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

Proposals for a 2015 Schools White Paper: Most able

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This post sets out for consideration some ideas to inform a new ‘most able learners’ policy’ for inclusion in a forthcoming schools white paper.

paper-32377_1280Background

Now that we have a majority Conservative Government, attention is switching to the shape of its education policy agenda for the next five years.

Parliament will be recalled on 18 May and the new Government’s legislative agenda will be set out on 27 May in the Queen’s Speech.

During the Election campaign, Prime Minister Cameron announced plans for a Schools Bill within the first 100 days of the new Parliament.

That deadline expires on 26 August, during the long summer holiday, so one would expect the Bill to be published before term ends on 22 July or, failing that, in early September.

Cameron said the Bill would contain:

‘…more radical measures to ensure young people leave education with the skills they need. It will include new powers to force coasting schools, as well as failing schools, to accept new leadership, continuing the remarkable success story of Britain’s academy schools.’

DfE civil servants will already have established which Conservative Manifesto pledges require primary legislation, but Ministerial clarification will be required and there may be some as yet undeclared priorities to add to the list.

Some likely contenders include:

  • Resits of KS2 tests in Year 7 and making the EBacc compulsory in secondary schools.
  • Any school considered by Ofsted to Require Improvement will be handed over to ‘the best headteachers – backed by expert sponsors or high-performing neighbouring schools – unless it can demonstrate that it has a plan to improve rapidly’.
  • Permission for ‘all good schools to expand, whether they are maintained schools, academies, free schools or grammar schools’.
  • The establishment of an independent College of Teaching.

It is customary for new governments to publish a white paper covering the areas in which they intend to legislate, so we might expect either a Schools or Education White Paper by the end of the summer term.

Between School Selection

The prospects for renewed emphasis on selection are already being discussed. I gave a detailed account of the pre-Election scenario in ‘The Politics of Selection: Grammar schools and disadvantage’ (November 2014).

Key factors include:

  • The postponed decision on whether to approve a grammar school annexe in Sevenoaks and the precedent that would set elsewhere.
  • The existing scope for grammar schools – whether academies or LA-maintained – to increase their planned admission numbers (PAN), typically by adding additional forms of entry (FE).
  • The campaign by centre-right Tory group Conservative Voice to change the law to permit the establishment of new grammar schools, supported by messrs Brady, Davis and Fox, together with early indications of greater influence for Tory backbenchers through the 1922 Committee which Brady chairs.
  • Coded expressions of support from both Home Secretary May and newly-established Cabinet member Johnson, both considered future contenders for the Tory party leadership.

It will be important to establish a clear demarcation line in government policy.

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Within School Selection

Back in 2007, when in Opposition, Prime Minister Cameron signalled a shift of emphasis, away from grammar schools and towards setting:

‘When I say I oppose nationwide selection by 11 between schools, that does not mean I oppose selection by academic ability altogether.

Quite the reverse. I am passionate about the importance of setting by ability within schools, so that we stretch the brightest kids and help those in danger of being left behind.’

With a Conservative Government this would be a motor of aspiration for the brightest kids from the poorest homes – effectively a ‘grammar stream’ in every subject in every school.’

In September 2014, there were indications of a revival of this strategy, though it was rapidly relegated into plans for Regional Schools Commissioners, newly empowered to intervene in any school rated inadequate by Ofsted to consider enforced setting as one of a ‘menu of options’.

I discussed the evolution of this position in ‘The Politics of Setting’ (November 2014).

In the event, this additional role for Commissioners did not feature in the Conservative Manifesto, so we do not know whether enforced setting will be added to their armoury. This requires clarification in the White Paper.

Ofsted’s evidence

Shortly before election campaigning began, Ofsted published its second survey report on the education of the most able in non-selective secondary schools, which I reviewed in ‘The most able students: Has Ofsted made progress?’ (March 2015).

The Key Findings highlight a litany of shortcomings. The first three alone say:

  • ‘National data show that too many of the most able students are still being let down and are failing to reach their full potential.’
  • ‘Nationally, too many of our most able students fail to achieve the grades they need to get into top universities.’
  • ‘Schools visited were rarely meeting the distinct needs of students who are most able and disadvantaged.’

In relation to this third point, Ofsted found that no more than a third of schools were using pupil premium funding effectively to target the needs of such pupils.

The Report committed Ofsted to focusing within inspections on the progress of the most able disadvantaged, the quality of the curriculum and information, advice and guidance. We wait to see how this will be reflected in the updated School Inspection Handbooks scheduled for publication later this term.

Meanwhile, Ofsted is also preparing a ‘most able evaluation toolkit for schools’ as part of its wider efforts to influence school improvement. The toolkit should feature in the White Paper and there is scope to consider building additional support around it.

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Excellence Gaps and Pupil Premium

The Conservative Manifesto gave a clear commitment:

‘We will continue to provide the pupil premium, protected at current rates, so that schools receive additional money for those from the poorest backgrounds.’

It added:

‘And we will make schools funding fairer. We have already increased funding for the 69 least well-funded local authorities in the country, and will make this the baseline for their funding in the next Parliament.’

Teach First leads a group of educational organisations lobbying for pupil premium to be reallocated in such a way that those with lower prior attainment attract double the rate awarded to those whose prior attainment is at or above expectations.

I have been campaigning against this proposal, principally on the grounds that:

  • It robs Peter to pay Paul, inflicting collateral damage on the majority of eligible learners, including the ‘most able disadvantaged’, the majority of whom are already poorly served, as Ofsted has established.
  • Closing gaps between disadvantaged learners and their peers should continue to take priority over closing attainment gaps between low and high attainers. The core purpose of pupil premium should be tackling underachievement – rather than low achievement – amongst disadvantaged learners.
  • Any increase in funding weighted towards low prior attainment should be secured through reform of the school funding formula and involve careful consideration of the overlaps between deprivation, low attainment and additional needs, including SEN.

My own efforts to increase the priority attached to the most able disadvantaged include presenting the evidence base for excellence gaps which I define as:

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

There is increasing focus on excellence gaps in this country and they should be more fully reflected in Government policy as enshrined in the White Paper. Further assurances should be given over pupil premium rates and eligibility for them.

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Other Manifesto commitments

The Conservative Manifesto includes – in a section headed ‘We will lead the world in maths and science’ – a generic commitment:

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

It is unclear whether this relates exclusively to maths and science. It might hint at the revival of a flagship policy of the last government, to establish a cadre of up to a dozen selective 16-19 maths free schools, which managed to generate just two of these.

As recommended towards the end of my latest post on these institutions there is plenty of scope to rationalise and reform the STEM talent pipeline more efficiently, so that it benefits students regardless of the schools and colleges they attend.

Those finalising the Tory Manifesto may have had in mind a rival Labour commitment – which didn’t make it into their manifesto – to establish a Gifted and Talented Fund. The purpose and application of this Fund, discussed here, were never clarified.

The Conservatives were wise not to take on board a poorly-conceived Policy Exchange proposal to introduce a National Scholarships Scheme. The idea behind this is to support the most talented undergraduates on condition that they attend a UK university and remain in the UK for three years after graduating. It has no merit whatsoever.

The way forward

Rather than adopt a piecemeal approach, or risk being tripped up by the febrile politics of selection, the new Government should actively consider the inclusion in its schools white paper of a holistic policy to support our high-attaining learners.

This would broaden the agenda and allow the Government to take credit for a more sophisticated, multi-stranded approach.

The policy should embrace primary, secondary and post-16 education, placing particular emphasis on reducing excellence gaps and improving access to our most selective universities.

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Key elements of the policy should include:

  • Holding the line on grammar school expansion established in the Manifesto: expansion is permitted, through satellite schools where legally permissible, but new selective institutions are confined to 16+.
  • Incentivising and encouraging all existing grammar schools to give priority in their admission arrangements to learners eligible for the pupil premium – and supporting their wider efforts to work with primary schools to increase their intake of disadvantaged learners.
  • Sponsoring guidance and associated professional development for schools and colleges on effective institution-wide provision for their most able learners, developed from a set of core principles and designed to re-establish national consensus in this field. This should also feature Ofsted’s evaluation toolkit.
  • Sponsoring guidance for schools and colleges on the introduction of more flexible, radical and innovative grouping arrangements, extending beyond the confines of setting and streaming.
  • Developing a coherent strategy for strengthening the STEM talent pipeline which harnesses the existing infrastructure and makes high quality support accessible to all learners regardless of the schools and colleges they attend.
  • Top-slicing £50m from the pupil premium budget to underwrite a coherent market-driven programme supporting high-attaining disadvantaged students to progress to selective universities. This would integrate the ‘push’ from schools and colleges with the ‘pull’ from higher education achieving efficiencies on both sides.
  • Incentivising schools to give higher priority to disadvantaged high attainers by protecting their pupil premium entitlement and sharpening accountability arrangements, including Ofsted inspection but also the publication of key indicators in Performance Tables under the new assessment regime.
  • Building system-wide capacity, by establishing centres of excellence and a stronger cadre of expert teachers, but also by fostering collaboration and partnership between schools, colleges and all other sources of relevant expertise.

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GP

May 2015

Response to Russell Hobby’s post of 8 May 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Three factual clarifications to begin with:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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GP

May 2015

Fisking Teach First’s defence of its pupil premium policy

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

Background

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

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

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

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

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

The twelfth, The Future Leaders Trust provided a statement:

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

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

Brian Lightman of ASCL sent me a response

Lightman Capture

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He wrote:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recommendation

The statement begins by reiterating the original recommendation, to:

‘Target pupil premium by attainment as well as disadvantage measures. This could be achieved through halving current funding per pupil for FSM Ever 6 [a deprivation measure which includes pupils who have ever been a Looked After Child or eligible for Free School Meals in the previous six years]. Half of this funding could then be re-allocated to pupils eligible for FSM Ever 6 who have low prior attainment. This would give double-weighting to those low income pupils most in need of intervention without raising overall pupil premium spend. The change of funding model would increase school accountability for ‘catching up’ pupils.’

The full implications of what is now declared as official Teach First policy are extremely unclear, because there is no modelling, in the Report Card or elsewhere, of the redistribution or its likely effects.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Confused yet?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pupil premium as it operates now

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The positive

The policy statement says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The negative

The statement continues:

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

This betrays selective use of the evidence base.

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

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

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

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

Conversely:

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

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

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

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

Ofsted concludes:

‘… more needs to be done to develop a clearer picture of how well schools use pupil premium funding for their most able students who are disadvantaged and the quality of information, advice and guidance provided for them. Ofsted needs to sharpen its practice in this area.’

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

The case for reallocation via both pupil premium and the NFF

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

Teach First asserts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Grounds for justifying the policy

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

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

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

Each segment of this argument is tackled below.

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The impact of low attainment

The statement says:

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

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

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

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

Teach First continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fisk graph

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

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

Finally in this section, Teach First argues:

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

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

The actual wording in Marshall’s book is:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hanushek himself recognises that:

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

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The impact on Goal 5

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

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

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

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

Teach First’s policy statement says:

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

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

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

Teach First continues:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No sign of Teach First support for this of course.

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Redistribution of funding

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

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

The Free School Meals (FSM) measure of disadvantage in the UK is not fully progressive or entirely comprehensive. For example, the binary FSM/non-FSM to dictate funding does not allow for recognition of  low-income families who just miss the eligibility criteria for Free School Meals; the national funding formula does not currently compensate for geographical isolation and high transport costs which can compound low incomes in parts of the country. Consequently – due to the combination of a high intake of pupils attracting the Premium and a currently unequal national school funding formula – there are a small number of very successful schools building up surpluses. Meanwhile some schools with arguably greater need, where pupils suffer different socioeconomic disadvantages that affect their attainment, are receiving comparatively little extra funding. This hampers their ability to deal with the challenges that their students face and to prevent those vulnerable pupils from falling behind their peers.  Those areas struggling to raise the attainment of their deprived pupils would most benefit from this double-weighting for their pupils who have fallen behind.’

