Fair Access Trends in DfE’s Destinations Data 2010-13

This is a brief supplementary post about progression by FSM students to selective universities.

In preparing my last post, I had occasion to look again at DfE statistics on KS5 student destinations.

.

Destinations Data

These experimental statistics were first published in 2012 and most recently in January 2015. To date they cover four academic years, starting with AY2009/10 and ending with AY2012/13.

Underlying data is published each year and since AY2010/11 this has included the number of FSM students admitted to different categories of selective university: the ‘top third’, Russell Group and Oxbridge.

Allowing for a health warning about potential comparability issues (see Technical Notes below) I wanted to investigate how FSM admissions to these categories had changed over the three years in question.

The numbers are set out in this embedded spreadsheet.

.

On closer inspection they reveal some interesting information.

Graph 1, below, shows the percentage increase between AY2010/11 and AY2012/13 for FSM and non-FSM students in each category of selective higher education.

On the face of it, this is extremely good news for fair access, since the increase in FSM admissions significantly exceeds the increase in non-FSM admissions for all three categories of selective higher education.

The increase in FSM progression to Oxbridge is exactly in line with the increase at Russell Group universities.

The improvement at ‘top third’ HEIs is some 40 percentage points lower, but these institutions are almost 10 percentage points ahead of the rate of improvement for all HE.

Over the same period non-FSM progression to Russell Group universities has increased at almost twice the rate of non-FSM progression at Oxbridge, which is only slightly ahead of the 10% or so improvement at ‘top third’ institutions.

But non-FSM progression to all higher education has actually fallen slightly over the period.

.

Fair access graph 1 rev

Graph 1: Percentage increase in FSM and non-FSM students attending selective HE destinations between AY2010/11 and AY2012/13 (From DfE destination statistics, underlying data)

 .

The similarity between the FSM increases for Oxbridge and Russell Group universities may help to substantiate the improvement for the former, despite the potentially drastic impact that rounding can have on such small totals (see Technical Notes below).

On the other hand, it should not be forgotten that this radical improvement was achieved in a single year, between AY2010/11 and AY2011/12.

In the following year there was no change at all for Oxbridge, with FSM admissions stalled on 50, whereas the improvement at Russell Group universities was much more consistent, increasing by some 22% compared with AY2011/12.

Further insights can be gleaned by looking at the figures in a different way.

Graph 2 shows the percentage of total admissions to the different categories of selective higher education accounted for by FSM students – and how these have changed by academic year.

This reveals a somewhat different picture. The FSM progression rate to Oxbridge remains some two percentage points behind the rate for progression to the Russell Group as a whole (although the gap closed temporarily in AY2011/12). Whereas there has been steady improvement across the Russell Group, the FSM share fell back back at Oxbridge between AYs 2011/12 and 2012/13.

The overall improvement for all higher education has also been strong, particularly so between AYs 2011/12 and 2012/13. At ‘top third’ universities the FSM share fell back a little in 2011/12 but recovered strongly in 2012/13.

.

Additional Oxbridge graph

Graph 2: Percentage of admissions to Oxbridge, RG, Top third and all HEIs accounted for by FSM students, 2010/11 to 2012/13 (From DfE destination statistics, underlying data)

.

One might normally be wary of expressing changes in comparatively small percentages as percentages themselves, but since the UCAS End of Cycle Report (see below) includes such calculations, it seems equally justifiable in this context.

They reveal a substantial 24-point difference in the change in the FSM share of total admissions between 2012 and 2013, with Oxbridge recording -10% and the remainder of the Russell Group +14%

.

.

This coincides with a change in the constitution of the Russell Group, as Durham, Exeter, Queen Mary’s and York Universities joined in 2012. This might have had some small impact on share, but does not explain the 24-point gap.

A more tantalising question is the impact of the relaxation of student number controls for students with A level grades of AAB+ or equivalent, combined with a fall in the total number of applicants. Did these factors contribute to the improvement at Russell Group universities, or was the improvement achieved in spite of them?

UCAS End of Cycle Data

This data provides a more differentiated view of FSM progression to selective universities than the oft-quoted UCAS End of Cycle Report 2014, which has a small section on this topic, based on matched NPD and UCAS admissions data.

FSM eligibility is determined when the student is aged 15 and selective ‘high-tariff’ institutions appear to be calculated on the same basis as the ‘top third’. This ensures a degree of comparability with the Destinations statistics, although the UCAS data relates to the progression of 18 year-olds from state-funded schools only (so excludes colleges).

Furthermore there is no expectation of sustained participation (see technical notes below) and the ‘top third’ of universities has probably been calculated in a different year.

The UCAS analysis is confined exclusively to entry rates – the proportions of the total FSM and non-FSM 18 year-old populations progressing to high-, medium- and low-tariff universities respectively.

Graph 3, below, is derived from the data underpinning the Report. It shows progression to high-tariff universities for FSM and non-FSM students.

.

UCAS

Graph 3: FSM and non-FSM entry rates to UCAS high-tariff universities, 2011-2014

.

This reveals that:

  • There were very small increases in entry rates between 2013 and 2014, for both FSM and non-FSM populations. (The Report notes that this is a 3.7% improvement for FSM and a 2.9% improvement for non-FSM.)
  • The ratio between non-FSM and FSM has also narrowed minimally, but the gap between them has widened minimally too (from 6.4 points to 6.5 points).
  • Since 2011, the FSM entry rate has increased by some 50% while the improvement in the non-FSM entry rate is nearer 25%. The ratio between the two rates has improved, but the gap between them has widened from 5.6 points to 6.5 points.

This is not the universally positive story for fair access suggested in media coverage and subsequent political commentary.

.

Oxbridge Data

Data published by Oxford and Cambridge, either in their access agreements or admissions statistics, show that progress over the three years in question has been inconsistent.

  • At Oxford the total number of applicants from Acorn 4 and 5 postcodes reached a peak of 1,246 in 2010/11, only to fall to 1,079 in 2011/12 and 1,070 in 2012/13. The percentage of all students admitted with Acorn 4 and 5 postcodes was 7.6% in 2010/11, but fell to 6.7% in 2011/12, increasing only slightly to 6.8% in 2012/13.
  • At Cambridge 4.1% of applicants in 2010/11 were home applicants from Polar 2 quintile 1 postcodes and 17.6% were successful applicants. There was an improvement in 2011/12, to 4.6% of applicants and a 22.6% success rate but, in 2012/13, applications remained at 4.6% and the success rate fell back to 20.2%.

Unfortunately neither chooses to make public any data they might hold on annual admissions from FSM and non-FSM students.

Reasons cited in access agreements include the effects of the new student funding regime, a fall in the number of school leavers and the argument that an impact will only become apparent after sustained activity over a five year period. Oxford is however predicting significant improvement in AY2013/14 on the basis of its provisional data.

But one might reasonably expect these factors to have had a similar effect on other Russell Group universities. So how does one justify the disparity revealed by graph 2 above – between Oxbridge and the remainder of the Russell Group?

.

Possible reasons for the disparity between Oxbridge and other Russell Group universities

The explanation most often supplied by Oxbridge is that very few FSM-eligible students manage the exceptionally high attainment required for admission.

Admissions statistics from the two universities shows that, in 2012/13:

  • At Oxford 37.1% of students accepted had A*A*A*, 27.2% had A*A*A, 24% had A*AA and 9.4% had AAA (best three A levels).
  • At Cambridge, 59.5% of applicants achieving a UCAS tariff equivalent to A*A*A* were accepted, as were 23.6% of those with A*A*A and 13.9% of those with A*AA.

Data on FSM achievement at the highest A level grades (or equivalent) is particularly hard to come by. I have previously drawn on answers to various Parliamentary Questions that show an increase of some 45% in FSM students achieving AAA or better at A level between 2006 and 2011.

The most recent of these (Col 35W) was answered in July 2012. It says that, of pupils entering at least one A level in 2010/11 and eligible for FSM at the end of Year 11, there were 546 who achieved 3 or more GCE A levels at A*-A. This includes students in both the school and FE sectors. By comparison, there were 22,353 non-FSM students achieveing the same feat.

If we look at the ratio between achievement at this level and admission to Oxbridge in the same year:

  • 546 FSM students corresponded with 30 places secured (ratio 18:1)
  • 22,353 non-FSM students corresponded with 2,260 places secured (ratio 10:1)

So what exactly is happening? There are several possible further reasons for FSM under-representation:

  • Too few FSM students are gaining A* grades (or equivalent), as opposed to A grades, at A level.
  • Too few FSM students are gaining the necessary grades in suitable subject combinations and/or in facilitating subjects. (There has been some suggestion recently that subject choice is an issue, though this study adopts a broader definition of disadvantage and does not apply specifically to Oxbridge admission.)
  • When Oxbridge chooses FSM students pre A-level, their GCSE/AS level performance does not reflect their eventual A level performance.
  • Too few of the highest attaining FSM students are applying to Oxbridge, quite possibly for a variety of different reasons.
  • Too many FSM applicants to Oxbridge are seeking entry to the most competitive courses; too few to those where there are fewer applicants per place. (At Oxford in 2012/13, for example, the success rate for medicine was 10% while for classics it was 42%)
  • FSM students do apply in proportion, but are relatively less successful at gaining admission for reasons other than (predicted) attainment. One reason might be that neither University specifically targets FSM students through its access strategy, preferring alternative indicators of disadvantage.

Unfortunately, there is very little data available publicly to test which of these hypotheses are correct, their relative impact and how they operate in combination.

As attention switches to the pupil premium measure, one wonders whether the next government will ensure that reliable data can be made available to selective universities and, through Offa, expect them to feature this in their access targets, as well as their policies for contexualised admissions.

.

Technical Notes

There is a timelag associated with the HESA dataset, which has to be matched with the National Pupil Database.  For example, the January 2015 publication matches data on students in KS5 taking A level and equivalent qualifications in AY2011/12 and on those in HE in AY2012/13.

The most recent publication appeared in January 2015. Since HESA collects data at the end of each academic year the lag was approximately 18 months.

The next publication, relating to academic year 2013/14, is not scheduled for release until October/November 2015, indicating a lag of 15/16 months.

According to the Technical Note linked to the most recent SFR KS5 students are included if they:

  • Entered for at least one A level or equivalent level 3 qualification similar in size to an A level.
  • Attend state-funded mainstream schools, independent schools, FE and sixth form colleges and maintained, non-maintained and independent special schools. (However, it seems that only a few independent schools – those that provide tracking information to local authorities – are included.)

Students must record sustained participation – in all of the first two terms of the year – at one or more HE destinations. In 2012/13 this was defined as between October 2012 and March 2013.

Higher education is defined as any UK HE institution, so those admitted to institutions abroad are excluded. Students undertaking HE courses at FE institutions are included. The note is not quite clear about the treatment of students accepted for deferred entry.

The categories of selective HE are nested within each other:

  • The top third of HEIs when grouped by mean UCAS tariff score from entrants’ best three A level grades. KS5 students with other qualifications are excluded from the calculation. For the purposes of this publication, students with no A level points were excluded from the calculation. The ‘top third’ methodology is preferred by BIS. The constitution of the group changes annually, though 88% of institutions were within scope for six consecutive years up to 2011/12. (The 2011/12 list is used on this occasion.)
  • The Russell Group (Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff, Durham, Edinburgh, Exeter, Glasgow, Imperial, KCL, Leeds, Liverpool, LSE, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Oxford, Queen Mary’s, Queens Belfast, Sheffield, Southampton, UCL, Warwick and York).
  • Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge)

Eligibility for free school meals (FSM) means students eligible for and claiming FSM in Year 11. Pupil premium was not introduced until September 2011, when these students were already beyond Year 11.

All national figures are rounded to the nearest 10, which makes small totals particularly unreliable. (For example, 40 + 10 could represent 35 + 5 or 44 +14, so anywhere between 40 and 58.)

The technical note advises that:

‘Some of the differences across years may be attributable to the tightening of methodology or the improvements in data matching, so comparisons across years must be treated with caution.’

.

GP

March 2015

How strong is Oxbridge access?

.

This post assesses how well Oxford and Cambridge Universities support fair access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds attending state-funded schools and colleges.

courtesy of Wellcome Images

courtesy of Wellcome Images

It sets out an evidence base to inform and support an Access Lecture I have been asked to give at Brasenose College, Oxford on 28 April 2015.

The outline for that Lecture is as follows:

‘If national efforts:

  • by state-funded schools and colleges to close high attainment gaps between learners from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds
  • by selective higher education institutions to secure fair access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds

could be integrated more effectively, much more substantial progress could be achieved on both fronts.

There is scope for reform in both sectors, to ensure a closer fit between the ‘push’ from schools and colleges and the ‘pull’ from higher education.

Faster progress will be achieved through a national framework that brings greater coherence to the market on both the demand and supply sides. It should be feasible to focus all support directly on learners, regardless of their educational setting.

Oxford and Cambridge should position themselves at the forefront of such efforts, serving as beacons of excellence and exemplary practice.’

This is a companion piece to two previous posts:

The first of these explores the issue from first principles, considering measures, targets and data before outlining a 10-point improvement plan. The second advances a simplified version of this plan.

This post concentrates principally on description of the access-related activities of these two universities, placing those in the wider context of updated material about national policy developments and the relatively disappointing outcomes achieved to date.

It is organised into five main sections:

  • A review of key changes to the national access effort since November 2013.
  • A note on outcomes, which questions whether Oxbridge reflects the positive trends reported for selective higher education as a whole.
  • In depth analysis of how fair access work has developed, at Oxford and Cambridge respectively, as revealed by their successive access agreements.
  • Analysis of signature access programmes at Oxford and Cambridge, featuring their rival residential summer schools and efforts to develop a longer term relationship with disadvantaged students, as recommended by Offa.
  • My personal assessment of strengths and areas for development, including a slightly revised version of the improvement strategy I have proposed in earlier posts.

Given the length of the post I have inserted page jumps to each section.

.

Recent developments in national fair access policy

My November 2013 post supplies considerable detail about the regulation of fair access to English universities which I shall not repeat here.

Amongst other things, it deals with:

  • Published data on high attainment by disadvantaged students and their progression to Oxbridge – and how this has not always been used appropriately.

This section describes briefly the principal changes to the national fair access mechanisms introduced by and subsequent to the National Strategy – and explains how access agreements fit into these mechanisms.

.

National Strategy for Access and Student Success

The National Strategy sets out a ‘student lifecycle approach’ in which access forms the first of three main stages.

It seeks to address:

‘…the wide gap in participation rates between people from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds in society, and between students with different characteristics, particularly at the most selective institutions.’

There are six key actions:

  • Introduce a national approach to collaborative outreach that will foster new collaborative partnerships, reduce duplication and support the tracking of students who have undertaken outreach activities. Hefce will fund the national roll-out of a tracking system.
  • Secure a more coherent approach to the provision of information, advice and guidance. HE outreach activity and schools policy will be ‘joined up’.
  • Develop a national evaluation framework, so universities can evaluate their activities more effectively and provide comparable national data. Hefce and Offa will examine the feasibility of sector-wide evaluation measures and publish good practice guidance by January 2015.
  • Co-ordinate national research into access, build the evidence base for effective outreach and share good practice.
  • Introduce a joint HEFCE-Offa approach to requesting information from institutions and
  • Encourage institutions to re-balance their funding from financial support towards outreach and collaborative outreach’.

The new national approach to collaborative outreach will be derived from a set of principles (the emboldening is mine):

  • ‘Outreach is most effective when delivered as a progressive, sustained programme of activity and engagement over time.
  • Outreach programmes need to be directed towards young people at different stages of their educational career and begin at primary level.
  • The effective delivery of outreach programmes requires the full, adequately resourced involvement and engagement of HEIs, FECs and schools.
  • The collaborative provision of outreach delivers significant benefits in terms of scale, engagement, co-ordination and impartiality.
  • Progression pathways for learners with non-traditional or vocational qualifications need to be clearly articulated.
  • Outreach to mature learners depends on good links with FECs, employers and the community.
  • Without good advice and guidance, outreach is impoverished and less effective.’

In November 2013, institutions were advised that they would be expected to prepare their own Strategies for Access and Student Success (SASS), which would replace Offa’s access agreements and Hefce’s widening participation strategic statements.

These would cover the period 2014-19, incorporating the information and commitments that would otherwise have featured in 2015-16 access agreements. In future these arrangements would be updated each spring. Full guidance was promised by late January 2014.

However, further guidance was issued in February 2014 stating that separate returns would continue because:

‘…of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ unexpected delay in sending HEFCE’s grant letter, and because we appreciate that institutions need to make progress with their access and student success plans, which must be approved by the Director of Fair Access to Higher Education. Separating our information requirements is the most pragmatic approach at this time.’

Hefce now says:

‘We are no longer requesting widening participation strategic statements from institutions and are moving towards an outcomes framework for 2014-15 onwards.’

It appears that the SASS concept has been set aside permanently. Certainly Offa’s 2016-17 guidance (February 2015) envisages the continuation of separate access agreements, although there is now a single monitoring return to Offa and Hefce.

Initiatives prompted by the National Strategy

The outcomes framework will be informed by two research projects, one developing a data return, the other designed to establish how an outcomes framework ‘could lead us to understand the relative impact of a wider range of access and student success activities and expenditure’.

As far as I can establish there has been nothing further on evaluation. Hefce’s website mentions guidance, but the link is to material published in 2010

However, the current work programme does include rolling out a Higher Education Access Tracker (HEAT) which helps universities track outreach participants through to HE entry. Hefce is funding this to the tune of £3m over 2014-17, but institutions must also pay a subscription – and only 21 are currently signed up.

