Which Way Now for UK Gifted Education: Response to Current Government Policy I


This is the third part of a short series of posts about the future direction of gifted education here in the United Kingdom.

The series marks the formal establishment of GT Voice, the new UK-based support network for gifted education, as a steering group is elected to replace the interim working group.

Part One explored some fundamental questions about the nature and purpose of gifted education, to stimulate debate amongst GT Voice members about these core issues.

Part Two reviewed the recent history of gifted education in England, to uncover implications for our current position and the future direction of GT Voice.

Part Three considers the impact to date of the Coalition’s wider education policies on gifted education, to identify some key themes and issues that GT Voice will need to engage with during the lifetime of this Government.

Scope and Purpose

I had intended to cover the full span of the Government’s education policies in a single post, but there is simply too much to cover. So this section addresses policies that support disadvantaged learners and social mobility in schools, further and higher education.

The final part will examine school-level policies on: accountability and reporting; learning and teaching; and structures, choice and diversity

It is not the purpose of this post to unfairly criticise and so undermine the Government’s education policies, but to use evidence from a variety of reliable sources to explore objectively how those policies might impact – whether positively or negatively – on gifted disadvantaged learners, including those who are already high achievers.

We have noted already that the Coalition Government has not published a policy statement defining its approach to gifted education and it does not seem likely that it will do so, beyond stating its commitment to improving the education of all learners, regardless of ability.

As far as we can establish, there is no longer any central co-ordinating function for gifted education available anywhere within central government – and no repository of gifted education expertise within government or contracted to it.

This reinforces the potential significance of GT Voice as a source of advice and guidance at all levels in the education system. It is ideally placed to offer support to schools and other education settings, to providers and commissioners of gifted education services at all levels and to national education policy makers and service providers.

Those in the first two categories will also benefit from membership of GT Voice; there will be mutual benefit for many of those in the third category from either a partnership or a more flexible working relationship.

GT Voice should seek to establish a relationship with central government, helping it to ensure that its policies are properly joined-up and do not have unintended negative consequences for high achieving and high ability learners, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

For it is clear that several of the Government’s wider educational policies impact significantly on G&T education. My analysis of the November 2010 White Paper ‘The Importance of Teaching’ gives a full overview of all relevant proposals in the schools sector.

This post will explore how some of those policies have developed to date. It draws heavily on the Government’s social mobility strategy ‘Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers’, published in April 2011 and also relevant parts of the Higher Education White Paper ‘Students at the Heart of the System’ (June 2011).

This treatment concentrates exclusively on English educational policy. In future I hope to consider comparatively the position in the smaller devolved administrations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Support for Disadvantaged Gifted Learners

Although there is no overt policy statement, the academic progress of disadvantaged gifted learners is evidently a high priority for the Government.

DfE’s published business plan includes just nine ‘impact indicators’ for the full span of its work, one of which is:

‘Outcome of Education: Two indicators: first the percentage of children on FSM progressing to 1) Oxford or Cambridge; 2) Russell Group; 3) all universities; and second, destinations of young people.’

The comparable BIS business plan has, as one of its 13 impact indicators:

‘The gaps between non-free school meal and free school meal 15 year olds going on to higher education and between state and independent school students who go on to the 33% most selective higher education institutions.’

One might reasonably ask why these two government departments are defining success in different ways, rather than working collaboratively towards agreed outcomes. By pursuing subtly different objectives they surely reduce the Government’s overall chances of achieving either.

But, leaving that aside, achievement of these outcomes is dependent on securing improvements in all phases of education, as well as in several other areas of social policy set out in the Coalition’s social mobility strategy.

To demonstrate significant progress against the indicator within the education sector, schools, post-16 institutions and universities will need to:

  • improve the attainment of disadvantaged learners at all key stages, so that a higher proportion eventually achieves the entry requirements for selective universities;
  • improve the aspirations, motivation, self-esteem and information, advice and guidance available to these learners so they have the skills and self-belief to compete successfully for places at selective universities. This involves support for their parents, carers, teachers, schools and wider communities, as well as for the learners themselves;

and, assuming that these bring about an increased supply of eligible candidates,

  • ensure that selective universities respond by increasing the proportion of students they accept from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The Social Mobility Strategy addresses each of these elements – and I have adopted this tripartite distinction as a broad framework for the analysis below.

