The Report By The Expert Panel For The National Curriculum Review

This post is about the treatment – one might truthfully say the neglect – of high-achieving learners by the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum Review.

Setting the Scene

The National Curriculum Review was launched by the Coalition Government in January 2011 but was announced the previous year in the Schools White Paper ‘The Importance of Teaching’.

An earlier post covers the background to the Review in some detail, so I will only repeat essential material here.

The Review is being managed by the Department for Education (DfE) reporting to the Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove. They are supported by an Advisory Committee, responsible for guiding the review and helping to frame recommendations, and an Expert Panel, whose task is to provide an evidence base for the Review including international best practice.

The Advisory Group has 15 members including its chair, who is a senior DfE civil servant (the present incumbent will be replaced early in 2012). Its terms of reference identify its responsibilities:

  • to provide a wider perspective and feedback on proposals and recommendations generated by the Expert Panel;
  • to consider and make recommendations on strategic and cross-cutting issues arising from the review as and when it is invited to do so by the Secretary of State; and
  • to advise the Chair in drawing up the final recommendations regarding the future form and design of the National Curriculum.

The Expert Panel had just four members, all academics. Its terms of reference set out a wide range of issues on which it was expected to advise and make recommendations.

They included:

‘what is needed to provide expectations for progression to support the least able and stretch the most able’.

The Panel was to take ‘account of the requirements set by successful education jurisdictions across the world’ and ‘seek and reflect the views of teachers, subject communities, academics, employers, higher education institutions and other interested parties’.

It had been assumed that the Expert Panel would exist for the duration of the Review. (‘The Expert Panel may also be asked to provide advice on other matters related to the National Curriculum from time to time during the course of this review…’).

But it has just been announced that the Panel has completed its work with the publication of a Report ‘The Framework for the National Curriculum’ on 19 December 2011, even though that Report does not fulfil all aspects of the remit that the Panel was set.

The Chair of the Panel, Tim Oates, is being retained as an adviser to the review and member of the Advisory Committee (on which he already sits).

Also on 19 December, the Secretary of State published a Written Ministerial Statement and three other publications:

The Ministerial Statement outlines the initial findings and recommendations that are being published without directly referencing some of the more controversial elements.

It adds:

‘In light of the far-reaching and complex nature of the expert panel recommendations, and to allow for more radical reform of both curriculum and qualifications, I have decided to change the planned timetable for the introduction of the new National Curriculum. Instead of new curricula for English, mathematics, science and PE being introduced from 2013, and the remainder in 2014, the new curriculum for all subjects will be introduced in 2014.

The longer timescale will allow for further debate with everyone interested in creating a genuinely world-class education system; teachers, governors, academics, business leaders and parents, as well as giving schools more time to prepare for a radically different and more rigorous approach.

A detailed timetable for the conduct of the remainder of the review, as well as a refreshed remit, will be published in the New Year.’

The story of how this position has been reached has not been made public, so observers are reliant on hearsay and rumour.

It has been rumoured that the Secretary of State has sent back recommendations once, and possibly twice.

Given the strong views held by particular members of the Advisory Group and Expert Panel – some of which are likely to differ significantly from Ministers’ views and, indeed, wider Government policy – one might have expected the Review to run into difficulties. With the benefit of hindsight, one could view the selection of Panel members as somewhat naïve.

But let us move on to the matter in hand.

The Summary Report of the Call for Evidence

The Call for Evidence was launched on 20 January and lasted until 14 April. A total of 5673 responses were submitted.

My previous post – parts One and Two – comprised one of those responses. I submitted it on the final day of the Call for Evidence and was given response identifier 5156. I therefore know that it should have been taken into account in the Summary. I do not know whether it was seen by the Expert Panel though, on the evidence of their Report, I very much doubt it.

Part Two of my post offered a series of recommendations for what the Review should recommend to ensure appropriate provision for gifted high achievers. Needless to say, none of those are entertained in the Report.