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

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

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

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

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Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or else make clear that they no longer support it.

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GP

April 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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Digression on Breadth, Depth, Pace and Mastery

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Tricoloring (1)

This post explores the emerging picture of mastery-based differentiation for high attainers and compares it with a model we used in the National G&T Programme, back in the day.

It is a rare venture into pedagogical territory by a non-practitioner, so may not bear close scrutiny from the practitioner’s perspective. But it seeks to pose intelligent questions from a theoretical position and so promote further debate.

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Breadth, depth and pace

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Quality standards

In the original National Quality Standards in Gifted and Talented Education (2005) one aspect of exemplary ‘Effective Provision in the Classroom’ was:

‘Teaching and learning are suitably challenging and varied, incorporating the breadth, depth and pace required to progress high achievement. Pupils routinely work independently and self-reliantly.’

In the 2010 version it was still in place:

‘Lessons consistently challenge and inspire pupils, incorporating the breadth, depth and pace required to support exceptional rates of progress. Pupils routinely work creatively, independently and self-reliantly.’

These broad standards were further developed in the associated Classroom Quality Standards (2007) which offered a more sophisticated model of effective practice.

The original quality standards were developed by small expert working groups, reporting to wider advisory groups and were carefully trialled in primary and secondary classrooms.

They were designed not to be prescriptive but, rather, to provide a flexible framework within which schools could develop and refine their own preferred practice.

Defining the terms

What did we mean by breadth, depth and pace?

  • Breadth (sometimes called enrichment) gives learners access to additional material beyond the standard programme of study. They might explore additional dimensions of the same topic, or an entirely new topic. They might need to make cross-curricular connections, and/or to apply their knowledge and skills in an unfamiliar context.
  • Depth (sometimes called extension) involves delving further into the same topic, or considering it from a different perspective. It might foreground problem solving. Learners might need to acquire new knowledge and skills and may anticipate material that typically occurs later in the programme of study.
  • Pace (sometimes called acceleration) takes two different forms. It may be acceleration of the learner, for example advancing an individual to a higher year group in a subject where they are particularly strong. More often, it is acceleration of the learning, enabling learners to move through the programme of study at a relatively faster pace than some or all of their peers. Acceleration of learning can take place at a ‘micro’ level in differentiated lesson planning, or in a ‘macro’ sense, typically through setting. Both versions of acceleration will cause the learner to complete the programme of study sooner and they may be entered early for an associated test or examination.

It should be readily apparent that these concepts are not distinct but overlapping.  There might be an element of faster pace in extension, or increased depth in acceleration for example. A single learning opportunity may include two, or possibly all three. It is not always straightforward to disentangle them completely.

Applying these terms

From the learner’s perspective, one of these three elements can be dominant, with the preferred strategy determined by that learner’s attainment, progress and wider needs.

  • Enrichment might be dominant if the learner is an all-rounder, relatively strong in this subject but with equal or even greater strength elsewhere.
  • Extension might be dominant if the learner shows particular aptitude or interest in specific aspects of the programme of study.
  • Acceleration might be dominant if the learner is exceptionally strong in this subject, or has independently acquired and introduced knowledge or skills that are not normally encountered until later in this or a subsequent key stage.

Equally though, the richest learning experience is likely to involve a blend of all three elements in different combinations: restricting advanced learners to one or two of them might not always be in their best interests. Moreover, some high attainers will thrive with a comparatively ‘balanced scorecard’

The intensity or degree of enrichment, extension or acceleration will also vary according to the learners’ needs. Even in a top set decisions about how broadly to explore, how deeply to probe or how far and how fast to press forward must reflect their starting point and the progress achieved to date.

Acceleration of the learner may be appropriate if he or she is exceptionally advanced.  Social and emotional maturity will need to be taken into account, but all learners are different – this should not be used as a blanket excuse for failing to apply the approach.

There must be evidence that the learner is in full command of the programme of study to date and that restricting his pace is having a detrimental effect. A pedagogical preference for moving along the class at the same pace should never over-ride the learner’s needs.

Both variants of acceleration demand careful long-term planning, so the learner can continue on a fast track where appropriate, or step off without loss of esteem. It will be frustrating for a high attainer expected to ‘mark time’ when continuity is lost. This may be particularly problematic on transfer and transition between settings.

Careful monitoring is also required, to ensure that the learner continues to benefit, is comfortable and remains on target to achieve the highest grades. No good purpose is served by ‘hothousing’.

Mastery and depth

The Expert Panel

The recent evolution of a mastery approach can be tracked back to the Report of the Expert Panel for the National Curriculum Review (December 2011).

‘Amongst the international systems which we have examined, there are several that appear to focus on fewer things in greater depth in primary education, and pay particular attention to all pupils having an adequate understanding of these key elements prior to moving to the next body of content – they are ‘ready to progress’…

… it is important to understand that this model applies principally to primary education. Many of the systems in which this model is used progressively change in secondary education to more selective and differentiated routes. Spread of attainment then appears to increase in many of these systems, but still with higher overall standards than we currently achieve in England…

There are issues regarding ‘stretch and challenge’ for those pupils who, for a particular body of content, grasp material more swiftly than others. There are different responses to this in different national settings, but frequently there is a focus on additional activities that allow greater application and practice, additional topic study within the same area of content, and engagement in demonstration and discussion with others

These views cohere with our notion of a revised model that focuses on inclusion, mastery and progress. However, more work needs to be done around these issues, both with respect to children with learning difficulties and those regarded as high attainers.’

For reasons best known to itself, the Panel never undertook that further work in relation to high attainers, or at least it was never published. This has created a gap in the essential groundwork necessary for the adoption of a mastery-driven approach.

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National curriculum

Aspects of this thinking became embodied in the national curriculum, but there are some important checks and balances.

The inclusion statement requires differentiation for high attainers:

‘Teachers should set high expectations for every pupil. They should plan stretching work for pupils whose attainment is significantly above the expected standard.’

The primary programmes of study for all the core subjects remind everyone that:

Within each key stage, schools therefore have the flexibility to introduce content earlier or later than set out in the programme of study. In addition, schools can introduce key stage content during an earlier key stage, if appropriate.’

But, in mathematics, both the primary and secondary PoS say:

‘The expectation is that the majority of pupils will move through the programmes of study at broadly the same pace. However, decisions about when to progress should always be based on the security of pupils’ understanding and their readiness to progress to the next stage. Pupils who grasp concepts rapidly should be challenged through being offered rich and sophisticated problems before any acceleration through new content. Those who are not sufficiently fluent with earlier material should consolidate their understanding, including through additional practice, before moving on.’

These three statements are carefully worded and, in circumstances where all apply, they need to be properly reconciled.

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NCETM champions the maths mastery movement

The National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM), a Government-funded entity responsible for raising levels of achievement in maths, has emerged as a cheerleader for and champion of a maths mastery approach.

It has published a paper ‘Mastery approaches to mathematics and the new national curriculum’ (October 2014).

Its Director, Charlie Stripp, has also written two blog posts on the topic:

The October 2014 paper argues (my emphasis):

‘Though there are many differences between the education systems of England and those of east and south-east Asia, we can learn from the ‘mastery’ approach to teaching commonly followed in these countries. Certain principles and features characterise this approach…

… The large majority of pupils progress through the curriculum content at the same pace. Differentiation is achieved by emphasising deep knowledge and through individual support and intervention.’

It continues:

‘Taking a mastery approach, differentiation occurs in the support and intervention provided to different pupils, not in the topics taught, particularly at earlier stages. There is no differentiation in content taught, but the questioning and scaffolding individual pupils receive in class as they work through problems will differ, with higher attainers challenged through more demanding problems which deepen their knowledge of the same content.’

In his October 2014 post, Stripp opines:

‘Put crudely, standard approaches to differentiation commonly used in our primary school maths lessons involve some children being identified as ‘mathematically weak’ and being taught a reduced curriculum with ‘easier’ work to do, whilst others are identified as ‘mathematically able’ and given extension tasks….

…For the children identified as ‘mathematically able’:

  1. Extension work, unless very skilfully managed, can encourage the idea that success in maths is like a race, with a constant need to rush ahead, or it can involve unfocused investigative work that contributes little to pupils’ understanding. This means extension work can often result in superficial learning. Secure progress in learning maths is based on developing procedural fluency and a deep understanding of concepts in parallel, enabling connections to be made between mathematical ideas. Without deep learning that develops both of these aspects, progress cannot be sustained.
  2. Being identified as ‘able’ can limit pupils’ future progress by making them unwilling to tackle maths they find demanding because they don’t want to challenge their perception of themselves as being ‘clever’ and therefore finding maths easy….

…I do think much of what I’m saying here also applies at secondary level.

Countries at the top of the table for attainment in mathematics education employ a mastery approach to teaching mathematics. Teachers in these countries do not differentiate their maths teaching by restricting the mathematics that ‘weaker’ children experience, whilst encouraging ‘able’ children to ‘get ahead’ through extension tasks… Instead, countries employing a mastery approach expose almost all of the children to the same curriculum content at the same pace…’

The April 2015 post continues in a similar vein, commenting directly on the references in the PoS quoted above (my emphases):

‘The sentence: ‘Pupils who grasp concepts rapidly should be challenged through rich and sophisticated problems before any acceleration through new content’, directly discourages acceleration through content, instead requiring challenge through ‘rich and sophisticated (which I interpret as mathematically deeper) problems’. Engaging with ‘rich and sophisticated problems’ involves reasoning mathematically and applying maths to solve problems, addressing all three curriculum aims. All pupils should encounter such problems; different pupils engage with problems at different depths, but all pupils benefit

…Meeting the needs of all pupils without differentiation of lesson content requires ensuring that both (i) when a pupil is slow to grasp an aspect of the curriculum, he or she is supported to master it and (ii) all pupils should be challenged to understand more deeply…

The success of teaching for mastery in the Far East (and in the schools employing such teaching here in England) suggests that all pupils benefit more from deeper understanding than from acceleration to new material. Deeper understanding can be achieved for all pupils by questioning that asks them to articulate HOW and WHY different mathematical techniques work, and to make deep mathematical connections. These questions can be accessed by pupils at different depths and we have seen the Shanghai teachers, and many English primary teachers who are adopting a teaching for mastery approach, use them very skilfully to really challenge even the highest attaining pupils.’

The NCETM is producing guidance on assessment without levels, showing how to establish when a learner

‘…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).’

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Commentary

NCETM wants to establish a distinction between depth via problem-solving (good) and depth via extension tasks (bad)

There is some unhelpful terminological confusion in the assumption that extension tasks necessarily require learners to anticipate material not yet covered by the majority of the class.

Leaving that aside, notice how the relatively balanced wording in the programme of study is gradually adjusted until the balance has disappeared.

The PoS says ‘the majority of pupils will move through…at broadly the same pace’ and that they ‘should be challenged through being offered rich and sophisticated problems before any acceleration through new content).

This is first translated into

‘…the large majority of pupils progress through the curriculum content at the same pace’ (NCETM paper) then it becomes

‘…expose almost all of the children to the same curriculum content at the same pace’ (Stripp’s initial post) and finally emerges as

‘Meeting the needs of all pupils without differentiation of lesson content’ and

‘…all pupils benefit more from deeper understanding than from acceleration to new material.’ (Stripp’s second post).

Any non-mathematician will tell you that the difference between the majority (over 50%) and all (100%) may be close to 50%.

