The UK Government last week published a Schools White Paper, ‘The Importance of Teaching’ setting out its plans for school reform in England. But what are the implications for gifted and talented learners, including high achievers and those from disadvantaged backgrounds?
The Significance of International Comparisons
The White Paper is heavily influenced by international comparisons. The Prime Ministerial foreword stresses the importance of strengthening national educational performance relative to international competitors and ‘learning the lessons of other countries’ success’.
Ministers and their officials have clearly studied recent studies of what makes national education systems successful and the typical shape of their improvement trajectories. A companion document to the White Paper, ‘The Case for Change’ draws on analysis of PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS studies, albeit selectively: analysis of the comparative performance of high achievers is amongst the features ignored.
They will doubtless have seen the latest McKinsey publication published days after the White Paper. Secretary of State Michael Gove’s admiration for the education policies of the Blair Labour Government must embrace Michael Barber, Blair’s education ‘fixer’ and now the prime mover behind McKinsey’s education studies.
‘How School Systems Get Better’ builds on a 2007 publication ‘How the World’s Best Performing School Systems Come Out on Top’ It broadly supports the White Paper’s argument that England needs to take on board three key lessons from international comparisons studies:
- the significance of teacher quality and the high status of teachers
- the case for devolving as much autonomy as possible to schools, while retaining a streamlined and effective accountability system
- the need to narrow performance gaps attributable to socio-economic background
although the third seems rather underplayed in the McKinsey study for countries seeking to shift their performance from ‘good’ to ‘great’ (which is where it places England). The implication is that it needs to be tackled somewhat earlier in the improvement trajectory.
The White Paper argues that:
- schools and teachers feel constrained by an over-prescriptive curriculum offering ‘too little which stretches them to achieve standards matching the best in the world’ , as well as by serial Government directives and improvement initiatives
- teachers’ authority to deal decisively with bad behaviour has been undermined
- many of the qualifications young people achieve are not those best recognised by employers and universities and
- funding is unfairly distributed with too much consumed by bureaucracy.
Action is needed to address these issues as part of wider efforts to replicate the success of the highest-achieving education systems. The Government’s role is to secure a fair funding system and support teachers to learn from each other and from ‘proven best practice’.
The Significance of Narrowing Achievement Gaps
Despite McKinsey’s implication, the Coalition Government rightly continues to emphasise gap-narrowing because:
- the achievement gap between students from poor backgrounds and their peers remains unacceptably wide
- reduction of this gap makes sense in terms of improving overall educational performance and, ultimately, our international competitiveness and
- there is potentially a strong positive impact on social mobility, a top priority for the Government.
Michael Gove’s Foreword, which follows the Prime Minister’s, argues that schools should be engines of social mobility. He notes how achievement gaps widen as children grow older and repeats his favourite statistic about how few students eligible for free school meals enter Oxbridge.
In 2007, a total of 45 FSM students achieved this outcome; in 2008 – the latest year for which data is available – this had declined to 40 students. (Education Ministers did not cover themselves in mathematical glory when calling this a 12.5% reduction, but we should perhaps pass over that.)
Gove identifies Harlem, Alberta, Singapore, Finland, Hong Kong and South Korea as regions and countries that successfully narrow gaps (equity) and improve performance for all (excellence) simultaneously. He argues that system-wide reform that impacts both on standards and structures is necessary before England can compete with these world leaders.
While recognising that the Oxbridge statistic has mostly totemic significance – many disadvantaged high achievers will quite rightly wish to attend another university, especially if it offers a better course in their chosen area of study – it is reasonable to ask whether or not this Government’s reforms are likely to reverse this downward trend within its lifetime.
In doing so, we need to take account of three different but overlapping policy agendas:
- this schools White Paper
- the Government’s proposals for higher education – encapsulated in its response to the Browne review of tuition fees and in a forthcoming Higher Education White Paper and
- a cross-government social mobility strategy yet to be published.
I have looked at the second and third of these in previous posts – and will revisit them when the expected documents are published.
The Impact of Proposed Tuition Fee Reforms
Although the Government has argued that its proposed reforms are fundamentally progressive, this view is not uncontested.. A report just published by the Million+ think tank argues that the true measure of social mobility should be:
‘the extent to which participation in higher education enables graduates to enter employment and professions associated with higher socio-economic occupations and earnings compared with their socio-economic backgrounds when they entered university as students.’
Since the proposed reforms will increase the price of higher education – the earlier part of the report concludes that almost two-thirds of graduates will be relatively worse off, with those on middle incomes hit hardest – it argues that this will almost certainly reduce participation by lower socio-economic groups.
