A Comprehensive University system? Why is the selection debate only focused on schools?


Professor Tim Blackman ,Vice-Chancellor of Middlesex University , a Professor of Sociology and Social Policy , argued for a truly radical and democratic reform of the HE sector, last year, in a HEPI booklet The Comprehensive University.

We should ,he says , require all universities to have more diverse intakes – socially, ethnically and by ability. Comprehensive reform of higher education is long overdue, with its likely social and educational benefits from a ‘diversity bonus’ in all our institutions. The advocacy of selection in education he claims is driven by an impulse to separate people into deserving and undeserving, ‘us’ and ‘other’ As things stand, students at the ‘not high status’ institutions know that they are, in effect, in a low-status university and, by association, are ‘low status’ people who possibly should not be at university. These low-status students are more likely to be working class and black. They are advised to head for ‘high status’ universities if they are ‘talented’. The higher education sector currently both extends opportunity and entrenches class privilege, with the latter effect far outweighing the former. This, argues Blackman ,is a pretty shocking state of affairs that needs to be addressed on equality grounds alone, but ,he points out, there are likely to be significant educational and productivity dividends from ending it too. All students would benefit from replacing a stratified higher education system with mixed-tariff institutions where the diversity of cognitive abilities and identities would be a resource for everyone’s learning. This could be achieved through open access or basic matriculation quotas. Blackman says that a variety of admission mechanisms could be used to desegregate universities and move to all but a few being comprehensive. The simplest would be to require a fixed proportion of entry to be open access along the lines of the school academies that are allowed to use selection but only for a fixed proportion of their intake. Alternatively, there could be a minimum matriculation requirement, based on minimum threshold standards across the sector, but low enough to make a significant impact on the barrier to access created by high-entry requirements. Excess demand could then be managed using a lottery. This system could be combined with a levy, creating more diverse and more successful learning communities in all our universities.

It is interesting that debate on selection is currently almost entirely focused on the schools system and the expansion, or not, of grammar schools. . Blackman has opened up another front. About time too

HEPI Occasional Paper

See also Blog




Carol S. Dweck, the Lewis and Virginia Eaton Professor of Psychology at Stanford University, was awarded, in 2017 , the prestigious ,new ‘Yidan Prize’ dedicated to ‘creating a better world through education today.’Her ground-breaking research focuses on the pioneering concept of the “growth mindset” built on a fundamental belief in the malleability of intelligence. The theory is about how children in the classroom are encouraged to evaluate and realize their full potential. Mindsets (aka implicit theories) are beliefs about the nature of human attributes (e.g., intelligence). The theory holds that individuals with growth mindsets (beliefs that attributes are malleable through positive effort) enjoy many positive outcomes—including higher academic achievement—while their peers who have fixed mindsets experience negative outcomes. Dweck claims that talent isn’t passed down in the genes ;its passed down in the mindset. (some recent research contests this idea). People with a fixed mindset believe talent is everything. If they’re not gifted with the ability to do something, they think they’re doomed to be a failure. Their intelligence is fixed and there is not much they can do about it. Their skills seem to be written down in their genes, just like their looks, which is why they never try to improve in something they perceive themselves to be bad at.

On the other hand, people with a growth mindset believe that whatever they want to achieve is theirs for the taking, as long as they work hard for it, apply themselves, dedicate themselves to their goal and practice as much as they can and show a bit of  effort and resilience. The good news is that just about anyone can develop a growth mindset, if given the right support. Intelligence is not fixed, but malleable, fluid and changeable. The challenge for Dweck, though, has always been how educators interpret her research, in practice. Quite a lot seems to get lost in translation, something that she herself  has acknowledged. Dweck fears that teachers who have misunderstood her work are now nagging children, and nagging doesn’t work. From a teachers  perspective transforming ideas around mindset  into practice  appears  to be about  encouraging students to try new strategies, when they are struggling to learn a concept, and  helping students to see error, or outright  failure, as an opportunity to learn and improve and as a springboard for progress. . But  there is also a sense that  practical teacher  training and professional development in mindset support,   lags somewhat  behind the theoretical framework.  Like too much research, making sure that it is of real use to a teacher in the classroom and its full implications are understood, is a big challenge.

