Will You Join Me In Some Crowdsourcing?

Now that this Blog is mature, I want to try to shift into a second phase of development – one that I hope will stimulate more participation by the global gifted education community, so encouraging more of them to read and react to my substantive posts.

So I have introduced two new sections – most easily accessed via the Menu at the very top of the page – and I invite you to help me populate them.

Directory of Gifted Education Centres

The first is called ‘Directory of Gifted Education Centres’ and I want to use this to build up a database of substantive centres of gifted and talented education throughout the world.

Most entries will be relatively brief and will include:

  • the centre’s name, location and director
  • its stated aims
  • its key programmes and
  • any other items of particular interest

though I will also include links to my own posts where those are relevant.

Who’s Who in Gifted Education

The second new section is called ‘Who’s Who in Gifted Education’ and is intended to be a database of short, single paragraph biographies, ideally including links to the institution(s), organisation(s), website(s) with which these people are associated.

I will try to cross-reference people with centres (and vice-versa) when these are associated.

It will take me a long time to build up these resources, particularly if I do it all by myself.

How You can help

You can help me move more quickly by supplying information about yourself, about others, or about centres with which you are familiar.

I’m happy to receive all such submissions, but please bear in mind that I aim for objectivity and that I may need on occasion to exercise some editorial discretion. It is not my intention to carry advertising, or to indulge in ‘knocking copy’

So I invite you to help me to build up these databases for the benefit of all those seeking a global perspective on gifted education.

If you would like your name and/or your centre featured, just drop me some details in a comment on this post, or via my Gifted Phoenix account on Twitter or Facebook.

If I can rely on your support, that will be great; if not, I shall work more slowly and alone.


January 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



On Fair Access to Competitive Universities and Grammar Schools


This post examines recent policy and data on fair access to higher education for gifted disadvantaged students in England.

Part Two will look at fair access to selective secondary education, comparing and contrasting fair access policy in the two sectors.

It will show how fair access to grammar schools might be improved, in response to a challenge issued by the Next Left Blog – a Fabian Society publication – to offer solutions to ‘the challenges of educational inequality’.

Recent developments in fair access to higher education (HE) arise from the UK Government’s Response to the Browne Review of Higher Education and Student Finance.

We will not examine here the detail of the student finance package, as set out in the Review and revised in the Response, but we will look closely at progress to date on the Higher Education Scholarship Fund, now known as the National Scholarship Programme (NSP).

One key issue is the relationship between the NSP and support for disadvantaged students in schools and post-16 institutions. This critical issue was examined in a previous post – my response to the November 2010 Bridge Group seminar on securing social mobility through fair access to HE and the professions.

What is Fair Access to Higher Education?

We began to explore how this term is used in the HE sector in an earlier post on the relationship between fair access and social mobility.

For further guidance, who better to consult than the Office of Fair Access (OFFA), the independent public body that exists to promote fair access?

OFFA defines fair access as:

removing the barriers to higher education, particularly financial barriers, that students from lower income and other under-represented backgrounds face’.

Policy makers often assume that fair access is exclusively about securing stronger representation for such students at ‘competitive’ universities, and that it is a subset of ‘widening participation’ activity, which is concerned with the broader issue of entry to higher education per se.

I shall use the phrase ‘competitive universities’ as a catch-all to encompass several related terms including ‘elite’, ‘Russell Group’, ‘academically selective’, ‘leading’ and ‘top’ universities.

There is not space here to explain the fine distinctions between these broadly similar subsets of the wider HE sector but, in broad terms, we are interested in those universities with relatively more demanding entry requirements, including those most likely to charge fees in excess of £6,000 per year under the new arrangements.

While the OFFA definition of fair access is deliberately broad, enabling it to have a remit across the entire HE sector, this post is largely concerned with the operation of fair access at competitive universities, simply because gifted disadvantaged young people should be aiming higher than entry to any institution, given that some 45% of all young people now enter HE.

The population we are concerned with would typically expect to enter HE – at least they would if we assume that they will not be dissuaded by the new student finance package – but they are heavily under-represented in most of the competitive universities.

The task is to improve their attainment, strengthen their aspirations and provide the necessary information, advice and guidance to enable them to compete on a level playing field when applying to such a university.

I note in passing that by no means all ‘competitive’ courses are offered by competitive universities and, conversely, that ‘competitive’ embraces many more institutions than Oxford and Cambridge, despite Michael Gove’s tendency to define the issue solely in terms of entry to those Hallowed Halls.

