Missing Talent

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people-308531_1280This post reviews the Sutton Trust’s Research Brief ‘Missing Talent’, setting it in the context of the Trust’s own priorities and the small canon of research on excellence gaps in the English education system.

It is structured as follows:

  • Background on what has been published and my own involvement in researching and debating these issues.
  • Analysis of the data-driven substance of the Research Brief
  • Analysis of the recommendations in the Research and their fit with previous recommendations contained in the Sutton Trust’s Mobility Manifesto (September 2014)
  • Commentary on the quality of the Research Brief, prospects for the adoption of these recommendations and comparison with my own preferred way forward.

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Background

‘Missing Talent’ was prepared for The Sutton Trust by education datalab, an offshoot of the Fischer Family Trust (FFT).

The project was announced by education datalab in March (my emphases):

‘This is a short piece of research to explore differences in the secondary school experiences of highly able children from deprived backgrounds, compared to others. Its purpose is to identify whether and why some of the top 10% highest attaining children at the end of primary school do not achieve their full potential at age 16…

…For this group of highly able children we will:

  • describe the range of different GCSE outcomes they achieve
  • show their distribution across local authorities and different types of schools
  • explore whether there is any evidence that different types of high attaining children need to be differentially catered for within our education system

We hope our research will be able to suggest what number and range of qualifications schools should plan to offer students in this group. We may be able to identify parts of the country or particular types of schools where these students are not currently reaching their potential. We will be able to show whether highly able children from particular backgrounds are not currently reaching their full potential, with tentative suggestions as to whether school or home support are mostly contributing to this underperformance.’

On 2 June 2015, The Sutton Trust published:

  • An Overview summarising the key findings and recommendations
  • A Press Release ‘Over a third of clever but poor boys significantly underachieve at GCSE’ and
  • A guest blog post – Advancing the able – authored by Rebecca Allen, education datalab director. This also appears on the education datalab site.

The post is mostly about the wider issue of the priority attached to support for high attainers. It contains a gratifying reference to ‘brilliant blogger Gifted Phoenix’, but readers can rest assured that I haven’t pulled any punches here as a consequence!

The press release provided the substance of the ensuing media coverage, including pieces by the BBC, Guardian, Mail, Schools Week and TES.

There was limited commentary on social media since release of the Research Brief coincided with publication of the legislation underpinning the new Conservative Government’s drive for academisation. I commented

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Just prior to publication and at extremely short notice I was asked by Schools Week for a comment that foregrounded references to the pupil premium.

This was in their coverage:

“I wholeheartedly support any action to reinforce effective practice in using pupil premium to support ‘the most able disadvantaged’.

“Ofsted is already taking action, but this should also be embedded in pupil premium reviews and become a higher priority for the Education Endowment Foundation.

“Given their close relationship, I hope the Sutton Trust will pursue that course. They might also publicly oppose Teach First proposals for redistributing pupil premium away from high and middle attainers and engage more directly with those of us who are pursuing similar priorities.”

For those who are unaware, I have been campaigning against Teach First’s policy position on the pupil premium, scrutinised in this recent post: Fisking Teach First’s defence of its pupil premium policy (April 2015). This is also mentioned in the Allen blog post.

I have also written extensively about excellence gaps, provisionally defined 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.’

This appears in a two-part review of the evidence base published in September 2014:

I have drawn briefly on that material in the commentary towards the end of this post.

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Research Brief findings

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Main findings, definitions and terminology

The Research Brief reports its key findings thus:

  • 15% of highly able pupils who score in the top 10% nationally at age 11 fail to achieve in the top 25% at GCSE 
  • Boys, and particularly pupil premium eligible boys, are most likely to be in this missing talent group 
  • Highly able pupil premium pupils achieve half a grade less than other highly able pupils, on average, with a very long tail to underachievement 
  • Highly able pupil premium pupils are less likely to be taking GCSEs in history, geography, triple sciences or a language

These are repeated verbatim in the Trust’s overview of research, but are treated slightly differently in the press release, which foregrounds the performance of boys from disadvantaged backgrounds:

‘Over a third (36%) of bright but disadvantaged boys seriously underachieve at age 16, new Sutton Trust research reveals today. Clever but poor girls are slightly less likely to underperform, with just under a quarter (24%) getting disappointing GCSE results. These figures compare with 16% of boys and 9% of girls from better off homes who similarly fall behind by age 16.’

The opening paragraph of the Brief describes ‘highly able’ learners as those achieving within the top decile in KS2 tests. This is a measure of prior attainment, not a measure of ability and it would have been better if the document referred to high attainers throughout.

There is also a curious and cryptic reference to this terminology

‘…following Sutton Trust’s previously used notion of those ‘capable of excellence in school subjects’’

which is not further explained (though ‘capable’ implies a measure of ability rather than attainment).

The analysis is based on the 2014 GCSE cohort and is derived from ‘their mark on each KS2 test paper they sat in 2009’. It therefore depends on high average performance across statutory tests of English, maths and (presumably) science.

The single measure of GCSE performance is achievement on the Attainment 8 measure, as defined in 2014. This has not been made available through the 2014 Secondary Performance Tables.

Essentially Attainment 8 comprises English and maths (both double-weighted) any three EBacc subjects and three other approved qualifications (the Brief says they must be GCSEs).

The measure of ‘missing talent’ is derived from the relationship between these two performance measures. It comprises those who fall within the top decile at KS2 but outside the top quartile nationally (ie the top 25%) at KS4.

There is no explanation or justification for the selection of these two measures, why they are pitched differently and why the difference between them has been set at 15 percentage points.

The text explains that some 7,000 learners qualify as ‘missing talent’, about 15% of all highly able learners (so the total of all highly able learners must approach 47,000).

The analysis is based on certain presumptions about consistency of progress between key stages. The brief says, rather dismissively:

‘Progress through school is not always smooth and predictable. Of course some children do well at primary school but are overtaken by peers who thrive at secondary school.’

It does not mention education datalab’s own analysis which shows that only 45% of learners make the expected linear progress between KS2 and KS3 and just 33% do so between KS3 and KS4. It would have been interesting and useful to have seen material about inconsistency of progress amongst this cohort.

Presumably the selection of top decile at KS2 but top quartile at KS4 is intended in part to compensate for this effect.

The main body of the Research Brief provides analysis of four topics:

  • The characteristics of the ‘missing talent’ subset – covering gender, ethnic background and socio-economic disadvantage.
  • Performance on the Attainment 8 measure of ‘missing talent’ from disadvantaged backgrounds compared with their more advantaged peers.
  • Take up of EBacc subjects by this population, including triple science.
  • The geographical distribution of ‘missing talent’ between local authorities and schools.

The sections below deal with each of these in turn.

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The characteristics of ‘missing talent’

The ‘missing talent’ population comprises some 7,000 learners, so about 1 in 7 of all highly able learners according to the definition deployed.

We are not provided with any substantive information about the characteristics of the total highly able cohort, so are unable to quantify the differences between the composition of that and the ‘missing talent’ subset.

However we are told that the ‘missing talent’ group:

  • Is slightly more likely to be White British, Black Caribbean, Pakistani or Bangladeshi and somewhat less likely to be Chinese, Indian or African.
  • Includes 1,557 learners (943 boys and 614 girls) who are disadvantaged. The measure of disadvantage is ‘ever 6 FSM’ the basis for the receipt of pupil premium on grounds of deprivation. This is approximately 22% of the ‘missing talent’ group.
  • Includes 24% of the ‘ever 6 FSM’ girls within the highly able cohort compared with 9% of others; and includes 36% of ‘ever 6 FSM’ boys within the whole cohort compared with 16% of others.

Hence: ‘ever 6 FSM’ learners of both genders are more likely to be part of ‘missing talent’; boys are more likely than girls to be included, regardless of socio-economic status; and ‘ever 6 FSM boys are significantly more likely to be included than ‘ever 6 FSM’ girls.

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Missing Talent Capture

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The fact that 36% of ‘ever 6 FSM’ boys fall within the ‘missing talent’ group is described as ‘staggering’.

By marrying the numbers given with the percentages in the charts above, it seems that some 5,180 of the total highly able population are disadvantaged – roughly 11% – so both disadvantaged boys and girls are heavily over-represented in the ‘missing talent’ subset (some 30% of the total disadvantaged population are ‘missing talent’) and significantly under-represented in the total ‘highly able’ cohort.

By comparison, the 2014 Secondary Performance Tables show that 26.9% of the overall 2014 GCSE cohort in state-funded schools are disadvantaged (though this includes children in care).

There is no analysis to show whether there is a particular problem with white working class boys (or any other sub-groups for that matter) although that might be expected.

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Attainment 8 performance

Attainment 8 is described as ‘the Government’s preferred measure’, although we anticipate that proposals in the Conservative manifesto for a ‘compulsory EBacc’ will almost certainly change its nature significantly, even if it is not supplanted by the EBacc.

The document supplies a table showing the average grade (points equivalents) for different percentiles of the ‘highly able FSM6’, ‘highly able not FSM6’ and ‘not highly able’ populations.

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missing talent Capture 2

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Median (50th percentile) performance for ‘highly able FSM6’ is 6.7, compared with 7.2 for ‘highly able not FSM6’ and 5.0 for ‘not highly able’.

The commentary translates this:

‘…they [‘highly able FSM 6’] score 4As and 4Bs when their equally able classmates from better off backgrounds get straight As’.

By analogy, the ‘not highly able’ group are achieving straight Cs.

However, there is also a ‘long tail of underachievement’ amongst the highly able disadvantaged:

‘One in ten of the poor but clever pupils are barely achieving C grades (or doing much worse) and at this end of the distribution they are lagging their non-FSM6 peers by almost a whole GCSE grade per subject.’

The latter is actually only true at the 95th percentile.

By comparison, at that point in the distribution, the ‘not highly able’ population are achieving 8 F grades.

So there is a clear excellence gap between the Attainment 8 performance of the highly able and the highly able disadvantaged, though the difference only becomes severe at the extreme of the distribution – the reference to a ‘long tail’ is perhaps a little overdone.

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Take-up of EBacc subjects

A second table shows the distribution of grades for ‘highly able FSM6’ and ‘highly able not FSM6’ across the five EBacc components: English, maths, sciences, humanities and languages.

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Missing Talent Capture 3

This is not discussed extensively in the text, but it reveals some interesting comparisons. For example, the percentage point excellence gaps between the two populations at GCSE grades A*/A are: maths 17 points; English 16 points; sciences 22 points; humanities 21 points; and languages 18  points.

At the other extreme 23% of ‘highly able FSM6’ are Ungraded in languages, as are 16% in humanities. This is particularly worrying if true, but Ungraded almost certainly includes those not entered for an appropriate examination.

The commentary says that ‘almost a quarter will not be taking a language at GCSE’, which might suggest that U is a misnomer. It is not clear whether the U category includes both non-takers and ungraded results, however.

The Government’s plans for ‘compulsory EBacc’ seem likely to force all learners to take a language and history or geography in future.

They will be less likely to make triple science compulsory for high attainers, though this is deemed significant in the document:

Just 53% of the highly able FSM6 pupils take triple sciences, compared to 69% of those not in the FSM6 category. This may be through choice or because they are in one of the 20% of schools that does not offer the curriculum. Here again the differences are stark: 20% of highly able FSM6 pupils are in a school not offering triple sciences, compared to just 12% of the highly able not-FSM6 pupils.’

The EBacc does not itself require triple sciences. The implications for teacher supply and recruitment of extending them into the schools that do not currently offer them are not discussed.

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Geographical distribution of ‘missing talent’

At local authority level the Brief provides a list of 20 areas with relatively high ‘missing talent’ and 20 areas at the other extreme.

The bulk of the former are described as areas where secondary pupil performance is low across the attainment spectrum, but four – Coventry, Lambeth, Leicester and Tower Hamlets – are good overall, so the underachievement of high attainers is apparently exceptional.

Some are described as having comparatively low populations of highly able learners but, as the text implies, that should not be an excuse for underachievement amongst this cohort.

It is not clear whether there is differential performance in respect of disadvantaged learners within the ‘missing talent’ group (though the sample sizes may have been too low to establish this).

It is, however, immediately noticeable that the list of areas with high ‘missing talent’ includes many of the most disadvantaged authorities, while the list with low levels of missing talent is much more ‘leafy’.

Most of the former are located in the Midlands or the North. Almost all were Excellence in Cities areas.

The ‘low missing talent’ list also includes 11 London boroughs, but there are only three on the ‘high missing talent’ list.

The Brief argues that schools with low levels of ‘missing talent’ might support others to improve. It proposes additional selection criteria including:

  • ‘A reasonable number of highly able pupils’ – the rather arbitrary cut-off specified is 7% of cohort. It is not clear whether this is the total cohort or only the GCSE cohort. If the latter, it is more than likely to vary from year to year.
  • ‘Relatively low levels of missing talent’ – fewer than 10% ‘significantly underperform’. It is not clear but one assumes that the sole measure is that described above (ie not within the top 25% on the Attainment 8 measure).
  • ‘A socially mixed intake’ with over 10% of FSM6 learners (this is very low indeed compared with the average for the 2014 GCSE cohort in state-funded schools of 26.9%. It suggests that most of the schools will have relatively advantaged intakes.)
  • Triple science must be offered and the schools must have ‘a positive Progress 8 score overall’ (presumably so that they perform reasonably well across the attainment spectrum).

There is no requirement for the school to have achieved a particular Ofsted rating at its most recent inspection.

We are told that there are some 300 schools meeting this description, but no details are given about their distribution between authorities and regions, beyond the fact that:

‘In half of the 20 local authorities with the highest levels of missing talent there is no exemplar school and so a different policy approach may have to be taken.’

This final section of the document becomes a little discursive, stating that:

‘Any new initiatives to support highly able children at risk of falling behind must recognise the successes and failures of past ‘Gifted and Talented’ initiatives, particularly those of the Blair and Brown governments.’

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‘We believe that any programme of support – whether through the curriculum or through enrichment – must support schools and children in their localities.’

No effort is made to identify these successes and failures, or to provide evidence to substantiate the belief in localised support (or to explain exactly what that means).

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Recommendations

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In the Research Brief

The Research Brief itself consists largely of data analysis, but proffers a brief summary of key findings and a set of policy recommendations.

It is not clear whether these emanate from the authors of the research or have been superimposed by the Trust, but the content distinctly suggests the latter.

There are four recommendations (my emphases):

  • ‘The Government should implement the recommendations of Sutton Trust’s Mobility Manifesto to develop an effective national programme for highly able state school pupils, with ring-fenced funding to support evidence-based activities and tracking of pupils’ progress.
  • All schools must be made accountable for the progress of their most able pupils. These pupils should have access to triple sciences and must study a broad traditional curriculum, including a language and humanity, that widens their future educational opportunities. The Government should report the (3-year average) Progress 8 figures for highly able pupils in performance tables. Schools where highly able pupils currently underperform should be supported through the designation of another local exemplar school. In the small number of areas where there is no exemplary good practice, a one-off centralised support mechanism needs to be set-up.
  • Exemplar schools already successfully catering for highly able pupils that are located in areas of high missing talent should be invited to consider whether they are able to deliver a programme of extra-curricular support to raise horizons and aspirations for children living in the wider area.
  • Highly able pupils who receive Pupil Premium funding are at high risk of underperforming at age 16. Schools should be encouraged to use the Pupil Premium funding for these pupils to improve the support they are able to give them.’

These are also repeated unchanged in the research overview, but are summarised and rephrased slightly in the press release.

Instead of demanding ‘an effective national programme…with ring-fenced funding to support evidence-based activities and tracking of pupils’ progress’ this calls on the Government to:

‘…establish a new highly able fund to test the most effective ways of improving the progress and attainment of highly able students in comprehensive schools and to show that the needs of highly able students, especially those from low and middle income backgrounds, are placed high on the national policy agenda.’

This is heavily redolent of Labour’s pre-election commitment to introduce a Gifted and Talented Fund which would establish a new evidence base and help schools’ ‘work in stretching the most able pupils’.

My own analysis of Labour’s commitment (March 2015) drew attention to similarities between this and The Sutton Trust’s own Mobility Manifesto (September 2014).

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In the Mobility Manifesto

The Manifesto is mentioned in the footnotes to the press release. It offers three recommendations pertaining to highly able learners:

  • Reintroduce ring-fenced government funding to support the most able learners (roughly the top ten per cent) in maintained schools and academies from key stage three upwards. This funding could go further if schools were required to provide some level of match funding.
  • Develop an evidence base of effective approaches for highly able pupils and ensure training and development for teachers on how to challenge their most able pupils most effectively.
  • Make a concerted effort to lever in additional support from universities and other partners with expertise in catering for the brightest pupils, including through creating a national programme for highly able learners, delivered through a network of universities and accessible to every state-funded secondary school serving areas of disadvantage.’

The press release also mentions the Trust’s Sutton Scholars Scheme, a pilot programme undertaken with partner universities that supports highly able learners from low and middle income backgrounds during KS3.

In 2013 there was an initial pilot with 100 pupils involving UCL. In 2014 this was extended to 400 pupils and four partner universities: UCL, Cambridge, Nottingham and Warwick.

The press release says it currently reaches 500 pupils but still involving just four universities, so this is presumably the size of the 2015 cohort.

The programmes at each institution are subtly different but all involve a mix of out-of-school activities. In most cases they appear to be rebadging elements of the universities’ existing outreach programmes; there is nothing startlingly innovative or radical about them.

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Commentary

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Quality of the Research Brief

The document is compressed into three sides of A4 so, inevitably, much valuable information is missing. Education datalab should consider making available a separate annex containing all the underlying data that can be released without infringing data protection rules.

The Brief does not address all the elements set out in the original project description. It does not show the distribution of high attainers by type of school, or discuss the impact on underperformance of home and school respectively, nor does it:

‘…explore whether there is any evidence that different types of high attaining children need to be differentially catered for within our education system’.

It seems that the project has been scaled back compared with these original intentions, whether for lack of useful data or some other reason.

When it comes to the findings that are included:

  • The general conclusions about underachievement, particularly amongst high attainers from disadvantaged backgrounds, add something to our understanding of achievement patterns and the nature of excellence gaps. But the treatment also begs several questions that remain unanswered. The discussion needs reconciling with education datalab’s own findings about the limited incidence of linear progress. Further analysis of the performance of high-attaining disadvantaged boys may be a particular priority.
  • The findings on the take-up of EBacc subjects are relatively unsurprising and second order by comparison. They ought really to have been set in the context of the new Government’s commitment to a ‘compulsory EBacc’ (see below).
  • The information about the distribution of ‘missing talent’ is compromised by the very limited analysis, especially of the distribution between schools. The criteria used to identify a subset of 300 exemplar schools do not bear close scrutiny.

There is no cross-referencing to the existing evidence base on excellence gaps, especially the material relating to whether disadvantaged high attainers remain so in ‘The Characteristics of High Attainers’ (DfES 2007), ‘Performing against the odds: developmental trajectories of children in the EPPSE 3-16 study’ (Siraj-Blatchford et al, 2011) and ‘Progress made by high-attaining children from disadvantaged backgrounds’ (Crawford et al 2014).

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Prospects for the adoption of these recommendations

The recommendation that schools are more strongly encouraged to use the pupil premium to benefit these learners – and to do so effectively – is important, but the text should explain how this can be achieved.

Ofsted has already made the case for action, concluding in March 2015 that two-thirds of non-selective secondary schools are not yet using pupil premium effectively to support disadvantaged high attainers.

Ofsted is committed to ensuring that school inspections focus sharply on the progress of disadvantaged high attainers and that future thematic surveys investigate the effective use of pupil premium to support them.

It is also preparing a ‘most able’ evaluation toolkit that will address this issue. This might provide a basis for further guidance and professional development, as long as the material is high quality and sufficiently detailed.

Effective provision for high attainers should be a higher priority for the pupil premium champion and, as I have already suggested, should feature prominently and explicitly in the guidance supporting pupil premium reviews.

Above all, the EEF should be supporting research on this topic as part of a wider initiative to help schools close excellence gaps.

All parties, including the Government, should make clear their opposition to the policy of Teach First and its Fair Education Alliance to double-weight pupil premium for low attainers at the expense of high and middle attaining recipients.

If at all possible, Teach First should be persuaded to withdraw this misguided policy.

It seems highly probable that the Trust’s recommendation for access to ‘a broad traditional curriculum’ will be secured in part through the new Government’s commitment to make EBacc subjects compulsory.

This is likely to be justified on grounds of social justice, derived from the conviction that taking these subjects supports progression to post-16 education, employment and higher education.

But that notion is contested. When the Education Select Committee considered this issue they concluded (my emphasis):

‘We support the Government’s desire to have greater equality of opportunity for all students, and to improve the attainment of those eligible for free school meals. The evidence is unclear as to whether entering more disadvantaged students for EBac subjects would necessarily make a significant contribution to this aim. Concentrating on the subjects most valued for progression to higher education could mean schools improve the attainment and prospects of their lowest-performing students, who are disproportionately the poorest as well. However, other evidence suggests that the EBac might lead to a greater focus on those students on the borderline of achieving it, and therefore have a negative impact on the most vulnerable or disadvantaged young people, who could receive less attention as a result. At the same time, we believe that the EBac’s level of prescription does not adequately reflect the differences of interest or ability between individual young people, and risks the very shoe-horning of pupils into inappropriate courses about which one education minister has expressed concerns. Given these concerns, it is essential that the Government confirms how it will monitor the attainment of children on free school meals in the EBac.’

This policy will not secure universal access to triple science, though it seems likely that the Government will continue to support that in parallel.