The strategy is also establishing National Networks for Collaborative Outreach (NNCOs) which, it is claimed:

‘will deliver a nationally coordinated approach to working with schools, universities and colleges to help people access HE’.

In fact, the purpose of the networks is almost exclusively the provision of information.

They will supply a single point of contact providing information for teachers and advisers about outreach activity in their area, as well as general advice about progression to HE. They will undertake this through websites to be available ‘in early spring 2015’.

At the time of writing, Hefce’s website merely lists the institutions participating in each network – there are no links to live websites for any of these.

There is a budget of £22m for the networks over academic years 2014/15 and 2015/16. Each network receives £120,000 per year and there is also a small additional allocation for each institution.

Three of the networks have national reach, one of them to support students wishing to progress to Oxbridge. This is called the Oxford and Cambridge Collaborative Network. Oxford is the lead institution.

A Google search confirms no web presence at the time of writing. However Oxford’s press release says:

‘Oxford will lead the Oxford and Cambridge NNCO, which will aim to offer specific support to students hoping to study at Oxford and Cambridge by reaching out to students and teachers in more than 1,600 schools across England. The collaboration will build on the current information and advice already offered to students and teachers, but enhanced by activities including a new interactive website, online webinars with admissions staff from Oxford and Cambridge, and more resources for activities in local schools linked to Oxford and Cambridge colleges….

… Online webinars with admissions staff from both universities will make it easier to make contact with students and schools from hard to reach geographic areas, and those schools with limited numbers of high-achieving students each year.

The new network will aim to work with state schools across England with particular emphasis on those in areas that currently have little engagement with Oxford and Cambridge outreach; those in schools offering post-16 (GCSE) education; those from schools with low progression to Oxford or Cambridge, or from areas of socioeconomic disadvantage.’

Offa guidance and strategic plan

Offa’s latest access agreement guidance (for 2016-17 agreements) sets out future priorities that are consistent with the national strategy. These include:

  • Greater emphasis on long-term outreach: ‘Evidence suggests that targeted, longterm outreach which boosts achievement and aspirations among disadvantaged people is a more effective way of widening access than institutional financial support. Where appropriate, you should therefore consider how you can strengthen your work to raise the aspiration and attainment of potential students of all ages, from primary school pupils through to adults.’
  • More effective collaboration: ‘Collaboration between institutions providing outreach is not limited to alliances of higher education institutions (HEIs). We would normally expect collaborative outreach to include many stakeholders rather than to be between a single HEI and schools, colleges or other stakeholders receiving outreach. For example, collaboration may be between one HEI and further education colleges (FECs), other higher education providers, employers, third sector organisations, schools, colleges, training providers, local authorities and so on.’
  • Stretching targets for achieving faster progress: ‘we now ask you to review and set new stretching targets which set out the desired outcomes of the work set out in your access agreement. When reviewing your targets, we expect all institutions, particularly those with relatively low proportions of students from under-represented groups, to demonstrate how they intend to make faster progress in improving access, success and/or progression for these students. This is in line with the aims expressed in our forthcoming strategic plan, which is informed by guidance from Ministers.’

This strategic plan was published in February 2015. It notes that, while some progress has been made in improving access for disadvantaged students to selective higher education, there is much more still to do.

‘Despite these improvements, the gaps between the most advantaged and most disadvantaged people remain unacceptably large. The latest UCAS data shows that, on average, the most advantaged 20 per cent of young people are 2.5 times more likely to go to higher education than the most disadvantaged 20 per cent. At the most selective institutions this ratio increases – with the most advantaged young people on average 6.8 times more likely to attend one of these institutions compared to the most disadvantaged young people.’

One of Offa’s targets (described as ‘Sector Outcome Objectives’) is:

‘To make faster progress to increase the entry rate of students from underrepresented and disadvantaged groups entering more selective institutions, and narrow the participation gap between people from the most and least advantaged backgrounds at such institutions.’

The measure selected is English 18-year-old entry rates by POLAR 2 for higher tariff providers. The targets are:

‘….for the entry rate from quintile 1 to increase from 3.2 per cent in 2014-15 to 5 per cent by 2019-20, and from 5.1 per cent in 2014-15 to 7 per cent by 2019-20 for quintile 2. To reduce the gap in participation, our target is for the quintile 5: quintile 1 ratio to decrease from 6.8 in 2014-15 to 5.0 by 2019-20.’

.

A Note on Outcomes

High tariff HEIs

As Offa suggests, there is some cause for optimism about wider progress towards fair access, albeit from an exceedingly low base.

The UCAS End of Cycle Report 2014 indicates that:

  • Students from POLAR Quintile 1 are 40% more likely to enter a high-tariff institution than in 2011, though the percentage achieving this is still tiny (it has increased from 2.3% to 3.2%).
  • FSM-eligible students (the Report doesn’t indicate whether they were ‘ever 6 FSM’ or FSM in Year 11) are 50% more likely to enter a higher tariff institution than in 2011, but the 2014 success rate is still only 2.1%.

As noted above, Offa’s Strategic Plan for 2015-20 includes a target to increase the POLAR Quintile 1 success rate from 3.2% to 5% by 2019-20.

This is an increase of 56% in the six years between 2014 and 2020, compared with an increase of 40% in the three years between 2011 and 2014. Looked at in this way it is relatively unambitious.

But what of Oxbridge? How does its performance compare with other high-tariff institutions?

Oxbridge argues that it is a special case – because of its higher entrance requirements – so should not be judged by the same criteria as other high tariff institutions. It is for this reason that Oxford and Cambridge are reluctant to be assessed against HESA’s Performance Indicators.

Offa’s access agreement methodology enables universities to set targets that reflect their different circumstances, but its own KPIs are framed according to national measures which might not be appropriate to some.

There is no separate Offa target to improve Oxbridge access. When it comes to system-wide performance measures, only DfE’s Impact Indicator 12: Percentage of children on free school meals progressing to Oxford or Cambridge University is specific to Oxbridge.

This is based on the DfE’s experimental Destination Measures statistics. FSM eligibility is determined in Year 11 rather than via the ‘ever 6’ methodology.

The Indicator reports an increase from 0.1% in 2010/11 to 0.2% in 2011/12. (This compares with a reported increase in FSM progression to Russell Group universities from 3.0% to 4.0%)

However, as I have pointed out:

  • The 2010/11 intake was 30 and the 2011/12 intake 50.
  • The 2011/12 intake comprised 40 students from state-funded schools and 10 from state-funded colleges, but both numbers are rounded to the nearest 10.
  • The 2012/13 intake, not yet incorporated into the Indicator, is unchanged from 2010-11, both numbers again rounded to the nearest 10, so any improvement achieved in 2011/12 stalled completely in 2012/13.

The most recent data reported to Offa by Oxford and Cambridge also relates to 2012/13.

.

Cambridge

Cambridge uses the POLAR Quintile 1 measure, also a HESA benchmark, though adjusted downwards to reflect its high attainment threshold. It is aiming for a target of 4.0% by 2016/17, against a 2009/10 baseline of 3.1%.

The 2011/12 outcome is given as 2.5%. The 2012/13 line is blank, on the grounds that HESA has not yet reported it. We can now see that the outcome was in fact 3.5% (POLAR2), so a significant improvement, more than catching up the decline the previous year. HESA has recently published the 2013/14 outcome, which is 3.6%, a very slight improvement on the previous year

HESA’s own benchmarks for Cambridge (again POLAR2) were 4.4% in 2011/12, 4.7% in 2012/13 and 4.6% in 2013/14, so it continues to undershoot these quite significantly.

In its latest 2015/16 agreement, Cambridge’s 2017/18 target is unchanged at 4.0% (but now transferred to POLAR3 quintile 1). It has not set a target for 2018/19.

Given Offa’s commitment to achieving a 5.0% outcome by 2019/20, it will be interesting to see where Cambridge pitches its own target in its 2016-17 access agreement. Will it, too, aim for 5%, or will it scale back its own target on the grounds that the attainment profile of its intake is atypically high?

.

Oxford

Oxford opts for a different measure. It only reports outcomes for POLAR Quintiles 1 and 2 combined, which is insufficiently specific, using a measure based on ACORN postcode analysis as its principal indicator of access for disadvantaged students.

On this second measure, it reports a target of 9.0% by 2016/17 against a 2009/10 baseline of 6.1% and, more recently, has projected this forward to 10% by 2018/19.

The 2011/12 outcome is 7.6% and the 2012/13 outcome is 6.7%. This fall of 0.9% is annotated ‘Progress made – but less than anticipated’.

If we were to apply the POLAR2 HESA Quintile 1 measure to Oxford, it would have registered 2.6% in 2011/12 (against a HESA benchmark of 4.7%), 3.0% in 2012/13 (against a benchmark of 4.9%) and only 2.4% in 2013/14 (against a benchmark of 4.8%).

The reason is presumably the atypical attainment threshold for admission to Oxford.

Oxford does not have the benefit of an Offa marker against which to pitch its ACORN target for 2019-20.

Comparing Oxford and Cambridge

Graph 1, below, illustrates progress against each university’s principal measure of fair access, as well as the trend implied by its targets.

.

Oxbridge graph 1

Graph 1: Oxford and Cambridge: Progress against principal fair access target and projected outcomes for future years

The graph shows inconsistent progress to 2012/13. Oxford’s trend is broadly positive, but Cambridge has not yet caught up where it was in 2008/09. The trajectory implied by Oxford’s targets is more ambitious than Cambridge’s.

Graph 2, below provides further analysis of Oxford’s outcomes, based on data provided in the most recent 2015-16 access agreement. Unfortunately Cambridge is less transparent in this respect.

Graph 2 shows the same pattern of progress against the ACORN target as in Graph 1, except that the 2013 figure is an actual outcome (6.8%) rather than a target (7.5%).

It also shows for each year the percentage of all applicants from ACORN 4/5 postcodes who applied successfully. These compare with a success rate for all applicants of around 20%, giving a gap of three or four percentage points to make up. Progress on this measure has also fluctuated, falling back significantly in 2010 and not yet returning to the mark achieved in 2009.

Preliminary data for 2014 suggests a significant improvement, however. The agreement says that 320 conditional offers have been made, giving an estimated figure for acceptances of 275 (my estimate, not Oxford’s) and a corresponding success rate of 19.2%. If confirmed, this will be a significant step forward.

.

Oxbridge graph 2

Graph 2:  The percentage of all successful applicants drawn from ACORN 4/5 postcodes and the percentage of all applicants from ACORN 4/5 postcodes who are successful, 2008-2013

.

Graph 3, below is derived from the data underpinning the DfE’s experimental KS5 destination statistics for 2010 to 2011, 2011 to 2012 and 2012 to 2013. It provides, for each year, the percentage of admissions to Oxbridge, Russell Group, Top Third and all HEIs accounted for by FSM students.

.

Additional Oxbridge graphGraph 3: Percentage of admissions to Oxbridge, RG, Top third and all HEIs accounted for by FSM students, 2010/11 to 2012/13 (From DfE destination statistics, underlying data)

.

The Oxbridge data, especially, must be treated with a degree of caution, since all figures are derived from separate totals for state-funded schools and colleges, each rounded to the nearest 10. Consequently, changes from year to year may be inflated or deflated by the generous rounding.

Nevertheless, one can see that FSM admission to Oxbridge continues to lag well behind the rates for admission to selective higher education more generally. Although one might argue that Oxbridge is improving at a faster rate, it is doing so from a significantly lower base and, in the most recent year (2012/13), the improvement in all other respects is not mirrored in the Oxbridge figures.

Although the rounded number of FSM admissions to Oxbridge in 2012/13 remained unchanged from 2011/12 (at 50) the number of non-FSM admissions increased by 190, so dragging down the percentage.

To summarise:

  • There is an unhelpful two-year lag in outcomes data and limited commonality in the basis of the measures used to set targets, making comparison much more difficult than it needs to be.
  • Neither university routinely releases details of the number of FSM or ‘ever 6’ FSM students within its intake, but DfE destinations data, also affected by a two-year lag, shows that FSM admissions to Oxbridge are significantly lower than to selective HE more generally. The actual number of FSM students admitted has been more or less stalled at 50 or fewer for a decade.
  • Fair access to Oxbridge is improving slightly, but not consistently. Cambridge has not yet caught up where it was in 2008/09. Oxford’s progress is more secure than Cambridge’s, and Oxford’s target is more challenging.

Access Agreements

Access agreements are approved annually by Offa, which issues annual guidance to inform the review process.

It looks particularly at the nature of the access measures adopted, the resources allocated and whether targets and milestones are suitably challenging.

Offa archives old access agreements on its website as well as universities’ self-assessments. The latter should:

  • ‘assess their progress against each target they set themselves in their agreements
  • provide data showing their progress against targets for each academic year since 2006-07 and
  • provide a commentary setting their access work in context, highlighting any particular challenges they have faced, and, if they have not made as wished, explaining the reasons for this.’

The archive includes:

  • Access agreements for Oxford and Cambridge for 2006-07 through to 2015-16 and
  • Self -assessments for Oxford and Cambridge for 2010-11 through to 2012-13

Self-assessments for 2013-14 were due during January 2015 but have not yet been published. In previous years they have not appeared until July.

Access agreements for 2016-17 are due for submission during April 2015. They too are unlikely to appear before July.

Analysis of how access agreements have changed over time provides a valuable insight into the evolution of institutional policies, including the extent to which these have been modified in line with Offa’s guidance.

Comparison between Oxford and Cambridge’s access agreements also helps to draw out key differences between their respective access policies, as well as comparative strengths and weaknesses and areas in which they might potentially learn from each other.

The sections below explore the chronological development of each university’s access agreement under four headings:

  • Budget: The total budget devoted to activity within scope of the agreement, and the balance between funding for bursaries and outreach respectively
  • Bursaries: The bursaries provided to students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds
  • Outreach: The range of activities undertaken 
  • Targets: The targets and milestones set and progress against those not already discussed above.

I have also included a section of Commentary, intended to capture observations that throw additional light on the institution’s approach and attitude to access.

It is important to note that the two universities now adopt a somewhat different approach to the nature of access agreements.

The agreements for 2006-07 were nine (Oxford) and eight (Cambridge) pages in length. Cambridge’s 2015-16 agreement is slightly longer, at 11 pages, but Oxford’s is 48 pages long.

In recent years, Oxford’s agreement has consistently been much more detailed and more informative. This distinction will be apparent from the analysis below.

Moreover, Cambridge’s agreement was unchanged from 2006-07 to 2009-10, whereas Oxford’s changed somewhat in this period. Both universities submitted single agreements for 2010-11 and 2011-12, but both have changed their agreements – at least to some degree – each year since then.

.

Budget (£m pa)

Costs are not always as clearly expressed as one would wish, nor are they always fully comparable. This is despite the fact that Offa now produces a template for the purpose.

There is very limited information in Cambridge’s most recent agreement, whereas Oxford supplies extensive detail, including (at Offa’s behest) what is and is not ‘Offa-countable’:

‘When calculating your progression spend, please note that OFFA’s remit only extends to students and courses that are fee-regulated. This means that only measures targeted at undergraduate students (or postgraduate ITT students) from under-represented and disadvantaged groups should be included in your OFFA-countable spend. For example, you should not include spend on financial support for postgraduate students in your OFFA-countable expenditure, although you may include this in your total expenditure on progression.’ (Offa, 2015-16 Resource Plan)

The tables below represent my best effort at harvesting comparable figures. The first table summarises Cambridge’s budget, the second Oxford’s.

Year Bursaries Outreach Total Notes
2006-10 £7.0m £1.15m £8.15m Bursary cost in steady state..£0.425m of outreach budget from AimHigher and Hefce funds.
2010-12 £7.5m £1.15m £8.65m Bursary cost in steady state..£0.45m of outreach budget from AimHigher and Hefce funds.
2012-13 £8.3m £4.2m £12.5m Bursary cost in steady state and includes £1.2m steady state assumption for NSP..Total outreach cost includes £2.7m current expenditure plus £1.5m from fee income.
2013-14 £8.3m £4.2m £12.5m As above.
2014-15 £8.0m £4.66m £12.66m Bursary cost in steady state and includes £0.9m for NSP..Total outreach cost includes £2.7m current expenditure plus £1.96m fee income (of which £0.258m is redirected from NSP).
2015-16 £6.9m £3.0m £9.9m Bursary cost in steady state..Total outreach cost includes unspecified fee income.

Table 1: Summary of costs in Cambridge’s access agreements, 2006-2016

.

Year Bursaries Outreach Total Notes
2006-07 £6.8m £1.35m £8.15m Bursary cost in steady state..An additional £3m is provided through college support.
2007-08 £6.8m £1.35m £8.15m Bursary cost in steady state..An additional £3m is provided through college support.
2008-09 £6.3m £1.075m £7.375m Bursary cost in steady state.
2009-10 £6.4m £0.968m £7.368m Bursary cost in steady state.
2010-11 £6.4m £0.968m £7.368m Bursary cost in steady state.
2011-12 £6.6m £1.415m £8.015m
2012-13 £8.8m £2.6m £11.65m Bursary total included £2.2m for tuition fee waivers..Plus additional £0.25m for retention, support and employability.Includes NSP allocation of £0.4m
2013-14 £9.4m.(£9.4m) £4.52m.(£2.44m) £13.92m Bursary total includes £2.9m for tuition fee waivers..Plus additional £0.41m for retention, support and employability.Includes NSP allocation of £0.79m

.

