The Last Post

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I promised that I would post a final entry on this blog to explain why Gifted Phoenix is returning to the flames. This is published exactly one week prior to regeneration.

trumpeter-569862_640Let me apologise at the outset for the plethora of first-person pronouns in this post.

I tend not to blow my own trumpet because I find such behaviour in others so blatant and cringeworthy.

It’s as if they were carrying a huge banner saying ‘JUST LOOK HOW IMPORTANT I THINK I AM, YET HOW GLARINGLY INSECURE’.

This is not a typical Gifted Phoenix post – less reasoned analysis and more personal rant – but I hope it will help to explain why I feel how I do, and help to provide some sense of closure.

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What I did

Gifted Phoenix is my social media alias. He made his appearance in 2010 at the same time as the real me became an independent education consultant.

He divided his time between:

  • Twitter, where his profile described him as an ‘education policy analyst specialising in global gifted and talented education and a balanced critique of wider education reform here in England’. He has posted over 30,000 tweets and acquired almost 6,700 followers.
  • This eponymous blog, specialising in ‘global gifted education and English education policy analysis’ which contains 217 posts. Many are substantial pieces of work, often of 10,000 words or more.

I intended that Gifted Phoenix would be useful to me as well as to others.

I planned to use Twitter as a virtual filing cabinet, logging all relevant publications and news commentary for my own purposes while simultaneously publishing each record openly.  My feed is a sizeable searchable database, extremely useful for researching blog posts and responding to queries.

I decided to blog differently too. I wanted to develop a research-heavy oeuvre, akin to academic journal papers, but without the tediously formulaic structure and style. I sought to produce detailed posts written in short, pithy journalistic paragraphs. I tried to be authoritative, reliable, balanced and evidence-based.

The early work adopts a determinedly global perspective and focuses on gifted education. The later posts deal almost exclusively with education in England, especially the implications for high attainers.

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Why I’m stopping 

As a gifted person I can confirm that gifted people are often rather stupid.

Rather stupidly I had assumed an unwritten contract with you, Dear Reader.

The deal was this:

I would provide an entirely free service via social media to anyone that chose to access it and, in return, the beneficiaries (that’s you), having assured themselves of my expertise, would reciprocate with a regular supply of well-paid consultancy, conference and written work.

But instead I found my side of the contract becoming steadily more onerous while the supply of paid work – never more than a trickle at the best of times – has dried up almost entirely. Most of my working week has been dedicated to supplying freebies for your delectation.

Perhaps you never appreciated that there was an unwritten contract, or never fully understood it….

Perhaps you did understand, at least implicitly, but played me for a fool by taking the free stuff while mocking my naivete…

Or perhaps I should have sold myself and my wares with rather more chutzpah (though that’s a big ask for a borderline Aspie).

So the bottom line is financial. I’m working too hard for too little gain.

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I have some other frustrations.

There has always been an undercurrent associated with the fact that I am not and have never been a serving teacher. There’s a constituency on Twitter utterly convinced that teachers have the monopoly on educational wisdom.

That’s bollocks.

I rarely touch on pedagogy but in all other respects I’d back myself against most teachers and school leaders in my areas of specialism. I might not have the experience of either, or an academic background, but I am still one of the foremost experts in my field (mind that banner!)

I fear the ‘school-led, self-improving system’ is a beguiling delusion. Presumably it has diverted much of the available consultancy work towards Teaching Schools and their ilk. I’m sure the best of them provide a quality of service I could never aspire to. But the worst are endlessly recycling their own inadequacies. Neither is predisposed to work collaboratively with the likes of me.

Then there are the other educational cliques, perpetually engaged in mutual backslapping. Much more of the available work is distributed by them, between themselves. There is no space for an interloper, especially one who is constitutionally incapable of suffering fools gladly.

In this respect the English education scene is only marginally better than the academic gifted education community. I gave up on them a few years back, entirely disillusioned with the pantheon of minor deities.

They’re incurably Americo-centric. Each of them peddles their own belief system, constantly failing to grasp the bigger picture. They refuse to make common cause with each other, or with anyone else.

They bolster themselves up with vacuous doctorates and chairs and pour scorn on those who recognise their pointlessness. Almost everything they publish festers behind a paywall, but most of it is irrelevant anyway. With a few honourable exceptions they are a complete waste of space.

I’m also fed up with several of the prominent educational organisations here in England. It pays to keep on their right side, better still to butter them up, but I don’t do flattery.

Too many use their privileged positions to advance silly ideas.

Some employ far too many young whippersnappers, still wet behind the ears, yet puffed up by the arrogance of youth.

Several react negatively to intelligent, constructive criticism. Rather than addressing it openly, they default automatically to an Ostrich Position, pretending it doesn’t exist. They exemplify the ‘not invented here’ mindset.

And I mustn’t forget the feckless few who make verbal commitments to commission work, only to renege or turn strangely silent.

I have a blacklist of organisations and individuals that have shafted me in this fashion, or in others, all of them blissfully untroubled by stirrings of guilt. None has the faintest notion that an apology is due.

I was planning to publish that list right here, but I guess discretion is the better part of valour.  A plague on all their houses. I anticipate keenly the biter bit.

On top of all this I am intensely frustrated at my apparent inability to convince others through logic and rational argument that high attaining learners, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, have an equal right to educational challenge and support.

The opposite prejudice – which so many of us fought so hard to counter during the Blair years – now seems to be regaining ascendancy.  That is profoundly dispiriting.

Finally there are some personal reasons. I must try to be a better house husband and family man. I have numerous other interests that I’d like to pursue before I’m too doddery. I might even find a way to generate a more reliable income stream.

End of rant.

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Final arrangements

I have been remiss in getting to this point without extending heartfelt thanks and appreciation to many supporters, too numerous to mention. Without you Gifted Phoenix wouldn’t have lasted this long. Both he and I are really most grateful.

Ironically enough, since I made my decision I’ve been offered some consultancy by a Particularly Prestigious Client. I won’t count chickens as there’s no contract yet. Their name would have looked great on my Linked In profile, had I been touting for more business.

This work I will accept, although I have dropped all other commitments.

The Other Half says she’ll never forgive me if I turn down fresh offers that play to my strengths, though I must admit I’m sorely tempted. I don’t want you to think I’m  writing this to shame you into charity.

I’ve decided to protect my Twitter feed, which is supposed to mean you can’t access it any more (though Google might still find a way). I don’t think you’ll miss it after a little while.

As for my blog, you’ll find it here over the summer. Thereafter, I’m not sure. There might be an e-book or two if I can summon the will, but nothing with a hard cover. I might just throw the switch. But, once again, I’m sure Google will come to your aid if you’re desperate. I’ll make sure the key documents go to a good home.

I won’t be responding to comments on this post, here or on Twitter, so you can say goodbye or vituperate with impunity, whatever you will.

For the future all I ask is that, if ever you mention my work in yours, you cite it and me properly.

I live in hope that much of the passive resistance I’ve encountered is down to your problems with the messenger. Someone else whose jib has the right cut will make the identical points and the Powers That Be will be readier to listen.

One last request, if I may…When you see or hear my arguments recycled and are feeling brave enough, be good enough to drop in a casual:

‘I fear you’ve been reading Gifted Phoenix’

Maybe from time to time I’ll search on that phrase and appreciate that he did make some difference after all.

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So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish

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GP

July 2015

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Will Maths Hubs Work?

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Gyroscope_precessionGyroscope_precessionGyroscope_precessionThis post takes a closer look at Maths Hubs, exploring the nature of the model, their early history and performance to date.

It reflects on their potential contribution to the education of the ‘mathematically most able’ and considers whether a similar model might support ‘most able education’.

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Background

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Origins of this post

The post was prompted by the potential connection between two separate stimuli:

‘We aim to make Britain the best place in the world to study maths, science and engineering, measured by improved performance in the PISA league tables….We will make sure that all students are pushed to achieve their potential and create more opportunities to stretch the most able.’

  • My own recent post on Missing Talent (June 2015) which discussed the Sutton Trust/education datalab recommendation that:

‘Schools where highly able pupils currently underperform should be supported through the designation of another local exemplar school

Exemplar schools…should be invited to consider whether they are able to deliver a programme of extra-curricular support to raise horizons and aspirations for children living in the wider area.’

The second led to a brief Twitter discussion about parallels with an earlier initiative during which Maths Hubs were mentioned.

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Links to previous posts

I touched on Maths Hubs once before, in the final section of 16-19 Maths Free Schools Revisited (October 2014) which dealt with ‘prospects for the national maths talent pipeline’.

This reviewed the panoply of bodies involved in maths education at national level and the potential advantages of investing in a network with genuinely national reach, rather than in a handful of new institutions with small localised intakes and limited capacity for outreach:

‘Not to put to finer point on it, there are too many cooks. No single body is in charge; none has lead responsibility for developing the talent pipeline

The recent introduction of maths hubs might have been intended to bring some much-needed clarity to a complex set of relationships at local, regional and national levels. But the hubs seem to be adding to the complexity by running even more new projects, starting with a Shanghai Teacher Exchange Programme.

A network-driven approach to talent development might just work…but it must be designed to deliver a set of shared strategic objectives. Someone authoritative needs to hold the ring.

What a pity there wasn’t a mechanism to vire the £72m capital budget for 12 free schools into a pot devoted to this end. For, as things stand, it seems that up to £12m will have been spent on two institutions with a combined annual cohort of 120 students, while a further £60m may have to be surrendered back to the Treasury.’

Two further posts are less directly relevant but ought to be mentioned in passing:

The second in particular raises questions about the suitability of NCETM’s version of mastery for our high attaining learners, arguing that essential groundwork has been neglected and that the present approach to ‘stretch and challenge’ is unnecessarily narrow and restrictive.

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Structure of this post

The remainder of this post is divided into three principal sections:

  • Material about the introduction of Maths Hubs and a detailed exploration of the model. This takes up approximately half of the post.
  • A review of the Hubs’ work programme and the progress they have made during their first year of operation.
  • Proposals for Maths Hubs to take the lead in improving the education of mathematically able learners and for the potential introduction of ‘most able hubs’ to support high attainers more generally. I stop short of potential reform of the entire ‘national maths talent pipeline’ since that is beyond the scope of this post.

Since readers may not be equally interested in all these sections I have supplied the customary page jumps from each of the bullet points above and to the Conclusion, for those who prefer to cut to the chase.

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The introduction of the Maths Hubs model

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Initial vision

Maths Hubs were first announced in a DfE press release published in December 2013.

The opening paragraph describes the core purpose as improving teacher quality:

‘Education Minister Elizabeth Truss today announced £11 million for new maths hubs to drive up the quality of maths teachers – as international test results showed England’s performance had stagnated.’

The press release explains the Coalition Government’s plans to introduce a national network of some 30 ‘mathematics education strategic hubs’ (MESH) each led by a teaching school.

A variety of local strategic partners will be drawn into each hub, including teaching school alliances, other ‘school and college groupings’, university faculties, subject associations, ‘appropriate’ local employers and local representatives of national maths initiatives.

There is an expectation that all phases of education will be engaged, particularly ‘early years to post-16’.

National co-ordination will fall to the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM), currently run under contract to DfE by a consortium comprising Tribal Education, the UCL Institute of Education, Mathematics in Education and Industry (MEI) and Myscience.

(A 2014 PQ reply gives the value of this contract as £6.827m, although this probably reflects a 3-year award made in 2012. It must have been extended by a further year, but will almost certainly have to be retendered for the next spending review period, beginning in April 2016.

The £11m budget for Maths Hubs is separate and additional. It is not clear whether part of this sum has also been awarded to NCETM through a single tender. There is more information about funding mid-way through this post.)

The press release describes the Hubs as both a national and a school-led model:

‘The network will bring together the emerging national leaders of mathematics education and aim to make school-led national subject improvement a reality.’

These emerging national leaders are assumed to be located in the lead schools and not elsewhere in the system, at NCETM or in other national organisations.

The policy design is broadly consistent with my personal preference for a ‘managed market’ approach, midway between a ‘bottom-up’ market-driven solution and a centralised and prescriptive ‘top-down’ model

But it embodies a fundamental tension, arising from the need to reconcile the Government’s national priorities with a parallel local agenda.

In order to work smoothly, one set of priorities will almost certainly take precedence over the other (and it won’t be the local agenda).

The model is also expected to:

‘…ensure that all the support provided…is grounded in evidence about what works, both in terms of mathematics teaching and the development of teachers of mathematics.’

Each Hub will be expected to provide support for maths education across all other schools in the area, taking in the full spectrum of provision:

  • recruitment of maths specialists into teaching
  • initial training of maths teachers and converting existing teachers into maths [sic]
  • co-ordinating and delivering a wide range of maths continuing professional development (CPD) and school-to-school support
  • ensuring maths leadership is developed, eg running a programme for aspiring heads of maths departments
  • helping maths enrichment programmes to reach a large number of pupils from primary school onwards’.

This is a particularly tall order, both in terms of the breadth of Hubs’ responsibilities and the sheer number of institutions which they are expected to support. It is over-ambitious given the budget allocated for the purpose and, as we shall see, was scaled back in later material.

The press release says that NCETM has already tested the model with five pathfinders.

It adds:

The main programme will be robustly evaluated, and if it proves successful in raising the standards of mathematics teaching it may be continued in 2016 to 2017, contingent on future spending review outcomes.’

What constitutes ‘the main programme’ is unclear, though it presumably includes the Hubs’ contribution to national projects, if not their local priorities.

Note that continuation from 2016 onwards is conditional on the outcomes of this evaluation, specifically a directly attributable and measurable improvement in maths teaching standards.

I have been unable to trace a contract for the evaluation, which would suggest that one has not been commissioned. This is rather a serious oversight.

