The Sutton Trust Open Access Scheme

This post is a critique of a Sutton Trust paper published on 29 March 2012: ‘Open Access: Democratising entry to Independent Day Schools’.

It proposes needs-blind admissions and means-tested fees for all pupils at specified selective independent schools. The least advantaged would have their fees met entirely by the Government, the most advantaged would continue to pay full fees and the remainder would pay a proportion of the fees with the Government making up the difference.

The primary objective seems to be to provide a route to greater social mobility, rather than improving the education of gifted learners, though they are the instrument through which the transformation is to be achieved.

This post considers the Open Access proposal on its own terms, and finds it wanting. The impact on key populations affected by such a scheme – including gifted disadvantaged learners – is very unlikely to be unremittingly positive, so this adds further downside.

Overall, I conclude that the case for introducing Open Access is weak. It does not stand up to scrutiny and should not be pursued further.


The Sutton Trust is a charity established by Sir Peter Lampl to promote social mobility through education. It has concentrated on improving the chances of academically able young people from relatively modest backgrounds to progress to competitive universities and on into the professions.

From 2000-2007, the Trust, in conjunction with the Girls’ Day School Trust (GDST), piloted a scheme at The Belvedere School, an independent school for girls located in Liverpool.

The pilot was to test the idea of admitting pupils entirely on merit, on a needs-blind basis, but to charge fees on a means-tested basis, so enabling more academically able young people from less advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds to attend the School.

At the end of this period, in September 2007, the school became a state-funded Academy, jointly sponsored by the GDST and the HSBC bank. It was the first independent school in England to become an academy.

The Trust has published a series of studies related to the Belvedere Pilot and proposing its extension throughout England:

This 2012 Paper is just the latest on the same theme.

I concede that this critique is influenced by ideological reservations: I firmly believe that the optimal way to support gifted learners is to ensure that they receive the challenge and support they need within the state education system, rather than transferring them into the independent sector.

I do not believe that exporting them into independent schools is necessarily and inevitably in their best interests as learners (though it may be advantageous to some). It is certainly not in the best interests of the state sector as a whole, though it may benefit the independent sector significantly.

But, ideology aside, ‘Open Access: Democratising entry to Independent Day Schools’ does not bear close examination. It is a rather shoddy reproduction of arguments already advanced in the preceding papers. It does not deserve to be taken seriously as a viable and efficient way of supporting gifted learners.

The Belvedere Pilot

The new paper describes the Belvedere pilot scheme in glowing terms. Beginning in 2000, it lasted for seven years, so a single cohort of 11-year-olds who entered the School in September 2000 benefited throughout their school careers, while subsequent cohorts benefited up to the time that the School became an Academy in September 2007.

Belvedere was chosen for the pilot because it served a socially and ethnically mixed area and so would draw in learners from all backgrounds. In the first year there were 367 applications for 72 places, of which around 50 were from Belvedere’s own Junior School and other independent schools.

We are not told what proportions were admitted from state and independent sectors respectively in this first year but, by the third year:

‘applications were received from 129 state schools, which provided 92% of the year’s intake. Twenty-nine very able girls from the 111 applicants from the two poorest postcode categories were offered places, as were six of the 15 applicants from the multi-racial inner city.’

Over 30% of those who declared their father’s occupational status reported a manual background or unemployment. (It is not clear whether this applies to all years or just the third.) Over ‘the five years of open access’ – this presumably means the first five years of the scheme – one third of admissions were eligible for free school meals.

The selection process is not properly explained. We are told only that:

  • It was designed to assess ‘potential’ as well as current and past performance;
  • ‘some allowance’ was made for the applicants’ previous school and home background, although this stopped short of ‘positive discrimination’;
  • Verbal and non-verbal reasoning tests were used, while English and maths tests ‘were used as a cut off’;
  • An admissions committee ‘decided offers based on merit alone’.

About one-third of entrants had their fees fully paid and 38% had part of their fees paid, leaving around 30% of parents continuing to pay full fees. ‘At maturity’ the total cost of the scheme – ie of subsidising fees for all eligible pupils – was about £2m per year.