Figures in brackets are ‘offa-countable’

.

2014-15 £11.32m.(£11.05m) £5.23m.(£2.92m) £16.55m Bursary includes £4.06m for tuition fee waivers..Plus additional £0.54m for retention, support and employability.Includes NSP allocation of £0.34m

.

Figures in brackets are ‘offa-countable’

 .

2015-16 £10.89m.(£10.6m) £5.67m.(£3.24m) £16.56m Bursary includes £3.63m for tuition fee waivers..Plus additional £0.71m for retention, support and employability.Of total only £13.81m is ‘offa-countable’

 .

Table 2: Summary of costs in Oxford’s access agreements, 2006-2016

These suggest that:

  • Total combined expenditure in 2006-07 was £16.3m, but by 2015-16, this had increased to £23.74m (excluding Oxford’s ‘non-offa countable’ expenditure, an increase of around 46%.
  • Whereas in 2006-07, both Universities were spending exactly the same, by 2015-16, total expenditure at Cambridge had increased by some 21%, while total Offa-countable expenditure at Oxford had increased by about 70%.
  • In 2005-06, the percentage of total funding spent on bursaries was 86% at Cambridge and 83% at Oxford. By 2015-16, the comparable percentages are 70% and 77%. Hence Cambridge has reduced the proportion spent on bursaries more substantively than Oxford, but both Universities continue to direct their funding predominantly towards bursaries.
  • In 2005-06, expenditure on bursaries by each university was very similar. Although the total devoted to bursaries by Cambridge increased slightly in the intervening years, by 2015-16 it was almost the same as in 2005-06. However, expenditure on bursaries at Oxford is some 56% above what it was in 2005-06.
  • Since 2005-06, both Oxford and Cambridge have more than doubled their expenditure on outreach. Taken together, the two universities expect to spend some £6.24m on outreach in 2015-16. Cambridge’s ratio of bursary to outreach spend is approaching 2:1, whereas Oxford’s is more than 3:1.
  • Although the sums they now spend on outreach (offa-countable in Oxford’s case) are relatively similar, Cambridge spends 30% of its total expenditure on outreach while Oxford spends 23%. However, Cambridge spends significantly less than it did at its peak in 2014-15, while Oxford’s expenditure has increased steadily since 2010-11.

Bursaries

Bursary arrangements have shifted subtly, especially as NSP fee waivers have arrived and then disappeared. The details below relate only to the most generous bursary rates for students with the lowest residual household incomes.

Cambridge’s access agreements suggest that:

  • For 2006-10 Cambridge’s bursary offer for students eligible for a full maintenance grant – with a residual household income of £16,000 or below – is £3,000 per year. It estimates that some 10% of its full fee-paying undergraduates – around 955 students – will qualify.
  • For 2010-12 the maximum bursary is £3,400 for all students qualifying for a full maintenance grant – now equivalent to a residual household income of £25,000 or below – and about 1,100 students (13% of Cambridge’s UK undergraduates) will qualify.
  • For 2012-13 the maximum bursary is £3,500 for those with a full maintenance grant. There is an additional fee waiver of £6,000 in the first year of study for such students who are also from ‘particularly disadvantaged backgrounds’ including those formerly in receipt of FSM. (The University points out that these are the Government’s criteria).
  • For 2013-14 the same arrangements apply.
  • For 2014-15 the same arrangements apply, except that recipients can no longer allocate part of their bursary towards an additional fee waiver.
  • For 2015-16 only the bursary of £3,500 remains in place for those with a full maintenance grant.

Oxford’s access agreements reveal that:

  • In 2006-07, students whose residual household income is below £17,500 receive a bursary of £3,000 per year, plus an additional £1,000 in the first year of the course. About 1,200 students are expected to benefit.
  • From 2007-08, these rates increase to £3,070 and £1,025 extra in the first year.
  • From 2008-09, new entrants with a residual household income below £25,000 receive a bursary of £3,150, but all those with an income below £18,000 will receive an extra £850 in the first year of their course.
  • In 2009-10, these rates increase to £3,225 and £875 respectively. This is unchanged for 2010-11.
  • In 2012-13, students with a residual household income below £16,000 a year will receive a bursary of £3,300 per year, plus a tuition fee waiver of £5,500 in the first year of the course and £3,000 in subsequent years.
  • In 2013-14, these arrangements are unchanged.
  • In 2014-15, the bursary rate remains at £3,300, but the fee waiver is reduced to £3,000 a year.
  • In 2015-16, the bursary rate increases substantively to £4,500 per year. A more select group of Moritz-Heyman scholars (with residual income below £16,000 but also ‘flagged on a number of contextual data disadvantage indicators’ ) also receive an annual tuition fee waiver of £3,000

In more recent agreements, Cambridge’s maximum rate of bursary is available for all students below a residual income of £25,000, whereas at Oxford it is confined to students with a residual income of less than £16,000.

Hence Cambridge is comparatively more generous to students with a residual income above £16,000 but below £25,000.

Until 2015-16, the maximum bursary rates were broadly similar, but Oxford has now added a significant increase, offering £1,000 more than Cambridge. Moreover, a fee waiver remains in place for the most disadvantaged students.

Hence Oxford is now more generous to students with a residual income below £16,000. Oxford argues:

‘The University will be monitoring the level of students from households with income of less than £16,000. It is considered that these are the most financially disadvantaged in society, and it is below this threshold that some qualify for receipt of free schools meals, and consideration for the proposed pupil premium. The University does not consider that identifying simply those students who have actually been in receipt of free school meals provides a suitably robust indicator of disadvantage as they are not available in every school or college with post-16 provision, nor does every eligible student choose to receive them.’

The 2014-15 agreement states that 30% of 2012 entrants in receipt of the full bursary – and so with a household income of £16,000 or less – were educated in the independent sector. These students would of course be ineligible for FSM and pupil premium.

The 2015-16 agreement adds that roughly 10% of Home/EU full time undergraduates would qualify for such a bursary. This is supported by the University’s published admissions statistics for 2013, which give the percentage as 9.9% and the number of students as 297.

In 2013, we know that 2,510 admissions were from England, so we can estimate the number of English full bursary holders at approximately 250, of which some 175 were educated in the maintained sector.

But DfE’s destination indicators suggest that only some 25 of these were FSM-eligible.

And other DfE research suggests that only some 14% of students entitled to FSM are not claiming (though that rises to 22% for 15 year-olds).

Taking the latter figure, one might conclude that roughly 30 of the 175 were FSM eligible or non-claimants, so what of the remaining 145 (some 83%)?

It seems likely that they were drawn into residual household income of £16,000 or lower by some combination of:

  • Allowances for additional dependent children (£1,130 per dependent child)
  • Allowances for AVCs and other pension contributions
  • Other allowable expenses.

Interestingly Oxford’s 2013 admissions data shows that the proportion of its intake with incomes between £16,000 and £25,000 was roughly half that of the group with incomes below £16,000.

. 

Outreach

Cambridge

For 2006-2012, Cambridge divides its outreach provision into three categories:

  • Activity to encourage applications from under-represented groups to Cambridge. This is targeted at students in the first generation in their families to attend HE; those who attend schools or colleges with low or below average GCSE and A level performance; and those attending schools or colleges with little recent history of sending students to Cambridge. Three sub-categories are identified: information events for teachers and parents, residential Easter and summer schools and a miscellany of visits to Cambridge, visits to schools, masterclasses, workshops, study days etc.
  • Collaborative activities with other HE partners to raise aspirations and encourage participation. This includes regional Aimhigher projects and gifted and talented events provided through NAGTY.
  • General aspiration-raising activities for the HE sector generally. These are predominantly subject-based and online activities.

For 2012-16, Cambridge continues to describe its provision under the first and third of these categories, adding that both involve collaborative work. It also identifies a wider range of target groups:

‘These include children in care; students eligible for free school meals [NB]; Black, Asian and minority ethnicity students; mature learners; students educated in further education colleges; and bright students in schools and colleges which have not historically sent students to the University of Cambridge.’

‘Or previously eligible’ is added to FSM eligibility in later iterations.

The description of provision is short, mentioning a national programme of visits and events provided by colleges through an Area Links Scheme plus centrally provided summer schools and taster events.

Five priorities are identified:

  • Increasing the number of places available on events with demonstrable impact, particularly summer schools, taster days and events for teachers.
  • Preserving the legacy of local Aimhigher work.
  • Providing a sustained programme of advice and activities for younger students in local secondary schools.
  • Developing initiatives to encourage state school students to choose appropriate subject combinations and apply to selective universities and.
  • Working closely with Oxford

A sixth priority is added in 2013-14 – ensuring PGCE intakes reflect the population from which Cambridge recruits and building networks of graduate teachers to support wider outreach activity.

In 2014-15 these priorities are unchanged, except that the second and third are conflated into one. There is also an added reference to the long-term nature of some of this work:

‘A number of our initiatives engage with younger age groups and consist of a series of sustained engagements over a number of years. For example, our work in Cambridgeshire and with looked-after children involves secondary school students of all ages, whilst our core programme for black, Asian and minority ethnicity students is delivered to each cohort over a three year period.’

.

Oxford

Oxford’s outreach activity is harder to synthesise, because the agreements vary more often and some of more recent are so much more detailed.

In its 2006-07 Agreement, Oxford establishes a distinction between activities designed to encourage applications to the University and more general aspiration-raising activities.

However, these are not separately identified in the list it provides, which includes:

  • Hosting Aspiration Days for students from Years 9-11 drawn from ‘Oxford’s specific “target areas”’
  • A HEFCE specialist summer school for 150 Year 11 students from under-represented groups
  • Local Aimhigher provision
  • A programme of some 500 annual outreach visits targeting schools and colleges with little history of sending students to Oxford or into HE more generally
  • A Year 12 Sutton Trust Summer School for 250 students from non-traditional backgrounds
  • A programme of regional events to encourage applications from non-traditional backgrounds
  • A programme of events for teachers from schools with little history of sending students to Oxford, supporting some 100 teachers a year
  • Support for student-led programmes including the Oxford Access Scheme (for students from inner city schools) and a Target Schools Scheme run by the Student Union
  • A Further Education Access Initiative reaching 100 colleges a year and
  • Subject-specific enrichment activities.

In the following year, the items on the list change slightly. The University is said to be undertaking a thorough audit of these activities.

By 2008-09, Oxford describes the objective of its access work as increasing representation from: state school students, students from lower socio-economic groups, students from BME groups and care leavers.

It is focused on two areas: increasing the number of high quality applications from target groups and ensuring fair admissions processes. It undertakes wider aspirations-raising work on top of this.

The list of central access initiatives annexed to the agreement is missing.

For 2009-10 and 2010-11, the agreement refers to ‘detailed operational plans’ being developed to achieve its objectives.

By 2011-12, Oxford has added a third area of focus to the two immediately above: ensuring that teachers and advisers are able to support intending applicants.

Detailed operational plans are still under development. However, the subsequent agreements introduce several key elements:

  • UNIQ residential summer schools for Year 12 students. Participants are selected on the basis of GCSE A* performance compared with their average school attainment, ACORN postcode, school’s history of sending pupils to Oxford and any care history. A personal statement is also required. There were 380 participants in 2009, rising to 500 in 2010. Capacity is projected to increase to 650 in 2011, 700 in 2012, 850 in 2013, and 1000 participants in 2014.
  • By 2012-13, two other ‘flagship programmes’ are identified: a programme of seven regional one-day teacher conferences and a link programme connecting every local authority with a named college. Participants in the teacher conferences are drawn from schools and colleges with low numbers of students achieving high grades or limited success in achieving offers. Oxford’s target is a 15% success rate for applications from these teachers’ schools.
  • In 2013-14, there is the first reference to a Pathways Programme – longitudinal provision for students across Years 10-13 in schools with little history of engagement with Oxford. By 2014-15 this has expanded to accommodate 500 Year 12 students attending study days and 1,800 Year 10 students attending a taster day. In the 2015-16 agreement there is reference to 3,000 participants.
  • The 2012-13 agreement also outlines a system of access flags attached to certain student applicants, denoting educational and social disadvantage. Some 500 applicants were flagged in 2009/10, 630 in 2010/11 and 928 in 2011/12. The intention is that flagged candidates will achieve the same success rate in receiving offers as all applicants from the same sector. (The sectors specified are comprehensive, grammar, FEC, 6FC and independent). A flag for students from low participation neighbourhoods is incorporated from 2011-12 and one for students from schools and colleges with historically low progression to Oxford is introduced in 2012-13. The 2014-15 agreement notes that the proportion of flagged students achieving an offer and subsequently admitted has risen from 15.6% in 2010-11 to 17.2% in 2011-12. The gap between the success rate of flagged applicants and all UK-domiciled applicants has also fallen from 6.4% to 5.6%. In the 2015-16 agreement, the offer rate for flagged candidates is reported as being 19.1% in 2012-13 and 21.9% in 2013-14 However, there is no comparison with the sector-specific data for all applicants.

The 2012-13 agreement is the first to mention the preparation of an Oxford Common Framework for Access but this is not ready until the publication of the 2014-15 agreement.

In that agreement, Oxford describes a four-fold approach it has developed for targeting different types of schools:

  • The large proportion producing few students with the necessary attainment to apply to Oxford – highly tailored individual activities such as UNIQ, school-cluster visits and the student union’s student shadowing scheme.
  • Schools with little history of sending students to Oxford or students who have been relatively unsuccessful – application and interview preparation workshops and awareness-raising events.
  • Schools where there are many high-attaining students but little history of sending students to Oxford – increase understanding of the application process and break down myths.
  • Schools who have significant numbers of successful applicants – maintain a working relationship.

Targets

.

Cambridge

Cambridge begins by adopting selected HESA benchmarks, even though these have:

‘severe limitations in a Cambridge context, in that they take insufficient account of the University’s entry requirements, both in terms of subject combinations and of levels of qualification. We hope in due course to develop our own internally derived milestones or, alternatively, consider the applicability of any milestones which OFFA might develop.’

Three targets are adopted:

  • Increasing the proportion of UK undergraduates from state schools or colleges to between 60% and 63%, compared with a HESA benchmark for 2001-02 of 65%.
  • Increasing the proportion of students admitted whose parental occupation falls within NS-SEC 4-7 to 13-14%, compared with a HESA benchmark for 2001-02 of 13%.
  • Increasing the proportion of students from low participation neighbourhoods to approximately 8-9% compared with the HESA 2001-02 benchmark of 7%.

For 2010-12, the third of these targets is lowered to 5-6% because HESA has changed the basis of its calculation, reducing Cambridge’s benchmark by 33%.

By 2012-13, the first of these targets is described as the University’s ‘principal objective’, so it is deemed more important than improving fair access for disadvantaged students. This statement is subsequently removed, however.

The third objective is again recalibrated downwards, this time to 4%, because:

‘Currently HESA performance indicators and other national datasets relating to socio-economic background do not take adequate account of the entry requirements of individual institutions. Whilst they take some account of attainment, they do not do so in sufficient detail for highly selective institutions such as Cambridge where the average candidate admitted has 2.5 A* grades with specific subject entry requirements. For the present we have adjusted our HESA low participation neighbourhood benchmark in line with the results of our research in relation to state school entry and will use this as our five-year target….We will seek data through HESA or otherwise to amend or update our target in relation to socio-economic background in a revised access agreement next year.’

A paper is available explaining the recalibration (applying a scaling factor of 0.88)

Two new targets are also introduced: a retention benchmark and a process target relating to the minimum number of summer school places.  There will be a minimum of 600 places a year for the next five years.

The substantive details are unchanged in all subsequent agreements.

Oxford

In its 2006-07 access agreement, Oxford discusses setting a performance indicator for recruitment from the maintained sector, adding that from 2006 it will begin to collect data on recruitment from lower socio-economic groups.

In 2007-08 it notes that recruitment from SEG 4-7 ‘increased by 7% and drew the University closer to its benchmark’.

In 2008-09, Oxford is continuing to monitor participation by SEG 4-7 and planning to introduce an internally developed benchmark, adjusted to reflect the high attainment required for entry to Oxford. By 2009-10/2010-11, work is still ongoing to develop such a benchmark.

In 2011-12 it seems still not to be ready, but in 2012-13 Oxford introduces its current indicators:

  • Increase the percentage of UK undergraduates at Oxford from schools and colleges which historically have had limited progression to Oxford.
  • Increase the percentage of UK undergraduate students at Oxford from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. ACORN is adopted because:

‘The University has found the ACORN information to be the most accurate source of verifiable information to highlight socioeconomic factors that may signify disadvantage, and has used it as a contextual flag in the undergraduate admissions process since 2008-9, and also as a factor when selecting participants for the UNIQ summer schools programmes.’

  • Increase the percentage of UK undergraduate students at Oxford from neighbourhoods with low participation in higher education. This utilises POLAR quintiles 1 and 2 ‘in line with HEFCE and OFFA recommendations’.
  • Meet the HEFCE benchmark on disabled students at Oxford.

It supplements these with three ‘activity targets and outcomes’:

  • 60% of those participating in the UNIQ summer schools make an application to Oxford, and 30% of those applying to receive an offer of a place.
  • Improve the participation, application, and success levels from schools and colleges who have had teachers attend the Regional Teacher Conferences, where these schools and college have either a limited numbers of qualified candidates or where there historically has been limited success in securing offers.
  • Using contextual information in the admissions process to identify candidates who may be suitable to be interviewed on the basis of either time in care, or socio-economic and educational disadvantage. The expectation is that identified candidates would then achieve the same success rate in receiving offers as all applicants to Oxford from equivalent school or college sectors.