In the final days of the Coalition government, a parliamentary answer said that:

‘Out of 3,910 mainstream secondary schools in England with at least one pupil at the end of key stage four, 2,736 schools entered at least one pupil for triple science GCSEs in 2013/14. This figure does not include schools which offered triple science GCSEs, but did not enter any pupils for these qualifications in 2013/14. It also excludes those schools with no pupils entered for triple science GCSEs but where pupils have been entered for all three of GCSE science, GCSE further science and GCSE further additional science, which together cover the same content as GCSE triple science.

The Government is providing £2.6 million in funding for the Triple Science Support Programme over the period 2014-16. This will give state funded schools with low take up of triple science practical support and guidance on providing triple science at GCSE. The support comprises professional development for teachers, setting up networks of schools to share good practice and advice on how to overcome barriers to offering triple science such as timetabling and lack of specialist teachers.’

The Conservative manifesto said:

‘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…We will make sure that all students are pushed to achieve their potential and create more opportunities to stretch the most able.’

Continued emphasis on triple science seems highly likely, although this will contribute to wider pressures on teacher supply and recruitment.

The recommendation for an additional accountability measure is sound. There is after all a high attainer measure within the primary headline package, though it has not yet been defined beyond:

‘x% of pupils achieve a very high score in their age 11 assessments’.

In its response to consultation on secondary accountability arrangements, the previous government argued that high attainment would feature in the now defunct Data Portal intended to support the performance tables.

It will be important to ensure consistency between primary and secondary measures. The primary measure seems to be based on attainment rather than progress. The Sutton Trust seems convinced that the secondary equivalent should be a progress measure (Progress 8) but does not offer any justification for this.

It is also critical that the selected measures are reported separately for disadvantaged and all other learners, so that the size of the excellence gap is explicit.

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Prospects for a new national programme

When it comes to the recommendation for a new national programme, the Trust needs to be clearer and more explicit about the fundamental design features.

The recommendations in the Mobility Manifesto and this latest publication are not fully consistent. No effort is made to cost these proposals, to identify the budgets that will support them, or to make connections with the Government’s wider education policy.

Piecing the two sets of recommendations together, it appears that:

  • The programme would cater exclusively for the top decile of high attainers in the state-funded secondary sector. Post-16 institutions and selective schools may or may not be included.
  • Participation would be determined entirely on the basis of KS2 test outcomes, but it is not clear whether learners would remain within the programme regardless of subsequent progress.
  • The programme would comprise two parallel arms – one providing support directly for learners, the other improving the quality of provision for them within their schools and colleges.
  • The support for learners is not defined, but would presumably draw on existing Trust programmes. It would include ‘extra-curricular support to raise horizons and aspirations’.
  • It is not entirely clear whether this support would be available exclusively to those from disadvantaged backgrounds (though we know it would be ‘accessible to every state-funded secondary school serving areas of disadvantage’).
  • The support for schools and colleges will develop and test effective practice in teaching these learners, in tracking and maximising their attainment and progress. It will provide associated professional development. It is not clear whether this will extend into other dimensions of effective whole school provision.
  • Delivery will be via some combination of a network of universities, a cadre of exemplar schools and other partners with expertise. The interaction between these different providers is not discussed.
  • The exemplar schools will be designated as such and will support other schools in their locality where high attainers under-achieve. They should also be ‘invited to consider’ delivering a programme of extra-curricular support for learners in their area.
  • There will also be an unspecified ‘one-off centralised support mechanism’ for areas with no exemplary schools. What this means is a mystery.
  • Costs will be met from a new ring-fenced ‘highly able fund’ the size of which is not quantified.

The relationship between this programme and the Trust’s proposed ‘Open Access Scheme’ – which would place high attaining students in independent schools – is not discussed. (I will not repeat again my arguments against this Scheme.)

The realistic prospect of securing a sufficiently large ring-fenced pot must be negligible in the present funding environment. Labour’s pre-election commitment to find some £15m (annually?) for this purpose is unlikely to be matched by the Conservatives.

Any support for improving the quality of provision in schools is likely to be found within existing budgets, including those supporting research, professional development, teaching schools, their alliances and their designated Specialist Leaders of Education.

STEM-related initiatives are particularly relevant given the Manifesto reference. One would hope for a systematic and co-ordinated approach rather than the piecemeal introduction of new projects.

I have elsewhere suggested a set of priorities including:

  • Guidance and associated professional development on effective whole school provision derived from a set of core principles, including the adoption of flexible, radical and innovative grouping arrangements.
  • 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.
  • Establishing centres of excellence and a stronger cadre of expert teachers, but also fostering system-wide partnership and collaboration by including the range of expertise available outside schools.

If funding is to go towards improving provision for learners, the only viable option is to use pupil premium, with the consequence that support will be targeted principally, if not exclusively, at disadvantaged high attainers.

I have elsewhere suggested a programme designed to support all such learners aged 11-18 located in state-funded schools and colleges. There is both wider reach and less deadweight if support is targeted at all eligible learners, rather than at schools ‘serving areas of disadvantage’.

It is critical to include the post-16 sector, given the significant proportion of disadvantaged high attainers who transfer post-GCSE.

This would be funded principally by a £50m topslice from the pupil premium budget (matching the topslice taken to support Y6/7 summer schools), though higher education outreach budgets would also contribute and there would be scope to attract additional philanthropic support.

The over-riding priority is to bring much-needed coherence to what is currently a fragmented market, enabling:

  • Learners to undertake a long-term support programme, tailored to their needs and drawing on the vast range of services offered by a variety of different providers, including universities, commercial and third sector organisations (such as the Trust itself).
  • These providers to position and market their services within a single online national prospectus, enabling them to identify gaps on the supply side and take action to fill them.
  • A single, unified, system-wide effort, harmonising the ‘pull’ from higher education fair access strategies and the ‘push’ from schools’ and colleges’ work to close excellence gaps.

I don’t yet recognise this coherence in the Trust’s preferred model.

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GP

June 2015

The problem of reverse excellence gaps

This post compares the performance of primary schools that record significant proportions of disadvantaged high attainers.

spiral-77493_1280It explores the nature of excellence gaps, which I have previously defined 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.’

It draws particular attention to the incidence at school level of sizeable reverse excellence gaps where disadvantaged learners out-perform their more advantaged peers.

According to my theoretical model reverse gaps threaten equilibrium and should be corrected without depressing the achievement of disadvantaged high attainers.

In this post:

  • The measure of disadvantage is eligibility for the pupil premium – those eligible for free school meals at any time in the last six years (‘ever 6 FSM’) and children in care.
  • The measure of high attainment is Level 5 or above in KS2 reading, writing and maths combined.

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National figures

The 2014 Primary School Performance Tables show that 24% of the cohort attending state-funded primary schools achieved KS2 Level 5 or above in reading, writing and maths combined. In 2013, the comparable figure was 21% and in 2012 it was 20%.

In 2014 some 650 primary schools managed a success rate of 50% or higher for the entire cohort, up from 425 in 2013 and 380 in 2012

The comparable national percentages for disadvantaged learners are 12% in 2014, 10% in 2013 and 9% in 2012. For all other learners (ie non-disadvantaged) they are 24% in 2012, 26% in 2013 and 29% in 2014.

In 2014, there were 97 state-funded schools where 50% or more of disadvantaged learners achieved this benchmark, compared with only 38 in 2013 and 42 in 2012. This group of schools provides the sample for this analysis.

Chart 1 below illustrates the national excellence gaps over time while Chart 2 compares the proportion of schools achieving 50% or higher on this measure with all learners and disadvantaged learners respectively.

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REG graph 1

Chart 1: Percentage of disadvantaged and other learners achieving L5+ in KS2 reading, writing and maths, 2012-14

Chart 1 shows that all rates are improving, but the rate of improvement is slower for disadvantaged learners. So the socio-economic achievement gap at L5+ in reading, writing and maths combined has grown from 15% in 2012, to 16% in 2013 and then to 17% in 2014.

REG graph 2 

Chart 2: Number of schools where 50% of all/disadvantaged learners achieved L5+ in KS2 reading, writing and maths, 2012-14

Chart 2 shows steady improvement in the number of schools achieving outstandingly on this measure for all learners and disadvantaged learners alike (though there was a slight blip in 2013 in respect of the latter).

Since 2012, the proportion of schools achieving this benchmark with disadvantaged learners has increased more substantially than the proportion doing so with all learners. At first sight this is a positive trend.

However Chart 1 suggests that, even with the pupil premium, the national excellence gap between higher-attaining advantaged and disadvantaged learners is increasing steadily. This is a negative trend.

It might suggest either that high-attaining disadvantaged learners are not benefiting sufficiently from the premium, or that interventions targeted towards them are ineffective in closing gaps. Or perhaps both of these factors are in play.

 

Schools achieving high success rates with disadvantaged learners

The 97 schools achieving a success rate of 50% or more with their disadvantaged high attainers are geographically dispersed across all regions, although a very high proportion (40%) is located in London and over half are in London and the South-East.

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Reg graph 3

Chart 3: Distribution of schools in sample by region

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Nineteen London boroughs are represented but eight of the 97 schools are located in a single borough – Greenwich – with a further five in Kensington and Chelsea. The reasons for this clustering are unclear, though it would suggest a degree of common practice.

Almost half of the sample consists of church schools, fairly equally divided between Church of England and Roman Catholic institutions. Seven of the 97 are academy converters, six are controlled, 42 are aided and the remainder are community schools.

Other variables include:

  • The average size of the KS2 cohort eligible for assessment is about 40 learners, with a range from 14 to 134.
  • The percentage of high attainers varies from 7% to 64%, compared with an average of 25% for all state-funded schools. More than one quarter of these schools record 40% or more high attainers.
  • The percentage of middle attainers ranges between 38% and 78%, compared with an average of 58% for state funded schools.
  • The percentage of low attainers lies between 0% and 38%, compared with the national average for state-funded schools of 18%. Only 15 of the sample record a percentage higher than this national average.
  • The percentage of disadvantaged learners ranges from 4% to 77%, compared with the national average for state-funded schools of 31%. Roughly one in five of the sample has 50% or more, while almost two in five have 20% or less.
  • The number of disadvantaged pupils in the cohort is between 6 and 48. (Schools with fewer than 5 in the cohort have their results suppressed). In only 22 of the sample is the number of disadvantaged pupils higher than 10.
  • In 12 of the schools there are no EAL pupils in the cohort but a further 11 are at 60% or higher, compared with an average for state-funded schools of 18%.

Overall there is significant variation between these schools.

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School-level performance

The vast majority of the schools in the sample are strong performers overall on the L5 reading, writing and maths measure. All but five lie above the 2014 national average of 24% for state-funded schools and almost half are at 50% or higher.

The average point score ranges from 34.7 to 27.9, compared with the state-funded average of 28.7. All but 15 of the sample record an APS of 30 or higher. The average grade per pupil is 4B in one case only and 4A in fourteen more. Otherwise it is 5C or higher.

Many of these schools are also strong performers in KS2 L6 tests, though these results are not disaggregated for advantaged and disadvantaged learners.

More than four out of five are above the average 9% success rate for L6 maths in state-funded primary schools and almost two out of five are at 20% or higher.

As for L6 grammar, punctuation and spelling (GPS), some two-thirds are above the success rate of 4% for all state-funded primary schools and almost two out of five are at 10% or higher.

When it comes to the core measure used in this analysis, those at the top of the range appear at first sight to have performed outstandingly in 2014.

Four schools come in at over 80%, though none has a disadvantaged cohort larger than eight pupils. These are:

Not far behind them is Tollgate Primary School, Newham (71%) but Tollgate also has a cohort of 34 disadvantaged learners, almost three times the size of any of its nearest rivals.

What stands out from the data above all else is the fact that very few schools show any capacity to replicate this level of performance over two or three years in succession.

In some cases results for earlier years are suppressed because five or fewer disadvantaged pupils constituted the cohort. Leaving those aside, just 6 schools in the sample managed a success rate of 50% or higher in 2013 as well (so for two successive years) and no school managed it for three years in a row.

The schools closest to achieving this are:

  • Tollgate Primary School, Newham (71% in 2014, 50% in 2013 and 40% in 2013)

Only 9 of the sample achieved a success rate of 30% or higher for three years in a row.

The size and direction of excellence gaps

Another conspicuous finding is that several of these schools display sizeable reverse excellence gaps, where the performance of disadvantaged learners far exceeds that of their more advantaged peers.

Their success rates for all other pupils at L5 in reading, writing and maths combined vary enormously, ranging between 91% and 10%. Nineteen of the sample (20%) is at or below the national average rate for state-funded schools.

But in a clear majority of the sample the success rate for all other pupils is lower than it is for disadvantaged pupils.

The biggest reverse excellence gap is recorded by St John’s Church of England Primary School in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, where the success rate for disadvantaged learners is 67%, compared with 19% for other learners, giving a huge disparity of 48 percentage points!

Several other schools record reverse gaps of 30 points or more, many of them church schools. This raises the intriguing possibility that the ethos and approach in such schools may be relatively more conducive to disadvantaged high attainers, although small numbers are undoubtedly a factor in some schools.

The ‘cliff-edge’ nature of the distinction between disadvantaged and other learners may also be a factor.

If schools have a relatively high proportion of comparatively disadvantaged learners ineligible for the pupil premium they may depress the results for the majority, especially if their particular needs are not being addressed.

At the other extreme, several schools perform creditably with their disadvantaged learners while also demonstrating large standard excellence gaps.

Some of the worst offenders are the schools celebrated above for achieving consistency over a three year period:

  • Fox Primary School has a 2014 excellence gap of 34 points (57% disadvantaged versus 91% advantaged)
  • Nelson Mandela School a similar gap of 28 points (54% disadvantaged versus 82% advantaged).

Only Tollgate School bucks this trend with a standard excellence gap of just two percentage points.

The chart below illustrates the variance in excellence gaps across the sample. Sizeable reverse gaps clearly predominate.

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REG graph 4

Chart 4: Incidence of reverse and normal excellence gaps in the sample

Out of the entire sample, only 17 schools returned success rates for advantaged and other learners that were within five percentage points of each other. Less than one-third of the sample falls within a variance of plus or minus 10%.

These extreme variations may in some cases be associated with big disparities in the sizes of the two groups: if disadvantaged high attainers are in single figures, differences can hinge on the performance of just one or two learners. But this does not apply in all cases. As noted above, the underperformance of relatively disadvantaged learners may also be a factor in the reverse gaps scenario.

Ofsted inspection reports

I was curious to see whether schools with sizeable excellence gaps – whether normal or reverse – had received comment on this point from Ofsted.

Of the schools within the sample, just one – Shrewsbury Cathedral Catholic Primary School – has been rated inadequate in its last inspection report. The inspection was undertaken in July 2014, so will not have reflected a huge reverse excellence gap of 38 percentage points in the 2014 KS2 assessments.

The underachievement of the most able is identified as a contributory factor in the special measures judgement but the report comments thus on the achievement of disadvantaged learners:

‘Although in Year 6, pupils eligible for additional government funding (the pupil premium) reach similar levels to their classmates in reading, writing and mathematics, eligible pupils attain lower standards than those reached by their classmates, in Years 2, 3 and 4. The gap between the attainment of eligible and non-eligible pupils in these year groups is widening in reading, writing and mathematics. In mathematics, in Year 3, eligible pupils are over a year behind their classmates.’

Two further schools in the sample were judged by Ofsted to require improvement, both in 2013 – St Matthew’s in Surbiton and St Stephen’s in Godstone, Surrey. All others that have been inspected were deemed outstanding or good.

At St Matthew’s inspectors commented on the achievement of disadvantaged learners:

‘Weaknesses in the attainment of Year 6 pupils supported by pupil premium funding were identified in 2012 and the school took action to reduce the gap in attainment between this group of pupils and their peers. This gap reduced in 2013 so that they were just over one term behind the others in English and mathematics, but there is still a substantial gap for similar pupils in Year 2, with almost a year’s gap evident in 2013. Support is now in place to tackle this.’

In 2014, the KS2 cohort at St Matthew’s achieved a 53% success rate on L5 reading, writing and maths, with disadvantaged learners at 50%, not too far behind.

At St Stephen’s inspectors said of disadvantaged learners:

‘The school successfully closes the gap between the attainment of pupils who benefit from the pupil premium and others. Indeed, in national tests at the end of Year 6 in 2012, the very small number of eligible pupils was attaining about a term ahead of their classmates in English and mathematics. Focused support is being given to eligible pupils in the current year to help all fulfil their potential.’

A more recent report in 2015 notes:

‘The school is successfully closing the gaps between disadvantaged pupils and others. In 2014, at the end of Key Stage 2, disadvantaged pupils outperformed other pupils nationally and in the school by about three terms in mathematics. They also outperformed other pupils nationally by about two terms nationally and in the school in reading and writing. Disadvantaged pupils across the school typically make faster progress than other pupils in reading, writing and mathematics.’

It is not clear whether inspectors regard this as a positive outcome.

Unfortunately, Tollgate, Nelson Mandela and Fox – all three outstanding – have not been inspected since 2008/2009. One wonders whether the significant excellence gaps at the latter might impact on their overall inspection grade.

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Pupil Premium allocations 

I was equally curious to see what the websites for these three schools recorded about their use of the pupil premium.

Schools are required to publish details of how they spend the pupil premium and the effect this has on the attainment of the learners who attract it.

Ofsted has recently reported that only about one-third of non-selective secondary schools make appropriate use of the pupil premium to support their disadvantaged most able learners – and there is little reason to suppose that most primary schools are any more successful in this respect.

But are these three schools any different?

  • Fox Primary School has pupil premium income of £54.7K in 2014-15. It explains in its statement:

‘Beyond all of this, Fox directs a comparatively large proportion of budget to staffing to ensure small group teaching can target pupils of all attainment to attain and achieve higher than national expectations. Disadvantaged pupils who are attaining above the expected level are also benefitting from small group learning, including core subject lessons with class sizes up to 20. The impact of this approach can be seen in the APS and value added scores of disadvantaged pupils for the last 2 years at both KS1 and KS2. The improved staffing ratios are not included in pupil premium spend.’

  • Nelson Mandela School has so far not uploaded details for 2014-15. In 2013-14 it received pupil premium of £205.2K. The statement contains no explicit reference to high-attaining disadvantaged learners.
  • Tollgate Primary School received pupil premium of £302.2K in 2014-15. Its report covers this and the previous year. In 2013-14 there are entries for:

‘Aim Higher, challenging more able FSM pupils’ (Y6)

In 2014-15 funding is allocated to pay for five intervention teachers, whose role is described as:

‘Small group teaching for higher ability. Intervention programmes for FSM’.

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Conclusion

The national excellence gap between disadvantaged and other learners achieving KS2 L5 in all of reading, writing and maths is growing, despite the pupil premium. The reasons for this require investigation and resolution.

Ofsted’s commitment to give the issue additional scrutiny will be helpful but may not be sufficient to turn this situation around. Other options should be considered.

The evidence suggests that schools’ capacity to sustain Level 5+ performance across reading, writing and maths for relatively large proportions of their disadvantaged learners is limited. High levels of performance are rarely maintained for two or three years in succession.

Where high success rates are achieved, more often than not this results in a significant reverse excellence gap.

Such reverse gaps may be affected by the small number of disadvantaged learners within some schools’ cohorts but there may also be evidence to suggest that several schools are succeeding with their disadvantaged high achievers at the expense of those from relatively more advantaged backgrounds.

Further investigation is necessary to establish the association between this trend and a ‘cliff-edge’ definition of disadvantage.

Such an outcome is not optimal or desirable and should be addressed quickly, though without depressing the performance of disadvantaged high achievers.

A handful of strong performers, including the majority of those that are relatively more consistent year-on-year, do well despite continuing to demonstrate sizeable standard excellence gaps.

Here the advantaged do outstandingly well and the disadvantaged do significantly worse, but still significantly better than in many other schools.

This outcome is not optimal either.

There are very few schools that perform consistently highly on this measure, for advantaged and disadvantaged high attainers alike.

Newham’s Tollgate Primary School is perhaps the nearest to exemplary practice. It receives significant pupil premium income and, in 2014-15, has invested in five intervention staff whose role is partially to provide small group teaching that benefits high attainers from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Fox Primary School has also acted to reduce group sizes, but it remains to be seen whether this will help to eliminate the large positive excellence gap apparent in 2014.

This is a model that others might replicate, provided their pupil premium income is substantial enough to underwrite the cost, but the necessary conditions for success are not yet clear and further research is necessary to establish and disseminate them.

Alternative approaches will be necessary for schools with small numbers of disadvantaged learners and a correspondingly small pupil premium budget.

The Education Endowment Fund (EEF) is the obvious source of funding. It should be much more explicitly focused on excellence gaps than it has been to date.

GP

May 2015

Protecting pupil premium for high attainers

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This post continues the campaign I have been waging against the Fair Education Alliance, a Teach First-inspired ‘coalition for change in education’ over a proposal in its Report Card 2014 to f-school-letter-gradehalve the pupil premium for disadvantaged learners with high prior attainment.

I am:

  • Inviting Fair Education Alliance members (and Read On. Get On. partners) to defend the proposal or else distance themselves from it and
  • Calling on both campaigns to withdraw it.

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Background

The Fair Education Alliance was launched by Teach First in June 2014. It aims to:

‘…significantly narrow the achievement gap between young people from our poorest communities and their wealthier peers by 2022’.

There are 27 members in all (see below).

The Alliance plans to monitor progress annually against five Fair Education Impact Goals through an annual Report Card.

The first Report Card, published in December 2014, explains that the Alliance was formed:

‘…in response to the growing demand for a national debate on why thousands of children do not get a fair education’.

The Impact Goals are described thus:

  • ‘Narrow the gap in literacy and numeracy at primary school

The Fair Education Alliance is committed to closing the attainment gap between primary schools serving lower income pupils and those educating higher income pupils. Our goal is for this gap to be narrowed by 90 % by 2022.