Assuming that there were 72 places in each year and 30% of pupils had their fees entirely paid by their parents, this suggests that, after seven years, about 350 pupils benefited from the subsidy, averaging around £5,700 a year.

The paper claims that, since only 0.5% of all state school pupils in Liverpool transferred to Belvedere annually, this did not create a significant ‘creaming off’ of talent from other secondary schools, so there was no deleterious effect on the state system.

In 2005, 99% of the first cohort achieved 5 good GCSEs. They went on to ‘gain exceptional A level results’ in 2007 and ‘most entered top universities, including some to Oxbridge’.

This is declared to be ‘convincing proof of the success of the scheme and a vindication of the admissions policy’, though we are not told how examination results and university entry correlated with students’ backgrounds.

The earlier publications provide further information

Published in November 2001, ‘Educational Apartheid: A Practical Way Forward’ is the first paper to call for the extension of the Belvedere Pilot. It references an initial Evaluation of the Scheme, published in December 2000, which is no longer available on the Sutton Trust website or elsewhere online, as far as I can establish.

Much of the material in the 2012 paper is taken wholesale from this 2001 publication or from the 2004 version ‘Open Access: A Practical Way Forward – New Developments’, but we also learn that:

  • the verbal and non-verbal reasoning selection tests were developed by the NFER, while the English and maths tests were set by the School;
  • the scheme cost £178K in its first year but, because of its success, was subsequently more expensive than anticipated.

Further detail and some fascinating insights are provided in the evaluation report ‘Five Years On: Open Access to Independent Education’:

  • Only 304 of the original 367 applicants in 2000 actually sat the entrance tests – 257 of them (85%) were from state schools; 113 offers of places were made, 84 of them (74%) to state school applicants; 69 places were accepted, 47 of them (68%) by state school applicants.
  • Only about 56% of offers to state school applicants were accepted. In 2001, 52% of those not accepting an offered place cited financial reasons. The report comments: ‘Even with the generous support of the Sutton Trust and the Girls’ Day School Trust they still did not think they could afford to accept.’
  • 36.2% of pupils had their fees paid in full in 2000, 35.2% in 2001 but only 25.4% in 2002. The comparable figures for part-paid fees were 34.8%, 43.7% and 36.6% respectively. Naturally enough, the vast majority of places were rejected by those who would have been liable for partial or full fees.
  • In 2005, 23.3% of the first cohort, now in Year 11, were eligible for free school meals, but 51.7% of Year 7 in 2005 were eligible;
  • 62.7% of 2005 GCSE entries were at Grades A*/A but there were clear differences in achievement according to the fee-paying status of the learners, even though there were no significant differences in their assessed ability on entry to the School:

‘In terms of GCSE results overall the girls from low-income homes (those with their fees fully paid) did less well than either the part or full fee payers.  Differences in this direction also emerge in the English, maths and science GCSEs though not reaching statistical significance in the individual examinations.  Quite why a group of similar ability to two other groups should fare less well at GCSE requires further investigation. At this stage, we can only speculate.  It could be due to differences in the girls’ aspirations or to their home circumstances.’

This appears to show that transfer into independent schools is not quite the panacea suggested in the other papers. One might reasonably conclude that the educational effects are not, of themselves, sufficient to cancel out the effects of home background and environment.

Overall though, the evaluation is overwhelmingly positive. Part of the conclusion reads:

‘But The Sutton Trust’s formal proposal to Government to fund a larger scale trial of Open Access at a dozen schools, and the regular discussions with ministers that have followed it, have fallen on interested but, to date, deaf ears.  Open Access has many attractions: it is successful, cost-effective, and has the support of parents and schools, both, in practice, in Liverpool and, in principle, more widely.  It does, however, cut to the heart of Labour Party ideology in two ways.  First, it requires the academic selection of students at age 11.  Secondly, it would involve the state paying for students to attend private schools…

…Nevertheless, the sort of fundamental, far-reaching and transformative partnership envisaged under Open Access appears to remain a bridge too far for the current administration.  The Sutton Trust continues to bring the project to the attention of politicians and policy thinkers of all parties, and to stress that dogma should not get in the way of the development of successful educational initiatives.  For the moment The Belvedere Scheme remains a demonstration of what could be achieved were there the will.’