These are unchanged in subsequent agreements though, as we have seen, there is no reporting of flagged applicants’ success compared with all students in their respective sectors, only compared with all applicants.

Commentary

There are, within the series of access agreements, valuable insights into the thinking within Oxford and Cambridge about such issues. Here is an annotated selection, presented in broadly chronological order:

  • Improvement will take time: ‘Cambridge will continue to strive to encourage applications from qualified applicants from groups currently under-represented and to admit a greater proportion of them within the context of our admissions policies and without compromising entry standards. Experience has, however, demonstrated that outreach activity takes time to alter the composition of the student population.’ (Cambridge, 2006-10)
  • Partnership and collaboration is necessary: ‘In setting itself these objectives, the University recognises that the problems relating to access to higher education are complex and deep-seated, and beyond the capability of the University to solve by itself. They require the input of all parts of the organisation to address, and indeed the input of agencies external to the University. Oxford is committed to playing its part in addressing these issues…’ (Oxford, 2008-09)
  • Increases in intake are unlikely: ‘Because, in part, of the full-time, residential nature of Cambridge’s undergraduate courses, it is unlikely that the university’s undergraduate intake will significantly increase over the next five years.’ (In 2012-13, this is qualified by the addition of the phrase ‘…beyond the colleges’ capacity to admit them’, but this is dropped again the following year.) (Cambridge 2006-10 and 2012-13)
  • Access is focused on application rather than admission: ‘The selection process aims to identify the most able, by subject, from among a very highly qualified field of candidates. While the purpose of our access work is to ensure that all students who are likely to be able to meet the required standards have the opportunity to apply, our admissions procedures aim to select those candidates who best meet our published selection criteria.’ (Oxford, 2012-13)
  • The balance of expenditure in favour of bursaries is justified: Whilst mindful of OFFA guidance on this subject, we do not believe that there is a sufficient body of evidence that greater benefit would be derived from different proportions of expenditure. As suggested above…we believe that our financial support has a significant bearing on retention. We have also taken full account of student feedback in the formulation of the present scheme. Students have confirmed during the current year that they do not want to see a reduction in bursary levels. It should be noted that the level of expenditure on outreach activity outlined in this agreement is supplemented from very substantial funding through other sources, and so we believe our commitment in this area to be considerable and appropriate.’ (Cambridge 2013-14)
  • This balance of expenditure in favour of bursaries is open to challenge: ‘Our package of financial support to undergraduate students, through both tuition charge waivers and maintenance bursaries, is expected to contribute in broad terms to meeting the targets and outcomes. As yet, however, the evidence for a demonstrable connection between financial support for students and improvements in access to higher education amongst under-represented groups is unclear. We will continue to review our position on the basis of further evidence and analysis.’ (Oxford, 2012-13)
  • Explanations of limited progress: Progress against these targets in 2012 has proved extremely challenging, particularly against the backdrop of the new funding regime combined with a demographic decline in the number of school leavers. In relation to the three targets dealing with educational, social and economic disadvantage, Oxford has seen both a decline in applicants and a decline in the number of students that have been admitted…Oxford will continue to focus its outreach efforts and resources on recruiting and encouraging a wider range of student to apply successfully to the University (Oxford 2014-15)
  • Student funding reforms have depressed performance: ‘The 2011, 2012 and 2013 entry cycles proved atypical, given the extensive changes to student funding, and this was reflected in the limited success against the targets…The provisional figures for 2014 entry, however, indicate that we have made headway across the board, particularly in regard to candidates who are from postcodes with high levels of socio-economic disadvantage using the Acorn (A Classification Of Residential Neighbourhoods) postcode classification. …Sustained long term outreach activity takes time to show in the admissions process, and the need to allow a five year period to assess progress has been reiterated by Oxford on a regular basis.’ (Oxford 2015-16)
  • Potentially negative impact of A level reform: ‘We are concerned that current proposals for A-level reform would significantly reduce student choice and flexibility; in particular, the lack of formal end of Year 12 examinations will adversely affect student confidence and the quality of the advice they receive about higher education options, and also prevent institutions such as Cambridge from accurately assessing current academic performance and trajectory. If effected these proposed reforms could have a significant bearing on our ability to make progress on access measures.’ (In 2015-16 there is also concern ‘…that proposed funding arrangements would effectively restrict students in many state schools to three A-levels, meaning that the opportunity to study extremely valuable fourth subjects such as Further Mathematics would be lost.) (Cambridge, 2014-15 and 2015-16 
  • There is an evidence base for effective practice ‘There is also increasing evidence that sustained work with students over a longer period of time is more effective than one-off interventions, particularly if this work is tailored to the requirements of each age group.’ and ‘Research into access activities has identified that, provided they have a sufficient depth of content, summer schools are a particularly valuable experience for students who have higher academic achievements and aspirations than others in their peer group.’ (Oxford 2014-15 and 2015-16)
  • Universities’ role in raising attainment: There is a larger question about the role of universities in raising attainment rates within schools. Universities can, and Oxford does, work in partnership with schools, local authorities, and third parties to form collaborative networks that can work together to raise the attainment rates of students from the most deprived backgrounds’ (Oxford 2014-15)

Some of these issues will be picked up again in the final section of this post.

.

Oxbridge’s Signature Access Programmes

This section reviews information about key programmes within each university’s access portfolio that reflect their long-term commitment to residential programmes and a more recent focus on longer-term partnership programmes targeting secondary students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Before engaging with these specific programmes, it is important to give a sense of the full range of activity presently under way. In Oxford’s case, the most recent 2015-16 access agreement provides the basis for this. In Cambridge’s case, I have drawn on online material and an online brochure.

Cambridge’s Access Portfolio 

Cambridge’s Outreach and Access webpages provide details of:

  • Insight supporting students attracting the Pupil Premium in Year 9 through to Year 13 (see below)
  • Experience Cambridge, a 3-week subject-specific academic project, undertaken predominantly through the University’s VLE.
  • HE+, a pilot programme involving regional consortia of state schools and colleges working with their link Cambridge College to enable their academically able students to make competitive applications to selective universities including Cambridge.
  • HE Partnership, an aspiration-raising initiative targeting Year 9-11 students in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough schools with lower than average progression rates – and particularly students attending them with no family background of attending higher education.

A separate Raising Aspirations booklet mentions, in addition:

  • The Subject Matters, events for Year 11 students to support their A level subject choice
  • Year 12 subject masterclasses
  • A Black Asian and minority ethnicity (BAME) outreach programme
  • Further education and mature student outreach
  • Various examples of outreach by University Departments
  • Activity under the College Area Links Scheme
  • The CUSU Shadowing Scheme
  • Open Days
  • Oxford and Cambridge student conferences
  • Participation in higher education conventions

Oxford’s Access Portfolio

Oxford’s 2015-16 access agreement describes:

  • Briefings for Teach First and PGCE students which typically attract 150 students annually.
  • An annual programme of school and college visits, which involved over 3,300 UK schools and colleges in 2012-13. These are undertaken through Link Colleges (see below).
  • Target Schools, an OUSU programme involving undergraduate visits and student Shadowing Scheme.
  • A variety of Departmental and subject-specific outreach activities

Cambridge: Sutton Trust Summer Schools 

Sutton Trust summer schools are subject-specific residential courses for Year 12 students. They are currently provided at ten institutions including Cambridge. There are about 2,000 places nationally and Cambridge accounts for 550 of them.

Cambridge offers 26 five-day courses in July and August, hosted by six of its colleges. They are free to attend. The providers meet all costs including travel to and from the venue, food and accommodation.

Successful applicants must meet most or all of the following eligibility criteria:

  • In the first generation of their family to attend university (in fact this means neither parent has a first degree or equivalent)
  • Eligible for FSM [not pupil premium] during secondary education
  • Have achieved at least 5A*/A grades at GCSE or equivalent and be taking subjects relevant to the summer schools they wish to attend
  • Attend schools/colleges with a low overall A level point score (typically below the national average) and/or low progression to HE
  • Live in neighbourhoods with low progression rates to HE and/or high rates of socio-economic deprivation.

Participants must attend a UK state-funded school or college, so those attending independent schools are ineligible, even if they have moved subsequently into a state sixth form. Priority is given to children who are, or were formerly, looked after or in care.

Cambridge’s website says:

‘We look at a combination of the contextual priority criteria met and GCSE grades (or equivalent) in subjects relevant to the course for which you have applied. In 2014, the majority of our 550 summer school participants met two or more of these criteria.’

In answer to the question ‘does attending a summer school increase my chances of getting a place at Cambridge, the University says:

‘Applications to the University are completely separate from the Summer Schools and use different criteria to those of the Summer School.  Admissions Tutors will not know whether an applicant has attended a Summer School, unless you choose to mention it in your personal statement…Equally, being unsuccessful in a summer school application does not correlate to the likelihood of being accepted to Cambridge as an undergraduate: we use very different criteria and it is in no way a statement about your academic record or potential.’

. 

Oxford: UNIQ summer schools

The UNIQ summer schools website describes a very similar animal. It is also targeted at Year 12 students in state schools and colleges. The courses are also one-week, subject-specific residential experiences undertaken during July and August. All costs are covered.

According to the access agreements Oxford planned to increase the number of places available to 1,000 in 2014 and achievement of this outcome is confirmed in the published statistics, which add that there were 4,327 applications and that 507 ‘near miss applicants’ were invited to undertake other outreach activities.

Interestingly though, the number of places available in 2015 fell back substantially, to 850. The number of courses was 35, unchanged from 2014, suggesting a drop in the average number of students per course from 29 to 24.

Courses are categorised according to whether they are in Humanities, Medical Sciences, Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences or Social Sciences. Sixteen of the 35 are in Humanities subjects.

The eligibility criteria are also similar to those for Sutton trust summer schools, but  those relating to disadvantage are not described with any degree of specificity . They include:

  • The number of A* GCSE grades achieved compared with the average for the applicant’s school when they took GCSEs. (Applicants are only permitted to have completed one A level.)
  • Academic attainment and history of progression to Oxford at the school or college where the applicant is taking A levels
  • ACORN postcode data
  • POLAR 3 data and
  • The quality of a personal statement

Applications from looked after children are considered ‘on an individual basis’.

A referee, normally a teacher, needs to confirm the details of their application.

Students who complete a UNIQ summer school fulfil the requirements for the ASDAN Universities Award.

The website adds that from 2015, Oxford is ‘running a virtual learning programme for selected applicants’.

The answer given to the question ‘Will attending a UNIQ summer school make it more likely that I will get a place at Oxford University says:

‘Students who attend UNIQ and decide to apply to Oxford University do not receive any preferential treatment at the application stage.

Admissions tutors who make decisions about undergraduate offers select entirely on academic merit. Unless students mention on their UCAS Personal Statement that they have attended the UNIQ Summer School, admissions tutors will not know, as we do not provide them with separate information.’

Cambridge: Insight 

Insight is described in the guide for teachers as:

‘an [sic] multidisciplinary programme which aims develop [sic] and broaden students’ academic interests and tackle the barriers many students face when applying to university. We hope to achieve this through inspiring subject days, discussions with current university students and academics and sessions about university.’

Eligible students are in Year 9, attract the Pupil Premium, can travel to and from Cambridge in a day and are ‘on track to achieve Level 7 English, maths and science but [sic] the end of Key Stage 3’.

The programme is predominantly focused on six London boroughs, but applications are also invited from non-selective state schools elsewhere with ‘above average eligibility for free school meals’.

There is a series of Saturday and holiday events, including:

  • Core sessions, including an introductory event in the Spring term of Year 9 and ‘Subject Matters’ – events to support A level choices – in the Autumn Term of Year 11.
  • Additional subject days provided throughout Years 10 and 11
  • A one-night residential at the end of Year 10 and a four-night residential at the end of Year 11 for ‘those who have shown enthusiasm and commitment to the programme’.
  • A regular email newsletter during Years 12 and 13 providing information about open days, masterclasses, residentials and competitions.

The programme is free of charge.

I could find no evaluation of the impact of this programme, which is not mentioned in Cambridge’s ‘Raising Aspirations’ brochure, even though it seems to be their only substantial long term programme targeting disadvantaged students outside the local area

.

Oxford: Pathways Programme 

The website describes Pathways as an initiative co-ordinated by Oxford’s colleges with support from the Sutton Trust.

‘The programme aims to provide information, advice and guidance on higher education and Oxford to academically able students, and staff members, in non-selective state schools with little history of student progression to Oxford.’

The components are:

  • Year 10 taster days which provide sessions on higher education and student finance. Applications are made by schools, which need to be in the state sector, ‘usually without sixth forms’ and with little or any history of sending students to Oxford.
  • Year 11 investigating options events, focused on the significance of GCSE results and post-16 choices. These are aimed at students who have undertaken a taster event who attend schools fitting the description above. Schools are encouraged to bring up to ten students. There are also two subject-focused days, one devoted to Medicine, the other to Humanities.
  • Year 12 study days providing a taste of subject-specific university-level study. This involves two taster sessions undertaken in small groups, two talks from admissions tutors and a college tour. There are twenty-one subjects offered. Participants are from non-selective state schools and colleges. They are normally expected to have at least 5 GCSE A* grades (7 for medicine) and be predicted to achieve at least 3 A grades at A level, or equivalent.
  • A Year 13 application information day, providing advice on personal statements, tests and interviews. These cover seven broad subject areas. Participants are again drawn from non-selective state schools and colleges.

Although not confined to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, teachers are advised that:

‘When selecting participants for the Year 12 and 13 events, we also take into account socio-economic data, such as parental HE participation and eligibility for benefits or free schools meals.’

The Sutton Trust explains that Pathways involved almost 3,000 students and 400 teachers in its first year. The Trust is funding the further development of the Year 12 and 13 components.

I could find no separate evaluation of the effectiveness of Pathways.

Strengths and weaknesses of Oxbridge provision

.

Summer schools 

Both Oxford and Cambridge place extensive reliance on the effectiveness of summer schools as an instrument for improving access, with summer school provision forming the centrepiece of their respective strategies.

The evidence base in support of this strategy appears relatively slim. Both appear to be relying principally on evaluation of the Sutton Trust’s programme.

The Sutton Trust appears to publish an annual Targeting and Progression Report, but the 2014 edition has all the institution-specific data stripped out, which is not entirely helpful.

However, it does reveal that, amongst applicants for summer schools in all ten locations, only:

  • 59.5% were from the first generation of their family with experience of HE.
  • 54.8% came from schools and colleges with below average A level point scores and/or low progression rates to HE.
  • 29.9% were in Polar 2 quintiles 1 or 2.

There is no reference to the FSM eligibility criterion, so presumably that was not in place last year.

There is limited information about the status of those accepted onto courses. Between them, the document and a parallel powerpoint presentation tell us that:

  • The majority of attendees met two or three of the eligibility criteria
  • 77% met three of the criteria, but we don’t know which three
  • 85% met the ‘first generation’ criterion
  • 74% ‘came from schools with low attainment’
  • 49% ‘lived in areas with the lowest level of progression to university’ (presumably Polar quintiles 1 and 2).

Given the focus of this post, the last outcome is particularly disappointing, since it means that over half were not disadvantaged on the Trust’s only measure. Perhaps the additional FSM criterion has been introduced in an effort to secure a larger majority of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The presentation also reveals that the Trust specifically targeted 900 ‘hard to reach schools’ which eventually supplied 257 attendees, 88% of them meeting three or more of the eligibility criteria.

The implication must be that, if such an exercise had not taken place, the proportion of attendees from disadvantaged backgrounds would have been significantly lower.

The Report also reveals that, of the 2012 Sutton Trust summer school cohort, 58% of university applicants took up a place at a Russell Group university. A total of 125 students (10% of the cohort) accepted a place at the institution that hosted their summer school.

Oxford publishes information about its summer schools in its access agreements.

The target is for 60% of participants to apply and for 30% of applicants to receive an offer. The University also aims that summer school participants will have the same success rate in securing an offer as the average for all applicants from the state sector.

Each agreement provides detail about the number of participants who apply to Oxford, the number receiving offers and the proportion of those from ACORN groups 4 and 5.

These are summarised in Graph 4, below, which illustrates that the impact on recruitment of students from ACORN 4 and 5 postcodes is not fully commensurate with the increase in the number of participants.

Oxbridge graph 3

Graph 4: Impact of UNIQ summer schools, 2010-2013

.

Oxford also provides details of the proportion of summer school participants from Polar quintiles 1 and 2 receiving an admission offer, for 2011 (19.5%), 2012 (15%) and 2013 (20.3%). In 2013, the comparable ‘success rate’ for all applicants to the University was 20.1%.

The evaluation evidence cited by Oxbridge is captured in a Sutton Trust Summer School Impact Report, dating from 2011. This is based on analysis of the 2008 and 2009 summer school intakes, when course were located at Bristol, Nottingham and St Andrews, as well as at Oxford and Cambridge.

It concludes that:

  • Summer schools successfully select students who fit the eligibility criteria (though that is not entirely borne out by the more recent outcomes above).
  • Amongst the disadvantaged cohort, less disadvantaged students are more likely to take up places than their more disadvantaged peers.
  • However, attending a summer school closes the gap between the success rates – in terms of obtaining admission offers – of more and less disadvantaged students. Exactly why this happens is unclear.
  • There are significant differences between universities. Cambridge exhibits ‘relatively poor conversion of attendees into applications (not least when compared to the equivalent performance of Oxford)’

The overall conclusion is that summer schools do have a positive impact, compared with control groups, but the study does not offer recommendations for how they might work better, or consider value for money.