  • Narrow the gap in GCSE attainment at secondary school

The Fair Education Alliance is committed to closing the attainment gap between secondary schools serving lower income pupils and those educating higher income pupils. Our goal is to close 44 % of this gap by 2022.

  • Ensure young people develop key strengths, including resilience and wellbeing, to support high aspirations

The Fair Education Alliance is committed to ensuring young people develop non-cognitive skills, including the positive wellbeing and resilience they need to succeed in life. The Alliance will be working with other organisations to develop measurement tools which will allow the development of these key skills to be captured.

  • Narrow the gap in the proportion of young people taking part in further education or employment-based training after finishing their GCSEs.

The Fair Education Alliance wants to see an increase in the number of young people from low-income communities who stay in further education or employment-based training once they have completed Key Stage 4. Our goal is for 90% of young people from schools serving low income communities to be in post-16 education or employment-based training by 2022.

  • Narrow the gap in university graduation, including from the 25% most selective universities

The Fair Education Alliance is committed to closing the graduation gap between young people from low income backgrounds and those from high income backgrounds. Our goal is for at least 5,000 more pupils from low income backgrounds to graduate each year, with 1,600 of these young people graduating from the most selective universities.’

The problematic proposal relates to Impact Goal 2, focused on the GCSE attainment gap in secondary schools.

The gap in question is between:

  • Schools serving low income communities: ‘State schools where 50 % or more of the pupils attending come from the most deprived 30 % of families according to the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI)’ and
  • Schools serving high income communities: ‘State schools where 50 % or more of the pupils attending come from the least deprived 30 % of families according to IDACI’.

The Report Card explains that the Alliance is focused on gaps between schools rather than gaps between pupils:

‘…to better capture data that includes those pupils whose families are on a low income but are just above the income threshold for free school meals (the poverty measure in schooling). This measurement also helps monitor the impact of the Alliance’s efforts towards meeting the goals as many members work with and through schools to tackle educational inequality, rather than with individual pupils.’

Under Goal 2, the gap the Alliance wishes to close relates to:

‘Average point score…across eight GCSE subjects, with extra weighting for English and maths’

The measure excludes equivalent qualifications. The baseline gap – derived from 2012/13 data:

‘…is currently 101.7 average points – the difference between 8 C grades and 8 A grades.

The Report Card says this gap has narrowed by 10.5% since 2010/11, but warns that new accountability measures could work in the opposite direction.

The problematic recommendation

The Report Card discusses the distribution of funding to support deprivation, arguing that:

  • Some aspects of disadvantage ‘are given less recognition in the current funding system. ‘For instance FSM Ever 6 does not include low income families who just miss the eligibility criteria for free school meals; and the national funding formula is not able to compensate for geographical isolation and high transport costs which can compound low incomes in parts of the country.’
  • ‘Consequently – due to the combination of a high intake of pupils attracting the premium and a currently unequal national school funding formula – there are a small number of very successful schools building up large surpluses. Meanwhile some schools with arguably greater need, where pupils suffer different socioeconomic disadvantages that affect their attainment, are receiving comparatively little extra funding. This hampers their ability to deal with the challenges that their students face and to prevent those vulnerable pupils from falling behind their peers.’

To rectify this problem, the Report Card recommends a significant policy adjustment:

Target pupil premium by attainment as well as disadvantage measures: This could be achieved through halving current funding per pupil for FSM Ever 6. Half of this funding could then be re-allocated to pupils eligible for FSM Ever 6 who have low prior attainment. This would give double-weighting to those low income pupils most in need of intervention without raising overall pupil premium spend. The change of funding model would increase school accountability for ‘catching up’ pupils.

The proposal is advanced in a section about secondary schools; it is unclear whether it is intended to apply equally to primary schools.

Quite what constitutes low prior attainment is never made entirely clear either. One assumes that, for secondary students, it is anything below the scaled score equivalent of KS2 L4b in English (reading and writing), maths or both.

This does of course mean that learners attracting the pupil premium who achieve the requisite scores will be as much short-changed as those who exceed them. Low attainers must take precedence over middle attainers as well as high attainers.

I am minded to extend my campaign to encompass the ‘squeezed middle’, but perhaps I should let someone else bear that standard.

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Why this is objectionable

I oppose this proposal because:

  • The pupil premium is described as ‘additional funding for publicly funded schools in England to raise the attainment of disadvantaged pupils and close the gap between them and their peers’. Although not a personal funding entitlement – the funding can be aggregated and deployed as schools see fit – schools are held accountable for the impact of the pupil premium on the attainment and progress of the pupils that attract it. There is presently no distinction according to the attainment of these students, but the change proposed by the Alliance would shift the accountability focus to prioritise the achievement and progress of disadvantaged low attainers over disadvantaged middle and high attainers.
  • The pupil premium should not be treated as part of the overall school budget. As Ofsted said in its first report on the premium (September 2012):

‘School leaders, including governing bodies, should ensure that Pupil Premium funding is not simply absorbed into mainstream budgets, but instead is carefully targeted at the designated children. They should be able to identify clearly how the money is being spent.’

Since the premium follows the pupil, schools with large numbers of eligible pupils should not have any part of this funding clawed back, nor should those with relatively few eligible pupils have it supplemented.

  • If there are problems with the distribution of deprivation funding, this should be addressed through the school funding formula. It is wrong to suggest that a national funding formula would be incapable of compensating for associated sparsity factors. It is for those devising such a formula to determine whether to compensate for pupils not eligible for the premium and factors such as geographical isolation and high transport costs. The Alliance is perfectly entitled to lobby for this. But, in the absence of such a formula, the premium should not be rationed or redistributed to compensate.

‘Our report in 2013 found few instances of the pupil premium being used effectively to support the disadvantaged most able pupils. In the schools visited for this survey, about a third were using the pupil premium funding effectively to target the needs of these pupils.

  • Any decision to double weight pupil premium for disadvantaged learners with low prior attainment would be likely to penalise disadvantaged high attainers. Although schools could theoretically decide to aggregate the funding and spend it differently, the clear intention is that the accountability framework would incentivise correspondingly stronger improvement by low attainers relative to middle and higher attainers. It is hard to understand how this, combined with the redistribution of funding, would help schools to support the latter and so meet Ofsted’s expectations
  • There are strong equity arguments against such a redistribution: disadvantaged learners should not be penalised on the basis of their prior attainment. That is  not ‘A fair education for all’, nor is it consistent with the ‘sound moral argument for giving every child an equal chance to succeed‘ mentioned in the Executive Summary of the Report Card. There is a fundamental distinction between reflecting the additional costs attributable to supporting all low attainers in the funding formula and redistributing allocations associated with individual disadvantaged learners for the same purpose.
  • The Report Card itself recognises the significance of disadvantaged high attainers:

‘As the Level 5 attainment gap highlights, there is not only a need to catch up those ‘slipping behind’ but also an imperative to ‘stretch the top’ when looking at pupils from low income communities. Some schools do well by this measure: sharing best practice in making better than expected levels of progress and stretching the highest attainers is crucial for ensuring all schools can replicate the successes some have already developed.’

How this can be squared with the proposed redistribution of pupil premium is not addressed. 

  • Such a policy would make the Alliance’s own goal of narrowing the gap in university graduation from the 25% most selective universities much harder to achieve, since it would reduce the likelihood of disadvantaged learners reaching the level of attainment necessary to secure admission.
  • There is already additional funding, outside the school funding settlement, dedicated to ‘catch-up’ for those with low prior attainment. Well over £50m per year is allocated to the ‘catch-up premium’ providing £500 per pupil who did not achieve at least KS2 L4 in reading and/or maths. This may be used for individual or small group tuition, summer schools or resources and materials. A further £50m has also been top-sliced from the pupil premium to provide an annual summer schools programme for those at the end of KS2. A core purpose is ‘to help disadvantaged pupils who are behind in key areas such as literacy and numeracy to catch up with their peers’. There is no corresponding funding for disadvantaged high attainers.
  • For FY2015/16, the Government adjusted the funding formula to allocate an additional £390m to schools in the least fairly funded authorities. This involved setting a minimum funding level for five pupil characteristics, one being ‘pupils from deprived backgrounds’, another ‘pupils with low attainment before starting at their primary or secondary school’. The values for the latter are £660 for primary schools and £940 for secondary schools. This establishes a precedent for reflecting the needs of low attaining learners in further progress towards a national funding formula.

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The campaign to date

I had an inconclusive discussion with Teach First officials on the day the Report Card was published

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Subsequently I pressed the Fair Education Alliance spokesperson at Teach First on some specific questions.

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I received two undertakings to respond online but nothing has materialised. Finally, on 17 April I requested a response within 24 hours.

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Nothing doing.

Meanwhile though, Sam Freedman published a piece that appeared to accept that such imbalances should be rectified through the schools funding formula:

‘The distribution, in turn, will depend on whether the next Government maintains the pupil premium at the same level – which has shifted funds towards poorer parts of the country – and whether they introduce a “National Funding Formula” (NFF).

At the moment there are significant and historic differences between funding in different parts of the country. Inner London for instance is overfunded, and many schools have significant surpluses, whereas other parts of the country, often more rural, have much tighter margins. The current Government have taken steps to remedy this but plan to go further if they win the election by introducing a NFF. Doing this would help alleviate the worst effects of the cuts for schools that are currently underfunded.’

Freedman himself retweeted this comment.

We had a further conversation on 20 April after this post had been published.

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Another influential Twitterata also appeared influenced – if not yet fully converted – by my line of argument:

Positive though some of these indications are, there are grounds to fear that at least some Alliance Members remain wedded to the redistribution of pupil premium.

The idea recently reappeared in a publication underpinning the Read On Get On campaign, supported by a variety of organisations including Teach First and some of the Fair Education Alliance.

The report in question – The Power of Reading (April 2015) – mentions that:

‘The Read On. Get On. campaign is working closely with the Fair Education Alliance and the National Literacy Forum to achieve our core goals, and this report reflects and builds on their recommendations.’

One of its ‘recommendations to the new Government’ is ‘Ensure stronger support for disadvantaged children who are falling behind’.

‘In what is likely to be a tight public spending round, our priority for further investment is to improve the quality of early education for the poorest children, as set out above. However, there are options for reforming existing pupil premium spending for primary school children so that it focuses resources and accountability on children from disadvantaged backgrounds who are falling behind…

….One option proposed by the Fair Education Alliance is to refocus the existing pupil premium on children who are eligible for free school meals and who start primary school behind. This would use existing funding and accountability mechanisms for the pupil premium to focus attention on children who need the most urgent help to progress, including in reading. It would make primary schools more accountable for how they support disadvantaged children who are falling behind. The primary pupil premium will be worth £1,300 per pupil in 2015–16 and is paid straight to schools for any child registered as eligible for free school meals at any point in the last six years. The FEA proposes halving the existing premium, and redistributing the other half to children who meet the existing eligibility criteria and have low prior attainment. New baseline tests for children at the start of the reception year, to be introduced in September 2016, could be used as the basis for measuring the prior attainment of children starting primary school.’

Interestingly, this appears to confirm that the Fair Education Alliance supports a redistribution of pupil premium in the primary sector as well as the secondary, something I could not find expressed on the face of the Report Card.

I reacted angrily

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The campaign continued

It won’t be long now before I leave the education world behind for ever, but I have decided to devote spare moments to the pursuit on social media of the organisations that form the Fair Education Alliance and/or support Read On. Get On.

I am asking each organisation to:

  • Justify their support for the policy that has been advanced or 
  • Formally distance themselves from it

I also extend an invitation to both campaigns to formally withdraw their proposals.

I shall publish the outcomes here.

The organisations involved are listed below. If any of them would care to cut to the chase, they are most welcome to use the comments facility on this blog or tweet me @GiftedPhoenix

Since my experience to date has been of surprising coyness when organisations are challenged over their ill-conceived policy ideas, I am imposing a ‘three strikes’ rule.

Any organisation that fails to respond having been challenged three times will be awarded a badge of shame and consigned to the Scrapheap.

Let’s see who’s in there by the end of term.

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[Postscript 2 (May 10 2015): Teach First published a defence of its policy on 29 April. On 30 April I published a further post fisking this statement to reveal the weaknesses and gaps in their argument.

Of the organisations that are members of the Alliance and/or support Read On. Get On, only Future Leaders and NAHT have responded to my request for clarification.

Future Leaders have distanced themselves from the offending proposal (see their comment on this blog). NAHT has published a response from Russell Hobby to which I have replied. We meet shortly to discuss the matter.

Importantly though, the National Governors’ Association (NGA) has also confirmed its opposition

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And so has ASCL. General Secretary Brian Lightman sent me this statement:

‘ASCL is not a member of the Fair Education Alliance at this stage although we do agree with many aspects for what they are doing and are in discussion with them about what we might support and how. 

However with regards to this specific point our position is similar to the one that NGA expressed. We would not be in agreement with allocating PP on the basis of prior attainment.  FSM is a proxy measure which is used to identify the overall level of disadvantage in a school and therefore pupil premium allocations

We strongly believe that decisions about how to use the PP in schools should be decisions made by school leaders who are fully  accountable for the impact of their decisions.’]

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GP

April 2015

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Fair Education Alliance

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I have published a comment from Future Leaders in which they accept that:

‘…mid- and high-attainers from poor backgrounds should not be deprived of the support that they need to succeed’.

Thanks to them for their prompt and clear response.

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Read On. Get On.

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The Scrapheap

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National Literacy Trust (12/5/15)

Achievement for All (9/6/15)

Teaching Leaders (9/6/15)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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)

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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%

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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.

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UCAS

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

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.’

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GP

March 2015

The most able students: Has Ofsted made progress?

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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.

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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.’

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  • 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

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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.

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Ofsted venn Capture

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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.

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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.

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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

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  • 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.

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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.

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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.

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Ofsted Capture 3

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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.

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Ofsted chart 2

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

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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.

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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.

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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

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Ofsted Capture 4

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  • 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.’

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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.

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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.

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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.’

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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’. 

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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

Addressed to Teach First and its Fair Education Alliance

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This short opinion piece was originally commissioned by the TES in November.

My draft reached them on 24 November; they offered some edits on 17 December.

Betweentimes the Fair Education Alliance Report Card made its appearance on 9 December.

Then Christmas intervened.

On 5 January I offered the TES a revised version they said should be published on 27 February. It never appeared.

This Tweet

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prompted an undertaking that it would appear on 27 March. I’ll believe that when I see it.

But there’s no reason why you should wait any longer. This version is more comprehensive anyway, in that it includes several relevant Twitter comments and additional explanatory material.

I very much hope that Teach First and members of the Fair Education Alliance will read it and reflect seriously on the proposal it makes.

As the final sequence of Tweets below shows, Teach First committed to an online response on 14 February. Still waiting…

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How worried are you that so few students on free school meals make it to Oxbridge?

Many different reasons are offered by those who argue that such concern may be misplaced:

  • FSM is a poor proxy for disadvantage; any number of alternatives is preferable;
  • We shouldn’t single out Oxbridge when so many other selective universities have similarly poor records;
  • We obsess about Oxbridge when we should be focused on progression to higher education as a whole;
  • We should worry instead about progression to the most selective courses, which aren’t necessarily at the most selective universities;
  • Oxbridge suits a particular kind of student; we shouldn’t force square pegs into round holes;
  • We shouldn’t get involved in social engineering.

Several of these points are well made. But they can be deployed as a smokescreen, obscuring the uncomfortable fact that, despite our collective best efforts, there has been negligible progress against the FSM measure for a decade or more.

Answers to Parliamentary Questions supplied  by BIS say that the total fluctuated between 40 and 45 in the six years from 2005/06 to 2010/11.

The Department for Education’s experimental destination measures statistics suggested that the 2010/11 intake was 30, rising to 50 in 2011/12, of which 40 were from state-funded schools and 10 from state-funded colleges. But these numbers are rounded to the nearest 10.

By comparison, the total number of students recorded as progressing to Oxbridge from state-funded schools and colleges in 2011/12 is 2,420.

This data underpins the adjustment of DfE’s  ‘FSM to Oxbridge’ impact indicator, from 0.1% to 0.2%. It will be interesting to see whether there is stronger progress in the 2012/13 destination measures, due later this month.

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[Postscript: The 2012/13 Destinations Data was published on 26 January 2014. The number of FSM learners progressing to Oxbridge is shown only in the underlying data (Table NA 12).

This tells us that the numbers are unchanged: 40 from state-funded schools; 10 from state-funded colleges, with both totals again rounded to the nearest 10.

So any improvement in 2011/12 has stalled in 2012/13, or is too small to register given the rounding (and the rounding might even mask a deterioration)

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The non-FSM totals progressing to Oxbridge in 2012/13 are 2,080 from state-funded schools and 480 from state-funded colleges, giving a total of 2,560. This is an increase of some 6% compared with 2011/12.

Subject to the vagaries of rounding, this suggests that the ratio of non-FSM to FSM learners progressing from state-funded institutions deteriorated in 2012/13 compared with 2011/12.]

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The routine explanation is that too few FSM-eligible students achieve the top grades necessary for admission to Oxbridge. But answers to Parliamentary Questions reveal that, between 2006 and 2011, the number achieving three or more A-levels at grade A or above increased by some 45 per cent, reaching 546 in 2011.

Judged on this measure, our national commitment to social mobility and fair access is not cutting the mustard. Substantial expenditure – by the taxpayer, by universities and the third sector – is making too little difference too slowly. Transparency is limited because the figures are hostages to fortune.

So what could be done about this? Perhaps the answer lies with Teach First and the Fair Education Alliance.

Towards the end of last year Teach First celebrated a decade of impact. It published a report and three pupil case studies, one of which featured a girl who was first in her school to study at Oxford.

I tweeted

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Teach First has a specific interest in this area, beyond its teacher training remit. It runs a scheme, Teach First Futures, for students who are  “currently under-represented in universities, including those whose parents did not go to university and those who have claimed free school meals”.

Participants benefit from a Teach First mentor throughout the sixth form, access to a 4-day Easter school at Cambridge, university day trips, skills workshops and careers sessions. Those applying to Oxbridge receive unspecified additional support.

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Information about the number of participants is not always consistent, but various Teach First sources suggest there were some 250 in 2009, rising to 700 in 2013. This year the target is 900. Perhaps some 2,500 have taken part to date.

Teach First’s impact report  says that 30 per cent of those who had been through the programme in 2013 secured places at Russell Group universities and that 60 per cent of participants interviewed at Oxbridge received an offer.

I searched for details of how many – FSM or otherwise – had actually been admitted to Oxbridge. Apart from one solitary case study, all I could find was a report that mentioned four Oxbridge offers in 2010.

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Through the Fair Education Alliance, Teach First and its partners are committed to five impact goals, one of which is to:

‘Narrow the gap in university graduation, including from the 25% most selective universities, by 8%’*

Last month the Alliance published a Report Card which argued that:

‘The current amount of pupil premium allocated per disadvantaged pupil should be halved, and the remaining funds redistributed to those pupils who are disadvantaged and have low prior attainment. This would give double-weighting to those low income pupils most in need of intervention without raising overall pupil premium spend.’

It is hard to understand how this would improve the probability of achieving the impact goal above, even though the gaps the Alliance wishes to close are between schools serving high and low income communities.

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Perhaps it should also contemplate an expanded Alliance Futures Scheme, targeting simultaneously this goal and the Government’s ‘FSM to Oxbridge’ indicator, so killing two birds with one stone.

A really worthwhile Scheme would need to be ambitious, imposing much-needed coherence without resorting to prescription.

Why not consider:

  • A national framework for the supply side, in which all providers – universities included – position their various services.
  • Commitment on the part of all secondary schools and colleges to a coherent long-term support programme for FSM students, with open access at KS3 but continuing participation in KS4 and KS5 subject to successful progress.
  • Schools and colleges responsible for identifying participants’ learning and development needs and addressing those through a blend of internal provision and appropriate services drawn from the national framework.
  • A personal budget for each participant, funded through an annual £50m topslice from the Pupil Premium (there is a precedent) plus a matching sum from universities’ outreach budgets. Those with the weakest fair access records would contribute most. Philanthropic donations would be welcome.
  • The taxpayer’s contribution to all university funding streams made conditional on them meeting challenging but realistic fair access and FSM graduation targets – and publishing full annual data in a standard format.

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*In the Report card, this impact goal is differently expressed, as narrowing the gap in university graduation, so that at least 5,000 more students from low income backgrounds graduate each year, 1,600 of them from the most selective universities. This is to be achieved by 2022.

‘Low income backgrounds’ means schools where 50% or more pupils come from the most deprived 30% of families according to IDACI.

The gap to be narrowed is between these and pupils from ‘high income backgrounds’, defined as schools where 50% or more pupils come from the least deprived 30% of families according to IDACI.

‘The most selective universities’ means those in the Sutton Trust 30 (the top 25% of universities with the highest required UCAS scores).

The proposed increases in graduation rates from low income backgrounds do not of themselves constitute a narrowing gap, since there is no information about the corresponding changes in graduation rates from high income grounds.

This unique approach to closing gaps adds yet another methodology to the already long list applied to fair access. It risks adding further density to the smokescreen described at the start of this post.

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GP

January 2015

How Well Do Grammar Schools Perform With Disadvantaged Students?

This supplement to my previous post on The Politics of Selection  compares the performance of disadvantaged learners in different grammar schools.

It adds a further dimension to the evidence base set out in my earlier post, intended to inform debate about the potential value of grammar schools as engines of social mobility.

The commentary is based on the spreadsheet embedded below, which relies entirely on data drawn from the 2013 Secondary School Performance Tables.

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If you find any transcription errors please alert me and I will correct them.