Improving Attainment

The Strategy explains that the Government will take a two-pronged approach to improving attainment, raising universal standards through system-wide reform and pursuing: ‘a relentless focus on narrowing gaps in attainment between children from different backgrounds, with a new Pupil Premium to help raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils’.

Several reforms are described as contributors to bringing about higher standards across the board, including improving the quality of teaching, increasing school autonomy and reviewing the national curriculum. We will explore these in the final post in this series.

Apart from the Pupil Premium (and related funding reforms), which clearly take centre stage, the strategies identified as helping to narrow attainment gaps – and so more relevant to the current post – are admissions reform and the Education Endowment Fund.

The Pupil Premium

The Pupil Premium is a funding supplement paid as specific grant to local authorities and directly to academies and free schools in respect of learners known to be eligible for free school meals (FSM) – our fundamental measure of disadvantage – as well as for looked after children and children whose parents serve in the armed forces.

It applies only to learners aged 4-16, so those in Year R (Reception) and Years 1-11, but not those in Years 12-13, regardless of whether they attend school sixth forms or 16-19 institutions.

The rate in 2011/12 is £430 per pupil, a single flat rate, except in the case of armed forces children where it is £200.

Consultation is currently under way over expansion of eligibility for 2012/13 and succeeding years. It is proposed that the Premium will be extended to include learners who are no longer FSM-eligible but who were eligible either in the last three years or in the last six years. The most generous of these options would bring 24% of all learners aged 4-16 within scope compared with 17% currently.

The proposed level of the Premium in 2012/13 is not part of the consultation, though it is made clear that there will be a trade-off between the value of the Premium and the proportion of eligible learners.

The Premium for FSM-eligible learners will remain as a single flat rate but the consultation invites views on shifting to a variable rate to reflect costs in different parts of the country. Such variations will not be introduced before 2014/15.

The size of the 2012/13 Premium will be announced later this term. So we have no information about the value of the Pupil Premium beyond 2012, other than that the total budget will increase four-fold, to £2.5 billion a year by 2014/15.

If the sum available increases at a steady rate, there will be £1.25 billion for 2012/13. Depending on decisions about eligibility, that may be sufficient to increase the Premium rate to over £600.

Assuming that the rate of FSM eligibility does not increase significantly, it seems likely that the Premium might eventually reach something between £1,000 and £1,500.

It will be less than half the maximum £3,000 originally suggested by the Policy Exchange which proposed such a Premium and about half of the £2,500 figure adopted by the Liberal Democrats prior to the Coalition Government assuming power.

Of course we do not know what level of expenditure is necessary to reduce significantly attainment gaps in an English context (and such a calculation would need to take fully into account the wider school funding situation). But we do know, from PISA studies of international comparisons, that there is a relatively weak correlation between per pupil spending and educational outcomes.

The social mobility strategy says that the Premium will:

  • ‘provide headteachers with the money they need to provide an excellent and individually tailored education for these children’
  • ‘make it more likely that good schools will want to attract less affluent children; and
  • ‘make it more attractive to open Free Schools in disadvantaged areas’

but there is as yet no empirical evidence to justify these claims.

Moreover, there is some reason to doubt that the Premium can and will be used by schools to provide ‘an individually tailored education’.

Schools are entirely free to decide how they will spend the Premium. The social mobility strategy says that the Government will ‘make available best practice on what works’ including findings from an independent longitudinal evaluation. It gives examples of some interventions that have had a positive impact, including intensive 1:1 tutoring in English and maths, parental engagement activities, mentoring and revision programmes.

The Sutton Trust has produced a Pupil Premium Toolkit which draws on research evidence to argue that the most effective low cost strategies are effective feedback, meta-cognition and self-regulation strategies, peer tutoring and peer-assisted learning. Early intervention and one-to-one tutoring are also relatively effective but costly.