I can find no specific trace in the Summary of Evidence either, but that is not surprising in that no submissions are separately referenced. The relevant section is on pages 45-49, in the section on Supporting Pupils’ Progress.

Key general points include:

  • 67% of 2910 responses, 64% of them from teachers, said the National Curriculum should continue to specify the requirements for each of the 8 levels of achievement; only 502 (17%) opposed this;
  • 536 respondents offered alternatives, 47% of them from teachers. Many of these respondents were concerned at the level of prescription within the levels, but 13% (69) thought they should be much more precise;
  • 17% (181) of the 1073 respondents to a question about how the curriculum and attainment targets should be defined to meet the needs of pupils in a wide range of circumstances said the programmes of study should be set out as progression statements that would apply irrespective of age or year group; on the other hand, 16% thought the guidance should be left as it is.

In answer to the specific question ‘How do you think the needs of high attaining pupils should be addressed through the National Curriculum?’:

  • 40% of respondents (748) said ‘greater emphasis should be put on differentiation…teachers must be trusted to differentiate their teaching and learning to meet the needs of high attaining pupils;
  • 38% (708) said ‘more opportunities for challenging work that went beyond the basic knowledge base should be provided for high attaining pupils’;
  • 32% (592) said ‘teachers should be recognised as professionals who would do their best to ensure that all children reached their full potential…the needs of high attaining pupils would continue to be addressed by high quality teaching, supported by a modern and flexible curriculum’;
  • 11% (213) said ‘high attaining pupils would be extended by working at a higher level of the National Curriculum, and they must work to their ability and not their age;
  • 10% (179) said ‘the needs of high attaining pupils should be addressed by the introduction of Programmes of Study aimed specifically at this group.

While I am too modest to expect that the Expert Group would value my personal input to the Call for Evidence, it is alarming that it seems virtually to have ignored the clear majority view from respondents about retaining the 8-level structure.

The Expert Panel Report says it has supported the work of the DfE review team, including by ‘evaluating outcomes of the Review’s call for evidence’ but it seems not to have taken on board any of the suggestions received.

For such a Group to take such a position is worrying. It seems to have regarded itself as perfectly justified in taking a completely different view, which would suggest that it did not properly understand its remit.

The Expert Panel’s Report

Let me make clear at the outset that there is merit to many of the recommendations in the Report, though it remains to be seen whether they will survive close scrutiny and analysis. Already some of the other recommendations appear to be unravelling.

I am concerned wholly with the Panel’s response to its task of advising on:

‘what is needed to provide expectations for progression to…stretch the most able’.

There is hardly anything in the Report specifically addressing this issue. The introduction says:

Further work is needed on outstanding issues such as transitions between key stages and, in particular, on more detailed consideration of provision for children with learning difficulties, special educational needs and disabilities and/or those regarded as high attainers.’

That ‘regarded as’ is an unnecessary phrase which appears to throw doubt on the very existence of such high attainers. Gifted educators are well-used to such negative linguistic cues. It is not a promising start.

Chapter 3 of the Report deals with the structure of the school curriculum, differentiating between the National Curriculum, the Basic Curriculum and the Local Curriculum. The latter is used to describe ‘curricular elements that are determined at school or community level’.

In paragraph 3.19, it is suggested that this:

should also enable schools to extend or contextualise the National and Basic Curricula in ways best suited to the needs of particular groups of pupils’.

This may or may not imply that provision for high achievers, amongst others, should be incorporated in the Local Curriculum, rather than in the part-statutorily and wholly nationally defined National Curriculum.

If this is correct (and it is a fault of the Report that this is not made explicit), such provision would be entirely at the discretion of schools, with no element of national framework or national guidance whatsoever. That is entirely inconsistent with what happens in many of the ‘international jurisdictions’ investigated by the Panel, as we shall see later.

But the fundamental problems occur in Chapter 8, on Assessment, Reporting and Pupil Progression.