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Preliminary Notes

The 2013 Performance Tables define disadvantaged learners as those eligible for free school meals in the last six years and children in care. Hence both these categories are caught by the figures in my spreadsheet.

Because the number of disadvantaged pupils attending grammar schools is typically very low, I have used the three year average figures contained in the ‘Closing the Gap’ section of the Tables.

These are therefore the number of disadvantaged students in each school’s end of KS4 cohort for 2011, 2012 and 2013 combined. They should illustrate the impact of pupil premium support and wider closing the gap strategies on grammar schools since the Coalition government came to power.

Even when using three year averages the data is frustratingly incomplete, since 13 of the 163 grammar schools have so few disadvantaged students – fewer than six across all three cohorts combined – that the results are suppressed. We have no information at all about how well or how badly these schools are performing in terms of closing gaps.

My analysis uses each of the three performance measures within this section of the Performance Tables:

  • The percentage of pupils at the end of KS4 achieving five or more GCSEs (or equivalents) at grades A*-C, including GCSEs in English and maths. 
  • The proportion of pupils who, by the end of KS4, have made at least the expected progress in English. 
  • The proportion of pupil who, by the end of KS4, have made at least the expected progress in maths.

In each case I have recorded the percentage of disadvantaged learners who achieve the measure and the percentage point gap between that and the corresponding figure for ‘other’ – ie non-disadvantaged – students.

For comparison I have also included the corresponding percentages for all disadvantaged pupils in all state-funded schools and for all high attainers in state-funded schools. The latter is for 2013 only rather than a three-year average.

Unfortunately the Tables do not provide data for high attaining disadvantaged students. The vast majority of disadvantaged students attending grammar schools will be high-attaining according to the definition used in the Tables (average points score of 30 or higher across KS2 English, maths and science).

But, as my previous post showed, some grammar schools record 70% or fewer high attainers, disadvantaged or otherwise. These include: Clarendon House (Kent, now merged), Fort Pitt (Medway), Skegness (Lincolnshire), Dover Boys’ and Girls’ (Kent), Folkestone Girls’ (Kent), St Joseph’s (Stoke), Boston High (Lincolnshire) and the Harvey School (Kent).

Some of these schools feature in the analysis below, while some do not, suggesting that the correlation between selectivity and the performance of disadvantaged students is not straightforward.

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Number of disadvantaged learners in each school

The following schools are those with suppressed results, placed in order according to the number of disadvantaged learners within scope, from lowest to highest:

  • Tonbridge Grammar School, Kent (2)
  • Bishop Wordsworth’s Grammar School, Wiltshire (3)
  • Caistor Grammar School, Lincolnshire (3)
  • Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School, Buckinghamshire (3)
  • Adams’ Grammar School, Telford and Wrekin (4)
  • Chelmsford County High School for Girls, Essex (4)
  • Dr Challoner’s High School, Buckinghamshire (4)
  • King Edward VI School, Warwickshire (4)
  • Alcester Grammar School, Warwickshire (5)
  • Beaconsifeld High School, Buckinghamshire (5)
  • King Edward VI Grammar School, Chelmsford, Essex (5)
  • Reading School, Reading (5)
  • St Bernard’s Catholic Grammar School, Slough (5).

Some of these schools feature among those with the lowest proportions of ‘ever 6 FSM’ pupils on roll, as shown in the spreadsheet accompanying my previous post, but some do not.

The remaining 152 schools each record a combined cohort of between six and 96 students, with an average of 22.

A further 19 schools have a combined cohort of 10 or fewer, meaning that 32 grammar schools in all (20% of the total) are in this category.

At the other end of the distribution, only 16 schools (10% of all grammar schools) have a combined cohort of 40 disadvantaged students or higher – and only four have one of 50 disadvantaged students or higher.

These are:

  • Handsworth Grammar School, Birmingham (96)
  • Stretford Grammar School, Trafford (76)
  • Dane Court Grammar School, Kent (57)
  • Slough Grammar School (Upton Court) (50).

Because the ratio of disadvantaged to other pupils in the large majority of grammar schools is so marked, the results below must be treated with a significant degree of caution.

Outcomes based on such small numbers may well be misleading, but they are all we have.

Arguably, grammar schools should find it relatively easier to achieve success with a very small cohort of students eligible for the pupil premium – since fewer require separate monitoring and, potentially, additional support.

On the other hand, the comparative rarity of disadvantaged students may mean that some grammar schools have too little experience of addressing such needs, or believe that closing gaps is simply not an issue for them.

Then again, it is perhaps more likely that grammar schools will fall short of 100% success with their much larger proportions of ‘other’ students, simply because the probability of special circumstances arising is relatively higher. One might expect therefore to see ‘positive gaps’ with success rates for disadvantaged students slightly higher than those for their relatively more advantaged peers.

Ideally though, grammar schools should be aiming for a perfect 100% success rate for all students on these three measures, regardless of whether they are advantaged or disadvantaged. None is particularly challenging, for high attainers in particular – and most of these schools have been rated as outstanding by Ofsted.

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Five or more GCSE A*-C grades or equivalent including GCSEs in English and maths

In all state-funded schools, the percentage of disadvantaged students achieving this measure across the three year period is 38.7% while the percentage of other students doing so is 66.3%, giving a gap of 27.6 percentage points.

In 2013, 94.7% of all high attainers in state-funded secondary schools achieved this measure.

No grammar school falls below the 38.7% benchmark for its disadvantaged learners. The nearest to it is Pate’s Grammar School, at 43%. But these results were affected by the School’s decision to sit English examinations which were not recognised for Performance Table purposes.

The next lowest percentages are returned by:

  • Spalding Grammar School, Lincolnshire (59%)
  • Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, Kent (65%)
  • Stratford Grammar School for Girls, Warwickshire (71%)
  • The Boston Grammar School, Lincolnshire (74%)

These were the only four schools below 75%.

Table 1 below illustrates these percentages and the percentage point gap for each of these four schools.

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Table 1

Table 1: 5+ GCSEs at A*-C or equivalent including GCSEs in English and maths: Lowest performing and largest gaps

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A total of 46 grammar schools (31% of the 150 without suppressed results) fall below the 2013 figure for high attainers across all state-funded schools.

On the other hand, 75 grammar schools (exactly 50%) achieve 100% on this measure, for combined student cohorts ranging in size from six to 49.

Twenty-six of the 28 schools that had no gap between the performance of their advantaged and disadvantaged students were amongst those scoring 100%. (The other two were at 97% and 95% respectively.)

The remaining 49 with a 100% record amongst their disadvantaged students demonstrate a ‘positive gap’, in that the disadvantaged do better than the advantaged.

The biggest positive gap is seven percentage points, recorded by Clarendon House Grammar School in Kent and Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Alford, Lincolnshire.

Naturally enough, schools recording relatively lower success rates amongst their disadvantaged students also tend to demonstrate a negative gap, where the advantaged do better than the disadvantaged.

Three schools had an achievement gap higher than the 27.6 percentage point national average. They were:

  • Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys (30 percentage points)
  • Spalding Grammar School (28 percentage points)
  • Stratford Grammar School for Girls (28 percentage points)

So three of the four with the lowest success rates for disadvantaged learners demonstrated the biggest gaps. Twelve more schools had double digit achievement gaps of 10% or higher.

These 15 schools – 10% of the total for which we have data – have a significant issue to address, regardless of the size of their disadvantaged populations.

One noticeable oddity at this end of the table is King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys in Birmingham, which returns a positive gap of 14 percentage points (rounded): with 80% for disadvantaged and 67% for advantaged. On this measure at least, it is doing relatively badly with its disadvantaged students, but considerably worse with those from advantaged backgrounds!

However, this idiosyncratic pattern is also likely to be attributable to the School using some examinations not eligible for inclusion in the Tables.

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At least expected progress in English

Across all state-funded schools, the percentage of disadvantaged students making at least three levels of progress in English is 55.5%, compared with 75.1% of ‘other’ students, giving a gap of 19.6 percentage points.

In 2013, 86.2% of high attainers achieved this benchmark.

If we again discount Pate’s from consideration, the lowest performing school on this measure is The Boston Grammar School which is at 53%, lower than the national average figure.

A further 43 schools (29% of those for which we have data) are below the 2013 average for all high attainers. Six more of these fall below 70%:

  • The Skegness Grammar School, Lincolnshire (62%)
  • Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Cumbria (62%)
  • Plymouth High School for Girls (64%)
  • Spalding Grammar School, Lincolnshire (65%)
  • Devonport High School for Boys, Plymouth (65%)
  • Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, Kent (67%)

Table 2 below illustrates these outcomes, together with the attainment gaps recorded by these schools and others with particularly large gaps.

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Table 2

Table 2: At least expected progress in English from KS2 to KS4: Lowest performing and largest gaps

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At the other end of the table, 44 grammar schools achieve 100% on this measure (29% of those for which we have data.) This is significantly fewer than achieved perfection on the five or more GCSEs benchmark.

When it comes to closing the gap, only 16 of the 44 achieve a perfect 100% score with both advantaged and disadvantaged students, again much lower than on the attainment measure above.

The largest positive gaps (where disadvantaged students outscore their advantaged classmates) are at The King Edward VI Grammar School, Louth, Lincolnshire (11 percentage points) and John Hampden Grammar School Buckinghamshire (10 percentage points).

Amongst the schools propping up the table on this measure, six record negative gaps of 20 percentage points or higher, so exceeding the average gap in state-funded secondary schools:

  • The Skegness Grammar School (30 percentage points)
  • Queen Elizabeth Grammar School Cumbria (28 percentage points)
  • Stratford Grammar School for Girls (27 percentage points)
  • Plymouth High School for Girls (25 percentage points)
  • Devonport High School for Boys, Plymouth (23 percentage points)
  • Loreto Grammar School, Trafford (20 percentage points).

There is again a strong correlation between low disadvantaged performance and large gaps, although the relationship does not apply in all cases.

Another 23 grammar schools have a negative gap of 10 percentage points or higher.

There is again a curious trend for King Edward VI Camp Hill in Birmingham, which comes in at 75% on this measure, yet its disadvantaged students outscore the advantaged, which are at 65%, ten percentage points lower. As noted above, there may well be extenuating circumstances.

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At least expected progress in maths

The percentage of disadvantaged students making at least three levels of progress in maths across all state-funded schools is 50.7%, compared with a figure for ‘other’ students of 74.1%, giving a gap of 23.4 percentage points.

In 2013, 87.8% of high attainers achieved this.

On this occasion Pate’s is unaffected (in fact scores 100%), as does King Edward VI Camp Hill School for Boys (in its case for advantaged and disadvantaged alike).

No schools come in below the national average for disadvantaged students, in fact all comfortably exceed it. However, the lowest performers are still a long way behind some of their fellow grammar schools.

The worst performing grammar schools on this measure are:

  • Spalding Grammar School, Lincolnshire (59%)
  • Queen Elizabeth Grammar School Cumbria (62%)
  • Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, Kent (63%)
  • Dover Grammar School for Boys, Kent (67%)
  • The Boston Grammar School, Lincolnshire (68%)
  • Borden Grammar School, Kent (68%)

These are very similar to the corresponding rates for the lowest performers in English.

Table 3 illustrates these outcomes, together with other schools demonstrating very large gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students.

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Table 3

Table 3: At least expected progress in maths from KS2 to KS4: Lowest performing and largest gaps

A total of 32 schools (21% of those for which we have data) undershoot the 2013 average for high attainers, a slightly better outcome than for English.

At the other extreme, there are 54 schools (36% of those for which we have data) that score 100% on this measure, slightly more than do so on the comparable measure for English, but still significantly fewer than achieve this on the 5+ GCSE measure.

Seventeen of the 54 also achieve a perfect 100% for advantaged students.

The largest positive gaps recorded are 11 percentage points at The Harvey Grammar School in Kent (which achieved 94% for disadvantaged students) and 7 percentage points at Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School, Alford, Lincolnshire (91% for disadvantaged students).

The largest negative gaps on this measure are equally as substantial as those relating to English. Four schools perform significantly worse than the average gap of 23.4 percentage points:

  • Spalding Grammar School, Lincolnshire (32 percentage points)
  • Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Cumbria (31 percentage points)
  • Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, Kent (31 percentage points)
  • Stratford Grammar School for Girls (27 percentage points)

Queen Elizabeth’s and Stratford Girls’ appeared in the same list for English. Stratford Girls’ appeared in the same list for the 5+ GCSE measure.

A further 20 schools have a double-digit negative gap of 10 percentage points or higher, very similar to the outcome in English.

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Comparison across the three measures

As will be evident from the tables and lists above, some grammar schools perform consistently poorly on all three measures.

Others perform consistently well, while a third group have ‘spiky profiles’

The number of schools that achieve 100% on all three measures with their disadvantaged students is 25 (17% of those for which we have data).

Eight of these are located in London; none is located in Birmingham. Just two are in Buckinghamshire and there is one each in Gloucestershire, Kent and Lincolnshire.

Only six schools achieve 100% on all three measures with advantaged and disadvantaged students alike. They are:

  • Queen Elizabeth’s, Barnet
  • Colyton Grammar School, Devon
  • Nonsuch High School for Girls, Sutton
  • St Olave’s and St Saviour’s Grammar School, Bromley
  • Tiffin Girls’ School, Kingston
  • Kendrick School, Reading

Five schools recorded comparatively low performance across all three measures (ie below 80% on each):

  • Spalding Grammar School, Lincolnshire
  • Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, Kent
  • The Boston Grammar School, Lincolnshire
  • Stratford Grammar School for Girls
  • St Joseph’s College, Stoke on Trent

Their overall performance is illustrated in Table 4.

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Table 4

Table 4: Schools where 80% or fewer disadvantaged learners achieved each measure

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This small group of schools are a major cause for concern.

A total of 16 schools (11% of those for which we have data) score 90% or less on all three measures and they, too, are potentially concerning.

Schools which record negative gaps of 10 percentage points or more on all three measures are:

  • Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys, Kent
  • Dover Grammar School for Boys, Kent
  • The Boston Grammar School, Lincolnshire
  • Stratford Grammar School for Girls
  • Wilmington Grammar School for Boys, Kent
  • St Joseph’s College, Stoke-on-Trent
  • Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School, Horncastle, Lincolnshire

Table 5 records these outcomes

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Table 5

Table 5: Schools with gaps of 10% or higher on all three measures

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Of these, Boston and Stratford have gaps of 20 percentage points or higher on all three measures.

A total of 32 grammar schools (21% of those for which we have data) record a percentage of 80 percentage points or lower on at least one of the three measures.

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Selective University Destinations

I had also wanted to include in the analysis some data on progression to selective (Russell Group) universities, drawn from the experimental destination statistics.

Unfortunately, the results for FSM students are suppressed for the vast majority of schools, making comparison impossible. According to the underlying data for 2011/12, all I can establish with any certainty is that:

  • In 29 grammar schools, there were no FSM students in the cohort.
  • Five schools returned 0%, meaning that no FSM students successfully progressed to a Russell Group university. These were Wycombe High School, Wallington High School for Girls, The Crossley Heath School in Calderdale, St Anselm’s College on the Wirral and Bacup and Rawtenstall Grammar School.
  • Three schools were relatively successful – King Edward VI Five Ways in Birmingham reported 58% of FSM students progressing, while King Edward VI Handsworth reported 53% and the Latymer School achieved an impressive 75%.
  • All remaining grammar schools – some 127 in that year – are reported as ‘x’ meaning that there were either one or two students in the cohort, so the percentages are suppressed.

We can infer from this that, at least in 2011/12, very few grammar schools indeed were specialising in providing an effective route to Russell Group universities for FSM students.

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Conclusion

Even allowing for the unreliability of statistics based on very small cohorts, this analysis is robust enough to show that the performance of grammar schools in supporting disadvantaged students is extremely disparate.

While there is a relatively large group of consistently high performers, roughly one in five grammar schools is a cause for concern on at least one of the three measures. Approximately one in ten is performing no more than satisfactorily across all three. 

The analysis hints at the possibility that the biggest problems tend to be located in rural and coastal areas rather than in London and other urban centres, but this pattern is not always consistent. The majority of the poorest performers seem to be located in wholly selective authorities but, again, this is not always the case.

A handful of grammar schools are recording significant negative gaps between the performance of disadvantaged students and their peers. This is troubling. There is no obvious correlation between the size of the disadvantaged cohort and the level of underperformance.

There may be extenuating circumstances in some cases, but there is no public national record of what these are – an argument for greater transparency across the board.

One hopes that the grammar schools that are struggling in this respect are also those at the forefront of the reform programme described in my previous post – and that they are improving rapidly.

One hopes, too, that those whose business it is to ensure that schools make effective use of the pupil premium are monitoring these institutions closely. Some of the evidence highlighted above would not, in my view, be consistent with an outstanding Ofsted inspection outcome.

If the same pattern is evident when the 2014 Performance Tables are published in January 2015, there will be serious cause for concern.

As for the question whether grammar schools are currently meeting the needs of their – typically few – disadvantaged students, the answer is ‘some are; some aren’t’. This argues for intervention in inverse proportion to success.

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GP

December 2014

The Politics of Selection: Grammar Schools and Disadvantage

This post considers how England’s selective schools are addressing socio-economic disadvantage.

Another irrelevant Norwegian vista by Gifted Phoenix

Another irrelevant Norwegian vista by Gifted Phoenix

It is intended as an evidence base against which to judge various political statements about the potential value of selective education as an engine of social mobility.

It does not deal with recent research reports about the historical record of grammar schools in this respect. These show that – contrary to received wisdom – selective education has had a very limited impact on social mobility.

Politicians of all parties would do well to acknowledge this, rather than attempting (as some do) to perpetuate the myth in defiance of the evidence.

This post concentrates instead on the current record of these schools, recent efforts to strengthen their capacity to support the Government’s gap closing strategy and prospects for the future.

It encourages advocates of increased selection to consider the wider question of how best to support high attainers from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The post is organised into four main sections:

  • A summary of how the main political parties view selection at this point, some six months ahead of a General Election.
  • A detailed profile of the socio-economic inclusiveness of grammar schools today, which draws heavily on published data but also includes findings from recent research.
  • An evaluation of national efforts over the last year to reform selective schools’ admissions, testing and outreach in support of high-attaining disadvantaged learners.
  • Comparison of the various policy options for closing excellence gaps between such learners and their more advantaged peers – and consideration of the role that reformed and/or increased selection might play in a more comprehensive strategy.

Since I know many readers prefer to read my lengthy posts selectively I have included page jumps from each of the bullet points above to the relevant sections below.

One more preliminary point.

This is the second time I have explored selection on this Blog, though my previous post, on fair access to grammar schools, appeared as far back as January 2011. This post updates some of the data in the earlier one.

One purpose of that earlier post was to draw attention to the parallels in the debates about fair access to grammar schools and to selective higher education.

I do not repeat those arguments here, although writing this has confirmed my opinion that they are closely related issues and that many of the strategies deployed at one level could be applied equally at the other.

So there remains scope to explore how appropriate equivalents of Offa, access agreements, bursaries and contexualised admissions might be applied to selective secondary admissions arrangements, alongside the reforms that are already on the table. I leave that thought hanging.

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The Political Context

My last post on ‘The Politics of Setting’ explored how political debate surrounding within-school and between-school selection is becoming increasingly febrile as we approach the 2015 General Election.

The two have become inextricably linked because Prime Minister Cameron, in deciding not to accommodate calls on the right of his party to increase the number of selective schools, has called instead for ‘a grammar stream in every school’ and, latterly, for a wider – perhaps universal – commitment to setting.

In May 2007, Cameron wrote:

‘That’s what the grammar school row was about: moving the Conservative Party on from slogans such as ‘Bring back grammar schools’ so that we can offer serious policies for improving state education for everyone…

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

Conservative governments in the past – and Conservative councils in the present – have both failed to carry out this policy because, ultimately, it is not what parents want….

…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.’

As ‘The Politics of Setting’ explained, this alternative aspiration to strengthen within-school selection has not yet materialised, although there are strong signs that it is still Cameron’s preferred way forward.

The Coalition has been clear that:

‘It is not the policy of the Government to establish new grammar schools in England’ (Hansard, 10 February 2014, Col. 427W).

but it has also:

  • Removed barriers to the expansion of existing grammar schools through increases to planned admission numbers (PANs) within the Admissions Code.
  • Introduced several new selective post-16 institutions through the free schools policy (though not as many as originally envisaged since the maths free schools project has made relatively little progress).
  • Made efforts to reform the admissions procedures of existing selective secondary schools and
  • Accepted in principle that these existing schools might also expand through annexes, or satellite schools. This is now a live issue since one decision is pending and a second proposal may be in the pipeline.

The Liberal Democrats have enthusiastically pursued at least the third of these policies, with Lib Dem education minister David Laws leading the Government’s efforts to push the grammar schools further and faster down this route.

In his June 2014 speech (of which much more below) Laws describes grammar schools as ‘a significant feature of the landscape in many local areas’ and ‘an established fact of our education system’.

But, as the Election approaches, the Lib Dems are increasingly distancing themselves from a pro-selective stance.

Clegg is reported to have said recently that he did not believe selective schools were the way forward:

‘The Conservatives have got this odd tendency to constantly want to turn the clock back.

Some of them seem to be hankering towards a kind of selective approach to education, which I don’t think works.

Non-selective schools stream and a lot of them stream quite forcefully, that’s all fine, but I think a segregated school system is not what this country needs.’

Leaving aside the odd endorsement of ‘forceful streaming’, this could even be interpreted as hostile to existing grammar schools.

Meanwhile, both frontrunners to replace Cameron as Tory leader have recently restated their pro-grammar school credentials:

  • Constituency MP Teresa May has welcomed consideration of the satellite option in Maidenhead.

The right wing of the Tory party has long supported increased selection and will become increasingly vociferous as the Election approaches.