From September 2012, schools will be required to publish online how they have used the Premium and school performance tables will report separately some aspects of the performance of Premium-eligible learners. The social mobility strategy says the Government will expect schools to be accountable to parents for how the Premium is used, but this is not further explained and may simply refer to the performance tables.

The key concern for GT Voice must be whether gifted learners from disadvantaged backgrounds will receive the same level of benefit from the Premium as other disadvantaged learners, notably those who are not likely to achieve national benchmarks at Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4.

For the Premium does not currently operate as an individual entitlement following the learner. The Government has issued no advice to schools to suggest that it should be deployed in this fashion. Especially while the per pupil value of the Premium is low, schools are quite likely to pool the funding, using it to provide generic support that will not exclusively benefit those learners who attract the Premium.

Moreover, schools’ spending behaviour will be influenced by how they are judged in performance tables and through the wider accountability regime. We shall examine the full impact of those reforms in the next post but, in summary, although some further differentiation is being introduced into the tables, it is relatively crude and so insufficiently sharp to isolate the performance of disadvantaged high achievers.

The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has argued that each eligible learner should receive a Pupil Premium Entitlement, so ensuring that the funding directly benefits those eligible for it. The IPPR argues that this should pay for:

‘extra catch-up tuition, small group tuition or one-to-one teaching to stretch the most able low-income pupils’.

In another publication, the IPPR elaborates:

‘Under this scheme, local authorities would set out a menu of approved activities upon which the money could be spent. The child’s parent and the lead teacher would have to agree at the end of each school year how the following year’s Pupil Premium Entitlement would be spent. This would encourage the development of an individual learning plan for each child and would act as a lever to engage parents, which we know is an important factor in a child’s learning’.

Such an approach is close to my own thinking and provides a basis for linking the Premium to Pupil and Parents’ Guarantees, should a future Labour Government decide to maintain the Premium and revive the Guarantees. (We noted in Part Two the signs that the Guarantees look set to be restored in Labour’s emerging education policy.)

The IPPR’s proposal might be criticised on the grounds that:

  • schools should be free to pool the funding if they can achieve economies of scale, more flexible use of resources and, ultimately, a relatively greater impact on the attainment of more Premium-eligible learners;
  • especially while the value of the Premium is low, an entitlement attached to the pupil is relatively less attractive to schools and would unhelpfully fetter their discretion to do what is best for their learners

but, on the other hand, it would help to ensure that gifted disadvantaged learners receive personalised support as a consequence of the Premium, rather than risk being set aside as a lower priority, on the grounds that they will anyway achieve the performance benchmarks against which schools are most commonly judged.

It will be critical for GT Voice to monitor closely the evolution and impact of the Pupil Premium, and to be ready with recommendations about how to rectify any perverse consequences for eligible gifted learners.

Admissions Reform

This policy is essentially part of the Pupil Premium. The social mobility strategy says the Government is:

‘considering carefully how the admissions process can be improved for these children. This could mean certain schools being able to take on more of such pupils, in order to concentrate resources and specialise in their particular educational and supportive needs’.

The Government has subsequently concluded a consultation on a new draft Admissions Code which includes the following footnote:

‘Free Schools and Academies may also, where their funding agreements permit, give priority in admission arrangements to children eligible for Free School Meals (in future, the Pupil Premium). [Further guidance will be produced on this policy area following consultation]’

And this has since been amplified in a speech by the Deputy Prime Minister, though we have yet to see the detail:

‘We are also taking unprecedented steps to make sure disadvantaged pupils actually get into these schools. Along with academies, free schools will, for the first time, be able to give them special priority in their admissions.

How can we be confident they will? Because, crudely, these pupils receive the pupil premium. The more of them the school takes, the more money it gets.

That’s a simple, but crucial, financial incentive. No one has reformed the admissions code like this for years. In future, free schools must use this power to do all they can to make sure that they have the same proportion of Free School Meals pupils as the local average – at least’.