To be fair,  unlike rather too many researchers who  can become overly defensive when challenged ,  Dweck   is  prepared to look at the evidence as it develops and fine tune her theories and even to admit to errors. She has her critics, of course . Among them are those who claim that that there is slender evidence that students’ beliefs about their ability are in any way related to their attainment.

Given this claimed relationship between mindset and outcomes, interventions designed to increase students’ growth mindsets so increasing their academic achievement—have been implemented in schools around the world.

Now researchers have undertaken two meta -analyses  . First , on  the strength of the relationship between mindset and academic achievement and potential moderating factors.  And, secondly, the effectiveness of mindset interventions on academic achievement and potential moderating factors. The researchers found that overall effects were weak for both of  meta-analyses. But before mindset supporters become  too disillusioned, the researchers found that some results supported specific tenets of the theory, namely, that students with low socioeconomic status or who are academically at risk might benefit from mind-set interventions.

Professor Dylan Wiliam commenting on the research said ” For me, the highlight is that six out of every seven growth mindset interventions had no significant impact on student achievement. So the question is, do you feel lucky today?”

To What Extent and Under Which Circumstances Are Growth Mind-Sets Important to Academic Achievement? Two Meta-Analyses

Victoria F. Sisk, Alexander P. Burgoyne, Jingze Sun,

March 5, 2018




Artificial Intelligence and Education

Teachers and their leaders are not yet  at all focused on the how Artificial Intelligence  is  already impacting on education, nor on its potential to transform teaching and learning.

Perhaps this is not that surprising given that most of the studies on AI look at its possible impact on jobs and the employment market, with virtually no attention paid to its  potential impact on education and training. How often is it discussed in the staff room, in workshops and education conferences? Very rarely.

At a recent Roundtable , hosted by the University of Buckingham, Professor Rose Luckin  of UCL and Priya Lakhani , an AI entrepreneur ,  suggested the need for an’ Idiots Guide’ to AI in Education, to spell out the basics- the concepts around AI –  highlighting its increasing practical  relevance to teachers and students.  No, its not just about robotics which can serve as something of a distraction.  In terms of its potential ,think instead  of a personal interactive  teacher, or tutor,  with you throughout your career , and life, assisting you in advancing through the foothills of knowledge to the heights of deep learning, and skills acquisition ,spotting your weaknesses and strengths, pointing you to the sources of knowledge and the support you may need, to advance to the next level of knowledge and self-awareness,  helping to assess you, and you to assess yourself.  This is a world not too far in the future, populated  by autonomous self-motivated  learners and supported by AI, which provides bespoke support  not just for learning and employment, but for life ,  providing careers advice and pastoral support too  while monitoring your well- being and health.  and alerting you and  others to potential problems . Much of the know- how already exists to help teachers , to reduce their workload, to use real time data to provide more reliable interactive assessment, both formative and summative, to compare a student’s performance within schools, between schools, in year groups and with peers with the same socio-economic profile, to aid  teachers marking, and routine record keeping, to accelerate information acquisition, to allow teachers to tailor and personalize learning for each student, to transform the presentation of information digitally and visually, and so on  . The potential for a revolution is there, its just that inertia, and the way we structure our schools system and its accountability measures, can militate against innovation and transformation. And not much will happen until leaders  decide to grasp the nettle.
Neil Stephenson’s 1995 science fiction novel “The Diamond Age” offers an account  of the potential  in AI  . It  presents a fascinating piece of educational technology called “A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer” . The Diamond Age depicts a near-future world revolutionized by advances in nanotechnology, with the main character Nell using The Primer, which  is a typical storybook aimed at children, but which is extended in its impact  through interactive technology. Nell can change adapt alter and personalise her life,  aided by interactive technology  on an on- gong basis.
The primer can answer a learner’s questions (spoken in natural language), teach through allegories that incorporate elements of the learner’s environment, and presents contextual just-in-time information. (Imagine this in a school or university setting) The primer includes sensors that monitor the learner’s actions and provide bespoke  feedback. The learner is in a cognitive apprenticeship with the book: The primer models a certain skill (through allegorical fairy tale characters) which the learner then imitates in real life.  The primer follows a learning progression with increasingly more complex tasks. The educational goals of the primer are humanist: To support the learner to become a strong and independently thinking person.(autonomous learner)
Professor Rose Luckin reminds us that AI embraces a range of disciplines, psychology, linguistics, philosophy, cognitive science, neuro science, computer science , electrical engineering. It is cross cutting. Machine Learning will and indeed can  pretty much beat us hands down in accessing knowledge. But its nonsense to suggest its about pitting man against machine, which is where much of the misunderstanding about AI comes from. Nor is it about human teachers giving way, or being replaced by AI. In short,  It’s working out what machines and AI can do best to support teaching and learning. It’s about identifying where we have real challenges in education and then  how AI can help us solve these challenges. It may also mean teachers having to learn new skills,  but  also anticipates them being  relieved of routine tasks, much of which are a heavy burden on their workload,. It can help improve routine cognitive processes and make them more efficient. It can also help us to locate the gaps in our knowledge and identify inaccuracies in how we perceive our strengths and weaknesses, and tell us  what we know and what we don’t know. It can help develop higher order thinking and learning skills. It can provide detailed and nuanced information about each individual’s progress: intellectually, emotionally, socially, metacognitively, (metacognition- is our ability to understand and regulate our own thinking) and in terms of students developing self-efficacy. In short, it can take much of the heavy lifting out of teaching ,says Luckin. So the message is-  wake up and smell the coffee.