Such a minority could very comfortably include all children achieving L3 equivalent at KS1 or L5 equivalent at KS2, or all those deemed high attainers in the Primary and Secondary Performance Tables.

The NCETM pretends that this minority does not exist.

It does not consider the scope for acceleration towards new content subsequent to the delivery of ‘rich and sophisticated problems’.

Instead it argues that the statement in the PoS ‘directly discourages acceleration through content’ when it does no such thing.

This is propaganda, but why is NCETM advancing it?

One possibility, not fully developed in these commentaries, is the notion that teachers find it easier to work in this way. In order to be successful ‘extension work’ demands exceptionally skilful management.

On the other hand, Stripp celebrates the fact that Shanghai teachers:

…were very skilled at questioning and challenging children to engage more deeply with maths within the context of whole class teaching.’

It is a moot point whether such questioning, combined with the capacity to develop ‘rich and sophisticated problems’, is any more straightforward for teachers to master than the capacity to devise suitable extension tasks, especially when one approach is relatively more familiar than the other.

Meanwhile, every effort is made to associate maths mastery with other predilections and prejudices entertained by educational professionals:

  • It will have a positive impact on teacher workload, but no evidence – real or imagined – is cited to support this belief.
  • The belief that all children can be successful at maths (though with no acknowledgement that some will always be comparatively more successful than others) and an associated commitment to ‘mindset’, encouraging learners to associate success with effort and hard work rather than underlying aptitude.
  • The longstanding opposition of many in the maths education community to any form of acceleration, fuelled by alarming histories of failed prodigies at one extreme and poorly targeted early entry policies at the other. (I well remember discussing this with them as far back as the nineties.)
  • The still contested benefits of life without levels.

On this latter point, the guidance NCETM is developing appears to assume that ‘exceeding national expectations’ in maths must necessarily involve ‘working deeper’.

I have repeatedly argued that, for high attainers, such measures should acknowledge the potential contributions of breadth, depth and pace.

Indeed, following a meeting and email exchanges last December, NAHT said it wanted to employ me to help develop such guidance, as part of its bigger assessment package.

(Then nothing more – no explanation, no apology, zilch. Shame on you, Mr Hobby. That’s no way to run an organisation.)

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Conclusion

Compared with the richness of the tripartite G&T model, the emphasis placed exclusively on depth in the NCETM mastery narrative seems relatively one-dimensional and impoverished.

There is no great evidence in this NCETM material of a willingness to develop an alternative understanding of ‘stretch and challenge’ for high attainers.  Vague terms like  ‘intelligent practice’, ‘deep thinking’ and ‘deep learning’ are bandied about like magical incantations, but what do they really mean?

NCETM needs to revisit the relevant statement in the programme of study and strip away (pun intended) the ‘Chinese whispers’ (pun once more intended) in which they have cocooned it.

Teachers following the maths mastery bandwagon need meaningful free-to-access guidance that helps them construct suitably demanding and sophisticated problems and to deploy advanced questioning techniques that get the best out of their high attainers.

I do not dismiss the possibility that high attainers can thrive under a mastery model that foregrounds depth over breadth and pace, but it is a mistake to neglect breadth and pace entirely.

Shanghai might be an exception, but most of the other East Asian cradles of mastery also run parallel gifted education programmes in which accelerated maths is typically predominant. I’ve reviewed several on this Blog.

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GP

April 2015

Protecting pupil premium for high attainers

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

I am:

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

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Background

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

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

There are 27 members in all (see below).

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

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

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

The Impact Goals are described thus:

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

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

  • Narrow the gap in GCSE attainment at secondary school

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The gap in question is between:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problematic recommendation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why this is objectionable

I oppose this proposal because:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The campaign to date

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

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

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

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Nothing doing.

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

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

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

Freedman himself retweeted this comment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I reacted angrily

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The campaign continued

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

I am asking each organisation to:

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

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

I shall publish the outcomes here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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GP

April 2015

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Fair Education Alliance

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

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

Thanks to them for their prompt and clear response.

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Read On. Get On.

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The Scrapheap

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National Literacy Trust (12/5/15)

 

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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.’

How strong is Oxbridge access?

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This post assesses how well Oxford and Cambridge Universities support fair access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds attending state-funded schools and colleges.

courtesy of Wellcome Images

courtesy of Wellcome Images

It sets out an evidence base to inform and support an Access Lecture I have been asked to give at Brasenose College, Oxford on 28 April 2015.

The outline for that Lecture is as follows:

‘If national efforts:

  • by state-funded schools and colleges to close high attainment gaps between learners from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds
  • by selective higher education institutions to secure fair access for students from disadvantaged backgrounds

could be integrated more effectively, much more substantial progress could be achieved on both fronts.

There is scope for reform in both sectors, to ensure a closer fit between the ‘push’ from schools and colleges and the ‘pull’ from higher education.

Faster progress will be achieved through a national framework that brings greater coherence to the market on both the demand and supply sides. It should be feasible to focus all support directly on learners, regardless of their educational setting.

Oxford and Cambridge should position themselves at the forefront of such efforts, serving as beacons of excellence and exemplary practice.’

This is a companion piece to two previous posts:

The first of these explores the issue from first principles, considering measures, targets and data before outlining a 10-point improvement plan. The second advances a simplified version of this plan.

This post concentrates principally on description of the access-related activities of these two universities, placing those in the wider context of updated material about national policy developments and the relatively disappointing outcomes achieved to date.

It is organised into five main sections:

  • A review of key changes to the national access effort since November 2013.
  • A note on outcomes, which questions whether Oxbridge reflects the positive trends reported for selective higher education as a whole.
  • In depth analysis of how fair access work has developed, at Oxford and Cambridge respectively, as revealed by their successive access agreements.
  • Analysis of signature access programmes at Oxford and Cambridge, featuring their rival residential summer schools and efforts to develop a longer term relationship with disadvantaged students, as recommended by Offa.
  • My personal assessment of strengths and areas for development, including a slightly revised version of the improvement strategy I have proposed in earlier posts.

Given the length of the post I have inserted page jumps to each section.

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Recent developments in national fair access policy

My November 2013 post supplies considerable detail about the regulation of fair access to English universities which I shall not repeat here.

Amongst other things, it deals with:

  • Published data on high attainment by disadvantaged students and their progression to Oxbridge – and how this has not always been used appropriately.

This section describes briefly the principal changes to the national fair access mechanisms introduced by and subsequent to the National Strategy – and explains how access agreements fit into these mechanisms.

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National Strategy for Access and Student Success

The National Strategy sets out a ‘student lifecycle approach’ in which access forms the first of three main stages.

It seeks to address:

‘…the wide gap in participation rates between people from advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds in society, and between students with different characteristics, particularly at the most selective institutions.’

There are six key actions:

  • Introduce a national approach to collaborative outreach that will foster new collaborative partnerships, reduce duplication and support the tracking of students who have undertaken outreach activities. Hefce will fund the national roll-out of a tracking system.
  • Secure a more coherent approach to the provision of information, advice and guidance. HE outreach activity and schools policy will be ‘joined up’.
  • Develop a national evaluation framework, so universities can evaluate their activities more effectively and provide comparable national data. Hefce and Offa will examine the feasibility of sector-wide evaluation measures and publish good practice guidance by January 2015.
  • Co-ordinate national research into access, build the evidence base for effective outreach and share good practice.
  • Introduce a joint HEFCE-Offa approach to requesting information from institutions and
  • Encourage institutions to re-balance their funding from financial support towards outreach and collaborative outreach’.

The new national approach to collaborative outreach will be derived from a set of principles (the emboldening is mine):

  • ‘Outreach is most effective when delivered as a progressive, sustained programme of activity and engagement over time.
  • Outreach programmes need to be directed towards young people at different stages of their educational career and begin at primary level.
  • The effective delivery of outreach programmes requires the full, adequately resourced involvement and engagement of HEIs, FECs and schools.
  • The collaborative provision of outreach delivers significant benefits in terms of scale, engagement, co-ordination and impartiality.
  • Progression pathways for learners with non-traditional or vocational qualifications need to be clearly articulated.
  • Outreach to mature learners depends on good links with FECs, employers and the community.
  • Without good advice and guidance, outreach is impoverished and less effective.’

In November 2013, institutions were advised that they would be expected to prepare their own Strategies for Access and Student Success (SASS), which would replace Offa’s access agreements and Hefce’s widening participation strategic statements.

These would cover the period 2014-19, incorporating the information and commitments that would otherwise have featured in 2015-16 access agreements. In future these arrangements would be updated each spring. Full guidance was promised by late January 2014.

However, further guidance was issued in February 2014 stating that separate returns would continue because:

‘…of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ unexpected delay in sending HEFCE’s grant letter, and because we appreciate that institutions need to make progress with their access and student success plans, which must be approved by the Director of Fair Access to Higher Education. Separating our information requirements is the most pragmatic approach at this time.’

Hefce now says:

‘We are no longer requesting widening participation strategic statements from institutions and are moving towards an outcomes framework for 2014-15 onwards.’

It appears that the SASS concept has been set aside permanently. Certainly Offa’s 2016-17 guidance (February 2015) envisages the continuation of separate access agreements, although there is now a single monitoring return to Offa and Hefce.

Initiatives prompted by the National Strategy

The outcomes framework will be informed by two research projects, one developing a data return, the other designed to establish how an outcomes framework ‘could lead us to understand the relative impact of a wider range of access and student success activities and expenditure’.

As far as I can establish there has been nothing further on evaluation. Hefce’s website mentions guidance, but the link is to material published in 2010

However, the current work programme does include rolling out a Higher Education Access Tracker (HEAT) which helps universities track outreach participants through to HE entry. Hefce is funding this to the tune of £3m over 2014-17, but institutions must also pay a subscription – and only 21 are currently signed up.

The strategy is also establishing National Networks for Collaborative Outreach (NNCOs) which, it is claimed:

‘will deliver a nationally coordinated approach to working with schools, universities and colleges to help people access HE’.

In fact, the purpose of the networks is almost exclusively the provision of information.

They will supply a single point of contact providing information for teachers and advisers about outreach activity in their area, as well as general advice about progression to HE. They will undertake this through websites to be available ‘in early spring 2015’.

At the time of writing, Hefce’s website merely lists the institutions participating in each network – there are no links to live websites for any of these.

There is a budget of £22m for the networks over academic years 2014/15 and 2015/16. Each network receives £120,000 per year and there is also a small additional allocation for each institution.

Three of the networks have national reach, one of them to support students wishing to progress to Oxbridge. This is called the Oxford and Cambridge Collaborative Network. Oxford is the lead institution.

A Google search confirms no web presence at the time of writing. However Oxford’s press release says:

‘Oxford will lead the Oxford and Cambridge NNCO, which will aim to offer specific support to students hoping to study at Oxford and Cambridge by reaching out to students and teachers in more than 1,600 schools across England. The collaboration will build on the current information and advice already offered to students and teachers, but enhanced by activities including a new interactive website, online webinars with admissions staff from Oxford and Cambridge, and more resources for activities in local schools linked to Oxford and Cambridge colleges….

… Online webinars with admissions staff from both universities will make it easier to make contact with students and schools from hard to reach geographic areas, and those schools with limited numbers of high-achieving students each year.

The new network will aim to work with state schools across England with particular emphasis on those in areas that currently have little engagement with Oxford and Cambridge outreach; those in schools offering post-16 (GCSE) education; those from schools with low progression to Oxford or Cambridge, or from areas of socioeconomic disadvantage.’