We do not know how NCETM is monitoring the performance of the Hubs, nor do we know what evidence will inform a decision about whether to continue with the programme as a whole.

We have only the most basic details of national programmes in AY2015/16 and no information at all about the Hubs’ longer term prospects.

I asked the Maths Hubs Twitter feed about evaluation and was eventually referred to NCETM’s Comms Director.

I have not made contact because:

  • It is a point of principle that these posts rely exclusively on material already available online and so in the public domain. (This reflects a personal commitment to transparency in educational policy.)
  • The Comms Director wouldn’t have to be involved unless NCETM felt that the information was sensitive and had to be ‘managed’ in some way – and that tells me all I need to know.
  • I am not disposed to pursue NCETM for clarification since they have shown zero interest in engaging with me over previous posts, even though I have expressly invited their views.

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Selection of the Hubs

Three months later, in March 2014, further details were published as part of the process of selecting the Hubs.

The document has two stabs at describing the aims of the project. The first emphasises local delivery:

‘The aim is to enable every school and college in England, from early years to the post-16 sector, to access locally-tailored and quality support in all areas of maths teaching and learning.’

This continues to imply full national reach, although one might argue that ‘enabling access’ is achieved by providing a Hub within reasonable distance of each institution and does not demand the active engagement of every school and college.

The second strives to balance national priorities and local delivery:

‘The aim of the national network of Maths Hubs will be to ensure that all schools have access to excellent maths support that is relevant to their specific needs and that is designed and managed locally. They will also be responsible for the coordinated implementation of national projects to stimulate improvement and innovation in maths education.

Note that these national priorities have now become associated with innovation as well as improvement. This is ‘top-down’ rather than ‘school-led’ innovation – there is no specific push for innovative local projects.

At this stage the Hubs’ initial (national) priorities are given as:

  • Leading the Shanghai Teacher Exchange Programme
  • Supporting implementation of the new maths national curriculum from September 2014 and
  • Supporting introduction of new maths GCSEs and Core Maths qualifications in 2015.

The guidance specifies that:

‘Each Maths Hub will operate at a sub-regional or city regional level. The hubs will work with any group of schools or colleges in the area that request support, or who are referred to the hub for support.’

So responsibility for seeking assistance is placed on other schools and colleges and on third parties (perhaps Ofsted or Regional School Commissioners?) making referrals – Hubs will not be expected to reach out proactively to every institution in their catchment.

The competition is no longer confined to teaching schools. Any school that meets the initial eligibility criteria may submit an expression of interest. But the text is clear that only schools need apply – colleges are seemingly ineligible.

Moreover, schools must be state-funded and rated Outstanding by Ofsted for Overall Effectiveness, Pupil Achievement, Quality of Teaching and Leadership and Management.

Teaching schools are not expected to submit Ofsted inspection evidence – their designation is sufficient.

The guidance says:

‘We may choose to prioritise expression of interest applications based on school performance, geographical spread and innovative practice in maths education.’

NCETM reported subsequently that over 270 expressions of interest were received and about 80 schools were invited to submit full proposals.

The evidence used to select between these is set out in the guidance. There are four main components:

  • Attainment and progress data (primary or secondary and post-16 where relevant) including attainment data (but not progress data) for FSM pupils (as opposed to ‘ever 6 FSM’).
  • Support for improvement and professional development
  • Leadership quality and commitment
  • Record and capacity for partnership and collaboration

The full text is reproduced below

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Criteria application Capture 1Criteria application capture 2Criteria application Capture 3Criteria application Capture 4.

It is instructive to compare the original version with the assessment criteria set out for the limited Autumn 2015 competition (see below).

In the updated version applicants can be either colleges or schools. Applicants will be invited to presentation days during which their commitment to mastery will be tested:

‘Applicants will be asked to set out…How they will support the development of mastery approaches to teaching mathematics, learning particularly from practice in Shanghai and Singapore.’

The Maths Hub model may be locally-driven but only institutions that support the preferred approach need apply.

The criteria cover broadly the same areas but they have been beefed up significantly.

The original version indicated that full proposals would require evidence of ‘school business expertise’ and ‘informed innovation in maths education’, but these expectations are now spelled out in the criteria.

Applicants must:

‘Provide evidence of a strong track record of taking accountability for funding and contracting other schools/organisations to deliver projects, including value for money, appropriate use of public funding, and impact.’

They must also:

‘Provide two or three examples of how you have led evidence-informed innovation in maths teaching. Include details of evaluation outcomes.

Provide information about the key strategies you would expect the hub to employ to support effective innovation.

Provide evidence of how you propose to test and implement the teaching maths for mastery approach within the hub. Show how effective approaches will be embedded across all school phases.’

Note that this innovative capacity is linked explicitly with the roll-out of mastery, a national priority.

The new guide explains that action plans prepared by the successful applicants will be ‘agreed by the NCETM and submitted to the DfE for approval’. This two-stage process might suggest that NCETM’s decision-making is not fully trusted. Alternatively, it might have something to do with the funding flows.

No further information was released about issues arising during the original selection process. It seems probable that some parts of the country submitted several strong bids while others generated relatively few or none at all.

It will have been necessary to balance the comparative strength of bids against their geographical distribution, and probably to ‘adjust’ the territories of Hubs where two or more particularly strong bids were received from schools in relatively close proximity.

It is not clear whether the NCETM’s five pathfinders were automatically included.

Successful bidders were confirmed in early June 2014, so the competition took approximately three months to complete.

One contemporary TSA source says that Hubs were ‘introduced at a frantic pace’. A 2-day introductory conference took place in Manchester on 18-19 June, prior to the formal launch in London in July.

Hubs had to submit their action plans for approval by the end of the summer term and to establish links with key partners in readiness to become operational ‘from the autumn term 2014’. (The TSA source says ‘in September’).

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The Hubs are announced

A further DfE press release issued on 1 July 2014 identified 32 Hubs. Two more were added during the autumn term, bringing the total to 34, although the FAQs on the Maths Hubs website still say that there were only 32 ‘in the first wave’.

This implies that a second ‘wave’ is (or was) anticipated.

An earlier NCETM presentation indicated that 35 hubs were planned but it took a full year for the final vacancy to be advertised.

As noted above, in July 2015, an application form and guide were issued ‘for schools and colleges that want to lead a maths hub in south-east London and Cumbria or north Lancashire.’

The guide explains:

‘There are currently 34 Maths Hubs across England with funding available for a 35th Maths Hub in the North West of England. There is a geographical gap in Cumbria and North Lancashire where previously we were unsuccessful in identifying a suitable school or college to lead a Maths Hub in this area. In addition, after establishing the Maths Hub in first year, the lead school for the London South-East Maths Hub has decided to step down from its role.’

As far as I can establish this is the first time that the original failure to recruit the final Hub in the North-West has been mentioned publicly.

No reason is given for the decision by another lead school to drop out. The school in question is Woolwich Polytechnic School.

The two new Hubs are expected to be operational by November 2015. Applications will be judged by an unidentified panel.

Had the first tranche of Hubs proved extremely successful, one assumes that the second wave would have been introduced in readiness for academic year 2015/16, but perhaps it is necessary to await the outcome of the forthcoming spending review, enabling the second wave to be introduced from September 2016.

The embedded spreadsheet below gives details of all 34 Hubs currently operating.

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Most lead institutions are schools, the majority of them secondary academies. A couple of grammar schools are involved as well as several church schools. Catholic institutions are particularly well represented.

Two of the London Hubs are led by singleton primary schools and a third by two primary schools working together. Elsewhere one Hub is based in a 14-19 tertiary college and another is led jointly by a 16-19 free school.

Some are hosted by various forms of school partnership. These include notable multi-academy trusts including the Harris Federation, Outwood Grange Academies Trust and Cabot Learning Federation.

The difference in capacity between a single primary school and a large MAT is enormous, but the expectations of each are identical, as are the resources made available to implement the work programme. One would expect there to be some correlation between capacity and quality with smaller institutions struggling to match their larger peers.

No doubt the MATs take care to ensure that all their schools are direct beneficiaries of their Hubs – and the initiative gives them an opportunity to exert influence beyond their own members, potentially even to scout possible additions to the fold.

Fewer than half of the lead schools satisfy the initial eligibility requirements for ‘outstanding’ inspection reports (and sub-grades). In most cases this is because they are academies and have not yet been inspected in that guise.

One lead school – Bishop Challoner Catholic College – received ‘Good’ ratings from its most recent inspection in 2012. Another – Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form – has been rated ‘Good’ since becoming a lead school.

We do not know why these institutions were included in the original shortlist but, perhaps fortunately, there was no public backlash from better qualified competitors upset at being overlooked.

This map (taken from a presentation available online) shows the geographical distribution of the original 32 Hubs. It is a more accurate representation than the regional map on the Maths Hub website.

Even with the addition of the two latecomers in November 2014 – one in Kent/Medway, the other in Leicestershire – it is evident that some parts of the country are much better served than others.

There is an obvious gap along the East Coast, stretching from the Wash up to Teesside, and another in the far North-West that the new competition is belatedly intended to fill. The huge South-West area is also relatively poorly served.

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Maths Hubs locations map. 

If the Hubs were evenly distributed to reflect the incidence of schools and colleges nationally, each would serve a constituency of about 100 state-funded secondary schools and 500 state-funded primary schools, so 600 primary and secondary schools in total, not to mention 10 or so post-16 institutions.

Although there is little evidence on which to base a judgement, it seems unlikely that any of the Hubs will have achieved anything approaching this kind of reach within their first year of operation. One wonders whether it is feasible even in the longer term.

But the relatively uneven geographical distribution of the Hubs suggests that the size of their constituencies will vary.

Since schools and colleges are expected to approach their Hubs – and are free to align with any Hub – the level of demand will also vary.

It would be helpful to see some basic statistics comparing the size and reach of different Hubs, setting out how many institutions they have already engaged actively in their work programmes and what proportion are not yet engaged.

It seems likely that several more hubs will be needed to achieve truly national reach. It might be more feasible with a ratio of 300 schools per hub, but that would require twice as many hubs. The limited supply of high quality candidates may act as an additional brake on expansion, on top of the availability of funding.

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Hub structure

A presentation given on 27 June 2014 by John Westwell – NCETM’s ‘Director of Strategy Maths Hubs’ – explains Hub structure through this diagram

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NCETM Maths hubs model Capture.

There is a distinction – though perhaps not very clearly expressed – between the roles of:

  • Strategic partners supporting the lead school with strategic leadership and 
  • Operational partners providing ‘further local leadership and specialist expertise to support [the] whole area’.

It seems that the former are directly involved in planning and evaluating the work programme while the latter are restricted to supporting delivery.

The spreadsheet shows that one of the Hubs – Salop and Herefordshire – fails to mention any strategic partners while another – Jurassic – refers to most of its partners in general terms (eg ‘primary schools, secondary schools’).

The remainder identify between four and 16 strategic partners each. Great North and Bucks, Berks and Oxon are at the lower end of the spectrum. Archimedes NE and Matrix Essex and Herts are at the upper end.

One assumes that it can be a disadvantage either to have too few or too many strategic partners, the former generating too little capacity; the latter too many cooks.

All but five Hubs have at least one higher education partner but of course there is no information about the level and intensity of their involvement, which is likely to vary considerably.

Eighteen mention the FMSP, but only five include the CMSP. Six list MEI as a strategic partner and, curiously, three nominate NCETM. It is unclear whether these enjoy a different relationship with the national co-ordinating body as a consequence.

To date, only the London Central and West Hub is allied with Mathematics Mastery, the Ark-sponsored programme.

However, NCETM says:

‘…a growing number of schools around the country are following teaching programmes from Mathematics Mastery an organisation (separate from the NCETM) whose work, as the name suggests, is wholly devoted to this style of learning and teaching. Mathematics Mastery is, in some geographical areas, developing partnership working arrangements with the Maths Hubs programme.’

Mathematics Mastery also describes itself as ‘a national partner of Maths Hubs’.

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Work Groups

Hubs plan on the basis of a standard unit of delivery described as a ‘work group’.

Each work group is characterised by:

  • a clear rationale for its existence and activity
  • well defined intended outcomes
  • local leadership supported by expert partners
  • a mixture of different activities over time
  • value for money and
  • systematic evidence collection.

The process is supported by something called the NCETM ‘Work Group Quality Framework’ which I have been unable to trace. This should also be published.

The most recent description of the Hubs’ role is provided by the Maths Hubs Website which was did not appear until November 2014.

The description of ‘What Maths Hubs Are Doing’ reinforces the distinction between:

  • National Collaborative Projects, where all hubs work in a common way to address a programme priority area and
  • Local projects, where hubs work independently on locally tailored projects to address the programme priorities.’

The earlier material includes a third variant:

  • Local priorities funded by other means

But these are not mentioned on the website and it is not clear whether they count as part of the Hubs’ official activity programme.

The spreadsheet shows that the number of work groups operated by each Hub varies considerably.

Four of them – North West One, White Rose, South Yorkshire and London South East – fail to identify any work groups at all.

In the case of White Rose there are links to courses and a conference, but the others include only a generic description of their work programme.

Two further Hubs – Enigma and Cambridge – refer readers to their websites, neither of which contain substantive detail about the Work Groups they have established (though Enigma lists a range of maths CPD opportunities and courses).

Otherwise the number of work groups varies between two (East Midlands South) and 11 (Surrey Plus). Fifteen of the Hubs have six or fewer work groups while nine have eight or more.

This suggests that some Hubs are far more productive and efficient than others, although the number of work groups is not always a reliable indicator, since some Hubs appear to categorise one-off events as work groups, while others use it to describe only longer term projects.

Maybe the Quality Framework needs attention, or perhaps some Hubs are not following it properly.

