Response to Russell Hobby’s post of 8 May 2015


Thank you for taking the time and trouble to provide a considered response to my posts campaigning against the Fair Education Alliance position on the pupil premium: this one launching the campaign and this demolition of Teach First’s official policy statement of 29 April. New-EYEBALL-for-C4D

By responding in this fashion you set a fine example to the other organisations I am challenging to justify their support for this policy.

As things stand, just one other organisation – the Future Leaders Trust – has bothered to make its views known (and duly distanced itself from this policy).

The remainder are unwilling to break ranks. I am not sure whether to charge them with cowardice or complacency. I hope they will now follow your lead.

You have explained that NAHT has not yet formally adopted your recommendation that it support Teach First’s position, so your post constitutes ‘an interim position in lieu of a vote or resolution’. I have offered to meet you to discuss this, to clarify any outstanding issues and – hopefully – to persuade you to revise that recommendation.

Three factual clarifications to begin with:

  • NAHT is listed as a member of the Fair Education Alliance – whose Report Card 2014 is unclear over whether the proposed pupil premium reallocation applies equally to primary and secondary schools – and a supporter of the Read On. Get On campaign, whose publication specifically urges its application in the primary sector (and implies that it is following the Report Card in this respect).
  • There are no proposals in the Report Card for reform of the schools funding formula, whether to increase the weighting for deprivation or for low prior attainment. Teach First’s policy statement mentions a national funding formula but offers no specific proposals for reforming it. I note that NAHT is itself calling for a fair national funding formula.
  • The implication of Teach First’s policy statement is that disadvantaged learners with low prior attainment would attract a pupil premium rate double that available to all other disadvantaged learners, middle as well as high attainers. There is no proposal to change the FSM-driven definition of disadvantage that currently underpins the pupil premium and no definition of what constitutes low prior attainment. I note that you recently floated the idea of replacing ‘ever-6 FSM’ eligibility for pupil premium with ‘a measure of the prior attainment of pupils’.

These are my responses to the substantive points of your argument:

  • It is true that other eligible disadvantaged learners would continue to attract pupil premium funding – at half the rate available for eligible disadvantaged low attainers. This implies that their needs are deemed much less significant, and/or that those needs are significantly easier and cheaper to address. The Report Card makes clear that ‘the change of funding model would increase school accountability for ‘catching up’ pupils’ (p27). All schools would be expected to prioritise ‘catch up’ for disadvantaged low attainers over all other provision for disadvantaged learners. As ASCL has pointed out, this cuts directly across heads’ and governors’ autonomy in deciding how best to allocate pupil premium funding. Hence, in this context, NAHT is arguing for such autonomy to be curtailed. I trust you will concede this?
  • There are presently differential rates of pupil premium for primary and secondary learners. The differential in favour of primary schools was justified by the previous Government, not on equity grounds, but as helping schools to meet higher expectations of ‘secondary readiness’ associated with the new assessment and accountability regime. But the new regime also shifts schools away from a binary approach to a model in which improvements at any point along the scale of prior attainment are equally valued. Double weighting of pupil premium for low attainers points in precisely the opposite direction.
  • You posit an alternative position on equity that:

‘consists in ensuring first that all students achieve a certain level of competence and that therefore more should be invested in those furthest from that threshold… One rationale for this position would be that once individuals have passed a certain threshold they have a capacity for self-improvement whereby they can extend their own education and create opportunities. Below this threshold, such self-determination is significantly harder. Thus, if you had to choose only one option it could be more socially valuable to lift a student to this threshold than to continue to stretch a student already beyond the threshold.’

You explain this as a trade-off imposed as a consequence of scarce resources. Such a position may be ideologically driven, irrational and evidence-free, or supported by an evidence base. The former is not susceptible to counter-argument. The latter can be challenged through an alternative evidence base setting out the equivalent social and economic value of closing excellence gaps. I have presented that evidence base at length and will not revisit it here. But, in determining its final position I trust that NAHT will give full and careful consideration to both sets of evidence, rather than relying exclusively on material that supports your argument. I would welcome your assurances on this point.

  • My broader evidence-driven judgement is that, allowing for scarce resources, the most effective education systems (and the best schools) typically strive to keep excellence and equity in equilibrium. If one is allowed to predominate, the overall quality of education suffers. If a school (or a headteachers’ association or any other organisation targeted by this campaign) holds a particular view on this issue, in which equity is permitted to trump excellence, it seems reasonable to expect it to state explicitly the consequences of that decision – and to hold itself accountable to its stakeholders for those. In the case of a school I would expect this to be made explicit in the vision/mission statements intended for parents and staff alike – and in the documentation supplied to Ofsted prior to inspection. Otherwise there is every risk of hypocrisy. In short, a headteacher who takes this position cannot with integrity run a school that pretends the opposite. If it adopts this policy, I look forward to NAHT advising its members accordingly.
  • You suggest that the distinction between pupil premium and school funding formula is a second order issue. I do not agree. If there is a case for higher weighting for low prior attainment – to reflect the additional costs associated with tackling it – that should be reflected in the core budget through the funding formula, alongside the weightings for pupil deprivation and high needs, typically but not exclusively associated with SEN. The formula should properly recognise the overlap between these factors. I would welcome NAHT’s considered analysis of the totality of funding available to support (disadvantaged) low attainers through all funding streams, since treating pupil premium in isolation is misleading and inappropriate.
  • Pupil premium is different because it is supposed to benefit directly the learners who attract it. Indeed, the latest edition of the Governors’ handbook goes as far as to state that:

‘The pupil premium is a separate funding stream to be used solely for the educational benefit of children eligible and registered for free school meals at any time during the last six years, or those who have been in continuous public care for six months’ (page 109)

While this does not amount to a personal budget, the direct link between the funding and eligible learners means that the reallocation proposed will almost certainly have a direct impact on support for those whose entitlement is reduced, especially if backed up as proposed by accountability pressures. This overrides any consideration of individual needs and circumstances and applies regardless of the total pupil premium funding received by a school. I invite NAHT to consider carefully whether this is in the best interests of the schools its members lead.

  • You accept I have a point about ‘the level of detail in the calculations’. There is no detail whatsoever. This means that the organisations, including NAHT, who support Teach First’s position have effectively signed a ‘blank cheque’. I would hazard a guess that the full consequences of the redistribution, including the risks, have not been thought through. They certainly haven’t been presented. That is not what one would expect of a leading educational organisation, especially one that receives a substantial proportion of its funding from the taxpayer. I recommend that, before taking its decision, NAHT obtains and publishes detailed draft proposals and a full risk analysis.
  • You also acknowledge the potentially negative impact on impact Goal 5. This is especially true of the part relating to progression to selective universities. It suggests that neither Teach First nor the Alliance have properly considered the interaction between their different goals. To suggest, as the Teach First policy statement does, that the appropriate interventions necessary to support Goal 5 are straightforward and inexpensive betrays a certain naivety but also an ignorance of the National strategy for access and student success. I urge that NAHT considers carefully how it will support Goal 5 and whether there is not a risk – even a likelihood – that the proposed reductions in pupil premium would undermine that support.

As you know, both ASCL and the NGA now oppose Teach First’s position, as does John Dunford, the pupil premium champion. The Conservative Manifesto pledges that it will ‘continue to provide the pupil premium, protected at current rates’. NAHT should reassess its own position in the light of this information.

Ofsted has announced that it will ensure inspections continue to focus sharply on the progress of able disadvantaged students, given its finding that only one-third of non-selective secondary schools are using pupil premium effectively to support them.

I have seen no evidence to suggest that primary schools are any more effective in this respect. Regardless of the arguments above, NAHT should obtain this evidence and reflect carefully upon its implications. 

In conclusion, I once more urge NAHT to withdraw its support for Teach First’s policy, as advanced by the FEA and Read On. Get On.

I also invite you to consider what more NAHT itself could do to ensure that its members are providing the best possible education for their most able learners, especially those eligible for the pupil premium.



May 2015

Fisking Teach First’s defence of its pupil premium policy


New-EYEBALL-for-C4DThis post scrutinises the arguments advanced by Teach First in defence of reallocating Pupil Premium away from disadvantaged learners with middle or high prior attainment.


On 29 April, Teach First responded formally to my campaign against their proposal that the Pupil Premium budget should be redistributed so that learners with low prior attainment attract double the amount available for those with middle and high prior attainment.

The original proposal was included in the Fair Education Alliance Report Card (December 2014) and repeated in a primary sector context in The Power of Reading (April 2015) published on behalf of the Read On Get On campaign.

I set out formidable arguments against this proposal in an earlier post: ‘Protecting Pupil Premium for High Attainers’ (April 2015).

It invited all the organisations listed as members of the Fair Education Alliance or supporters of Read On Get On to justify their backing for the proposal or else distance themselves from it.

To date I have pursued twelve of these organisations for a reply. Eleven have failed to respond.

The twelfth, The Future Leaders Trust provided a statement:

‘…we agree that mid- and high-attainers from poor backgrounds should not be deprived of the support that they need to succeed. FSM children who achieve Level 5 in Reading, Writing and Maths at age 11 are still significantly less likely to go on to A-levels and university than their more affluent peers….rather than trying to redistribute the existing pie, we should be campaigning for a bigger one’.

I take that to mean that they do not fully support the proposal.

Brian Lightman of ASCL sent me a response

Lightman Capture




He wrote:

‘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.’

Russell Hobby of NAHT – which is a member of the Alliance – committed to a response but has so far failed to produce it. (Quelle surprise, since NAHT has form in that department.)


The National Governors’ Association (NGA) has already confirmed its opposition to Teach First’s position.



Teach First’s argument is also opposed by John Dunford, the Pupil Premium Champion, and by the Sutton Trust.


The Teach First response is headed ‘Our policy position on the pupil premium’. It begins:

‘Recently, we’ve had a few questions on our policy position on the Pupil Premium, which we endorsed in the Fair Education Alliance Report Card 2015.’

This helpfully confirms that the proposal set out in the Report Card is official Teach First policy.

It is rather less helpful in failing to acknowledge the source of those questions and failing to link to the counter-arguments set out in my post.

This means that those who want to make up their own minds whether they support Teach First’s position have only one side of the argument available to them. I would have expected more generosity of spirit from an organisation as powerful as Teach First, especially when taking on a singleton blogger like me.

The remainder of this post fisks the Teach First policy position statement.

It strives wherever possible to supplement rather than repeat the substantive arguments advanced in my earlier post, so those who want to consider the case in the round do need to revisit that in addition to the material below.


The statement begins by reiterating the original recommendation, to:

‘Target pupil premium by attainment as well as disadvantage measures. This could be achieved through halving current funding per pupil for FSM Ever 6 [a deprivation measure which includes pupils who have ever been a Looked After Child or eligible for Free School Meals in the previous six years]. 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 full implications of what is now declared as official Teach First policy are extremely unclear, because there is no modelling, in the Report Card or elsewhere, of the redistribution or its likely effects.