But, although we learn a fair amount about the impact of the pilot, there is precious little information about the detail of the scheme, especially about the selection instruments deployed and the fees and means-testing regime.

What is clear from the way the pilot ended is that, with this model in this particular school, there was little prospect of the scheme becoming self-sustaining: it seems to require a continuous funding injection from one source or another. But is this necessarily the case in all settings?

The nearest I can find to a creative commons picture of Peter Lampl courtesy of HowardLake

Why did Belvedere become an Academy?

The transfer to academy status meant that fees were no longer chargeable to any parent and the School became non-selective, except for 10% of pupils selected on the basis of an aptitude for modern foreign languages.

The new paper says this change of status ‘was no reflection on[Belvedere’s] success as an Open Access independent school’, but the fact remains that – for whatever reason – The Sutton Trust, the GDST and Belvedere felt unable to adopt their experiment as a lasting scheme.

The 2006 Evaluation: ‘Five Years On: Open Access to Independent  Education’  includes an explanation of sorts from the Chief Executive of the GDST:

‘As we move forward, we need to consider how similar success can be secured on a sustainable basis over the coming years.  When we embarked on the pilot project with the Sutton Trust, we of course hoped that the concept of Open Access would be taken up by Government, and not only continued at The Belvedere, but also rolled out to other independent day schools.  This has not materialised, and in the short term we needed to consider how the initiative’s central idea – bringing academic excellence to a broad social mix of pupils – could be integrated into the state system so that many more families can benefit.

We believe that the Government’s Academies programme offers us the best way ahead.  Although moving from private to state funding is a huge – and not uncontroversial – step, the Academy model offers us independence and flexibility in partnership with the maintained system.  Crucially, it will allow the GDST, with its many years of experience of running high-performing schools, to maintain its stake in The Belvedere and for our expertise to inform its continued development.’

So, having once embarked on the pilot, the partners were entirely reliant on the Government agreeing to take on the cost. When that agreement could not be secured, they had no exit strategy other than transfer the School into the state sector, which rather defeated the original object of creating a sustainable long-term future based on open access to an independent school.

The fact that this happened once begs the question whether it might not happen again, especially since any Government that agreed to adopt such a scheme would be unable to commit successor governments to continuous and never-ending financial support. If the money was switched off at any point, the only real options would be to close the schools or to shift them into the state sector.

That assumes, of course, that there is no alternative self-sustaining model which could rely on funding generated by the schools themselves…

The Substance of the Open Access Proposal

There is very little detail about how such a scheme would operate, suggesting that this has not been properly worked through. The assumption is presumably that the Belvedere model can be applied unchanged in all other settings. That is a big and untested assumption.

The substantive elements are set out below, together with a critical commentary:

  • A new Open Access sector would be established comprising some 100 volunteer selective independent day schools. The paper doesn’t say so but all would need to admit pupils at 11 rather than through later Common Entrance arrangements, in order to fit with state primary provision. Boarding schools would not be included. The paper claims that 80 schools are signed up to support the scheme ‘in principle’, but only a handful are named in the accompanying press notice (Westminster, City of London Boys, King Edwards Birmingham, Lady Eleanor Holles, Manchester Grammar, the Grammar School at Leeds and the Royal Grammar School Newcastle.) The 100 schools would have to pass an unspecified academic quality threshold. They would remain independent but would be subject to light-touch monitoring to ensure proper use of government funding. There are, apparently, no criteria governing the geographical location or distribution of the schools, or whether they are single sex or co-educational. This, together with likely differences in different schools’ intakes, would mean that places would be unevenly located around the country. In some areas there would be none; in others, a relatively large number of places would be available. It follows that the scheme would take a different proportion of the most able learners in different locations – it would not serve the top 1% nationally by ability but would be a ‘postcode lottery’.
  • Admission to each school would be competitive, but with a ‘more sophisticated’ selection process ‘than the old 11-plus’. Although the Belvedere experience gives some clues as to how this might operate, there is no further information about what it would entail. It is not clear, for example, how the system would ensure that selection methods are not coachable – or, alternatively, whether ‘coachability’ is acceptable on the basis that it acts as a test of drive and commitment. If there is an element to test ‘potential’ it is not explained how this is substantively different to tests employed for entry to existing selective schools. It is not clear what allowances will be made, if any, for background or previous school experience. In short, the claim of sophistication rings rather hollow.
  • The families of successful applicants would be charged fees on a sliding scale which is not set out. The fees would presumably remain under the control of each school and reflect current charges, meaning that there would be considerable variation. We are told only that the richest would pay full fees and the poorest nothing – and that assessments would include assets as well as income, to avoid the ‘distressed gentlefolk’ dimension of the Assisted Places Scheme. On the basis of the Belvedere experience, it is estimated that about two-thirds of pupils would require their fees to be paid in full or in part, which would be equivalent to half of the total ‘take’ from fees. This 50% contribution would be paid by the state, with parents contributing the other 50%. (Incidentally, the accompanying press notice says that only 30% would pay full fees, so 70% would require some or all of their fees to be paid – even an increase of 3% will affect the costings significantly.)
  • The Sutton Trust’s estimates of cost are based on the assumption that these 100 schools will together have 62,000 pupils on roll. This is presumably the ‘steady’ state calculation, based on seven year groups in each school. This works out, rather oddly, at 89 pupils per year group per school. It may be that the calculation assumes 100 pupils per year group in Years 7-11 and 60 per year group in Years 12-13. We are not told. Each pupil is assumed to cost £11,000 per year, which is presumably an average fee for independent selective day schools in England. The total cost in ‘steady state’ is therefore given as £680m a year, 50% of which would be paid by the Government, ie £340m. The cost in the first year would be around £49m, for a single year group, and would rise by annual increments of £49m over the next 6 years until steady state had been reached.
  • The Trust suggests that this cost could be reduced by offsetting savings: £31m in steady state from the saving against the cost of a pupil in a state school (given as £6K a year including capital expenditure); and a further £129m assuming that ‘one-third of the vacated places in state schools are taken by ‘displaced’ private pupils’. I cannot follow this calculation, perhaps because some of the working has been lost in the translation from previous versions (see below). The state school saving includes a capital element, even though the capital cost remains unchanged regardless of the fact that pupils transfer elsewhere. There is a cost attached to the surplus places generated in the state sector which might be partially offset by an influx of displaced independent school pupils (though this is unlikely), However, to the extent that not all the surplus places are filled, an additional cost is incurred, not a saving. Moreover, no cost is given to cover the administration of this scheme, the ‘light touch’ monitoring, or any evaluation. Even more critically, there is no reference to the fact that, whatever the cost to the taxpayer, this is essentially a taxpayer subsidy to the independent sector, purporting to guarantee 50% of their fee income in perpetuity. No wonder 80 schools are signed up in principle!

The Justification for the Scheme

The Paper advances several different arguments in favour of the scheme and why it would be preferable to certain alternative solutions. It also seeks to face down likely objections to Open Access.

It begins by outlining the problem that Open Access is intended to solve. This is not the optimal educational provision for gifted learners, but ‘the divide between state and independent education’ which impacts on social mobility.

The independent sector contains ‘the most successful academic schools in the country (the 164 selective state schools are entirely ignored). It is conceded that there are ‘state schools achieving outstanding results’ but this is immediately set aside.

There is reference to:

‘An analysis for the Sutton Trust of the 2010 [sic] PISA international comparisons [which] reveals that the brightest ten per cent of state school students at age 15 are 1.1 years of schooling behind their private school counterparts’

But there is no explanation of the methodology by which this conclusion is derived from PISA 2009 data, which relates to tests of science, maths and reading. Moreover, this finding may have more to do with the social background of the sample than the quality of the education they receive.

The paper goes on to argue that independent school pupils also benefit from the development of ‘soft skills’ that ‘can count as much as formal educational attainment’.

The negative impact of the independent sector on social mobility is described in familiar terms, with reference to the proportion of students from each sector who progress to Oxbridge and the professions. This in turn facilitates networking that benefits candidates from the same independent school backgrounds.

As a consequence, the country’s international competitiveness suffers.