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The network defined

To coincide with the launch NCETM published its own information page on Maths Hubs, now available only via archive.

This describes in more detail how the Hubs will be expected to function as a network:

‘…the Maths Hubs will also work together in a national network co-ordinated by the NCETM. The network will ensure that effective practice from within particular hubs is shared widely. It will also provide a setting for Maths Hubs and the NCETM to collaboratively develop new forms of support as needed.

The national network will also come together, once a term, in a regular Maths Hubs Forum, where there will be opportunity to evaluate progress, plan for the future, and to engage with other national voices in maths education, such as the Joint Mathematical Council, the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME), the DfE, and Ofsted. As shown in the diagram below’:

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NCETM national network Capture..

Whether this is genuinely ‘school-led system-wide improvement’ is open to question, relying as it does on central co-ordination and a funding stream provided by central government. It is more accurately a hybrid model that aims to pursue national and local priorities simultaneously.

Essentially Hubs have a tripartite responsibility:

  • To develop and co-ordinate practice within their own Hub.
  • To collaborate effectively with other Hubs.
  • Collectively to contribute to the national leadership of maths education

The sheer complexity of this role – and the level of expectation placed on the Hubs – should not be under-estimated.

The archived NCETM page identifies three core tasks for the Hubs as they operate locally:

  • Identify needs and agree priorities for support in their area. This could involve pro-active surveying of schools; responding to requests and referrals; and considering the implications of national evidence.
  • Co-ordinate a range of high quality specialist mathematics support to address the needs. This could include communicating existing support and extending its reach; commissioning external organisations to provide bespoke support; developing and enabling new forms of support and collaboration.
  • Critically evaluate the quality and impact of the support provided. This could include gathering immediate, medium-term and long-term feedback from participants engaging with support; and more detailed evaluative research used to test innovations.’

We have no information about the extent and quality of cross-fertilisation between Hubs. This seems to depend mainly on the termly attendance of the leads at the Forum meetings, supported through social media interaction via Twitter. There is also some evidence of regional collaboration, though this seems much better developed in some regions than others.

The July 2015 newsletter on the Maths Hub Website says:

‘An added feature of the second year of the Maths Hubs programme will be more collaboration between Maths Hubs, typically bringing a small group of hubs together to pool experience, maybe in the development of a new project, or in the wider implementation of something that’s already worked well in a single hub.’

This may suggest that the collaborative dimension has been rather underplayed during the first year of operation. If it is to be expanded it may well demand additional teacher time and funding.

In the Westwell presentation the model is described as a ‘fully meshed network’ (as opposed to a hub and spoke model) in which ‘all the nodes are hubs’.

Unusually – and in contrast to the DfE press releases – there is explicit recognition that the Hubs’ core purpose is to improve pupil outcomes:

‘Resolute focus on pupils’ maths outcomes:

  • improved levels of achievement
  • increased levels of participation
  • improved attitudes to learning
  • closing the gaps between groups’

They also support school/college improvement:

‘Determined support for all schools/colleges to improve:

  • the teaching of mathematics
  • the leadership of mathematics
  • the school’s mathematics curriculum ‘

Any evaluation would need to assess the impact of each Hub against each of these seven measures. Once again, the level of expectation is self-evident.

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Termly Forums and Hub leads

Very little information is made available about the proceedings of the termly Maths Hub Forum, where the 34 Hub leads convene with national partners.

The Maths Hubs website says:

‘At the national level, the Maths Hubs programme, led by the NCETM, is developing partnership working arrangements with organisations that can support across the Maths Hubs network. At the moment, these include:

Other partnership arrangements will be developed in due course.’

There is no further information about these national partnership agreements, especially the benefits accruing to each partner as a consequence.

We know that one Forum took place in October 2014, another in February 2015. We do not know the full list of national partners on the invitation list.

There should be another Forum before the end of summer term 2015, unless the London Maths Hub Conference was intended to serve as a replacement.

The guide to the competition for two new Hubs mentions that the Autumn 2015 Forum will take place in York on 4/5 November.

The July Bespoke newsletter says:

‘…the 34 Maths Hub Leads, who meet termly, will continue to pool their thoughts and experiences, developing a growing and influential voice for mathematics education at a national level.’ 

It is hard to understand how the Forum can become ‘an influential voice’ without a significantly higher profile and much greater transparency over proceedings.

The Maths Hubs website should have a discrete section for the termly forums which contains all key documents and presentations.

In March 2015, NCETM’s Westwell published a post on the NCTL Blog claiming early signs of success for the Hubs:

‘Even though we are less than 2 terms into embedding a new, collaborative way of working, we are seeing encouraging signs that leadership in mathematics education can be shared and spread within geographical areas.’

He continues:

‘Our vision is of a national, collective group of leaders exerting new, subject-specific influence across school phases and across geographical boundaries.

The essential professional characteristics of this group are that they know, from first-hand experience:

  • how maths is best taught, and learnt
  • how good maths teachers are nurtured
  • how high-quality ongoing professional development can help good teachers become excellent ones

They have shown the capacity to lead others in all of these areas.’

And he adds:

‘The maths hub leads also come together in a regular national forum, which allows them to exchange practice but also provides a platform for them to enter into dialogue with policy makers and key national bodies. Over time, we expect that maths hub leads will come to be recognised nationally as leaders of mathematics education.’

This highlights the critical importance of the Maths Hub leads to the success of the model. One assumes that the post-holders are typically serving maths teachers who undertake this role alongside their classroom and middle management responsibilities.

It seems highly likely that most Hub leads will not remain in post for more than two or three years. All will be developing highly transferrable skills. Many will rightly see the role as a stepping stone to senior leadership roles.

Unless they can offer strong incentives to Hub leads to remain in post, NCETM will find turnover a persistent problem.

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Funding

There is no information about funding on the Maths Hubs Website and details are extremely hard to find, apart from the total budget of £11m, which covers the cost of Hubs up to the end of FY2015-16.

Each Hub receives core operational funding as well as ‘funding on a project basis for local and national initiatives’.

I found an example of an action plan online. The notes provide some details of the annual budget for last financial year:

For the financial year 2014/15, each hub will receive £36,000 to cover the structural costs of the hub including the cost of: the Maths Lead time (expected minimum 1 day/week) and Hub Administrator time (expected minimum 1.5 days/week); the time provided by the Senior Lead Support and the strategic leadership group; identifying and developing operational partner capacity; engaging schools/colleges and identifying their support needs. It is possible to transfer some of the £36,000 to support hub initiated activities.

For the financial year 2014/15, Maths Hubs will receive £40,000 to support hub-initiated activity. As explained at the forum we are using the term “Work Groups” to cover all hub-initiated activity…The cost of the exchange element with the Shanghai teachers will be paid from central national project funds and is outside of the £40,000 budget.’

Another source (a presentation given at the launch of the Norfolk and Suffolk Hub) suggests that in 2014-15 Hubs also received a further £20,000 for national projects.

Hence the maximum budget per Hub in FY2014/15 was £96,000. Assuming all 34 received that sum the total cost was £3.264m (34 x £96K).

We do not know how much more was set aside for central costs, although DfE’s Supplementary Estimates for 2014-15 hint that the total budget might have been £3.7m, which would suggest a balance of £0.436m was spent on central administration.

The NCETM website presently lists a Director and no fewer than six Assistant Directors responsible for Maths Hubs, giving a ratio of one director for every seven hubs. On the face of it, this does not fit the image as a school-led network. Indeed it suggests that the Hubs require intensive central support.

I could find nothing at all about the size of the budget for 2015-16. The Norfolk and Suffolk launch presentation indicates that Hubs will enjoy additional funding for both running costs and projects but does not quantify this statement. Another source suggests that the time allocation for Hub leads will be increased to 0.5FTE.

There is no information about funding levels in the guide to the autumn 2015 competition, although it suggests that the money will come in two separate streams:

‘Each Maths Hub will receive direct funding for structural operational purposes and funding on a project basis for local and national projects.’

It may be that the operational funding is paid via NCTL and the project funding via NCETM.

One assumes that operational funding will need to be uprated by at least 33% for 2015-16 since it will cover a full financial year rather than July to March inclusive (9 months only).

If the funding for local and national projects is increased by the same amount, that would bring the sum per Hub in FY2015-16 to approximately £128,000 and the total budget to something like £5m.

It would be helpful to have rather more transparency about Hub budgets and the total sum available to support them in each financial year.

If the NCETM operation needs retendering for FY2016-17 onwards, one assumes that national co-ordination of the Hubs will form part of the specification. One might expect to see a tender early next academic year.

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Hubs’ Current Activity

Developing role 

The press release marking the launch was strongly focused on Hubs’ role in leading what was then called the Shanghai Teacher Exchange Programme:

‘A national network of maths hubs that will seek to match the standards achieved in top-performing east Asian countries – including Japan, Singapore and China – was launched today by Education Minister Elizabeth Truss…

These ‘pace-setters’ will implement the Asian-style mastery approach to maths which has achieved world-leading success….Hubs will develop this programme with academics from Shanghai Normal University and England’s National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Maths (NCETM)….

… The Shanghai Teacher Exchange programme will see up to 60 English-speaking maths teachers from China embedded in the 30 maths hubs, starting this autumn term.

The Chinese teachers will run master classes for local schools and provide subject-specific on-the-job teacher training.

Two leading English maths teachers from each of the 30 maths hubs will work in schools in China for at least a month, to learn their world-class teaching approaches. The teachers will then put into practice in England what they have learnt and spread this widely to their peers.’

It also mentioned that the Hubs would be supporting the Your Life campaign to inspire young people, especially girls, to study maths and physics.

‘The campaign, led by businesses, aims to increase the number of students taking maths and physics A level by 50% over the next 3 years.’

Moreover:

‘They will also work with new maths and physics chairs, PhD graduates being recruited to become teachers to take their expertise into the classroom and transform the way the maths and physics are taught.’

The Website describes three National Collaborative Projects in slightly different terms:

  • England-China is the new title for the Shanghai Teacher Exchange. Primary sector exchanges took place in 2014/15 and secondary exchanges are scheduled for 2015/16.

The aim of the project is described thus:

‘The aim, as far as the English schools are concerned, is to learn lessons from how maths is taught in Shanghai, with particular focus on the mastery approach, and then research and develop ways in which similar teaching approaches can be used in English classrooms

…The long-term aim of the project is for the participating English schools first to develop a secure mastery approach to maths teaching themselves, and then to spread it around partner schools.’

  • Textbooks and Professional Development involves two primary schools from each Maths Hub trialling adapted versions of Singapore textbooks with their Year 1 classes.

Each school has chosen one of two mastery-focused textbooks: ‘Inspire Maths’ and ‘Maths – No Problem’. Teachers have five days’ workshop support.

  • Post-16 Participation is intended to increase participation rates in A level maths and further maths courses as well as Core Maths and other Level 3 qualifications. Some hubs are particularly focused on girls’ participation.

The initial phase of the project involves identifying schools and colleges that are successful in this respect, itemising the successful strategies they have deployed and exploring how those might be implemented in schools and colleges that have been rather less successful.

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Progress to date on National Collaborative Projects 

Coverage of the National Projects on the Hubs website is heavily biased towards the England-China project, telling us comparatively little about the other national priorities.

A group of 71 primary teachers visited Shanghai in September 2014. Return visits from 59 Shanghai teachers took place in two waves, in November 2014 and February/March 2015. 

A list of 47 participating schools is supplied including the hubs to which they belong.

There is also a Mid-Exchange Report published in November 2014, a press release from February 2015 marking the arrival of the second wave and the first edition of Bespoke, a Maths Hub newsletter dating from April 2015, which is exclusively focused on mastery.

The latter describes the exchanges as:

‘…the start of a long-term research project, across all of the Maths Hubs, to investigate ways in which mastery approaches can be introduced to maths lessons, to the way teachers design lessons, and to how schools organise time-tables, and the deployment of teachers and teaching assistants.’

These descriptions suggest something rather different to the slavish replication of Shanghai-style mastery, anticipating a ‘secure mastery approach’ that might nevertheless have some distinctive English features.

But NCETM has already set out in some detail the principles and key features of the model they would like to see introduced, so rather less is expected of the Hubs than one might anticipate. They are essentially a testbed and a mechanism for the roll-out of a national strategy.

The website also indicates that, before the end of summer term 2015:

‘…the NCETM, working through the Maths Hubs will publish support materials for assessment of the depth of pupils’ knowledge within the context of a mastery curriculum.’

NCETM describes the materials as a collaborative venture involving several partners:

‘Recording progress without levels requires recording evidence of depth of understanding of curriculum content, rather than merely showing pupils can ‘get the answers right’.

The NCETM, working with other maths experts and primary maths specialists from the Maths Hubs, is currently producing guidance on how to do this for the primary maths National Curriculum. For each curriculum statement, the guidance will show how to identify when a pupil has ‘mastered’ the curriculum content (meaning he or she is meeting national expectations and so ready to progress) and when a pupil is ‘working deeper’ (meaning he or she is exceeding national expectations in terms of depth of understanding).’

This is not yet published and, if NCETM is sensible, it will wait to see the outcomes of the parallel Commission on Assessment Without Levels.

The Bespoke newsletter mentions in passing that further research is needed into the application of mastery teaching in mixed age classes, but no further details are forthcoming.

Information about the planned secondary exchange is also rather thin on the ground.

NCETM said in June that the programme would focus on teaching at the KS2/3 transition.

The second edition of Bespoke, published in July 2015 adds:

‘Primary schools that hosted Shanghai teachers in 2014/15 will continue to develop and embed teaching for mastery approaches, and, in addition, two teachers from secondary schools in each Maths Hub will visit Shanghai in September, with their counterparts returning to work in Key Stage 3 classrooms in November 2015.’