Offa guidance and strategic plan

Offa’s latest access agreement guidance (for 2016-17 agreements) sets out future priorities that are consistent with the national strategy. These include:

  • Greater emphasis on long-term outreach: ‘Evidence suggests that targeted, longterm outreach which boosts achievement and aspirations among disadvantaged people is a more effective way of widening access than institutional financial support. Where appropriate, you should therefore consider how you can strengthen your work to raise the aspiration and attainment of potential students of all ages, from primary school pupils through to adults.’
  • More effective collaboration: ‘Collaboration between institutions providing outreach is not limited to alliances of higher education institutions (HEIs). We would normally expect collaborative outreach to include many stakeholders rather than to be between a single HEI and schools, colleges or other stakeholders receiving outreach. For example, collaboration may be between one HEI and further education colleges (FECs), other higher education providers, employers, third sector organisations, schools, colleges, training providers, local authorities and so on.’
  • Stretching targets for achieving faster progress: ‘we now ask you to review and set new stretching targets which set out the desired outcomes of the work set out in your access agreement. When reviewing your targets, we expect all institutions, particularly those with relatively low proportions of students from under-represented groups, to demonstrate how they intend to make faster progress in improving access, success and/or progression for these students. This is in line with the aims expressed in our forthcoming strategic plan, which is informed by guidance from Ministers.’

This strategic plan was published in February 2015. It notes that, while some progress has been made in improving access for disadvantaged students to selective higher education, there is much more still to do.

‘Despite these improvements, the gaps between the most advantaged and most disadvantaged people remain unacceptably large. The latest UCAS data shows that, on average, the most advantaged 20 per cent of young people are 2.5 times more likely to go to higher education than the most disadvantaged 20 per cent. At the most selective institutions this ratio increases – with the most advantaged young people on average 6.8 times more likely to attend one of these institutions compared to the most disadvantaged young people.’

One of Offa’s targets (described as ‘Sector Outcome Objectives’) is:

‘To make faster progress to increase the entry rate of students from underrepresented and disadvantaged groups entering more selective institutions, and narrow the participation gap between people from the most and least advantaged backgrounds at such institutions.’

The measure selected is English 18-year-old entry rates by POLAR 2 for higher tariff providers. The targets are:

‘….for the entry rate from quintile 1 to increase from 3.2 per cent in 2014-15 to 5 per cent by 2019-20, and from 5.1 per cent in 2014-15 to 7 per cent by 2019-20 for quintile 2. To reduce the gap in participation, our target is for the quintile 5: quintile 1 ratio to decrease from 6.8 in 2014-15 to 5.0 by 2019-20.’

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A Note on Outcomes

High tariff HEIs

As Offa suggests, there is some cause for optimism about wider progress towards fair access, albeit from an exceedingly low base.

The UCAS End of Cycle Report 2014 indicates that:

  • Students from POLAR Quintile 1 are 40% more likely to enter a high-tariff institution than in 2011, though the percentage achieving this is still tiny (it has increased from 2.3% to 3.2%).
  • FSM-eligible students (the Report doesn’t indicate whether they were ‘ever 6 FSM’ or FSM in Year 11) are 50% more likely to enter a higher tariff institution than in 2011, but the 2014 success rate is still only 2.1%.

As noted above, Offa’s Strategic Plan for 2015-20 includes a target to increase the POLAR Quintile 1 success rate from 3.2% to 5% by 2019-20.

This is an increase of 56% in the six years between 2014 and 2020, compared with an increase of 40% in the three years between 2011 and 2014. Looked at in this way it is relatively unambitious.

But what of Oxbridge? How does its performance compare with other high-tariff institutions?

Oxbridge argues that it is a special case – because of its higher entrance requirements – so should not be judged by the same criteria as other high tariff institutions. It is for this reason that Oxford and Cambridge are reluctant to be assessed against HESA’s Performance Indicators.

Offa’s access agreement methodology enables universities to set targets that reflect their different circumstances, but its own KPIs are framed according to national measures which might not be appropriate to some.

There is no separate Offa target to improve Oxbridge access. When it comes to system-wide performance measures, only DfE’s Impact Indicator 12: Percentage of children on free school meals progressing to Oxford or Cambridge University is specific to Oxbridge.

This is based on the DfE’s experimental Destination Measures statistics. FSM eligibility is determined in Year 11 rather than via the ‘ever 6’ methodology.

The Indicator reports an increase from 0.1% in 2010/11 to 0.2% in 2011/12. (This compares with a reported increase in FSM progression to Russell Group universities from 3.0% to 4.0%)

However, as I have pointed out:

  • The 2010/11 intake was 30 and the 2011/12 intake 50.
  • The 2011/12 intake comprised 40 students from state-funded schools and 10 from state-funded colleges, but both numbers are rounded to the nearest 10.
  • The 2012/13 intake, not yet incorporated into the Indicator, is unchanged from 2010-11, both numbers again rounded to the nearest 10, so any improvement achieved in 2011/12 stalled completely in 2012/13.

The most recent data reported to Offa by Oxford and Cambridge also relates to 2012/13.

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Cambridge

Cambridge uses the POLAR Quintile 1 measure, also a HESA benchmark, though adjusted downwards to reflect its high attainment threshold. It is aiming for a target of 4.0% by 2016/17, against a 2009/10 baseline of 3.1%.

The 2011/12 outcome is given as 2.5%. The 2012/13 line is blank, on the grounds that HESA has not yet reported it. We can now see that the outcome was in fact 3.5% (POLAR2), so a significant improvement, more than catching up the decline the previous year. HESA has recently published the 2013/14 outcome, which is 3.6%, a very slight improvement on the previous year

HESA’s own benchmarks for Cambridge (again POLAR2) were 4.4% in 2011/12, 4.7% in 2012/13 and 4.6% in 2013/14, so it continues to undershoot these quite significantly.

In its latest 2015/16 agreement, Cambridge’s 2017/18 target is unchanged at 4.0% (but now transferred to POLAR3 quintile 1). It has not set a target for 2018/19.

Given Offa’s commitment to achieving a 5.0% outcome by 2019/20, it will be interesting to see where Cambridge pitches its own target in its 2016-17 access agreement. Will it, too, aim for 5%, or will it scale back its own target on the grounds that the attainment profile of its intake is atypically high?

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Oxford

Oxford opts for a different measure. It only reports outcomes for POLAR Quintiles 1 and 2 combined, which is insufficiently specific, using a measure based on ACORN postcode analysis as its principal indicator of access for disadvantaged students.

On this second measure, it reports a target of 9.0% by 2016/17 against a 2009/10 baseline of 6.1% and, more recently, has projected this forward to 10% by 2018/19.

The 2011/12 outcome is 7.6% and the 2012/13 outcome is 6.7%. This fall of 0.9% is annotated ‘Progress made – but less than anticipated’.

If we were to apply the POLAR2 HESA Quintile 1 measure to Oxford, it would have registered 2.6% in 2011/12 (against a HESA benchmark of 4.7%), 3.0% in 2012/13 (against a benchmark of 4.9%) and only 2.4% in 2013/14 (against a benchmark of 4.8%).

The reason is presumably the atypical attainment threshold for admission to Oxford.

Oxford does not have the benefit of an Offa marker against which to pitch its ACORN target for 2019-20.

Comparing Oxford and Cambridge

Graph 1, below, illustrates progress against each university’s principal measure of fair access, as well as the trend implied by its targets.

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Oxbridge graph 1

Graph 1: Oxford and Cambridge: Progress against principal fair access target and projected outcomes for future years

The graph shows inconsistent progress to 2012/13. Oxford’s trend is broadly positive, but Cambridge has not yet caught up where it was in 2008/09. The trajectory implied by Oxford’s targets is more ambitious than Cambridge’s.

Graph 2, below provides further analysis of Oxford’s outcomes, based on data provided in the most recent 2015-16 access agreement. Unfortunately Cambridge is less transparent in this respect.

Graph 2 shows the same pattern of progress against the ACORN target as in Graph 1, except that the 2013 figure is an actual outcome (6.8%) rather than a target (7.5%).

It also shows for each year the percentage of all applicants from ACORN 4/5 postcodes who applied successfully. These compare with a success rate for all applicants of around 20%, giving a gap of three or four percentage points to make up. Progress on this measure has also fluctuated, falling back significantly in 2010 and not yet returning to the mark achieved in 2009.

Preliminary data for 2014 suggests a significant improvement, however. The agreement says that 320 conditional offers have been made, giving an estimated figure for acceptances of 275 (my estimate, not Oxford’s) and a corresponding success rate of 19.2%. If confirmed, this will be a significant step forward.

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Oxbridge graph 2

Graph 2:  The percentage of all successful applicants drawn from ACORN 4/5 postcodes and the percentage of all applicants from ACORN 4/5 postcodes who are successful, 2008-2013

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Graph 3, below is derived from the data underpinning the DfE’s experimental KS5 destination statistics for 2010 to 2011, 2011 to 2012 and 2012 to 2013. It provides, for each year, the percentage of admissions to Oxbridge, Russell Group, Top Third and all HEIs accounted for by FSM students.

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Additional Oxbridge graphGraph 3: Percentage of admissions to Oxbridge, RG, Top third and all HEIs accounted for by FSM students, 2010/11 to 2012/13 (From DfE destination statistics, underlying data)

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The Oxbridge data, especially, must be treated with a degree of caution, since all figures are derived from separate totals for state-funded schools and colleges, each rounded to the nearest 10. Consequently, changes from year to year may be inflated or deflated by the generous rounding.

Nevertheless, one can see that FSM admission to Oxbridge continues to lag well behind the rates for admission to selective higher education more generally. Although one might argue that Oxbridge is improving at a faster rate, it is doing so from a significantly lower base and, in the most recent year (2012/13), the improvement in all other respects is not mirrored in the Oxbridge figures.

Although the rounded number of FSM admissions to Oxbridge in 2012/13 remained unchanged from 2011/12 (at 50) the number of non-FSM admissions increased by 190, so dragging down the percentage.

To summarise:

  • There is an unhelpful two-year lag in outcomes data and limited commonality in the basis of the measures used to set targets, making comparison much more difficult than it needs to be.
  • Neither university routinely releases details of the number of FSM or ‘ever 6’ FSM students within its intake, but DfE destinations data, also affected by a two-year lag, shows that FSM admissions to Oxbridge are significantly lower than to selective HE more generally. The actual number of FSM students admitted has been more or less stalled at 50 or fewer for a decade.
  • Fair access to Oxbridge is improving slightly, but not consistently. Cambridge has not yet caught up where it was in 2008/09. Oxford’s progress is more secure than Cambridge’s, and Oxford’s target is more challenging.

Access Agreements

Access agreements are approved annually by Offa, which issues annual guidance to inform the review process.

It looks particularly at the nature of the access measures adopted, the resources allocated and whether targets and milestones are suitably challenging.

Offa archives old access agreements on its website as well as universities’ self-assessments. The latter should:

  • ‘assess their progress against each target they set themselves in their agreements
  • provide data showing their progress against targets for each academic year since 2006-07 and
  • provide a commentary setting their access work in context, highlighting any particular challenges they have faced, and, if they have not made as wished, explaining the reasons for this.’

The archive includes:

  • Access agreements for Oxford and Cambridge for 2006-07 through to 2015-16 and
  • Self -assessments for Oxford and Cambridge for 2010-11 through to 2012-13

Self-assessments for 2013-14 were due during January 2015 but have not yet been published. In previous years they have not appeared until July.

Access agreements for 2016-17 are due for submission during April 2015. They too are unlikely to appear before July.

Analysis of how access agreements have changed over time provides a valuable insight into the evolution of institutional policies, including the extent to which these have been modified in line with Offa’s guidance.

Comparison between Oxford and Cambridge’s access agreements also helps to draw out key differences between their respective access policies, as well as comparative strengths and weaknesses and areas in which they might potentially learn from each other.