Conservative Voice – which describes itself as on the ‘center-Right of the party’ [sic] – will imminently launch a campaign calling for removal of the ban on new grammar schools to be included in the Conservative Election Manifesto.

They have already conducted a survey to inform the campaign, from which it is clear that they will be playing the social mobility card.

The Conservative right is acutely aware of the election threat posed by UKIP, which has already stated its policy that:

‘Existing schools will be allowed to apply to become grammar schools and select according to ability and aptitude. Selection ages will be flexible and determined by the school in consultation with the local authority.’

Its leader has spoken of ‘a grammar school in every town’ and media commentators have begun to suggest that the Tories will lose votes to UKIP on this issue.

Labour’s previous shadow education minister, Stephen Twigg, opposed admissions code reforms that made it easier for existing grammar schools to expand.

But the present incumbent has said very little on the subject.

A newspaper interview in January 2014 hints at a reforming policy:

‘Labour would not shut surviving grammar schools but Mr Hunt said their social mix should be questioned.

“If they are simply about merit why do we see the kind of demographics and class make-up within them?”’

But it seems that this has dropped off Labour’s agenda now that the Coalition has adopted it.

I could find no formal commitment from Labour to address the issue in government, even though that might provide some sort of palliative for those within the party who oppose selection in all its forms and have suggested that funding should be withdrawn from selective academies.

So the overall picture suggests that Labour and the Lib Dems are deliberately distancing themselves from any active policy on selection, presumably regarding it as a poisoned chalice. The Tories are conspicuously riven on the issue, while UKIP has stolen a march by occupying the ground which the Tory right would like to occupy.

As the Election approaches, the Conservatives face four broad choices. They can:

  • Endorse the status quo under the Coalition, making any change of policy conditional on the outcome of a future leadership contest.
  • Advocate more between-school selection. This might or might not stop short of permitting new selective 11-18 secondary schools. Any such policy needs to be distinct from UKIP’s.
  • Advocate more within-school selection, as preferred by Cameron. This might adopt any position between encouragement and compulsion.
  • Develop a more comprehensive support strategy for high attaining learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. This might include any or all of the above, but should also consider support targeted directly at disadvantaged students.

These options are discussed in the final part of the post.

The next section provides an assessment of the current state of selective school engagement with disadvantaged learners, as a precursor to describing how the reform programme is shaping up.

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How well do grammar schools serve disadvantaged students?

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The Grammar School Stock and the Size of the Selective Pupil Population

Government statistics show that, as of January 2014, there are 163 selective state-funded secondary schools in England.

This is one less than previously, following the merger of Chatham House Grammar School for Boys and Clarendon House Grammar School. These two Kent schools formed the Chatham and Clarendon Grammar School with effect from 1 September 2013.

At January 2014:

  • 135 of these 163 schools (83%) are academy converters, leaving just 28 in local authority control. Twenty of the schools (12%) have a religious character.
  • Some 5.1% of pupils in state-funded schools attend selective schools. (The percentage fluctuated between 4% and 5% over the last 20 years.) The percentage of learners under 16 attending selective schools is lower. Between 2007 and 2011 it was 3.9% to 4.0%.
  • There are 162,630 pupils of all ages attending state-funded selective secondary schools, of which 135,365 (83.2%) attend academies and 27,265 (16.8%) attend LA maintained schools. This represents an increase of 1,000 compared with 2013. The annual intake is around 22,000.

The distribution of selective schools between regions and local authority areas is shown in Table 1 below.

The percentage of selective school pupils by region varies from 12.0% in the South East to zero in the North East, a grammar-free zone. The percentage of pupils attending selective schools by local authority area (counting only those with at least one selective school) varies from 45.1% in Trafford to 2.1% in Devon.

Some of the percentages at the upper end of this range seem to have increased significantly since May 2011, although the two sets of figures may not be exactly comparable.

For example, the proportion of Trafford pupils attending selective schools has increased by almost 5% (from 40.2% in 2011). In Torbay there has been an increase of over 4% (34.8% compared with 30.5%) and in Kent an increase of almost 4% (33.3% compared with 29.6%).

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Table 1: The distribution of selective schools by region and local authority area and the percentage of pupils within each authority attending them (January 2014)

Region Schools Pupils Percentage of all pupils
North East 0 0 0
North West 19 20,240 4.9
Cumbria 1 833 2.8
Lancashire 4 4,424 6.6
Liverpool 1 988 3.3
Trafford 7 7,450 45.1
Wirral 6 6,547 30.5
Yorkshire and Humberside 6 6,055 1.9
Calderdale 2 2,217 14.2
Kirklees 1 1,383 5.5
North Yorkshire 3 2,454 6.5
East Midlands 15 12,700 4.5
Lincolnshire 15 12,699 26.9
West Midlands 19 15,865 4.5
Birmingham 8 7,350 10.4
Stoke-on-Trent 1 1,078 8.7
Telford and Wrekin 2 1,283 11.7
Walsall 2 1,423 7.0
Warwickshire 5 3,980 12.0
Wolverhampton 1 753 5.0
East of England 8 7,715 2.1
Essex 4 3,398 4.0
Southend-on-Sea 4 4,319 32.8
London 19 20,770 4.4
Barnet 3 2,643 11.6
Bexley 4 5,466 26.6
Bromley 2 1,997 9.0
Enfield 1 1,378 6.1
Kingston upon Thames 2 2,021 20.5
Redbridge 2 1,822 7.9
Sutton 5 5,445 30.7
South East 57 59,910 12.0
Buckinghamshire 13 15,288 42.2
Kent 32 33,059 33.3
Medway 6 6,031 32.2
Reading 2 1,632 24.1
Slough 4 3,899 37.4
South West 20 19,370 6.2
Bournemouth 2 2,245 23.3
Devon 1 822 2.1
Gloucestershire 7 6,196 16.2
Plymouth 3 2,780 16.3
Poole 2 2,442 26.8
Torbay 3 2,976 34.8
Wiltshire 2 1,928 6.6
TOTAL 163 162,630 5.1

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Some authorities are deemed wholly selective but different definitions have been adopted.

One PQ reply suggests that 10 of the 36 local authority areas – Bexley, Buckinghamshire, Kent, Lincolnshire, Medway, Slough, Southend, Sutton, Torbay and Trafford – are deemed wholly selective because they feature in the Education (Grammar School Ballots) Regulations 1998.

Another authoritative source – the House of Commons Library – omits Bexley, Lincolnshire and Sutton from this list, presumably because they also contain comprehensive schools.

Of course many learners who attend grammar schools live in local authority areas other than those in which their schools are located. Many travel significant distances to attend.

A PQ reply from March 2012 states that some 76.6% of all those attending grammar schools live in the same local authority as their school, while 23.2% live outside. (The remainder are ‘unknowns’.)

These figures mask substantial variation between authorities. A recent study, for the Sutton Trust  ‘Entry into Grammar Schools in England’ (Cribb et al, 2013) provides equivalent figures for each local authority from 2009-10 to 2011-12.

The percentage of within authority admissions reaches 38.5% in Trafford and 36% in Buckinghamshire but, at the other extreme, it can be as low as 1.7% in Devon and 2.2% in Cumbria.

The percentage of admissions from outside the authority can be as much as 75% (Reading) and 68% (Kingston) or, alternatively, as low as 4.5% in Gloucestershire and 6.8% in Kent.

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Recent Trends in the Size and Distribution of the Disadvantaged Grammar School Pupil Population

Although this section of the post is intended to describe the ‘present state’, I wanted to illustrate how that compares with the relatively recent past.

I attached to my 2011 post a table showing how the proportion of FSM students attending grammar schools had changed annually since 1995. This is reproduced below, updated to reflect more recent data where it is available

A health warning is attached since the figures were derived from several different PQ replies and I cannot be sure that the assumptions underpinning each were identical. Where there are known methodological differences I have described these in the footnotes.

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Table 2: Annual percentage FSM in all grammar schools and gap between that and percentage FSM in all secondary schools, 1995-2013

Year PercentageFSM in GS Percentage FSMall schools Percentagepoint Gap
1995 3.9 18.0 14.1
1996 3.8 18.3 14.5
1997 3.7 18.2 14.5
1998 3.4 17.5 14.1
1999 3.1 16.9 13.8
2000 2.8 16.5 13.7
2001 2.4 15.8 13.4
2002 2.2 14.9 12.7
2003 2.1 14.5 12.4
2004 2.2 14.3 12.1
2005 2.1 14.0 11.9
2006 2.2 14.6 12.4
2007 2.0 13.1 11.1
2008 1.9 12.8 10.9
2009 2.0 13.4 11.4
2010 15.4
2011 2.4 14.6 12.2
2012 14.8
2013 15.1
2014 14.6

(1) Prior to 2003 includes dually registered pupils and excludes boarding pupils; from 2003 onwards includes dually registered and boarding pupils.

(2) Before 2002 numbers of pupils eligible for free school meals were collected at school level. From 2002 onwards numbers have been derived from pupil level returns.

(3) 2008 and 2009 figures for all schools exclude academies

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Between 1996 and 2005 the FSM rate in all schools fell annually, dropping by 4.3 percentage points over that period. The FSM rate in grammar schools also fell, by 1.7 percentage points. The percentage point gap between all schools and selective schools fell by 2.6 percentage points.

Both FSM rates reached their lowest point in 2008. At that point the FSM rate in grammar schools was half what it had been in 1996. Thereafter, the rate across all schools increased, but has been rather more volatile, with small swings in either direction.

One might expect the 2014 FSM rate across all grammar schools to be at or around its 2011 level of 2.4%.

A more recent PQ reply revealed the total number of pupil premium recipients attending selective schools over the last three financial years:

  • FY2011-12 – 3,013
  • FY2012-13 – 6,184 (on extension to ‘ever 6’)
  • FY2013-14 – 7,353

(Hansard 20 January 2014, Col. WA88)

This suggests a trend of increasing participation in the sector, though total numbers are still very low, averaging around 45 per school and slightly over six per year group.

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Comparison with FSM rates in selective authorities

In 2012, a table deposited in the Commons Library (Dep 2012-0432) in response to a PQ provided the January 2011 FSM rates for selective schools and all state-funded secondary schools in each authority containing selective schools.

In this case, the FSM rates provided relate only to pupils aged 15 or under. The comparable national average rates are 2.7% for selective schools and 15.9% for all state-funded schools.

  • Selective school FSM rates per authority vary between 6.0% in Birmingham and 0.6% in Wiltshire.
  • Other authorities with particularly low FSM rates include Bromley (0.7%), Reading (0.8%) and Essex (0.9%).
  • Authorities with relatively high FSM rates include Wirral (5.2%), Walsall (4.9) and Redbridge (4.8%).
  • The authorities with the biggest gaps between FSM rates for selective schools and all schools are Birmingham, at 28.0 percentage points, Liverpool, at 23.8 percentage points, Enfield at 21.8 percentage points and Wolverhampton, at 21.7 percentage points.
  • Conversely, Buckinghamshire has a gap of only 4.7 percentage points, since its FSM rate for all state-funded secondary schools is only 6.0%.
  • Buckinghamshire’s overall FSM rate is more than four times the rate in its grammar schools, while in Birmingham the overall rate is almost six times the grammar school rate. On this measure, the disparity is greatest in metropolitan boroughs with significant areas of disadvantage.

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Proportion of disadvantaged learners in each selective school

I attached to my 2011 post a table setting out the FSM rates (all pupils, regardless of age) for each selective school in January 2009.

This updated version sets out the January 2013 FSM and disadvantaged (ie ‘ever 6 FSM’) rates by school, drawn from the latest School Performance Tables. (Click on the screenshot below to download the Excel file.)

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GS excel Capture

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Key points include:

  • The size of grammar schools varies considerably, with NORs ranging from 437 (Newport Girls’) to 1518 (Townley Girls’). The average NOR is slightly below 1000.
  • 24 of the 163 schools (14.7%) have suppressed FSM percentages. Since the lowest published percentage is 1.1%, the impact of suppression is that all schools at or below 1.0% are affected. Since no school returns 0, we must assume that all contain a handful of FSM learners. It is notable that six of these schools are in Buckinghamshire, three in Gloucestershire and three in Essex. Both Bromley grammar schools also fall into this category.
  • 67 selective schools (41.1%) have FSM rates of 2% or lower. The average FSM rate across all these schools is 3.25%.
  • The highest recorded FSM rates are at Handsworth Grammar School (14.4%), King Edward VI Aston School (12.9%) and Stretford Grammar School (12%). These three are significant outliers – the next highest rate is 7.8%.
  • As one would expect, there is a strong correlation between FSM rates and ‘ever 6’ rates. Most of the schools with the lowest ‘ever 6’ rates are those with SUPP FSM rates. Of the 26 schools returning ‘ever 6’ rates of 3.0% or lower, all but 7 fall into this category.
  • The lowest ‘ever 6’ rate is the 0.6% returned by Sir William Borlase’s Grammar School in Buckinghamshire. On this evidence it is probably the most socio-economically selective grammar school in the country. Five of the ten schools with the lowest ‘ever 6’ rates are located in Buckinghamshire.
  • A few schools have FSM and ‘ever 6’ rates that do not correlate strongly. The most pronounced is Ribston Hall in Gloucestershire which is SUPP for FSM yet has an ‘ever 6’ rate of 5.5%, not far short of the grammar school average which is some 6.6%. Clitheroe Royal Grammar School is another outlier, returning an ‘ever 6’ rate of 4.8%.
  • The highest ‘ever 6’ rates are in Handsworth Grammar School (27.2%), Stretford Grammar School (24.3%) and King Edward VI Aston School (20.3%). These are the only three above 20%.
  • In London there is a fairly broad range of socio-economic selectivity, from St Olave’s and St Saviour’s (Bromley) – which records an ‘ever 6’ rate of 2.5% – to Woodford County High School, Redbridge, where the ‘ever 6’ rate is 11%. As noted above, the FSM rates at the two Bromley schools are SUPP. The London school with the highest FSM rate is again Woodford County High, at 5%.

Another source throws further light on the schools with the lowest FSM rates. In October 2013, a PQ reply provided a table of the 50 state secondary schools in England with the lowest entitlement to FSM, alongside a second table of the 50 schools with the highest entitlement.

These are again January 2013 figures but on this occasion the rates are for pupils aged 15 or under and the only figures suppressed (denoted by ‘x’) are where no more than two pupils are FSM.

Sir William Borlase’s tops the list, being the only school in the country with a nil return (so the one or two FSM pupils who attend must be aged over 15 and may have been admitted directly to the sixth form).

The remainder of the ‘top ten’ includes eight selective schools and one comprehensive (Old Swinford Hospital School in Dudley). The eight grammar schools are:

  • Cranbrook, Kent – x
  • Adams’, Telford and Wrekin – x
  • St Olave’s and St Saviour’s, Bromley – 0.5%
  • Dr Challoner’s High Buckinghamshire – 0.5%
  • Dr Challoner’s Grammar, Buckinghamshire – 0.6%
  • Aylesbury Grammar, Buckinghamshire – 0.6%
  • Newstead Wood, Bromley – 0.6%
  • Pate’s, Gloucestershire – 0.6%

Comparing the data in my tables for 2009 and 2013 also throws up some interesting facts:

  • Some schools have increased significantly in size – Burnham Grammar School (Buckinghamshire), Sir Thomas Rich’s (Gloucestershire), Highworth Grammar School for Girls (Kent), Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys (Kent), Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School (Lincolnshire), Carre’s Grammar School (Lincolnshire) and St Joseph’s College (Stoke) have all increased their NORs by 100 or more.
  • However, some other schools have shrunk significantly, notably The Skegness Grammar School in Lincolnshire (down 129), The Boston Grammar School in Lincolnshire (down 110), Fort Pitt Grammar School in Medway (down 132) and Slough Grammar School (down 175).
  • While recognising that the figures may not be fully comparable, there have also been some significant changes in the proportions of FSM pupils on roll. Significant increases are evident at King Edward VI Aston (up 5.9 percentage points), Fort Pitt (up 5.1 percentage points) and Handsworth Grammar (up 4.7 percentage points).
  • The only equally pronounced mover in the opposite direction is St Anselm’s College on The Wirral, where the FSM rate has more than halved, falling by 5.2 percentage points, from 9.8% to 4.6%.

Additional statistics were peppered throughout David Laws’ June 2014 speech.

He refers to a paper by DfE analysts which unfortunately has not been published:

  • In 2013, 21 grammar schools had fewer than 1% of pupils eligible for FSM. Ninety-eight had fewer than 3% eligible and 161 had fewer than 10% eligible. This compares to a national average of 16.3% across England. (The basis for these figures is not supplied but they more or less agree with those above.)
  • In Buckinghamshire in 2011, 14% of the year 7 cohort were eligible for the pupil premium, but only 4% of the cohort in Buckinghamshire grammar schools were eligible. In Lincolnshire the comparable percentages were 21% and 7% respectively.

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Selectivity

Most commentary tends to regard the cadre of selective schools as very similar in character, leaving aside any religious affiliation and the fact that many are single sex establishments.

Although the fact is rarely discussed, some grammar schools are significantly more selective than others.

The 2013 Secondary Performance Tables show that only 10 grammar schools can claim that 100% of the cohort comprises high attainers. (These are defined on the basis of performance in statutory end of KS2 tests, in which they must record an APS of 30 or more across English, maths and science.)

At several schools – Clarendon House (Kent, now merged), Fort Pitt (Medway), Skegness (Lincolnshire), Dover Boys’ and Girls’ (Kent), Folkestone Girls’ (Kent), St Joseph’s (Stoke), Boston High (Lincolnshire) and the Harvey School (Kent) – the proportion of high attainers stands at 70% or below.

Many comprehensive schools comfortably exceed this, hence – when it comes to KS2 attainment – some comprehensives are more selective than some grammar schools.

Key variables determining a grammar school’s selectivity will include:

  • The overall number of pupils in the area served by the school and/or the maximum geographical distance that pupils may travel to it.
  • The number of pupils who take the entrance tests, including the proportion of pupils attending independent schools competing for admission.
  • The number of competing selective schools and high-performing comprehensive schools, plus the proportion of learners who remain in or are ‘siphoned off’ into the independent sector.
  • The number of places available at the school and the pass mark in the entrance tests.

I have been unable to locate any meaningful measure of the relative selectivity of grammar schools, yet this is bound to impact on the admission of disadvantaged learners.

An index of selectivity would improve efforts to compare more fairly the outcomes achieved by different grammar schools, including their records on access for disadvantaged learners.

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Prior attainment data

In his June 2014 speech, Laws acknowledges that:

  • ‘A key barrier is the low level of free school meal pupils achieving level 5, typically a proxy for pupils you admit’.
  • However, in wholly selective areas fewer than 50% of FSM learners achieving Level 5 enter selective schools compared with two-thirds of non-FSM pupils:

‘We calculated it would require a shift of just 200 level 5 FSM pupils to go into grammar schools in wholly selective areas to remove this particular bias ‘

Alternative versions of this statement appear elsewhere, as we shall see below.

Using data from 2009/10 and 2011/12, the Sutton Trust study by Cribb et al explored whether advantaged and disadvantaged pupils with KS2 level 5 in both English and maths were equally likely to attend grammar schools.

They found that those not eligible for FSM are still more likely to attend. This applies regardless of whether the grammar school is located in a selective local authority, although the percentages and the gaps vary considerably.

  • In selective authorities, some 66% of these high attaining non-FSM pupils went on to grammar schools compared with under 40% of FSM pupils, giving a gap of over 26 percentage points. (Note that the percentage for FSM is ten percentage points lower than the one quoted by Laws. I can find no reason for this disparity, unless the percentage has changed dramatically since 2012.)
  • In isolated grammar schools outside London the gap is much smaller, at roughly 11 percentage points (18% non-FSM against 7% FSM).
  • In London there is a similar 12 percentage point gap (15% non-FSM versus 3% FSM)

 

Cribb Capture 1

A similar pattern is detected on the basis of KS2 maths test fine points scores:

‘Two points are evident. First, for any given level of maths attainment, pupils who are eligible for FSM have a noticeably lower probability of attending a grammar school. Indeed, a non-FSM student with an average maths score has the same probability of entering a grammar school as an FSM pupil with a score 0.7 standard deviations above average. Second, the gap in probability of attendance between FSM and non-FSM pupils actually widens substantially: non-FSM pupils with test scores one standard deviation above average have a 55% likelihood of attending a grammar school in selective local authorities, whereas similar pupils who are eligible for FSM have only a 30% chance of attending a grammar school. This is suggestive that bright pupils from deprived families are not attending grammar schools as much as their attainment would suggest they might.’

This rather calls into question Laws’ initial statement that level 5 performance among FSM pupils is ‘a key barrier’ to admission.

The study also confirms that pupils attending primary schools with relatively high levels of deprivation are much less likely to progress to grammar schools.

On the other hand, some 13% of pupils nationally transfer into selective schools from non-state schools and schools outside England. The researchers are unable to distinguish clearly those from abroad and those from the independent sector, but note that they are typically wealthier than state school transfers.

This masks significant variation between local authority areas.

Almost 34% of such pupils transfer in to grammar schools in Essex, as do 24% in Bromley, 23% in Wiltshire and 22% in Bournemouth and Southend. At the other extreme, only 6% are incomers in Kirklees.

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Headteacher perceptions

The Sutton Trust released a parallel research report from NATCEN reporting the outcomes of interviews with a small sample of three primary school and eight grammar school headteachers.