The closing section notes that:

‘They achieve this by raising two of the three ‘As’ of the WP canon – student awareness and student aspirations. It may not directly enhance the third – student attainment – though summer schools can support students’ study skills – but the growing adoption of a ‘contextual data’ approach to the treatment of university admissions should be to the further benefit of the sorts of students who pass through summer schools.’

Overall then, summer schools have a positive impact, but if we are judging their efficiency as a mechanism for improving the intake of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, it is clear that there is extensive deadweight. They might be better targeted on the most disadvantaged students.

If this is true of summer schools it is almost certainly true of other elements of Oxbridges’s access programmes.

.

Other more general issues 

  • A smorgasbord of provision: It is evident that both Oxford and Cambridge are engaged in multiple overlapping initiatives designed to improve access, both to their own institutions and to selective HE more generally. At Offa’s behest, they are targeting several sub-populations. The 2016-17 guidance on completing access agreements invites them to consider a variety of under-represented groups: minority ethnic students, disabled students, care leavers and students in care, part-time students, mature students, medical students, PGCE students. There seems to be a tendency to invent a series of small targeted initiatives for each subgroup, rather than focusing principally on two or three substantial programmes that would make a real difference to core target groups. 
  • Too many priorities too vaguely expressed: Both universities identify core priorities through the targets they have selected. In Oxford’s case those involve increasing representation from: schools and colleges with limited progression to Oxford; postcodes associated with significant socio-economic disadvantage; postcodes associated with low HE participation; and disabled students. However the first three overlap to some extent and recent access agreements do not indicate the relative priority attached to each. In Cambridge’s case only two targets relate to admissions, one focused on increasing representation from state schools, the other from low participation postcodes. In older agreements, the former has clear priority over the latter but it is unclear whether this remains the case. Offa’s framework requires simplification so that both universities have no option but to prioritise admissions from disadvantaged learners educated in state-funded institutions. It should be much clearer exactly which activities are dedicated to this end and what funding is allocated for this purpose. 
  • A plethora of measures: The Offa system permits Oxbridge and other universities too much leeway in defining the populations whose access they seek to promote and in determining how they measure success. This makes it harder to compare universities’ records and more complex to harmonise with the measures most often applied in schools and colleges. If universities refuse to foreground eligibility for the pupil premium and for FSM, they should at the very least publish annual data about the proportion of their intake falling within these categories, and without the present two year time lag.
  • Limited transparency: There is too much variability in the degree of transparency permitted by the Offa framework. Oxford provides much more data in its access agreement than does Cambridge, but the range of data published in support of fair access is limited across the board. Within the bounds of data protection legislation, it should be possible for the university to state each year, without a two-year timelag, what proportion of their intake fall within certain specified categories, how those vary between subjects and the range of attainment demonstrated in each case. The publication of such material would go a long way towards removing any sense that Oxbridge is overly defensive about these issues. 
  • Limited investment in long term collaborative programmes: Summer schools are valuable but they do not impact early enough, nor do they raise attainment. The Insight and Pathways programmes demonstrate growing recognition of the potential value of establishing long-term relationships with prospective students that begin as early as primary school and certainly before the end of KS3. Such programmes require schools, colleges and universities to preserve continuity for each eligible student through to the point of university entry. Existing programmes are insufficiently intensive and reach too few students. Scalability is an obvious issue. 
  • Negligible involvement in attainment-raising work: Both Oxford and Cambridge state frequently that the principal obstacle to recruiting more disadvantaged students is the scarcity of sufficiently high attainment within the target group. Yet rarely, if ever, do they invest in long-term activities designed to raise these students’ attainment, seeming to believe that this is entirely a matter for schools and colleges. The precedent offered by university involvement in academy sponsorship and A level reform would suggest that there is no fundamental obstacle to much closer engagement in such activities.

.

Tackling the core problem

The proposed solution is a framework that supports a coherent long-term programme for all high-attaining disadvantaged students attending state-funded institutions in England, stretching from Year 7 to Year 13. These might be defined as all those eligible for pupil premium. An additional high attainment criterion, based on achievement in end of KS2 tests, could be introduced if necessary.

Such a programme could be extended to the other home countries and additional populations subject to the availability of funding.

The framework would position the school/college as the co-ordinator, facilitator and quality assurer of each eligible student’s learning experience (with handover as appropriate as and when a learner transfers school or into a post-16 setting).

It would stretch across the full range of competence required for admission to selective HE, including high attainment, personal and learning skills, strong yet realistic aspirations, cultural capital, access to tailored IAG etc.

On the demand side, the framework would be used to identify each student’s strengths and areas for development, and monitor progress again challenging but realistic personal targets.

From Years 7-9 the programme would be light-touch and open access for all eligible disadvantaged students. Emphasis would be placed on awareness-raising and the initial cultivation of relevant skills.

Entry to the programme from Year 10 would be conditional on the achievement of an appropriate nigh attainment threshold at the end of KS3. From this point, provision would be tailored to the individual and more intensive.

Continuation in subsequent years would be dependent on the student achieving appropriate high attainment thresholds and challenging interim targets.

Schools’ and colleges’ performance would be monitored through destinations data and Ofsted inspection.

On the supply side the framework would be used to identify, organise and catalogue all opportunities to develop the full range of competence required for admission to selective HE, whether provided by the student’s own school or college, other education providers in the school, college and HE sectors or reputable private and third sector providers.

Opportunities offered by external providers, whether at national or regional level, would be catalogued and mapped against the framework in a searchable national database. Schools and colleges would be responsible for mapping their own provision and other local provision against the framework.

Each student would have a personal budget supplied from a central fund. Personal budgets would be administered by the school/college and used to purchase suitable learning opportunities with a cost attached. The fund would be fed by an annual £50m topslice from the pupil premium. This would cover the full cost of personal budgets.

The annual budget of £50m per year might be divided between:

  • Light-touch open access activities in Years 7-9 – £10m
  • Intensive programme in Years 10-13 – £10m per year group.

The latter would be sufficient to support 5,000 eligible students to the tune of £2,000 per student per year, or 4,000 to the tune of £2,500.

By comparison, DfE’s destination indicators suggest that, in 2012/13, ‘top third’ universities admitted 2,650 FSM-eligible students; some 1,520 of these were admitted to Russell Group universities and, of those, just 50 were admitted to Oxbridge.

Selective universities would make a small contribution, the sum adjusted to reflect their comparative performance against fair access targets. These contributions would be used to meet the administrative costs associated with the programme. Total annual running costs have not been estimated but are unlikely to be more than £2.5m per year.

Universities might choose to invest additional funding, covered by their annual Offa access agreements, in developing free-to-access products and services that sit within the supply side of the framework. Attainment-raising activities might be a particular priority, especially for Oxbridge.

Philanthropic contributions might also be channelled towards filling gaps in the supply of products and services where, for whatever reason, the market failed to respond.

Selective universities would have access to information about the progress and performance of participating students. Students would apply for higher education via UCAS as normal, but strong performers would expect to receive unconditional offers from their preferred universities, on the strength of their achievement within the programme to date.

Participation in the programme would be a condition of funding for all selective universities. All processes and outcomes would be transparent, unless data protection legislation prevented this. The programme would be independently evaluated.

Optionally, universities might be further incentivised to make unconditional offers and provide the necessary support during undergraduate study. The Government might pay the receiving university a fee supplement, 50% above the going rate, for every student on the programme admitted unconditionally (so up to £22.5m per cohort per year assuming a supplement of £4,500 and 100% recruitment). This supplement would not be provided for conditional offers.

The Government would also claw back the full fee plus the supplement for every student on the programme – whether admitted conditionally or unconditionally – who failed to graduate with a good degree (so £40,500 per student assuming a 3-year degree and a £9,000 fee).

GP

March 2015

Why McInerney is just plain wrong

.

I should be completing my next evidence-based post but, 24 hours on from reading this evidence-light Guardian article by Laura McInerney, I am still incandescent.

.

.

I find I cannot return to normal business until I have shredded these flimsy arguments.  So this post is by way of catharsis.

McInerney’s core premiss is that political parties of all colours focus disproportionately on ‘the smartest children’ while ‘ignoring lower ability learners’.

This poisonous ideology seems particularly prevalent amongst Teach First types. I imagine they are regurgitating lessons they learned on its courses,

I have seen it promulgated by rising stars in the profession. That exchange prompted this previous post which attempted a balanced, rational analysis of our respective positions.

Ideologues cannot be persuaded by evidence, so there is no hope for McInerney and her ilk, but I hope that more open-minded readers will be swayed a little by the reasoning below.

.

What does she mean by ability?

McInerney distinguishes learners who are ‘smart’ or ‘bright’ from those who are ‘lower ability’. This betrays a curious adherence to old-fashioned notions of fixed ability, dividing children into sheep and goats.

There is no recognition of ability as a continuum, or of the capacity of learners to improve through effort, if given the right support.

The principles of personalised learning are thrown out of the window.

Education is not a matter of enabling every learner to ‘become the best that they can be’. Instead it is a zero sum game, trading off the benefits given to one fixed group – the smart kids – against those allegedly denied to another – the lower ability learners.

There is also an elementary confusion between ability and attainment.

It seems that McInerney is concerned with the latter (‘get good marks’; ‘received a high grade’) yet her terminology (‘lower-ability pupils’; ‘the smartest children’; ‘gifted and talented’) is heavily redolent of the former.

.

What does she mean by focusing on the top rather than the tail?

According to McInerney’s notions, these ‘lower ability’ kids face a sad destiny. They are ‘more likely to truant, be excluded or become unemployed’, more likely to ‘slip into unskilled jobs’ and, by implication, form part of the prison population (‘75% of prisoners are illiterate’).

If we accept that low attainers are preponderant in these categories, then it is logical to conclude that programmes focused on tackling such problems are predominantly benefiting low attainers.

So governments’ investment in action to improve behaviour and discipline, tackle truancy and offer Alternative Provision must be distributed accordingly when we are calculating the inputs on either side of this equation.

Since the bulk of those with special educational needs are also low attainers, the same logic must be applied to SEN funding.

And of course most of the £2.5bn pupil premium budget is headed in the same direction.

Set against the size of some of these budgets, Labour’s commitment to invest a paltry £15 million in supporting high attainers pales into insignificance.

There are precious few programmes that disproportionately support high attainers. One might cite BIS support for fair access and possibly DfE support for the Music and Dance Scheme. Most are ‘penny packages’ by comparison.

When the national gifted and talented programme was at its peak it also cost no more than £15m a year.

Viewed in this way, it is abundantly clear that low attainers continue to attract the lion’s share of educational funding and political attention. The distasteful medical analogy with which McInerney opens her piece is just plain wrong.

The simple reason is that substantial investment in high attainers is politically unacceptable.

Even though one could make a convincing case that the economic benefits of investing in the ‘smart fraction’ are broadly commensurate with those derived from shortening the ‘long tail’.

Of course we need to do both simultaneously. This is not a zero sum game.

.

Deficit model thinking

McInerney is engaged in deficit model thinking.

There is no substance to her suggestion that the government’s social mobility strategy is disproportionately focused on ‘making high court judges’. Take a look at the Social Mobility Indicators if you don’t believe me.

McInerney is dangerously close to suggesting that, because low attainers are predominantly disadvantaged, all disadvantaged learners are low attainers. Labour’s commitment is a sop for the middle classes. Nothing could be further from the truth.

But high-attaining learners from disadvantaged backgrounds will not succeed without the requisite support. They have an equal right to such support: they are not ‘the healthiest’, pushing in front of ‘the sickest’ low attainers. Equally, they should not be expected to go to the back of the queue.

There are powerful economic and equity arguments for ensuring that more learners from disadvantaged backgrounds progress to competitive universities and professional careers.

As and when more succeed, they serve as role models for younger learners, persuading them that they too can follow suit.

McInerney has made that journey personally so I find it hard to understand why she has fallen prey to anti-elitism.

Her criticism of Labour is sadly misplaced. She should be asking instead why other parties are not matching their commitment.

According to her there was a golden age under Blunkett ‘who really believed in helping all children, not mostly the smartest.’

Guess who was Secretary of State when Labour first offered support to gifted and talented learners?

He fully appreciated that the tail should not wag the dog.

[Postscript: Here is the Twitter debate that followed this post. Scroll down to the bottom and work upwards to read the discussion in broadly chronological order.]

.

 

GP

March 2015

The Policy Exchange National Scholarships Programme

.

This post is a short critical analysis of the proposal for a new National Scholarships Programme contained in the Policy Exchange Education Manifesto, published in March 2015.

.

Background

Policy Exchange describes itself as ‘the UK’s leading think tank’.

It is Right-leaning, having been established in 2002 by a group including Boles (the founding Director), Gove and Maude, all currently Conservative Ministers in the Coalition Government.

On Friday 6 March, Policy Exchange published an Education Manifesto, authored by its Education Team: Jonathan Simons, Natasha Porter and Annaliese Briggs.

The Manifesto’s Introduction says:

‘This is not a manifesto in its traditional sense. What is published here is a collection of short ideas around particular areas which are more localised than those in our main reports. It is our hope and our belief that any or all of them could be taken up by any main political party in May 2015, and they complement the broader policy recommendations we have put forward in our published reports.’

There are seven ‘ideas’, the last of which is for National Scholarships, summarised as follows:

‘Government should design a prestigious scholarship scheme to financially support the most talented undergraduates in the country – covering approximately 200 individuals a year – if they attend a UK university and remain in the UK for at least three years after graduation.’

Despite the authors named above, this has unmistakeably Odyssean fingerprints!

.

Rationale

The purpose of the Programme seems to be to ensure that the economic benefits vested in the most outstanding undergraduates are not lost to the UK through ‘brain drain’:

‘The intention would be to marry the most able students within the UK with some of the world class provision on offer at UK universities (though the scholar would have their free choice of which institution to attend). The financial package would act less as a facilitator to go to university in general but as a nudge to incentivise scholars to remain in the UK throughout university and beyond, as opposed to going abroad, which is becoming an increasingly competitive battleground. [sic]’

The paper emphasises the economic benefits of investing in a country’s very highest attainers:

‘If such highly able individuals can accrue great awards and accomplishments which benefit not just themselves but, through positive spillovers, drive increase in human capital more widely, then this will be of wider benefit.’

This idea is associated with Benbow and Lubinski, Co-Directors of the Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth (SMPY) located at Vanderbilt University in the US:

‘They argue for a national scheme to identify such individuals and nurture them, both for the individuals’ own benefits but also for the benefits of their home nations. This is because in advanced economies in particular, with a shift towards higher skilled jobs, the economic prosperity of a country depends on its human capital potential. Education today is the economy of tomorrow. If such individuals as these under discussion can generate further talent by virtue of their own accomplishments, then there is a competitive rationale for countries to identify and support these individuals.’

In fact, these arguments have a longer pedigree

There is no explanation of how the highest attainers ‘can generate further talent by virtue of their own accomplishments’, though this might be a reference to potential future employment as university academics.

Some limited evidence is cited to support fears of a brain drain:

‘A BIS report from 2010 found that some 2.8 per cent of state sector pupils and 5.5 per cent of independent sector pupils apply to universities outside the UK – small in absolute terms but “It is particularly significant that it is the academically most gifted pupils who are the most likely to apply to foreign universities”. Longitudinal data – which unfortunately only goes to 2011 – nevertheless shows a consistent increase since 2005.

Most recently, the Institute for International Education and the US-UK Fulbright Commission releaed [sic] data in late 2014 showing that there were a record number of UK students studying in the USA, which has always been the most popular country for foreign study. 10,191 British students pursued study in the US during the 2013/14 academic year, up from around 9,500 12 months earlier and the largest year-on-year increase in more than a decade. Undergraduates accounted for 49.6 per cent of all UK students heading to the US. Some 23.9 per cent were postgraduates and the remainder were taking part in short-term exchanges or graduate work programmes.’

.

What is proposed?

The proposed Programme would award £10,000 per year for three years of undergraduate study at an English university to ‘the top 200 scholars in the country’. The total cost of the awards would be ‘£6m a year in steady state’.

This would involve the Government collaborating with universities and other unspecified partners to develop a new optional test for 17-18 year-olds.

Any student resident in the UK would be eligible, so there would be no screening process.

The test would:

‘…seek to measure via a range of metrics a combination of academic ability and academic potential. The test would be calibrated to accurately identify those with ability found in approximately 1 in 10,000 individuals (or variants of this depending on how wide the entry criteria are drawn). A proportion of the top ranked scores on this test would be designated National Scholars and be eligible for a package of incentives under the National Scholarship Scheme, contingent upon enrolling as an undergraduate at a UK university.’

Anyone who received a scholarship and subsequently left the country within three years of graduating would be required to repay it.

Hence the scheme would obstruct enrolment as an undergraduate overseas and also place a significant obstacle in the path of postgraduate mobility.

Analysis

There is no problem

The idea is a solution in search of a problem.

There is no specific evidence that the 200 students with the highest ability and academic potential (however that is measured) are any more likely to study abroad.

The 2010 BIS research report quoted above notes that 76% of the students in its survey planned to return to the UK, although many wanted to work abroad before doing so.

Furthermore:

‘Significantly, the survey results point to the students with the strongest A level results being more likely to want to return to the UK at some point after their studies. International student mobility should not therefore be interpreted as a brain drain of the UK’s best and brightest young people.’

The BIS report quite rightly explores this issue in the context of international student mobility, the globalisation of higher education and the postgraduate labour market.