What Chapter 8 Says

The argument in Chapter 8 runs as follows:

  • The Panel has ‘concerns about the ways in which levels are currently used to judge pupil progress’ and cites the outcome of the Call for Evidence in support of this position (para 8.3)
  • It suggests levels ‘may actually inhibit the overall performance of our system and undermine learning’ (para 8.3).
  • Pupils come to ‘label themselves’ in terms of levels and so the system ‘has a significant effect of exacerbating social differentiation rather than promoting a more inclusive approach that strives for secure learning of key curricular elements by all’ (para 8.4).
  • ‘It should be possible to do better, particularly in primary education…By the end of secondary education pupil attainments are necessarily differentiated…However we believe strongly that before the end of compulsory schooling, the structures for assessing and reporting achievement…should foster the possibility of high attainment for all’ (para 8.5).
  • Some of the high-performing systems examined appear to have a radically different approach. ‘Crude categorisation of pupil abilities and attainment is eschewed in favour of encouraging all pupils to achieve adequate understanding before moving on to the next topic or area’ (para 8.6).
  • ‘Achievement is interpreted in terms of the power of effort rather than the limits of ability’. This is particularly the case in ‘China, Hong Kong SAR, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan’ (para 8.6).
  • ‘In Western countries ‘the assumption has often been that capacity to learn, and achieve, is determined by innate endowment of fixed intelligence (ability). This assumption – that there are limits on what children are capable of learning – has had a negative influence on expectations of achievement and how learning and assessment is organised’ (para 8.6).
  • Teachers in some international systems examined ‘see their task as ensuring that all pupils have developed an adequate level of understanding…prior to moving onto the next block of content. Labelling of differential attainment is of secondary importance’ (para 8.8).
  • ‘Naturally, however, it is a far from simple picture….While the balance of evidence is clearly that countries with higher achievement tend to have less variation in pupil achievement there is no clear trend…On the other hand…this is an important debate which we should have in relation to England’ (paras 8.10-8.12).
  • ‘It is important to understand that this model applies principally to primary education. Many of the systems in which this model is used progressively change in secondary education to more selective and differentiated routes (para 8.15).
  • Such an approach ‘could be referred to as a mastery model…we prefer to highlight the crucial inputs. We have therefore opted to recommend an approach to pupil progression that emphasises ‘high expectations for all’…This conveys necessary teacher commitment to both aspiration and inclusion and implies the specific set of fundamental achievements that all pupils should attain. The anticipated outcome remains that pupils are ready to progress at the end of each key stage’ (para 8.17).
  • ‘We have identified ten salient dimensions that contribute to high expectations for all [these are then listed] (para 8.19)

Paragraph 8.21 comes nearest to responding to the requirement in the remit to consider ‘expectations for progression…to stretch the most able’. It says:

‘There are issues regarding ‘stretch and challenge’ for those pupils who, for a particular body of content, grasp material more swiftly than others. There are different responses to this in different national settings, but frequently there is a focus on additional activities that allow greater application and practice, additional topic study within the same area of content, and engagement in demonstration and discussion with others (often vital for consolidation of learning and identification of misunderstanding and misconception). Additional tutoring is employed in some settings, but it is important even in systems in which tutoring is widespread. These systems achieve comparatively low spread at the end of primary education, a factor vital in a high proportion of pupils being well positioned to make good use of more intensive subject-based provision in secondary schooling’.

The subsequent paragraph, relating to SEN, reveals that ‘The Expert Panel consulted SEND specialists through stakeholder meetings’.

The remainder of the chapter explains the implications for assessment and accountability.

In the case of assessment, the obvious implication is that levels would be abandoned in favour of ‘more detailed profiling of students’ attainment’. But the Panel stresses it ‘is not suggesting any change in GCSEs’ continuing:

‘However, if having ‘high expectations for all’ is successful then we would expect results not to exhibit the bell-curve of normal distribution, but a skewed curve where the majority achieve at the higher end.’

That is nothing if not ambitious. It would be great if we could achieve it but, as the Report later emphasises, part of the problem is eradicating the ‘long tail of underachievement’.