Note- watch out for Sir Anthony Seldons new book The Fourth Education Revolution, University of Buckingham Press, due out in May , which sets the education and AI context , provides an overview of the current AI landscape and potential developments and pitfalls , and some case studies of what is already happening around the world. .


Ability Grouping

No panacea?

Its important to understand the terminology  used when talking about grouping children. “Streaming” is where children are put into groups based on their general ability levels, which they stay in for all subjects. This is also known as “banding”.

Setting” means grouping children by individual subject. For instance, a child may be in the middle set for maths, but a lower set for English.

The third option is mixed ability grouping, where children of all abilities are taught together.

The assumption is that it will be possible to teach more effectively or more efficiently with a narrower range of attainment in a class.

Research from the EEF shows that although some higher-achieving learners do flourish in ability groups, the additional progress they may make is overshadowed by the negative impact it has on lower-ability learners. It appears likely, according to EEF, that routine setting or streaming arrangements undermine low attainers’ confidence and discourage the belief that attainment can be improved through effort. Ability grouping suggests a fixed mindset, in the sense it looks at the current ability level of a learner, rather than their potential. Ofsted doesn’t have much to say on the issue.

Professor Daniel Mujis this week, on Twitter, said that as there is a lot of heat in the discussion of ability grouping, his understanding of the evidence is as follows:

  1. Overall small positive effect.
  2. Modest positive effect for those in high groups, small negative effect for those in low.
  3. Low SES more likely to be in low ability groups

And, effects differ by subject and phase, e.g. small to modest positive effects in mathematics, not much effect at all in English. And (as usual) we don’t know enough about other subjects…

So, he says, in general, the amount of fuss about this is really not justified. Conclusion: This is not the big equity issue in education.

Most recent research, according to Karen Wespieser ,of NFER, focuses on secondary schools, so there is very little research about primary schools, which Muji accepts is another weakness in the overall evidence base on ability grouping.


Genes, Intelligence and Education

Maybe our genes help shape the environments we make for ourselves and our children

During the past century, genetic research on intelligence was in the eye of the storm of the nature–nurture debate in the social sciences. Much of this  debate has been ill tempered  and polarized.