Indeed, when I challenged Teach First over one aspect of modelling, it admitted that none had been undertaken.

In the absence of any clarification of how the redistribution would work, this is my best guess at what the recommendation means.

One begins with an assumption that one-third of pupil premium beneficiaries are low attainers, while two-thirds are middle and high attainers. (In 2014, 67% of disadvantaged learners achieved KS L4 and above in reading, writing and maths, meaning 33% did not.)

Given a total pupil premium budget of £2.5bn per year, assuming equal shares, the low attainers get £833.33m and the middle and high attainers together get £1.67bn.

One removes half of the funding from the high and middle attainers together – so £833.33m in total, leaving an equivalent sum behind.

The sum removed is added to the low attainers’ budget giving them a total of £1.67bn, meaning they have double the amount available for the other two groups combined.

But this outcome would mean one group, half the size of the other, would also have double the funding, hence each low attainer within that group would have four times the funding allocated to each middle and high attainer.

To make the equation work, one has to divide the sum initially removed from the high and middle attainers into two, allocating £416.67m into each pot.

Then there is £1.25bn for the low attainers and an identical £1.25bn for the middle and high attainers, but there are twice as many of the latter, so each of them gets half the sum available to each low attainer.

Confused yet?

In any case, all of this is guesswork because Teach First has not yet:

  • Confirmed whether this proposal applies to both primary and secondary schools though, since it is referenced in a primary context by the ‘Read On Get On.’ Report and this statement mentions the primary sector in passing , one assumes that it applies equally in both.
  • Defined what constitutes low prior attainment. At secondary level for example, is it below the scaled score equivalent of Level 4b in reading writing and maths combined? Or does it count each assessment separately? Or is it achievement below Level 4, either individually or combined? What is the equivalent measure at primary level? Your guess is as good as mine.

It really behoves Teach First to be clearer on these issues than it has been to date.

However the recommendation above states clearly that learners attracting the pupil premium with low prior attainment would have ‘double weighting’, implying that those with middle and high prior attainment would find their allocations single weighted, so pitched at half this value.

So, in the absence of any further elucidation, I assume that each low attaining pupil premium beneficiary would in future receive twice as much as each middle and high attaining beneficiary.

It would be good to know the size of the premium Teach First expects to be available to each category.

One possible outcome, using the very approximate ratio above, might be:

  • Low attainer primary pupil premium of £1,950 and high/middle attainer primary pupil premium of £975, compared with the present rate of £1,300.
  • Low attainer secondary pupil premium of £1,402 and high/middle attainer pupil premium of £701.

Low attainers would get an additional 50% top-up while all middle/high attainers would get 75% of what they do now.

Until we know the size of the uprating and the numbers used in the calculation, we cannot quantify the redistributive impact, so Teach First has asked its supporters to sign a blank cheque (and they have done so, apparently without too much scrutiny).


Pupil premium as it operates now


The positive

The policy statement says:

Teach First is fully supportive of the Pupil Premium. It has been an incredibly important tool that helps to achieve our vision that no child’s success is limited by their socio-economic background.  We will continue to advocate for it, and for it to be protected and enhanced. The introduction of the Pupil Premium has increased accountability for the progress of the country’s poorest children and since this was introduced, an increase in attainment has been seen in those areas where they are the minority, though they still significantly underperform their wealthier peers. We hope and expect the full impact of the Pupil Premium will become apparent as the funding beds in and those pupils who have benefitted from it complete their full school journey.’

The commitment to continued advocacy for the pupil premium to be protected and enhanced rings rather hollow, given that perhaps two-thirds of beneficiaries would have their allocations reduced to half the value of the premium provided for their low attaining peers.

One assumes that ‘protected’ means Pupil Premium should continue to be ring-fenced outside the school funding formula.

‘Enhanced’ is potentially meaningless. It stands proxy for ‘increased’ but, given the wider pressures on the national schools budget, there is little prospect of increasing the total pupil premium budget by the sum necessary to uprate low attainers’ allocations while leaving others unchanged. 

This is apparently what the Future Leaders Trust would like to see, but it simply isn’t realistic.

The data supporting the claim of an increase in attainment since the premium was introduced is unsupported by evidence. What level of attainment? What measure of attainment? What size of area? How do we know the improvement is attributable to the Pupil Premium, as opposed to other factors?

In particular, does this apply to middle and high attainers? If so, what evidence is there to suggest that significantly reducing the sum available to support them will not detract from this progress?


The negative

The statement continues:

Schools are held accountable to Ofsted for their spending of the Pupil Premium – demonstrating how it has contributed to improved attainment of eligible pupils. There has not yet been a systematic review of how schools are spending the Pupil Premium, however there is some evidence from Ofsted that Pupil Premium is not always being used as effectively as it could be – in some instances plugging gaps in school budgets which have faced cuts – and that it is not always meeting the needs of those who are falling furthest behind (e.g. Chapter 6 in The Tail).’

This betrays selective use of the evidence base.

Where the funding is being used to plug gaps in the school budget (something that Teach First is also advocating at the macro level – see below) surely middle and high attainers will be suffering equally as much as low attainers, quite possibly more.

In ‘The pupil premium: How schools are spending the funding’ (February 2013), Ofsted reported:

‘Where schools spent the Pupil Premium funding successfully to improve achievement, they shared many of the following characteristics. They:

  • carefully ring-fenced the funding so that they always spent it on the target group of pupils
  • never confused eligibility for the Pupil Premium with low ability, and focused on supporting their disadvantaged pupils to achieve the highest levels.’


‘Where schools were less successful in spending the funding, they tended to have at least some of the following characteristics. They…

  • focused on pupils attaining the nationally expected level at the end of the key stage (Level 4, five A* to C grades at GCSE) but did not go beyond these expectations, so some more able eligible pupils underachieved…’

In ‘The most able students: An update on progress’ (March 2015), Ofsted said:

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.

Ofsted concludes:

‘… 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.’

Most of the evidence I have seen on this issue suggests that the lowest attainers are more likely than higher attainers to have their needs addressed appropriately through the pupil premium.

The case for reallocation via both pupil premium and the NFF

My previous post argues that, to the extent that reallocation is needed, it should be undertaken solely through the national funding formula (NFF) since using pupil premium creates too much ‘collateral damage’ – in the shape of lower allocations for middle and high attainers.

Teach First asserts:

 ‘We believe that low prior attainment is a compounding disadvantage and should be recognised in the National Funding Formula but that there would also be value in making extra funding to low attainers explicit through shifting the emphasis onto this group in the Pupil Premium.

The re-allocation within Pupil Premium funding would incentivise schools to make more progress with their most needy low income pupils: it would focus the accountability – as well as the financial support – directly on that group of pupils most in need of intervention.’

The case for recognition in the NFF is surely built on the costs involved in raising the attainment of low attainers, whether advantaged or disadvantaged.

If Teach First want to make extra funding for low attainers more explicit, that might be achieved by introducing an additional and entirely separate low attainers’ premium which recognises the needs of advantaged and disadvantaged low attainers alike.

But it would be administratively complex for schools to administer two overlapping ring-fenced budgets. It would be more straightforward to undertake the redistribution entirely through the NFF.

Accountability is achieved fundamentally through Ofsted inspection and School Performance Tables. If Teach First believe that schools need to be made more accountable for improving the performance of disadvantaged low attainers – and they cite no evidence to show that this is necessary – those are the obvious routes.


Grounds for justifying the policy

I had asked Teach First to explain whether it justified the proposal on the grounds that it would divert extra funding to ‘catch-up’ or that it would redistribute wider deprivation funding between schools.

The policy statement makes clear that both are in play, but one takes precedence over the other:

  • First and foremost, Teach First apparently believes that: those with low prior attainment have greater needs; that the potential benefits of investment in low attainers are more significant; and that effective interventions for them are comparatively more expensive than those for disadvantaged middle and high attainers.
  • Secondly, this is assumed to be an effective method of redistributing funding away from a few (number unquantified) schools that have built up substantial funding surpluses through the combined effects of the current NFF and pupil premium, towards some (number again unquantified) which receive rather less support.

Each segment of this argument is tackled below.


The impact of low attainment

The statement says:

We believe this is important because intervention at the lower ends of the prior attainment distribution could have significant impact on later attainment.  The FEA report card showed that those who fall behind early are not likely to catch up – last year only 7% of pupils achieving below expected levels aged 11 went on to get 5 ‘good’ GCSEs aged 16. And we charted how this ‘class ceiling’ can systemically hold some pupils back – having a knock-on effect on their wellbeing, employment and access to higher education.

There is similar evidence in respect of disadvantaged high attainers, where the comparator group are those with equivalent prior attainment from more advantaged backgrounds.

In ‘Closing England’s Excellence Gaps: Part 2’ (September 2014) I set out all the research evidence I could find on the subsequent progress made by high attainers, including:

  • The chances of FSM-eligible KS2 high attainers still being so at the end of KS4 are 45% lower than for other high attainers with similar prior attainment and characteristics (DfES 2007)
  • 58% of FSM students within the ‘most able’ population in KS2 and attending non-selective secondary schools go on to achieve A*-B GCSE grades in English and maths, compared with 75% of non-FSM pupils, giving a gap of 17 percentage points. (Ofsted 2013)
  • Children from poorer backgrounds who are high attaining at age 7 are more likely to fall off a high attainment trajectory than children from richer backgrounds. We find that high-achieving children from the most deprived families perform worse than lower-achieving students from the least deprived families by Key Stage 4. Conversely, lower-achieving affluent children catch up with higher-achieving deprived children between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4.’ (Vignoles 2014)

Teach First continues:

Recent analysis of pupils’ progress has shown that – although the majority of pupils do not have linear trajectories – pupils with high prior attainment are much more likely to stay on a linear trajectory than those with low prior attainment… However, low prior-attainers at Primary and Secondary have much more varied trajectories – indicating that rapid progress is possible, despite the fact that it is often not the case – and that focus on this group could be fruitful.’

I am not quite sure what this contributes to the argument. The analysis relates to progress subsequent to KS1 attainment. As the paper notes:

For children achieving a Level 1C, B or A at this stage, their development is so unpredictable that most will either outperform or underperform any Key Stage Two target that might be set.’

Moreover, the percentages are low at all levels – for example, only 12% of pupils with L3C at KS1 make linear progress at all key stages.

And of course they apply to all learners and not to disadvantaged learners, so we cannot see how much variation there is as a consequence of disadvantage.

The same is true of the primary and secondary transition matrices which, amongst other things show that, in 2014:

  • Of those with KS2 L5A in English or maths only half (48% in maths; 51% in English) achieved a GCSE A* grade.
  • Of those with KS2 L5C in English or maths, just one in five makes only a single level of progress by the end of KS4 in English, while the same is true of almost a third of students in maths.

Perhaps more to the point, excellence gaps are wide and growing. The graph below compares the percentage point gaps between disadvantaged and all other learners at KS2 L4 and above and L5 and above in 2013 and 2014 respectively.