The implications for accountability are of course that reporting and performance tables would need to use different measures – but the only suggestion offered is a measure based on the proportion of pupils who are ‘ready to progress’ in core subjects.

Critiquing Chapter Eight

First and foremost, this does not even begin to fulfil the remit given to the Panel in respect of ‘progression…to stretch the most able’. That initial, grudging ‘regarded as high attainers’ proved prophetic.

One is left with the inescapable conclusion that stretch and challenge for the most able is a second order issue. That is a questionable position, significantly at odds with the principles of personalisation espoused by the last Labour Government even more than the current Coalition.

It will not help the Government to deliver on some of its core measures for improving social mobility, by increasing significantly the flow of disadvantaged young people to Oxbridge and other competitive universities.

When it comes to considering specific points in the argument advanced to support the Panel’s preferred position, it quickly unravels.

  • There is no justification for praying in aid the summary of the Call for Evidence to support concerns about national curriculum levels. As we have seen, the existing structure is supported by a substantial majority – almost exactly two-thirds of those who commented.
  • Concern about students labelling themselves in terms of levels may ‘exacerbate social inequalities’, but such labels can also be used positively to raise expectations and aspirations of learners from disadvantaged backgrounds (eg ‘gifted and talented’ as used in Excellence in Cities). Moreover, it would be of little value to drop ‘levels labels’ when so many others – eg FSM, ethnic, gender, SEN/disability – continue to exist, indeed remain at the forefront of our educational practice. This is empty idealism.
  • The chapter several times makes a distinction between primary education and the end of secondary education when ‘pupil attainments are necessarily differentiated’. There is no justification whatsoever for this belief that differentiation only becomes acceptable for GCSE qualifications and is unacceptable beforehand. What makes the difference between learners on one side of this age boundary and not on the other? And where exactly is that boundary? We are left totally unclear whether such differentiation can be adopted during KS4, or only in end KS4 examinations and there is deafening silence about KS3. This is slapdash. Does the Panel mean to ban levels up to Year 7, Year 9 or the end of Year 11?
  • The juxtaposition of a Confucian-style ‘power of effort’ philosophy in the East and a Western emphasis on achievement ‘determined by innate endowment of fixed intelligence (ability)’ is outdated and simplistic. Dweck’s early studies are over a decade old now – indeed footnoted in this Report – and such ideas are now fully integrated into contemporary Western thinking.

A footnote to paragraph 8.21 speaks positively of a ‘learning without limits’ movement of teachers who:

‘teach from the starting premise [sic] that all pupils are capable of learning and that intelligence itself can be learned. They do not assume that anything called ‘fixed ability’ imposes limits on learning.’

This reference is mine – there is none in the footnote. There is not space here for a full exploration of the principles underpinning ‘Learning without Limits’, though I undertake to explore them in a future post. At first sight it seems that one of their core principles is that ‘teachers’ efforts to transform learning capacity are applied equally and fairly to everyone’ – and ‘everyone’ must by definition include high attaining learners.

At first sight, it seems that this small movement do not differ from the broad consensual position amongst psychologists and educators that both heritability and environment have a significant effect on ability – so while all pupils may have the potential to achieve highly (and can potentially learn much of what they need to do so) some will have heritable dispositions that make their high achievement relatively more likely. A footnote to para 8.19 appears to suggest that the Panel recognises and shares this position.

  • Judging by other footnotes, the treatment of these ‘Confucian-heritage’ Asian education systems seems to rely extensively on publications dating from the mid-to-late 1990s, so 10-15 years out of date. A 1996 publication by Reynolds and Farrell is a particular favourite.

It too is simplistic, in that it fails entirely to acknowledge that most if not all of these system have well-developed gifted education programmes that complement the more fundamental strategy of ensuring that all learners understand the material they encounter before moving on. This is particularly puzzling because much of the information is readily available online. For example, Singapore and Hong Kong both publish extensive material about their policy and practice. I myself have blogged extensively about Hong Kong’s system. These programmes are typically more developed in the secondary sector but there is also significant support for primary gifted learners. Even Finland is introducing elements of gifted education into its education system.