The sections below explore the chronological development of each university’s access agreement under four headings:

  • Budget: The total budget devoted to activity within scope of the agreement, and the balance between funding for bursaries and outreach respectively
  • Bursaries: The bursaries provided to students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds
  • Outreach: The range of activities undertaken 
  • Targets: The targets and milestones set and progress against those not already discussed above.

I have also included a section of Commentary, intended to capture observations that throw additional light on the institution’s approach and attitude to access.

It is important to note that the two universities now adopt a somewhat different approach to the nature of access agreements.

The agreements for 2006-07 were nine (Oxford) and eight (Cambridge) pages in length. Cambridge’s 2015-16 agreement is slightly longer, at 11 pages, but Oxford’s is 48 pages long.

In recent years, Oxford’s agreement has consistently been much more detailed and more informative. This distinction will be apparent from the analysis below.

Moreover, Cambridge’s agreement was unchanged from 2006-07 to 2009-10, whereas Oxford’s changed somewhat in this period. Both universities submitted single agreements for 2010-11 and 2011-12, but both have changed their agreements – at least to some degree – each year since then.

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Budget (£m pa)

Costs are not always as clearly expressed as one would wish, nor are they always fully comparable. This is despite the fact that Offa now produces a template for the purpose.

There is very limited information in Cambridge’s most recent agreement, whereas Oxford supplies extensive detail, including (at Offa’s behest) what is and is not ‘Offa-countable’:

‘When calculating your progression spend, please note that OFFA’s remit only extends to students and courses that are fee-regulated. This means that only measures targeted at undergraduate students (or postgraduate ITT students) from under-represented and disadvantaged groups should be included in your OFFA-countable spend. For example, you should not include spend on financial support for postgraduate students in your OFFA-countable expenditure, although you may include this in your total expenditure on progression.’ (Offa, 2015-16 Resource Plan)

The tables below represent my best effort at harvesting comparable figures. The first table summarises Cambridge’s budget, the second Oxford’s.

Year Bursaries Outreach Total Notes
2006-10 £7.0m £1.15m £8.15m Bursary cost in steady state..£0.425m of outreach budget from AimHigher and Hefce funds.
2010-12 £7.5m £1.15m £8.65m Bursary cost in steady state..£0.45m of outreach budget from AimHigher and Hefce funds.
2012-13 £8.3m £4.2m £12.5m Bursary cost in steady state and includes £1.2m steady state assumption for NSP..Total outreach cost includes £2.7m current expenditure plus £1.5m from fee income.
2013-14 £8.3m £4.2m £12.5m As above.
2014-15 £8.0m £4.66m £12.66m Bursary cost in steady state and includes £0.9m for NSP..Total outreach cost includes £2.7m current expenditure plus £1.96m fee income (of which £0.258m is redirected from NSP).
2015-16 £6.9m £3.0m £9.9m Bursary cost in steady state..Total outreach cost includes unspecified fee income.

Table 1: Summary of costs in Cambridge’s access agreements, 2006-2016

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Year Bursaries Outreach Total Notes
2006-07 £6.8m £1.35m £8.15m Bursary cost in steady state..An additional £3m is provided through college support.
2007-08 £6.8m £1.35m £8.15m Bursary cost in steady state..An additional £3m is provided through college support.
2008-09 £6.3m £1.075m £7.375m Bursary cost in steady state.
2009-10 £6.4m £0.968m £7.368m Bursary cost in steady state.
2010-11 £6.4m £0.968m £7.368m Bursary cost in steady state.
2011-12 £6.6m £1.415m £8.015m
2012-13 £8.8m £2.6m £11.65m Bursary total included £2.2m for tuition fee waivers..Plus additional £0.25m for retention, support and employability.Includes NSP allocation of £0.4m
2013-14 £9.4m.(£9.4m) £4.52m.(£2.44m) £13.92m Bursary total includes £2.9m for tuition fee waivers..Plus additional £0.41m for retention, support and employability.Includes NSP allocation of £0.79m

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Figures in brackets are ‘offa-countable’

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2014-15 £11.32m.(£11.05m) £5.23m.(£2.92m) £16.55m Bursary includes £4.06m for tuition fee waivers..Plus additional £0.54m for retention, support and employability.Includes NSP allocation of £0.34m

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Figures in brackets are ‘offa-countable’

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2015-16 £10.89m.(£10.6m) £5.67m.(£3.24m) £16.56m Bursary includes £3.63m for tuition fee waivers..Plus additional £0.71m for retention, support and employability.Of total only £13.81m is ‘offa-countable’

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Table 2: Summary of costs in Oxford’s access agreements, 2006-2016

These suggest that:

  • Total combined expenditure in 2006-07 was £16.3m, but by 2015-16, this had increased to £23.74m (excluding Oxford’s ‘non-offa countable’ expenditure, an increase of around 46%.
  • Whereas in 2006-07, both Universities were spending exactly the same, by 2015-16, total expenditure at Cambridge had increased by some 21%, while total Offa-countable expenditure at Oxford had increased by about 70%.
  • In 2005-06, the percentage of total funding spent on bursaries was 86% at Cambridge and 83% at Oxford. By 2015-16, the comparable percentages are 70% and 77%. Hence Cambridge has reduced the proportion spent on bursaries more substantively than Oxford, but both Universities continue to direct their funding predominantly towards bursaries.
  • In 2005-06, expenditure on bursaries by each university was very similar. Although the total devoted to bursaries by Cambridge increased slightly in the intervening years, by 2015-16 it was almost the same as in 2005-06. However, expenditure on bursaries at Oxford is some 56% above what it was in 2005-06.
  • Since 2005-06, both Oxford and Cambridge have more than doubled their expenditure on outreach. Taken together, the two universities expect to spend some £6.24m on outreach in 2015-16. Cambridge’s ratio of bursary to outreach spend is approaching 2:1, whereas Oxford’s is more than 3:1.
  • Although the sums they now spend on outreach (offa-countable in Oxford’s case) are relatively similar, Cambridge spends 30% of its total expenditure on outreach while Oxford spends 23%. However, Cambridge spends significantly less than it did at its peak in 2014-15, while Oxford’s expenditure has increased steadily since 2010-11.

Bursaries

Bursary arrangements have shifted subtly, especially as NSP fee waivers have arrived and then disappeared. The details below relate only to the most generous bursary rates for students with the lowest residual household incomes.

Cambridge’s access agreements suggest that:

  • For 2006-10 Cambridge’s bursary offer for students eligible for a full maintenance grant – with a residual household income of £16,000 or below – is £3,000 per year. It estimates that some 10% of its full fee-paying undergraduates – around 955 students – will qualify.
  • For 2010-12 the maximum bursary is £3,400 for all students qualifying for a full maintenance grant – now equivalent to a residual household income of £25,000 or below – and about 1,100 students (13% of Cambridge’s UK undergraduates) will qualify.
  • For 2012-13 the maximum bursary is £3,500 for those with a full maintenance grant. There is an additional fee waiver of £6,000 in the first year of study for such students who are also from ‘particularly disadvantaged backgrounds’ including those formerly in receipt of FSM. (The University points out that these are the Government’s criteria).
  • For 2013-14 the same arrangements apply.
  • For 2014-15 the same arrangements apply, except that recipients can no longer allocate part of their bursary towards an additional fee waiver.
  • For 2015-16 only the bursary of £3,500 remains in place for those with a full maintenance grant.

Oxford’s access agreements reveal that:

  • In 2006-07, students whose residual household income is below £17,500 receive a bursary of £3,000 per year, plus an additional £1,000 in the first year of the course. About 1,200 students are expected to benefit.
  • From 2007-08, these rates increase to £3,070 and £1,025 extra in the first year.
  • From 2008-09, new entrants with a residual household income below £25,000 receive a bursary of £3,150, but all those with an income below £18,000 will receive an extra £850 in the first year of their course.
  • In 2009-10, these rates increase to £3,225 and £875 respectively. This is unchanged for 2010-11.
  • In 2012-13, students with a residual household income below £16,000 a year will receive a bursary of £3,300 per year, plus a tuition fee waiver of £5,500 in the first year of the course and £3,000 in subsequent years.
  • In 2013-14, these arrangements are unchanged.
  • In 2014-15, the bursary rate remains at £3,300, but the fee waiver is reduced to £3,000 a year.
  • In 2015-16, the bursary rate increases substantively to £4,500 per year. A more select group of Moritz-Heyman scholars (with residual income below £16,000 but also ‘flagged on a number of contextual data disadvantage indicators’ ) also receive an annual tuition fee waiver of £3,000

In more recent agreements, Cambridge’s maximum rate of bursary is available for all students below a residual income of £25,000, whereas at Oxford it is confined to students with a residual income of less than £16,000.

Hence Cambridge is comparatively more generous to students with a residual income above £16,000 but below £25,000.

Until 2015-16, the maximum bursary rates were broadly similar, but Oxford has now added a significant increase, offering £1,000 more than Cambridge. Moreover, a fee waiver remains in place for the most disadvantaged students.

Hence Oxford is now more generous to students with a residual income below £16,000. Oxford argues:

‘The University will be monitoring the level of students from households with income of less than £16,000. It is considered that these are the most financially disadvantaged in society, and it is below this threshold that some qualify for receipt of free schools meals, and consideration for the proposed pupil premium. The University does not consider that identifying simply those students who have actually been in receipt of free school meals provides a suitably robust indicator of disadvantage as they are not available in every school or college with post-16 provision, nor does every eligible student choose to receive them.’

The 2014-15 agreement states that 30% of 2012 entrants in receipt of the full bursary – and so with a household income of £16,000 or less – were educated in the independent sector. These students would of course be ineligible for FSM and pupil premium.

The 2015-16 agreement adds that roughly 10% of Home/EU full time undergraduates would qualify for such a bursary. This is supported by the University’s published admissions statistics for 2013, which give the percentage as 9.9% and the number of students as 297.

In 2013, we know that 2,510 admissions were from England, so we can estimate the number of English full bursary holders at approximately 250, of which some 175 were educated in the maintained sector.

But DfE’s destination indicators suggest that only some 25 of these were FSM-eligible.

And other DfE research suggests that only some 14% of students entitled to FSM are not claiming (though that rises to 22% for 15 year-olds).

Taking the latter figure, one might conclude that roughly 30 of the 175 were FSM eligible or non-claimants, so what of the remaining 145 (some 83%)?

It seems likely that they were drawn into residual household income of £16,000 or lower by some combination of:

  • Allowances for additional dependent children (£1,130 per dependent child)
  • Allowances for AVCs and other pension contributions
  • Other allowable expenses.

Interestingly Oxford’s 2013 admissions data shows that the proportion of its intake with incomes between £16,000 and £25,000 was roughly half that of the group with incomes below £16,000.

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Outreach

Cambridge

For 2006-2012, Cambridge divides its outreach provision into three categories:

  • Activity to encourage applications from under-represented groups to Cambridge. This is targeted at students in the first generation in their families to attend HE; those who attend schools or colleges with low or below average GCSE and A level performance; and those attending schools or colleges with little recent history of sending students to Cambridge. Three sub-categories are identified: information events for teachers and parents, residential Easter and summer schools and a miscellany of visits to Cambridge, visits to schools, masterclasses, workshops, study days etc.
  • Collaborative activities with other HE partners to raise aspirations and encourage participation. This includes regional Aimhigher projects and gifted and talented events provided through NAGTY.
  • General aspiration-raising activities for the HE sector generally. These are predominantly subject-based and online activities.

For 2012-16, Cambridge continues to describe its provision under the first and third of these categories, adding that both involve collaborative work. It also identifies a wider range of target groups:

‘These include children in care; students eligible for free school meals [NB]; Black, Asian and minority ethnicity students; mature learners; students educated in further education colleges; and bright students in schools and colleges which have not historically sent students to the University of Cambridge.’