Fisk graph


In 2014 the L5 gaps are larger across the board, with particularly large differences in maths and reading. In the latter, the gap at L5+ is more than twice as large as it is at L4+.

I note in passing that the Teach First model would presumably involve any disadvantaged low attainer who subsequently achieved or exceeded the expected level of performance moving from the higher level of pupil premium to the lower, otherwise the system would be inequitable. This would be complex and costly to administer.

Finally in this section, Teach First argues:

‘As well as huge personal cost, there is huge national cost to this underachievement – consultancy BCG estimated that boosting the attainment of this group could raise GDP by up to £56bn a year by 2050 (BCG, 2013)’

This is a secondary reference to a finding quoted in ‘The Tail’, which appears to be a sacred script for Teach First and the probable source of their false ideological position.

The actual wording in Marshall’s book is:

‘In a comparable study for the UK, the consulting firm BCG found that matching Finnish levels of social mobility (in terms of raising the educational outcomes of poor children) would add £6bn a year to GDP by 2030 and £56bn a year by 2050. Bringing below-average students in the UK to the national average would add £14bn a year to GDP by 2030 and £140bn by 2050.’

It doesn’t inspire confidence that Teach First has misquoted this statement in the Report Card as well as in its policy statement.

The original source is the Sutton Trust’s ‘Mobility Manifesto’ (2010). The calculations are based on PISA 2006 average scores in maths and science and based on a methodology derived by Hanushek. I shall leave it to others to comment on the reliability of the findings.

The first calculation involved estimating the benefits of matching the distribution of scores across the UK (so not just England) with those of Finland; the second with raising attainment across all socio-economic groups (based on parents’ education) to the UK average (excepting the higher than average value already recorded by the highest socio-economic group).

This is of course an entirely hypothetical model which attempts to quantify the impact of education on economic growth.

I will only note that, in ‘The High Cost of Low Educational Performance’ (2010) Hanushek also calculates the not inconsiderable benefits of improving average PISA maths and science performance by 25 points, so impacting across the attainment spectrum.

I reviewed the parallel literature on the economic benefits of investment at the top end in ‘The Economics of Gifted Education Revisited’ (March 2013).

In light of that, it seems to me there is a reasonable case for arguing that investment at the top end would yield commensurate benefits.

Hanushek himself recognises that:

Importantly, the relative size of the effects of performance at the bottom and at the top of the distribution depends on the specification, and further research is needed to yield more detailed predictions. Even so, the evidence strongly suggests that both dimensions of educational performance count for the growth potential of an economy.’


The impact on Goal 5

My original post pointed out that the Fair Education Alliance was also pursuing another goal to:

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.’

I argued that reducing pupil premium for middle and high attainers would make this much harder to achieve, especially the highlighted final phrase, because it would reduce the chances of such learners achieving the grades necessary for admission to such universities.

Teach First’s policy statement says:

We see this recommendation as focusing on a different part of ‘the gap’ from Impact Goal 5 (the gap in university access) recommendations – this policy is about raising the attainment at KS2 and KS4 (our Impact Goals One and Two) for some of the nation’s most vulnerable children.’

This is risible I’m afraid, since a corollary of rationing pupil premium in this fashion is that exactly those disadvantaged learners most likely to proceed to selective universities will lose funding, while those least likely to do so will gain.

The reference to ‘vulnerable children’ introduces a whole new dimension, only for it to disappear as rapidly. Because if we are talking about funding for additional needs, perhaps SEN or behavioural, a range of additional considerations (and funding streams) apply.

Teach First continues:

We know that the kind of intensive interventions needed to raise attainment can be expensive and that working to change a pupil’s trajectory is likely to be harder than to ‘keep pupils on track’.  We also know that there are an array of inexpensive projects working with schools who can boost the non-cognitive and academic skills of those pupils already on positive trajectories – such as debatemateThe Brilliant Club and our own Futures programme. Hence our recommendation that Pupil Premium funding is redistributed to give greater weighting to low prior attainment and the more expensive interventions required there to change a child’s life.’

Hang on, weren’t we told earlier that the majority of students don’t have linear trajectories?

I would like to see evidence that it is necessarily harder to move, for example, a secure L3 to a L4 than it is to move a secure L5 to a L6. My experience suggests that interventions to raise disadvantaged attainment at the top end may need to be equally intensive as those lower down, especially when the focus is admission to selective universities.

On top of pupil premium, there is additional investment in catch-up, including over £50m a year (£500 per pupil) for the Catch-up Premium and the £50m annual topslice from the pupil premium budget for end of KS2 summer schools, also heavily focused on catch-up.

I have called for a similar £50m topslice to support intensive provision for disadvantaged high attainers seeking admission to selective universities.

In their parallel response to that post, Teach First says:

‘The single biggest factor linked to HE access is prior attainment. The Russell Group highlight that, of 15-year-olds on Free School Meals in 2007, only 0.3% achieved 3As or equivalent in their A-levels two years later – a huge barrier for progression to the most selective universities.

In this response, however, it all seems much more straightforward. There ‘are [sic] an array of inexpensive projects’ that can sort this out. (Do English teachers now consider an array to be plural?)

Unfortunately it’s not that simple. I believe debatemate and The Brilliant Club are both Teach First spin-offs (run by alumni). While debatemate is a member of the Fair Education Alliance, The Brilliant Club is not. While debatemate is focused on developing speaking and listening and critical thinking skills, The Brilliant Club is dedicated principally to placing PhD students in schools.

No doubt both are valuable niche programmes and there are dozens more like them, offered by commercial, third sector or university providers. Some are free, some relatively cheap, others more expensive.

The problem is that disadvantaged students aiming for selective universities need a coherent, long-term support programme that addresses their particular strengths and weaknesses. This is increasingly recognised in the national strategy for access.

They also need support from their schools to secure that provision, drawing on a range of different providers to supply the elements they must combine to generate a holistic programme. That’s precisely what my proposed £50m pupil premium topslice would achieve.

It would support a personal budget of £2,000 a year (almost exactly the same as the illustrative higher rate pupil premium for low attainers above) for some 5,000 high attaining pupil premium eligible learners.

It would be designed to increase significantly the number of such students progressing to high tariff universities, including Russell Group institutions and especially Oxbridge.

No sign of Teach First support for this of course.


Redistribution of funding

Reverting to its secondary reason for reallocating pupil premium, Teach First argues:

‘A secondary effect of this Pupil Premium change is that it might better recognise the compound disadvantage of growing up in a low income home in an area with a history of educational under-performance.

The Free School Meals (FSM) measure of disadvantage in the UK is not fully progressive or entirely comprehensive. For example, the binary FSM/non-FSM to dictate funding does not allow for recognition of  low-income families who just miss the eligibility criteria for Free School Meals; the national funding formula does not currently 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 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.  Those areas struggling to raise the attainment of their deprived pupils would most benefit from this double-weighting for their pupils who have fallen behind.’

My previous post argued strongly that any redistribution of this nature should be undertaken through the NFF and not the pupil premium.

Teach First is perfectly at liberty to lobby for changes to the Formula that would achieve its desired outcomes, though it seems that only ‘a small number’ of schools have built up surpluses.

There is no reason in principle why the NFF should not take account of aspects of disadvantage not caught by ‘ever 6 FSM’ (or indeed the other routes to pupil premium), or reflect sparsity factors.

Pupil premium reallocation might be a ‘quick fix’ for this problem but, as noted above, the collateral damage is too great. It drives a coach and horses through the principle that every ‘ever 6 FSM’ learner attracts the same rate of support. As such, it is not to be tolerated.



This policy position is fundamentally inequitable, predicated as it is on the mistaken ideological assumption that a low attainer’s needs must necessarily outweigh and be prioritised over those of a high attainer with the same level of disadvantage.

Teach First will surely nail their colours to this mast and sail away into the sunset. In doing so, they confirm the existence of the bias I already suspected.

But, in the words of the Report Card itself, we need ‘a fair education for all’ supported by the ‘sound moral argument for giving every child an equal chance to succeed‘. Success should not mean all learners achieving the same outcomes. The success of one group should not be at the expense of another.

Nothing in Teach First’s new line of argument has persuaded me that high attainers’ chances of success will be protected if their pupil premium is reduced in this way. The same goes for the ‘squeezed middle’.

At bottom, this is nothing more than robbing Peter to pay Paul.

So I call again on the members of the Fair Education Alliance and supporters of Read On Get On to justify their commitment to this ill-conceived and ill-formed idea.

Or else make clear that they no longer support it.




April 2015

Why McInerney is just plain wrong


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



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

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

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

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

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


What does she mean by ability?

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

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

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

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

There is also an elementary confusion between ability and attainment.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Deficit model thinking

McInerney is engaged in deficit model thinking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




March 2015

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.’



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’.



September 2014







Academic Talent Development and Equity in Gifted Education

Volume 3/1 of ‘Talent Development and Excellence’, the online journal of the International Research Association for Talent Development and Excellence (IRATDE) is now available online and in hard copy format.

This edition consists of a ‘target article’ by Francoys Gagne called ‘Academic Talent Development and the Equity Issue in Gifted Education’ and 32 peer commentaries upon it from IRATDE members.

One of the commentaries is mine and I have reproduced it fully below. I’ve received positive feedback about the commentary – though not from Francoys himself, who chides me in his rejoinder for the ‘verbal aggressiveness’ of my final paragraph.

It seems perfectly reasonable to me, but perhaps our standards are different. It’s quite possible that others will consider that I have shown too little respect, been a little too forthright in my opinions. I leave you to judge.

Aggression aside, I disagree substantively with the arguments Francoys advances in his paper. But then we hold very different positions on those ever-present polarities that I introduced in the first post on this Blog.

It will take me some time to work through the full Volume, but I plan to return again to this critical issue once I have done so. In the meantime, I commend the IRATDE Journal to all my readers!


July 2011

An Alternative English Perspective on Equity in Gifted Education

Let me put my cards on the table at the outset. I am not an academic but a recently-retired national policy-maker. Please forgive me if I do not observe all the academic niceties: I intend no slight on the research profession, the readership of this Journal or Dr. Gagné himself.

I gave a parallel presentation at the Symposium in Seoul, South Korea where Gagné first presented the substance of his paper. Mine reflected the development of England’s national policy on gifted and talented (G&T) education in which I played a significant part. I want to use some of that experience in this critical commentary.

Although he concentrates on minority ethnic representation in US gifted programmes, Gagné says his argument applies ‘to any form of under-representation in talent development programs and extends to any country where the equity issue has been brought up’. Speaking on behalf of England, I am not sure that I agree.

Equity and Excellence

The balance between equity and excellence is often a significant element in national education policies and also in G&T education. In England, until recently, we saw the equity issue very much in terms of ethnic minority underachievement. But now underachievement amongst the socio-economically disadvantaged is very much to the fore. Many of our minority populations have successfully ‘narrowed the gap’ but the poor white working class have not.