And, for the sake of completeness, I should add that I am using eligibility for free school meals as the measure of disadvantage, not least because it has now been adopted for the Pupil Premium and so may also determine eligibility for the NSP.

OFFA’s definition of fair access is helpfully amplified in its three strategic aims:

  • to support and encourage improvements in participation rates in higher education from low income and other under-represented groups;
  • to reduce as far as practicable the barriers to higher education for students from low income and other under-represented groups by ensuring that institutions continue to invest in bursaries and outreach;
  • to support and encourage equality of opportunity through the provision of clear and accessible financial information for students, their parents/carers and their advisers.

These aims are secured through an Access Agreement which a university must conclude with OFFA.

All three remain broadly relevant in the new policy environment, though they may require some adjustment to reflect new draft guidance to OFFA from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), which outlines the implications for OFFA’s work of the Government’s response to Browne. We will return to that later.


What Browne recommended as additional support for fair access

The Browne Review recommended the merger of several different central funding streams supporting disadvantaged students to enter and remain in HE, noting that the 2010-11 allocations include:

  • £60 million for widening access for full-time students from disadvantaged backgrounds

  • £70 million for widening access for part-time students from disadvantaged backgrounds

  • £10 million for widening access and improving provision for disabled students

  • £170 million for Teaching Enhancement and Success improving retention of full-time students

  • £50 million for Teaching Enhancement and Success improving retention of part-time students

There is a risk of double-counting here but these sums do not seem to include the funding for Aimhigher – a national programme supporting widening participation to the value of some £78 million in 2010-11 – which the Government recently announced it was terminating in July 2011.

If so, this amounts to a total annual investment of some £438 million in widening participation, fair access and retention.

And it is not clear from the Browne Review how much overlap there is between these allocations handled by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the £400 million or so (in FY 2009-10) that Browne says universities have spent on bursaries and the like:

‘Since the 2006 changes, institutions have been required to promote access as a condition of charging higher fees. They spent almost £400m in 2009-10 on meeting this commitment. Most of the money goes on providing bursaries to students receiving the full maintenance grant from Government. Yet the latest evidence from OFFA – the body responsible for promoting fair access since the 2006 changes – states that bursaries have been ineffective in influencing the application decisions made by students from disadvantaged backgrounds.’

Assuming the worst case scenario that there is zero overlap, this increases the total annual spend – by Government and HE combined – to well over £800 million. Let us be generous and assume that current expenditure is of the order of half a billion pounds annually.

Browne proposed merging Government support into a single ‘Access and Success Fund’ (which it did not explicitly quantify) to help ensure that resources are more:

‘tightly focused on students from low participation neighbourhoods…. This funding currently rewards institutions for retaining students regardless of their background. The Access and Success fund will change this – it will only be available to support institutions in recruiting and retaining those students who need additional support due to the effects of a disadvantaged background.’

Browne also proposed changes to the accountability system, recommending the merger of OFFA and the Higher Education Funding Council for England into a single HE Council and the integration of Access Agreements and Widening Participation Strategic Assessments into a single document. (Since 2006, in addition to the Access Agreement concluded with OFFA, universities must also produce a WPSA consistent with a HEFCE framework to receive funding for widening participation.)


The Government’s Alternative Approach: A National Scholarships Programme

Browne envisaged that, when universities charged a fee of more than £6,000 a year, they would pay a levy to cover the additional costs to Government of providing the necessary upfront finance to students. There would be no maximum cap on fees.

This approach was adapted in the Government’s response to Browne, which proposed a maximum annual fee of £9,000, arguing that this removed the need for a levy.

Instead, any university charging more than £6,000 would be required to take part in a National Scholarships Programme, first announced by the Deputy Prime Minister a month earlier.

The NSP will not be introduced until Autumn 2012. It will be worth £150 million by 2014-15. As far as I can establish, we do not yet know how much will be available in the two preceding financial years (although several commentaries wrongly assume that £150m will be available from the outset).

We do know already that there is no transitional funding between April 2011 and Autumn 2012.

The initial Government response to Browne made clear that it aimed to secure matched contributions from universities to its own investment in the NSP, but stopped short of imposing a levy.

It continued:

‘Our current preference is for universities to offer scholarships to targeted students – including the principal beneficiaries of the pupil premium – that would mean at least their first year [of higher education] is free. Other attractive ideas include expanding the model of a foundation year for young people with high potential but lower qualifications.’

These arrangements would be secured through new access agreements policed by OFFA, which would remain separate from HEFCE. It would agree with universities:

a programme of defined progress each year towards their access benchmarks as calculated by the Higher Education Funding Council. If they are not making adequate progress towards these benchmarks, a mechanism will be established to allow OFFA to redirect a proportion of the income from contributions over £6,000 to specified access activities’.