It appears then, that both free schools and academies will be able to admit pupils eligible for the Pupil Premium ahead of others, but their only incentive to do so will be the financial bonus provided by the Premium.

This is much more permissive than a requirement, but – reading between the lines – it may be that schools taking this route must then agree to work towards achieving the ‘local average’ for FSM eligibility, however that is to be defined.

This they are likely to do anyway, since the financial incentive will only become significant on the admission of a critical mass of Premium-eligible learners – a few token disadvantaged pupils will make too little difference to schools’ budgets.

It is conceivable that some oversubscribed schools in or near areas of high disadvantage may specialise in Premium-eligible learners, or even select all their pupils on that basis, though it is a moot point whether the Coalition could accept that while continuing to resist an expansion of academic selection.

It is also intriguing to explore whether this provision might be extended to selective grammar schools. If it were, that might help considerably to restore their reputation as engines of social mobility: a reputation that has suffered in recent years as they have increasingly become a haven for middle class parents.

And there is the prospect of selective 16-19 free schools, including a bid in progress for a sixth form college in Newham which is explicitly for gifted disadvantaged learners.

So, within the constraints of a policy that prevents the creation of more selective schools for 11-16 year-olds (but not an increase in places at existing selective schools), there is some scope for admissions policies to benefit gifted disadvantaged learners. And GT voice is in an excellent position to advise and support schools that decide to go down this route.

Education Endowment Fund

The Education Endowment Fund has been established to: ‘encourage innovative approaches to raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils in underperforming schools’.

It is administered by the Education Endowment Foundation, founded by the Sutton Trust and the Impetus Trust. The Government has provided a grant of £125m which the Foundation hopes to increase to £200m over the Fund’s 15-year lifespan.

A very high proportion of this – up to 10% – will be spent on project evaluation. This is surprising given the Government’s interest in pushing the maximum resource down to schools and may well attract criticism, for it should be possible to undertake effective evaluation without imposing a £20 million topslice.

The Foundation is seeking innovative solutions that have an explicit focus on improving attainment, are replicable and scalable. It has begun its first funding round, inviting bids for grants of £50,000 plus for approval by June 2012.

At least for the time being, it appears that the EEF has been subverted to the more pressing policy of improving under-performing schools. For at least the first two years, all projects must wholly or mainly benefit FSM-eligible learners in schools which are below the Government’s floor targets.

Although the Foundation’s guidance does not say so explicitly, it is likely that successful projects will be those that help these schools climb above the targets.

In primary schools, these are expressed in terms of the percentage of pupils achieving level 4 in KS2 English and maths and making two levels of progress between KS1 and KS2.

In secondary schools, they are defined in terms of the percentage of pupils achieving 5 A*-C GCSE grades at KS4 including English and maths and making three levels of progress between KS2 and KS4

One might reasonably infer that successful projects are most likely to prioritise the marginal learners who can help schools achieve these targets rather than gifted learners who already comfortably exceed them.

It will be important that GT Voice monitors the development of the Education Endowment Fund as an instrument to develop innovative approaches to raising the attainment of gifted disadvantaged learners, especially given the pressures on the Foundation to prioritise elsewhere.

For there is a risk to the achievement of the Government’s own impact indicators if insufficient attention is paid to developing new and better ways of improving the attainment of gifted, disadvantaged learners with the capacity to progress to selective universities.

Improving aspirations, motivation and self-esteem

We now move on to the second priority identified through the social mobility strategy – improving the aspirations, motivation, self-esteem and information, advice and guidance available to these learners so they have the skills and self-belief to compete successfully for places at selective universities.

The strategy highlights a duty on schools in the current Education Bill to secure access for pupils to independent, impartial careers advice, including advice on routes to further and higher education.

Schools are also expected to offer complementary activities such as talks, visits and taster sessions, while universities will be expected to make clear information available to students from disadvantaged backgrounds. Post-16 and post-19 ‘destinations measures’ introduced into performance tables will incentivise schools to provide high-quality advice.

The Strategy refers to the wide range of organisations engaged in aspirations-raising activity and its variability in terms of quality and coverage. Because this is ‘crowded territory’ the Government will not introduce its own provision but will ‘support and promote’ existing activity.