The same is true of the Textbooks project, which was announced in a ministerial speech given in November 2014. Very little detail has been added since.

The July edition of Bespoke says that the project:

‘…will be expanded, to take in more schools and more classes, including Year 2 pupils’

while another section offers the briefest commentary on progress in the first year, twice!:

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Bespoke July Capture.

Coverage of the Post-16 Participation project is similarly sparse, though this may be because the lead lies with the Further Mathematics Support Programme and Core Maths Support Programme.

July’s Bespoke says of Year 2:

‘Work to help schools and colleges increase the numbers of Year 12 and Year 13 students taking A level maths, and, among them, more girls, will continue. Approaches that bore fruit in some hubs this year will be implemented in other areas.’

The sketchiness of this material causes one to suspect that – leaving aside the Shanghai exchanges – progress on these national projects has been less than spectacular during the first year of the Hubs’ existence.

Even with the England-China project there is no published specification for the long-term research project that is to follow on from the exchanges.

Those working outside the Hubs need more information to understand and appreciate what value the Hubs are adding.

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New National Collaborative Projects

The July edition of Bespoke confirms two further National Projects.

One is snappily called ‘Developing 140 new Primary Mathematics Teaching for Mastery specialists’:

‘Closely linked to other work on mastery, this project will involve the training of four teachers in each Maths Hub area to become experts in teaching for mastery in their own classrooms, and in supporting the similar development of teachers in partner schools.’

This project appeared a national-programme-in-waiting when it was first announced in April 2015.

A subsequent NCETM press release confirmed that there were over 600 applicants for the available places.

The further details provided by NCETM reveal that participants will pursue a two-year course. Year One combines three two-day residential events with the leadership of teacher research groups, both in the teacher’s own school and for groups of teachers in neighbouring schools.  Year Two is devoted exclusively to these external teacher research groups.

The material explains that a research group is:

‘…a professional development activity attended by a group of teachers, with a specific focus on the design, delivery and learning within a jointly evaluated mathematics lesson.’

A FAQ document explains that a typical research group meeting is a half-day session with discussion taking place before and after a lesson observation.

The four external group meetings in Year One will together constitute a pilot exercise. In Year Two participants will lead up to five such groups, each meeting on six occasions. Groups will typically comprise five pairs of teachers drawn from five different schools.

Release time is 12 days in Year One and up to 30 days in Year Two (assuming the participant leads the maximum five research groups).

Training and supply costs are covered in Year One but in Year Two they are to be met by charging the other participants in the research groups, so a first indication that Hubs will be expected to generate their own income stream from the services they provide. (NCETM will provide ‘guidance’ on fee levels.)

Participants are expected to develop:

  • ‘Understanding of the principles of mastery within the context of teaching mathematics.
  • Deep subject knowledge of primary mathematics to support teaching for mastery.
  • The development of effective teaching techniques to support pupils in developing mastery of mathematics.
  • The ability to assess pupils for mastery.
  • The ability to support other teachers, and lead teacher research groups.’

The intention is that teachers completing the course will roll out further phases of professional development and:

‘Over time, this will spread the understanding of, and expertise in, teaching maths for mastery widely across the primary school system.’

The second new national project is called ‘Mathematical Reasoning’. Bespoke is typically uninformative:

‘A new project will start in September 2015, to trial ways of developing mathematical reasoning skills in Key Stage 3 pupils.’

This may or may not be related to a NCETM Multiplicative Reasoning Professional Development Programme which took place in 2013/14 with the assistance of the Hubs.

This:

‘focused on developing teachers’ understanding and capacity to teach topics that involved multiplicative reasoning to Key Stage 3 (KS3) pupils. Multiplicative reasoning refers to the mathematical understanding and capability to solve problems arising from proportional situations often involving an understanding and application of fractions as well as decimals, percentages, ratios and proportions.’

Some 60 teachers from 30 schools were organised into three regional professional development networks, each with a professional development lead and support from university researchers. Project materials were created by a central curriculum development team. The regional networks were hosted by Maths Hubs, presumably in their pilot phase.

In June 2015 DfE published a project Evaluation featuring a Randomised Control Trial (RCT). Unfortunately, this did not reveal any significant impact on pupil attainment:

‘During the timescale of the trial (13 October 2014 to May 2015) the programme did not have any statistically significant impacts on general mathematical attainment as measured by PiM tests or on items on the tests specifically associated with multiplicative reasoning’.

One of the Report’s recommendations is:

‘For the NCETM to make available MRP materials and approaches to teaching MR through the Maths Hub network’

Another:

‘That the NCETM seeks further opportunities to engage curriculum developers with Maths Hubs and other NCETM activities and potentially to develop future curriculum design projects that address the needs of teachers, schools and pupils’.

With five national collaborative projects rather than three, the work programme in each Hub during Academic Year 2015/16 will be more heavily biased towards the Government’s agenda, unless there is also additional funding to increase the number of local projects. There is no hint in the latest Bespoke newsletter that this is the case.

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Local projects 

Unfortunately, Hub-specific pages on the Maths Hubs Website do not distinguish national from local projects.

A regional breakdown offers some insight into the typical distribution between the two and the range of issues being addressed.

The embedded spreadsheet provides further details, including links to additional information on each work group where the Hubs have made this available.

  • South West: The four Hubs between them identify 27 work groups. Each Hub has a work group for each of the three initial national collaborative projects. Relatively unusual topics include maths challenge and innovation days and improving primary maths enrichment experiences. The Jurassic Hub includes amongst its list of generic focus areas ‘developing access for the most able’, but there is no associated work group.
  • West Midlands: Two of the three hubs have six work groups and the third has seven. Here there is rather less adherence to the national priorities with only the North Midlands and Peaks Hub noticeably engaged with the mastery agenda. One work group is addressing ‘strategies for preventing (closing) the gap’ in maths. It is disturbing that this is unique across the entire programme – no other region appears concerned enough to make this a priority, nor is it a national project in its own right.
  • North West: Of the three Hubs, one has provided no details of its work groups, one lists six and the other nine. Perhaps the most interesting is North West Two’s Maths App Competition. This involves Y5 and 6 pupils creating ‘a maths-based app for a particular area of weakness that they have identified’.
  • North East: The two North East Hubs have nine and eight work groups respectively. Both address all three initial national priorities. In one the remaining groups are designed to cover the primary, secondary and post-16 sectors respectively. In the other there is a very strong mastery bias with two further work groups devoted to it.
  • Yorkshire and Humberside: Only two of the four Hubs provide details of their work groups in the standard format. One offers eight, the other four. The less ambitious Yorkshire and the Humber Hub does not include any of the three national priorities but addresses some topics not found elsewhere including Same Day Intervention and Differentiation. In contrast, Yorkshire Ridings covers all three national priorities and a local project offering £500 bursaries for small-scale action research projects.
  • East Midlands: Two of the Hubs identify six work groups but the third – one of the two late additions – has only two, neither of them focused on the national priorities. Elsewhere, only East Midlands East has a work group built around the Shanghai exchanges. Otherwise, network focused work groups – whether for primary specialists, subject leaders or SLEs – are dominant.
  • East: Two of the four Hubs provide links to their own websites, which are not particularly informative. The others name nine and five work groups respectively. The former – Matrix Essex and Herts – includes all three initial national priorities, but the latter – Norfolk and Suffolk – includes only increasing post-16 participation. Matrix has a local project to enhance the subject knowledge of teaching assistants. 
  • South East: The five Hubs vary considerably in the number of work groups they operate, ranging between three and 11. Bucks, Berks and Oxon is the least prolific, naming only the three national priorities. At the other extreme, Surrey Plus is the most active of all 34 Hubs, though several of its groups appear to relate to courses, conferences and other one-off meetings. One is providing ‘inspiration days for KS2, KS3 and KS4 students in schools looking to improve attitudes towards maths’. 
  • London: Of the six London Hubs, one has provided no information about its work groups. Two of the remaining five have only three work groups. Of these, London Central and NW lists the three national priorities. The other – London Central and West – mentions the two mastery-related national programmes and then (intriguingly) a third project called ‘Project 4’! London Thames includes a Student Commission Project:

‘Students will become researchers over two days and will explore the difference between depth and acceleration in terms of students’ perceptions of progress. There will be support from an expert researcher to support them in bringing together their findings. They will present their findings at the Specialist Schools and Academy’s Trust (SSAT) Conference and other forums where they can share their experience.’

Unfortunately, the presentation given at this event suggests the students were unable to produce a balanced treatment, carefully weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of each approach and considering how they might be combined to good effect. Naturally they came up with the ‘right’ answer for NCETM!

The variation in the productivity of Hubs is something of a surprise. So are the different levels of commitment they display towards the NCETM’s mastery-focused agenda.

Does NCETM push the laggards to work harder and conform to its priorities, or does it continue to permit this level of variance, even though it will inevitably compromise the overall efficiency of the Maths Hub programme?

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Supporting the Most Able

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Through the Maths Hubs 

In 2013, NCETM published guidance on High Attaining Pupils in Primary Schools (one has to register with NCETM to access these materials).

This is strongly influenced by ACME’s Report ‘Raising the bar: developing able young mathematicians’ (December 2012) which defines its target group as:

‘…those students aged 5-16 who have the potential to successfully study mathematics at A level or equivalent’.

ACME bases its report on three principles:

  • ‘Potential heavy users of mathematics should experience a deep, rich, rigorous and challenging mathematics education, rather than being accelerated through the school curriculum.
  • Accountability measures should allow, support and reward an approach focused on depth of learning, rather than rewarding early progression to the next Key Stage.
  • Investment in a substantial fraction of 5-16 year olds with the potential to excel in mathematics, rather than focussing attention on the top 1% (or so), is needed to increase the number of 16+ students choosing to study mathematics-based subjects or careers.’

ACME in turn cites Mathematical Association advice from the previous year on provision for the most able in secondary schools.

It is fascinating – though beyond the scope of this post – to trace through these publications and subsequent NCETM policy the evolution of an increasingly narrow and impoverished concept of top-end differentiation

The line taken in NCETM’s 2013 guidance is still relatively balanced:

‘It’s probably not helpful to think in terms of either enrichment or acceleration, but to consider the balance between these two approaches. Approaches may vary depending on the age of children, or the mathematics topics, while there may be extra-curricular opportunities to meet the needs of high attaining children in other ways. In addition to considerations of which approach supports the best learning, there are practical issues to consider.’

This is a far cry from the more extreme position now being articulated by NCETM, as discussed in my earlier post ‘A digression on breadth, depth, pace and mastery’.

There is in my view a pressing need to rediscover a richer and more sophisticated vision of ‘stretch and challenge’ for high attaining learners in maths and, by doing so, to help to achieve the Conservative manifesto commitment above. This need not be inconsistent with an Anglicised mastery model, indeed it ought to strengthen it significantly.

One obvious strategy is to introduce a new National Collaborative Project, ensuring that all 34 Hubs are engaged in developing this vision and building national consensus around it.

Here are some suggested design parameters:

  • Focus explicitly on improving attainment and progress, reducing underachievement by high attaining learners and closing gaps between disadvantaged high attainers and their peers.
  • Develop interventions targeted directly at learners, as well as professional development, whole school improvement and capacity building to strengthen school-led collaborative support.
  • Emphasise cross-phase provision encompassing primary, secondary and post-16, devoting particular attention to primary/secondary and secondary/post-16 transition.
  • Develop and disseminate effective practice in meeting the needs of the most able within and alongside the new national curriculum, including differentiated support for those capable of achieving at or beyond KS2 L6 in scaled score terms and at or beyond Grade 9 GCSE.at KS4.
  • Develop, test and disseminate effective practice in meeting the needs of the most able through a mastery-driven approach, exemplifying how breadth, depth and pace can be combined in different proportions to reflect high attainers’ varying needs and circumstances.

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Through ‘Most Able Hubs’

Compared with Maths Hubs, the Sutton Trust’s recommendation – that designated schools should support those that are underperforming with the most able and consider providing a localised extra-curricular enrichment programme – is markedly unambitious.

And of course the Maths Hubs cannot be expected to help achieve Conservative ambitions for the other elements of STEM (let alone STEAM).

Why not introduce a parallel network of Most Able Hubs (MAHs)? These would follow the same design parameters as those above, except that the last would embrace a whole/school college and whole curriculum perspective.

But, in the light of the analysis above, I propose some subtle changes to the model.

  • Number of hubs

Thirty-four is not enough for genuine national reach. But the supply of potential hubs is constrained by the budget and the number of lead institutions capable of meeting the prescribed quality criteria.

Assuming that the initial budget is limited, one might design a long-term programme that introduces the network in two or even three phases. The first tranche would help to build capacity, improving the capability of those intending to follow in their footsteps.

The ideal long-term outcome would be to introduce approximately 100 MAHs, at least 10 per region and sufficient for each to support some 200 primary and secondary schools (170 primary plus 30 secondary) and all the post-16 institutions in the locality.

That might be achieved in two phases of 50 hubs apiece or three of 33-34 hubs apiece.

  • Quality threshold

In the first instance, MAHs would be selected on the basis of Ofsted evaluation – Outstanding overall and for the same sub-categories as Maths Hubs – and high-attaining pupil performance data, relating to attainment, progress and destinations. This should demonstrate a strong record of success with disadvantaged high attainers.

One of the inaugural national collaborative projects (see below) would be to develop and trial a succinct Quality Measure and efficient peer assessment process, suitable for all potential lead institutions regardless of phase or status.

This would be used to accredit all new MAHs, but also to re-accredit existing MAHs every three years. Those failing to meet the requisite standard would be supported to improve.

  • Three tiers and specialism

MAHs would operate at local and national level but would also collaborate regionally. They might take it in turns to undertake regional co-ordination.

