I was invited to prepare a 600-word piece for another publisher about gifted education policy that featured the role of free schools.
I prepared a text designed for publication ahead of Ofsted’s survey of provision for highly able pupils, which is due for release this morning.
The publisher experienced some difficulty in uploading my text, so I proposed that I would publish it on my own blog if it wasn’t available on theirs in time.
It isn’t, so here’s my piece:
In 2011 Nick Gibb explained the Government’s view of gifted and talented education thus:
‘The Government’s approach is to give school leaders greater power and control to drive improvement in their schools so that they have the freedom and flexibility to offer tailored educational opportunities that will ensure that the most academically able children receive appropriate challenge and stretch.’
This noticeably isolates ‘academic ability’ from talent in arts and sports. DfE has a web page about Academically More Able Pupils which lists several policies that support schools in addressing their needs, but it excludes some important contributors including free schools and the Pupil Premium. The narrative does not differentiate support for able underachievers and high attainers. The latter are defined very broadly in Performance Tables as those achieving above national expectations (essentially Level 3 at KS1 and Level 5 at KS2), but we cannot see what proportion attract the Pupil Premium. The 2013 Tables will include the percentage of all children passing KS2 Level 6 tests, but levels disappear from 2016 and we do not yet know the shape of subsequent arrangements.
We eagerly anticipate a landmark Ofsted survey, the most extensive investigation of gifted and talented provision they have ever undertaken. This will certainly reflect issues Ofsted has already flagged, such as whether high attaining pupils are making sufficient progress and appropriate use of GCSE early entry. But will it be proactive in proposing a more coherent approach by schools and stakeholders at every level, including a pivotal role for Ofsted itself?
Free schools could help bring about such coherence. Although there is nothing to prevent primary, secondary and all-through free schools from specialising in gifted education, the restriction on selection may be acting as a brake on innovation. Where selection is permitted, at 16+, several 16-19 models are being introduced. One or two pioneers planned support for high-achieving disadvantaged learners, only to push down entry grades and/or baulk at priority admission for formerly FSM-eligible students. Publicity for the new Westminster-Harris project suggests it is determined not to follow suit.
The Government is seeking bids for university-sponsored selective 16-19 Maths Free Schools. A national network of up to a dozen institutions has been mooted, but only two projects are confirmed to date. That is unfortunate since the approach has much to commend it, provided that:
- The schools serve as geographical hubs, co-ordinating and mediating relevant national policies so their impact is concentrated and the whole is greater than the sum of parts. (In maths particularly, the Government has announced a swathe of small-scale national projects that could be integrated and strengthened in this fashion.)
- The schools work in mutually supportive national partnership and as regional centres of excellence, committed to inclusive, collaborative outreach with primary and secondary schools and the full range of other organisations active in their specialism. Undertaking such a role might be a condition of funding. It might help to erase the fault lines created by free schools in some localities.
- Universities’ involvement is central to institution-wide fair access strategies, so projects are not just siloed in a subject faculty. That would help to unify the broader gifted education ‘push’ from schools and colleges with the fair access ‘pull’ from HE, strengthening our collective capacity to demonstrate faster progress against key social mobility indicators.
Such a model could be extended beyond gifted education and to different subjects and phases. Lead schools might be from any sector, hold any status. University sponsorship would be optional, but desirable. Named Learning Schools, to differentiate them from Teaching Schools (and designed to take some pressure off the latter), they might expect to devote some 50% of their capacity and resource to external support.
Learning Schools would be integral to wider efforts to improve educational quality, avoiding the worst features of top-down and bottom-up strategies alike.