The researchers found that:

  • Rightly or wrongly, many heads felt disadvantaged learners had relatively lower educational aspirations.
  • Disadvantaged parents were sometimes perceived to know less about grammar schools and place less value on the benefits they might confer.
  • Heads felt disadvantaged parents ‘often associated grammar schools with tradition, middle class values and elitism’. Parents felt their children ‘might struggle interacting with children from more affluent backgrounds’.
  • Grammar school heads highlighted the role of primary schools but ‘this was difficult when primary schools disagreed with assessment based entry processes and selective education in general’.
  • Heads felt grammar schools should provide more outreach and demonstrate their openness to everyone. It was suggested that, as grammar schools increasingly take in pupils from further away and/or from independent schools, this might further distance schools from their local communities.
  • It was widely acknowledged that learners from more advantaged backgrounds were coached to pass the entrance exams. Some grammar heads regarded tutoring as ‘good examination preparation’; others recognised it as a barrier for disadvantaged learners.
  • Although there are financial barriers to accessing grammar schools, including the cost of uniforms and school trips, grammar school heads claimed to deploy a variety of support strategies.

Overall

The preceding analysis is complex and difficult to synthesise into a few key messages, but here is my best effort.

The national figures show that, taken as a whole, the 163 grammar schools contain extremely low proportions of FSM-eligible and ‘ever 6’ learners.

National FSM rates across all grammar schools have fallen significantly over the past 20 years and, although the FSM gap between selective schools and all schools has narrowed a little, it is still very pronounced.

There is certainly a strong case for concerted action to reduce significantly the size of this gap and to strive towards parity.

The disparity is no doubt partly attributable to lower rates of high attainment at KS2 amongst disadvantaged learners, but high attaining disadvantaged learners are themselves significantly under-represented. This is particularly true of wholly selective authorities but also applies nationally.

Although the sample is small, the evidence suggests that grammar school and primary head teachers share the perception that disadvantaged learners are further disadvantaged by the selective admissions process.

However, the cadre of grammar schools is a very broad church. The schools are very different and operate in markedly different contexts. Some are super-selective while others are less selective than some comprehensive schools.

A handful have relatively high levels of FSM and ‘ever-6’ admissions but a significant minority have almost negligible numbers of disadvantaged learners. Although contextual factors influence FSM and ‘ever 6’ rates significantly, there are still marked disparities which cannot be explained by such factors.

Each school faces a slightly different challenge.

Transparency and public understanding would be considerably improved by the publication of statistical information showing how grammar schools differ when assessed against a set of key indicators – and identifying clear improvement targets for each school. 

There seem to me to be strong grounds for incorporating schools’ performance against such targets into Ofsted’s inspection regime.

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Progress Towards Reform

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The Sutton Trust Research

Although the Grammar School Heads’ Association (GSHA) argues that it has pursued reform internally for some years, a much wider-ranging initiative has developed over the last twelve months, kicked off by the publication of a tranche of research by the Sutton Trust in November 2013.

This included the two publications, by Cribb et al and NATCEN cited above, plus a third piece by Jesson.

There was also an overarching summary report ‘Poor Grammar: Entry into Grammar Schools for disadvantaged pupils in England’.

This made six recommendations which, taken together, cover the full spectrum of action required to strengthen the schools’ capacity to admit more disadvantaged learners:

  • Review selection tests to ensure they are not a barrier to the admission of learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. The text remarks that:

‘Some grammar schools and local authorities are already trying to develop tests which are regularly changed, less susceptible to coaching, intelligence-based and not culturally biased.’

  • Reduce the advantage obtained by those who can pay for private tuition by making available a minimum of ten hours of test preparation to all applicants on a free or subsidised basis.
  • Improve grammar school outreach support, targeting learners from low and middle income backgrounds. This should include: assurances on access to transport and support with other costs; active encouragement for suitable Pupil Premium recipients to apply; using the media to dispel notions that grammar schools are exclusive and elitist; and deploying existing disadvantaged students as ambassadors.
  • Using the flexibility within the Admissions Code (at this point available only to academies) to prioritise the admission of high achieving students who are entitled to the pupil premium. There is also a suggestion that schools might: 

‘…consider giving preference to students from low or middle income households who reach a minimum threshold in the admission test’.

though it is not clear how this would comply with the Code.

  • Develop primary-grammar school partnerships to provide transition support for disadvantaged students, enabling primary schools to provide stronger encouragement for applications and reassure parents.
  • Develop partnerships with non-selective secondary schools:

‘…to ensure that high achieving students from low and middle income backgrounds have access to good local teachers in their areas.’

The Sutton Trust also made its own commitment to:

‘…look at ways that we can support innovation in improved testing, test preparation, outreach, admissions and collaboration.

We will also commission independent analysis of the impact of any such programmes to create an evidence base to enhance fair access to grammar schools.’

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Reaction

Immediate reaction was predictably polarised. The GSHA was unhappy with the presentation of the report.

Its November 2013 Newsletter grumbles:

‘It is the way in which the research is presented by the Sutton Trust rather than any of research findings that give rise to concerns. Through a process of statistical machination the press release chose to lead on the claim that 6% of prep school pupils provide four times more grammar school pupils than the 16% of FSM eligible children. Inevitably, this led to headlines that the independent sector dominates admissions. The reality, of course is that 88% of all grammar school students come from state primary schools….

….Grammars select on ability and only 10% of FSM children reach level 5 at KS2 compared with a national average of 25%. The report, quite reasonably, uses level 5 as the indicator of grammar school potential. On the basis of this data the proportions of eligible FSM children in grammar schools is significantly greater than the overall FSM proportion in the top 500 comprehensives….

In 2012 just over 500 FSM children entered grammar schools. For the success rate of L5 FSM to match that of other L5 would require 200 more FSM children a year to enter grammar schools. Just one more in each school would virtually close the gap….

….The recommendations of the report are not, as claimed, either new or radical. All are areas that had already been identified by GSHA as options to aid access and represent practices that are already adopted by schools. This work, however, is usually carefully presented to avoid promotion of a coaching culture.

It is unfortunate that the press briefing both contributed to reinforcing the false stereotyping of grammar schools and failed to signal initiatives taken by grammar schools.’

There is evidence here of retaliatory ‘statistical machination’, together with a rather defensive attitude that may not bode well for the future.

On the other hand HMCI Wilshaw was characteristically forthright in the expression of an almost diametrically opposite opinion.

In December 2013 he is reported to have said:

‘Grammar schools are stuffed full of middle-class kids. A tiny percentage are on free school meals: 3%. That is a nonsense.

Anyone who thinks grammar schools are going to increase social mobility needs to look at those figures. I don’t think they work. The fact of the matter is that there will be calls for a return to the grammar school system. Well, look what is happening at the moment. Northern Ireland has a selective system and they did worse than us in the [international comparison] table. The grammar schools might do well with 10% of the school population, but everyone else does really badly. What we have to do is make sure all schools do well in the areas in which they are located.’

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The Laws Speech

Liberal Democrat Education Minister David Laws made clear the Government’s interest in reform with his June 2014 speech, already referenced above.

Early on in the speech he remarks that:

‘The debate about grammar schools seems to have been put in the political deep freeze – with no plans either to increase or reduce the number of what are extremely popular schools in their localities.’

With the benefit of hindsight, this seems rather ignorant of (or else disrespectful to) UKIP, which had nailed their colours to the mast just three weeks previously.

Laws acknowledges the challenge thrown down by Wilshaw, though without attribution:

‘Are you, as some would have it, “stuffed full of middle-class kids”?

Or are you opening up opportunities to all bright children regardless of their background, or can you do more?

Why is entry to grammar schools so often maligned?’

He says he wants to work with them ‘openly and constructively on social mobility’, to ‘consider what greater role they can play in breaking the cycles of disadvantage and closing the opportunity gap’, while accepting that the Government and the primary sector must also play their parts.

He suggests that the Government will do more to increase the supply of high attaining disadvantaged learners:

‘…a key barrier is the low level of free school meal pupils achieving level 5, typically a proxy for pupils you admit. So this is not just a challenge for grammar schools, but for the whole education system…

….My promise to you, alongside my challenge to you, is that this government will do everything in its power to make sure that more children from poorer backgrounds achieve their full potential.’

He lists the policies that:

‘Taken together, and over time…will start to shift the dial for poorer children – so that more and more reach level 5’

leading of course with the pupil premium.

He also proposes aspirational targets, though without any timescale attached:

My ambition is that all selective schools should aim for the same proportion of children on free school meals in their schools as in their local area.

This would mean an additional 3,500 free school meal pupils in selective schools every year, or an additional 35,000 pupils over 10 years.’

In relation to the flexibilities in the Admissions Code he adds:

I am pleased to be able to say that 32 grammar schools have implemented an admissions priority for pupils eligible for free school meals this year….

We in the Department for Education will fully support any school that chooses to change its admissions criteria in this way – in fact, I want to see all grammar schools give preference to pupil premium pupils over the next few years.’

Similarly, on coaching and testing:

‘…I really welcome the association’s work to encourage a move to entry tests that are less susceptible to coaching, and I am heartened to hear that at least 40% of grammar schools are now moving to the introduction of coaching resistant tests.

Again, I hope that all grammar schools will soon do so, and it will be interesting to see the impact of this.’

And he adds:

I want all schools to build on the progress that is being made and seek to close the gap by increasing parental engagement, and stronger working with local primaries – with a focus on identifying potential.’

So he overtly endorses several of the recommendations proposed by the Sutton Trust seven months earlier.

A Sutton Trust press release:

‘…welcomed the commitment by Schools Minister David Laws, to widening access to grammar schools and making the issue a priority in government’.

This may be a little over-optimistic.

A Collaborative Project Takes Shape

Laws also mentions in his speech that:

‘The GSHA will be working with us, the Sutton Trust and the University of Durham to explore ways in which access to grammar schools by highly able deprived children might be improved by looking more closely at the testing process and what may be limiting the engagement of pupils with it.’

The associated release from the Sutton Trust uses the present tense:

‘The Trust is currently working with the King Edward VI Foundation, which runs five grammar schools in Birmingham, Durham University, the Grammar School Heads Association and the Department for Education to target and evaluate the most effective strategies to broaden access to grammar schools.

A range of initiatives being run by the Foundation, including test familiarisation sessions at community locations, visits from primary schools and support for numeracy and literacy teaching for gifted and talented children at local primary schools, will be evaluated by Durham University to understand and compare their impact. The resulting analysis will provide a template for other grammar schools to work with.’

We know that Laws had been discussing these issues with the grammar schools for some time.

When he appeared before the Education Select Committee in February 2014 he said:

‘We are trying, for example, to talk to grammar schools about giving young people fairer access opportunities into those schools.  We are trying to allow them to use the pupil premium as a factor in their admissions policy.  We are trying to encourage them to ensure that testing is fairer to young people and is not just coachable. ‘

The repetition of ‘trying’ might suggest some reluctance on the part of grammar school representatives to engage on these issues.

Yet press coverage suggested the discussions were ongoing. In May the GSHA Newsletter states that it had first met Laws to discuss admissions some eighteen months previously, so perhaps as early as November 2012.

It adds:

‘We are currently working on a research project with the DfE and the Sutton Trust to try to find out what practices help to reduce barriers to access for those parents and students from deprived backgrounds.’

A parallel report in another paper comments:

‘The grammar school heads have also gone into partnership with the education charity the Sutton Trust to support more able children from middle and lower income backgrounds applying to selective schools.

Other ideas being considered include putting on test familiarisation sessions for disadvantaged children – something they have missed out on in the past.’

While an entry on CEM’s website says:

‘Access Grammar:

This project seeks to look at ways access to grammar schools for highly able children from non-privileged backgrounds can be improved. The project will identify potential target cohorts in the study areas for a range of outreach interventions and will look to evaluate these activities. For this project, the CEM Research and Evaluation team are working in collaboration with the Sutton Trust, Grammar School Heads Association, King Edwards Foundation and the Department for Education.

Start date: January 2014
End date: January 2017.’

So we know that there is a five-way partnership engaged on a three year project, The various statements describing the project’s objectives are all slightly different, although there is a clear resemblance between them, the aims articulated by Laws and the recommendations set out by the Sutton Trust.

But I searched in vain for any more detailed specification, including key milestones, funding and intended outcomes. It is not clear whether the taxpayer is contributing through DfE funding, or whether the Sutton Trust  and/or other partners are meeting the cost.

Given that we are almost a year into the programme, there is a strong case for this material to be made public.

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Progress on Admissions Criteria

Of the issues mentioned in the Sutton Trust’s recommendations – tests and test preparation, admissions flexibility, outreach and partnership with primary and non-selective secondary schools – those at the front of the list have been most prominent (though there is also evidence that the King Edward’s Foundation is pursuing reform across a wider front).

The GSHA’s May 2014 newsletter is less grumpy than its predecessor, but still strikes a rather defensive note.

It uses a now familiar statistic, but in a slightly different fashion:

‘The actual number of students with Level 5s in their SATs who either choose not to apply to a grammar school or who apply but do not receive a place is reckoned by GSHA and the DfE to be two hundred students a year; not the very large number that the percentages originally suggested.’

This is the third time we have encountered this particular assertion, but each time it has been articulated differently. Which of the three statements is correct?

The GSHA is also keen to emphasise that progress is being made independently through its own good offices. On admissions reform, the article says:

‘A significant number of schools 38 have either adopted an FSM priority or consulted about doing so in the last admissions round. A further 59 are considering doing so in the next admissions round.’

The GHSA was also quoted in the TES, to the effect that 30 grammar schools had already been given permission by DfE to change their admissions policies and would so with effect from September 2015, while a further five or six had already introduced the reform.

A November 2014 PQ reply updates the figures above, saying that 32 grammar schools have already prioritised disadvantaged learners in their admissions arrangements and a further 65 ‘intend to consult on doing so’.

That leaves 66 (40%) which are not giving this active consideration.

The Chief Executive of the GSHA commented:

‘“You won’t notice a dramatic change in schools themselves because the numbers are quite small…This is reaching out at the margins in a way that won’t deprive other people of a place. The real need is to raise the standard among free school meals pupils at Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2, that’s the key issue.

“What we are looking at in the meantime is what we can do to help these free school meals pupils who want to come to grammar school.”

Mr Sindall said that many of the country’s 164 grammar schools would not change their policies because competition for places was less fierce and it would be unnecessary. Many schools were also increasing outreach programmes and some were running eleven-plus familiarisation sessions to help prepare poorer children for the test, he added.’

There is evidence here of a desire to play down the impact of such changes, to suggest that the supply of disadvantaged high achievers is too small to do otherwise.

The data analysis above suggests that almost all selective schools need to address the issue.

Between them, the various press reports mention admissions changes at several schools, including Rugby High, South Wilts, ‘a series of Buckinghamshire grammars including Sir William Borlase’s, Dr Challoner’s  and Aylesbury Grammar’, as well as the King Edward’s Foundation Schools in Birmingham.

I checked how these changes have been embodied in some of these schools’ admissions policies.

The reports indicated that Rugby was:

‘…going even further by reserving a fixed number of places for FSM-eligible children, so potentially accepting pupils with lower entrance exam scores than other applicants.’

Rugby’s admissions arrangements for 2015 do indeed include as a second overall admissions priority, immediately following children in care:

‘Up to 10 places for children living within the priority circle for children in receipt of Free School Meals whose scores are between one and ten marks below the qualifying score for entry to the school.’

South Wilts included FSM as an oversubscription criterion in its 2014 admission arrangements, replacing it with pupil premium eligibility in 2015. However, in both cases it is placed third after children in care and those living in the school’s designated [catchment] area.

Sir William Borlase’s goes one better, in that its 2015 admissions policy places children eligible for free school meals immediately after ‘children in care’ and before ‘children living in the catchment area of the school’, though again only in the oversubscription criteria.

The King Edward’s Foundation is pursuing a similar route to Rugby’s. It announced its intention to reform admissions to its five Birmingham grammar schools in April 2014:

‘The Government wishes to improve the social mobility of children in the UK and has urged selective schools to consider how their admission policies could be changed to achieve this. The King Edward VI Grammar Schools have applied to the Department for Education which can allow them to give preference in their policies, to children who are on free school meals, or have been at any point in the last six years…

… In addition the grammar schools will be offering familiarisation sessions which will introduce children from less privileged backgrounds to the idea of attending a grammar school and will encourage them to take the 11+.

All of the Grammar Schools have set themselves a target of a 20% intake of children on free school meals (Aston has already achieved this and has a target of 25%). The expansion of the grammar schools which was announced earlier this year means that these additional children will simply fill the additional space.’

According to the 2013 Performance Tables, the FSM rates at each of these schools in January 2013 were:

  • Aston – 12.9%
  • Camp Hill Boys – 3.6%
  • Camp Hill Girls – 5.3%
  • Five Ways – 2.6%
  • Handsworth Girls – 6.3%

There must have been a major improvement at Aston for the September 2013 admissions round. As for the other four schools, they must increase their FSM admissions by a factor of between 4 and 8 to reach this target.

I wonder whether the targets are actually for ‘ever 6’ admissions?

In the event, the Foundation’s applications encountered some difficulties. In July the Admissions Adjudicator was obliged to reject them.

A parent had objected on the grounds that:

‘…it is necessary to request financial information from parents to achieve this priority which is contrary to paragraph 1.9(f) of the School Admissions Code.

… The objector further feels that it is unclear, unfair and unreasonable to use the pupil premium to differentiate between applications when the school is oversubscribed.’

The Adjudicator found in favour of the parent on the technical grounds that, although the schools had applied for variations of their funding agreements to permit this change, they had only done so retrospectively.

However, in each case:

‘The school is now entitled to give priority to girls eligible for the pupil premium as the funding agreement has been amended.’

By August the Foundation was able to state that the issue had been resolved:

‘Children applying for a place at any of the King Edward VI Grammar Schools must now achieve a minimum “qualifying score” in the test to be eligible for entry.

Any Looked After Child or previously Looked After Child (a child who is or has been in the care of the Local Authority) who achieves the “qualifying score” will be given priority for admission for up to 20% of the available places (25% at Aston).

Children eligible for Pupil Premium (those who have been registered for Free School meals at any point in the 6 years prior to the closing date for registration, 11 July 2014) who achieve the “qualifying score” will also be given priority for admission.

After this allocation, children not eligible for the Pupil Premium but who achieve the “qualifying score” will be admitted by rank order of scores until all places are filled.’

The Foundation has published an interesting FAQ on the new arrangements:

‘Q5. Will this mean that if you are poor you won’t have to score as high in the 11+ admission tests?
A. That is essentially correct – up to 20% of places (25% at Aston) are set aside for pupil premium children who achieve “a qualifying score”. This qualifying score will be set before the test in September after we have reviewed data in order to ensure that children who achieve the score can flourish in our schools.

Q6. Why don’t you want the cleverest children at your school anymore?
A.
 We want our schools to represent the City of Birmingham and the diverse backgrounds that our children might come from. We believe that there are clever children out there who just don’t have the same opportunity to succeed as those from more privileged backgrounds and we want to try to do something about that.’

It acknowledges the magnitude of the challenge ahead:

‘John Collins, Secretary to the Governors of the charity The Schools of King Edward VI in Birmingham said “This is a hugely challenging target which we do not expect to achieve in the first few years of the initiative, as currently there are relatively few free school meal pupils who apply to take the test. These low numbers are something we are trying to address with our “familiarisation” programme which seeks to encourage bright children from less privileged backgrounds to take the test.”’

Also in July the Government opened up the same possibility for grammar schools that are not academies by consulting on amendments to the Admissions Code to permit this.

In October this was confirmed in the Government’s response to the consultation which stressed it was being introduced as an option rather than a universal requirement.

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Progress on 11+ Test Reform

The new-style 11-plus tests developed by CEM have not had a universally positive reception. Much of the attention has been focused on their adoption by Buckinghamshire grammar schools.

The GSHA’s May 2014 newsletter notes that ‘some schools in the Midlands’ have been using CEM tests for five years. From 2015, 40% of grammar schools will be using these tests, which are:

‘…designed to be immune to the influence of coaching’

adding:

‘The analysis of data from Buckinghamshire (a wholly selective area which has recently switched to the CEM Centre tests) will provide us in time with valuable hard data on the large scale impact of the change over time.’

Back in February 2014 an Observer article had already cited positive feedback from Buckinghamshire:

‘Last autumn, a handful of education authorities in England introduced an exam designed to test a wider range of abilities – ones that are already being taught in primary schools, rather than skills that can be mastered through home tutoring – to make the selection system fairer.

Provisional results indicate that a more diverse selection of pupils passed this test, and headteachers say they feel the change has made a difference.

Ros Rochefort, headteacher at Bledlow Ridge primary school in Buckinghamshire…said that this year, for the first time in her career, the test has delivered a fair result. “All the kids who got through were expected to pass and, as usual, there are a couple of appeals coming through. All our very able children were selected….

…. Philip Wayne, headteacher at Chesham grammar school and chairman of the Bucks Grammar School Heads Association, has welcomed the changes and says he is “very confident” that the new test will avoid the current situation, in which many pupils who won places at his school with the help of intensive tutoring struggle to keep up with lessons once they arrive.’

However, there were contemporary reports that the 2013 tests led to a 6% fall (110 fewer pupils) in the proportion of places awarded to children from in-county state primary schools, even though 300 more pupils applied.

In September this was further developed in a Guardian story:

‘According to the data, a child from a Buckinghamshire private school is now more than three and a half times more likely to pass the 11-plus than a child from one of its state primaries….

…FOI requests to the eight secondary schools in Wycombe, which includes some of the most deprived and diverse wards in the county, suggest that children on free school meals and of Pakistani heritage have been less successful this year. ‘

A local pressure group Local Equal and Excellent has been trying to gather and analyse the data from the initial rounds of testing in 2013 and 2014 (ie for admission in 2014 and 2015).

Their most recent analysis complains at refusals to publish the full test data and contains an analysis based on the limited material that has been released.

In November 2014, the matter was discussed at Buckinghamshire’s Education, Skills and Children’s Services Select Committee.