The Report dismisses the parallels with the introduction of tuition fees, which did not have this effect. It notes that the £150 million to be made available through an HE scholarship scheme by 2014/15 is just £7 million more than the original budget for the Aimhigher programme which is now being terminated, not to mention the impact of other cuts, including the abolition of the Education Maintenance Allowance and the substitution of a much smaller discretionary learner support fund.
But too much of the detail about the operation of these schemes is not yet in the public domain and we await the HE White Paper and the social mobility strategy with interest.
The rest of this post considers the wider implications of the Government’s planned school reforms for gifted and talented education and G&T learners and, finally, reviews briefly whether these will help to improve the number of high-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds that progress to our leading universities.
General Implications of the White Paper for Gifted and Talented Education
There is no overt reference in the White Paper to gifted and talented education, to the excellence gap (between high achievers from disadvantaged backgrounds and their more advantaged peers), to meeting the needs of high achievers generally, or to the pedagogy of differentiation and personalised education.
However, many of the proposals it contains have potentially significant implications for the G&T population. The extended commentary below identifies those likely to be most significant.
Teaching and Leadership
From a social mobility perspective, teaching has historical significance as a route out of social disadvantage and there is evidence to suggest that it continues to attract relatively more entrants from poor socio-economic backgrounds than many other subjects.
The proposal to offer financial incentives to attract graduates in shortage subjects – eg by providing undergraduate scholarships or by paying off student loans – may help to mitigate the negative impact of higher tuition fees and so help maintain teaching as a pipeline for social mobility.
But new tests of intending teachers’ aptitude, personality and resilience will need to be carefully trialled to ensure that they are not biased in favour of middle class students.
The White Paper announces a national network of up to 500 Teaching Schools, on the model of teaching hospitals, unifying the existing teaching school and training school models, so outstanding schools can lead initial teacher education (ITE) and continuing professional development (CPD) for teachers and headteachers.
Additionally, some of the best higher education providers of ITE will be invited to open University Training Schools, akin to laboratory schools abroad.
It will be highly desirable for this network to include schools with outstanding practice in G&T education, since the Government clearly intends that schools will lead in future on matters of pedagogy.
This is a potential route for schools in the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust’s existing G&T secondary schools network and for those engaged in the National Strategies’ G&T programme for National Challenge schools.
A partnership between national G&T organisations and an interested university could also underpin a University Training School – it must be non-selective – which has as part of its mission research and development into G&T education and top-end differentiation. Such an innovative institution might even permit experimentation with dual enrolment on the US model, now much more attractive as a consequence of the increase in the cost of a university education.
Plans to review the designations of ASTs and leading teachers are a potential threat to the continued existence of G&T leading teachers and G&T specialist ASTs. It would not be surprising if the expectation that all schools should have access to a G&T leading teacher was removed as a consequence.
The promised review of professional standards – including the standard for Qualified Teacher Status – could potentially provide an opportunity to strengthen their focus on personalised education and differentiation, but the determination to devolve responsibility for pedagogy makes this uncertain.
The introduction of a competitive national scholarship scheme for professional development to extend subject knowledge and expertise provides an opportunity for serving teachers to pay for substantive CPD with a G&T focus.
Rather strangely, the remit for training chairs of governors is given to the National College, itself to be transformed into an executive agency of DFE, rather than being devolved to the Teaching Schools Network. There is an opportunity to influence the content of this training, as well as that of the National Professional Qualification for Headteachers (NPQH) which will also be revised by the College, itself to be transformed into an executive agency of the DFE, along with the TDA.
The commitment to build schools’ capacity to tackle prejudice-based bullying will hopefully extend to the bullying of G&T learners. Wider changes to strengthen provision in PRUs and alternative education settings may also be helpful to gifted learners located there.
The Government confirms that it will review the national curriculum to reduce prescription, focus on core subject knowledge and allow schools to decide how to teach. It says that the new National Curriculum will embody rigour and high standards and outline a core of subject knowledge in the traditional subject disciplines.
There is as yet insufficient detail to establish whether there will be scope for excellence-driven curriculum reform, starting with what the most able can achieve and levelling downwards rather than the reverse.
But the fact that free schools and academies are largely exempt from National Curriculum requirements – while the Government is overtly working towards a future in which almost all schools have this status – means that the National Curriculum will not be a significant policy lever in future.
The devolution of responsibility for pedagogy is fine provided that the Teaching Schools Network can ensure that effective top-end personalisation is secured cost-effectively in every school. But it is open to question whether the understanding and application of effective personalised education is sufficiently widespread. If not, the Network approach could very easily recycle less than optimal practice or several competing and poorly-evaluated models around the system while leaving less confident schools relatively untouched.