Back in October 2017, Toby Young, who  recently resigned from the New Schools Network, pointed out that the strongest single predictor of how well children do in their GCSEs is IQ, with differences in children’s general cognitive ability accounting for more than half of the variance in exam results. His observations were controversial. So much so that  Teach First decided to remove his blog, articulating these claims,  from its web site. Controversial, not so much in the sense that there is no science to back these claims,  because there is  (though contested) , but because  of the politics. The Left and Right  have very different views on the influence of genes and heritability and of the respective impact of nurture and nature on  social and educational outcomes. The Right says that genes are much more important than is currently acknowledged in pre-determining outcomes, the Left says that too much weight is given to nature, rather than nurture, which downplays the importance of  interventions to secure better  outcomes and  equity.

Young went on to say that children’s genes account for between 60 and 70 per cent of the variance in GCSE results, with IQ responsible for about half that genetic influence. But that still leaves the environment (including the school environment)  accounting for between  30 to   40 per cent.  Young argued that he was attempting to show how teachers could  remain’ evangelical about raising standards’ without denying the mainstream scientific understanding about the heritability of IQ and the impact of IQ on educational outcomes.

Young’s views are  similar to those of Professor Robert Plomin (he has worked with Plomins team) , an American psychologist  at  Kings College, London, also   a controversial figure, who  has long championed the idea that intelligence is highly heritable.  Plomin set out his own philosophy in a recent review paper published in January (see the  link below). In short, he claims that   life is an intelligence test, and this trait predicts better than any other how your life will turn out. During the school years, differences in intelligence are largely the reason why some children master the curriculum more readily than other children. Children have an endowment of genes and it’s the purpose of education to maximise the potential of that endowment.  The reality is that a large proportion of the differences in outcomes at school are caused by genes. So, Intelligence is highly heritable, and, moreover,  predicts important educational, occupational and health outcomes. Better than any other trait. As far as evidence is concerned bigger and better family studies, twin studies and adoption studies have amassed a mountain of evidence, he says, , that ‘consistently showed substantial genetic influence on individual differences in intelligence Meta-analyses of this evidence indicate that inherited differences in DNA sequence account for about half of the variance in measures of intelligence’. Intelligence is not the same as your level of education, but it influences it.

This argument ,though, goes down like a lead balloon with those who start from the premise that most children  are blank slates that have equal potential when they enter school.

The technology involved in reading the human genome is  much more advanced now than  it was, even five years ago.  We are now entering a new era of biological revelation thanks to “genome-wide association studies” These involve sequencing the genomes of tens or even hundreds of thousands of people, and then scanning for particular genetic variants that are common to people who share a specific characteristic. This is allowing Prof Plomin, and others, to gradually plot the genomic co-ordinates of their chosen characteristic:  in this case intelligence. Although its worth pointing out that  there is no such thing as a “gene for intelligence”; rather,  it is a composite of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of genetic variants.

Now, Genome-wide polygenic scores (GPSs) for intelligence can aggregate the effects of  these thousands of DNA variants associated with intelligence across the genome.

Intriguingly, just published research from Kings College finds that there are, on average, measurable genetic differences between students attending different types of schools. Pupils from selective schools were compared to pupils from non-selective state schools. By linking genetic data from nearly 5,000 pupils to exam results, researchers London found “an association between genotype and school type” that could account for why children at selective schools notch up higher scores. (so, its not really about selective schools adding value)

Writing in the FT this month, science journalist Anjana Ahuja suggested that educators should take heed  of these revelations.

She wrote ‘ Academic achievement is generally seen as a product of environment: having affluent, educated parents; living in a book-filled home; being fed a nutritious diet; attending top schools. But these environmental factors are tied up in genetics too, in a circular phenomenon that goes by the name of gene-environment correlation. We traditionally think of genes and environment as largely separate entities that combine to create our wins and losses, but there is growing evidence that our genes shape the environments we make for ourselves and our children.’