In practice of course, an individual learner’s educational underachievement is causally complex and highly unlikely to be attributable to one factor alone. In England, gender, the presence or otherwise of a special educational need and whether or not the learner is summer-born are potentially significant elements, amongst several others.

Gagné’s commentary on the United States suggests that concern about the under-representation of disadvantaged populations (i.e. Equity) – in this case defined largely in terms of Black or Hispanic ethnic background – is peculiar to gifted education, not being prevalent in any other example of access to educational provision, where true meritocracy (i.e. Excellence) almost invariably prevails:

‘Ethnic under/over representation appears almost everywhere in general educational attainments, in many specialised fields, as well as in most sports. These ethnic disproportions often exceed, sometimes by a huge margin, those observed in gifted education. None of these situations of extreme disproportions gives rise to accusations of biased access procedures […] all concerned parties accept these ethnic disproportions, whatever their direction, as fair representations of performance differences.’

I have a major concern about this statement which applies to much of Gagné’s argument: it is the conflation of measures of attainment and performance with measures of ability and potential. For I believe that identification for G&T support should be about spotting the latter rather than simply confirming the former. Attainment is one factor in identifying ability but, by definition, it is useless in identifying gifted underachievers whose ability is not yet translated into high attainment.

Quite apart from that fundamental concern, there are several other factors at play in each of the parallel fields examined by Gagné that interfere with what one might term ‘fair competition’. I very much doubt that one could substantiate his claim that ‘all concerned parties’ in the US are convinced that such ethnic (or socio-economic) imbalances are entirely fair representations of performance differences.

That is certainly not the case in England, for equity issues – whether seen in terms of ethnic or socio-economic background – loom large whenever access to a relatively scarce educational opportunity or support service is under scrutiny. This is particularly true when there is a selection process involved. Some examples would be:

  • entry to an outstanding primary or secondary school;
  •  entry to one of our remaining selective secondary schools;
  • selection into either the highest or the lowest sets in schools that set children by ability;
  •  securing a place at a competitive university; and, of course,
  • identification of gifted and talented learners.

In countries where the quality of educational provision is patchy, a selective meritocratic approach (excellence) often determines who will benefit from the scarce commodity of a high quality education. However, lotteries, targets and quotas of various kinds are frequently deployed to soften the impact of rationing by ensuring that disadvantaged populations do not lose out too severely (equity).

Under-Representation in Gifted Programmes

Gagné cites rather old statistical evidence of the under-representation of socio-economically disadvantaged learners and Black and Hispanic learners amongst those identified as gifted and placed in gifted programmes in the US.

A US Government representative (Perez 2010) has recently confirmed that Blacks comprise 17% of the student population yet only 4% students enrolled in gifted classes are Black. He does not cite the source of this data but, if it is accurate, it paints a far worse picture than the statistics in Gagné’s article, though they are hardly a cause for complacency.

I once heard an expert say that under-representation of disadvantaged learners is an unresolved problem for G&T programmes the world over. That may be true, but there is evidence that it may be relatively less of a problem in some countries than others, though this relates to achievement rather than ability. A 2006 PISA study (OECD 2009) showed that:

  • in a typical OECD country about a quarter of top performers in science come from a socio-economic background below the country’s average (and the UK is fairly typical in this respect);
  •  but in countries like Japan, Finland, Austria – and in Hong Kong and Macao in China – one third or more of top performers come from a socio-economic background more disadvantaged than the average;
  • and in countries like Portugal, Greece, France and the US, 20% or fewer top performers come from a socio-economic background more disadvantaged than the average.

Other things being equal, one might expect higher performing education systems to achieve more equitable outcomes. McKinsey’s report ‘The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools’ (McKinsey and Company Social Sector Office 2009) makes clear the consequences of failing to address the issue.

In England, our latest data for identified gifted and talented learners (Department for Education (2010) shows that socio-economically disadvantaged learners and some ethnic minorities are under-represented compared with advantaged and white pupils respectively. The good news is that our G&T population is gradually becoming more representative; the bad news is that we are not moving quickly enough.

Our standard proxy for disadvantage – though not the only one and by no means the most refined – is eligibility for free school meals (FSM). In 2009, 27% of students eligible for FSM achieved five or more GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) graded A*–C including English and maths (the standard benchmark for examination performance at age 16) compared with 54% of those not eligible – exactly twice as many (Equality and Human Rights Commission, The 2010).

Meanwhile, the percentage of FSM-eligible pupils within the national gifted G&T population in secondary schools (7.5%) is only slightly more than half the percentage of secondary sector FSM-eligible learners as a whole (14.2%). This might suggest a continuing correlation between prior attainment and identification as G&T despite our best efforts to avoid it (see below).

The picture is much better in the primary sector, which perhaps bodes well for the future. One other compensation is the likelihood that, without the approach we have taken, our G&T populations would be even more dominated by relatively advantaged groups than they are already. And there is comfort in the evidence that, although we started much more recently, we do not seem to be doing too badly in terms of representation of ethnic minority populations or lower socio-economic groups when compared with the US.

Approaches to Identification

Gagné’s approach to identification seems unnecessarily restricted to measures of IQ and academic achievement. He criticises another commentator for daring to suggest that it may be desirable to adopt a broader view:

‘many school districts are bending backwards to include as many minority students as possible without completely putting aside their most common selection instruments, namely group IQ tests and school grades’.

These may be the most common instruments, but they are not necessarily the best! When developing England’s national G&T programme, we were clear that we wanted to focus on ability rather than achievement. We accepted that attainment measures were useful elements of an evidence base for identification but irrelevant, by definition, for those whose high potential was not yet translated into high performance against those measures. We saw IQ and cognitive ability tests as useful elements, but we were clear that no single instrument (or even IQ tests and school grades together) would serve as a ‘magic bullet’ for identification.

So we adopted a multi-faceted approach, encouraging schools to consider the full range of qualitative and quantitative evidence available to them before reaching a ‘best fit’ judgement. We advocated ‘identification through provision’ as part of this mix, on the grounds that some learners may never have had the opportunity to demonstrate some abilities. We suggested identification should be an ongoing process, rather than a one-off selection, adjustable in the light of new evidence and changes in a learner’s rate of development (recognising that this is rarely linear or consistent).

This means that G&T identification in our system is not necessarily a permanent distinction, but – especially for younger children – a marker that the learner needs extra challenge and support ‘for the time being’. This helps parents and learners to manage the issues around labelling and movement in and out of the G&T population. It also enables schools to see G&T education as an integral part of their whole school strategies for personalised education.

We have also given schools significant flexibility over where to pitch their hurdles for inclusion in the G&T population, so that they are partly defined against the rest of that school’s intake rather than determined entirely by a standard set of national benchmarks. This has an obvious downside in terms of consistency and ease of collaboration between institutions but, on the other hand, it encourages every school, no matter how disadvantaged its intake, to focus on its own most able pupils. In our view it should not be possible for any school to say that it has no no G&T learners.

Finally, we ask schools to start from the premiss that ability (not achievement) is evenly distributed within the population, so that they aim for a G&T population that broadly reflects the gender, ethnic and socio-economic balance of their intake. We do this because we believe that it helps teachers to focus more thoroughly on monitoring those groups that are most likely to harbour hard-to-spot underachievers. (And also, frankly, we took this stance originally because we did not want to mire our national programme in ‘Bell Curve’-type controversy at a time when many schools were resistant to the programme on the grounds of perceived elitism.)

I have already admitted that we have not been entirely successful. I suspect that this is attributable in part to sloppy identification practice in some schools which focus too heavily on attainment measures, relying over-much on the easily measurable. Despite our best efforts, these schools are following the same rather limited approach that Gagné advocates.

Parallels in University Entry, Music and Sport

A variety of social and cultural factors will also impact on the three areas identified by Gagné where meritocracy prevails in the US with the support of ‘all concerned parties’:

  • We are told that entry to undergraduate courses at the University of California depends in large part on prior educational attainment including how that is conveyed through the SAT. Here we are back to the distinction between attainment and ability. Californians may accept the outcome with equanimity but, in England, we are much exercised about what we call ‘fair access’ to our competitive universities and the Coalition Government regards this as a key indicator of social mobility. Ministers repeatedly remind us that, in one recent year, just 40 learners eligible for free school meals secured a place at Oxford or Cambridge. We do not have a level playing field because disadvantaged students will typically have experienced poorer quality education in their schools and colleges and less reliable information, advice and guidance about the university options open to them. They may also have had to overcome low family and community aspirations and even low expectations from some educators . Such inhibitors are not present for their more advantaged peers.
  • Study of music at doctoral level will be affected by the same pre-university attainment filters plus, presumably, another set of filters determining entry to postgraduate courses, associated mainly with the quality of one’s first degree. As with undergraduate study, one is not comparing ‘like with like’. In addition to the factors already cited, there are likely to be some social and cultural effects associated with the nature of the music and the types of instrument studied. Put bluntly, students from advantaged backgrounds are likely to have had more exposure to classical music from an early age and more opportunities to learn a relevant musical instrument.
  • Additional elements enter the equation when it comes to Gagné’s comments about sports. The sporting distinctions he cites relate to single sports rather than to sporting ability per se. We all know that different sports are dominated by different ethnic groups – that is presumably a function largely of the specific skills required by those sports and their social and cultural significance to the community in question. But we do not maintain – as far as I am aware – that generic sporting ability resides disproportionately with one race or background. Moreover, it would be ridiculous to apply this line of argument in relation to socio-economic disadvantage, even allowing for the fact that diet and fitness are typically better amongst relatively advantaged populations. To take a sport-specific example, we in England are concerned that we have few world class tennis players. But this is largely because tennis is perceived as a middle class game – we do not believe that people from poor backgrounds lack the physical and mental skills needed to play the game at the highest level!

Last Words

I do not wish to say much about Gagné’s DMGT. It is one of the best-known of hundreds of competing models that are advocated to policy-makers the world over. As such, it has some significant elements that all should consider, but no one theorist has the perfect solution and policy-makers should in my view be eclectic in their taste! It does not seem to me to be the sole response – or necessarily the best to the issue outlined in the first half of Gagné’s paper.

I was struck that Gagné’s notion of talent development requires ‘access to be limited to candidates who demonstrate good chances of success’, that judgement to be based on past achievement. He would presumably regard our more catholic approach as the introduction of ‘noise’ that is ‘not supported by clear proof of […] transformation into academic talent’ .The counter-view is that we strive to avoid the circularity whereby high achievers are the only ones selected as capable of high achievement.

I have to admit that I had understood Dr. Gagné’s presentation in Seoul to be deliberately provocative, designed to prompt discussion and debate. I was unsure that he seriously believed his own arguments. His position is as extreme in its own way as the ‘all children are gifted’ argument and, assuming I’ve understood him correctly, I’m afraid I find each equally unconvincing.