Each would pursue a mix of national, regional and local priorities. The regional and local priorities would not replicate national priorities but MAHs would otherwise have free rein in determining them, subject to the approval of action plans (see below).

Each MAH would also be invited to develop a broader specialism which it would pursue in national and regional settings. MAHs from different regions with the same specialism would form a collaborative. The selected specialism might be expected to inform to some extent the choice of local priorities.

  • Strategic partnerships

Each MAH would develop a variety of local strategic partnerships, drawing in other local school and college networks, including TSAs, MATs, local authority networks, maths and music hubs; local universities, their faculties and schools of education; nearby independent schools;  local commercial and third sector providers; and local businesses with an interest in the supply of highly skilled labour. Some partners might prefer to engage at a regional level.

SLEs with a ‘most able’ specialism would be involved as a matter of course and would be expected to play a leading role.

National bodies would serve as national strategic partners, sitting on a National Advisory Group and contributing to the termly national forum.

Participating national bodies would include: central government and its agencies; national organisations, whether third sector or commercial, supporting the most able; and other relevant national education organisations, including subject associations and representative bodies.

Termly forums would be used to monitor progress, resolve issues and plan collaborative ventures. All non-sensitive proceedings would be published online. Indeed a single website would publish as much detail as possible about the MAHs: transparency would be the watchword.

  • Work Groups

Each MAH would agree an annual action plan applying the work group methodology to its national, regional and local priorities. Each priority would entail a substantive work programme requiring significant co-ordinated activity over at least two terms.

An additional work group would capture any smaller-scale local activities (and MAHs might be permitted to use a maximum of 10% of their programme budget for this purpose).

MAHs’ progress against their action plans – including top level output and outcome targets – would be assessed annually and the results used to inform the re-accreditation process.

The programme as a whole would be independently evaluated and adjusted if necessary to reflect the findings from formative evaluation.

  • Staffing and funding

MAHs would operate with the same combination of co-ordinator, SLT sponsor and administrator roles, but with the flexibility to distribute these roles between individuals as appropriate. Hubs would be encouraged to make the lead role a full-time appointment.

Co-ordinators would constitute a ‘network within a network’, meeting at termly forums and supporting each other through an online community (including weekly Twitter chats) and a shared resource base.

Co-ordinators would be responsible for devising and running their own induction and professional development programme and ensuring that new appointees complete it satisfactorily. Additional funding would be available for this purpose. The programme would be accredited at Masters level.

Assuming a full year budget of £160K per MAH (£60K for structural costs; £100K for work groups), plus 10% for central administration, the total steady-state cost of a 100-MAH network would be £17.6m per year, not much more than the £15m that Labour committed during the General Election campaign. If the programme was phased in over three years, the annual cost would be significantly lower during that period.

MAHs might be encouraged to generate income to offset against their structural costs. The co-ordinators’ salary and on-costs might be the first priority. In time Hubs might be expected to meet these entirely from income generated, so reducing the overall cost by almost a third.

In an ideal world, MAHs would also support a parallel programme providing long-term intensive support to disadvantaged high attainers funded through a £50m pupil premium topslice.

The overall cost is significant, but bears comparison with the substantial sums invested in some selective 16-19 free schools, or the £50m recently set aside for School Cadet Forces. Maybe funding for MAHs should also be drawn from the fines levied on the banks!

MAHs would support learners from YR-Y13 and have a genuinely national reach, while free schools can only ever impact significantly on a very limited annual intake plus those fortunate enough to benefit from any localised outreach activity. In short MAHs offer better value for money.

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Conclusion

The principal findings from this review are that:

  • Maths Hubs offer a potentially workable model for system-wide improvement in the quality of maths education which could help to secure higher standards, stronger attainment and progress. But expectations of the Hubs are set too high given the limited resource available. It is doubtful whether the present infrastructure is strong enough to support the Government’s ambition to make England the best place in the world to study maths (in effect by 2020).
  • Given the dearth of information it is very difficult to offer a reliable assessment of the progress made by Maths Hubs in their first year of operation. The network has managed to establish itself from scratch within a relatively short time and with limited resources, but progress appears inconsistent, with some Hubs taking on and achieving much more than others. Two of the first three national collaborative projects still seem embryonic and the England-China project seems to be making steady rather than spectacular progress.
  • There are some tensions and weaknesses inherent in the model. In particular it relies on the successful reconciliation of potentially competing national and local priorities. There is evidence to suggest that national priorities are dominating at present. The model also depends critically on the capability of a small group of part-time co-ordinators. Several are likely to have limited experience and support, as well as insufficiently generous time allocations. Many will inevitably progress to school leadership positions so turnover will be a problem. An independent evaluation with a formative aspect would have been helpful in refining the model, ironing out the shortcomings and minimising the tensions. The apparent failure to commission an evaluation could become increasingly problematic as the expectations placed on the Hubs are steadily ratcheted upwards.
  • The supply of information is strictly rationed; the profile of Maths Hubs is far too low. Because the quality and quantity of information is so limited, those not working inside the network will infer that there is something to hide. Institutions that have not so far engaged with the Hubs will be less inclined to do so. If external communication is wanting, that may suggest that intra-Hub communication is equally shaky. Effective communication is critical to the success of such networks and ought to be given much higher priority. The Maths Hub website ought to be a ‘one stop shop’ for all stakeholders’ information needs, but it is infrequently updated and poorly stocked. Transparency should be the default position.
  • If the Government is to ‘create more opportunities to stretch the most able’ while ensuring that all high attainers ‘are pushed to achieve their potential’, then Maths Hubs will need to be at the forefront of a collective national improvement effort. NCETM should be making the case for an additional national collaborative project with this purpose. More attention must be given to shaping how the evolving English model of maths mastery provides stretch and challenge to high attainers, otherwise there is a real risk that mastery will perpetuate underachievement, so undermining the Government’s ambitions. In PISA 2012, 3.1% of English participants achieved Level 6 compared with 30.8% of those from Shanghai, while the comparative percentages for Levels 5 and 6 were 12.4% and 55.4% respectively. NCETM should specify now what they would consider acceptable outcomes for England in PISA 2015 and 2018 respectively.
  • Maths Hubs cannot extend their remit into the wider realm of STEM (or potentially STEAM if arts are permitted to feature). But, as Ofsted has shown, there are widespread shortcomings in the quality of ‘most able education’ more generally, not least for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. I have already made the case for a targeted support programme to support disadvantaged high attainers from Year 7 upwards, funded primarily through an annual pupil premium topslice. But the parallel business of school and college improvement might be spearheaded by a national network of Most Able Hubs with a whole school/college remit. I have offered some suggestions for how the Maths Hubs precedent might be improved upon. The annual cost would be similar to the £15m committed by Labour pre-election.

If such a network were introduced from next academic year then, by 2020, the next set of election manifestos might reasonably aim to make Britain the best place in the world for high attaining learners, especially high attaining learners from disadvantaged backgrounds.

And, with a generation of sustained effort across three or four successive governments and universal commitment in every educational setting, we might just make it….

What do you think the chances are of that happening?

Me too.

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GP

July 2015

The problem of reverse excellence gaps

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

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

‘The difference between the percentage of disadvantaged learners who reach a specified age- or stage-related threshold of high achievement – or who secure the requisite progress between two such thresholds – and the percentage of all other eligible learners that do so.’

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

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

In this post:

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

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National figures

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

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

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

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

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

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REG graph 1

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

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

REG graph 2 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Schools achieving high success rates with disadvantaged learners

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

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Reg graph 3

Chart 3: Distribution of schools in sample by region

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

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

Other variables include:

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

Overall there is significant variation between these schools.

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School-level performance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The schools closest to achieving this are:

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

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

The size and direction of excellence gaps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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REG graph 4

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

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

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

Ofsted inspection reports

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At St Stephen’s inspectors said of disadvantaged learners:

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

A more recent report in 2015 notes:

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

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

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

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Pupil Premium allocations 

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

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

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

But are these three schools any different?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This outcome is not optimal either.

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

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

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

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

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

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

GP

May 2015

Oxford Access Lecture

This is a brief post-event report on the presentation I gave at Brasenose College, Oxford on 28 April 2015.

P1030046I had been invited to give an Access Lecture to an invited audience of University admissions and outreach staff and other interested parties.

The groundwork for my presentation is set out in an earlier post – How strong is Oxbridge access? (March 2015) – which provides a full analysis of the access agreements and outreach provision undertaken at each university.

This post provides the powerpoint that accompanied my presentation and the record to date of the Twitter discussion about it, under the hashtag #oxgap.

I have extended an open invitation to participants to continue the discussion further through this medium, should they wish. If there is further discussion I will upload it here.

I would like to place on record my gratitude to everyone at Oxford, for taking the trouble to invite me in the first place, for extending such a warm welcome and for interacting so positively and constructively with the arguments I put to them.

I was hugely reassured by their openness and willingness to engage with objective and evidence-based criticism, which can only augur well as they continue their efforts to improve access to Oxford for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

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Powerpoint

My presentation is embedded below.

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Twitter discussion to date

Here is the discussion to date under the #oxgap hashtag. The most recent tweets are at the top.

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In recent months protecting the equal rights of disadvantaged learners to access the educational support they need, regardless of prior attainment, has been an increasingly uphill battle.

Many organisations have been arguing for pupil premium to be redistributed, so it is doubled for low attainers and halved for middle and high attainers. I continue to press them to justify this idea, so far to little avail.

Elsewhere, influential journalists and social media commentators have begun to suggest that there is an imbalance in favour of higher attainers that should be rectified. I have done my best to challenge that ideology.

It has not escaped me that such views seem particularly prevalent in the generation after mine. I find this particularly dispiriting, having devoted considerable effort to persuading my own generation of the equal rights argument.

It was delightful to spend a little time amongst people of all generations equally committed to improving the lot of disadvantaged high attainers. I wish them every success.

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GP

April 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Has Ofsted improved inspection of the most able?

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This post examines the quality of Ofsted reporting on how well secondary schools educate their most able learners.

keep-calm-and-prepare-for-ofsted-6The analysis is based on a sample of 87 Section 5 inspection reports published during March 2015.

I have compared the results with those obtained from a parallel exercise undertaken a year ago and published in How well is Ofsted reporting on the most able? (May 2014).

This new post considers how inspectors’ assessments have changed in the light of their increased experience, additional guidance and – most recently – the publication of Ofsted’s survey report: The most able students: An update on progress since June 2013.

This appeared on 4 March 2015, at the beginning of my survey period, although it was heralded in HMCI’s Annual Report and the various supporting materials published alongside it in December 2014. One might therefore expect it to have had an immediate effect on inspection practice.

Those seeking further details of either of these publications are cordially invited to consult the earlier posts I dedicated to them:

The organisation of this post is straightforward.

The first section considers how Ofsted expects its inspectors to report on provision for the most able, as required by the current Inspection Handbook and associated guidance. It also explores how those expectations were intended to change in the light of the Update on Progress.

Subsequent sections set out the findings from my own survey:

  • The nature of the 2015 sample – and how this differs from the 2014 sample
  • Coverage in Key Findings and Areas for Improvement
  • Coverage in the main body of reports, especially under Quality of Teaching and Achievement of Pupils, the sections that most commonly feature material about the most able

The final section follows last year’s practice in offering a set of key findings and areas for improvement for consideration by Ofsted.

I have supplied page jumps to each section from the descriptions above.

How inspectors should address the most able

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Definition and distribution

Ofsted nowhere explains how inspectors are to define the most able. It is not clear whether they permit schools to supply their own definitions, or else apply the distinctions adopted in their survey reports. This is not entirely helpful to schools.

In the original survey – The most able students: Are they doing as well as they should in our non-selective secondary schools? (June 2013) – Ofsted described the most able as:

‘…the brightest students starting secondary school in Year 7 attaining Level 5 or above, or having the potential to attain Level 5 and above, in English (reading and writing) and/or mathematics at the end of Key Stage 2.’

The measure of potential is not defined, but an example is given, of EAL students who are new to the country and so might not (yet) have achieved Level 5.

In the new survey prior attainment at KS2 remains the indicator, but the reference to potential is dropped:

‘…students starting secondary school in Year 7 having attained Level 5 or above in English (reading and writing) and/or mathematics at the end of Key Stage 2’

The size of this group varies at national level according to the year group.

If we take learners in Year 7 who completed KS2 in 2014, the data shows that 24% achieved KS2 Level 5 in both English (reading and writing) and maths. A further 5% secured L5 in English (reading and writing only) while another 20% reached L5 in maths only.

So 49% of the present Year 7 are deemed high attainers.

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Ofsted venn Capture

But this proportion falls to about 40% amongst those who completed KS4 in 2014 and so typically undertook KS2 assessment five years earlier in 2009.

Ofsted’s measure is different to the definition adopted in the Secondary Performance Tables which, although also based on prior attainment at KS2, depends on an APS of 30 or higher in KS2 tests in the core subjects.

Only ‘all-rounders’ count according to this definition, while Ofsted includes those who are relatively strong in either maths or English but who might be weak in the other subject. Neither approach considers achievement beyond the core subjects.

According to the Performance Tables definition, amongst the cohort completing KS4 in 2014, only 32.3% of those in state-funded schools were deemed high attainers, some eight percentage points lower than Ofsted’s figure.

The sheer size of Ofsted’s most able cohort will be surprising to some, who might naturally assume a higher hurdle and a correspondingly smaller group. The span of attainment it covers is huge, from one L5C (possibly paired with a L3) to three L6s.

But the generosity of Ofsted’s assumptions does mean that every year group in every school should contain at least a handful of high attainers, regardless of the characteristics of its intake.

Unfortunately, Ofsted’s survey report does not say exactly how many schools have negligible numbers of high attainers, telling us only how many non-selective schools had at least one pupil in their 2014 GCSE cohort with the requisite prior attainment in English, in maths and in both English and maths.