The threat of brain drain can be countered by the argument that the strongest UK students should be encouraged to attend the best courses at the world’s best universities (language of tuition permitting). Only by doing so will they maximise their skills and their subsequent economic value.

Meanwhile, the best overseas students should be welcomed to UK universities and encouraged to consider postgraduate study and employment here, so that the UK economy benefits from their engagement.

Poor policy design

There is insufficient information about the nature of the test.

It would not be an intelligence test, but would assess ‘academic ability and potential’.

Since it must be applicable to all students, regardless of their current subjects of study or their intended undergraduate field(s) of study, it must not rely in any way on subject content, otherwise it would be biased in favour of specialists in those fields.

It seems unlikely that such a test already exists, unless one is prepared to argue that the US SAT test fits the bill and, even if it does, the ceiling is almost certainly too low.

The footnotes acknowledge that:

‘…such a proposed test has no track record on validity and there will be a large number of students therefore caught in statistical noise just outside the cut off score.’

The development process would be lengthy and complex – and the costs correspondingly high. These development costs are not included in the £6m budget.

If the test is coachable, this opens up the possibility of a further market for the private tuition industry. Students will be diverted from their A level studies as a consequence.

The reference to ‘a range of metrics’ suggests the possibility of a complex test battery rather than a single assessment. The ongoing cost of administering the test is also excluded from the budget.

Similarly, the ongoing costs of administering the scholarship scheme, evaluating its effectiveness, monitoring the movements of alumni and pursuing repayments are also excluded.

The relationship between the scholarship and other forms of student support is not properly developed. Why not link the incentive to student loan repayments instead of introducing a separate scholarship scheme? One section of the paper suggests it could meet living costs, or be offset against tuition fees.

It acknowledges that many of the beneficiaries of such scholarships are likely to come from privileged backgrounds and be educated in the independent sector.

It seems unlikely that they would they be swayed by financial inducements at this level, especially if their parents have been forking out upwards of £25,000 a year for school fees.

It is likely that those who are determined to study abroad will choose not to take the test. The benefits of £30,000 now will be more than outweighed by the additional earnings they might subsequently expect as a consequence of pursuing a better course elsewhere. This will be especially true of those from affluent backgrounds.

Finally, one doubts whether a sample as tiny as 200 students a year – no matter how talented they are – would have any substantive impact on the UK economy, even assuming that the arguments in favour of globalisation could be set aside. Such a scheme would be more effective if it had a wider reach.

Redundant lines of argument and poor research

The first part of the paper is devoted to describing the original National Scholarship Programme, a completely different animal, designed to provide financial support to enable disadvantaged students to participate in higher education. It is a red herring.

In contrast, the new proposal has nothing to do with fair access or social mobility. It is ‘targeted on talent rather than socio-economic background’.

The paper argues that there are few incentives that ‘recognise and support the most intellectually able’, continuing:

 ‘At a school level, the previous National Academy for Gifted and Talented Youth, was cancelled in 2010 and its funds used for the National Scholarship Programme! [sic]’

This is hopelessly wrong.

NAGTY’s five year contract ended in 2007. Its sponsor, Warwick University, chose not to bid for the subsequent contract, which was intended to extend support to all England’s gifted and talented learners (then numbered at approximately one million), rather than the top 5% of 11-19 year-olds who were NAGTY’s main target group.

The subsequent contract, for Young, Gifted and Talented, ended in 2010 and was not renewed, as the then Labour Government decided to devolve responsibility to schools. This funding stream was not diverted to the NSP, which was administered by HEFCE through BIS.

The paper continues:

‘In line with a general approach towards autonomy, there is also no agreed definition of able students or gifted and talented students. Anecdotally, it is often tended to be used for somewhere around the top 15% or so of the cohort in ability terms. However, this note takes a different and much narrower definition, and is concerned with what might be called the extremely able – those with ability levels found in approximately 1 in every 10,000 of the population.’

The problematic co-existence of definitional autonomy and Ofsted’s emphasis on assessing the effectiveness of all schools’ support for the most able is not discussed.

The reference to ‘somewhere around the top 15%’ is more than anecdotal – it is plucked entirely out of the air. Having introduced this topic, what is the justification given for shifting the emphasis away from 15% of learners to 0.0001% of prospective undergraduates? The policy response to one has negligible bearing on the other.

(In fact, the footnotes reveal that a cadre of 200 scholarships would accommodate some 0.003% of the undergraduate population.)

The next section of the paper suggests that SMPY has been focused on different countries, yet SMPY participants have all been resident in the United States (though Cohort 5 covers graduate students enrolled in the top-ranked maths, science and engineering courses located there).

Benbow and Lubinski argue for a national scheme to identify and nurture such learners from the age of 13. Yet the paper switches again to discuss university scholarship schemes in the US, India, France and Russia. All of the three still extant are focused on maths, science and technology, so are not direct parallels with what is proposed here.

A comparison is drawn with elite sports funding

‘This approach mirrors closely the “no compromise approach” of elite sporting organisations funded by UK Sport, which requires tangible outcomes of high performance (ie realistic chances of an Olympic medal) in exchange for funding. Less successful sports, however, popular, are not entitled to the same levels of funding. The net result is that performance at the elite end of UK sport has exponentially grown – whilst alongside that, other funding helps develop grass roots sport and widening participation.’

I struggle to understand the parallels between funding for successful sports and for successful students, unless this is supposed to make the case for not linking the scholarships to socio-economic disadvantage.

The inclusion of a table of five countries’ Olympic medal tallies from 1996-2012 is, however, entirely spurious and redundant.

.

Conclusion

The end of the paper says:

‘There should also be a renewed focus on how to stretch all pupils within the state sector at whatever level, and further work on identifying potential highly able talent across the wider state education sector as Ofsted have identified – both of which will be the focus of future Policy Exchange work. But this is not the same thing, and nor should it be confused with, a scheme to reward and nurture excellence at 18 now, wherever it comes from.’

This is surely ironic, in that much of the commentary above shows how these two issues have been interleaved in the paper itself.

The fact that Policy Exchange plans fresh work on the wider question of support for the most able in schools is welcome. I look forward to being involved.

But, meanwhile, this idea should be consigned to the bin.

.

.

GP

March 2015

The most able students: Has Ofsted made progress?

.

This post considers Ofsted’s survey report ‘The most able students: An update on progress since June 2013’ published on 4 March 2015.

It is organised into the following sections:

  • The fit with earlier analysis
  • Reaction to the Report
  • Definitions and the consequent size of Ofsted’s ‘most able’ population
  • Evidence base – performance data and associated key findings
  • Evidence base – inspection and survey evidence and associated key findings
  • Ofsted’s recommendations and overall assessment
  • Prospects for success

How this fits with earlier work

The new Report assesses progress since Ofsted’s previous foray into this territory some 21 months ago: ‘The most able students: Are they doing as well as they should in our non-selective secondary schools?’ (June 2013)

The autopsy I performed on the original report was severely critical.

It concluded:

‘My overall impression is of a curate’s egg, whose better parts have been largely overlooked because of the opprobrium heaped on the bad bits.

The Report might have had a better reception had the data analysis been stronger, had the most significant messages been given comparatively greater prominence and had the tone been somewhat more emollient towards the professionals it addresses, with some sort of undertaking to underwrite support – as well as challenge – from the centre.’

In May 2014, almost exactly mid-way between that Report and this, I published an analysis of the quality of Ofsted reporting on support for the most able in a sample of Section 5 secondary school inspection reports.

This uncovered a patchy picture which I characterised as ‘requiring improvement’.

It noted the scant attention given by inspectors to high-attaining disadvantaged learners and called for Ofsted to publish guidance to clarify, for inspectors and schools alike, what they mean by the most able and their expectations of what support schools should provide.

In December 2014, I published ‘HMCI ups the ante on the most able’ which drew attention to commitments in HMCI’s Annual Report for 2013/14 and the supporting documentation released alongside it.

I concluded that post with a series of ten recommendations for further action by Ofsted and other central government bodies that would radically improve the chances of achieving system-wide improvement in this territory.

The new Report was immediately preceded by a Labour commitment to introduce a £15m Gifted and Talented Fund if successful in the forthcoming General Election.

This short commentary discusses that and sets out the wider political context into which Ofsted’s new offering will fall.

.

Reactions to Ofsted’s Report

Before considering the Report’s content, it may be helpful to complete this context-setting by charting immediate reactions to it.

  • DfE’s ‘line to take, as quoted by the Mail, is:

‘We know that the best schools do stretch their pupils. They are the ones with a no-excuses culture that inspires every student to do their best.

Our plan for education is designed to shine a bright light on schools which are coasting, or letting the best and brightest fall by the wayside.

That is why we are replacing the discredited system which rewarded schools where the largest numbers of pupils scraped a C grade at GCSE.

Instead we are moving to a new system which encourages high-achievers to get the highest grades possible while also recognising schools which push those who find exams harder.’

‘David Cameron’s government has no strategy for supporting schools to nurture their most able pupils. International research shows we perform badly in helping the most gifted pupils. We’re going to do something about that. Labour will establish a Gifted and Talented Fund to equip schools with the most effective strategies for stretching their most able pupils.’

  • ASCL complains that the Report ‘fails to recognise that school leaders have done an extraordinary job in difficult circumstances in raising standards and delivering a good education for all children’. It is also annoyed because Ofsted’s press release:

‘…should have focused on the significant amount of good practice identified in the report rather than leading with comments that some schools are not doing enough to ensure the most able children fulfil their potential.’

 .

 .

  • NAHT makes a similarly generic point about volatility and change:

‘The secondary sector has been subject to massive structural change over the past few years. It’s neither sensible nor accurate to accuse secondary schools of failure. The system itself is getting in the way of success…

…Not all of these changes are bad. The concern is that the scale and pace of them will make it very hard indeed to know what will happen and how the changes will interact….

…The obvious answer is quite simple: slow down and plan the changes better; schedule them far enough ahead to give schools time to react….

But the profession also needs to ask what it can do. One answer is not to react so quickly to changes in league table calculations – to continue to do what is right…’

There was no official reaction from ATL, NASUWT or NUT.

Turning to the specialist organisations:

‘If the failure reported by Ofsted was about any other issue there would be a national outcry.

This cannot be an issue laid at the door of schools alone, with so many teachers working hard, and with no budget, to support these children.

But in some schools there is no focus on supporting high potential learners, little training for teachers to cope with their educational needs, and a naive belief that these children will succeed ‘no matter what’.

Ofsted has shown that this approach is nothing short of a disaster; a patchwork of different kinds of provision, a lack of ambitious expectations and a postcode lottery for parents.

We need a framework in place which clearly recognises best practice in schools, along with a greater understanding of how to support these children with high learning potential before it is too late.’

‘NACE concurs with both the findings and the need for urgent action to be taken to remove the barriers to high achievement for ALL pupils in primary and secondary schools…

… the organisation is  well aware that nationally there is a long way to go before all able children are achieving in line with their abilities.’

‘Today’s report demonstrates an urgent need for more dedicated provision for the highly able in state schools. Ofsted is right to describe the situation as ‘especially disappointing’; too many of our brightest students are being let down…

…We need to establish an effective national programme to support our highly able children particularly those from low and middle income backgrounds so that they have the stretch and breath they need to access the best universities and the best careers.’

Summing up, the Government remains convinced that its existing generic reforms will generate the desired improvements.

There is so far no response, from Conservatives or Liberal Democrats, to the challenge laid down by Labour, which has decided that some degree of arms-length intervention from the centre is justified.

The headteacher organisations are defensive because they see themselves as the fall guys, as the centre increasingly devolves responsibility through a ‘school-driven self-improving’ system that cannot yet support its own weight (and might never be able to do so, given the resource implications of building sufficient capacity).

But they cannot get beyond these generic complaints to address the specific issues that Ofsted presents. They are in denial.

The silence of the mainstream teachers’ associations is sufficient comment on the significance they attach to this issue.

The specialist lobby calls explicitly for a national framework, or even the resurrection of a national programme. All are pushing their own separate agendas over common purpose and collaborative action.

Taken together, this does not bode well for Ofsted’s chances of achieving significant traction.

Ofsted’s definitions

.

Who are the most able?

Ofsted is focused exclusively on non-selective secondary schools, and primarily on KS3, though most of the data it publishes relates to KS4 outcomes.

My analysis of the June 2013 report took umbrage at Ofsted’s previous definition of the most able:

‘For the purpose of this survey ‘most able’ is defined as the brightest students starting secondary school in Year 7 attaining Level 5 or above, or having the potential to attain Level 5 and above, in English (reading and writing) and/or mathematics at the end of Key Stage 2. Some pupils who are new to the country and are learning English as an additional language, for example, might not have attained Level 5 or beyond at the end of Key Stage 2 but have the potential to achieve it.’

On this occasion, the definition is similarly based on prior attainment at KS2, but the unquantified proportion of learners with ‘the potential to attain Level 5 or above’ are removed, meaning that Ofsted is now focused exclusively on high attainers:

‘For this report, ‘most able’ refers to students starting secondary school in Year 7 having attained Level 5 or above in English (reading and writing) and/or mathematics at the end of Key Stage 2.’

This reinforces the unsuitability of the term ‘most able’, on the grounds that attainment, not ability, is the true focus.

Ofsted adds for good measure:

‘There is currently no national definition for most able’

They fail to point out that the Performance Tables include a subtly different definition of high attainers, essentially requiring an APS of 30 points or higher across Key Stage 2 tests in the core subjects.

The 2014 Secondary Performance Tables show that this high attainer population constitutes 32.3% of the 2014 GCSE cohort in state-funded schools.

The associated SFR indicates that high attainers account for 30.9% of the cohort in comprehensive schools (compared with 88.8% in selective schools).

But Ofsted’s definition is wider still. The SFR published alongside the 2014 Primary Performance Tables reveals that, in 2014:

  • 29% of pupils achieved Level 5 or above in KS2 reading and writing
  • 44% of pupils achieved Level 5 or above in KS2 Maths and
  • 24% of pupils achieved Level 5 or above in KS2 reading, writing and maths.

If this information is fed into a Venn diagram, it becomes evident that, this academic year, the ‘most able’ constitute 49% of the Year 7 cohort.

That’s right – almost exactly half of this year’s Year 7s fall within Ofsted’s definition.

.

Ofsted venn Capture

.

The population is not quite so large if we focus instead on KS2 data from 2009, when the 2014 GCSE cohort typically took their KS2 tests, but even that gives a combined total of 39%.

We can conclude that Ofsted’s ‘most able’ population is approximately 40% of the KS4 cohort and approaching 50% of the KS3 cohort.

This again calls into question Ofsted’s terminology, since the ‘most’ in ‘most able’ gives the impression that they are focused on a much smaller population at the top of the attainment distribution.

We can check the KS4 figure against numerical data provided in the Report, to demonstrate that it applies equally to non-selective schools, ie once selective schools have been removed from the equation.

The charts in Annex A of the Report give the total number of pupils in non-selective schools with L5 outcomes from their KS2 assessments five years before they take GCSEs:

  • L5 maths and English = 91,944
  • L5 maths = 165,340
  • L5 English (reading and writing) = 138,789

Assuming there is no double-counting, this gives us a total population of 212,185 in 2009.

I could not find a reliable figure for the number of KS2 test takers in 2009 in state-funded primary schools, but the equivalent in the 2011 Primary Performance Tables is 547,025.

Using that, one can calculate that those within Ofsted’s definition constitute some 39% of the 2014 GCSE cohort in non-selective secondary schools. The calculations above suggest that the KS3 cohort will be some ten percentage points larger.

.

Distribution between schools

Of course the distribution of these students between schools will vary considerably.

The 2014 Secondary Performance Tables illustrate this graphically through their alternative ‘high attainers’ measure. The cohort information provides the percentage of high attainers in the GCSE cohort in each school.

The highest recorded percentage in a state-funded comprehensive school is 86%, whereas 92 state-funded schools record 10% or fewer high attainers and just over 650 have 20% or fewer in their GCSE cohort.

At the other extreme, 21 non-selective state-funded schools are at 61% or higher, 102 at 51% or higher and 461 at 41% or higher.

However, the substantial majority – about 1,740 state-funded, non-selective schools – fall between 21% and 40%.

The distribution is shown in the graph below.

.

Ofsted graph 1

Percentage of high attainers within each state-funded non-selective secondary school’s cohort 2014 (Performance Tables measure)

Ofsted approaches the issue differently, by looking at the incidence of pupils with KS2 L5 in English, maths and both English and maths.

Their tables (again in Annex A of the Report) show that, within the 2014 GCSE cohort there were:

  • 2,869 non-selective schools where at least one pupil previously attained a L5 in KS2 English
  • 2,875 non-selective schools where at least one pupil previously attained a L5 in KS2 maths and
  • 2,859 non-selective schools where at least one pupil previously attained l5 in KS2 English and maths.

According to the cohort data in the 2014 Secondary Performance Tables, this suggests that roughly 9% of state-funded non-selective secondary schools had no pupils in each of these categories within the relevant cohort. (It is of course a different 9% in each case.)

Ofsted’s analysis shows that the lowest decile of schools in the distribution of students with L5 in English will have up to 14 of them.

Similarly the lowest decile for L5 in maths will have up to 18 pupils, and the lowest decile for L5 in maths and English combined will have up to 10 pupils.

Assuming a top set typically contains at least 26 pupils, 50% of state-funded, non-selective schools with at least one pupil with L5 English have insufficient students for one full set. The comparable percentage for maths is 30%.