These proposals were clarified in a December 2010 Press Notice which announced a steering group to develop the NSP.

It revealed that Ministers had asked the steering group to consider two specific options:

  • ‘A first free year for disadvantaged students funded by their university with the NSP then funding the students’ final year, meaning that those who stay the course are rewarded’ (presumably this secures the necessary matched funding from the university).
  • ‘A foundation or professional scholarship year to attract young talented people into the professions like law, medicine, finance and architecture who might have been badly advised on which A-Levels to study, with fees waived for a foundation year to get them the qualifications they need.’

The press notice says that both these proposals could potentially help support 18,000 students’ (though the mathematics underpinning this calculation is not explained.)

Meanwhile, OFFA received its new draft guidance which includes several interesting details:

  • All universities’ access agreements will continue to be published.
  • While agreements will apply at the institutional level, universities are free to target their access support more tightly, eg on courses leading to professional careers.
  • There will be no minimum requirement for the content of access agreements, though a reserve power exists in the legislation to create one.
  • OFFA will ‘want to ensure that institutions do not require students to take out higher loans, which the institution then recycles into poorly targeted bursary schemes which your own evidence has shown are not an effective mechanism for widening participation’.
  • However, OFFA should encourage the use of financial waivers – such as the free year of study being examined by the HE scholarships steering group.
  • Although institutions may wish to continue to offer targeted bursaries, this is no longer a universal requirement.
  • Progress measures should be agreed on an institution-by-institution basis.
  • OFFA’s main sanction is not to agree an institution’s access agreement, which would prevent a university from charging more than £6,000 in annual fees.
  • OFFA can also impose a fine of up to £500,000 and secure restitution on behalf of affected students.

Reaction to the NSP: Million+

Although the December proposals make a welcome (if belated) connection between the Pupil Premium and the NSP, initial responses have suggested that they are not well thought through and that the steering group would be well-advised to reconsider. Responses have focused primarily on the proposal for free tuition rather than the foundation year concept.

The think-tank Million+ published a letter to the Minister for Universities describing the proposals as ‘unworkable and unfair’.

Whereas many commentators have wrongly assumed that the Government is committed to contributing £150m per year to the NSP from 2012-13, Million+ makes the opposite – and presumably equally incorrect – assumption that a total of only £150m is available across the three financial years to 2014-15, so only £50 million a year.

Million+ notes the Government’s stated intention that a free first year of university tuition should be offered to ‘the principal beneficiaries of the Pupil Premium’ – in other words all those students in the relevant age group who are eligible for free school meals and who progress to higher education.

Published figures show that there were 10,670 learners meeting these criteria in 2006/07, whereas a funding pot of £50 million annually would allow the Government to fund just:

  • 8,333 students per year if fees are set at £6,000
  • 6,944 students per year if fees are set at £7,200 or
  • 5,555 students per year if fees are set at £9,000

Million+ also points out that, by placing an expectation on universities to match fund, by providing a further year’s free tuition, the Government will create a perverse incentive, punishing financially those universities that contribute most to social mobility by taking in relatively larger numbers of disadvantaged students.

These universities would then be more likely to have to increase their fees unless – like Oxford and Cambridge for example – they were wealthy enough to be able to meet the cost from their endowments.

The letter provides figures to exemplify the argument:

  • With a £9000 pa fee, a university admitting 10 FSM-eligible students would need to spend £90,000 per annum on the NSS to provide one year’s free tuition;
  • However, a university admitting 100 FSM-eligible students would be required to spend £900,000 per annum;
  • And a university with 300 FSM-eligible students would be required to spend £2.7million per annum;
  • While a university with 420 FSM-eligible students (the highest number admitted by any HEI in 2006/7) would be required to spend £3.78 million.

An arrangement of this kind that loaded the financial dice against the newer and relatively less competitive universities would be an own goal because – while it might begin to redistribute FSM-eligible students towards competitive universities – it would be highly unlikely to increase the overall proportion of FSM-eligible students in higher education.

Reaction to the NSP: The Sutton Trust

The Sutton Trust publication ‘Responding to the new landscape for university access’ is also critical of the NSP proposals.

It advances similar arguments to Million+ based on a statistical analysis of the distribution of FSM-eligible students in higher education. It agrees this will have relatively less effect on the country’s most prestigious universities (typically those with the fewest FSM-eligible students) especially those in non-urban settings and will penalise financially those universities with largest numbers of FSM-eligible entrants.