In each case some 2,850 secondary schools had at least one student within scope. This means that some 9% of schools had no students in each category, but we have no way of establishing how many had no students in all three categories.

Using the rival Performance Table definition, only some 92 state-funded non-selective secondary schools reported a 2014 GCSE cohort with 10% or fewer high attainers. The lowest recorded percentage is 3% and, of those with 5% or fewer, the number of high attaining students ranges from 1 to 9.

Because Ofsted’s definition is more liberal, one might reasonably assume that every secondary school has at least one high-attaining student per year group, though there will be a handful of schools with very few indeed.

At the other extreme, according to the Performance Tables definition, over 100 state-funded non-selective schools can boast a 2014 GCSE population where high attainers are in the majority – and the highest recorded percentage for a state-funded comprehensive is 86%. Using Ofsted’s measure, the number of schools in this position will be substantively higher.

For the analysis below, I have linked the number of high attainers (according to the Performance Tables) in a school’s 2014 GCSE cohort with the outcomes of inspection, so as to explore whether there is a relationship between these two variables.

Framework and Handbook

The current Framework for School Inspection (December 2014) makes no reference to the most able.

Inspectors must consider:

‘…the extent to which the education provided by the school meets the needs of the range of pupils at the school, and in particular the needs of disabled pupils and those who have special educational needs.’

One of the principles of school inspection is that it will:

‘focus on pupils’ and parents’ needs by…evaluating the extent to which schools provide an inclusive environment that meets the needs of all pupils, irrespective of age, disability, gender, race, religion or belief, or sexual orientation’.

Neither ability nor attainment is mentioned. This may or may not change when the Common Inspection Framework is published.

The most recent version of the School Inspection Handbook (December 2014) has much more to say on the issue. All relevant references in the main text and in the grade descriptors are set out in the Annex at the end of this post.

Key points include:

  • Ofsted uses inconsistent terminology (‘most able’, ‘more able’, ‘highest attainers’) without distinguishing between these terms.
  • Most of the references to the most able occur in lists of different groups of learners, another of which is typically ‘disadvantaged pupils’. This gives the mistaken impression that the two groups are distinct – that there is no such thing as a most able disadvantaged learner.
  • The Common Inspection Framework will be supported by separate inspection handbooks for each sector. The consultation response does not mention any revisions relating to the most able; neither does the March 2015 survey report say that revisions will be introduced in these handbooks to reflect its findings and recommendations (but see below). 

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Guidance

Since the first survey report was published in 2013, several pieces of guidance have issued to inspectors.

  • In Schools and Inspection (October 2013), inspectors’ attention is drawn to key revisions to the section 5 inspection framework:

‘In judging the quality of teaching…Inspectors will evaluate how teaching meets the needs of, and provides appropriate challenge to, the most able pupils. Underachievement of the most able pupils can trigger the judgements of inadequate achievement and inadequate teaching.’

In relation to report writing:

‘Inspectors are also reminded that they should include a short statement in the report on how well the most able pupils are learning and making progress and the outcomes for these pupils.’

  • In Schools and Inspection (March 2014) several amendments are noted to Section 5 inspection and report writing guidance from January of that year, including:

‘Most Able – Inspectors must always report in detail on the progress of the most able pupils and how effectively teaching engages them with work that is challenging enough.’

‘…must always report in detail on the progress of the most able pupils and how effectively teaching engages them with work that is challenging enough.’

Moreover, for secondary schools:

‘There must be a comment on early entry for GCSE examinations. Where the school has an early entry policy, inspectors must be clear on whether early entry is limiting the potential of the most able pupils. Where early entry is not used, inspectors must comment briefly to that effect.’

  • In School Inspection Update (December 2014) Ofsted’s National Director, Schools reminds inspectors, following the first of a series of half-termly reviews of ‘the impact of policy on school inspection practice’, to:

‘…place greater emphasis, in line with the handbook changes from September, on the following areas in section 5 inspection reports…The provision and outcomes for different groups of children, notably the most-able pupils and the disadvantaged (as referred to in the handbook in paragraphs 40, 129, 137, 147, 155, 180, 186, 194, 195, 196, 207, 208, 210 and 212).’

HMCI’s Annual Report

The 2014 Annual Report said (my emphasis):

‘Ofsted will continue to press schools to stretch their most able pupils. Over the coming year, inspectors will be looking at this more broadly, taking into account the leadership shown in this area by schools. We will also further sharpen our recommendations so that schools have a better understanding of how they can help their most able pupils to reach their potential.’

HMCI’s Commentary on the Report  added for good measure:

‘In the year ahead, Ofsted will look even more closely at the performance of the brightest pupils in routine school inspections.’

So we are to expect a combination of broader focus, closer scrutiny and sharper recommendations.

The Annual Report relates to AY2013/14 and was published at the end of the first term of AY2014/15 and the end of calendar year 2014, so one assumes that references to the ‘coming year’ and ‘the year ahead’ are to calendar year 2015.

We should be able to see the impact of this ramping up in the sample I have selected, but some further change is also likely.

March 2015 survey report

One of the key findings from the March 2015 survey was (my emphasis):

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

Ofsted directed three recommendations at itself which do not altogether reflect this (my emboldening):

‘Ofsted should:

  • Make sure that inspections continue to focus sharply on the progress made by students who are able and disadvantaged.
  • Report more robustly about how well schools promote the needs of the most able through the quality of their curriculum and the information, advice and guidance they offer to the most able students.
  • Ensure thematic surveys investigate, where appropriate, how well the most able are supported through, for example, schools’ use of the pupil premium and the curriculum provided.’

The first of these recommendations implies that inspections already focus sufficiently on the progress of able and disadvantaged learners – an assumption that we shall test in the analysis below. It therefore implies that no further change is necessary.

The third alludes to the most able disadvantaged but relates solely to thematic surveys, not to Section 5 inspection reports.

The second may imply that further emphasis will be placed on inspecting the appropriateness of the curriculum and IAG. Both of these topics seem likely to feature more strongly in a generic sense in the new Framework and Handbooks. One assumes that this will be extended to the most able, amongst other groups.

Though not mentioned in the survey report, we do know that Ofsted is preparing an evaluation toolkit. This was mentioned in a speech given by its Schools Director almost immediately after publication:

‘In this region specifically, inspectors have met with headteachers to address the poor achievement of the brightest disadvantaged children.

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

It is not clear from this whether the toolkit will be confined only to the most able disadvantaged or will have wider coverage.

Moreover, this statement raises the prospect that the toolkit might be similar in style to The Pupil Premium: Analysis and challenge tools for schools (January 2013). This is more akin to an old spanner than a Swiss army penknife. Anything of this nature would be rather less helpful than the term ‘toolkit’ implies.

At his request, I emailed Ofsted’s Director, Schools with questions on 21 March 2015. I requested further details of the toolkit. At the time of writing I have still to receive a reply.

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The sample

I have selected an almost identical sample to that used in my 2014 analysis, one year on. It includes the 87 Section 5 inspection reports on secondary schools (excluding middle schools deemed secondary) that were published by Ofsted in the month of March 2015.

The bulk of the inspections were undertaken in February 2015, though a few took place in late January or early March.

Chart 1 gives the regional breakdown of the schools in the sample. All nine regions are represented, though there are only five schools from the North East, while Yorkshire and Humberside boasts 15. There are between seven and 11 schools in each of the other regions. In total 59 local authorities are represented.

In regional terms, this sample is more evenly balanced than the 2014 equivalent and the total number of authorities is two higher.

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Chart 1: Schools within the sample by region

Chart 2 shows how different statuses of school are represented within the sample.

All are non-selective. Fifty-three schools (61%) are academies, divided almost equally between the sponsored and converter varieties.

Community and foundation schools together form a third group of equivalent size, while the seven remaining schools have voluntary status, just one of them voluntary controlled. There are no free schools.

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Chart 2: Schools within the sample by status

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All but three of the schools are mixed – and those three are boys’ schools.

As for age range, there is one 13-18 and one 14-18 school. Otherwise there are 32 11-16 institutions (37% of the sample) while the remaining 53 (61%) are 11-18 or 11-19 institutions.

Chart 3 shows the variation in numbers on roll. The smallest school – a new 11-18 secondary school – has just 125 pupils; the largest 2083. The average is 912.

Fifty-two schools (60%) are between 600 and 1,200 and twenty-three (26%) between 800 and 1,000 pupils.

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Chart 3: Schools within the sample by NOR

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Chart 4 shows the overall inspection grade of schools within the sample. A total of 19 schools (22%) are rated inadequate, seven of them attracting special measures. Only nine (10%) are outstanding, while 27 (31%) are good and 32 (37%) require improvement.

This is very similar to the distribution in the 2014 sample, except that there are slightly more inadequate schools and slightly fewer requiring improvement.

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Chart 4: Schools within the sample by overall inspection grade

Unlike the 2104 analysis, I have also explored the distribution of all grades within reports. The results are set out in Chart 5.

Schools in the sample are relatively more secure on Leadership and management (55% outstanding or good) and Behaviour and safety of pupils (60% outstanding or good) than they are on Quality of teaching (43% outstanding or good) and Achievement of pupils (41% outstanding or good).

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Chart 5: Schools within the sample by inspection sub-grades

Another new addition this year is comparison with the number and percentage of high attainers.

Amongst the sample, the number of high attainers in the 2014 GCSE cohort varied from three to 196 and the percentage from 3% to 52%. (Two schools did not have a GCSE cohort in 2014.)

These distributions are shown on the scatter charts 6 and 7, below.

Chart 6 (number) shows one major outlier at the top of the distribution. The vast majority – 64% of the sample – record numbers between 20 and 60. The average number is 41.

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Chart 6: Schools within the sample by number of high attainers (Secondary Performance Tables measure)

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Chart 7 again has a single outlier, this time at the bottom of the distribution. The average is 32%, slightly less than the 32.3% reported for all state-funded schools in the Performance Tables.

Two in five of the sample register a high attainer percentage of between 20% and 30%, while three in five register between 20% and 40%.

But almost a third have a high attainer population of 20% or lower.

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Chart 7: Schools within the sample by percentage of high attainers (Secondary Performance Tables measure)

Out of curiosity, I compared the overall inspection grade with the percentage of high attainers.

  • Amongst the nine outstanding schools, the percentage of high attainers ranged from 22% to 47%, averaging 33% (there was also one without a high attainer percentage).
  • Amongst the 27 good schools, the percentage of high attainers was between 13% and 52% (plus one without a high attainer percentage) and averaged 32%.
  • Amongst the 32 schools requiring improvement, the percentage of high attainers varied between 3% and 40% and averaged 23%.
  • Amongst the 19 inadequate schools, the percentage of high attainers lay between 10% and 38% and also averaged 23%.

This may suggest a tendency for outstanding/good schools to have a somewhat larger proportion of high attainers than schools judged to be requiring improvement or inadequate.

Key findings and areas for improvement

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Distribution of comments

Thirty-nine of the reports in the sample (45%) address the most able in the Summary of key findings, while 33 (38%) do so in the section about what the school needs to do to improve further.

In 24 cases (28%) there were entries in both these sections, but in 39 of the reports (45%) there was no reference to the most able in either section.

In 2014, 34% of reports in the sample addressed the issue in both the main findings and recommendations and 52% mentioned it in neither of these sections.

These percentage point changes are not strongly indicative of an extended commitment to this issue.

In the 2015 sample it was rather more likely for a reference to appear in the key findings for community schools (53%) and foundation schools (50%) than it was for converter academies (44%), sponsored academies (42%) or voluntary schools (29%).

Chart 8 shows the distribution of comments in these sections according to the overall inspection grade. In numerical terms, schools rated as requiring improvement overall are most likely to attract comments in both Key findings and Areas for improvement related to the most able.

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Chart 8: Most able mentioned in key findings and areas for improvement by overall inspection grade (percentages)

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But, when expressed as percentages of the total number of schools in the sample attracting these grades, it becomes apparent that the lower the grade, the more likely such a comment will be received.

Of the 39 reports making reference in the key findings, 10 comments were positive, 28 were negative and one managed to be both positive and negative simultaneously:

‘While the most-able students achieve well, they are capable of even greater success, notably in mathematics.’ (Harewood College, Bournemouth)

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Positive key findings

Five of the ten exclusively positive comments were directed at community schools.

The percentage of high attainers in the 2014 GCSE cohorts at the schools attracting positive comments varied from 13% to 52% and included three of the five schools with the highest percentages in the sample.

Interestingly, only two of the schools with positive comments received an overall outstanding grade, while three required improvement.

Examples of positive comments, which were often generic, include:

  • ‘The most able students achieve very well, and the proportion of GCSE A* and A grades is significantly above average across the curriculum.’ (Durham Johnston Comprehensive School, Durham)
  • ‘The most able students do well because they are given work that challenges them to achieve their potential’. (The Elton High School Specialist Arts College, Bury)
  • ‘Most able students make good progress in most lessons because of well-planned activities to extend their learning’. (Endon High School, Staffordshire)
  • ‘Teachers encourage the most able students to explore work in depth and to master skills at a high level’. (St Richard Reynolds Catholic High School, Richmond-upon-Thames).

Negative key findings

The distribution of the 28 negative comments in Key findings according to overall inspection grade was:  Outstanding (nil); Good five (19%); Requires improvement twelve (38%); Inadequate eleven (58%).

This suggests a relatively strong correlation between the quality of provision for the most able and the overall quality of the school.

The proportion of high attainers in the 2014 GCSE cohorts of the schools attracting negative comments varied between 3% and 42%. All but three are below the national average for state-funded schools on this measure and half reported 20% or fewer high attainers.

This broadly supports the hypothesis that quality is less strong in schools where the proportion of high attainers is comparatively low.

