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

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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[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’. ] 

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[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…’

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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[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.

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[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.]

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GP

March 2015

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