The Trust acknowledges its own support for a ‘first year for free’ arrangement (which it included in its submission to the Browne Review) but argues for a pilot to examine the impact on students’ decisions about which universities to attend.

It also recommends that NSP funding should not be used exclusively for this purpose but should also fund other activity including ‘proven outreach schemes to raise aspirations and the drive to improve access to the most selective universities…’

This can be taken to refer, inter alia, to the Sutton Trust’s own Summer School Programme.

The Trust makes several other recommendations:

  • Given that Aimhigher funding is disappearing, OFFA’s role in securing effective university outreach through access agreements becomes even more important. In this environment, OFFA needs the powers and political support to respond assertively to universities that fail to achieve their access targets.

  • To achieve this, OFFA needs more power and independence. It should have a board including external members and should not be subsumed within HEFCE as recommended in the Browne Review.

  • Access agreements should include ‘an explicit commitment to proven outreach work such as summer schools and mentoring schemes – perhaps 25% of extra fee income or more, depending on the extent of the under-representation of certain groups. At the very least, it should be a significant proportion of fee income spent on access work as a whole’.

  • Access agreements must commit universities to the dual responsibilities of widening participation generally and ensuring fair access into their own institution. The balance between these two imperatives will depend on the nature of the institution.


What next?

There is clearly a lot of work still to do on the NSP and on the wider arrangements supporting fair access.

Key aspects of the bigger picture remain to be clarified, including how much funding (if any) will be available to universities through HEFCE allocations in 2011-12 and subsequent years to complement NSP support.

The HEFCE funding letter just released shows that, while fair access is a high priority, the global sum available will diminish significantly.

It remains to be seen whether the real terms investment in fair access will decline compared with the current investment. If it does, the task of improving the representation of disadvantaged students in competitive universities will be correspondingly harder.

The expected HE White Paper will need to fill the remaining gaps in our knowledge and understanding. It has not been helpful that this complex jigsaw is seemingly being built up piece by piece, rather than emerging holistically from a comprehensive overarching vision and overarching objectives.

Such an approach creates a strong risk that overall coherence will be lacking: policies will not be properly ‘joined up’, as the Government seeks to build connections between the different elements and ‘retro-fit’ them together.

The relationship with the Pupil Premium stands out in this respect. The Premium itself is facing criticism as probably too blunt an instrument to support social mobility.

It is not yet apparent how a sum – initially set at just £430 a year – and which schools are free to deploy as they wish at a time when all budgets are under pressure, will be combined effectively with the NSP to create coherent long-term support for FSM-eligible pupils to secure places at competitive universities.

The demise of the Educational Maintenance Allowance for 16-19 year-olds adds a further strand of uncertainty. But, somewhat belatedly, the Young People’s Learning Agency (YPLA) has acknowledged that the discretionary learner support intended to replace the EMA needs to be factored into the equation.

Its recently published 16-19 Funding Statement says:

‘A consultation in 2011 on the [16-19] funding formula will look at how the formula can better support the Coalition Government’s aims of transparency and fairness, and, in particular, how targeted support for young people can be aligned with the Pupil Premium and the National Scholarships Programme in Higher Education. The review of the funding formula will also take account of the recommendations from Professor Alison Wolf’s review of vocational qualifications.’

This is very much to be welcomed, though it would have been better to have begun to plan with the overall objective of providing coherent support for FSM-eligible students across the three sectors of school, post-16 and HE, rather than examining only now how 16-19 support will fit with the other two elements.

We do not yet know the exact size of the 16-19 Discretionary Support Fund and whether it will be sufficient to continue Pupil Premium support at the same level for all FSM-eligible students once they become 16. We expect a budget of some £70m per year and there is some reason to doubt that this will be sufficient, particularly as the size of the Pupil Premium increases towards £1,500 per pupil per year by 2014-15.


Coda: Interpreting the data on fair access to competitive universities

To complete this analysis, I thought it would be salutory to review different ‘takes’ on recently published data on fair access. Because of the time lags involved in matching different datasets, the latest year for which we have data is academic year 2007/08.


The Browne Review

The official view was encapsulated in the Browne Review, which faithfully reported the evidence submitted to it by the Chairman of OFFA:

‘Sir Martin Harris’s recent report on fair access presented data to show that despite the substantial increases in participation among the least advantaged 40% of young people across higher education overall compared to the mid-1990s, the participation rate among the same group of young people at the top third of selective universities has remained almost flat over the same period. After controlling for differences in attainment at secondary school, there is still a difference in the participation rate of these students on the most selective courses.’