The ‘results and analysis’ paper prepared by Buckinghamshire’s grammar school headteachers contains many words and far too few numbers.

The section on ‘Closing the gap’ says:

‘One local group has claimed that children from poorer backgrounds and BME have ‘done worse’ in the new Secondary Transfer Test. It is not specified what ‘worse’ means; however it is not reliable to make statements about trends and patterns for specific groups from a single year’s data and as stated above the data that has been used to make such claims is a small subset of the total and unrepresentative. To substantiate such claims a detailed analysis of additional information such as the current attainment of the children concerned would be needed. We are currently considering how a longitudinal study might be achieved.’

This is overly defensive and insufficiently transparent.

There is some disagreement about whether or not the new test is less amenable to coaching.

The ‘results and analysis’ paper says:

‘There is no such thing as a ‘tutor proof’ test. However, the new tests are less susceptible to the impact of specific test tutoring because they are aligned to the National Curriculum which all children study. Additionally, the questions in the new test are less predictable than in the previous test because they cover a wider range of topics and there is a broader range of question types – points acknowledged and welcomed by primary headteachers’.

Conversely, the pressure group says:

‘The new 11-plus, devised by the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) at Durham University, is supposed to rely less heavily on verbal reasoning and be more closely allied to the primary curriculum. Practice papers for the CEM test are supposed to be less readily available…

But… the fact that it is modelled on what can be taught in schools means the CEM test is more amenable to coaching… if children can’t be taught to get better in maths, why are we teaching it in schools? Practice will make anyone better and I see no sign that tuition has tailed off at all.’

Elsewhere there is evidence that 11+ testing is not immune to financial pressures. North Yorkshire is presently consulting on a plan to scale back from a familiarisation test and two sets of two full tests, with the best results taken forward.

Instead there would be a single set of tests taken by all candidates on the same day at a single venue, plus sample booklets in place of the familiarisation test. A system of reviews, enabling parents to provide supporting evidence to explain under-performance, would also be discontinued.

The reason is explicit:

‘The cost of administering an overly bureaucratic system of testing is no longer sustainable in the light of very significant cuts in public expenditure.’

Even though the draft impact assessment says that the Council will consider applications for support with transport from rural areas and for those with low incomes, there is some unacknowledged risk that the new arrangements will be detrimental to efforts to increase the proportion of disadvantaged learners admitted to these schools.

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How Best to Close Excellence Gaps

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What to do with the status quo

The next Government will inherit:

  • The Access Grammar reform project, outlined above, which is making some progress in the right direction, but needs closer scrutiny and probably more central direction. There is an obvious tension between Laws’ aspiration that all grammar schools should ‘give preference to pupil premium pupils over the next few years’ and the GSHA position, which is that many schools do not need to change their policies. It will be important that the changes to admissions arrangements for the 163 schools are catalogued and their impact on admissions monitored and made public, so that we can see at a glance which schools are leading the pack and which are laggards. A published progress report against the Sutton Trust’s six recommendations would help to establish future priorities. Greater transparency about the project itself is also highly desirable.
  • A small cadre of selective 16-19 free schools. It will need to articulate its position on academic selection at 16+ and might need to take action to ensure a level playing field with existing sixth form colleges. It might consider raising expectations of both new and existing institutions in respect of the admission of disadvantaged learners, so securing consistency between 11+ selection and 16+ selection.
  • Flexibility within the Admissions Code for all grammar schools – academies and LA-maintained alike – to prioritise the admission of disadvantaged learners. It may need to consider whether it should move further towards compulsion in respect of grammar schools, particularly if the GSHA maintains its position that many do not need to broaden their intake in this fashion.
  • Flexibility for all grammar schools to increase Planned Admission Numbers and, potentially, to submit proposals for the establishment of Satellite institutions. The approval of such proposals rests with the local authority in the case of a maintained school but with the Secretary of State for Education in respect of academies. An incoming government may need to consider what limits and conditions should be imposed on such expansion, including requirements relating to the admission of disadvantaged learners.

It may be helpful to clarify the position on satellites. The Coalition Government has confirmed that they can be established:

‘It is possible for an existing maintained grammar school or academy with selective arrangements to expand the number of places they offer, including by extending on to another site…There are, however, limitations on that sort of expansion, meaning it could only be a continuation of the existing school. The school admissions code is written from a presumption that those schools with a split site are a single school’ (Hansard, 16 February 2012, Col. 184W).

In December 2013, a proposal to establish a grammar school annexe in Sevenoaks, Kent was rejected by the Secretary of State on the grounds that it would constitute a new school:

‘Mr Gove’s legal ruling hinged on the issue of a girls’ grammar school being the sponsor of a Sevenoaks annexe for both girls and boys. The planned entry of Sevenoaks boys to the annexe lead Mr Gove to rule that the annexe’s proposed admissions policy was sufficiently different to the sponsor school’s girls-only admissions policy to constitute a wholly new grammar school.’

But a revised proposal was submitted in November 2014 for a girls’ only annexe. Moreover, the local authority has committed to exploring whether another satellite could be established in Maidenhead, acknowledging that this would require the co-operation of an existing grammar school.

The timing of the decision on the revised Sevenoaks proposal ensures that selection will remain a live issue as we approach the General Election

Further options to promote between-school selection

There are several options for strengthening a pro-selection policy further that would not require the removal of statutory constraints on opening new 11-18 grammar schools, or permitting existing schools to change their character to permit selection.

For example:

  • Pursuing the Wilshavian notion of organising schools into geographical clusters, some with academic and others with vocational specialisms, and enabling learners to switch between them at 14+. In many areas these clusters will incorporate at least one grammar school; in others the ‘academic’ role would be undertaken by high-performing comprehensive schools with strong sixth forms. The practical difficulties associated with implementing this strategy ought not to be underplayed, however. For example, how much spare capacity would the system need to carry in order to respond to annual fluctuations in demand? How likely is it that students would wish to leave their grammar schools at 14 and what tests would incomers be expected to pass? Would the system also be able to accommodate those who still wished to change institution at age 16?
  • Vigorously expanding the cadre of post-16 selective free schools. There is presumably a largely unspent budget for up to twelve 16-19 maths free schools, though it will be vulnerable to cuts. It would be relatively straightforward to develop more, extending into other curricular specialisms and removing the obligatory university sponsorship requirement. Expansion could be focused on clones of the London Academy of Excellence and the Harris Westminster Sixth Form. But there should be standard minimum requirements for the admission of disadvantaged learners. A national network might be created which could help to drive improvements in neighbouring primary and secondary schools.
  • Permit successful selective post-16 institutions to admit high-attaining disadvantaged students at age 14, to an academic pathway, as a parallel initiative to that which enables successful colleges to take in 14 year-olds wishing to study vocational qualifications. It may be that the existing scheme already permits this, since the curriculum requirements do not seem to specify a vocational pathway.

UKIP’s policy, as presently articulated, is merely enabling: few existing schools are likely to want to change their character in this fashion.

One assumes that Tory advocates would be satisfied with legislation permitting the establishment of new free schools that select at age 11 or age 14. It seems unlikely that anyone will push for the nuclear option of ‘a grammar school in every town’… but Conservative Voice will imminently reveal their hand.

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Further options to promote within-school selection

If the political preference is to pursue within-school provision as an alternative to between-school selection there are also several possibilities including:

  • Encouraging the development of more bilateral schools with parallel grammar and selective streams and/or fast-track grammar streams within standard comprehensive schools.
  • Requiring, incentivising or promoting more setting in secondary schools, potentially prioritising the core subjects.
  • Developing a wider understanding of more radical and innovative grouping practices, such as vertical and cluster grouping, and trialling the impact of these through the EEF.

It would of course be important to design such interventions to benefit all students, but especially disadvantaged high attainers.

The Government might achieve the necessary leverage through a ‘presumption’ built into Ofsted’s inspection guidance (schools are presumed to favour the specified approach unless they can demonstrate that an alternative leads consistently to higher pupil outcomes) or through a ‘flexible framework’ quality standard.

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A national student support scheme

The most efficient method of supporting attainment and social mobility amongst disadvantaged high attainers is through a national scheme that helps them directly, rather than targeting the schools and colleges that they attend.

This need not be a structured national programme, centrally delivered by a single provider. It could operate within a framework that brings greater coherence to the existing market and actively promotes the introduction of new suppliers to fill gaps in coverage and/or compete on quality. A ‘managed market’ if you will.

The essential elements would include:

  • This supply-side framework, covering the full range of disadvantaged students’ learning and development needs, within which all suppliers – universities, third sector, commercial, schools-based – would position their services (or they would be excluded from the scheme).
  • A commitment on the part of all state-funded schools and colleges to implement the scheme with their disadvantaged high attainers (the qualifying criterion might be FSM or ‘ever 6’) – and to ensure continuity and progression when and if these students change institution, especially at 16+.
  • A coherent learning and development programme for each eligible student throughout Years 7-13. Provision in KS3 might be open access and light touch, designed principally to identify those willing and able to pursue the programme into KS4 and KS5. Provision in these latter stages would be tailored to individuals’ needs and continuation would be dependent on progress against challenging but realistic personal targets, including specified GCSE grades.
  • Schools and colleges would act as facilitators and guides, conducting periodic reviews of students’ needs; helping them to identify suitable services from the framework; ensuring that their overall learning programmes – the in-school/college provision together with the services secured from the framework – constitute a coherent learning experience; helping them to maintain learning profiles detailing their progress and achievement.
  • Each learner would have a personal budget to meet costs attached to delivering his learning programme, especially costs attached to services provided through the framework. This would be paid through an endowment fund, refreshed by an annual £50m topslice from the pupil premium budget (analogous to that for literacy and numeracy catch-up) and a matching topslice from universities’ outreach budgets for fair access.
  • Universities would be strongly encouraged to make unconditional offers on the basis of high quality learning profiles, submitted by students as part of their admissions process.
  • There would be annual national targets for improving the GCSE and A level attainment of students participating in the scheme and for admission to – and graduation from – selective universities. This would include challenging but realistic targets for improving FSM admission to Oxbridge.

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Conclusion

The current political debate is overly fixated on aspects of the wider problem, rather than considering the issue in the round.

I have set out above the far wider range of options that should be under consideration. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

If I were advising any political party inclined to take this seriously, I would recommend four essential components:

  • An enhanced strategy to ensure that all existing selective schools (including 16+ institutions) take in a larger proportion of high-attaining disadvantaged learners. Approval for expansion and any new schools would be conditional on meeting specified fair access targets.
  • Development of the cadre of 163 grammar schools into a national network, with direct responsibility for leading national efforts to increase the supply of high-attaining disadvantaged learners emerging from primary schools. Selective independent schools might also join the network, to fill gaps in the coverage and fulfil partnership expectations.
  • A policy to promote in all schools effective and innovative approaches to pupil grouping, enabling them to identify the circumstances in which different methods might work optimally and how best to implement those methods to achieve success. Schools would be encouraged to develop, trial and evaluate novel and hybrid approaches, so as to broaden the range of potential methods available.
  • A national support scheme for disadvantaged high attainers aged 11-19 meeting the broad specification set out above.

Regrettably, I fear that party political points-scoring will stand in the way of a rational solution.

Grammar schools have acquired a curious symbolic value, almost entirely independent of their true purpose and largely unaffected by the evidence base.

They are much like a flag of convenience that any politician anxious to show off his right-wing credentials can wave provocatively in the face of his opponents. There is an equivalent flag for abolitionists.  Anyone who proposes an alternative position is typically ignored.

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GP

November 2014

Excellence Gaps Quality Standard: Version 1

 

This post is the first stage of a potential development project.

letter-33809_640
It is my initial ‘aunt sally’ for a new best fit quality standard, intended to support schools and colleges to close performance gaps between high-achieving disadvantaged learners and their more advantaged peers.

It aims to integrate two separate educational G_letter_blue_whiteobjectives:

  • Improving the achievement of disadvantaged learners, specifically those eligible for Pupil Premium support; and
  • Improving the achievement of high attainers, by increasing the proportion that achieve highly and the levels at which they achieve.

High achievement embraces both high Blue_square_Qattainment and strong progress, but these terms are not defined or quantified on the face of the standard, so that it is applicable in primary, secondary and post-16 settings and under both the current and future assessment regimes.

I have adopted new design parameters for this fresh venture into quality standards:

  • The standard consists of twelve elements placed in what seems a logical order, but they White_Letter_S_on_Green_Backgroundare not grouped into categories. All settings should consider all twelve elements. Eleven are equally weighted, but the first ‘performance’ element is potentially more significant.
  • The baseline standard is called ‘Emerging’ and is broadly aligned with Ofsted’s ‘Requires Improvement’. I want it to capture only the essential ‘non-negotiables’ that all settings must observe or they would otherwise be inadequate. I have erred on the side of minimalism for this first effort.
  • The standard marking progress beyond the baseline is called ‘Improving’ and is (very) broadly aligned with Ofsted’s ‘Good’. I have separately defined only the learner performance expected, on the assumption that in other respects the standard marks a continuum. Settings will position themselves according to how far they exceed the baseline and to what extent they fall short of excellence.
  • The excellence standard is called ‘Exemplary’ and is broadly aligned with Ofsted’s ‘Outstanding’. I have deliberately tried to pitch this as highly as possible, so that it provides challenge for even the strongest settings. Here I have erred on the side of specificity.

The trick with quality standards is to find the right balance between over-prescription and vacuous ‘motherhood and apple pie’ statements.

There may be some variation in this respect between elements of the standard: the section on teaching and learning always seems to be more accommodating of diversity than others given the very different conceptions of what constitutes effective practice. (But I am also cautious of trespassing into territory that, as a non-practitioner, I may not fully understand.)

The standard uses terminology peculiar to English settings but the broad thrust should be applicable in other countries with only limited adaptation.

The terminology needn’t necessarily be appropriate in all respects to all settings, but it should have sufficient currency and sharpness to support meaningful interaction between them, including cross-phase interaction. It is normal for primary schools to find some of the language more appropriate to secondary schools.

It is important to emphasise the ‘best fit’ nature of such standards. Following discussion informed by interaction with the framework, settings will reach a reasoned and balanced judgement of their own performance across the twelve elements.

It is not necessary for all statements in all elements to be observed to the letter. If a setting finds all or part of a statement beyond the pale, it should establish why that is and, wherever possible, devise an alternative formulation to fit its context. But it should strive wherever possible to work within the framework, taking full advantage of the flexibility it permits.

Some of the terminology will be wanting, some important references will have been omitted while others will be over-egged. That is the nature of ‘aunt sallys’.

Feel free to propose amendments using the comments facility below.

The quality standard is immediately below.  To improve readability, I have not reproduced the middle column where it is empty. Those who prefer to see the full layout can access it via this PDF

 

 

Emerging (RI) Improving (G) Exemplary (O)
The setting meets essential minimum criteria In best fit terms the setting has progressed beyond entry level but is not yet exemplary The setting is a model for others to follow
Performance Attainment and progress of disadvantaged high achievers typically matches that of similar learners nationally, or is rapidly approaching this..Attainment and progress of advantaged and disadvantaged high achievers in the setting are both improving. Attainment and progress of disadvantaged high achievers consistently matches and sometimes exceeds that of similar learners nationally..Attainment and progress are improving steadily for advantaged and disadvantaged high achievers in the setting and performance gaps between them are closing. Attainment and progress of disadvantaged high achievers significantly and consistently exceeds that of similar learners nationally..

Attainment and progress matches but does not exceed that of advantaged learners within the setting, or is rapidly approaching this, and both attainment and progress are improving steadily, for advantaged and disadvantaged high achievers alike.

 

 

 

  Emerging (RI) The setting meets essential minimum criteria Exemplary (O) The setting is a model for others to follow
Policy/strategy There is a published policy to close excellence gaps, supported by improvement planning. Progress is carefully monitored. There is a comprehensive yet clear and succinct policy to close excellence gaps that is published and easily accessible. It is familiar to and understood by staff, parents and learners alike.

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SMART action to close excellence gaps features prominently in improvement plans; targets are clear; resources and responsibilities are allocated; progress is monitored and action adjusted accordingly. Learners’ and parents’ feedback is routinely collected.

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The setting invests in evidence-based research and fosters innovation to improve its own performance and contribute to system-wide improvement.

Classroom T&L Classroom practice consistently addresses the needs of disadvantaged high achievers, so improving their learning and performance. The relationship between teaching quality and closing excellence gaps is invariably reflected in classroom preparation and practice.

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All teaching staff and paraprofessionals can explain how their practice addresses the needs of disadvantaged high achievers, and how this has improved their learning and performance.

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All staff are encouraged to research, develop, deploy, evaluate and disseminate more effective strategies in a spirit of continuous improvement.

Out of class learning A menu of appropriate opportunities is accessible to all disadvantaged high achievers and there is a systematic process to match opportunities to needs. A full menu of appropriate opportunities – including independent online learning, coaching and mentoring as well as face-to-face activities – is continually updated. All disadvantaged high achievers are supported to participate.

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All provision is integrated alongside classroom learning into a coherent, targeted educational programme. The pitch is appropriate, duplication is avoided and gaps are filled.

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Staff ensure that: learners’ needs are regularly assessed; they access and complete opportunities that match their needs; participation and performance are monitored and compiled in a learning record.

Assessment/ tracking Systems for assessing, reporting and tracking attainment and progress provide disadvantaged high achievers, parents and staff with the information they need to improve performance Systems for assessing, tracking and reporting attainment and progress embody stretch, challenge and the highest expectations. They identify untapped potential in disadvantaged learners. They do not impose artificially restrictive ceilings on performance.

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Learners (and their parents) know exactly how well they are performing, what they need to improve and how they should set about it. Assessment also reflects progress towards wider goals.

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Frequent reports are issued and explained, enabling learners (and their parents) to understand exactly how their performance has changed over time and how it compares with their peers, identifying areas of relative strength and weakness.

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All relevant staff have real-time access to the assessment records of disadvantaged high attainers and use these to inform their work.

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Data informs institution-wide strategies to improve attainment and progress. Analysis includes comparison with similar settings.

Curriculum/organisation The needs and circumstances of disadvantaged high achievers explicitly inform the curriculum and curriculum development, as well as the selection of appropriate organisational strategies – eg sets and/or mixed ability classes. The curriculum is tailored to the needs of disadvantaged high achievers. Curriculum flexibility is utilised to this end. Curriculum development and planning take full account of this.

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Rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach, enrichment (breadth), extension (depth) and acceleration (pace) are combined appropriately to meet different learners’ needs.

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Personal, social and learning skills development and the cultivation of social and cultural capital reflect the priority attached to closing excellence gaps and the contribution this can make to improving social mobility.

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Organisational strategies – eg the choice of sets or mixed ability classes – are informed by reliable evidence of their likely impact on excellence gaps.

Ethos/pastoral The ethos is positive and supportive of disadvantaged high achievers. Excellence is valued by staff and learners alike. Bullying that undermines this is eradicated. The ethos embodies the highest expectations of learners, and of staff in respect of learners. Every learner counts equally.

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Excellence is actively pursued and celebrated; competition is encouraged but not at the expense of motivation and self-esteem;hothousing is shunned.

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High achievement is the norm and this is reflected in organisational culture; there is zero tolerance of associated bullying and a swift and proportional response to efforts to undermine this culture.

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Strong but realistic aspirations are fostered. Role models are utilised. Social and emotional needs associated with excellence gaps are promptly and thoroughly addressed.

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The impact of disadvantage is monitored carefully. Wherever possible, obstacles to achievement are removed.

Transition/progression The performance, needs and circumstances of disadvantaged high achievers are routinely addressed in transition between settings and in the provision of information, advice and guidance. Where possible, admissions arrangements prioritise learners from disadvantaged backgrounds – and high achievers are treated equally in this respect.

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Receiving settings routinely collect information about the performance, needs and circumstances of disadvantaged high achievers. They routinely share such information when learners transfer to other settings.

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Information, advice and guidance is tailored, balanced and thorough. It supports progression to settings that are consistent with the highest expectations and high aspirations while also meeting learners’ needs.

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Destinations data is collected, published and used to inform monitoring.

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Leadership, staffing, CPD A named member of staff is responsible – with senior leadership support – for co-ordinating and monitoring activity across the setting (and improvement against this standard)..Professional development needs associated with closing excellence gaps are identified and addressed The senior leadership team has an identified lead and champion for disadvantaged high achievers and the closing of excellence gaps.

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A named member of staff is responsible for co-ordinating and monitoring activity across the setting (and improvement against this standard).

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Closing excellence gaps is accepted as a collective responsibility of the whole staff and governing body. There is a named lead governor.

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There is a regular audit of professional development needs associated with closing excellence gaps across the whole staff and governing body. A full menu of appropriate opportunities is continually updated and those with needs are supported to take part.

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The critical significance of teaching quality in closing excellence gaps is instilled in all staff, accepted and understood.

Parents Parents and guardians understand how excellence gaps are tackled and are encouraged to support this process. Wherever possible, parents and guardians are actively engaged as partners in the process of closing excellence gaps. The setting may need to act as a surrogate. Other agencies are engaged as necessary.

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Staff, parents and learners review progress together regularly. The division of responsibility is clear. Where necessary, the setting provides support through outreach and family learning.

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This standard is used as the basis of a guarantee to parents and learners of the support that the school will provide, in return for parental engagement and learner commitment.

Resources Sufficient resources – staffing and funding – are allocated to improvement planning (and to the achievement of this standard)..Where available, Pupil Premium is used effectively to support disadvantaged high achievers. Sufficient resources – staffing and funding – are allocated to relevant actions in the improvement plan (and to the achievement of this standard).

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The proportion of Pupil Premium (and/or alternative funding sources) allocated to closing excellence gaps is commensurate with their incidence in the setting.