(That said, the text goes on to establish that the Government’s own National Citizen Servicewill be part of this market. NCS pilots are under way, but the Education Select Committee has drawn attention to the high unit costs and the unlikely prospect that the Government will be able to make it universal, as it intends, without significant adjustment.)

This is slightly odd, in that the logical intervention would be a flexible framework to improve the supply, quality and co-ordination of provision, much like that which has been suggested on this Blogbut perhaps this is seen as over-interventionist by a Government committed to markets and autonomy.

Changes to the careers service have been highly controversial. The Government announced the introduction of a new all age careers service from April 2012. Schools might be expected to use this service to fulfil their new statutory responsibility, but they can also choose another supplier.

Because there is no ring-fenced funding within school budgets to support this activity and apparently limited Government funding to support the student element of the all-age service, there are fears that schools will be forced to secure online rather than face-to-face advice, regardless of the provider they choose.

The July 2011 Report of the Government-appointed Advocate for Access to Higher Education (the Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes) made several recommendations about careers, including that the Government:

‘should act urgently to guarantee face to face careers advice for all young people in schools’.

The Education Select Committee has also called for face-to face provision:

‘Online career guidance, which allows young people to explore at their own pace and according to their own interests, is valuable; and we heard praise for the online careers services offered by DirectGov. However, this is no substitute for personal advice, given on the basis of an understanding of a young person’s circumstances and ambitions. We recommend that the all age careers service should be funded by the Department for Education for face to face career guidance for young people.’

In a recent Parliamentary debate on the matter, the Government refused to guarantee face-to-face careers support on the grounds that it was still considering the full range of recommendations in the Advocate’s Report.

But Hughes himself said:

‘I can hold back my colleagues from voting with the Opposition only because of the undertaking he has given’.

It therefore seems highly likely that the Government will be forced to give way on this issue. Assuming that this happens, key beneficiaries will include gifted disadvantaged learners needing clear and objective guidance to inform their progression into higher education and beyond.

Although the Government will itself engage in quality assurance, GT Voice is well-placed to unite with other organisations, such as The Bridge Group, in ensuring that the all-age careers service and its competitors in the market are equipped to provide high quality, independent advice to disadvantaged gifted learners, so that the service they receive is comparable with that available to more advantaged young people attending independent schools.

As part of its efforts to broker relationships between schools and suppliers of gifted education services, GT Voice might consider including providers of information, advice and guidance.

16-19 Education

Many gifted learners from disadvantaged backgrounds will transfer from schools at age 16 into 16-19 institutions. The Government is raising the compulsory leaving age to 17 from 2013 and 18 from 2015 but, for the time being, it remains true that disadvantaged gifted learners will more easily progress into higher education if they continue education in a post-16 setting rather than leaving school to seek employment.

Since post-16 employment is scarce in the current economic environment, there is perhaps less of an incentive to leave than has historically been the case but, nevertheless, it must be financially viable for learners to continue in post-16 education.

Since the Pupil Premium continues only to age 16, what provision is in place to ensure that Premium-eligible learners continue to receive support?

This question can be posed in relation to institutional funding and also to the support available to learners themselves, in lieu of income from employment or the benefits they would receive if unemployed.

In the case of the former, the Government claims (Col 52) that

‘£770 million is being spent on supporting the education of disadvantaged 16 to 18-year-olds. That is £150 million more than would previously have been available to schools and colleges specifically for the education of the most disadvantaged 16 to 19-year-olds. Nearly 550,000 young people will benefit from that student premium’.

However, this briefing from the Young People’s Learning Agency (YPLA) makes clear that:

  • the increase of £150 million per year relates to 2014/15 and also includes support for low attainers;
  • although at least 500,000 learners will benefit in 2011/12, it is not possible to ‘provide a figure comparable to the pre-16 pupil premium’ because this involves two separate elements of the funding formula. The YPLA says it will review the formula to make funding for disadvantaged learners more transparent.