The Report is guilty of taking this one aspect of provision and lifting it out of context, cherry-picking a single dimension of education which it has a vested interest in foisting on an English constituency that, on the whole, seems perfectly content to continue with the existing 8 level system. It warns against the dangers of such ‘policy tourism’ (eg in para 8.9) while failing to abstain from committing the very same fault!

  • This whole section called ‘What Other Countries Do’ is a mish-mash of half- evidenced theories and simplistic catchphrases like ‘ready to progress’, ‘holding the group together’ and ‘mastery’. It includes the curiously contradictory statement that:

‘while the balance of evidence is clearly that countries with high achievement tend to have less variation in pupil achievement there is no clear trend within high-performing jurisdictions’ (para 8.11).

What can this mean, except that there is no evidence from international data sources to justify deliberate policy to narrow such variation? That is, presumably, because high overall achievement does not depend entirely on having a small tail of low achievers, as the Report itself notes earlier – see my post on high performers in PISA 2009 for more about the distribution of national scores on that assessment.

But then we are pointed to a footnoted list of research studies, including a meta analysis by one of the Panel, which concluded that ‘with appropriate interventions achievement for all could be raised very significantly…but most significantly for those often characterised as ‘less able”. (Note again in the way this is expressed an apparent unwillingness to acknowledge openly any differences in ability and attainment between learners.)

For a few paragraphs the report flirts with the idea that the overall standard of the national cohort of learners, with its typical spread of attainment, can be improved by focusing disproportionately on the low attainers. But this is of course directly contradictory to the policy of personalised education (and indeed the philosophy of ‘Learning without Limits’) both of which are focused on helping every learner to be the best that they can be. How would this sit with a policy providing additional support to narrow the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged learners? Would rich low attainers take precedence over poor high attainers, for example?

But then there is a weird somersault of logic in paragraphs 8.16-8.17. The desired outcome measure, ‘mastery’, is rejected in favour of the preferred input measure ‘high expectations for all’. Are we then back to recognising the value of differentiation and personalisation, including for high attainers?

Well, we simply don’t know, because ‘high expectations for all is unpacked into ten different statements, which again warn against ‘inherited abilities’ and ‘labels’, also mentioning the importance of ‘ensuring that all pupils understand the ‘essential curriculum core”, achieve ‘the threshold criterion of ready to progress’ and are enabled ‘to progress with their peers’. There is no reference whatsoever to differentiation, stretch and challenge or any other dimension of meeting learners’ very different needs. And this section culminates with the puff for the obviously much favoured ‘Learning without Limits’ mentioned above.

  • Finally we reach paragraph 8.21, which I have quoted above in its entirety. For anyone seeking an answer to how progression will support the most able, this is a sore disappointment – indeed almost risible.

We are told ‘there are issues’ but there is no attempt to spell out what these are. Then we are told that ‘there are different responses in different settings’.

The few sentences that follow see these responses entirely in terms of additional provision (rather than provision of a different kind) – the word ‘additional’ is repeated three times. Other words, like enrichment, extension, acceleration are conspicuous by their absence.

In short, the paragraph is virtually meaningless.

We know The Expert Panel took the trouble to consult SEND specialists through stakeholder meetings but they didn’t extend the same courtesy to gifted educators, despite the statement in their remit that they were to ‘seek and reflect the views of teachers, subject communities, academics, employers, higher education institutions and other interested parties’. Why not?


I offer no overall evaluation of the Report. We have not been told what the Advisory Group or Ministers thought of it, but I can draw inferences from the fact that it was published without the usual DfE branding, while the other three Review documents published simultaneously do have the normal branding. That means Ministers want to put distance between this thinking and theirs/the Department’s.

It is not Government policy – far from it – and the Government wants it subjected to scrutiny so it can decide which parts, if any, to salvage and adopt. This is my contribution to that process.