A commitment to securing ‘systematic synthetic phonics’ in all schools with Key Stage 1 pupils is justified on the basis that reading is crucially significant in giving access to other curricular opportunities, especially for the disadvantaged,, but at first sight it seems to sit rather awkwardly alongside the insistence elsewhere on schools’ autonomy in pedagogical matters.
An English Baccalaureate is introduced to encourage schools to offer a broad range of academic subjects to age 16. This will be achieved by any pupil who secures five GCSE or iGCSE passes across English, maths, the sciences, a modern or ancient foreign language and a humanity such as history or geography at grades A*-C.
Currently only about 15% of students achieve this outcome – and only 4% of those eligible for free school meals. ‘Special recognition’ will be given for this achievement in performance tables, though they will also continue to record the percentage achieving 5 GCSEs at A*-C including English and maths.
The White Paper argues that this will be a powerful incentive to schools to increase take-up of separate sciences, modern foreign languages and history. It would be more relevant to gifted high achievers if a Higher Baccalaureate was awarded to those achieving 5 A*/A grades in the prescribed subjects. The introduction of such an award might be contemplated by national G&T organisations.
Central Government support is promised for ‘strategic subjects’ – increasing the number of specialist teachers in maths, physics and chemistry and improve existing teachers’ skills, including those of specialist maths teachers in primary schools.
A level further maths teaching will be supported and the Government will also look at using performance tables to encourage entry to the separate sciences at GCSE and at supporting the in-depth study of physics. There will be ‘two new competitions with prizes’ for the best engineering projects from male and female students in state schools.
It is not clear whether this is the sum total of a continuing STEM strategy in schools post-2011. If so, this marks a significant reduction in the scope of the programme instigated under the previous Government.
The White Paper confirms that the requirement to provide PE in all maintained schools will be retained and that there will be new support for competitive team sports. There is currently strong opposition to the recent decision to remove ring-fenced funding for School Sports Partnerships which support school-based G&T activity in PE and sports.
We are told that the Henley review of music education currently under way will ‘inform [the Government’s] broader approach to cultural education’ but there is no further detail.
Assessment and Qualifications
The Government has already commissioned one Lord Bew to undertake an independent review of Key Stage 2 testing. This will consider how to deliver assessments that promote attainment and progression and ensure schools are held accountable to pupils, parents and the public. We do not yet know what this means for high achievers.
There will also be a new a suite of KS3 tests and assessments that schools can use on a voluntary basis.
Meanwhile, the Government is working with Ofqual to ensure that universities and learned bodies are involved in the development of A levels. Ofqual will be asked to change the rules on resits and ‘will consider whether this and other recent changes are sufficient to address concerns with A levels’.
Ofqual will also reduce modularisation in GCSEs so that exams are typically taken only at the end of a course and advise on how GCSE mark schemes for all subjects can be adjusted to take greater account of spelling, punctuation and grammar. The Government will legislate so that Ofqual objectives include securing international comparability of qualification standards for tests and exams at ages 11, 16 and 18.
It will ensure that pupils take part in international tests of literacy, maths and science – PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS – and will join the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS) for the first time, so opening up CPD to international comparisons.
The new school system
The establishment of free schools will be prioritised in areas of deprivation but the White Paper makes no secret of the fact that the Government wants academy status to be the norm for all state schools, with schools enjoying direct funding and full freedom from central and local bureaucracy.
It will not force academies to become schools if they do not want to, unless as a last resort if a poor school is failing to improve. Schools are expected to use this autonomy to explore different forms of collaboration, but they will drive this activity rather than the Government.
But the Government is supporting the establishment of University Technical Schools and Studio Schools, though without setting targets for the number of each to be opened.
Each UTC will be sponsored by at least one local business and one university and will offer technical qualifications in shortage subjects such as engineering. Studio schools are for 14-19 year-olds and have a vocational and entrepreneurial focus catering for students disengaged by an entirely academic curriculum. Each will have several business partners linked to one sector of industry and students will spend part of the week working in these businesses.
All four school types have the potential to play a significant role in the development of G&T education and are potentially markets in which existing G&T providers should be advertising their support services.
Meanwhile, local authorities are said to have a strategic role:
- as champion for parents, families and vulnerable pupils (which could potentially include G&T learners although the White Paper does not say so)
- securing a good supply of quality school places
- co-ordinating fair admissions – the admissions code will be simplified and revised by July 2011. Looked after and statemented children will continue to be guaranteed a place at their first choice school and there will be consultation on whether academies and free schools can prioritise admission of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.