There is to be an open consultation on the 16-19 funding formula. Reports of the preceding informal consultation suggest that it may indeed identify something akin to a ‘post-16 pupil premium’, but it remains to be seen whether this would be passported on previous eligibility for FSM, or based on some other measure of disadvantage.

If the latter, obvious questions arise about continuity of support. It also remains to be seen whether the Government can match the rate of Premium provided pre-16 and load the same expectations on post-16 institutions in relation to how the funding is used.

There are potentially strong arguments for a continuous system of support through to age 19, especially given the imminent raising of the participation age. If the Government is measuring the success of their support for disadvantaged learners at least partly in terms of their higher education destinations, the continuation of targeted support through to university admission is much more likely to generate more positive results.

But support provided direct to the post-16 learner is at least as important as institutional funding in this context. The Government’s route here has been much more contentious because of its decision to abolish the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA), on the grounds that it was poorly targeted, replacing it with a new 16-19 Bursary Fund.

The evidence on which this decision was based has been hotly contested, but there are also concerns about the operation of the Fund. The social mobility strategy argues that it:

‘…will be sufficient to pay bursaries of up to £800 a year to all young people who were eligible for free school meals in year 11 who choose to stay on in post-16 education or training’ (p47)

but post-16 providers have discretion to decide who receives a bursary and its value, so there is no guarantee that formerly FSM-eligible learners will receive it and, even if they do, they are quite likely to get significantly less than £800.

This arrangement has not escaped the censure of the Education Select Committee:

‘It will be difficult to ensure that bursary funds are matched efficiently to need and that inconsistencies which will inevitably arise do not erode confidence in the scheme or distort learners’ choices of where to study. The Committee is not persuaded that a strong enough case has been made for distributing £180 million in student support as discretionary bursaries rather than as a slimmed-down, more targeted entitlement. We believe that the Department should have conducted an earlier, more public assessment of the options for better targeting of student support.’

As new post-16 funding arrangements are introduced, it behoves GT Voice to interest itself in their impact on disadvantaged gifted learners as they progress from school to selective universities. In many respects, post-16 is the ‘missing link’ between the school and HE sectors and we neglect it at our peril.

Improving fair access to university

This is not the place to explain the detail of the Government’s controversial reform of higher education tuition fees. Regardless of the built-in support for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, there is a risk that they and their parents will perceive that they are likely to incur a higher level of debt and, since working class people are inherently more debt-averse than others, they will be deterred from participation in higher education.

It may or may not be possible to counteract this effect through informational campaigns highlighting the economic value to the individual of an investment in higher education, as well as the beneficial repayment terms for those on low incomes and the availability of offsetting support while the student is attending the course.

At institutional level, the Government faces a major challenge in turning round the admissions behaviour of some universities, as this previous post illustrated:

  • 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.
  • 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 [the total has since risen again to 45 in 2008/09].
  • However, in percentage terms, in 2007/08, Bath was a worse performer than Oxford and Cambridge and Exeter were worse performers than Oxford.

Access Agreements

Under the new funding arrangements, all universities charging annual fees above £6,000 must confirm annual Access Agreements with the Office For Fair Access (OFFA) .

OFFA announced the outcome of the first round of Agreements in July 2011. These apply to academic year 2012/13.

OFFA estimates that national funding in support of Access Agreements will be £512.6 million, up significantly from £407.3 million in 2011/12. This will be supplemented by a further £52.4 million from the Government’s own National Scholarship Programme.

£299.1 million of the funding from Access Agreements is allocated to bursaries and scholarships to support eligible students, while £77.6 million is for outreach activities and £51.6 million for retention of students once admitted.

The institutional breakdown shows that Oxford and Cambridge together will spend – through Access Agreements and the NSP combined – some £24.2m in 2012/13. It will be interesting to see what increase in formerly FSM-eligible students this produces.

One concern is that the targets within Agreements are perhaps not as tight as they might be. Perversely, there is no requirement placed on universities to specify how many formerly FSM-eligible students they will aim to admit. OFFA failed to impose this indicator of disadvantage – or any other single indicator of disadvantage – consistently across all institutions, so universities are free to use their own preferred indicators.