Department for Education (2010). Statistical First Release 09/2010. Retrieved May 13, 2010, from SFR/s000925/SFR09-2010.pdf

Equality and Human Rights Commission, The (2010). How Fair is Britain – Equality, Human Rights and Good Relations in 2010 – The First Triennial Review. Retrieved October 1, 2010, from uploaded_files/triennial_review/how_fair_is_britain_ch10.pdf

McKinsey and Company, Social Sector Office (2009).The economic impact of the achievement gap in America’s Schools. Retrieved April 1, 2010, from Images/Page_Images/Offices/SocialSector/PDF/achievement_gap_report.pdf

Perez, Thomas E. (Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights)(2010).Addressing disparities to ensure equal educational opportunities – Remarks as prepared for delivery at the Civil Rights and School Discipline Conference. Retrieved September 27, 2010, from speeches/perez_eosconf_speech.php

Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), (OECD)(2009 ). Top of the class – High performers in science in PISA 2006. Retrieved 2009, from

On Fair Access to Grammar Schools and Higher Education – Part 2


This is Part Two of a post examining fair access to selective education for gifted learners from disadvantaged backgrounds in England.

Part One brought us up-to-date with recent policy developments in fair access to competitive universities and reviewed different analyses of the most recent data.

In Part Two, I want to consider fair access to grammar schools and to explore what can be learned from a comparison with the parallel issue in higher education.

This will include an element of data analysis and some proposals for how selective fair access might be improved in the current educational policy environment. The proposals are my response to a challenge issued in the Fabian Society’s Next Left Blog to offer solutions to ‘the challenges of educational inequality’.

This post is not concerned directly with the question whether the outcomes of selective education are better or worse than those of comprehensive education.

Those wishing to know more about this are strongly encouraged to read ‘Evidence on the effects of selective education systems‘ an October 2008 report for the Sutton Trust by the CEM Centre at the University of Durham

I have drawn on this study for the historical and data-related sections of my post and commend it strongly, apart from one aspect which I address below.

A Brief History of English Selective Education

The selective dimension of the English school system polarises opinion and – if we were to mix metaphors for effect – has recently been a hot potato which most politicians have handled with kid gloves for fear of stepping into a minefield.

Potentially it could be almost as toxic for the Conservative-Liberal Coalition as higher education student finance is proving to be, though that is compounded by the decision of some Liberals to jettison their pre-election pledges,

In the early part of last century, a selective grammar school sector became established as an alternative to fee-paying public schools for the wealthy and state-run elementary schools which provided a free but basic education for the working class

Grammar schools concentrated on achievement of the School Certificate, so providing an access route to higher education and the professions. Scholarships to grammar schools began to provide a ladder of social mobility for a few children from poor backgrounds.

The landmark 1944 Education Act sought to establish a tripartite system of 11-18 grammar schools for those with academic ability, technical schools for those with technical aptitude and non-selective 11-15 secondary modern schools with a vocational slant.

In the event, few technical schools were opened, though the concept has recently re-emerged in the guise of university technical colleges . This new incarnation is non-selective however, intended for 14-19 year-olds and must be sponsored by a university or further education college.

Entrance to grammar school depends on success in an ‘eleven-plus’ (11+) examination, originally planned to select some 25% of the school population. The sector grew rapidly in the post-war years and, by the mid-1960s, there were over 1,000 grammar schools in England and Wales.

But at this point, the Labour Government issued a Circular (10/65) advising all local authorities to plan for comprehensive secondary education. In 1970, the Conservative Government responded with Circular (10/70) which explicitly confirmed that authorities could provide education through a combination of grammar, secondary modern and all-ability comprehensive schools rather than removing selection entirely.

Then Labour returned to power, but although Circular 4/74 reinforced the original approach of 10/65, the new tripartite arrangement of secondary modern, comprehensive and grammar schools now established in many authorities was accepted as the status quo.

The expansion of comprehensive education relative to grammar schools meant that, by 1980, some 80% of 11-16 year-olds were educated in comprehensive schools and 5% in all-through grammar schools, though a further 5% were in former grammar schools that were still phasing in comprehensive arrangements.

To give two personal examples of the kinds of transition involved:

  • In the 1970s I entered a three form entry (90 pupils a year) selective boys’ grammar school which became a six form entry boys’ comprehensive as I entered the sixth form (now known as Year 12);

  • In the early 1980s I taught in a co-educational comprehensive which had previously been a girls’ grammar school. This was particularly challenging because Year 9 and below were coeducational and comprehensive while Year 10 and above were single-sex and selective.

In 1992, specialist secondary schools were introduced which could select up to 10% of their intake according to their aptitude for the relevant specialism. There were various not very convincing attempts during the years that followed to establish a clear distinction between selection by aptitude and selection by ability so as to justify why one was acceptable while the other was not.


Recent developments

The 1997 Labour Government were urged in opposition to abolish selective schools, but instead introduced legislation to permit the remaining grammar schools to become comprehensive following a parental ballot. Only one such ballot has ever been called and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it came out in favour of continued selection.

While the Conservatives where in opposition, the case for expanding selective education was made regularly by the Party’s right wing. This continues now that they are part of the governing Coalition: Ann Widdecombe has most recently articulated this perspective.

But official Conservative policy during the last Labour Government was that there will be no increase in the number of selective secondary schools. This is also the official policy of the Coalition Government.

The legislation permitting the introduction of free schools provides that they must be non-selective and, while grammar schools are eligible to convert to academies and can retain their selective admissions criteria, no other academies may introduce selection.


  • The Coalition supports admissions by ‘fair banding’ in cases where school places are oversubscribed. Fair banding involves all students taking an admissions test after which they are allocated to one of several ability bands. The school then admits broadly the same proportion of pupils from each ability band. This mechanism is intended to increase the proportion of poor pupils in the best comprehensive schools, but it is logically hard to justify introducing selection by ability in this context while refusing to introduce it in others where it does not already exist.

  • We know from the November 2011 Schools White Paper – analysed in an earlier post – that the School Admissions Code is to be revised and simplified by July 2011 and, presumably prior to revision, there will be consultation on whether academies and free schools can prioritise admission of children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

What Does Fair Access Mean in Schools?

The schools sector provides quite a different context for fair access and a different definition of the term.

The context is dictated by school admissions, which are governed by the current edition of the statutory School Admissions Code. The original version of the Code points out that:

‘The Education and Inspection Act (EIA) 2006 requires local authorities to promote fair access to educational opportunity, promote high standards and the fulfilment by every child of his educational potential, secure choice and diversity and respond to parental representations.’

It goes on to explain what constitutes fair access:

‘Admission authorities and governing bodies must ensure that their admission arrangements and other school policies are fair and do not unfairly disadvantage, either directly or indirectly, a child from a particular social or racial group, or a child with a disability or special educational needs… Admission authorities must also ensure that their admission arrangements comply with all other relevant equalities legislation… Admission authorities and governing bodies should develop and implement admission arrangements, practices and oversubscription criteria that actively promote equity, and thus go further than simply ensuring that unfair practices and criteria are excluded…

All governing bodies must ensure that their other policies and practices do not unfairly disadvantage certain social groups or discourage some groups of parents from seeking a place at the school for their child. Local authorities must work with all governing bodies to ensure that admission arrangements which appear fair are not then undermined by other school policies, such as a requirement for expensive school uniform, sportswear or expensive school visits or other activities, unless arrangements are put in place to ensure that parents on low incomes can afford them. Governing bodies of schools which are their own admission authority need to address this too.’

These important statutory requirements should be borne in mind as we focus below on fair access to grammar schools, but the Code also has specific provisions relating to selection:

‘Like all other maintained schools, the admission authorities for designated grammar schools are required to act in accordance with this code. Grammar schools are permitted to select children on the basis of high academic ability, and to leave places unfilled if they have insufficient applicants of the required standard. Most assess ability by means of a test, but they may apply any fair and objective means of assessing ability they consider appropriate…

Methods of allocating places for oversubscribed grammar schools vary. Some admission authorities allocate available places in rank order of performance in the entrance test; admission authorities for these schools must not give priority to siblings …Others set a pass mark and then apply other oversubscription criteria to determine which of the candidates who have passed will be offered a place; admission authorities for these schools may use any permitted oversubscription criteria. Grammar schools must not use oversubscription criteria prohibited by this Code.’

In relation to banding the Code says:

‘Banding, like other oversubscription criteria, only operates when the number of applications exceeds the number of places. Schools which use banding must not apply another test of ability once applicants are allocated to bands; they must not give priority within bands according to performance in the test. The admission authority must apply its other oversubscription criteria (such as random allocation) to each band to allocate places….

Pupil ability banding is used by some admission authorities to ensure that their intake includes a proportionate spread of children of different abilities. Banding arrangements are effective practice in schools providing fair oversubscription criteria, provided arrangements are fair, objective and not used as a means of unlawfully admitting a disproportionate number of high ability children.’

Grammar Schools Today

There are 164 maintained selective grammar schools in England. This figure is unchanged since 1999. Three-quarters of local authorities are fully comprehensive, but there is at least one grammar school in thirty-six authorities.

Thirty-three grammar schools are in a single large local authority – Kent – and there are more than ten apiece in Buckinghamshire and Lincolnshire. Seven London authorities retain selection, accounting for 19 grammar schools between them.

As a consequence of this uneven distribution – as well as the incidence of admission across local authority boundaries – the percentage of learners within authorities retaining selective education is highly variable. In 2006, over 40% of pupils resident in Slough, Buckinghamshire and Trafford were attending grammar schools, but less than 5% of pupils resident in Devon, Cumbria, Liverpool, Essex and Wolverhampton were doing so.

At that time some 20% of those attending grammar schools crossed a local authority border to do so. The proportion will be significantly higher in urban areas like London which is divided into several small local authorities.

Because the incidence of selective schools is uneven, the level of selection for particular schools will differ widely, depending on the ratio between the number of applicants and the number of places. In other words, some schools are much more selective than others. It follows that grammar schools are a relatively broad church.

Data on Fair Access to Grammar Schools Over Time

The key data pertaining to fair access gives the incidence of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) our standard – if rather imperfect – indicator of pupil disadvantage.

This first table – FSM at grammar school 1995-2009 is not as reliable as I would like. It has been constructed from several different replies to Parliamentary Questions and the assumptions underpinning the data for different years are not always entirely consistent.

Nevertheless, the table is sufficiently accurate to illustrate two key points:

  • Over the last 15 years, the percentage of FSM-eligible pupils at grammar schools has continued to fall. Indeed, at around 2.0% it is almost exactly half what it was in 1995.

  • Over the same period, FSM eligibility has declined much less significantly across all secondary schools, suggesting that grammar schools are becoming significantly more socially selective relative to all schools.

This supports the argument advanced by the Conservative Opposition in May 2007 when justifying why they would no longer call for an expansion of grammar schools. The Shadow Minister stated that ‘the 11-plus entrenches advantage’, adding ‘we must break free from the belief that academic selection is any longer the way to transform the life chances of bright poor kids’.

It is important to note in this context that grammar schools are not necessarily the most socially selective schools: we know from the Sutton Trust study that just 17 of the 100 schools with the lowest FSM-eligible intakes at that time were grammar schools.