- developing their own school improvement strategies which they will be encouraged to market beyond their own boundaries. This could include providing challenge and support to schools that want it, running conferences, bringing people together to tackle local problems and brokering support between schools. A relationship between LAs and G&T organisations to improve provision would fit within this context.
The Government will consult on authorities’ strategic role in areas where all schools have become academies and, as academy status becomes the norm, they will move away from a funding role towards ‘strategic commissioning and oversight’.
Overall, it is hard to see the role described for local authorities as truly strategic and equivalent to the ‘mediating agents’ between central government and schools described as necessary in the latest McKinsey report.
It is as if the Government is uncertain whether it wishes to entrust this role to local authorities or to schools working together collaboratively in networks or clusters. The ideal solution might be to draw both together into a mediating partnership…
The Government will ‘dismantle the apparatus of central control and bureaucratic compliance’ making direct accountability to parents more meaningful. They will publish all the information underpinning government statistical publications, including school level data about attainment in specific subjects, trends over time, class sizes, attendance levels, the composition of the pupil body and financial information.
It is assumed – but not overtly stated – that the pupil characteristics data will include their G&T status and this will be a very useful lever for the G&T lobby.
The data will be published in a standardised format and parents will be able to rank schools against the different variables. One such variable could be the progress made by learners identified as G&T, since the White Paper confirms that this will be effected for parents of SEN pupils.
Requirements about the information schools must publish will be simplified to include (as appropriate) admissions and oversubscription criteria, the curriculum, phonics and reading schemes, setting arrangements, the behaviour policy, home school agreement, special needs policy and information about how the school uses its Pupil Premium. It is to be hoped that schools’ gifted and talented policies can form part of this list.
Performance tables will be reformed. The Government will no longer use a contextualised value added (CVA) measure on the grounds that it is not right to expect lower performance from disadvantaged pupils.
There will be greater emphasis on the progress of every child but the White Paper does not say what form this will take. It is, however, explicit that schools should make as much effort with a low achieving or high achieving pupil as with one whose achievement is close to a threshold.
This is the closest it gets to an endorsement of personalised education and should mean that parents have a lever if their gifted children are insufficiently challenged at school, provided that the progress measures are sufficiently robust at the higher levels.
Tables will include a new measure of the performance of deprived pupils but this will be associated with how well those eligible for the Pupil Premium do in the basics at primary and secondary schools. It is not clear whether there will also be a measure for how well they do against the English Baccalaureate, meaning there is a risk that higher level performance of gifted disadvantaged pupils may go unreported, so reinforcing a ‘deficit model’ approach to disadvantage.
This section of the White Paper says there is particular concern about the performance of the lowest attaining 20% of pupils – there is no similar statement of concern about the performance of the highest attaining 20%.
OFSTED inspection will also be reformed so it focuses on key measures of educational effectiveness, including teaching and learning, and devotes more time and attention to weaker schools.
OFSTED will consult on a revised inspection framework focused on pupil achievement, the quality of teaching, leadership and management and the behaviour and safety of pupils. The White Paper says this will help to ensure there is a better focus on the needs of all pupils. It will come into force in Autumn 2011.
There will be a new floor standard for primary and secondary schools. The secondary floor will be 35% achieving 5 A*-C GCSE grades including English and maths and fewer pupils making good progress between KS2 and KS4 than the national average. The primary floor will be 60% achieving level 4 in both English and maths and fewer than average making the expected level of progress between KS1 and KS2. The new emphasis on progression should help ensure that the thresholds do not become all-consuming at the expense of the needs of other pupils including G&T learners.
The Government will work with the National Governors’ Association and others to clarify governors’ accountabilities and responsibilities to focus more on strategic direction, encouraging them to appoint trained clerks who can offer expert advice and guidance. They will legislate to allow all schools to have smaller governing bodies from early 2012, while ensuring that all have at least two parent governors.
The limited importance of the National Curriculum in future, the decision to end centralised target-setting, remove the requirement to complete an OFSTED self-evaluation and to work with a School Improvement Partner mean that several significant Government policy levers will no longer exist.
It remains open to question whether scaled-back inspection, performance tables and a new emphasis on publication of school-by-school data will be sufficient to change schools’ collective behaviour if it does not lead to the improved standards and narrowed gaps that the Government requires. If not, it may prove necessary for the Government to rein back autonomy and reintroduce more central control. Some commentators have suggested that a more balanced approach might have been more appropriate.