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The allocation of Pupil Premium (or equivalent resources) is not differentiated on the basis of prior achievement: high achievers are deemed to have equal needs.

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Settings should evidence their commitment to these principles in published material (especially information required to be published about the use of Pupil Premium).

Partnership/collaboration The setting takes an active role in collaborative activity to close excellence gaps. Excellence gaps are addressed and progress is monitored in partnership with all relevant ‘feeder’ and ‘feeding’ settings in the locality.

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The setting leads improvement across other settings within its networks, utilising the internal expertise it has developed to support others locally, regionally and nationally.

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The setting uses collaboration strategically to build its own capacity and improve its expertise.

 

letter-33809_640G_letter_blue_whiteBlue_square_QWhite_Letter_S_on_Green_Background

 

 

 

 

Those who are not familiar with the quality standards approach may wish to know more.

Regular readers will know that I advocate what I call ‘flexible framework thinking’, a middle way between the equally unhelpful extremes of top-down prescription (one-size-fits-all) and full institutional autonomy (a thousand flowers blooming). Neither secures consistently high quality provision across all settings.

The autonomy paradigm is currently in the ascendant. We attempt to control quality through ever-more elaborate performance tables and an inspection regime that depends on fallible human inspectors and documentation that regulates towards convergence when it should be enabling diversity, albeit within defined parameters.

I see more value in supporting institutions through best-fit guidance of this kind.

My preferred model is a quality standard, flexible enough to be relevant to thousands of different settings, yet specific enough to provide meaningful guidance on effective practice and improvement priorities, regardless of the starting point.

I have written about the application of quality standards to gifted education and their benefits on several occasions:

Quality standards are emphatically not ‘tick box’ exercises and should never be deployed as such.

Rather they are non-prescriptive instruments for settings to use in self-evaluation, for reviewing their current performance and for planning their improvement priorities. They support professional development and lend themselves to collaborative peer assessment.

Quality standards can be used to marshal and organise resources and online support. They can provide the essential spine around which to build guidance documents and they provide a useful instrument for research and evaluation purposes.

 

GP

October 2014

Beware the ‘short head': PISA’s Resilient Students’ Measure

 

This post takes a closer look at the PISA concept of ‘resilient students’ – essentially a measure of disadvantaged high attainment amongst 15 year-olds – and how this varies from country to country.

7211284724_f3c5515bf7_mThe measure was addressed briefly in my recent review of the evidence base for excellence gaps in England but there was not space on that occasion to provide a thoroughgoing review.

The post is organised as follows:

  • A definition of the measure and explanation of how it has changed since the concept was first introduced.
  • A summary of key findings, including selected international comparisons, and of trends over recent PISA cycles.
  • A brief review of OECD and related research material about the characteristics of resilient learners.

I have not provided background about the nature of PISA assessments, but this can be found in previous posts about the mainstream PISA 2012 results and PISA 2012 Problem Solving.

 

Defining the resilient student

In 2011, the OECD published ‘Against the Odds: Disadvantaged students who succeed in school’, which introduced the notion of PISA as a study of resilience. It uses PISA 2006 data throughout and foregrounds science, as did the entire PISA 2006 cycle.

There are two definitions of resilience in play: an international benchmark and a country-specific measure to inform discussion of effective policy levers in different national settings.

The international benchmark relates to the top third of PISA performers (ie above the 67th percentile) across all countries after accounting for socio-economic background. The resilient population comprises students in this group who also fall within the bottom third of the socio-economic background distribution in their particular jurisdiction.

Hence the benchmark comprises an international dimension of performance and a national/jurisdictional dimension of disadvantage.

This cohort is compared with disadvantaged low achievers, a population similarly derived, except that their performance is in the bottom third across all countries, after accounting for socio-economic background.

The national benchmark applies the same national measure relating to socio-economic background, but the measure of performance is the top third of the national/jurisdictional performance distribution for the relevant PISA test.

The basis for determining socio-economic background is the PISA Index of Economic, Social and Cultural Status (ESCS).

‘Against the Odds’ describes it thus:

‘The indicator captures students’ family and home characteristics that describe their socio-economic background. It includes information about parental occupational status and highest educational level, as well as information on home possessions, such as computers, books and access to the Internet.’

Further details are provided in the original PISA 2006 Report (p333).

Rather confusingly, the parameters of the international benchmark were subsequently changed.

PISA 2009 Results: Overcoming Social Background – Equity in Learning Opportunities and Outcomes Volume II describes the new methodology in this fashion:

‘A student is classified as resilient if he or she is in the bottom quarter of the PISA index of economic, social and cultural status (ESCS) in the country of assessment and performs in the top quarter across students from all countries after accounting for socio-economic background. The share of resilient students among all students has been multiplied by 4 so that the percentage values presented here reflect the proportion of resilient students among disadvantaged students (those in the bottom quarter of the PISA index of social, economic and cultural status).’

No reason is given for this shift to a narrower measure of both attainment and disadvantage, nor is the impact on results discussed.

The new methodology is seemingly retained in PISA 2012 Results: Excellence through Equity: Giving every student the chance to succeed – Volume II:

‘A student is class­ed as resilient if he or she is in the bottom quarter of the PISA index of economic, social and cultural status (ESCS) in the country of assessment and performs in the top quarter of students among all countries, after accounting for socio-economic status.’

However, multiplication by four is dispensed with.

This should mean that the outcomes from PISA 2009 and 2012 are broadly comparable with some straightforward multiplication. However the 2006 results foreground science, while in 2009 the focus is reading – and shifts on to maths in 2012.

Although there is some commonality between these different test-specific results (see below), there is also some variation, notably in terms of differential outcomes for boys and girls.

 

PISA 2006 results

The chart reproduced below compares national percentages of resilient students and disadvantaged low achievers in science using the original international benchmark. It shows the proportion of resilient learners amongst disadvantaged students.

 

Resil 2006 science Capture

Conversely, the data table supplied alongside the chart shows the proportion of resilient students amongst all learners. Results have to be multiplied by three on this occasion (since the indicator is based on ‘top third attainment, bottom third advantage’).

I have not reproduced the entire dataset, but have instead created a subset of 14 jurisdictions in which my readership may be particularly interested, namely: Australia, Canada, Finland, Hong Kong, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Poland, Shanghai, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, the UK and the US. I have also included the OECD average.

I have retained this grouping throughout the analysis, even though some of the jurisdictions do not appear throughout – in particular, Shanghai and Singapore are both omitted from the 2006 data.

Chart 1 shows these results.

 

Resil first chart Chart 1: PISA resilience in science for selected jurisdictions by gender (PISA 2006 data)

 

All the jurisdictions in my sample are relatively strong performers on this measure. Only the United States falls consistently below the OECD average.

Hong Kong has the highest percentage of resilient learners – almost 75% of its disadvantaged students achieve the benchmark. Finland is also a very strong performer, while other jurisdictions achieving over 50% include Canada, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.

The UK is just above the OECD average, but the US is ten points below. The proportion of disadvantaged resilient students in Hong Kong is almost twice the proportion in the UK and two and a half times the proportion in the US.

Most of the sample shows relatively little variation between their proportions of male and female resilient learners. Females have a slight lead across the OECD as a whole, but males are in the ascendancy in eight of these jurisdictions.

The largest gap – some 13 percentage points in favour of boys – can be found in Hong Kong. The largest advantage in favour of girls – 6.9 percentage points – is evident in Poland. In the UK males are ahead by slightly over three percentage points.

The first chart also shows that there is a relatively strong relationship between the proportion of resilient students and of disadvantaged low achievers. Jurisdictions with the largest proportions of resilient students typically have the smallest proportions of disadvantaged low achievers.

In Hong Kong, the proportion of disadvantaged students who are low achievers is 6.3%, set against an OECD average of 25.8%. Conversely, in the US, this proportion reaches 37.8% – and is 26.7% in the UK. Of this sample, only the US has a bigger proportion of disadvantaged low achievers than of disadvantaged resilient students.

 

‘Against the Odds’ examines the relationship between resiliency in science, reading and maths, but does so using the national benchmark, so the figures are not comparable with those above. I have, however, provided a chart comparing performance in my sample of jurisdictions.

 

Resil second chart

Chart 2: Students resilient in science who are resilient in other subjects, national benchmark of resilience, PISA 2006

 

Amongst the jurisdictions for which we have data there is a relatively similar pattern, with between 47% and 56% of students resilient in all three subjects.

In most cases, students who are resilient in two subjects combine science and maths rather than science and reading, but this is not universally true since the reverse pattern applies in Ireland, Japan and South Korea.

The document summarises the outcomes thus:

‘This evidence indicates that the vast majority of students who are resilient with respect to science are also resilient in at least one if not both of the other domains…These results suggest that resilience in science is not a domain-specific characteristic but rather there is something about these students or the schools they attend that lead them to overcome their social disadvantage and excel at school in multiple subject domains.’

 

PISA 2009 Results

The results drawn from PISA 2009 focus on outcomes in reading, rather than science, and of course the definitional differences described above make them incompatible with those for 2006.

The first graph reproduced below shows the outcomes for the full set of participating jurisdictions, while the second – Chart 2 – provides the results for my sample.

Resil PISA 2009 Capture

 

Resil third chart

Chart 3: PISA resilience in reading for selected jurisdictions by gender (PISA 2009 data)

 

The overall OECD average is pitched at 30.8% compared with 39% on the PISA 2006 science measure. Ten of our sample fall above the OECD average and Australia matches it, but the UK, Ireland and the US are below the average, the UK undershooting it by some seven percentage points.

The strongest performer is Shanghai at 75.6%, closely followed by Hong Kong at 72.4%. They and South Korea are the only jurisdictions in the sample which can count over half their disadvantaged readers as resilient. Singapore, Finland and Japan are also relatively strong performers.

There are pronounced gender differences in favour of girls. They have a 16.8 percentage point lead over boys in the OECD average figure and they outscore boys in every country in our sample. These differentials are most marked in Finland, Poland and New Zealand. In the UK there is a difference of 9.2 percentage points, smaller than in many other countries in the sample.

The comparison with the proportion of disadvantaged low achievers is illustrated by chart 3. This reveals the huge variation in the performance of our sample.

 

Resil fourth chart

Chart 4: Comparing percentage of resilient and low-achieving students in reading, PISA 2009

At one extreme, the proportion of disadvantaged low achievers (bottom quartile of the achievement distribution) is virtually negligible in Shanghai and Hong Kong, while around three-quarters of disadvantaged students are resilient (top quartile of the achievement distribution).

At the other, countries like the UK have broadly similar proportions of low achievers and resilient students. The chart reinforces just how far behind they are at both the top and the bottom of the attainment spectrum.

 

PISA 2012 Results

In 2012 the focus is maths rather than reading. The graph reproduced below compares resilience scores across the full set of participating jurisdictions, while Chart 4 covers only my smaller sample.

 

Resil PISA 2012 Capture

resil fifth chart Chart 5: PISA resilience in maths for selected jurisdictions by gender (PISA 2012 data)

 

Despite the change in subject, the span of performance on this measure is broadly similar to that found in reading three years earlier. The OECD average is 25.6%, roughly five percentage points lower than the average in 2009 reading.

Nine of the sample lie above the OECD average, while Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, UK and the US are below. The UK is closer to the OECD average in maths than it was in reading, however, and is a relatively stronger performer than the US and New Zealand.

Shanghai and Hong Kong are once again the top performers, at 76.8% and 72.4% respectively. Singapore is at just over 60% and South Korea at just over 50%. Taiwan and Japan are also notably strong performers.

Within the OECD average, boys have a four percentage point lead on girls, but boys’ relatively stronger performance is not universal – in Hong Kong, Poland, Singapore and South Korea, girls are in the ascendancy.  This is most strongly seen in Poland. The percentage point difference in the UK is just 2.

The comparison with disadvantage low achievers is illustrated in Chart 5.

 

Resil sixth chart

Chart 6: Comparing percentage of resilient and low-achieving students in maths, PISA 2012

 

Once again the familiar pattern emerges, with negligible proportions of low achievers in the countries with the largest shares of resilient students. At the other extreme, the US and New Zealand are the only two jurisdictions in this sample with a longer ‘tail’ of low achievers. The reverse is true in the UK, but only just!

 

Another OECD Publication ‘Strengthening Resilience through Education: PISA Results – background document’ contains a graph showing the variance in jurisdictions’ mathematical performance by deciles of socio-economic disadvantage. This is reproduced below.

 

resil maths deciles Capture

The text adds:

‘Further analysis indicates that the 10% socio-economically most disadvantaged children in Shanghai perform at the same level as the 10% most privileged children in the United States; and that the 20% most disadvantaged children in Finland, Japan, Estonia, Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong-China and Shanghai-China compare favourably to the OECD average.’

One can see that the UK is decidedly ‘mid-table’ at both extremes of the distribution. On the evidence of this measure, one cannot fully accept the oft-repeated saw that the UK is a much stronger performer with high attainers than with low attainers, certainly as far as disadvantaged learners are concerned.

 

The 2012 Report also compares maths-based resiliency records over the four cycles from PISA 2003 to PISA 2012 – as shown in the graph reproduced below – but few of the changes are statistically significant. There has also been some statistical sleight of hand to ensure comparability across the cycles.

 

resil comparing PISA 2003 to 2012 capture

Amongst the outcomes that are statistically significant, Australia experienced a fall of 1.9 percentage points, Canada 1.6 percentage points, Finland 3.3 percentage points and New Zealand 2.9 percentage points. The OECD average was relatively little changed.

The UK is not included in this analysis because of issues with its PISA 2003 results.

Resilience is not addressed in the main PISA 2012 report on problem-solving, but one can find online the graph below, which shows the relative performance of the participating countries.

It is no surprise that the Asian Tigers are at the top of the league (although Shanghai is no longer in the ascendancy). England (as opposed to the UK) is at just over 30%, a little above the OECD average, which appears to stand at around 27%.

The United States and Australia perform at a very similar level. Canada is ahead of them and Poland is the laggard.

 

resil problem solving 2012 Capture

 

Resilience in the home countries

Inserted for the purposes of reinforcement, the chart below compiles the UK outcomes from the PISA 2006, 2009 and 2012 studies above, as compared with the top performer in my sample for each cycle and the appropriate OECD average. Problem-solving is omitted.

Only in science (using the ‘top third attainer, bottom third disadvantage’ formula) does the UK exceed the OECD average figure and then only slightly.

In both reading and maths, the gap between the UK and the top performer in my sample is eye-wateringly large: in each case there are more than three times as many resilient students in the top-performing jurisdiction.

It is abundantly clear from this data that disadvantaged high attainers in the UK do not perform strongly compared with their peers elsewhere.

 

Resil seventh chart

Chart 7: Resilience measures from PISA 2006-2012 comparing UK with top performer in this sample and OECD average

 

Unfortunately NFER does not pick up the concept of resilience in its analysis of England’s PISA 2012 results.

The only comparative analysis across the Home Countries that I can find is contained in a report prepared for the Northern Ireland Ministry of Education by NFER called ‘PISA 2009: Modelling achievement and resilience in Northern Ireland’ (March 2012).

This uses the old ‘highest third by attainment, lowest third by disadvantage’ methodology deployed in ‘Against the Odds’. Reading is the base.

The results show that 41% of English students are resilient, the same figure as for the UK as a whole. The figures for the other home countries appear to be: Northern Ireland 42%; Scotland 44%; and Wales 35%.

Whether the same relationship holds true in maths and science using the ‘top quartile, bottom quartile’ methodology is unknown. One suspects though that each of the UK figures given above will also apply to England.

 

The characteristics of resilient learners

‘Against the Odds’ outlines some evidence derived from comparisons using the national benchmark:

  • Resilient students are, on average, somewhat more advantaged than disadvantaged low achievers, but the difference is relatively small and mostly accounted for by home-related factors (eg. number of books in the home, parental level of education) rather than parental occupation and income.
  • In most jurisdictions, resilient students achieve proficiency level 4 or higher in science. This is true of 56.8% across the OECD. In the UK the figure is 75.8%; in Hong Kong it is 88.4%. We do not know what proportions achieve the highest proficiency levels.
  • Students with an immigrant background – either born outside the country of residence or with parents were born outside the country – tend to be under-represented amongst resilient students.
  • Resilient students tend to be more motivated, confident and engaged than disadvantaged low achievers. Students’ confidence in their academic abilities is a strong predictor of resilience, stronger than motivation.
  • Learning time – the amount of time spent in normal science lessons – is also a strong predictor of resilience, but there is relatively little evidence of an association with school factors such as school management, admissions policies and competition.

Volume III of the PISA 2012 Report: ‘Ready to Learn: Students’ engagement, drive and self-beliefs’ offers a further gloss on these characteristics from a mathematical perspective:

‘Resilient students and advantaged high-achievers have lower rates of absenteeism and lack of punctuality than disadvantaged and advantaged low-achievers…

….resilient and disadvantaged low-achievers tend to have lower sense of belonging than advantaged low-achievers and advantaged high-achievers: socio-economically disadvantaged students express a lower sense of belonging than socio-economically advantaged students irrespective of their performance in mathematics.

Resilient students tend to resemble advantaged high-achievers with respect to their level of drive, motivation and self-beliefs: resilient students and advantaged high-achievers have in fact much higher levels of perseverance, intrinsic and instrumental motivation to learn mathematics, mathematics self-efficacy, mathematics self-concept and lower levels of mathematics anxiety than students who perform at lower levels than would be expected of them given their socio-economic condition…

….In fact, one key characteristic that resilient students tend to share across participating countries and economies, is that they are generally physically and mentally present in class, are ready to persevere when faced with challenges and difficulties and believe in their abilities as mathematics learners.’

Several research studies can be found online that reinforce these findings, sometimes adding a few further details for good measure:

The aforementioned NFER study for Northern Ireland uses a multi-level logistic model to investigate the school and student background factors associated with resilience in Northern Ireland using PISA 2009 data.

It derives odds ratios as follows: grammar school 7.44; female pupils 2.00; possessions – classic literature 1.69; wealth 0.76; percentage of pupils eligible for FSM – 0.63; and books in home – 0-10 books 0.35.

On the positive impact of selection the report observes:

‘This is likely to be largely caused by the fact that to some extent grammar schools will be identifying the most resilient students as part of the selection process. As such, we cannot be certain about the effectiveness or otherwise of grammar schools in providing the best education for disadvantaged children.’

Another study – ‘Predicting academic resilience with mathematics learning and demographic variables’ (Cheung et al 2014) – concludes that, amongst East Asian jurisdictions such as Hong-Kong, Japan and South Korea, resilience is associated with avoidance of ‘redoublement’ and having attended kindergarten for more than a year.

Unsurprisingly, students who are more familiar with mathematical concepts and have greater mathematical self-efficacy are also more likely to be resilient.

Amongst other countries in the sample – including Canada and Finland – being male, native (as opposed to immigrant) and avoiding ‘redoublement’ produced stronger chances of resilience.

In addition to familiarity with maths concepts and self-efficacy, resilient students in these countries were less anxious about maths and had a higher degree of maths self-concept.

Work on ‘Resilience Patterns in Public Schools in Turkey’ (unattributed and undated) – based on PISA 2009 data and using the ‘top third, bottom third’ methodology – finds that 10% of a Turkish sample are resilient in reading, maths and science; 6% are resilient in two subjects and a further 8% in one only.

Resilience varies in different subjects according to year of education.

resil Turkey Capture

There are also significant regional differences.

Odds ratios show a positive association with: more than one year of pre-primary education; selective provision, especially in maths; absence of ability grouping; additional learning time, especially for maths and science; a good disciplinary climate and strong teacher-student relations.

An Italian study – ‘A way to resilience: How can Italian disadvantaged students and schools close the achievement gap?’ (Agasisti and Longobardi, undated) uses PISA 2009 data to examine the characteristics of resilient students attending schools with high levels of disadvantage.

This confirms some of the findings above in respect of student characteristics, finding a negative impact from immigrant status (and also from a high proportion of immigrants in a school). ‘Joy in reading’ and ‘positive attitude to computers’ are both positively associated with resilience, as is a positive relationship with teachers.

School type is found to influence the incidence of resilience – particularly enrolment in Licei as opposed to professional or technical schools – so reflecting one outcome of the Northern Irish study. Other significant school level factors include the quality of educational resources available and investment in extracurricular activities. Regional differences are once more pronounced.

A second Italian study – ‘Does public spending improve educational resilience? A longitudinal analysis of OECD PISA data’ (Agasisti et al 2014) finds a positive correlation between the proportion of a country’s public expenditure devoted to education and the proportion of resilient students.

Finally, this commentary from Marc Tucker in the US links its relatively low incidence of resilient students to national views about the nature of ability:

‘In Asia, differences in student achievement are generally attributed to differences in the effort that students put into learning, whereas in the United States, these differences are attributed to natural ability.  This leads to much lower expectations for students who come from low-income families…

My experience of the Europeans is that they lie somewhere between the Asians and the Americans with respect to the question as to whether effort or genetic material is the most important explainer of achievement in school…

… My take is that American students still suffer relative to students in both Europe and Asia as a result of the propensity of the American education system to sort students out by ability and assign different students work at different challenge levels, based on their estimates of student’s inherited intelligence.’

 

Conclusion

What are we to make of all this?

It suggests to me that we have not pushed much beyond statements of the obvious and vague conjecture in our efforts to understand the resilient student population and how to increase its size in any given jurisdiction.

The comparative statistical evidence shows that England has a real problem with underachievement by disadvantaged students, as much at the top as the bottom of the attainment distribution.

We are not alone in facing this difficulty, although it is significantly more pronounced than in several of our most prominent PISA competitors.

We should be worrying as much about our ‘short head’ as our ‘long tail’.

 

GP

September 2014