This is partly because grammar school pupils tend to come from areas with a significantly lower than average rate of FSM eligibility. However it is clear that academic selection does not necessarily imply greater social selection.

Indeed, there need not be any significant correlation between academic selection and social selection.

The Sutton Trust study asserts that ability is correlated with socio-economic background though without supplying evidence to support that claim. While achievement and attainment certainly are correlated with socio-economic background, an equivalent correlation with ability is much more doubtful.

Indeed, the Government’s own gifted and talented policy was and remains predicated on the assumption that ability is evenly distributed by gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background, and schools are expected to recruit gifted and talented populations that broadly reflected their intake.

The Sutton Trust study has wrongly assumed that ability is the same as attainment/achievement whereas it is quite different.


Comparing Fair Access in Different Grammar Schools

This second table – FSM by grammar school March 2010 –  is also from a PQ answer and shows the full extent of variation in the FSM-eligible populations of different grammar schools.

One can see that 20 of the 164 grammar schools (12.2%) have less than five FSM-eligible pupils in the entire school.

In the remaining 144 schools, the rate varies from 0.5% (St Ambrose College Trafford) to 10.9% (Stretford Grammar School in the same Borough).

Altogether, over 90 of the schools (some 56%) have a FSM-eligible population below the average 2.0%.

There is significant variation between grammar schools in the same local authority. In Kent, the range is from 5.2% to negligible (less than 5); in Birmingham the range is from 9.7% to 1.6%; and we have already noted the example of Trafford.

The pattern in London boroughs is also interesting. Only one of the schools with fewer than 5 FSM-eligible pupils is in London, but the highest incidence is just 3.8%, whereas secondary-level FSM eligibility across all Greater London boroughs is running at 23%, six times higher than in its grammar schools.

While the situation is variable there is sufficient evidence to show that, far from being engines of social mobility, most grammar schools have become quite the opposite.

Comparing Fair Access in Schools and Universities

What can we learn from a comparison between fair access in schools and higher education – and is there scope for applying some of the solutions adopted in the latter to the former?

It is clear that, whereas fair access to higher education is seen as central to Government policy on social mobility – having been brought to the fore by the intense debate over student finance – fair access to schools is currently less prominent, and fair access to grammar schools is not overtly on the Government’s agenda.

The planned revisions to the school admissions code may serve to raise its profile, as will the commitment to consult on options for free schools and academies to give priority in their admissions criteria to FSM-eligible learners.

It is not yet clear whether the Government intends to make this a ‘non-negotiable’ as part of its commitment to promoting social mobility. For it could choose to introduce a parallel requirement to that which requires schools to give admissions priority to children in care.

It may be left as an option for consideration, should free schools need to demonstrate that they are not middle class enclaves (as many of their opponents suggest they are) or should academies and free schools be attracted by the opportunity to earn more of the Pupil Premium, particularly as it increases beyond its initial level of £430 per pupil per annum.

Going back to comparison, one can see that, whereas in HE the narrative is about removing barriers that already exist, the current focus in the schools sector is very much on maintaining a level playing field: apart from the promised consultation, there is no active policy to address imbalances in school intakes.

If one wished to be more interventionist, one might argue that there is scope to introduce an ‘office for fair access’ to schools and a requirement for schools to conclude an access agreement with that office showing how they will:

  • increase the proportion of FSM-eligible learners in their intake so it is comparable with similar schools and/or reflects the rate of FSM eligibility in the locality

  • undertake outreach to explain to primary school parents that there are no obstacles to their FSM-eligible children’s attendance

  • offer tasters, summer schools, mentoring and other provision to make their schools attractive to such children and their parents

  • provide information, advice and guidance to clarify the processes involved in attending their school

  • ensure that none of their policies and practice – for example requiring expensive school uniforms and equipment – are inhibitors to the attendance of FSM-eligible learners and

  • in line with the planned consultation, possibly adjust their admissions requirements to give priority to FSM-eligible children (or definitely do so if the Government opts to make this a requirement)

One could even contemplate a National Scholarships Scheme for schools, to help parents meet the not inconsiderable costs associated with attending many grammar schools (and arguably maintained in part to create a sense of exclusiveness and so a barrier to access for the poor, despite the clear provisions of the Admissions Code which prohibit this).

It would help if the office and the scholarships were centrally co-ordinated but, unfortunately, the Government’s insistence on devolving funding to schools to use autonomously rather militates against such central solutions. A shame, for they would undoubtedly secure financial efficiencies and economies of scale more than equivalent to the necessary outlay on administrative bureaucracy.

Fair Access to Grammar Schools: a modest proposal

The operation of ‘fair access’ in a selective context – whether a university or a school -brings us back to a leitmotif of this blog: the balance between excellence and equity and how it should be maintained.

Loyal readers will recall that I presented this as one of the underpinning themes in gifted and talented education worldwide – and it applies in spades to this discussion.

The data shows that there is a worrying imbalance between excellence and equity in a significant proportion of grammar schools – equally as severe as that which exists in some selective universities – and this really needs to be addressed if the Government is serious about social mobility.

How might one translate some of the suggested responsibilities of an ‘office for fair access to schools’ into a meaningful policy proposal?

Here is some back-of-the-envelope policy-making which I offer for consideration by the Next Left Blog:

  • Many of the outstanding and good-to-outstanding schools that are responding to the Government’s invitation to become academies are grammar schools (some 70 at the last count).

  • It could be made a condition of funding for these schools, captured in their funding agreements, that they should negotiate and work towards explicit targets for improving their FSM-eligible intake to the average level of FSM eligibility across the local authorities from which they recruit

  • They will need to address this through a SMART action plan which sets out and costs all the activity they will undertake to secure this – and how it will be evaluated.

  • In addition to the ‘office for fair access’ responsibilities above, they will also need to evaluate closely their 11+ selection arrangements to ensure that they are as little biased against those from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds and as little coachable as possible. The Government could even go as far as researching and introducing a standard suite of 11+ tools that fit this description.

  • In the case of all grammar schools, the requirement on outstanding schools converting to academy status to provide support to neighbouring schools should be fulfilled through relationships with the maintained primary schools with the highest rates of FSM eligibility in their locality. Collaboration should be focused explicitly on the ‘office for fair access’ tasks, concentrated on outreach, advice and support for parents and learners, to raise aspirations and demystify the process by which the learners gain access to the schools concerned.

  • Through this outreach, all grammar schools should ensure that all FSM-eligible learners with the capability to enter them receive the same degree of familiarisation and practice with their 11+ selection tests as wealthier parents can acquire from private tutors (often paying over £25 per week for the privilege).

  • In return, schools will earn an increased share of the Pupil Premium for every FSM-eligible child they admit. This will be significant given that the income for many from this source is currently negligible – almost non-existent. This should be sufficient to meet the costs of outreach and provide in-school support for FSM-eligible learners once admitted.

  • Grammar schools which made good progress on this agenda might be allowed to expand by increasing their intake and even by opening satellite schools but this would subject to the condition that at least 50% of the new places are reserved for FSM-eligible learners who pass the 11+. This would further increase the Pupil Premium funding available to the schools

  • Ideally, the schools would form a national network to spread best practice between them and to pool resources where necessary, in the absence of national co-ordination by Government. Pupil Premium income might need to be topsliced for this purpose.

Final thoughts

This still has several rough edges but, in principle, it provides a basis for grammar schools to once again become true engines of social mobility. Such a transformation would go a long way towards making them more politically acceptable, while also ensuring that grammar school academies continue to supply commensurate support to the maintained sector in their neighbourhoods.

It should attract the support of the Right Wing Conservatives and the more pragmatic of the Labour Opposition. For the abolition of selection will never happen. We must work together to restore grammar schools to their proper role as powerhouses of social mobility, rather than colluding in their continuation as guardians of elite education for the middle classes – a kind of independent education on the cheap.


January 2011



On Ability Grouping and Gifted Education – Part 2

In Part 1, I sought to:

  • clear away the terminological difficulties that complicate international discussion of this complex and sensitive issue;
  • set ability grouping within the wider education policy-making context, specifically the relationship between excellence and equity and the choice between prescription and school autonomy; and
  • summarise the key points from an objective review of international research on the benefits of setting and tracking relative to mixed ability grouping.

In a nutshell, the research tells us that, while mixed ability settings tends to favour the lowest achievers and setting/tracking is typically better for the highest achievers, when we look at the impact on the attainment of all pupils there is little difference in overall outcomes, because the benefits and disbenefits broadly balance out.

But, compared with mixed ability scenarios, setting/tracking is more likely to increase attainment differences between low achievers and high achievers and, because disadvantaged learners are more prevalent in lower sets/tracks, setting/tracking is relatively more likely to increase the achievement gap between rich and poor.

I argued that, when we develop gifted education policy – and even when we advocate for gifted learners – it behoves us to understand and accept this reality, rather than taking a partial view that concentrates solely on the benefits for the group whose interests we exist to serve.

The fundamental point is this: it cannot be right to insist on improvements in G&T education which can only be achieved at the expense of other learners. Instead of a simplistic either/or debate, we need to look at more sophisticated hybrid solutions that retain the benefits of the two different models and mould them into a better ‘third way’.

The more promising elements of such a ‘third way’ will begin to emerge from deeper reflection on the research findings.

Setting versus tracking/streaming

If we look at the issue from a UK perspective, there is seemingly broad professional consensus that streaming is less effective than setting. Streaming typically depends on crude distinctions that fail to recognise the full profile of a learner’s strengths and weaknesses. So it is quite likely that learners – even many gifted learners – will find themselves relatively under-challenged in some subjects and relatively over-challenged in others.

Conversely, setting enables schools to tailor their initial selection criteria and pedagogical approach to the subject in question. It is quite conceivable that some subjects will use sets while others remain mixed ability – that is standard practice in many English schools. It may also be possible to run sets and mixed ability groups in parallel in the same subject – eg a set for high achievers and/or a set for low achievers with other learners taught in mixed ability groups.

Setting also provides greater flexibility for schools to move pupils when necessary, in recognition that children develop at different rates in different subject areas, with lags and spurts at different times. By offering a more flexible, dynamic model, they are better able to respond quickly when a learner needs extra challenge or greater support in one particular part of the curriculum.

This is not to say that setting inevitably delivers these advantages – rather that effective setting practice does so. As with the identification of gifted learners, it can be all too easy for poorer schools to undertake setting as a once-and-for-all judgement rather than an arrangement kept under regular review and informed by careful analysis of individual pupils’ progress.

I am not sure to what extent setting (maybe we should call it ‘subject-specific tracking’) has been adopted in the US, though it clearly exists in some areas as an alternative to the cruder standard tracking approach. Setting does appear to offer more inherent advantages than the cruder alternative, but there is no reason in principle why elements of both could not be combined into a workable hybrid.