Schools will be responsible for their own improvement, evaluating their progress in their own way, setting their own improvement priorities and targets and choosing sources of external support. Those will include local authorities, academy chains, professional associations, subject associations and others – no doubt including G&T education support services.
The Government will fund an increase in the number of national and local leaders of education from 1,154 to around 3,000 over the next 4 years. Over time teaching schools will help deploy national and local leaders of education and also leading teachers. The Government will look to these schools to ‘brigade together and broker as necessary’ the different support schools need, implying that it will not actively manage this process.
It will also ensure that schools have access to evidence of best practice, high quality materials and improvement services but does not say how this will be generated or disseminated – there is no overt reference to the National Strategies’ legacy. There will be Government support to help schools find out about improvement services on offer, but there is no detail as to how this will operate.
Local authorities and schools will be able to apply to a new Education Endowment Fund with a Government contribution of £110m, the interest from which will be deployed over a 10-year period to support innovative projects to raise the performance of deprived children in underperforming schools. There will also be a new collaboration incentive worth £35m to reward schools that support weaker schools and improve their performance but it is not known how this will be deployed.
More resources will be targeted on the most deprived pupils through the Pupil Premium, to a value of £2.5bn per annum by 2014-15. This is expected to incentivise schools – including selective schools – to admit less affluent children. Evidence of effective interventions will be made available but schools will decide how best to support their pupils.
This probably means that the funding will not be tied to specific pupils in any meaningful way. We already know from DBIS that there may be a link between the Pupil Premium and the HE Scholarship Fund, but there is no explanation how this will operate and no reference to any link with the discretionary learner support offered to the neediest 16-19 students in place of the EMA. We also await information about the value of the Premium per pupil and the criteria that will determine eligibility.
Funding ringfences have already been removed to create a single funding stream – the Dedicated Schools Grant. As more schools become academies, funding will go to them directly rather than via local authorities. The Government wants all schools ‘to be funded transparently, logically and equitably’, so every parent can see what is spent on their child and what proportion of funding is not devolved to schools.
It will consult in Spring 2011 on a national funding formula based on the needs of pupils but implementation is described as ‘a long-term aspiration’. The disparity in post-16 funding will be removed by reducing the funding in sixth forms to the same level as colleges receive and this may threaten the viability of some. The transition will begin in 2011-12 and will be complete by 2015. Schools should be able to save at least £1bn by 2014-15 on procurement and back office spend
Subject to legislation the Young People’s Learning Agency will be replaced by a new Education Funding Agency responsible for the direct funding of schools and 16-19 settings. It will also distribute funding to LAs to pass on to schools.
Other commentators have already pointed out the policy tensions, contradictions and lacunae in this recipe for the future of school education. And there are many unanswered questions.
But there are also several opportunities for the G&T education community to support the interests of the learners they represent and, potentially, a significant new lever in the publication of school data about G&T learners and their performance. It will be crucial to secure confirmation of this quickly.
Some of the wider causes for concern relate to whether:
- sufficient teachers and schools have a strong enough grasp of effective pedagogy and the capacity to disseminate it efficiently and effectively to all parts of the education system
- the National Curriculum review will include an ‘excellence-driven’ focus and what value the National Curriculum will have when it does not apply to the bulk of schools
- there are enough accountability levers left in the system to influence schools’ behaviour and – if there are not – what the Government will do to change collective behaviour if schools fail by themselves to raise standards and narrow gaps and
- the Pupil Premium will be a sharp enough instrument to change schools’ behaviour, not least in relation to support for high achievers from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The last point brings us back to the narrower question I posed.
On this evidence, the answer must be that the collective weight of these proposals will not of themselves increase within the lifetime of this Government the number of FSM-eligible students entering Oxbridge, or indeed a wider range of our leading universities.
To counteract the potentially damaging effect of the increase in tuition fees on this population, the fragmented nature of support across sectors and the tendency for schools to divert their Pupil Premium funding towards other priorities, there would need to be a co-ordinated and systematic approach that links together:
- the three policy strands relating to schools, HE and social mobility
- the three sectors – schools, post-16 and HE
- the three funding streams – pupil premium, the discretionary learner support fund for post-16 support and the HE scholarship – and ties them explicitly to meeting individual pupils’ needs
utilising them within a flexible support framework that enables schools and colleges to deliver a personalised support package, starting in Year 9 and ending with HE entry, that draws on the wide range of existing resources and activities available.
I have already described such a framework here. Unfortunately there is a real tension between such integration of strategies for greater collective benefit and the autonomy-first direction of travel espoused in the Schools White Paper.