The Sutton Trust

This perspective has been further developed in the Sutton Trust report referenced above.

It first examines the relative achievement of FSM-eligible pupils and pupils educated in independent fee-paying schools, showing that fee-paying pupils are 3.5 times more likely than FSM pupils to attain five GCSEs with grades A*-C including English and maths.

By age 18, they are over 22 times more likely to enter a highly selective university and 55 times more likely to enter Oxford or Cambridge.

The Trust also considers progress on fair access by FSM-eligible students to the UK’s ’30 most academically selective universities’ over the three latest academic years for which figures are available: 2005/06, 2006/07, and 2007/08.

During this period, some 5.5% of students entering English universities were FSM-eligible – equivalent to about 10,000 students a year – compared with 81.5% of other state school pupils and 13% of independent school pupils.

But only 2% of the intake to the 25 most academically selective universities (about 1,300 pupils a year) were FSM-eligible, compared with 72.2% of other state school pupils and 25.8% from independent schools.

At the most selective universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, fewer than 1% ofstudents were FSM-eligible, while almost 50% were from fee-paying schools.

On the other hand, FSM-eligible pupils comprise almost 25% of students at the least selective universities. The Trust acknowledges that A level attainment is the key driver of these differences, but also notes that FSM-eligible numbers are typically higher at all universities based in inner-city areas.


The Labour Opposition

Labour has made some sort of attempt to defend its record on fair access in this newspaper article which uses the same statistics for the same three years.

It says that, between 2005 and 2007, the total number of FSM-eligible pupils attending university increased by 18% while the comparable increase among those not eligible for FSM was 9%.

And that the proportion of FSM-eligible students at the 20 Russell Group universities increased 10% from 975 to 1,075 while the comparable increase for those not eligible was 4.5%, increasing from 32,535 to 34,000.

A Labour MP is quoted:

‘The Tories’ highly selective use of statistics does not accurately reflect the improvements Labour made, both in increasing opportunities for the poorest children and narrowing the achievement gap.’

Given the overall imbalance between FSM and non-FSM, this is – to be honest – mere clutching at straws. An increase of just 100 pupils across 20 universities over three years is hardly a success story, especially given an annual investment of at least half a billion pounds.

Gifted Phoenix

I too have examined these statistics, but from a slightly different perspective.

This table shows changes in the raw numbers and percentages of FSM-eligible entrants to the 38 most competitive universities in England over the same three-year period.

Key points to emerge are:

  • 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.
  • As we know from Michael Gove, 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.
  • However, in percentage terms, in 2007/08, Bath was a worse performer than Oxford and Cambridge and Exeter were worse performers than Oxford. They must be thankful that Oxbridge is taking the rap!
  • Three of the universities in the table – Bradford, City, Queen Mary – recruit between 20 and 30 percent of their intake from FSM-eligible pupils.
  • All of the London universities – including the elite institutions like Imperial, Kings and UCL – achieve a FSM-eligible intake of 5% or more, more than double the proportion recruited at the more problematic institutions.
  • Over the period, there was a 0.7% increase in the average FSM-eligible intake amongst these universities, representing a real increase of 620 students.
  • In 2005/06, 26 of the 38 universities in the table were recruiting below the average of 4.53% eligible for free school meals; by 2007/08 this had increased to 27 recruiting below the average of 5.24%. (so the average intake had improved by just over 0.7%.)

Final thoughts

Overall, this record is not inspiring – suggesting that Browne was right to conclude that the previous regime of bursaries, HEFCE benchmarks and OFFA access agreements was hardly a resounding success.

But it is also hard to see how the new plans will achieve a step change in the short term, or over the lifetime of this Government.

The best chance of achieving success through an education-based intervention is to create a co-ordinated holistic support programme for selected FSM-eligible students from at least Year 9 to HE entry, as suggested in my earlier post.

By fully participating in a collaborative programme of this kind, the worst offending universities could significantly increase the proportion of FSM-eligible students they admit, and do so far more efficiently than by pursuing their own individual outreach programmes with no proper integration with other universities and with the support provided by schools and post-16 institutions.

By insisting on institutions in all three sectors operating autonomously, we are collectively putting the ideology of institutional autonomy ahead of the drive for greater social mobility, even though the Government says that improving social mobility is its top policy priority.

Given the relatively small number of students affected, a co-ordinated centralised programme, flexible enough to meet the different needs of the participants, offers the best prospect of success. By refusing to recognise this we are at risk of compromising the life chances of many gifted disadvantaged learners, for the universities that have become bastions of unfair access will not change of their own volition.


January 2011