And we should not discard entirely the possibility of a workable model based exclusively on tracking. Advocates of both tracking and of setting are right to assert that, given the right kind of implementation, it ought to be possible to utilise either technique to raise standards for all learners while simultaneously narrowing achievement gaps. The big – and seemingly unanswered – question is how to realise that in practice.

How Big are the Attainment Differences Between High- and Low-Achievers?

Within the research canon, the scale of the performance gap between different tracks/sets is disputed territory. This is probably because of the statistical difficulties involved in isolating the effect of the pedagogy from the effect of prior achievement attributable to gender, ethnic and socio-economic background (amongst other variables).

More recent research suggest that the gap is probably less significant than was earlier believed. Some argue that it is negligible, but there does not seem to be a reliable body of evidence to support that contention. And, even if there were, this does not impact on the ‘sorting hat’ effect that is potentially so detrimental to those from disadvantaged backgrounds (an effect that we know well because it also undermines the effective identification of G&T populations the world over).

Teacher Quality and Deployment in Tracks and Sets

One might reasonably hypothesise that performance gaps between upper and lower tracks, streams and sets are much less likely to appear in schools which ensure that their more experienced subject-specialists are more regularly deployed at the lower end of the spectrum.

Conversely, given the impact of teacher quality on pupil performance, it would be no surprise to find that schools which deployed their best teachers at the upper end were more likely to see performance gaps widen.

This is not to suggest that it would be appropriate to load all the worst teachers into the upper sets, but merely that the distribution might be weighted more towards the lower end than it is now in a typical school. For it is an inconvenient truth often ignored by gifted educators that, by and large, high-achieving gifted learners tend to benefit from the typical distribution of teaching talent across sets or tracks.

It may or may not be attributable to teacher quality, but there does seem to be some research evidence that students in upper sets and tracks typically encounter a more enlightened pedagogy, with more opportunities for student engagement and interaction, whereas lower sets more often experience a more didactic ‘remedial’ teaching style.

Teacher Quality and Deployment in Mixed Ability Settings

In schools that follow a mixed ability approach, there is a different kind of issue about the distribution of pedagogical skill. In this context, the most important consideration becomes the effectiveness with which teachers can cater for widely differing needs within a single classroom.

While the best teachers may be able to differentiate their challenge and support across a mixed-ability class of 30 or more students, the critical issue is whether this can be achieved consistently by all teachers. This is straying into yet another contentious research area – and not one that I have yet explored in any detail.

So I am not equipped to challenge the orthodox anecdotal view – often heard from the parents of gifted learners in particular – that this is a bridge too far for many teachers, particularly if the school cannot afford to reduce the class to a more manageable size. So, they argue, these teachers need the pedagogical ‘crutch’ of a narrower achievement range within which to operate.

In passing, we should not forget that effective differentiation remains an issue even within a smaller top set or upper track. There may be a tendency, particularly amongst inexperienced staff, to assume that it is more acceptable to teach to the middle in a top set, so underserving those who are struggling to stay with the set and those who need extra challenge.

We must also acknowledge potential subject differences. It seems to be a widespread view amongst professionals that setting is potentially more valuable in the linear subjects such as maths and modern languages where the acquisition of subject knowledge is critical to progress, whereas in English and arts subjects it is not quite so essential to divide pupils on the basis of past achievement. Whether this view is reliably supported by the research literature is more open to question.


The case for and against detracking seems to hinge on this issue of teachers’ capacity to differentiate effectively in mixed ability settings. If they are not up to mark, it is of course the pupils at either extreme who are most likely to suffer, including the high-achieving gifted learners.

And it is high-achieving learners from disadvantaged backgrounds that are most vulnerable. They are more likely to be found in schools in disadvantaged urban areas: precisely the schools that cannot attract a critical mass of high quality teachers able to differentiate effectively in a mixed ability setting. It is another inconvenient truth that the better teachers are found disproportionately in more advantaged areas and schools, despite the redistributive impact of initiatives like Teach for America/Teach First.

This means that – contrary to the conclusions above about the overall negative impact of sets on performance gaps – detracking may unintentionally widen the excellence gap we have discussed in previous posts on this blog.

In my view, detracking is unlikely to succeed as a crude stand-alone adjustment. It would be much more likely to work as part of a sophisticated suite of reforms that supplement the support available for all learners, but especially those at either end of the achievement spectrum, whether that be by means of in-class ability grouping, pull-out for catch-up and extension, targeted 1:1 tuition, additional enrichment, independent learning opportunities…and so on.

The critical risk that proponents of gifted education must guard against is that, when such a suite is designed and implemented, all the funding and support is targeted at the lower achievers, while comparable support for the high achievers is neglected on the mistaken assumption that they will succeed regardless. That is against the spirit of personalised education and is manifestly unfair and inefficient.

A more sophisticated approach

Too often, the debate about tracking/setting and mixed ability settings is over-simplified into a straightforward either/or choice between two mutually exclusive options. But in reality the real issue is how effectively a school deploys its professional and para-professional resources and a rich pedagogical armoury to personalise learning for all its pupils.

Schools need to think carefully about the needs of all their learners and to devise solutions that will enable them to deliver improved standards for all (excellence) and a narrowing of achievement gaps (equity). The latter must not be secured by holding high-level achievement steady while the poorer performers catch up.

In the English context, as we move towards greater institutional autonomy, this requires each and every school to secure the necessary expertise to make such decisions with confidence, to evaluate their reforms properly and to adjust them in the light of the evidence.

The trick, as always, is to provide a broad, flexible and non-bureaucratic review framework that supports the weaker schools without limiting the options of the stronger ones. In an ideal world this would be mediated by a School Improvement Partner or similar, but it should also be capable of direct use by the school’s staff and governors, possibly in partnership with another school, so providing some degree of objective external scrutiny.

On the surface, the politicians seem confident in schools’ ability to deliver and are freeing them from several constraints upon their autonomy; but it would appear that they also continue to hanker after prescription in certain areas – perhaps those where they hold strong personal beliefs, or those (like setting) where they know that opinion in schools is divided. For I would be wrong to give the impression that setting in English schools is a ‘done deal’.

Once again there seems to be a dearth of reliable national data. But a crude estimate can be derived from OFSTED 2007/08 observation data quoted in a 2009 PQ answer. This suggests that only around 15% of primary lessons are organised on the basis of ability, whereas the comparable figure for the secondary sector is 45%. So, even in the secondary sector, the small majority of lessons is still likely to be mixed-ability.

There is a case for including within a review framework an expectation that setting will be considered, but only as part of a much wider-ranging assessment of school organisation, teacher deployment and classroom pedagogy. It doesn’t make sense to consider setting in splendid isolation.

As part of this process, schools would need to satisfy themselves that a decision to introduce setting would not inhibit them from narrowing achievement gaps. They might be invited to consider setting as a default element of their strategy if they have no evidence to suggest that an alternative arrangement would result in better achievement outcomes for their high achievers and their low achievers, especially (but not exclusively) those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Some Innovation Pointers

Such a framework should overtly encourage schools to experiment and innovate, to evaluate carefully and to learn from each other’s experience.

Ironically, while mainstream US opinion seems relatively wedded to tracking, US educators (and Australian educators too) have experimented much more thoroughly than England with hybrid solutions, innovative classroom grouping techniques and other promising approaches to organisation and differentiation.

Let us hope that the greater autonomy promised to schools here allows them to be equally innovative. They might begin by giving more serious attention to the potential of vertical grouping – where pupils are organised on the basis of achievement, but across year groups rather than within them. With one or two honourable exceptions vertical grouping is not deployed here as a means of improving differentiation, but rather as a pragmatic solution to small classes in rural schools.

And we could do with significantly more English school experience of cluster grouping, where the G&T pupils (or low achievers for that matter) are concentrated in a single mixed ability class with a specially trained teacher rather than being dispersed across a range of classes, so relatively isolated from opportunities to learn with their peers.

For the research demonstrates two things above all else:

  • There is no single right answer to the question how best to organise and differentiate within a school; and
  • We have very much more still to learn about what constitutes effective practice per se.


September 2010

On Ability Grouping and Gifted Education: Part 1

After a recent #gtchat on this subject and follow-up posts from fellow participants, I felt an urge to set out my own perspective on this vexed question.

I cannot pretend to have reviewed the voluminous research undertaken on both sides of the Atlantic, let alone worldwide, but what I have digested leads me to the comments below.

Before we summarise the research evidence, let us begin with three important pieces of context.



First – On Excellence and Equity

Regular readers will know my view that the balance between these two principles has a powerful impact on the nature of gifted education policy at all levels of our various education systems.

Like non-identical twins, excellence and equity are often found together. Dressed in various guises, they regularly find their way into politicians’ statements of their wider educational objectives. For example, England’s Secretary of State for Education maintains that his Government’s top educational priorities are ‘raising standards’ (aka excellence) and ‘narrowing gaps’ (aka equity). It wouldn’t take much effort to unearth similar statements from most of his opposite numbers around the developed world.

Politicians are often rather coy when asked to say whether one of these twins is more important to them than the other. They tend to be given equal billing regardless of party political viewpoint.

But, given a longer term perspective, they can be imagined more accurately as sitting at either end of a policy seesaw. At any particular time, one of the pair is usually in the ascendant, but it always seems as though that elevated status inevitably results in the other gaining ascendancy in its turn, though perhaps not until the next administration, or even the next but one.

Please excuse the dreadful mixing of metaphors but, as with G&T education – and other critical issues like school admission – ability grouping is sensitive territory. It forms part of the troubled borderlands of education policy where the twin principles of excellence and equity often clash and have to be reconciled (or, failing that, to coexist in a state of some tension).

Second – On Prescription and Autonomy

The squaring of excellence and equity within these educational badlands can be attempted within the declared education policy of the authority, state or country concerned, or it can be devolved to schools. This applies to ability grouping, gifted education or any similarly contentious issue where the twin issues are wrestling for ascendancy.

The second option – devolution – seemingly enables politicians to sidestep the issue, which is often attractive because the alternative centralised prescriptive approach risks leading them into hot water and/or requires a commitment of additional resources that they do not have to spare.

But it is not feasible to admit such reasons openly, so devolution tends to be justified on the grounds that the administration should not be fettering the discretion of the professionals. In the case of ability grouping, they will argue that it cannot be right for them to trespass in the secret garden of pedagogy (to use a phrase that will resonate with English educationalists). That is rightly the province of the school, which must be free to reach decisions without meddling governmental interference, taking full account of its unique circumstances and the particular needs of its pupils.

Both prescription and autonomy have their weaknesses. In the case of autonomy, the problem is that a government is typically accountable to an electorate for its education policies and will need at some point to demonstrate success in achieving its stated priorities. If too many schools act in a way that runs counter to those priorities, the government must either admit failure or – much more likely – use evidence selectively to put the best possible spin on affairs.

A sensible administration will not trust solely to their powers of communication however. If there is a chance that the collective decisions taken in schools will not deliver the outcome they stand for, they will also want to deploy the various ‘policy levers’ available to surreptitiously encourage schools towards the ‘right’ decision. Examples of such levers are the distribution of funding, or the inclusion of relevant issues within inspection and quality assurance processes, or a set of identified priorities for teachers’ professional development.