It follows that the Government has significantly less leverage than it might have secured over universities that are admitting few formerly FSM-eligible learners. This compounds fears about the relative weakness of the OFFA regime and its capacity to challenge recalcitrant universities.

The Higher Education White Paper ‘Students at the Heart of the System’ (June 2011) confirms that OFFA will be strengthened:

‘…so that it can provide more active and energetic challenge and support to universities and colleges…. We will ask the new Director to advise on whether OFFA’s current powers are the right ones to achieve its statutory goals, or whether some clarification or extension is required. This could include, for example, the power to instruct an institution to spend a specific amount on access or retention from its additional fee income; a more flexible range of sanctions; or to make public an assessment of any institution that the Director feels is not making sufficient progress against its Access Agreement.’

Some clarification of the targets regime might be hoped for through this route. The Advocate for Access has also gone some way towards challenging this state of affairs, arguing that OFFA should:

‘assess higher education institutions’ annual progress on access and widening participation by measuring results against objective benchmarks rather than by statements of future intent’

but he makes no effort to define those benchmarks. Since DfE and BIS have impact indicators expressed in terms of FSM eligibility, one might reasonably expect them to be exerting some pressure in that direction.

National Scholarship Programme, Contextual Admissions, Competitive Funding

The Advocate is, however, more concerned about the operation of the National Scholarship Programme. Rather than distributing scholarships to universities, Hughes argues that they should be given mainly to schools and post-16 institutions.

Each year, schools and colleges would be informed of their allocations three years ahead. Scholarships would be awarded to disadvantaged students achieving specified grades, or potentially on the basis of demonstrated potential, say in Year 10 or Year 11.

Hughes draws a parallel with the Texas 10% scheme under which the University of Texas offers a scholarship to the top 10% of every graduating class in every school. Under this arrangement, students need only secure the High School Diploma to be admitted to a Texas university of their choice.

This is a rather muddled and ill-defined idea which would require considerable work to be viable and acceptable to universities. It will be interesting to see whether it is rejected out of hand by the Government or whether they propose a hybrid model.

Otherwise, the White Paper adds relatively little to the package of fair access measures though, like the social mobility strategy, it cautiously encourage universities to use contextual data when admitting disadvantaged learners. The White Paper says:

‘The use of contextual data to identify candidates with the ability and potential to succeed on a particular course or at a particular institution is not a new phenomenon…The Government believes that this is a valid and appropriate way for institutions to broaden access while maintaining excellence, so long as individuals are considered on their merits, and institutions’ procedures are fair, transparent and evidence-based.’

However, one new proposal elsewhere in the White Paper potentially drives a coach and horses through the fair access arrangements. This is the idea of allowing competition between universities for high-achieving students:

‘We propose to allow unrestrained recruitment of high achieving students, scoring the equivalent of AAB or above at A-Level. Core allocations for all institutions will be adjusted to remove these students. Institutions will then be free to recruit as many of these students as wish to come…This should allow greater competition for places on the more selective courses and create the opportunity for more students to go to their first choice institution if that university wishes to take them. We estimate this will cover around 65,000 students in 2012/13. AAB will represent a starting point, but our ambition is to widen the threshold over this parliament, ensuring that the share of places liberated from number controls altogether rises year on year’.

These high-achieving students will be drawn disproportionately from advantaged backgrounds. Arrangements for competition currently lie outside the scope of the Access Agreements just agreed with the universities, so there is no expectation that a proportion will be drawn from disadvantaged backgrounds. Moreover, there was nothing in the White Paper to suggest that contextual admissions could or should be applied in the case of these places.

The Advocate for Access calls only for close monitoring of such arrangements.

Collaboration and Complexity

Finally, it is worth noting that the Advocate for Access is rightly seized of the case for the regional co-ordination of fair access, recommending that a commitment to regional collaboration should be an OFFA-imposed requirement.

It is not clear who will meet the costs which would presumably have to be topsliced from the funding made available to support students.