It is quite conceivable that a national Open Access scheme might help to bridge the divide between the independent and state sectors, to the extent that it redistributes relatively less able learners from the independent sector to the state sector, as well as vice versa, but there is no evidence to suggest that would happen.

There is no analysis whatsoever, in the 2012 paper, of the impact of this scheme upon the relatively less able independent school pupils who are displaced. The impact on them – at least in the short term – is likely to be negative. (Indeed the earlier papers concede this point –see below.)

The Belvedere School courtesy of Sue Adair

Further arguments are advanced in favour of this approach

The paper dismisses efforts to improve the quality of state schools because:

‘To achieve “world class” schools with a system divided on social grounds is unimaginable’.

The Government ‘has no viable strategy’ on independent schools. Efforts to ‘bridge the gap in achievement’ via academies and free schools, by raising the status and quality of teachers and expanding school choice, will not achieve ‘the dramatic leap necessary’.

In a telling paragraph, the paper points out that public expenditure constraints are an obstacle to levelling the playing field through improvements on the state side of the fence while: ‘fees at independent schools have risen to pay for ever-improving’ provision on the independent side.

This manages to beg two questions at once: if state-funding is so constrained, how can the necessary subsidy of independent school fees be affordable; and, if independent fees are rising and demand is relatively inelastic, why cannot fees  be used to subsidise the proposed Open Access scheme?

It is argued that such a scheme would complement the academies and free schools policy because ‘both models involve independent schools being funded by the state’ (even though this only applies to a tiny handful of convertor schools).

Whereas academies and free schools often require ‘large initial capital investment by the state’ (though this doesn’t apply in the case of schools transferring in from the independent sector) this is not the case with Open Access.

The paper prays in aid the independent sector’s relatively greater resources and the academic qualifications of its teachers (whether they attended Oxbridge and whether they possessed doctorates – though the correlation between this and their effectiveness as teachers is another moot point).

It notes that the current level of bursary awards in the independent sector will not address the problem, since the Trust estimates that no more than 4% of fee income is spent on bursaries while just 3% is allocated to scholarships.

The former are said to benefit predominantly ‘independent school parents who fall on hard times’ and the children of teachers. The latter are not means-tested when they are for less than 50% of a school’s fees, and typically go to those who can afford full fees.

While some schools break this mould, others cannot afford to do so (ie they do not generate enough income from fees and other sources to support learners from disadvantaged backgrounds).

Arguably at least, relying more on cross-subsidisation between wealthy and less wealthy parents via the fees regime would be substantially more progressive than asking the taxpayer to part-fund such places in independent schools. This ought to be workable in sufficiently wealthy schools with high and inelastic demand for their places, but no such argument is advanced or considered.

We are told that:

‘Over 80 schools have now shown in principle support for going Open Access, with state support. The list includes many of the highest-performing day schools in the country.’

But this list is not supplied and we are not told what ‘in principle’ support means in terms. What exactly is it that these schools support? What expectation would they have of agreeing the details of a scheme were one to be introduced?

Alternatives and objections

The only alternatives that the paper actively considers are:

  • Contextually influenced admissions to competitive universities – it rightly argues that this may be part of the solution but that school factors must also be addressed;
  • Attempts to remove the charitable status of independent schools that do not demonstrate sufficient ‘public benefit’, dismissed because this will not bring about fundamental system-wide change (presumably because of the resistance of the independent sector, which would bear all of the cost);
  • Bursary-based solutions paid for by parents, schools and philanthropic sources. These are also dismissed as marginal, while also suffering from the same disadvantages as the Assisted Places Scheme. But that conclusion depends critically on the reach of any new scheme and its design. In principle at least, a workable bursary scheme is just as likely to succeed as a workable open access scheme.
  • Academy sponsorship and independent-state partnership. These are perceived as creating stronger relationships between the two sectors but ‘none…actually overcome the divide’, so enabling students to benefit directly from independent schools’ teaching, facilities and ethos.
  • Vouchers. The treatment of this option is brief and weak, assuming one specific programme design when it would be quite possible to develop a scheme that avoided the disadvantages it cites. As we have seen in a previous post, the pros and cons of voucher schemes depend entirely on their design.