Sometimes there are inherent contradictions in a government’s policy that need to be reconciled. This is a problem regardless of whether prescription or autonomy is in the ascendant. In the case of autonomy, there is a strong risk of mixed messages, schools are divided over the best approach and policy levers are introduced that pull in different directions.

On occasions there can be policy contradictions and a conflict between prescription and autonomy. Before the recent General Election, the senior Conservative partners in what has become the Coalition Government committed to freeing teachers and schools from government interference (autonomy) and narrow gaps in performance between advantaged and disadvantaged learners (prescription, equity) and ensure that setting became much more prevalent in schools (prescription, excellence).

It will take some sleight of hand to pull off that particular trick, as we shall see. But maybe the commitment to setting has fallen by the wayside – it did not feature in the Coalition Government’s priorities for education reform and we wait to see whether it will reappear in the forthcoming Schools White Paper.

Third – On Terminology

A further similarity between ability grouping and G&T education is that different terminology is used in different parts of the world. This makes it much more likely that discussants will become disputants, because they do not share a common pedagogical language.

In the US context, one most often encounters the term ‘tracking’ and its rather inelegant antithesis ‘detracking’.

As I understand it, ‘tracking’ is typically used to mean dividing pupils into different educational programmes – either on the basis of ability or past achievement – which apply across all or most of the school experience. The equivalent term in the UK is ‘streaming’.

I cannot find recent and reliable data to illustrate how prevalent tracking is in the US. Some of the research studies imply that it has been almost universal in US high schools, at least until ‘detracking’ began in earnest around a decade ago. Conversely, while streaming was once popular in England, it now seems comparatively rare. It seems to survive in a few comprehensive schools that are competing with selective schools and so opt to establish a ‘grammar stream’ but is otherwise discarded as poor practice.

It is also unclear to what extent US tracking practice has morphed into what we in the UK call ‘setting’ – the grouping of pupils according to ability or achievement in specific subjects. As far as I can see, the stereotypical generic and tripartite tracking model in the US still seems common, but I stand to be corrected. Setting is much more prevalent in UK secondary schools, especially in the so-called ‘linear subjects’, and has also increased in primary schools, predominantly in the core subjects of English and maths.

‘Detracking’ is the process of dispensing ‘tracking’ in favour of exclusively mixed ability classes. The online literature implies that this is happening in many schools and states across the US but, yes you’ve guessed it, reliable data seems rather thin on the ground.

Tracking, setting and streaming all take place across the school, or at least across an entire year group within a school. They are therefore clearly distinct from ‘selection’ – which is the shorthand term we in the UK apply to approaches that sort pupils into different schools – and to ability grouping at the classroom level.

So, with our terminological differences out of the way, we can move on to consider what the vast body of research actually tells us about the effectiveness of tracking, detracking, streaming and setting.

Top Line Conclusions from the Research

The first and most obvious point is that the research conclusions are contested and – to be brutally honest – not always entirely objective. Put very crudely, those with an equity focus tend to marshal the arguments in such a way that helps them conclude that tracking/setting/streaming is detrimental to learners from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Conversely, those with an excellence perspective (including most gifted education researchers) tend to work towards the conclusion that it is markedly beneficial to high achievers, if not to G&T learners per se.

Both groups tend to downplay the evidence that does not fully support their position.

For a more balanced view I turned to an extensive and objective 2005 literature review for England’s education ministry. This concludes that the research worldwide can be interpreted as follows:

  • no single form of grouping benefits all pupils and there is little attainment advantage associated with setting – ie no significant difference between setting and mixed ability classes in overall attainment outcomes across all pupils
  • ‘at the extremes of attainment’ low-achieving pupils show more progress in mixed ability classes and high-achieving pupils show more progress in sets
  • lower sets tend to contain a disproportionate number of boys, pupils from those ethnic groups that tend to underachieve and pupils with SEN
  • there are aspirational and behavioural disadvantages to setting, predominantly amongst lower attainers and there is a correlation between disaffection and setting, particular for pupils in the lowest sets
  • higher sets are more likely to have experienced and highly-qualified teachers whereas lower sets experience more changes of teacher and are less likely to be taught by a specialist in the subject.

The terminology is tailored for a UK audience but these conclusions apply in equal measure to tracking versus mixed ability settings. Since the gains of high achievers are offset by the losses to low achievers – and middle achievers tend to do broadly the same in either scenario – neither setting nor tracking has little overall impact on the raising of standards (excellence).

However, compared with mixed ability teaching, setting and tracking tend to increase performance gaps between high achievers and low achievers per se. Moreover, because pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are found disproportionately in the lower sets or tracks, this serves to widen socio-economic achievement gaps (equity), as well as some ethnic minority achievement gaps and the gender gap between girls and boys.

Next Time

In Part 2 we will look more closely at some of the issues beneath these headlines – playing back into the mix the wider contextual issues above. But, for now, my point is this: we, as an international community of gifted educators, ought to be prepared to accept this as the broad baseline consensual position, rather than holding on to an alternative and partial version of reality that is focused too narrowly and exclusively on the needs of gifted learners.


September 2010

The Transatlantic Excellence Gap: Part 2 – England

In Part 1 we considered the Excellence Gap in the USA through the  publication ‘Mind the (Other) Gap’

We now turn our attention to the UK where a new Conservative/Liberal Coalition Government assumed power in May 2010.

The Secretary of State’s Vision

When Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, appeared before the Education Select Committee in July 2010, he set out his vision for education reform.

The entire session is available on video here. At around 11 minutes in, Gove says:

‘One of the problems that this country has had historically is that we’ve been very good at educating a minority – the gifted and talented – quite well, but the majority of children have not been educated as well as they should have been.’

He doesn’t give any evidence to support this claim or say to what period it refers.

To give him credit, Gove goes on to repeat a general commitment to improving educational equity and closing achievement gaps. He cites Feinstein’s research in a soundbite that was later picked up by the national press:

‘Children of low cognitive ability from wealthy backgrounds overtake children of high cognitive ability from poor backgrounds before they even arrive at school. In effect, rich thick kids do better than poor clever children, and when they arrive at school, the situation as they go through gets worse.’

Whether this can be taken as a commitment to address the excellence gap remains to be seen.

How Good is the UK at Educating High Achievers?

If we consider the international comparisons evidence on high achieving students, the evidence that we educate them better than our international competitors is very mixed:

  • In PISA 2006, the UK is well above the average in terms of the percentage achieving the highest benchmark in science, slightly above the average in reading and somewhat below the average in maths. The gap between the UK and the top performers was relatively narrow in science but significantly larger in maths – and larger still in reading;
  • In TIMSS 2007 16% of English pupils at Grade 4 attained the advanced benchmark for maths – well above the median of 5% but falling far short of Singapore’s 41%; some 8% of English pupils reached the advanced benchmark at Grade 8 – once more significantly above the median of 2% but falling far short of Taiwan at 45%;
  • Also in TIMSS 2007, 14% of English pupils achieved the advanced benchmark for science at Grade 4, compared with a median of 7% and the highest achieving Singapore at 36%; the English score increased to 17% at Grade 8, far exceeding the median of 3% but still well behind Singapore at 32%; and
  • In PIRLS 2006, England at 15% was close behind Russia and Singapore, each with 19% achieving the advanced benchmark in literacy – and well ahead of the median of 7%.

We also know from the PISA 2006 science data that, in a typical country, about 25% of top performers are drawn from socio-economic background below the national average. At 24.9%, the UK is almost exactly average.

The percentage rises to a third or more in the likes of Japan, Finland, Austria and Hong Kong; it falls as low as 20% in Portugal, Greece, France and the USA.

Taken together, this suggests that the UK/England is above average in educating its high achievers and not atypical in terms of its excellence gap, but that it lags far behind the world leaders – typically the knowedge-based economies that invest most heavily in gifted education.

Domestic Evidence of England’s Excellence Gap

The Select Committee did not get to hear Gove’s favourite statistic to demonstrate educational inequity – that in 2007 just 45 students receiving free school meals entered Oxford or Cambridge Universities.

The fact that he deploys this so regularly gives one reason to hope that the excellence gap is something he cares about and is determined to address.

The figure can be sourced to an answer to a Parliamentary Question he asked in February 2010 while in Opposition. The reply shows that Oxford and Cambridge are not the only institutions that take in relatively few disadvantaged learners – Bristol, Durham, Exeter and York were amongst others with similarly low intakes.

All the evidence demonstrates that this situation is largely – but not exclusively – attributable to the lower attainment of disadvantaged students. Another recent PQ answer stated that, in 2009, just 509 students who had been eligible for free school meals in Year 11 went on to achieve 3 or more A grades at A level or the equivalent. Oxbridge therefore has a very small pool in which to fish.

Previous answers, based only on those taking post-16 qualifications at school, suggest that non-FSM students are three times more likely (10.5%) to achieve this benchmark than their FSM peers (3.5%).

If we go back to KS4, we find that, in 2009 only 1,254 pupils eligible for FSM achieved 5+ GCSEs at A*/A or equivalent, compared with 45,294 of those ineligible. This is equivalent to 9% of non-eligible pupils and just 1% of those eligible for FSM.

Research undertaken for the Sutton Trust on attrition rates suggest that two-thirds of FSM pupils amongst the top-performing 20% of all pupils at Key Stage 2 (age 11) are no longer amongst the top-performing 20% at Key Stage 4 (age 16) and half of those do not progress to university at 18.

So we can reasonably conclude that a sizeable excellence gap exists in England.

Will Government policy to tackle inequity help to narrow the Excellence Gap?

The Coalition has set out its Programme for Government and this includes several actions that should help to narrow general attainment gaps over time, for example:

  • the extension of the academies programme and introduction of free schools;
  • the introduction of a pupil premium for disadvantaged pupils up to age 16
  • the reform of school league tables

In his evidence to the Select Committee Gove also justified his reform of capital building programmes and a recently announced review of early intervention in these terms.

But none of these address the excellence gap directly – and it remains to be seen how much attention this will be given by the Government relative to pushing up the long tail of underachievement amongst FSM-eligible pupils. There are certainly sound economic arguments for doing both, as we have seen from earlier posts.

Even if the commitment is there, the time lags associated with pre-school and school reform are such that Gove will not be able to point to a directly associated improvement in Oxbridge entry during the lifetime of this Government.

If that is to be achieved, it will depend in large part on the Government’s response to the Browne Review of Higher Education Funding and Student Finance due to conclude in Autumn 2010. This will be the responsibility of a different Minister – Dr Vince Cable.

The Coalition’s Programme for Government comes close to a commitment:

‘We will await Lord Browne’s final report…and will judge its proposals against the need to…increase social mobility…and attract a higher proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.’

In Part 3 we will look at what the Browne Review is likely to recommend in respect of fair access to selective universities – and how likely it is that this will succeed.


August 2010