‘Or previously eligible’ is added to FSM eligibility in later iterations.

The description of provision is short, mentioning a national programme of visits and events provided by colleges through an Area Links Scheme plus centrally provided summer schools and taster events.

Five priorities are identified:

  • Increasing the number of places available on events with demonstrable impact, particularly summer schools, taster days and events for teachers.
  • Preserving the legacy of local Aimhigher work.
  • Providing a sustained programme of advice and activities for younger students in local secondary schools.
  • Developing initiatives to encourage state school students to choose appropriate subject combinations and apply to selective universities and.
  • Working closely with Oxford

A sixth priority is added in 2013-14 – ensuring PGCE intakes reflect the population from which Cambridge recruits and building networks of graduate teachers to support wider outreach activity.

In 2014-15 these priorities are unchanged, except that the second and third are conflated into one. There is also an added reference to the long-term nature of some of this work:

‘A number of our initiatives engage with younger age groups and consist of a series of sustained engagements over a number of years. For example, our work in Cambridgeshire and with looked-after children involves secondary school students of all ages, whilst our core programme for black, Asian and minority ethnicity students is delivered to each cohort over a three year period.’

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Oxford

Oxford’s outreach activity is harder to synthesise, because the agreements vary more often and some of more recent are so much more detailed.

In its 2006-07 Agreement, Oxford establishes a distinction between activities designed to encourage applications to the University and more general aspiration-raising activities.

However, these are not separately identified in the list it provides, which includes:

  • Hosting Aspiration Days for students from Years 9-11 drawn from ‘Oxford’s specific “target areas”’
  • A HEFCE specialist summer school for 150 Year 11 students from under-represented groups
  • Local Aimhigher provision
  • A programme of some 500 annual outreach visits targeting schools and colleges with little history of sending students to Oxford or into HE more generally
  • A Year 12 Sutton Trust Summer School for 250 students from non-traditional backgrounds
  • A programme of regional events to encourage applications from non-traditional backgrounds
  • A programme of events for teachers from schools with little history of sending students to Oxford, supporting some 100 teachers a year
  • Support for student-led programmes including the Oxford Access Scheme (for students from inner city schools) and a Target Schools Scheme run by the Student Union
  • A Further Education Access Initiative reaching 100 colleges a year and
  • Subject-specific enrichment activities.

In the following year, the items on the list change slightly. The University is said to be undertaking a thorough audit of these activities.

By 2008-09, Oxford describes the objective of its access work as increasing representation from: state school students, students from lower socio-economic groups, students from BME groups and care leavers.

It is focused on two areas: increasing the number of high quality applications from target groups and ensuring fair admissions processes. It undertakes wider aspirations-raising work on top of this.

The list of central access initiatives annexed to the agreement is missing.

For 2009-10 and 2010-11, the agreement refers to ‘detailed operational plans’ being developed to achieve its objectives.

By 2011-12, Oxford has added a third area of focus to the two immediately above: ensuring that teachers and advisers are able to support intending applicants.

Detailed operational plans are still under development. However, the subsequent agreements introduce several key elements:

  • UNIQ residential summer schools for Year 12 students. Participants are selected on the basis of GCSE A* performance compared with their average school attainment, ACORN postcode, school’s history of sending pupils to Oxford and any care history. A personal statement is also required. There were 380 participants in 2009, rising to 500 in 2010. Capacity is projected to increase to 650 in 2011, 700 in 2012, 850 in 2013, and 1000 participants in 2014.
  • By 2012-13, two other ‘flagship programmes’ are identified: a programme of seven regional one-day teacher conferences and a link programme connecting every local authority with a named college. Participants in the teacher conferences are drawn from schools and colleges with low numbers of students achieving high grades or limited success in achieving offers. Oxford’s target is a 15% success rate for applications from these teachers’ schools.
  • In 2013-14, there is the first reference to a Pathways Programme – longitudinal provision for students across Years 10-13 in schools with little history of engagement with Oxford. By 2014-15 this has expanded to accommodate 500 Year 12 students attending study days and 1,800 Year 10 students attending a taster day. In the 2015-16 agreement there is reference to 3,000 participants.
  • The 2012-13 agreement also outlines a system of access flags attached to certain student applicants, denoting educational and social disadvantage. Some 500 applicants were flagged in 2009/10, 630 in 2010/11 and 928 in 2011/12. The intention is that flagged candidates will achieve the same success rate in receiving offers as all applicants from the same sector. (The sectors specified are comprehensive, grammar, FEC, 6FC and independent). A flag for students from low participation neighbourhoods is incorporated from 2011-12 and one for students from schools and colleges with historically low progression to Oxford is introduced in 2012-13. The 2014-15 agreement notes that the proportion of flagged students achieving an offer and subsequently admitted has risen from 15.6% in 2010-11 to 17.2% in 2011-12. The gap between the success rate of flagged applicants and all UK-domiciled applicants has also fallen from 6.4% to 5.6%. In the 2015-16 agreement, the offer rate for flagged candidates is reported as being 19.1% in 2012-13 and 21.9% in 2013-14 However, there is no comparison with the sector-specific data for all applicants.

The 2012-13 agreement is the first to mention the preparation of an Oxford Common Framework for Access but this is not ready until the publication of the 2014-15 agreement.

In that agreement, Oxford describes a four-fold approach it has developed for targeting different types of schools:

  • The large proportion producing few students with the necessary attainment to apply to Oxford – highly tailored individual activities such as UNIQ, school-cluster visits and the student union’s student shadowing scheme.
  • Schools with little history of sending students to Oxford or students who have been relatively unsuccessful – application and interview preparation workshops and awareness-raising events.
  • Schools where there are many high-attaining students but little history of sending students to Oxford – increase understanding of the application process and break down myths.
  • Schools who have significant numbers of successful applicants – maintain a working relationship.

Targets

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Cambridge

Cambridge begins by adopting selected HESA benchmarks, even though these have:

‘severe limitations in a Cambridge context, in that they take insufficient account of the University’s entry requirements, both in terms of subject combinations and of levels of qualification. We hope in due course to develop our own internally derived milestones or, alternatively, consider the applicability of any milestones which OFFA might develop.’

Three targets are adopted:

  • Increasing the proportion of UK undergraduates from state schools or colleges to between 60% and 63%, compared with a HESA benchmark for 2001-02 of 65%.
  • Increasing the proportion of students admitted whose parental occupation falls within NS-SEC 4-7 to 13-14%, compared with a HESA benchmark for 2001-02 of 13%.
  • Increasing the proportion of students from low participation neighbourhoods to approximately 8-9% compared with the HESA 2001-02 benchmark of 7%.

For 2010-12, the third of these targets is lowered to 5-6% because HESA has changed the basis of its calculation, reducing Cambridge’s benchmark by 33%.

By 2012-13, the first of these targets is described as the University’s ‘principal objective’, so it is deemed more important than improving fair access for disadvantaged students. This statement is subsequently removed, however.

The third objective is again recalibrated downwards, this time to 4%, because:

‘Currently HESA performance indicators and other national datasets relating to socio-economic background do not take adequate account of the entry requirements of individual institutions. Whilst they take some account of attainment, they do not do so in sufficient detail for highly selective institutions such as Cambridge where the average candidate admitted has 2.5 A* grades with specific subject entry requirements. For the present we have adjusted our HESA low participation neighbourhood benchmark in line with the results of our research in relation to state school entry and will use this as our five-year target….We will seek data through HESA or otherwise to amend or update our target in relation to socio-economic background in a revised access agreement next year.’

A paper is available explaining the recalibration (applying a scaling factor of 0.88)

Two new targets are also introduced: a retention benchmark and a process target relating to the minimum number of summer school places.  There will be a minimum of 600 places a year for the next five years.

The substantive details are unchanged in all subsequent agreements.

Oxford

In its 2006-07 access agreement, Oxford discusses setting a performance indicator for recruitment from the maintained sector, adding that from 2006 it will begin to collect data on recruitment from lower socio-economic groups.

In 2007-08 it notes that recruitment from SEG 4-7 ‘increased by 7% and drew the University closer to its benchmark’.

In 2008-09, Oxford is continuing to monitor participation by SEG 4-7 and planning to introduce an internally developed benchmark, adjusted to reflect the high attainment required for entry to Oxford. By 2009-10/2010-11, work is still ongoing to develop such a benchmark.

In 2011-12 it seems still not to be ready, but in 2012-13 Oxford introduces its current indicators:

  • Increase the percentage of UK undergraduates at Oxford from schools and colleges which historically have had limited progression to Oxford.
  • Increase the percentage of UK undergraduate students at Oxford from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. ACORN is adopted because:

‘The University has found the ACORN information to be the most accurate source of verifiable information to highlight socioeconomic factors that may signify disadvantage, and has used it as a contextual flag in the undergraduate admissions process since 2008-9, and also as a factor when selecting participants for the UNIQ summer schools programmes.’

  • Increase the percentage of UK undergraduate students at Oxford from neighbourhoods with low participation in higher education. This utilises POLAR quintiles 1 and 2 ‘in line with HEFCE and OFFA recommendations’.
  • Meet the HEFCE benchmark on disabled students at Oxford.

It supplements these with three ‘activity targets and outcomes’:

  • 60% of those participating in the UNIQ summer schools make an application to Oxford, and 30% of those applying to receive an offer of a place.
  • Improve the participation, application, and success levels from schools and colleges who have had teachers attend the Regional Teacher Conferences, where these schools and college have either a limited numbers of qualified candidates or where there historically has been limited success in securing offers.
  • Using contextual information in the admissions process to identify candidates who may be suitable to be interviewed on the basis of either time in care, or socio-economic and educational disadvantage. The expectation is that identified candidates would then achieve the same success rate in receiving offers as all applicants to Oxford from equivalent school or college sectors.

These are unchanged in subsequent agreements though, as we have seen, there is no reporting of flagged applicants’ success compared with all students in their respective sectors, only compared with all applicants.

Commentary

There are, within the series of access agreements, valuable insights into the thinking within Oxford and Cambridge about such issues. Here is an annotated selection, presented in broadly chronological order:

  • Improvement will take time: ‘Cambridge will continue to strive to encourage applications from qualified applicants from groups currently under-represented and to admit a greater proportion of them within the context of our admissions policies and without compromising entry standards. Experience has, however, demonstrated that outreach activity takes time to alter the composition of the student population.’ (Cambridge, 2006-10)
  • Partnership and collaboration is necessary: ‘In setting itself these objectives, the University recognises that the problems relating to access to higher education are complex and deep-seated, and beyond the capability of the University to solve by itself. They require the input of all parts of the organisation to address, and indeed the input of agencies external to the University. Oxford is committed to playing its part in addressing these issues…’ (Oxford, 2008-09)
  • Increases in intake are unlikely: ‘Because, in part, of the full-time, residential nature of Cambridge’s undergraduate courses, it is unlikely that the university’s undergraduate intake will significantly increase over the next five years.’ (In 2012-13, this is qualified by the addition of the phrase ‘…beyond the colleges’ capacity to admit them’, but this is dropped again the following year.) (Cambridge 2006-10 and 2012-13)
  • Access is focused on application rather than admission: ‘The selection process aims to identify the most able, by subject, from among a very highly qualified field of candidates. While the purpose of our access work is to ensure that all students who are likely to be able to meet the required standards have the opportunity to apply, our admissions procedures aim to select those candidates who best meet our published selection criteria.’ (Oxford, 2012-13)
  • The balance of expenditure in favour of bursaries is justified: Whilst mindful of OFFA guidance on this subject, we do not believe that there is a sufficient body of evidence that greater benefit would be derived from different proportions of expenditure. As suggested above…we believe that our financial support has a significant bearing on retention. We have also taken full account of student feedback in the formulation of the present scheme. Students have confirmed during the current year that they do not want to see a reduction in bursary levels. It should be noted that the level of expenditure on outreach activity outlined in this agreement is supplemented from very substantial funding through other sources, and so we believe our commitment in this area to be considerable and appropriate.’ (Cambridge 2013-14)
  • This balance of expenditure in favour of bursaries is open to challenge: ‘Our package of financial support to undergraduate students, through both tuition charge waivers and maintenance bursaries, is expected to contribute in broad terms to meeting the targets and outcomes. As yet, however, the evidence for a demonstrable connection between financial support for students and improvements in access to higher education amongst under-represented groups is unclear. We will continue to review our position on the basis of further evidence and analysis.’ (Oxford, 2012-13)
  • Explanations of limited progress: Progress against these targets in 2012 has proved extremely challenging, particularly against the backdrop of the new funding regime combined with a demographic decline in the number of school leavers. In relation to the three targets dealing with educational, social and economic disadvantage, Oxford has seen both a decline in applicants and a decline in the number of students that have been admitted…Oxford will continue to focus its outreach efforts and resources on recruiting and encouraging a wider range of student to apply successfully to the University (Oxford 2014-15)
  • Student funding reforms have depressed performance: ‘The 2011, 2012 and 2013 entry cycles proved atypical, given the extensive changes to student funding, and this was reflected in the limited success against the targets…The provisional figures for 2014 entry, however, indicate that we have made headway across the board, particularly in regard to candidates who are from postcodes with high levels of socio-economic disadvantage using the Acorn (A Classification Of Residential Neighbourhoods) postcode classification. …Sustained long term outreach activity takes time to show in the admissions process, and the need to allow a five year period to assess progress has been reiterated by Oxford on a regular basis.’ (Oxford 2015-16)
  • Potentially negative impact of A level reform: ‘We are concerned that current proposals for A-level reform would significantly reduce student choice and flexibility; in particular, the lack of formal end of Year 12 examinations will adversely affect student confidence and the quality of the advice they receive about higher education options, and also prevent institutions such as Cambridge from accurately assessing current academic performance and trajectory. If effected these proposed reforms could have a significant bearing on our ability to make progress on access measures.’ (In 2015-16 there is also concern ‘…that proposed funding arrangements would effectively restrict students in many state schools to three A-levels, meaning that the opportunity to study extremely valuable fourth subjects such as Further Mathematics would be lost.) (Cambridge, 2014-15 and 2015-16 
  • There is an evidence base for effective practice ‘There is also increasing evidence that sustained work with students over a longer period of time is more effective than one-off interventions, particularly if this work is tailored to the requirements of each age group.’ and ‘Research into access activities has identified that, provided they have a sufficient depth of content, summer schools are a particularly valuable experience for students who have higher academic achievements and aspirations than others in their peer group.’ (Oxford 2014-15 and 2015-16)
  • Universities’ role in raising attainment: There is a larger question about the role of universities in raising attainment rates within schools. Universities can, and Oxford does, work in partnership with schools, local authorities, and third parties to form collaborative networks that can work together to raise the attainment rates of students from the most deprived backgrounds’ (Oxford 2014-15)

Some of these issues will be picked up again in the final section of this post.

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Oxbridge’s Signature Access Programmes

This section reviews information about key programmes within each university’s access portfolio that reflect their long-term commitment to residential programmes and a more recent focus on longer-term partnership programmes targeting secondary students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Before engaging with these specific programmes, it is important to give a sense of the full range of activity presently under way. In Oxford’s case, the most recent 2015-16 access agreement provides the basis for this. In Cambridge’s case, I have drawn on online material and an online brochure.

Cambridge’s Access Portfolio 

Cambridge’s Outreach and Access webpages provide details of:

  • Insight supporting students attracting the Pupil Premium in Year 9 through to Year 13 (see below)
  • Experience Cambridge, a 3-week subject-specific academic project, undertaken predominantly through the University’s VLE.
  • HE+, a pilot programme involving regional consortia of state schools and colleges working with their link Cambridge College to enable their academically able students to make competitive applications to selective universities including Cambridge.
  • HE Partnership, an aspiration-raising initiative targeting Year 9-11 students in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough schools with lower than average progression rates – and particularly students attending them with no family background of attending higher education.

A separate Raising Aspirations booklet mentions, in addition:

  • The Subject Matters, events for Year 11 students to support their A level subject choice
  • Year 12 subject masterclasses
  • A Black Asian and minority ethnicity (BAME) outreach programme
  • Further education and mature student outreach
  • Various examples of outreach by University Departments
  • Activity under the College Area Links Scheme
  • The CUSU Shadowing Scheme
  • Open Days
  • Oxford and Cambridge student conferences
  • Participation in higher education conventions

Oxford’s Access Portfolio

Oxford’s 2015-16 access agreement describes:

  • Briefings for Teach First and PGCE students which typically attract 150 students annually.
  • An annual programme of school and college visits, which involved over 3,300 UK schools and colleges in 2012-13. These are undertaken through Link Colleges (see below).
  • Target Schools, an OUSU programme involving undergraduate visits and student Shadowing Scheme.
  • A variety of Departmental and subject-specific outreach activities

Cambridge: Sutton Trust Summer Schools 

Sutton Trust summer schools are subject-specific residential courses for Year 12 students. They are currently provided at ten institutions including Cambridge. There are about 2,000 places nationally and Cambridge accounts for 550 of them.

Cambridge offers 26 five-day courses in July and August, hosted by six of its colleges. They are free to attend. The providers meet all costs including travel to and from the venue, food and accommodation.

Successful applicants must meet most or all of the following eligibility criteria:

  • In the first generation of their family to attend university (in fact this means neither parent has a first degree or equivalent)
  • Eligible for FSM [not pupil premium] during secondary education
  • Have achieved at least 5A*/A grades at GCSE or equivalent and be taking subjects relevant to the summer schools they wish to attend
  • Attend schools/colleges with a low overall A level point score (typically below the national average) and/or low progression to HE
  • Live in neighbourhoods with low progression rates to HE and/or high rates of socio-economic deprivation.

Participants must attend a UK state-funded school or college, so those attending independent schools are ineligible, even if they have moved subsequently into a state sixth form. Priority is given to children who are, or were formerly, looked after or in care.

Cambridge’s website says:

‘We look at a combination of the contextual priority criteria met and GCSE grades (or equivalent) in subjects relevant to the course for which you have applied. In 2014, the majority of our 550 summer school participants met two or more of these criteria.’

In answer to the question ‘does attending a summer school increase my chances of getting a place at Cambridge, the University says:

‘Applications to the University are completely separate from the Summer Schools and use different criteria to those of the Summer School.  Admissions Tutors will not know whether an applicant has attended a Summer School, unless you choose to mention it in your personal statement…Equally, being unsuccessful in a summer school application does not correlate to the likelihood of being accepted to Cambridge as an undergraduate: we use very different criteria and it is in no way a statement about your academic record or potential.’

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Oxford: UNIQ summer schools

The UNIQ summer schools website describes a very similar animal. It is also targeted at Year 12 students in state schools and colleges. The courses are also one-week, subject-specific residential experiences undertaken during July and August. All costs are covered.

According to the access agreements Oxford planned to increase the number of places available to 1,000 in 2014 and achievement of this outcome is confirmed in the published statistics, which add that there were 4,327 applications and that 507 ‘near miss applicants’ were invited to undertake other outreach activities.

Interestingly though, the number of places available in 2015 fell back substantially, to 850. The number of courses was 35, unchanged from 2014, suggesting a drop in the average number of students per course from 29 to 24.

Courses are categorised according to whether they are in Humanities, Medical Sciences, Mathematical, Physical and Life Sciences or Social Sciences. Sixteen of the 35 are in Humanities subjects.

The eligibility criteria are also similar to those for Sutton trust summer schools, but  those relating to disadvantage are not described with any degree of specificity . They include:

  • The number of A* GCSE grades achieved compared with the average for the applicant’s school when they took GCSEs. (Applicants are only permitted to have completed one A level.)
  • Academic attainment and history of progression to Oxford at the school or college where the applicant is taking A levels
  • ACORN postcode data
  • POLAR 3 data and
  • The quality of a personal statement

Applications from looked after children are considered ‘on an individual basis’.

A referee, normally a teacher, needs to confirm the details of their application.

Students who complete a UNIQ summer school fulfil the requirements for the ASDAN Universities Award.

The website adds that from 2015, Oxford is ‘running a virtual learning programme for selected applicants’.

The answer given to the question ‘Will attending a UNIQ summer school make it more likely that I will get a place at Oxford University says:

‘Students who attend UNIQ and decide to apply to Oxford University do not receive any preferential treatment at the application stage.

Admissions tutors who make decisions about undergraduate offers select entirely on academic merit. Unless students mention on their UCAS Personal Statement that they have attended the UNIQ Summer School, admissions tutors will not know, as we do not provide them with separate information.’

Cambridge: Insight 

Insight is described in the guide for teachers as:

‘an [sic] multidisciplinary programme which aims develop [sic] and broaden students’ academic interests and tackle the barriers many students face when applying to university. We hope to achieve this through inspiring subject days, discussions with current university students and academics and sessions about university.’

Eligible students are in Year 9, attract the Pupil Premium, can travel to and from Cambridge in a day and are ‘on track to achieve Level 7 English, maths and science but [sic] the end of Key Stage 3’.

The programme is predominantly focused on six London boroughs, but applications are also invited from non-selective state schools elsewhere with ‘above average eligibility for free school meals’.

There is a series of Saturday and holiday events, including:

  • Core sessions, including an introductory event in the Spring term of Year 9 and ‘Subject Matters’ – events to support A level choices – in the Autumn Term of Year 11.
  • Additional subject days provided throughout Years 10 and 11
  • A one-night residential at the end of Year 10 and a four-night residential at the end of Year 11 for ‘those who have shown enthusiasm and commitment to the programme’.
  • A regular email newsletter during Years 12 and 13 providing information about open days, masterclasses, residentials and competitions.

The programme is free of charge.

I could find no evaluation of the impact of this programme, which is not mentioned in Cambridge’s ‘Raising Aspirations’ brochure, even though it seems to be their only substantial long term programme targeting disadvantaged students outside the local area

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Oxford: Pathways Programme 

The website describes Pathways as an initiative co-ordinated by Oxford’s colleges with support from the Sutton Trust.

‘The programme aims to provide information, advice and guidance on higher education and Oxford to academically able students, and staff members, in non-selective state schools with little history of student progression to Oxford.’

The components are:

  • Year 10 taster days which provide sessions on higher education and student finance. Applications are made by schools, which need to be in the state sector, ‘usually without sixth forms’ and with little or any history of sending students to Oxford.
  • Year 11 investigating options events, focused on the significance of GCSE results and post-16 choices. These are aimed at students who have undertaken a taster event who attend schools fitting the description above. Schools are encouraged to bring up to ten students. There are also two subject-focused days, one devoted to Medicine, the other to Humanities.
  • Year 12 study days providing a taste of subject-specific university-level study. This involves two taster sessions undertaken in small groups, two talks from admissions tutors and a college tour. There are twenty-one subjects offered. Participants are from non-selective state schools and colleges. They are normally expected to have at least 5 GCSE A* grades (7 for medicine) and be predicted to achieve at least 3 A grades at A level, or equivalent.
  • A Year 13 application information day, providing advice on personal statements, tests and interviews. These cover seven broad subject areas. Participants are again drawn from non-selective state schools and colleges.

Although not confined to students from disadvantaged backgrounds, teachers are advised that:

‘When selecting participants for the Year 12 and 13 events, we also take into account socio-economic data, such as parental HE participation and eligibility for benefits or free schools meals.’