Examples of typical negative comments:

  • ‘The most able students are not given work that is hard enough’ (Dyson Perrins C of E Sports College, Worcestershire)
  • ‘Too many students, particularly the most able, do not make the progress of which they are capable’ (New Line Learning Academy, Kent)
  • ‘Students, particularly the more able, make slower progress in some lessons where they are not sufficiently challenged. This can lead to some off task behaviour which is not always dealt with by staff’ (The Ferrers School, Northamptonshire)
  • ‘Teachers do not always make sufficient use of assessment information to plan work that fully stretches or challenges all groups of students, particularly the most able’ (Noel-Baker School, Derby).

The menu of shortcomings identified is limited, consisting of seven items: underachievement (especially too few high GCSE grades), insufficient progress, low expectations, insufficiently challenging work, poor teaching quality, poor planning and poor use of assessment information.

Of these, the most common comprise a familiar litany. They are (in descending order): 

  • Insufficiently challenging work 
  • Insufficient progress 
  • Underachievement and 
  • Low expectations.

Inspectors often point out inconsistent practice, though in the worst instances these shortcomings are dominant or even school-wide.

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No key findings

Chart 9 shows the distribution of reports with no comments about the most able in Key findings and Areas for improvement according to overall inspection grade. When expressed as percentages, these again show that schools rated as outstanding are most likely to escape such comments, while inadequate schools are most likely to be in the firing line.

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Chart 9: Most able not mentioned in key findings and areas for improvement by inspection grade (percentages)

This pattern replicates the findings from 2014. Orders of magnitude are also broadly comparable.  There is no substantive evidence of a major increase in emphasis from inspectors.

It seems particularly surprising that, in over half of schools requiring improvement and a third or more of inadequate schools, issues with educating the most able are still not significant enough to feature in these sections of inspection reports.

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Areas for improvement

By definition, recommendations for improvement are always associated with identified shortcomings.

The correlation between key findings and areas for improvement is inconsistent. In six cases there were Key findings relating to the most able, but no area for improvement specifically associated with those. Conversely, nine reports had identified areas for improvement that were not picked up in the key findings.

Areas for improvement are almost always formulaic and expressed as lists: the school should improve x through y and z.

When it comes to the most able, the area for improvement is almost invariably teaching quality, though sometimes this is indicated as the route to higher achievement while on other occasions teaching quality and raising achievement are perceived as parallel priorities.

Just one report in the sample mentioned the quality of leadership and management:

‘Ensure that leadership and management take the necessary steps to secure a significant rise in students’ achievement at the end of Year 11 through…ensuring that work set for the most able is always sufficiently challenging’ (New Line Learning Academy, Kent).

This is despite the fact that leadership was specifically mentioned as a focus in HMCI’s Annual Report.

The actions needed to bring about improvement reflect the issues mentioned in the analysis of key findings above. The most common involve applying assessment information to planning and teaching:

  • ‘Raise students’ achievement and the quality of teaching further by ensuring that:…all staff develop their use of class data to plan learning so that students, including the most able, meet their challenging targets’ (Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey, Kent)
  • ‘Ensure the quality of teaching is always good or better, in order to raise attainment and increase rates of progress, especially in English and mathematics, by:…ensuring teachers use all the information available to them to plan lessons that challenge students, including the most able’ (Oasis Academy Lister Park, Bradford)
  • ‘Embed and sustain improvements in achievement overall and in English in particular so that teaching is consistently good and outstanding by: making best use of assessment information to set work that is appropriately challenging, including for the least and most able students’ (Pleckgate High School Mathematics and Computing College, Blackburn with Darwen)

Other typical actions involve setting more challenging tasks, raising the level of questioning, providing accurate feedback, improving lesson planning and maintaining consistently high expectations.

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Coverage in the main body of reports

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Leadership and management

Given the reference to this in HMCI’s Annual Report, one might have expected a new and significant emphasis within this section of the reports in the sample.

In fact, the most able were only mentioned in this section in 13 reports (15% of the total). Hardly any of these comments identified shortcomings. The only examples I could find were:

  • ‘The most-able students are not challenged sufficiently in all subjects to
    achieve the higher standards of which they are capable’ (Birkbeck School and Community Arts College, Lincolnshire)
  • ‘Action to improve the quality of teaching is not focused closely enough on the strengths and weaknesses of the school and, as a result, leaders have not done enough to secure good teaching of students and groups of students, including…the most able (Ashington High School Sports College, Northumberland)

Inspectors are much more likely to accentuate the positive:

  • ‘The school has been awarded the Challenge Award more than once. This is given for excellent education for a school’s most-able, gifted and talented students and for challenge across all abilities. Representatives from all departments attend meetings and come up with imaginative ways to deepen these students’ understanding.’ (Cheam High School, Sutton)
  • ‘Leaders and governors are committed to ensuring equality of opportunity for all students and are making effective use of student achievement data to target students who may need additional support or intervention. Leaders have identified the need to improve the achievement of…the most-able in some subjects and have put in place strategies to do so’ (Castle Hall academy Trust, Kirklees)
  • ‘Measures being taken to improve the achievement of the most able are effective. Tracking of progress is robust and two coordinators have been appointed to help raise achievement and aspirations. Students say improvements in teaching have been made, and the work of current students shows that their attainment and progress is on track to reach higher standards.’ (The Byrchall High School, Wigan).

Not one report mentioned the role of governors in securing effective provision for the most able. 

Given how often school leadership escapes censure for issues identified elsewhere in reports, this outcome could be interpreted as somewhat complacent. 

HMCI is quite correct to insist that provision for the most able is a whole school issue and, as such, a school’s senior leadership team should be held to account for such shortcomings.

Behaviour and safety

The impact of under-challenging work on pupils’ behaviour is hardly ever identified as a problem.

One example has been identified in the analysis of Key findings above. Only one other report mentions the most able in this section, and the comment is about the role of the school council rather than behaviour per se:

‘The academy council is a vibrant organisation and is one of many examples where students are encouraged to take an active role in the life of the academy. Sixth form students are trained to act as mentors to younger students. This was seen being effectively employed to…challenge the most able students in Year 9’ (St Thomas More High School, Southend)

A handful of reports make some reference under ‘Quality of teaching’ but one might reasonably conclude that neither  bullying of the most able nor disruptive behaviour from bored high attainers is particularly widespread.

Quality of teaching

Statements about the most able are much more likely to appear in this section of reports. Altogether 59 of the sample (68%) made some reference.

Chart 10 shows the correlation between the incidence of comments and the sub-grade awarded by inspectors to this aspect of provision. It demonstrates that, while differences are relatively small, schools deemed outstanding are rather more likely to attract such comment.

But only one of the comments on outstanding provision is negative and that did not mention the most able specifically:

‘Also, in a small minority of lessons, activities do not always deepen
students’ knowledge and understanding to achieve the very highest grades at GCSE and A level.’ (Central Foundation Boys’ School, Islington)

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Chart 10: Incidence of comments under quality of teaching by grade awarded for quality of teaching

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Comments are much more likely to be negative in schools where the quality of teaching is judged to be good (41%), requiring improvement (59%) and inadequate (58%).

Even so, a few schools in the lower two categories receive surprisingly positive endorsements:

  • ‘On the other hand, the most able students and the younger students in school consistently make good use of the feedback. They say they greatly value teachers’ advice….The teaching of the most able students is strong and often very strong. As a result, these students make good progress and, at times, achieve very well.’ (RI – The Elton High School Specialist Arts College, Bury)
  • ‘Teaching in mathematics is more variable, but in some classes, good and outstanding teaching is resulting in students’ rapid progress. This is most marked in the higher sets where the most able students are being stretched and challenged and are on track to reach the highest grades at GCSE…. In general, the teaching of the most able students….is good.’ (RI- New Charter Academy, Tameside)
  • ‘At its most effective, teaching is well organised to support the achievement of the most able, whose progress is better than other students. This is seen in some of the current English and science work.’ (I – Ely College, Cambridgeshire).

Negative comments on the quality of teaching supply a familiar list of shortcomings.

Some of the most perceptive are rather more specific. Examples include:

  • ‘While the best teaching allows all students to make progress, sometimes discussions that arise naturally in learning, particularly with more able students, are cut short. As a result, students do not have the best opportunity to explore ideas fully and guide their own progress.’ (Dyson Perrins C of E Sports College, Worcestershire)
  • ‘Teachers’ planning increasingly takes account of current information about students’ progress. However, some teachers assume that because the students are organised into ability sets, they do not need to match their teaching to individual and groups of students’ current progress. This has an inhibiting effect on the progress of the more able students in some groups.’ (Chulmleigh Community College, Devon)
  • ‘In too many lessons, particularly boys’ classes, teachers do not use questioning effectively to check students’ learning or promote their thinking. Teachers accept responses that are too short for them to assess students’ understanding. Neither do they adjust their teaching to revisit aspects not fully grasped or move swiftly to provide greater stretch and new learning for all, including the most able.’ (The Crest Academies, Brent)
  • ‘In some lessons, students, including the most able, are happy to sit and wait for the teacher to help them, rather than work things out for themselves’ (Willenhall E-ACT Academy, Walsall).

Were one compiling a list of what to do to impress inspectors, it would include the following items:

  • Plans lessons meticulously with the needs of the most able in mind 
  • Use assessment information to inform planning of work for the most able 
  • Differentiate work (and homework) to match most able learners’ needs and starting points 
  • Deploy targeted questioning, as well as opportunities to develop deeper thinking and produce more detailed pieces of work 
  • Give the most able the flexibility to pursue complex tasks and do not force them to participate in unnecessary revision and reinforcement 
  • Do not use setting as an excuse for neglecting differentiation 
  • Ensure that work for the most able is suitably challenging 
  • Ensure that subject knowledge is sufficiently secure for this purpose 
  • Maintain the highest expectations of what the most able students can achieve 
  • Support the most able to achieve more highly but do not allow them to become over-reliant on support 
  • Deploy teaching assistants to support the most able 
  • Respond to restlessness and low level disruption from the most able when insufficiently challenged.

While many of the reports implicitly acknowledge that the most able learners will have different subject-specific strengths and weaknesses, the implications of this are barely discussed.

Moreover, while a few reports attempt a terminological distinction between ‘more able’ and ‘most able’, the vast majority seem to assume that, in terms of prior attainment, the most able are a homogenous group, whereas – given Ofsted’s preferred approach – there is enormous variation.

Achievement of pupils 

This is the one area of reports where reference to the most able is now apparently compulsory – or almost compulsory.

Just one report in the sample has nothing to say about the achievement of the most able in this section: that on Ashby School in Leicestershire.

Some of the comments are relatively long and detailed, but others are far more cursory and the coverage varies considerably.

Using as an example the subset of schools awarded a sub-grade of outstanding for the achievement of pupils, we can exemplify different types of response:

  • Generic: ‘The school’s most able students make rapid progress and attain excellent results. This provides them with an excellent foundation to continue to achieve well in their future studies.’ (Kelvin Hall School, Hull)
  • Generic, progress-focused: ‘The most-able students make rapid progress and the way they are taught helps them to probe topics in greater depth or to master skills at a high level.’ (St Richard Reynolds Catholic High School, Richmond-upon-Thames)
  • Achievement-focused, core subjects: ‘Higher attaining students achieve exceptionally well as a result of the support and challenge which they receive in class. The proportion of students achieving the higher A* to A grade was similar to national averages in English but significantly above in mathematics.
  • Specific, achievement- and progress-focused: ‘Although the most able students make exceptional progress in the large majority of subjects, a few do not reach the very highest GCSE grades of which they are capable. In 2014, in English language, mathematics and science, a third of all students gained A and A* GCSE grades. Performance in the arts is a real strength. For example, almost two thirds of students in drama and almost half of all music students achieved A and A* grades. However, the proportions of A and A* grades were slightly below the national figures in English literature, geography and some of the subjects with smaller numbers of students (Central Foundation Boys’ School, Islington)

If we look instead at the schools with a sub-grade of inadequate, the comments are typically more focused on progress, but limited progress is invariably described as ‘inadequate’, ‘requiring improvement’, ‘weak’, ‘not good’, ‘not fast enough’. It is never quantified.

On the relatively few occasions when achievement is discussed, the measure is typically GCSE A*/A grades, most often in the core subjects.

It is evident from cross-referencing the Achievement of pupils sub-grade against the percentage of high attainers in the 2014 GCSE cohort that there is a similar correlation to that with the overall inspection grade:

  • In schools judge outstanding on this measure, the high attainer population ranges from 22% to 47% (average 33%)
  • In schools judged good, the range is from 13% to 52% (average 32%)
  • In schools requiring improvement it is between 3% and 40% (average 23%)
  • In schools rated inadequate it varies from 10% to 32% (average 22%)

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Sixth Form Provision 

Coverage of the most able in sections dedicated to the sixth form is also extremely variable. Relatively few reports deploy the term itself when referring to 16-19 year-old students.

Sometimes there is discussion of progression to higher education and sometimes not. Where this does exist there is little agreement on the appropriate measure of selectivity in higher education:

  • ‘Students are aspiring to study at the top universities in Britain. This is a realistic prospect and illustrates the work the school has done in raising their aspirations.’ (Welling School, Bexley)
  • ‘The academy carefully tracks the destination of leavers with most students proceeding to university and one third of students gaining entry to a Russell Group university’ (Ashcroft Technology Academy, Wandsworth)
  • ‘Provision for the most able students is good, and an increasing proportion of students are moving on to the highly regarded ‘Russell group’ or Oxbridge universities. A high proportion of last year’s students have taken up a place at university and almost all gained a place at their first choice’ (Ashby School, Leicestershire)
  • ‘Large numbers of sixth form students progress to well-regarded universities’ (St Bartholomew’s School, West Berkshire)
  • ‘Students receive good support in crafting applications to universities which most likely match their attainment; this includes students who aspire to Oxford or Cambridge’ (Anthony Gell School, Derbyshire).