When it comes to handling objections, the Paper offers an extended Q and A.

  • It does not deny that such a Scheme would be divisive and elitist, but argues that it will be relatively less divisive than the status quo, while also helping to open up the elite by introducing meritocracy in place of heredity.
  • It would not increase selection because independent schools are already selective – it would simply mean that different candidates were selected. But this ignores the fact that there will be increased selection, at the level of the individual student, within the population currently served by the state sector, to the tune of two-thirds of the total of 62,000 student beneficiaries – say 40,000 in all
  • It denies that the Scheme is an attack on the independent sector, because involvement in the scheme would be voluntary and schools could ‘back out after joining’. There is no recognition of the problems such a decision would create in terms of transition. Presumably, all children whose fees were being paid would need to have their position protected until they were old enough to leave the school they attended, or else have to transfer back into the state system.
  • It says the Scheme cannot be construed as an attack on parents’ freedom of choice within the independent sector, because nothing would prevent the establishment of new independent schools (to accommodate the displaced students) if there is demand for them. But this rather ignores the fact that such parents have typically chosen a specific institution: they may not be satisfied by an alternative independent school.
  • In response to the suggestion that the country’s educational problems do not relate to higher level performance, it responds that there are problems at all levels. There is no argument with that point from my perspective.
  • It denies that the Scheme is recreating the grammar school system: ‘There is no comparison between a generalised selective system – where 25% went to grammar schools – and what we have in mind, where less than one per cent of the most able will go to open access schools’. (Earlier on the paper acknowledges similarities with the old direct grant system, while noting that there was no means test and those who paid full fees did not need to meet the same academic standard.) We have noted above the fact that this scheme will not benefit the most able 1% nationally in terms of ability because of the uneven distribution of the schools concerned. Therefore, in the particular locality which they serve, the effect may be very similar to opening a new grammar school.
  • Similarly, it denies that such a Scheme would ‘cream off’ talent from local state schools, arguing that the numbers are too small to be significant, but we have just given the lie to this. It adds: ‘it is for the very brightest pupils who often get lost in the comprehensive system’. The suggestion that comprehensive schools cannot serve the needs of such pupils is not raised elsewhere in the paper – and no evidence is offered to support such a claim.
  • It counters the view that it is inequitable to spend scarce funding on these pupils rather than on improving the state system in general by asserting that the overall cost is small compared with the total education budget, while part of the cost will be shouldered by parents rather than the state. The equity argument is not directly addressed.
  • It addresses the contention that there would be no impact on the divide between the independent and state sectors because parents of displaced independent students would send them to other independent schools rather than to fill the places vacated in state schools. Here it acknowledges that these parents would be free ‘to spend large sums on sending their children to less academic independent schools’ – in effect conceding the point above about the restriction on their freedom of choice.
  • The suggestion that the Government should look to other potential solutions is instantly dismissed on the grounds that there are no practical alternatives!
  • Finally the argument that the independent sector should fund such a scheme is dismissed with some vehemence:

‘There is no prospect whatever of private or philanthropic interests financing a significant number of schools. There are simply not enough donors ready for the long-term commitment involved, especially at the moment. To make an independent school truly needs blind on a sustainable basis would require an endowment of between £100 million and £300 million depending on the size, fee level and catchment area’.

But this is nonsense. If the scheme involves 100 schools and the cost is as little as £180m a year in steady-state, then that is equivalent to £1.8m per school per year. One would not necessarily need a huge endowment to meet such a cost.

Moreover, one could expect a substantial proportion of that funding to be met through a levy on those paying full fees – after all, those parents’ children will also benefit from the more meritocratic ethos of the school – leaving a much smaller proportion to be generated from other sources of income and from philanthropic sources.

Similarities and Differences between the 2012 Paper and the 2001 version

It is instructive to review how, if at all, the Sutton Trust’s position on Open Access has changed over the years.

Dating from November 2001, ‘Educational Apartheid: A Practical Way Forward’ is now over a decade old. The structure of that paper is almost identical to this one and the arguments very similar, except that they are very slightly tailored to fit the government policy and educational circumstances of the time.