It is even more telling that the Expert Panel has been summarily dismissed without completing their task (they do at least acknowledge that further work is needed on ‘stretch and challenge’ and in some other areas). One can reasonably conclude that this has not been the most successful expert group ever assembled by DfE.

I have asked one of the Panel members why this Report failed to respond to the part of its remit relating to high attainers, rather than leaving it for others to sort out. I have had no reply. It is hard to escape the conclusion – evidenced by much of the material above – that, for their own ideological reasons, they preferred to ignore it.

While some of the recommendations may have merit, those in Chapter 8 are a curious smorgasbord of half-baked ideas that make no allowances for what is politically acceptable and entirely ignore the clear majority view expressed in the summary report on the Call for Evidence. They lack the rigour called for in the Written Ministerial Statement and Ministers must have skated over them in that Statement because they were, frankly, an embarrassment.

Just four days earlier, the Government published the 2011 Primary School Performance Tables which, for the first time, separately identified  achievement by ‘high attainers’ (those performing above the expected level at KS1). It unearthed significant evidence of underachievement in the guise of poor progression between KS1 and KS2:

  • While, 99% of high attainers achieved Level 4 or above in KS2 English and maths, only 61% achieved Level 5 in both English and maths.
  • While 89% of high attainers made the expected 2+ levels of progress in maths, slightly more than middle attainers (85%) and considerably more than low attainers (65%), only 77% of high attainers made the expected 2+ levels of progress in English, significantly less than the proportion of middle attainers (89%) and slightly less than the proportion of low attainers (80%).

The Daily Mail followed up with further data, presumably fed to it by the DfE:

  • the number of high attainers not making the expected progress in both English and math is estimated at ‘up to 51,000 11 year-olds’;
  • 2,160 primary schools returned at least a 20% gap between the proportion of middle achievers and the proportion of high achievers making the expected 2+ levels of progress in English (presumably in favour of the middle achievers though the report does not say so);
  • Around half of all primary schools had some high attaining pupils who did not make 2+ levels of progress in both English and maths (ie not a 100% record on this measure);
  • Amazingly 800 schools had high attaining pupils who did not even reach Level 4 at KS2, so were at level 3 at the end of KS1 and remained at Level 3 after four years of KS2 education. In 15 schools, more than 20 per cent of pupils fell into this category and some 1,300 pupils were affected all told. Even allowing for differences in the meaning of levels at different Key Stages – and the undoubted special circumstances some of these pupils must have faced – this is simply unacceptable.

It is very hard to understand how the removal of National Curriculum levels would improve this situation, especially when no viable alternative is offered in their place.

I can find only one possible reason why the Expert Panel’s position could be attractive to Ministers. It lies in the fact that academies (including free schools) do not have to follow the National Curriculum. Ministers have declared a long-term aspiration that all schools will become academies.

What better way of re-energising a wavering transformation schedule than by approving entirely unworkable national curriculum progression arrangements that will be rejected by most professionals and most parents alike?

Certainly the parents of high-attaining learners – and aspirational parents from disadvantaged backgrounds who want to help their children progress to Oxbridge and other competitive universities – will be among the first to transfer their children. That will materially increase the chances of the schools they vacate becoming sinks and ultimately failing.

I would much prefer an alternative future in which every school provided effective stretch and challenge for high attainers – and those with the potential to become high attainers, especially those from poor backgrounds. The new National Curriculum should guide them in that process rather than leaving such critical matters entirely to their professional discretion.

That is much more likely to deliver the Government’s own ambitious output measures for improved social mobility.

Indeed, I would hypothesise that DfE’s own output measure, based on increasing the admission of formerly FSM-eligible students to leading universities, will require a sharper approach all round if it is to deliver the pipeline of high attainers necessary to secure it. National curriculum progression is just one element, though an important one.

There is a lot we can learn from other countries about the support they provide to high attainers, but the Expert Panel has apparently failed to mine that information. This blog already offers a huge amount of free material, but more should be collected and properly analysed.

I very much look forward to working with Tim Oates!


December 2011

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