Most able and disadvantaged

Given the commitment in the 2015 survey report to ‘continue to focus sharply on the progress made by students who are able and disadvantaged’, I made a point of reviewing the coverage of this issue across all sections of the sample reports.

Suffice to say that only one report discussed provision for the most able disadvantaged students, in these terms:

‘Pupil premium funding is being used successfully to close the wide achievement gaps apparent at the previous inspection….This funding is also being effectively used to extend the range of experiences for those disadvantaged students who are most able. An example of this is their participation in a residential writing weekend.’ (St Hild’s C of E VA School, Hartlepool)

Take a bow Lead Inspector Petts!

A handful of other reports made more general statements to the effect that disadvantaged students perform equivalently to their non-disadvantaged peers, most often with reference to the sixth form:

  • ‘The few disadvantaged students in the sixth form make the same progress as other students, although overall, they attain less well than others due to their lower starting points’ (Sir Thomas Wharton Community College, Doncaster)
  • ‘There is no difference between the rates of progress made by disadvantaged students and their peers’ (Sarum Academy, Wiltshire)
  • ‘In many cases the progress of disadvantaged students is outstripping that of others. Disadvantaged students in the current Year 11 are on course to do
    every bit as well as other students.’ (East Point Academy, Suffolk).

On two occasions, the point was missed entirely:

  • ‘The attainment of disadvantaged students in 2014 was lower than that of other students because of their lower starting points. In English, they were half a grade behind other students in the school and nationally. In mathematics, they were a grade behind other students in the school and almost a grade behind students nationally. The wider gap in mathematics is due to the high attainment of those students in the academy who are not from disadvantaged backgrounds.’ (Chulmleigh Community College, Devon)
  • ‘Disadvantaged students make good progress from their starting points in relation to other students nationally. These students attained approximately two-thirds of a GCSE grade less than non-disadvantaged students nationally in English and in mathematics. This gap is larger in school because of the exceptionally high standards attained by a large proportion of the most able students…’ (Durham Johnston Comprehensive School, Durham)

If Ofsted believes that inspectors are already focusing sharply on this issue then, on this evidence, they are sadly misinformed.

Key Findings and areas for improvement

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Key findings: Guidance

  • Ofsted inspectors have no reliable definition of ‘most able’ and no guidance on the appropriateness of definitions adopted by the schools they visit. The approach taken in the 2015 survey report is different to that adopted in the initial 2013 survey and is now exclusively focused on prior attainment. It is also significantly different to the high attainer measure in the Secondary Performance Tables.
  • Using Ofsted’s approach, the national population of most able in Year 7 approaches 50% of all learners; in Year 11 it is some 40% of all learners. The latter is some eight percentage points lower than the cohort derived from the Performance Tables measure.
  • The downside of such a large cohort is that it masks the huge attainment differences within the cohort, from a single L5C (and possibly a L3 in either maths or English) to a clutch of L6s. Inspectors might be encouraged to regard this as a homogenous group.
  • The upside is that there should be a most able presence in every year group of every school. In some comprehensive schools, high attainers will be a substantial majority in every year group; in others there will be no more than a handful.
  • Ofsted has not released data showing the incidence of high attainers in each school according to its measure (or the Performance Tables measure for that matter). This does not features in Ofsted’s Data Dashboard.
  • Guidance in the current School Inspection Handbook is not entirely helpful. There is not space in a Section 5 inspection report to respond to all the separate references (see Appendix for the full list). The terminology is confused (‘most able’, ‘more able’, ‘high attainers’).Too often the Handbook mentions several different groups alongside the most able, one of which is disadvantaged pupils. This perpetuates the false assumption that there are no most able disadvantaged learners. We do not yet know whether there will be wholesale revision when new Handbooks are introduced to reflect the Common Inspection Framework.
  • At least four pieces of subsidiary guidance have issued to inspectors since October 2013. But there has been nothing to reflect the commitments in HMCI’s Annual Report (including a stronger focus on school leadership of this issue) or the March 2015 Survey report. This material requires enhancement and consolidation.
  • The March 2015 Report apparently commits to more intensive scrutiny of curricular and IAG provision in Section 5 inspections, as well as ‘continued focus’ on able and disadvantaged students (see below). A subsequent commitment to an evaluation toolkit would be helpful to inspectors as well as schools, but its structure and content has not yet been revealed.

Key findings: Survey

  • The sample for my survey is broadly representative of regions, school status and variations in NOR. In terms of overall inspection grades, 10% are outstanding, 31% good, 37% require improvement and 22% are inadequate. In terms of sub-grades, they are notably weaker on Quality of teaching and Achievement of pupils, the two sections that most typically feature material about the most able.
  • There is huge variation within the sample by percentage of high attainers (2014 GCSE population according to the Secondary Performance Tables measure). The range is from 3% to 52%. The average is 32%, very slightly under the 32.3% average for all state-funded schools. Comparing overall inspection grade with percentage of high attainers suggests a marked difference between those rated outstanding/good (average 32/33%) and those rated as requiring improvement/inadequate (average 23%).
  • 45% of the reports in the sample addressed the most able under Key findings; 38% did so under Areas for improvement and 28% made reference in both sections. However, 45% made no reference in either of these sections. In 2014, 34% mentioned the most able in both main findings and recommendations, while 52% mentioned it in neither. On this measure, inspectors’ focus on the most able has not increased substantively since last year.
  • Community and foundation schools were rather more likely to attract such comments than either converter or sponsored academies. Voluntary schools were least likely to attract them. The lower the overall inspection grade, the more likely a school is to receive such comments.
  • In Key findings, negative comments outnumbered positive comments by a ratio of 3:1. Schools with high percentages of high attainers were well represented amongst those receiving positive comments.
  • Unsurprisingly, schools rated inadequate overall were much more likely to attract negative comments. A correlation between overall quality and quality of provision for the most able was somewhat more apparent than in 2014. There was also some evidence to suggest a correlation between negative comments and a low proportion of high attainers.
  • On the other hand, over half of schools with an overall requiring improvement grade and a third with an overall inspection grade of inadequate did not attract comments about the most able under Key findings. This is not indicative of greater emphasis.
  • The menu of shortcomings is confined to seven principal faults: underachievement (especially too few high GCSE grades), insufficient progress, low expectations, insufficiently challenging work, poor teaching quality, poor planning and poor use of assessment information. In most cases practice is inconsistent but occasionally problems are school-wide.
  • Areas for improvement are almost always expressed in formulaic fashion. Those relating to the most able focus almost invariably on the Quality of teaching. The improvement most commonly urged is more thorough application of assessment information to planning and teaching.
  • Only 15% of reports mention the most able under Leadership and management and, of those, only two are negative comments. The role of governors was not raised once. Too often the school leadership escapes censure for shortcomings identified elsewhere in the report. This is not consistent with indications of new-found emphasis in this territory.
  • The most able are hardly ever mentioned in the Behaviour and safety section of reports. It would seem that bullying is invisible and low level disruption by bored high attainers rare.
  • Conversely, 68% of reports referenced the most able under Quality of teaching. Although negative comments are much more likely in schools judged as inadequate or requiring improvement in this area, a few appear to be succeeding with their most able against the odds. The main text identifies a list of twelve good practice points gleaned from the sample.
  • Only one report fails to mention the most able under Achievement of pupils, but the quality and coverage varies enormously. Some comments are entirely generic; some focus on achievement, others on progress and some on both. Few venture beyond the core subjects. There is very little quantification, especially of insufficient progress (and especially compared with equivalent discussion of progress by disadvantaged learners).
  • Relatively few reports deploy the term ‘most able’ when discussing sixth form provision. Progression to higher education is sometimes mentioned and sometimes not. There is no consensus on how to refer to selective higher education.
  • Only one report in this sample mentions disadvantaged most able students. Two reports betray the tendency of assuming these two groups to be mutually exclusive but, worse still, the sin of omission is almost universal. This provides no support whatsoever for Ofsted’s claim that inspectors already address the issue.

Areas for improvement

Ofsted has made only limited improvements since the previous inspection in May 2014 and its more recent commitments are not yet reflected in Section 5 inspection practice.

In order to pass muster it should:

  • Appoint a lead inspector for the most able who will assume responsibility across Ofsted, including communication and consultation with third parties.
  • Consolidate and clarify material about the most able in the new Inspection Handbooks and supporting guidance for inspectors.
  • Prepare and publish a high quality evaluation toolkit, to support schools and inspectors alike. This should address definitional and terminological issues as well as supplying benchmarking data for achievement and progress. It might also set out the core principles underpinning effective practice.
  • Include within the toolkit a self-assessment and evaluation framework based on the quality standards. This should model Ofsted’s understanding of whole school provision for the most able that aligns with outstanding, good and requiring improvement grades, so that schools can understand the progression between these points.
  • Incorporate data about the incidence of the most able and their performance in the Data Dashboard.
  • Extend all elements of this work programme to the primary and post-16 sectors.
  • Undertake this work programme in consultation with external practitioners and experts in the field, completing it as soon as possible and by December 2015 at the latest.

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Verdict: (Still) Requires Improvement.

GP

April 2015

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Annex: Coverage in the School Inspection Handbook (December 2014)

Main Text

Inspectors should:

  • Gather evidence about how well they are ‘learning, gaining knowledge and understanding, and making progress’ (para 40)
  • Take account of them when considering performance data (para 59)
  • Take advantage of opportunities to gather evidence from them (para 68)
  • Consider the effectiveness of pupil grouping, for example ‘where pupils are taught in mixed ability groups/classes, inspectors will consider whether the most able are stretched…’ (para 153)
  • Explore ‘how well the school works with families to support them in overcoming the cultural obstacles that often stand in the way of the most able pupils from deprived backgrounds attending university’ (para 154)
  • Consider whether ‘teachers set homework in line with the school’s policy and that challenges all pupils, especially the most able’ (para 180)
  • Consider ‘whether work in Key Stage 3 is demanding enough, especially for the most able when too often undemanding work is repeated unnecessarily’ (para 180)
  • Consider whether ‘teaching helps to develop a culture and ethos of scholastic excellence, where the highest achievement in academic work is recognised, especially in supporting the achievement of the most able’ (para 180)
  • When judging achievement, have regard for ‘the progress that the most able are making towards attaining the highest grades’ and ‘pay particular attention to whether more able pupils in general and the most able pupils in particular are achieving as well as they should’. They must ‘summarise the achievements of the most able pupils in a separate paragraph of the inspection report’ (paras 185-7)
  • Consider ‘how the school uses assessment information to identify pupils who…need additional support to reach their full potential, including the most able.’ (para 193)
  • Consider how well ‘assessment, including test results, targets, performance descriptors or expected standards are used to ensure that…more able pupils do work that deepens their knowledge and understanding’ and ‘pupils’ strengths and misconceptions are identified and acted on by teachers during lessons and more widely to… deepen the knowledge and understanding of the most able’ (para 194)
  • Take account of ‘the learning and progress across year groups of different groups of pupils currently on the roll of the school, including…the most able’. Evidence gathered should include ‘the school’s own records of pupils’ progress, including… the most able pupils such as those who joined secondary schools having attained highly in Key Stage 2’ (para 195)
  • Take account of ‘pupils’ progress in the last three years, where such data exist and are applicable, including that of…the most able’ (para 195)
  • ‘When inspecting and reporting on students’ achievement in the sixth form, inspectors must take into account all other guidance on judging the achievement, behaviour and development of students, including specific groups such as…the most able ‘ (para 210)
  • Talk to sixth form students to discover ‘how well individual study programmes meet their expectations, needs and future plans, including for…the most able’ (para 212)

However, the terminology is not always consistent. in assessing the overall effectiveness of a school, inspectors must judge its response to ‘the achievement of…the highest and lowest attainers’ (para 129)

Grade descriptors

Outstanding

  • Overall effectiveness:

‘The school’s practice consistently reflects the highest expectations of staff and the highest aspirations for pupils, including the most able…’

  • Quality of teaching:

‘Much teaching over time in all key stages and most subjects is outstanding and never less than consistently good. As a result, almost all pupils currently on roll in the school, including…the most able, are making sustained progress that leads to outstanding achievement.’

  • Achievement of pupils:

‘The learning of groups of pupils, particularly… the most able, is consistently good or better.’

  • Effectiveness of sixth form provision:

‘All groups of pupils make outstanding progress, including…the most able’

Good

  • Overall effectiveness:

‘The school takes effective action to enable most pupils, including the most able…’

  • Quality of teaching:

‘Teaching over time in most subjects, including English and mathematics, is consistently good. As a result, most pupils and groups of pupils on roll in the school, including…the most able, make good progress and achieve well over time.’

‘Effective teaching strategies, including setting appropriate homework and well-targeted support and intervention, are matched closely to most pupils’ needs, including those most and least able, so that pupils learn well in lessons’

  • Achievement of pupils:

‘The learning of groups of pupils, particularly… the most able, is generally good.’

  • Effectiveness of sixth form provision:

‘As a result of teaching that is consistently good over time, students make good progress, including…the most able’

Inadequate

  • Quality of teaching:

‘As a result of weak teaching over time, pupils or particular groups of pupils, including…the most able, are making inadequate progress.’

  • Achievement of pupils:

‘Groups of pupils, particularly disabled pupils and/or those who have special educational needs and/or disadvantaged pupils and/or the most able, are underachieving’

  • Effectiveness of sixth form provision:

‘Students or specific groups such as… the most able do not achieve as well as they can. Low attainment of any group shows little sign of rising.’

Why McInerney is just plain wrong

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.]

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GP

March 2015