committee Gove also justified his reform of capital building programmes and a recently announced review of early intervention in these terms.

But none of these address the excellence gap directly – and it remains to be seen how much attention this will be given by the Government relative to pushing up the long tail of underachievement amongst FSM-eligible pupils. There are certainly sound economic arguments for doing both, as we have seen from earlier posts.

Even if the commitment is there, the time lags associated with pre-school and school reform are such that Gove will not be able to point to a directly associated improvement in Oxbridge entry during the lifetime of this Government.

If that is to be achieved, it will depend in large part on the Government’s response to the Browne Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance due to conclude in Autumn 2010. This will be the responsibility of a different Minister – Dr Vince Cable.

The Coalition’s Programme for Government comes close to a commitment:

‘We will await Lord Browne’s final report…and will judge its proposals against the need to…increase social mobility…and attract a higher proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.’

In Part 3 we will look at what the Browne Review is likely to recommend in respect of fair access to selective universities – and how likely it is that this will succeed.


August 2010

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