Moreover, regional collaboration is not sufficient for admission to selective universities, which take in students from throughout the entire country. A student in the South West who wants to attend Durham University derives no benefit from regional collaboration.

A flexible national framework is really essential to maximise the chances of success and minimise financial inefficiency. I have already spelled this out in a previous post.

We have not yet heard from Alan Milburn, appointed ‘The Independent Reviewer on Social Mobility’, who has indicated that access to higher education will be his priority in his first year in the role, now to be expanded to cover Child Poverty and pave the way for a new Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission.

Although Milburn was expected to publish his first report in September 2011, the Social Mobility Strategy appears to delay this to Spring 2012. It remains to be seen what space if any he has left to add further ideas and suggestions to the pot. There is already a surfeit of cooks in this territory.

The sheer range of these strategies puts great pressure on the Ministerial Group on Social Mobility, chaired by the Deputy Prime Minister, to co-ordinate activity and ensure that it joins seamlessly together.

The sheer complexity of this policy area is problematic and the chances are that it will continue to develop over the coming months as the White Paper consultation ends and the Government responds to Hughes’ report.

Some have even suggested that the Liberal Democrats will deliberately focus on this area as part of their wider strategy to secure a bigger say on the political direction of the Coalition.

It will be incumbent on GT Voice to take a watching brief and to engage in dialogue with the parallel Bridge Group over how the two can work together in this territory.

Measuring success

We end where we began, with the question of how we define success.

The social mobility strategy devotes a fair bit of attention to measuring progress against different elements of the plan. The indicators it proposes may be regarded as interim measures, contributing towards the ultimate achievement of the HE destination outcomes defined by DfE and BIS

Rather strangely, the specified progress indicators for both these elements of attainment-raising in schools are the percentages achieving KS2 level 4 in English and maths, 5+ GCSEs at grades A*-C including English and maths and 2+ A levels or equivalent of any grade.

These are not particularly relevant to the academic achievement trajectory one would expect of those progressing to a selective university, or even to any university. Such learners need to be securing level 5+ at KS2, A*/A grades at GCSE and grades A*-B at A level.

So there is a fundamental mismatch between the Departmental impact indicators and these declared progress indicators for attainment.

There is also an aspiration – not quite a commitment – to ‘closing the gap between state schools and the independent sector’. This will be supported by ‘a more aspirational indicator comparing the attainment of children in independent school with those in state schools’, which presumably underpins the BIS impact indicator. No further details have emerged to date.

We know that a post-19 destinations measure will be introduced for those completing KS5 in 2012/13. This will include higher education destinations and officials have proposed that it should separately identify selective universities, attracting some criticism as a consequence, in recognition of the risk of perverse incentives.

A London Councils working group objected that separate reference to Oxford and Cambridge:

‘has the potential to skew the real value of courses. Courses offered by other universities, for example, are often ranked higher than the equivalent Oxbridge courses (engineering at Imperial for example). Furthermore, certain courses may be unavailable at Oxbridge such as specialist art or drama courses or the wide range of vocational courses including nursing. Specific reference to Oxbridge destinations could reinforce the intense focus many schools place on Oxbridge as a preferable destination; this has the potential to hinder informative and impartial advice on the full range of options available to young people.

There is no indication to date that any of this destination data will be differentiated to show the progress of learners from disadvantaged backgrounds, though that will presumably be essential.

Final words

One’s overall impression is of a huge policy agenda that requires significant further refinement before it is coherent enough to stand a really good chance of achieving the outcomes expected of it by the Government. There has been some movement in the right direction, but not yet enough.

Because of the time-lags involved, it may be that the Government will never be held to account if there is only a marginal increase in the proportion of disadvantaged gifted learners progressing to selective universities. In the short term, it can always deploy the excuse that change takes time to effect and that slow progress is at least partly attributable to the shortcomings of its predecessor.

Nevertheless, GT Voice and the Government have a shared interest in trying to make these reforms work. There are some real opportunities for GT Voice to make its mark in shaping, as well as supporting both policy and delivery.

GP

September 2011

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