Many of the paragraphs from the older text have been borrowed wholesale for this edition.

A preface very kindly offers to make available supporting material on request – an offer that is unfortunately absent from the 2012 version.

The substance of the scheme outlined is also almost identical. Indeed the wording of the outline on pages 16-17 of the current paper is largely unchanged, with the exception of the points below.

The 2001 text is different in that:

  • It says that many independent schools have shown interest, without quantifying that interest or framing it in terms of ‘support in principle’;
  • Whereas the entire burden, net of parental fees, would now fall on the Government, the 2001 version says:

‘The shortfall in fee income could be made up by the school’s own funds (where these exist), and private patrons (where these are forthcoming) but the main onus would be on the Government.’

(Later on the text adds that ‘these contributions are only likely to form a small proportion of the total cost’).

  • The cost of opening up 62,000 places at 100 schools is somewhat smaller – £30 million, rising to £200m in steady state.
  • There is no assumption that one-third of displaced independent pupils would transfer to the state system:

‘Initially our guess would be that there would not be many, and that most such children would in practice be accommodated elsewhere in the independent system’.

Nevertheless, this assumption is built into a subsequent calculation, alongside a potential reduction consequent on the removal of capital costs from the equation, to give a cost of £110m (or £140m if capital costs are not discounted).

The difference between this and the current estimate of £180m is presumably indicative of inflation over the last decade, but is also a reminder that the 2012 figures would themselves need to be indexed to take account of substantive inflation in future years;

  • A phased approach is proposed, because it may be felt that the whole sum ‘is too large to commit at once’. This would involve just 12 schools adopting open access in the first instance, at an estimated cost of £3m a year in the first year, rising to £25m over 7 years, when all year groups in those schools would be covered.

‘A further advantage of a piecemeal approach would be that…involvement would be voluntary, and it might take time for the schools concerned to commit themselves to joining the scheme. It was always assumed that open access would be a cumulative process’

  • Some of the alternative solutions that are briefly considered and then set aside are different, for example that of abolishing selection, or charging VAT on school fees (said to be contrary to European law), or adopting an alternative approach to means-testing then being advanced by the Independent Schools Council.
  • The investment in Open Access is presented as an alternative to what the state already invests in support for gifted and talented pupils. It is argued that the principle that more may be spent on able pupils has already been conceded in the state system.
  • There is a calculation to the effect that there would be 4,800 displaced independent school pupils in each year group under a 100-school scheme. The paper continues:

‘Such people would no doubt feel disgruntled, but would be unlikely to inspire widespread sympathy outside their own milieu, or in the press’.

Earlier in the text there is reference to a mysterious and unexplained ‘uncertainty principle’ that would operate to entice these displaced independent school pupils into the state sector.

A brief comparison with the 2004 paper

Moving forward to the June 2004 publication: ‘Open Access: A Practical Way Forward – New Developments’ what, if anything, has changed? Is this closer to the 2012 version in any respects?

Once again, the wording is almost identical in many places – it is clear that the current paper is a marginal adjustment of these two preceding documents rather than anything substantively new.

The treatment of possible alternatives gives somewhat more attention to vouchers, given that these ‘now appear to be Conservative party policy’. One can see in this the genesis of the cut-off version in the 2012 edition.

The treatment is hardly balanced:

‘as perhaps a million more parents fled the state system, its prestige would plummet further. Certainly flat-rate vouchers would increase choice – for those who could find the £3,000 or so to top up the voucher.’

Obviously this relates to the terms of a specific scheme rather than to the wider point that (a different approach to) vouchers might offer an alternative solution to the problem.

The 2004 version of the policy proposition seems to follow its 2001 predecessor in almost all respects. A first tranche of 12 schools is again mentioned, but in slightly different terms:

‘Naturally we would argue that there is a measure of urgency…Rather than shelve action indefinitely, it would be possible to proceed in stages’

The full scheme would still comprise 100 schools.

There is still reference to a minority contribution drawn from schools and philanthropic sources. The cost is still £30m rising to £200m in steady state, and the same calculations are offered to estimate the questionable ‘offsetting savings’. However, the initial cost of the interim stage has risen to £3.5m, though this still increases to £25m eventually.

