This post sets out for consideration some ideas to inform a new ‘most able learners’ policy’ for inclusion in a forthcoming schools white paper.
Now that we have a majority Conservative Government, attention is switching to the shape of its education policy agenda for the next five years.
During the Election campaign, Prime Minister Cameron announced plans for a Schools Bill within the first 100 days of the new Parliament.
That deadline expires on 26 August, during the long summer holiday, so one would expect the Bill to be published before term ends on 22 July or, failing that, in early September.
Cameron said the Bill would contain:
‘…more radical measures to ensure young people leave education with the skills they need. It will include new powers to force coasting schools, as well as failing schools, to accept new leadership, continuing the remarkable success story of Britain’s academy schools.’
DfE civil servants will already have established which Conservative Manifesto pledges require primary legislation, but Ministerial clarification will be required and there may be some as yet undeclared priorities to add to the list.
Some likely contenders include:
- Resits of KS2 tests in Year 7 and making the EBacc compulsory in secondary schools.
- Any school considered by Ofsted to Require Improvement will be handed over to ‘the best headteachers – backed by expert sponsors or high-performing neighbouring schools – unless it can demonstrate that it has a plan to improve rapidly’.
- Permission for ‘all good schools to expand, whether they are maintained schools, academies, free schools or grammar schools’.
- The establishment of an independent College of Teaching.
It is customary for new governments to publish a white paper covering the areas in which they intend to legislate, so we might expect either a Schools or Education White Paper by the end of the summer term.
Between School Selection
The prospects for renewed emphasis on selection are already being discussed. I gave a detailed account of the pre-Election scenario in ‘The Politics of Selection: Grammar schools and disadvantage’ (November 2014).
Key factors include:
- The postponed decision on whether to approve a grammar school annexe in Sevenoaks and the precedent that would set elsewhere.
- The existing scope for grammar schools – whether academies or LA-maintained – to increase their planned admission numbers (PAN), typically by adding additional forms of entry (FE).
- The campaign by centre-right Tory group Conservative Voice to change the law to permit the establishment of new grammar schools, supported by messrs Brady, Davis and Fox, together with early indications of greater influence for Tory backbenchers through the 1922 Committee which Brady chairs.
- Coded expressions of support from both Home Secretary May and newly-established Cabinet member Johnson, both considered future contenders for the Tory party leadership.
It will be important to establish a clear demarcation line in government policy.
Within School Selection
Back in 2007, when in Opposition, Prime Minister Cameron signalled a shift of emphasis, away from grammar schools and towards setting:
‘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.’
In September 2014, there were indications of a revival of this strategy, though it was rapidly relegated into plans for Regional Schools Commissioners, newly empowered to intervene in any school rated inadequate by Ofsted to consider enforced setting as one of a ‘menu of options’.
I discussed the evolution of this position in ‘The Politics of Setting’ (November 2014).
In the event, this additional role for Commissioners did not feature in the Conservative Manifesto, so we do not know whether enforced setting will be added to their armoury. This requires clarification in the White Paper.
Shortly before election campaigning began, Ofsted published its second survey report on the education of the most able in non-selective secondary schools, which I reviewed in ‘The most able students: Has Ofsted made progress?’ (March 2015).
The Key Findings highlight a litany of shortcomings. The first three alone say:
- ‘National data show that too many of the most able students are still being let down and are failing to reach their full potential.’
- ‘Nationally, too many of our most able students fail to achieve the grades they need to get into top universities.’
- ‘Schools visited were rarely meeting the distinct needs of students who are most able and disadvantaged.’
In relation to this third point, Ofsted found that no more than a third of schools were using pupil premium funding effectively to target the needs of such pupils.
The Report committed Ofsted to focusing within inspections on the progress of the most able disadvantaged, the quality of the curriculum and information, advice and guidance. We wait to see how this will be reflected in the updated School Inspection Handbooks scheduled for publication later this term.
Meanwhile, Ofsted is also preparing a ‘most able evaluation toolkit for schools’ as part of its wider efforts to influence school improvement. The toolkit should feature in the White Paper and there is scope to consider building additional support around it.
Excellence Gaps and Pupil Premium
The Conservative Manifesto gave a clear commitment:
‘We will continue to provide the pupil premium, protected at current rates, so that schools receive additional money for those from the poorest backgrounds.’
‘And we will make schools funding fairer. We have already increased funding for the 69 least well-funded local authorities in the country, and will make this the baseline for their funding in the next Parliament.’