The trouble is that this issue, along with the science and the politics that go with it, means that discussions become ,in short order,  not entirely rational. Cognitive biases intrude and the quest for truth  becomes something of  a side issue.  But its right to take a closer look at the science and seek empirical evidence. It could help us better understand how to achieve the best outcomes for our children. It is important to face whatever science will reveal without prejudging the outcome and with the confidence that we can be mature enough to handle any findings.  And hopefully use them to good effect.




Informed opinion suggests that the cerebral ,reformist former HE Minister Jo Johnson was sacked because he was unwilling to undertake the  full scale review of tuition fees that the Prime Minister wanted  . He  saw the  obvious pitfalls.  Johnson is a canny political operator . Damian Hinds has no such reservations, which explains why he replaced Justine Greening, who largely shared Johnsons’ viewpoint .  May has a habit of making up her mind, then looking around for evidence to back her view. The pattern is there, witness the last education Green paper. Both May and Hinds have already ruled out some possible ‘outcomes’ from this  ‘independent’ Review.

So what about the Review?

First , the Prime Minister has basically said that our Higher Education system is one of the most expensive in the world and doesn’t provide value for money. Meanwhile, her Ministers are telling us how successful it is and how important it is to attract international students and to remain globally competitive. This is what’s called mixed messaging!

Secondly,  this is a Review of not just HE tuition fees but all post 18 student funding, which has got lost in translation, partly because of the government’s own presentation.

Thirdly,  the Review will take a year, and whatever it recommends is unlikely to  happen in this  Parliament  with the next election in 2022. So expectations seem to have been raised , but they  cant probably  be met.

Fourthly, the government, though ostensibly not second guessing the Reviews conclusions, will not abolish  tuition fees, and will be hard pressed to reduce them. The Prime Minister wishes to  ensure that the students and public finances share the burden of the costs in some shape or form .  Damian Hinds made it clear in interviews trailing the announcement, that  the government continues to support the idea of graduates, as the main beneficiaries of higher education, contributing significantly to the cost of providing their degrees

Hinds also  says the cost of degrees could be determined by three things: the cost to deliver, the return to the student and the economic value to the country means that that those degrees which are  of most value to the individual and the  economy will cost more-which could act as a disincentive and deter disadvantaged students from taking them . Few in the sector think that differentiated fees are a good idea. Many STEM  subjects are expensive to teach ,but who wants them to  become the preserve of more affluent students who feel confident they can afford them?

If students should be making more sophisticated economic choices by predicted salary return, then student demand for these “low-value” courses will surely drop, and in most cases become economically unviable for universities to offer, so you then have less choice of courses. It is also the case that  current trends,  whether its in Artificial Intelligence  or the sciences ,more generally,  is for a more joined up multi-disciplinary approach to meeting challenges and in driving  innovation. Valuing courses anyway, through the lens of  economic and employment returns , using some new  metric would be a nightmare to design and administer  and  is  unlikely to be backed by the sector.     And, anyway, since when has a university education been just about studying an academic course?

As for the option of reducing the level of fees, London Economics estimates that if fees are reduced from £9,250 to £6,000 a year  it  would leave a £3 billion black hole in universities’ finances. In post -Brexit Britain would this really be feasible?


So what steps might help?

Introduce maintenance grants for poorer students, who currently have to take out bigger loans to cope with living costs would make sense.

Take a look at excessive interest rates. They are causing resentment. Because interest starts accruing on the £9,250-per-year ticket price during the course of study, the IFS estimates that students in England have added an additional £5,000 to their debt even before graduating

And what about part-time study?  The main casualty of the current regime. Part-time undergraduate numbers have crashed since fees were trebled in the Cameron administration. . There has been a 56 per cent fall in part-time student enrolments to universities since 2010. This is bad for the economy and the  skills gap. A flexible form of degree finance that could cover study of both academic and work-related subjects across a lifetime might answer this problem.