But Ofsted gives no hint of what might constitute a critical mass of high attainers, appearing to suggest that it is simply a case of ‘the more the better’.

Moreover, it seems likely that Ofsted might simply be identifying the incidence of disadvantage through the proxy of high attainers.

This is certainly true at the extremes of the distribution based on the Performance Tables measure.

  • Amongst the 92 schools with 10% or fewer high attainers, 53 (58%) have a cohort containing 41% or more disadvantaged students.
  • By comparison, amongst the 102 schools with 51% or more high attainers, not one school has such a high proportion of disadvantaged students, indeed, 57% have 10% or fewer.

Disadvantage

When Ofsted discusses the most able from disadvantaged backgrounds, its definition of disadvantage is confined to ‘Ever-6 FSM’.

The Report does not provide breakdowns showing the size of this disadvantaged population in state-funded non-selective schools with L5 English or L5 maths.

It does tell us that 12,150 disadvantaged students in the 2014 GCSE cohort had achieved KS2 L5 in both English and maths.  They form about 13.2% of the total cohort achieving this outcome.

If we assume that the same percentage applies to the total populations achieving L5 English only and L5 maths only, this suggests the total size of Ofsted’s disadvantaged most able population within the 2014 GCSE cohort in state-funded, non-selective schools is almost exactly 28,000 students.

Strangely, the Report does not analyse the distribution of disadvantaged high attainers, as opposed to high attainers more generally, even though the text mentions this as an issue in passing.

One would expect that the so called ‘minority effect’ might be even more pronounced in schools where there are very few disadvantaged high attainers.

Ofsted’s evidence base: Performance data

The Executive Summary argues that analysis of national performance data reveals:

‘…three key areas of underperformance for the most able students. These are the difference in outcomes between:

  • schools where most able students make up a very small proportion of the school’s population and those schools where proportions are higher
  • the disadvantaged most able students and their better off peers
  • the most able girls and the most able boys.

If the performance of the most able students is to be maximised, these differences need to be overcome.’

As noted above, Ofsted does not separately consider schools where the incidence of disadvantaged most able students is low, nor does it look at the interaction between these three categories.

It considers all three areas of underperformance through the single prism of prior attainment in KS2 tests of English and maths.

The Report also comments on a fourth dimension: the progression of disadvantaged students to competitive universities. Once again this is related to KS2 performance.

There are three data-related Key Findings:

  • National data show that too many of the most able students are still being let down and are failing to reach their full potential. Most able students’ achievement appears to suffer even more when they are from disadvantaged backgrounds or when they attend a school where the proportion of previously high-attaining students is small.’
  • ‘Nationally, too many of our most able students fail to achieve the grades they need to get into top universities. There are still schools where not a single most able student achieves the A-level grades commonly preferred by top universities.’
  • The Department for Education has developed useful data about students’ destinations when they leave Key Stage 4. However, information about students’ destinations when they leave Key Stage 5 is not as comprehensive and so is less useful.’

The following sections look at achievement compared with prior attainment, followed by each of the four dimensions highlighted above.

GCSE attainment compared with KS2 prior attainment

Ofsted’s approach is modelled on the transition matrices, as applied to non-selective schools, comparing KS2 test performance in 2009 with subsequent GCSE performance in 2014.

Students with KS2 L5 are expected to make at least three levels of progress, to GCSE Grade B or higher, but this is relatively undemanding for high attainers, who should ideally be aiming for A/A* grades.

Ofsted presents two charts which illustrate the relatively small proportions who are successful in these terms – and the comparatively large proportions who undershoot even a grade B.

Ofsted Capture 1

Ofsted Capture 2

 .

  • In English, 39% manage A*/A grades while 77% achieve at least a Grade B, meaning that 23% achieve C or below.
  • In maths, 42% achieve A*/A grades, 76% at least a B and so 24% achieve C or lower.
  • In English and maths combined, 32% achieve A*/A grades in both subjects, 73% manage at least 2 B grades, while 27% fall below this.

Approximately one in four high attainers is not achieving each of these progression targets, even though they are not particularly demanding.

The Report notes that, in selective schools, the proportion of Level 5 students not achieving at least a Grade B is much lower, at 8% in English and 6% in maths.

Even allowing for the unreliability of these ‘levels of progress’ assumptions, the comparison between selective and non-selective schools is telling.

.

The size of a school’s most able population

The Report sets out evidence to support the contention that ‘the most able do best when there are more of them in a school’ (or, more accurately, in their year group).

It provides three graphs – for English, for maths and for maths and English combined – which divide non-selective schools with at least one L5 student into deciles according to the size of that L5 population.

These show consistent increases in the proportion of students achieving GCSE Grade B and above and Grades A*/A, with the lowest percentages for the lowest deciles and vice versa.

Comparing the bottom (fewest L5) and top (most L5) deciles:

  • In English 27% of the lowest decile achieved A*/A and 67% at least a B, whereas in the highest decile 48% achieved A*/A and 83% at least B.
  • In maths 28% of the bottom decile recorded A*/A while 65% managed at least a B, whereas in the top decile 54% achieved A*/A and 83% at least a B.
  • In maths and English combined, the lowest decile schools returned 17% A*/A grades and 58% at B or above, while in the highest decile the percentages were 42% and 81% respectively.

Selective schools record higher percentages than the highest decile on all three measures.

There is a single reference to the impact of sublevels, amply evidenced by the transition matrices.

‘For example, in schools where the lowest proportions of most able students had previously gained Level 5A in mathematics, 63% made more than expected progress. In contrast, in schools where the highest proportion of most able students who had previously attained Level 5A in mathematics, 86% made more than expected progress.’

Ofsted does not draw any inferences from this finding.

As hinted above, one might want to test the hypothesis that there may be an association with setting – in that schools with sufficient Level 5 students to constitute a top set might be relatively more successful.

Pursued to its logical extreme the finding would suggest that Level 5 students will be most successful where they are all taught together.

Interestingly, my own analysis of schools with small high attainer populations (10% or less of the cohort), derived from the 2014 Secondary Performance Tables, shows just how much variation there can be in the performance of these small groups when it comes to the standard measures:

  • 5+ A*-C grades including English and maths varies from 44% to 100%
  • EBacc ranges from 0% to 89%
  • Expected progress in English varies between 22% and 100% and expected progress in maths between 27% and 100%.

This is partly a function of the small sample sizes. One suspects that Ofsted’s deciles smooth over similar variations.

But the most obvious point is that already emphasised in the previous section – the distribution of high attainers seems in large part a proxy for the level of advantage in a school.

Viewed from this perspective, Ofsted’s data on the variation in performance by distribution of high attaining students seems unsurprising.

.

Excellence gaps

Ofsted cites an ‘ever 6’ gap of 13 percentage points at GCSE grade B and above in English (66% compared with 79%) and of 17 percentage points in maths (61% compared with 78%).

Reverting again to progression from KS2, the gap between L5 ‘ever 6 FSM’ and other students going on to achieve A*/A grades in both English and maths is also given as 17 percentage points (20% versus 37%). At Grade B and above the gap is 16 points (59% compared with 75%).

A table is supplied showing progression by sub-level in English and maths separately.

.

Ofsted Capture 3

. 

A footnote explains that the ‘ever 6 FSM’ population with L5a in English was small, consisting of just 136 students.

I have transferred these excellence gaps to the graph below, to illustrate the relationship more clearly.

.

Ofsted chart 2

GCSE attainment gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged learners by KS2 prior attainment

.

It shows that, for grades A*-B, the size of the gap reduces the higher the KS2 sub-level, but the reverse is true at grades A*/A, at least as far as the distinction between 5c and 5b/a is concerned. The gaps remain similar or identical for progression from the higher two sub-levels.

This might suggest that schools are too little focused on pushing high-attaining disadvantaged learners beyond grade B.

 .

Gender

There is a short section on gender differences which points out that, for students with KS2 L5:

  • In English there was a 10 percentage point gap in favour of girls at Grade B and above and an 11 point gap in favour of girls at A*/A.
  • In maths there was a five percentage point gap at both Grade B and above and Grade A*/A.

But the interrelationship with excellence gaps and the size of the high attainer population is not explored.

.

Progression to competitive higher education

The Executive Summary mentions one outcome from the 2012/13 destinations data – that only 5% of disadvantaged students completing KS5 in 2012 progressed to ‘the top universities’. (The main text also compares the progression rates for state-funded and independent schools).

It acknowledges some improvement compared with previous years, but notes the disparity with progression rates for students from comparatively advantaged backgrounds.

A subsequent footnote reveals that Ofsted is referring throughout to progression to Russell Group universities

The Executive Summary also highlights regional differences:

‘For example, even within a high-achieving region like London, disadvantaged students in Brent are almost four times as likely to attend a prestigious university as those in Croydon.’

The main text adds:

‘For example, of the 500 or so disadvantaged students in Kent, only 2% go on to attend a top university. In Manchester, this rises to 9%. Disadvantaged students in Barnet are almost four times as likely as their peers in Kent to attend a prestigious university.’

Annex A provides only one statistic concerning progression from KS2 to KS5:

‘One half of students achieving Level 5 in English and mathematics at Key Stage 2 failed to achieve any A or A* grades at A level in non-selective schools’

There is no attempt to relate this data to the other variables discussed above.

Ofsted’s Evidence base – inspection and survey evidence

The qualitative evidence in Ofsted’s report is derived from:

  • A survey of 40 non-selective secondary schools and 10 primary schools. All the secondary schools had at least 15% of students ‘considered to be high attaining at the end of Key Stage 2’ (as opposed to meeting Ofsted’s definition), as well as 10% or more considered to be low-attaining. The sample varied according to size, type and urban or rural location. Fifteen of the 40 were included in the survey underpinning the original 2013 report. Nine of the 10 primary schools were feeders for the secondaries in the sample. In the secondary schools, inspectors held discussions with senior leaders, as well as those responsible for transition and IAG (so not apparently those with lead responsibility for high attainers). They also interviewed students in KS3 and KS5 and looked at samples of students’ work.

The six survey questions are shown below

.

Ofsted Capture 4

.

  • Supplementary questions asked during 130 Section 5 inspections, focused on how well the most able students are maintaining their progress in KS3, plus challenge and availability of suitable IAG for those in Year 11.
  • An online survey of 600 Year 8 and Year 11 students from 17 unidentified secondary schools, plus telephone interviews with five Russell Group admissions tutors.

The Report divides the qualitative dimension of its report into seven sections that map broadly on to the six survey questions.

The summary below is organised thematically, pulling together material from the key findings and supporting commentary. Relevant key findings are emboldened. Some of these have relevance to sections other than that in which they are located.

The length of each section is a good guide to the distribution and relative weight of Ofsted’s qualitative evidence

Most able disadvantaged

‘Schools visited were rarely meeting the distinct needs of students who are most able and disadvantaged. Not enough was being done to widen the experience of these students and develop their broader knowledge or social and cultural awareness early on in Key Stage 3. The gap at Key Stage 4 between the progress made by the most able disadvantaged students and their better off peers is still too large and is not closing quickly enough.’

The 2013 Report found few instances of pupil premium being used effectively to support the most able disadvantaged. This time round, about a third of survey schools were doing so. Six schools used the premium effectively to raise attainment.

Funding was more often used for enrichment activities but these were much less common in KS3, where not enough was being done to broaden students’ experience or develop social and cultural awareness.

In less successful schools, funding was not targeted ‘with the most able students in mind’, nor was its impact evaluated with sufficient precision.

In most survey schools, the proportion of most able disadvantaged was small. Consequently leaders did not always consider them.

In the few examples of effective practice, schools provided personalised support plans.

.

.

Leadership

Ofsted complains of complacency. Leaders are satisfied with their most able students making the expected progress – their expectations are not high enough.

School leaders in survey schools:

‘…did not see the need to do anything differently for the most able as a specific group.’

One head commented that specific support would be ‘a bit elitiist’.

In almost half of survey schools, heads were not prioritising the needs of their most able students at a sufficiently early stage.

Just 44 of the 130 schools asked supplementary questions had a senior leader with designated responsibility for the most able. Of these, only 16 also had a designated governor.

The Report comments:

‘This suggests that the performance of the most able students was not a high priority…’

Curriculum

Too often, the curriculum did not ensure that work was hard enough for the most able students in Key Stage 3. Inspectors found that there were too many times when students repeated learning they had already mastered or did work that was too easy, particularly in foundation subjects.’

Although leaders have generally made positive curriculum changes at KS4 and 5, issues remain at KS3. General consensus amongst students in over half the survey schools was that work is too easy.

Students identified maths and English as more challenging than other subjects in about a third of survey schools.

In the 130 schools asked supplementary questions, leaders rarely prioritised the needs of the most able at KS3. Only seven offered a curriculum designed for different abilities.

In the most effective survey schools the KS3 curriculum was carefully structured:

‘…leaders knew that, for the most able, knowledge and understanding of content was vitally important alongside the development of resilience and knowing how to conduct their own research.’

By comparison, the KS4 curriculum was tailored in almost half of survey schools. All the schools introduced enrichment and extra-curricular opportunities, though few were effectively evaluated.

. 

Assessment and tracking

Assessment, performance tracking and target setting for the most able students in Key Stage 4 were generally good, but were not effective enough in Key Stage 3. The schools visited routinely tracked the progress of their older most able students, but this remained weak for younger students. Often, targets set for the most able students were too low, which reflected the low ambitions for these students. Targets did not consistently reflect how quickly the most able students can make progress.’

Heads and assessment leaders considered tracking the progress of the most able sufficient to address their performance, but only rarely was this information used to improve curriculum and teaching strategies.

Monitoring and evaluation tends to be focused on KS4. There were some improvements in tracking at KS4 and KS5, but this had caused many schools to lose focus on tracking from the start of KS3.

KS3 students in most survey schools said their views were sought, but could not always point to changes as a consequence. Only in eight schools were able students’ views sought as a cohort.

Year 8 respondents to the online survey typically said schools could do more to develop their interests.

At KS3, half the survey schools did not track progress in all subjects. Where tracking was comprehensive, progress was inconsistent, especially in foundation subjects.

Assessment and tracking ‘generally lacked urgency and rigour’. This, when combined with ineffective use of KS2 assessments:

‘… has led to an indifferent start to secondary school for many of the most able students in these schools.’

KS2 tests were almost always used to set targets but five schools distrusted these results. Baseline testing was widely used, but only about a quarter of the sample used it effectively to spot gaps in learning or under-achievement.

Twenty-six of the 40 survey schools set targets ‘at just above national expectations’. For many students these were insufficiently demanding.

Expectations were insufficiently high to enable them to reach their potential. Weaknesses at KS3 meant there was too much to catch up at KS4 and 5.

In the better examples:

‘…leaders looked critically at national expectations and made shrewd adjustments so that the most able were aiming for the gold standard of A and A* at GCSE and A levels rather than grade B. They ensured that teachers were clear about expectations and students knew exactly what was expected of them. Leaders in these schools tracked the progress of their most able students closely. Teachers were quickly aware of any dips in performance and alert to opportunities to stretch them.’

The expectations built into levels-based national curriculum assessment imposed ‘a glass ceiling’. It is hoped that reforms such as Progress 8 will help raise schools’ aspirations.

 .

Quality of teaching

‘In some schools, teaching for the most able lacked sufficient challenge in Key Stage 3. Teachers did not have high enough expectations and so students made an indifferent start to their secondary education. The quality of students’ work across different subjects was patchy, particularly in foundation subjects. The homework given to the most able was variable in how well it stretched them and school leaders did not routinely check its effectiveness.’

The most common methods of introducing ‘stretch’ reported by teachers and students were extension work, challenge questions and differentiated tasks.

But in only eight of the survey schools did teachers have specific training in applying these techniques to the most able.

As in 2013, teaching at KS3 was insufficiently focused on the most able. The quality of work and tasks set was patchy, especially in foundation subjects. In two-thirds of survey schools work was insufficiently challenging in foundation subjects; in just under half, work was insufficiently challenging in maths and English.

Students experienced a range of teaching quality, even in the same school. Most said there were lessons that did not challenge them. Older students were more content with the quality of stretch and challenge.

In only about one fifth of survey schools was homework adapted to the needs of the most able. Extension tasks were increasingly common.

The same was true of half of the 130 schools asked supplementary questions.  Only 14 had a policy of setting more challenging homework for the most able.

Most schools placed students in maths and science sets fairly early in Year 7, but did so less frequently in English.

In many cases, older students were taught successfully in mixed ability classes, often because there were too few students to make sets viable:

‘The fact that these schools were delivering mixed ability classes successfully suggests that the organisation of classes by ability is not the only factor affecting the quality of teaching. Other factors, such as teachers not teaching their main subject or sharing classes or leaders focusing the skills of their best teachers disproportionately on the upper key stages, are also influential.’

. 

School culture and ethos

Leaders had not embedded an ethos in which academic excellence was championed with sufficient urgency. Students’ learning in Key Stage 3 in the schools visited was too frequently disrupted by low-level disruption, particularly in mixed-ability classes. Teachers had not had enough effective training in using strategies to accelerate the progress of their most able students.’

Where leadership was effective, leaders placed strong emphasis on creating the right ethos. School leaders had not prioritised embedding a positive ethos at KS3 in 22 of the survey schools.

In half of the survey schools, the most able students said their learning was affected by low-level disruption, though teachers in three-quarters of schools maintained this was rare. Senior leaders also had a more positive view than students.

In 16 of the schools, students thought behaviour was less good in mixed ability classes and staff tended to agree.

.