Teach First leads a group of educational organisations lobbying for pupil premium to be reallocated in such a way that those with lower prior attainment attract double the rate awarded to those whose prior attainment is at or above expectations.
I have been campaigning against this proposal, principally on the grounds that:
- It robs Peter to pay Paul, inflicting collateral damage on the majority of eligible learners, including the ‘most able disadvantaged’, the majority of whom are already poorly served, as Ofsted has established.
- Closing gaps between disadvantaged learners and their peers should continue to take priority over closing attainment gaps between low and high attainers. The core purpose of pupil premium should be tackling underachievement – rather than low achievement – amongst disadvantaged learners.
- Any increase in funding weighted towards low prior attainment should be secured through reform of the school funding formula and involve careful consideration of the overlaps between deprivation, low attainment and additional needs, including SEN.
My own efforts to increase the priority attached to the most able disadvantaged include presenting the evidence base for excellence gaps which I define as:
‘The difference between the percentage of disadvantaged learners who reach a specified age- or stage-related threshold of high achievement – or who secure the requisite progress between two such thresholds – and the percentage of all other eligible learners that do so.’
There is increasing focus on excellence gaps in this country and they should be more fully reflected in Government policy as enshrined in the White Paper. Further assurances should be given over pupil premium rates and eligibility for them.
Other Manifesto commitments
The Conservative Manifesto includes – in a section headed ‘We will lead the world in maths and science’ – a generic commitment:
‘We will make sure that all students are pushed to achieve their potential and create more opportunities to stretch the most able.’
It is unclear whether this relates exclusively to maths and science. It might hint at the revival of a flagship policy of the last government, to establish a cadre of up to a dozen selective 16-19 maths free schools, which managed to generate just two of these.
As recommended towards the end of my latest post on these institutions there is plenty of scope to rationalise and reform the STEM talent pipeline more efficiently, so that it benefits students regardless of the schools and colleges they attend.
Those finalising the Tory Manifesto may have had in mind a rival Labour commitment – which didn’t make it into their manifesto – to establish a Gifted and Talented Fund. The purpose and application of this Fund, discussed here, were never clarified.
The Conservatives were wise not to take on board a poorly-conceived Policy Exchange proposal to introduce a National Scholarships Scheme. The idea behind this is to support the most talented undergraduates on condition that they attend a UK university and remain in the UK for three years after graduating. It has no merit whatsoever.
The way forward
Rather than adopt a piecemeal approach, or risk being tripped up by the febrile politics of selection, the new Government should actively consider the inclusion in its schools white paper of a holistic policy to support our high-attaining learners.
This would broaden the agenda and allow the Government to take credit for a more sophisticated, multi-stranded approach.
The policy should embrace primary, secondary and post-16 education, placing particular emphasis on reducing excellence gaps and improving access to our most selective universities.
Key elements of the policy should include:
- Holding the line on grammar school expansion established in the Manifesto: expansion is permitted, through satellite schools where legally permissible, but new selective institutions are confined to 16+.
- Incentivising and encouraging all existing grammar schools to give priority in their admission arrangements to learners eligible for the pupil premium – and supporting their wider efforts to work with primary schools to increase their intake of disadvantaged learners.
- Sponsoring guidance and associated professional development for schools and colleges on effective institution-wide provision for their most able learners, developed from a set of core principles and designed to re-establish national consensus in this field. This should also feature Ofsted’s evaluation toolkit.
- Sponsoring guidance for schools and colleges on the introduction of more flexible, radical and innovative grouping arrangements, extending beyond the confines of setting and streaming.
- Developing a coherent strategy for strengthening the STEM talent pipeline which harnesses the existing infrastructure and makes high quality support accessible to all learners regardless of the schools and colleges they attend.
- Top-slicing £50m from the pupil premium budget to underwrite a coherent market-driven programme supporting high-attaining disadvantaged students to progress to selective universities. This would integrate the ‘push’ from schools and colleges with the ‘pull’ from higher education achieving efficiencies on both sides.
- Incentivising schools to give higher priority to disadvantaged high attainers by protecting their pupil premium entitlement and sharpening accountability arrangements, including Ofsted inspection but also the publication of key indicators in Performance Tables under the new assessment regime.
- Building system-wide capacity, by establishing centres of excellence and a stronger cadre of expert teachers, but also by fostering collaboration and partnership between schools, colleges and all other sources of relevant expertise.