The Sutton Trust explains that Pathways involved almost 3,000 students and 400 teachers in its first year. The Trust is funding the further development of the Year 12 and 13 components.

I could find no separate evaluation of the effectiveness of Pathways.

Strengths and weaknesses of Oxbridge provision

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Summer schools 

Both Oxford and Cambridge place extensive reliance on the effectiveness of summer schools as an instrument for improving access, with summer school provision forming the centrepiece of their respective strategies.

The evidence base in support of this strategy appears relatively slim. Both appear to be relying principally on evaluation of the Sutton Trust’s programme.

The Sutton Trust appears to publish an annual Targeting and Progression Report, but the 2014 edition has all the institution-specific data stripped out, which is not entirely helpful.

However, it does reveal that, amongst applicants for summer schools in all ten locations, only:

  • 59.5% were from the first generation of their family with experience of HE.
  • 54.8% came from schools and colleges with below average A level point scores and/or low progression rates to HE.
  • 29.9% were in Polar 2 quintiles 1 or 2.

There is no reference to the FSM eligibility criterion, so presumably that was not in place last year.

There is limited information about the status of those accepted onto courses. Between them, the document and a parallel powerpoint presentation tell us that:

  • The majority of attendees met two or three of the eligibility criteria
  • 77% met three of the criteria, but we don’t know which three
  • 85% met the ‘first generation’ criterion
  • 74% ‘came from schools with low attainment’
  • 49% ‘lived in areas with the lowest level of progression to university’ (presumably Polar quintiles 1 and 2).

Given the focus of this post, the last outcome is particularly disappointing, since it means that over half were not disadvantaged on the Trust’s only measure. Perhaps the additional FSM criterion has been introduced in an effort to secure a larger majority of applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The presentation also reveals that the Trust specifically targeted 900 ‘hard to reach schools’ which eventually supplied 257 attendees, 88% of them meeting three or more of the eligibility criteria.

The implication must be that, if such an exercise had not taken place, the proportion of attendees from disadvantaged backgrounds would have been significantly lower.

The Report also reveals that, of the 2012 Sutton Trust summer school cohort, 58% of university applicants took up a place at a Russell Group university. A total of 125 students (10% of the cohort) accepted a place at the institution that hosted their summer school.

Oxford publishes information about its summer schools in its access agreements.

The target is for 60% of participants to apply and for 30% of applicants to receive an offer. The University also aims that summer school participants will have the same success rate in securing an offer as the average for all applicants from the state sector.

Each agreement provides detail about the number of participants who apply to Oxford, the number receiving offers and the proportion of those from ACORN groups 4 and 5.

These are summarised in Graph 4, below, which illustrates that the impact on recruitment of students from ACORN 4 and 5 postcodes is not fully commensurate with the increase in the number of participants.

Oxbridge graph 3

Graph 4: Impact of UNIQ summer schools, 2010-2013

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Oxford also provides details of the proportion of summer school participants from Polar quintiles 1 and 2 receiving an admission offer, for 2011 (19.5%), 2012 (15%) and 2013 (20.3%). In 2013, the comparable ‘success rate’ for all applicants to the University was 20.1%.

The evaluation evidence cited by Oxbridge is captured in a Sutton Trust Summer School Impact Report, dating from 2011. This is based on analysis of the 2008 and 2009 summer school intakes, when course were located at Bristol, Nottingham and St Andrews, as well as at Oxford and Cambridge.

It concludes that:

  • Summer schools successfully select students who fit the eligibility criteria (though that is not entirely borne out by the more recent outcomes above).
  • Amongst the disadvantaged cohort, less disadvantaged students are more likely to take up places than their more disadvantaged peers.
  • However, attending a summer school closes the gap between the success rates – in terms of obtaining admission offers – of more and less disadvantaged students. Exactly why this happens is unclear.
  • There are significant differences between universities. Cambridge exhibits ‘relatively poor conversion of attendees into applications (not least when compared to the equivalent performance of Oxford)’

The overall conclusion is that summer schools do have a positive impact, compared with control groups, but the study does not offer recommendations for how they might work better, or consider value for money.

The closing section notes that:

‘They achieve this by raising two of the three ‘As’ of the WP canon – student awareness and student aspirations. It may not directly enhance the third – student attainment – though summer schools can support students’ study skills – but the growing adoption of a ‘contextual data’ approach to the treatment of university admissions should be to the further benefit of the sorts of students who pass through summer schools.’

Overall then, summer schools have a positive impact, but if we are judging their efficiency as a mechanism for improving the intake of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, it is clear that there is extensive deadweight. They might be better targeted on the most disadvantaged students.

If this is true of summer schools it is almost certainly true of other elements of Oxbridges’s access programmes.

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Other more general issues 

  • A smorgasbord of provision: It is evident that both Oxford and Cambridge are engaged in multiple overlapping initiatives designed to improve access, both to their own institutions and to selective HE more generally. At Offa’s behest, they are targeting several sub-populations. The 2016-17 guidance on completing access agreements invites them to consider a variety of under-represented groups: minority ethnic students, disabled students, care leavers and students in care, part-time students, mature students, medical students, PGCE students. There seems to be a tendency to invent a series of small targeted initiatives for each subgroup, rather than focusing principally on two or three substantial programmes that would make a real difference to core target groups. 
  • Too many priorities too vaguely expressed: Both universities identify core priorities through the targets they have selected. In Oxford’s case those involve increasing representation from: schools and colleges with limited progression to Oxford; postcodes associated with significant socio-economic disadvantage; postcodes associated with low HE participation; and disabled students. However the first three overlap to some extent and recent access agreements do not indicate the relative priority attached to each. In Cambridge’s case only two targets relate to admissions, one focused on increasing representation from state schools, the other from low participation postcodes. In older agreements, the former has clear priority over the latter but it is unclear whether this remains the case. Offa’s framework requires simplification so that both universities have no option but to prioritise admissions from disadvantaged learners educated in state-funded institutions. It should be much clearer exactly which activities are dedicated to this end and what funding is allocated for this purpose. 
  • A plethora of measures: The Offa system permits Oxbridge and other universities too much leeway in defining the populations whose access they seek to promote and in determining how they measure success. This makes it harder to compare universities’ records and more complex to harmonise with the measures most often applied in schools and colleges. If universities refuse to foreground eligibility for the pupil premium and for FSM, they should at the very least publish annual data about the proportion of their intake falling within these categories, and without the present two year time lag.
  • Limited transparency: There is too much variability in the degree of transparency permitted by the Offa framework. Oxford provides much more data in its access agreement than does Cambridge, but the range of data published in support of fair access is limited across the board. Within the bounds of data protection legislation, it should be possible for the university to state each year, without a two-year timelag, what proportion of their intake fall within certain specified categories, how those vary between subjects and the range of attainment demonstrated in each case. The publication of such material would go a long way towards removing any sense that Oxbridge is overly defensive about these issues. 
  • Limited investment in long term collaborative programmes: Summer schools are valuable but they do not impact early enough, nor do they raise attainment. The Insight and Pathways programmes demonstrate growing recognition of the potential value of establishing long-term relationships with prospective students that begin as early as primary school and certainly before the end of KS3. Such programmes require schools, colleges and universities to preserve continuity for each eligible student through to the point of university entry. Existing programmes are insufficiently intensive and reach too few students. Scalability is an obvious issue. 
  • Negligible involvement in attainment-raising work: Both Oxford and Cambridge state frequently that the principal obstacle to recruiting more disadvantaged students is the scarcity of sufficiently high attainment within the target group. Yet rarely, if ever, do they invest in long-term activities designed to raise these students’ attainment, seeming to believe that this is entirely a matter for schools and colleges. The precedent offered by university involvement in academy sponsorship and A level reform would suggest that there is no fundamental obstacle to much closer engagement in such activities.

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Tackling the core problem

The proposed solution is a framework that supports a coherent long-term programme for all high-attaining disadvantaged students attending state-funded institutions in England, stretching from Year 7 to Year 13. These might be defined as all those eligible for pupil premium. An additional high attainment criterion, based on achievement in end of KS2 tests, could be introduced if necessary.

Such a programme could be extended to the other home countries and additional populations subject to the availability of funding.

The framework would position the school/college as the co-ordinator, facilitator and quality assurer of each eligible student’s learning experience (with handover as appropriate as and when a learner transfers school or into a post-16 setting).

It would stretch across the full range of competence required for admission to selective HE, including high attainment, personal and learning skills, strong yet realistic aspirations, cultural capital, access to tailored IAG etc.

On the demand side, the framework would be used to identify each student’s strengths and areas for development, and monitor progress again challenging but realistic personal targets.

From Years 7-9 the programme would be light-touch and open access for all eligible disadvantaged students. Emphasis would be placed on awareness-raising and the initial cultivation of relevant skills.

Entry to the programme from Year 10 would be conditional on the achievement of an appropriate nigh attainment threshold at the end of KS3. From this point, provision would be tailored to the individual and more intensive.

Continuation in subsequent years would be dependent on the student achieving appropriate high attainment thresholds and challenging interim targets.

Schools’ and colleges’ performance would be monitored through destinations data and Ofsted inspection.

On the supply side the framework would be used to identify, organise and catalogue all opportunities to develop the full range of competence required for admission to selective HE, whether provided by the student’s own school or college, other education providers in the school, college and HE sectors or reputable private and third sector providers.

Opportunities offered by external providers, whether at national or regional level, would be catalogued and mapped against the framework in a searchable national database. Schools and colleges would be responsible for mapping their own provision and other local provision against the framework.

Each student would have a personal budget supplied from a central fund. Personal budgets would be administered by the school/college and used to purchase suitable learning opportunities with a cost attached. The fund would be fed by an annual £50m topslice from the pupil premium. This would cover the full cost of personal budgets.

The annual budget of £50m per year might be divided between:

  • Light-touch open access activities in Years 7-9 – £10m
  • Intensive programme in Years 10-13 – £10m per year group.

The latter would be sufficient to support 5,000 eligible students to the tune of £2,000 per student per year, or 4,000 to the tune of £2,500.

By comparison, DfE’s destination indicators suggest that, in 2012/13, ‘top third’ universities admitted 2,650 FSM-eligible students; some 1,520 of these were admitted to Russell Group universities and, of those, just 50 were admitted to Oxbridge.

Selective universities would make a small contribution, the sum adjusted to reflect their comparative performance against fair access targets. These contributions would be used to meet the administrative costs associated with the programme. Total annual running costs have not been estimated but are unlikely to be more than £2.5m per year.

Universities might choose to invest additional funding, covered by their annual Offa access agreements, in developing free-to-access products and services that sit within the supply side of the framework. Attainment-raising activities might be a particular priority, especially for Oxbridge.

Philanthropic contributions might also be channelled towards filling gaps in the supply of products and services where, for whatever reason, the market failed to respond.

Selective universities would have access to information about the progress and performance of participating students. Students would apply for higher education via UCAS as normal, but strong performers would expect to receive unconditional offers from their preferred universities, on the strength of their achievement within the programme to date.

Participation in the programme would be a condition of funding for all selective universities. All processes and outcomes would be transparent, unless data protection legislation prevented this. The programme would be independently evaluated.

Optionally, universities might be further incentivised to make unconditional offers and provide the necessary support during undergraduate study. The Government might pay the receiving university a fee supplement, 50% above the going rate, for every student on the programme admitted unconditionally (so up to £22.5m per cohort per year assuming a supplement of £4,500 and 100% recruitment). This supplement would not be provided for conditional offers.

The Government would also claw back the full fee plus the supplement for every student on the programme – whether admitted conditionally or unconditionally – who failed to graduate with a good degree (so £40,500 per student assuming a 3-year degree and a £9,000 fee).

GP

March 2015

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