Transition

‘Inspectors found that the secondary schools visited were not using transition information from primary schools effectively to get the most able off to a flying start in Key Stage 3. Leaders rarely put in place bespoke arrangements for the most able students. In just under half of the schools visited, transition arrangements were not good enough. Some leaders and teachers expressed doubt about the accuracy of Key Stage 2 results. The information that schools gathered was more sophisticated, but, in too many cases, teachers did not use it well enough to make sure students were doing work with the right level of difficulty.

Too often poor transition arrangements meant students were treading water in KS3. The absence of leadership accountability for transition appeared a factor in stifled progress at KS4 and beyond.

Transfer arrangements with primary schools were not well developed in 16 of the survey schools. Compared with 2013, schools were more likely to find out about pupils’ strengths and weaknesses, but the information was rarely used well.

Secondary schools had more frequent and extended contact with primary schools through subject specialists to identify the most able, but these links were not always used effectively. Only one school had a specific curriculum pathway for such students.

Leaders in four of the ten primary schools surveyed doubted whether secondary schools used transition information effectively.

However, transition worked well in half of the secondary schools.  Six planned the Year 7 curriculum jointly with primary teachers. Leaders had the highest expectations of their staff to ensure that the most able were working at the appropriate level of challenge.

Transition appeared more effective where schools had fewer feeder primaries. About one third of the sample had more than 30 feeder schools, which posed more difficulties, but four of these schools had effective arrangements.

Progression to HE

‘Information, advice and guidance to students about accessing the most appropriate courses and universities were not good enough. There were worrying occasions when schools did too little to encourage the most able students to apply to prestigious universities. The quality of support was too dependent on the skills of individual staff in the schools visited.

While leaders made stronger links with universities to provide disadvantaged students in Key Stages 4 and 5 with a wider range of experiences, they were not evaluating the impact sharply enough. As a result, there was often no way to measure how effectively these links were supporting students in preparing successful applications to the most appropriate courses.’

Support and guidance about university applications is ‘still fragile’ and ‘remains particularly weak’.

Students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, were not getting the IAG they need. Ten survey schools gave no specific support to first generation university attendees or those eligible for the pupil premium.

Forty-nine of the 130 school asked additional questions did not prioritise the needs of such students. However, personalised mentoring was reported in 16 schools.

In four survey schools students were not encouraged to apply to the top universities.

‘The remnants of misplaced ideas about elitism appear to be stubbornly resistant to change in a very small number of schools. One admissions tutor commented: ‘There is confusion (in schools) between excellence and elitism’.

Only a third of survey schools employed dedicated staff to support university applications. Much of the good practice was heavily reliant on the skills of a few individuals. HE admissions staff agreed.

In 13 of the schools visited, students had a limited understanding of the range of opportunities available to them.

Survey schools had a sound understanding of subject requirements for different degree courses. Only about one-quarter engaged early with parents.

.

Ofsted and other Central Government action

‘Ofsted has sharpened its focus on the progress and quality of teaching of the most able students. We routinely comment on the achievement of the most able students in our inspection reports. However, more needs to be done to develop a clearer picture of how well schools use pupil premium funding for their most able students who are disadvantaged and the quality of information, advice and guidance provided for them. Ofsted needs to sharpen its practice in this area.’

The Department for Education has developed useful data about students’ destinations when they leave Key Stage 4. However, information about students’ destinations when they leave Key Stage 5 is not as comprehensive and so is less useful.’

.

Ofsted’s recommendations and conclusions

This is a somewhat better Report than its June 2013 predecessor, although it continues to fall into several of the same statistical and presentational traps.

It too is a curate’s egg.

For any student of effective provision for the most able, the broad assessment in the previous section is profoundly unsurprising, but its endorsement by Ofsted gives it added power and significance.

We should be grateful that HMCI has chosen to champion this issue when so many others are content to ignore it.

The overall message can best be summarised by juxtaposing two short statements from the Report, one expressed positively, another negatively:

  • In over half of survey schools, the most able KS3 students were progressing as well as, or better than, others. 
  • The needs of the most able were not being met effectively in the majority of survey schools.

Reading between the lines, too often, the most able students are succeeding despite their schools, rather than because of them.

What is rather more surprising – and potentially self-defeating – is Ofsted’s insistence on laying the problem almost entirely at the door of schools, and especially of headteachers.

There is most definitely a degree of complacency amongst school leaders about this issue, and Ofsted is quite right to point that out.

The determination of NAHT and ASCL to take offence at the criticism being directed towards headteachers, to use volatility and change as an excuse and to urge greater focus on the pockets of good practice is sufficient evidence of this.

But there is little by way of counterbalance. Too little attention is paid to the question whether the centre is providing the right support – and the right level of support – to facilitate system-wide improvement. It as if the ‘school-led, self-improving’ ideal is already firmly in place.

Then again, any commitment on the part of the headteachers’ associations to tackling the root causes of the problem is sadly lacking. Meanwhile, the teachers;’ associations ignored the Report completely.

Ofsted criticises this complacency and expresses concern that most of its survey schools:

‘…have been slow in taking forward Ofsted’s previous recommendations, particularly at KS3’

There is a call for renewed effort:

‘Urgent action is now required. Leaders must grasp the nettle and radically transform transition from primary school and the delivery of the Key Stage 3 curriculum. Schools must also revolutionise the quality of information, advice and guidance for their most able students.’

Ofsted’s recommendations for action are set out below. Seven are directed at school leaders, three at Ofsted and one at DfE.

Ofsted capture 5

Ofsted Capture 6

Those aimed by Ofsted towards itself are helpful in some respects.

For example, there is implicit acknowledgement that, until now, inspectors have been insufficiently focused on the most able from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Ofsted stops short of meeting my call for it to produce guidance to help schools and inspectors to understand Ofsted’s expectations.

But it is possible that it might do so. Shortly after publication of the Report, its Director for Schools made a speech confirming that: 

‘… inspectors are developing a most able evaluation toolkit for schools, aligned to that which is in place for free school meals’. 

.

.

If Ofsted is prepared to consult experts and practitioners on the content of that toolkit, rather than producing it behind closed doors, it is more likely to be successful.

There are obvious definitional issues stemming from the fact that, according to Ofsted’s current approach, the ‘most able’ population constitutes 40-50% of all learners.

While this helps to ensure relevance to every school, no matter how depressed the attainment of its intake, it also highlights the need for further differentiation of this huge population.

Some of Ofsted’s statistical indicators and benchmarking tools will need sharpening, not least to avoid the pitfalls associated with the inverse relationship between the proportion of high attainers and the proportion of disadvantaged learners.

They might usefully focus explicitly on the distribution and incidence of the disadvantaged most able.

Prospects for success

But the obvious question is why schools should be any more likely to respond this time round than in 2013?

Will the references in the Ofsted inspection handbook plus reformed assessment arrangements be sufficient to change schools’ behaviour?

Ofsted is not about to place explicit requirements on the face of the inspection framework.

We are invited to believe that Progress 8 in particular will encourage secondary schools to give due attention to the needs of high attainers.

Yet there is no commitment to the publication of a high attainers’ performance measure (comparable to the equivalent primary measure) or the gap on that measure between those from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds.

Data about the performance of secondary high attainers was to have been made available through the now-abandoned Data Portal – and there has been no information about what, if anything, will take its place.

And many believe that the necessary change cannot be achieved by tinkering with the accountability framework.

The specialist organisations are united in one respect: they all believe that schools – and learners themselves – need more direct support if we are to spread current pockets of effective practice throughout the system.

But different bodies have very different views about what form that support should take. Until we can:

  • Establish the framework necessary to secure universally high standards across all schools without resorting to national prescription

we – and Ofsted – are whistling in the wind.

GP

March 2015

Labour’s Commitment to Gifted Education: Can the Tories match it?

.

Today, Labour announced that it would support gifted and talented children.

.

This short post examines what is so far in the public domain.

Is this concerted action?

We heard on Sunday (1 March 2015) that Ofsted is bringing forward publication of its second survey report on the education of the ‘most able’.

Plans for the survey were announced in HMCI’s Annual Report, published in December 2014. I set out exactly what was proposed in this contemporaneous post.

At the end of January, HMCI Wilshaw told the Education Select Committee that the second survey report would be published in May (see page 41) but newspaper reports over the weekend said it would appear tomorrow (4 March).

Labour’s announcement is obviously timed to anticipate Ofsted’s report.

By bringing forward his report to this side of the General Election, HMCI has certainly ensured that it will exert much more leverage on political decision-making. He will want that to impact on the Conservatives as well as Labour.

.

What exactly is Labour’s commitment?

The original newspaper report is so far our only source. (I will add any further details from material that appears subsequently.)

It says that, if elected:

  • Labour would establish an independently-administered Gifted and Talented Fund, which is likely to ‘have a £15m pot initially’.
  • Schools would be able to bid for money from the Fund to ‘help their work in stretching the most able pupils’.
  • The Fund would help to establish ‘a new evidence base on how to encourage talented children’

The current evidence base, cited in support of this decision, comprises: material from Ofsted’s first survey report (June 2013); the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission’s report on High-attaining children from disadvantaged backgrounds (June 2014); and PISA data (which I analysed in this post from December 2013.

.

Unanswered questions

There are many.

The use of ‘gifted and talented’ terminology may be misleading, in that the remainder of the text suggests Labour is focused on high attainers including (but not exclusively) those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

It is not clear whether the £15m funding commitment is an annual commitment or an initial investment that might or might not be topped up subsequently.

It seems to be available to both primary and secondary schools, but this is not made explicit.

It is not clear how bids for the funding would be assessed, or who would assess them.

The purpose of the funding seems primarily to support teachers and schools rather than to support high attaining learners themselves.

The relationship between the Fund and building the evidence base is not made clear. Will there be an expectation of school-based action research, for example?

There is no explicit ‘joining up’ with wider Labour action on social mobility or fair access to selective higher education (and there is an unfortunate allusion to the pupil premium which suggests it is exclusively to help lower attainers).

In a separate blog, Shadow Minister Hunt does link the Fund to these twin aims:

‘The long and the short of it is this: if we could help talented, disadvantaged children to achieve at the same trajectory as their better off peers it would almost double the number of children from poor backgrounds attending the top universities.’

but the mechanism by which this will be achieved – and the link with Offa’s regime – is left unexplained.

Then in a third statement, Hunt implies that the funding is:

‘…to support the most able pupils from low and middle income backgrounds to progress into the professions, high quality apprenticeships and the best universities’

This suggests that the funding will not be targeted exclusively towards those from disadvantaged backgrounds, but it will be targeted at learners rather than teachers and schools.

It will be interesting to see whether the Fund is described more specifically in Labour’s Manifesto.

.

[Postscript: Labour’s Education Manifesto, published on 9 April, makes no reference to the Fund. The nearest it comes is a section on page 22:

‘Building character traits such as resilience, creativity and the ability to work well with others also relies on the good provision of extra-curricular activities. However, this varies greatly across the country with many young people, particularly in disadvantaged areas, still being denied access to the pre-and-after-school clubs, holiday and weekend activities that can help build confidence and skills and lift aspiration. Giving young people the opportunities to build their talents and stretch their abilities in a particular sport, creative activity or subject is important for ensuring we maximise the potential of every young person. Currently, these opportunities are often restricted to young people in private education or those in high performing areas.’

But no explicit commitment is attached to this statement. If this is the Fund, it seems clear that it is now focused on accessing ‘extra-curricular activities’. ] 

.

[Postscript: Labour’s full Manifesto has nothing to say on this topic. The nearest equivalent to the statement in the Education Manifesto above is a commitment to:

‘… provide children with before and after-school clubs and activities, helping to raise their aspirations and attainment. This will be underpinned by a new National Primary Childcare Service, a not for profit organisation to promote the voluntary and charitable delivery of quality extracurricular activities.’

There is also a guarantee of:

‘…a universal entitlement to a creative education so that every young person has access to cultural activity and the arts by strengthening creative education in schools and after-school clubs. Institutions that receive arts funding will be required to open up their doors to young people…’

 

.

Is anyone on the inside track?

The word on the street is that Labour developed its policy through an internal review.

But the inclusion of a statement from Peter Lampl might suggest that they are in cahoots with the Sutton Trust, where an ex-Labour SPAD is ensconced as Director of Research and Communications.

The Trust’s Mobility Manifesto (September 2014) includes a call for:

‘…an effective national programme for highly able state school pupils, with ring-fenced funding to support evidence-based activities and tracking of pupils’ progress.’

Unfortunately, it is also wedded to the misguided Open Access scheme, which involves denuding state-funded schools of high attainers and diverting them to independent schools instead. (For a more balanced and careful analysis see this post from April 2012)

It cannot be entirely accidental that Lampl published his latest article pushing this wheeze on the same day as Labour’s announcement.

The Education Endowment Foundation might be a potential home for the Fund – and of course the Sutton Trust has a close relationship with the EEF.

 .

Pressure on the Tories?

The combined weight of Labour’s announcement and HMI’s report will put significant pressure on the Tories, especially, to follow suit.

They are already in a difficult position in this territory, having publicly wavered between selection and setting.

Back in 2007 then Opposition Leader Cameron ruled out new grammar schools and proposed universal setting as an alternative.

‘Most critics seem to accept, when pressed, that as I have said, the prospect of more grammars is not practical politics….

…When I say I oppose nationwide selection by 11 between schools, that does not mean I oppose selection by academic ability altogether.

Quite the reverse. I am passionate about the importance of setting by ability within schools, so that we stretch the brightest kids and help those in danger of being left behind.

With a Conservative Government this would be a motor of aspiration for the brightest kids from the poorest homes – effectively a ‘grammar stream’ in every subject in every school.

Setting would be a focus for Ofsted and a priority for all new academies.

More recently, he has enthused about the expansion of existing grammar schools:

 ‘”I strongly support the right of all good schools to expand. I think that’s very important and that should include grammar schools,” the prime minister said:

“Under this government grammar schools have been able to expand and that is all to the good.”‘

The as-yet-unresolved decision on the Sevenoaks satellite is keeping this a live issue as we approach the Election.

There are now media reports that, while the proposal is ready to be approved, Cameron has insisted that the decision is shelved until after the Election, in an effort to prevent it becoming a significant issue during the Tories’ Campaign.

Meanwhile, in September 2014, there was a brief resurgence of the plan for compulsory setting. But this was rapidly relegated to one of a menu of options in the armoury of regional schools commissioners, who would be granted new powers to intervene in failing schools.

In March 2015, the Tory-leaning Policy Exchange think tank published its Education Manifesto, which proposed that:

‘Government should design a prestigious scholarship scheme to financially support the most talented undergraduates in the country – covering approximately 200 individuals a year – if they attend a UK university and remain in the UK for at least three years after graduation.’

This seems too small a fig-leaf to conceal the Tories’ embarrassment – and it is anyway poorly- conceived – see my analysis here.

.

.

The Tories’ only other fallback is the claim that the Coalition Government’s more generic policies will raise standards across the board, including at the top of the attainment spectrum.  This seems increasingly threadbare, however.

With no viable plan C, they could still be squeezed between Labour’s new-found commitment to gifted education and UKIP’s espousal of grammar schools.

There has been a hint that the Tories do have something up their collective sleeve. In her speech to ASCL on 21st March, Morgan set out areas of unfinished business:

‘This is just the beginning and you know as well as I do, how much there is still left to do:

  • to close the gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers
  • to ensure the excellence that school freedom has delivered reaches all across the system
  • to ensure that the brightest pupils are properly stretched and less able students are taught to master the basics
  • and to ensure that every school has access to truly excellent teachers

I want to reassure you about what that means in practice, it doesn’t mean 5 years of constant upheaval or constant change.

What it does mean is ensuring that the impact of those changes reaches every part of the country, every child, every family and every community.’

We wait to see whether that was empty rhetoric, or whether there is something specific in the Tory Manifesto.

.

[Postscript: The Tory Manifesto makes no reference to setting. On selection it says only:

‘We will continue to allow all good schools to expand whether they are maintained schools, academies, free schools or grammar schools.’

There is additionally a section on STEM education:

‘We aim to make Britain the best place in the world to study maths, science and engineering, measured by improved performance in the PISA league tables. To help achieve this, we will train an extra 17,500 maths and physics teachers over the next five years. We will make sure that all students are pushed to achieve their potential and create more opportunities to stretch the most able.’

So it seems that any commitment to support the most able is confined to STEM, non-specific, unquantified and uncosted.]

Initial reaction to Labour’s announcement?

This is the first time Labour have expressed support for high attainers since Andy Burnham was Shadow Minister.

If the sum they have announced is an annual commitment, this broadly matches the budget for the National Gifted and Talented Programme when it was at its height in the mid-2000s.

They are clearly anxious to keep this support at arms-length from Government – they don’t want to return to a national programme.

The disadvantages of full autonomy could be avoided if bids are invited against a framework of priorities, rather than left entirely for schools to determine. Labour presumably want this funding to make a difference to the statistics they cite from the evidence base.

If the funding is for educators rather than learners, that begs the question whether those from disadvantaged backgrounds might not also be supported through a £50m pupil premium topslice as I have suggested elsewhere.

It would also be helpful if the funding was linked to a national effort to reach consensus on the education of high attainers, as embodied in these ten core principles.

But this is a decent start. ‘Better than a poke in the eye with a blunt stick’, as my favourite colloquialism has it.

.

[Postscript: Labour’s commitment is relatively vague but costed; the Conservatives have offered merely a general statement confined to STEM. If one were judging between the Parties on this basis, Labour would definitely have the edge.]

.

GP

March 2015