The text includes a list of supporters: Graham Able, Master of Dulwich College;  Roger Dancey, Chief Master of King Edward’s Birmingham; Tony Evans, head Master of King’s College Wimbledon; David Levin, Headmaster of the City of London School; Mrs Gill Richards, Headmistress of The Belvedere School; Dr Martin Stephen, High Master of Manchester Grammar School.

One can clearly see the extensive overlap between this and the list supplied in the press notice accompanying the 2012 version.

An overall judgement of the scheme

The first and obvious point is that the Sutton Trust has been pushing the same scheme to successive governments for well over a decade.

Some might praise them for maintaining an unchanged position in the face of continued lack of interest from successive governments, though unkinder critics (this one included) might suggest that they are persisting in flogging a decidedly dead horse.

It would have been more honest on this occasion to explain that the scheme being advanced is substantively the same as that presented in 2001 and 2004, or at least to have set out in which small ways the proposal and its justification have changed over time.

One might have expected that the Trust would have taken the opportunity presented by the significantly different policy environment – not to mention the eight years that have elapsed – to strip their proposal back to first principles, to explore how it might be improved and refined to fit the current context.

The key change since 2004 has been the huge pressure on public expenditure. It is even less likely that the Government will dedicate sums of this size now than it was eight years ago. It should have behoved the Trust to think through a financial solution that placed a smaller burden on the taxpayer.

That could have been a similar scheme, but based on a much larger contribution from other sources, including the schools themselves, or it might have been a materially different approach.

But such an alternative would also need to overcome some of the critical points outlined above:

  • The location and geographical spread of the participating schools
  • The impact on pupils displaced from the participating independent schools
  • The impact on the state schools that would otherwise have admitted the pupils exported into the independent sector
  • The coverage of administrative and monitoring costs as well as the increasing cost of fees

Above all it would need to avoid the necessity of the taxpayer guaranteeing in perpetuity 50% of the fee income of participating independent schools. That is unfair, inequitable and entirely unrealistic for any government to contemplate.

An alternative vision of gifted education

What the Trust persistently fails to consider is a solution that supports the same cadre of gifted learners, but that leaves them in situ, within their existing state schools. This was the fundamental principle upon which the National Gifted Education Programme was built.

There is no inherent reason why these learners need to attend independent schools to access the advantages they offer. It is quite possible to secure high attainment, soft skills and a positive ethos within the state sector, as several outstanding schools have demonstrated.

It would be quite possible to achieve similar outcomes by investing something like half the proposed sum of £180m in holistic, personalised support for gifted learners, drawing on sources of support across the educational spectrum, not just in the independent schools. Or one could support at least twice the number of pupils for the same sum.

It is curious that the Sutton Trust has always seemed blind to the advantages inherent in a national gifted education programme of this nature. Its current involvement in the field is confined exclusively to ‘niche’ projects that focus on, for example, private tuition for disadvantaged learners to achieve A*/A grades in maths, or enrichment-based outreach provided by a grammar school to local primary schools

It was hoped that this might change. Last year the Trust commissioned a Report from the University of Buckingham (the same team that evaluated the Belvedere pilot) on gifted and talented education.

But that was originally due for publication in November and, as we move into April, still nothing has appeared. No drafts have been circulated for comment as originally promised and the Trust has made clear that it has no plans to follow up the publication in any way.

Meanwhile, this latest open access paper shows that the Trust is fixated on the wider issue of the obstacle to social mobility inherent in the independent/state divide. That is a totally different matter. It may well need addressing, but there is no case for using gifted learners as the instrument to achieve the desired outcome, especially when the direct benefits to them are questionable.

The independent/state divide requires wholesale reform of the educational structures that embody it and a systematic blurring of the distinction between state and independent sectors. Moving parts of the pupil population between sectors is not the answer.

As for open access, it is a dead duck – and it is profoundly to be hoped that this is the final time we shall see it resuscitated.


April 2012

One thought on “The Sutton Trust Open Access Scheme

  1. Completely agree with everything you have written including your ideological standpoint that it is the state sector that urgently needs the attention rather than the independent one.

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