Heading toward a crisis

In its white paper on Prison Safety and Reform, released last year , the Government reported that “Once released, too many prisoners will go on to re-offend. Currently, almost half of all prisoners are re-convicted within a year of release.” The costs of this to society and the taxpayer are incalculable.

It follows, therefore, does it not, that it is important that we do everything that we  can to ensure that   the chances of prisoners re-offending are minimised . The biggest challenges in this respect  are  to get ex-prisoners sustainable employment and a place to live,  so avoiding the revolving door syndrome.  Of course, as the government is at pains to tell us,  a  wide range of factors affect the likelihood of a prisoner entering employment on release. Information, advice and guidance provided by Community Rehabilitation Companies, Department of Work and Pensions Prison Work Coaches and providers of Offender Learning and Skills Services to name a few . But most agree that an important element  of this supportive  mix , perhaps even the most important,  comes  in the shape of  National Careers Service (NCS)  advisers  who have supported  prisoners throughout their sentences  helping them  to develop clear action plans based on independent careers advice and local labour market information, so they can prepare and work towards finding employment opportunities in the community.

NCS contracts, both in prisons and communities, had been due to end in April 2018, However as the replacement Information, Advice and Guidance provision under the new Education Commissioning Framework has not yet been put into place, there was a clear and frankly reasonable  expectation in the sector that they would be extended until the new provision was in place.  Contracts could easily have been extended by six months, for example.  Though contracts in the community have been extended so there is no gap and shortfall  in provision,  the same has not been done in prisons. Providers  were given  formal notice over the Christmas break  so contracts will end on 31 March. Over 200  guidance specialists have now  been given notice.

This will mean at least a five-month gap in specialist careers guidance services, during which time many experienced staff with good employer connections will lose their jobs. Everyone seems to have been taken entirely by surprise by this move- NCS  providers, the third sector organisations who work with the secure estate and prison governors. Indeed the latter were not directly informed of this decision, which was made at the end of December 2017, and only found out when NCS providers told them the news.

The Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA), after hearing from a number of concerned careers advisers wrote to Prisons Minister Rory Stewart’ expressing concern about the cuts to this valuable service and asking:  Why the decision had been made; What steps were being taken to replace the service? ‘ The news has since been covered by FE Week and by The Guardian, which also quoted shadow justice minister Imran Hussein calling the measure “short-sighted” and a “false economy”.  To date, The PLA has not yet received a reply from the minister.

In the Lords on 8th February, Lord Bird asked the Minister, Lord Keen  whether he was aware that the National Careers Service  in custody contracts  were going to be terminated on 1 April and  “that there does not seem to be any remedy in place”


Lord Keen of Elie, the Minister replied :“My Lords, the NCS is due to expire on 31 March 2018 and will do so on that day. There would have been an option to extend it for a further period of six months, but consideration of the variable delivery of services, and of in-custody services in particular, led to a determination that the contract should not be continued. Alternative means are now being considered.”

On the face of it , this all looks to be  a bit of a shambles. And,   nothing coming out of the civil service or Ministers recently suggests otherwise.

Rather obviously, there are a number of issues here that  give rise to important questions  . On what basis was the decision made.? If there was  a review what was its methodology,  what  was its evidence  base, who was consulted and what were the Reviews’   specific conclusions.  Why was the decision taken without any consultation with the key stakeholders involved including Prison Governors and Third Sector organisations that work closely with prisoners? Why was  no extension given to existing contractors to ease the  transition and  to ensure prisoners will not be left without careers advice for several months, at least?  Why have no arrangements been put in place to ensure that Prisoners being released are given access to professional guidance after 1 April ?  In short why the lack of transparency, forward planning and consultation?



In October 2016, a Machinery of Government change transferred the budget for careers advice in Prisons from the Department for Education to the Ministry of Justice. The National Careers Service Contract for Careers guidance for those in custody is held by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and is funded by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. The decision not to renew or extend contracts appears to have come from  the Probation Service.