Reducing educational inequality will ultimately depend on reducing social and economic inequality, according to this report

The Cambridge Primary Review, headed by Professor Robin Alexander, will be remembered by many. Not least because the government ignored most of its recommendations.  What is perhaps less well known is that the Cambridge Primary Review Trust (CPRT), was established in 2012, with support from Pearson Education, and builds on the work of that Review, through on-going research. The Review itself is worth revisiting as it’s a significant resource.

This research, somewhat inevitably called ‘Mind the Gap’, from Professor Kate Pickett and Dr Laura  Vanderbloemen focuses on the issue of equity , tackling  the continuing challenge  of  social  and  educational  disadvantage. Its main conclusions are as follows:

Inequality and educational outcomes

  • The most important influence on educational attainment, on how well a child develops in the early years, performs in school, in later education and in adulthood, is family background.
  • Children do better if their parents have higher incomes and higher levels of education and they do better if they come from homes where they have a place to study, where there are reference books and newspapers, and where education is valued.
  • Average levels of educational attainment and children’s engagement in education are better in more equal societies.
  • Inequalities in educational attainment and outcomes have a social gradient. It is not just poor children who do less well than everybody else: across the social spectrum children do less well than those with household social position just above their own families.
  • Inequalities in educational outcomes are more profound in more unequal countries, such that even the children with the highest social position in high inequality societies do less well than their counterparts in more equal societies.

Inequality and childhood

  • Parental experience of adversity is passed on to children through pathways that include poverty of time and resources, domestic conflict and violence, parental mental illness and substance use.
  • Both quantitative and qualitative evidence show how low relative income and income inequality increase the strain on family life and relationships.
  • When children believe themselves to be judged negatively by others, their stress levels are heightened, their cognitive performance is adversely affected, and they feel bad about themselves. In more unequal societies, the quality of social relationships between children suffers – they are less likely to find their peers kind and helpful and more likely to bully or be bullied.
  • Whether consciously or not, teachers are affected by class and social status prejudice and may discriminate against children with low status. Teacher training in the UK does not systematically include explicit consideration of the meaning of social class and inequality within education.

Closing the gap: what works?

  • Spending on education, including targeted spending such as the Pupil Premium, can certainly make a difference, and the evidence shows that it is most likely to do so in schools which are already successful. Yet targeted spending is not sufficient on its own to close the attainment gap and reduce educational inequalities.
  • With regard to other policies of the current government, the Swedish experience suggests that free schools lead to deteriorating educational achievement and DfE’s claim that academies improve attainment among disadvantaged pupils has been challenged on evidential grounds.
  • Yet school-based interventions can help and there are good summaries of evidence available to teachers and policy makers from organisations such as the Educational Endowment Foundation (EEF), which promotes and evaluates practical strategies for narrowing the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and others.
  • One promising area, the focus of several EEF projects including one led by the Cambridge Primary Review Trust itself, is the substance and quality of classroom talk. Another is a ‘big education’ which raises its sights beyond the traditional fixation on the 3Rs and education for work, essential though these are, and attends no less to education for human fulfilment, interdependence and the good society, also prominent in CPRT’s vision.
  • Many publicly funded and independent statutory and third sector organizations produce evidence and interventions to tackle education with significant reach and impact.
  • However, reducing educational inequality will ultimately depend on reducing social and economic inequality

MIND THE GAP- Tackling Social and Educational Inequality- Kate Pickett and Laura Vanderbloemen ;A report for the Cambridge Primary Review Trust-September 2015



The report references Melissa Benn and Fiona Millar, who are well known opponents of academisation and  any form of selection .They champion a fully comprehensive system.  Also  referenced is the Compass group which has, in its own words, a ‘progressive agenda’.



Sensitive to the views of  other stakeholders?

 Now that would make a change

Hugo Swire ,the Minister of State at the FCO, in a debate on 10 November ,on the British Council,  reminded the House that although the British Council makes a significant contribution to the UK international profile and …Its role is more relevant than ever: That  the  most recent Triennial Review  “also found that activity was not always well aligned with other bodies representing British interests overseas, and concluded that transparency, accountability and clarity of purpose should be improved.” The other British interests alluded to here are ,in the main, other UK  education providers.(ie exporters)

He added “I would argue that the threat from the commercial activities of the British Council has been real. Our concern is that in some ways, particularly in the provision of English language teaching and exams, it can freeze out the private sector. That is why I am pleased that the British Council has introduced a new independent complaints process run by Verita, which will help it better to hear and understand stakeholder concerns, including the concerns of the English language teaching and education sector, and take steps to address them.”

The British Council had adamantly refused, for many years, and despite regular complaints from other education providers, to accept that its operations in commercial areas represented a conflict of interests, and that it  lacked transparency in the  way it ran its commercial operations .  Essentially the BC was competing against other  UK providers, while nominally, at least,  it was supposed to be promoting them abroad, aided by taxpayers money and the good offices of our diplomats.  Instead the BC cherry picked the best contracts and competed directly with other UK providers for many others.  The Triennial Review accepted that these concerns had some substance. It stated that ‘Concerns raised with the Review Team suggest that the Trustees have not this far been sufficiently active in listening and responding to external stakeholder concerns or understanding and managing conflicts of interest.”

‘We recommend that the British Council operating model be amended in order to increase transparency relating to income generating activity, reducing the potential for conflicts of interest;’

‘We recommend that the British Council, FCO and other relevant Government departments agree to establish an effective complaints mechanism for UK providers that feel they have been unfairly disadvantaged by the British Council and that this includes an option of appeal to an arbiter independent of the British Council or its Board. ‘

It also recommended ‘that clearer separation is achieved through either legal or administrative means and that, particularly if an administrative solution is pursued, some transfer of responsibility for commercial support to UK educational providers is agreed by both organisations.’


The British Council has awarded Verita a three-year contract to provide its independent complaints review service. The British Council operates in over 100 countries, building cultural relations between the UK and the rest of the world through arts, education and society programmes. Verita consultant Jess Heinemann said: “As a charity and non-departmental public body, The British Council has a duty to ensure that its complaints process is fair and transparent. It chose Verita because of our reputation for independence and treating people fairly. “With such diverse operations, we expect to deal with complainants from a wide range of individuals and organisations, many of whom may be unfamiliar with the complaints process. Our goal is to satisfy all parties with well-judged resolutions.”


Original HEFCE report  serves to mislead

Back in the summer the HEFCE managed to grab the headlines with  an arresting counterintuitive finding –state educated graduates  were getting  proportionately  more top  class degrees that  privately educated graduates .82 % of state school graduates gained a first or upper second ,compared to 72% of independent school graduates. HEFCE  banked the news coverage and moved swiftly on. One small problem. They got the figures  the wrong way round, a fact uncovered by  Professor Alan Smithers of the Centre for Education and Employment Research (CEER) at Buckingham University .Although the HEFCE quickly admitted its mistake to Professor Smithers , and amended its report, it hasn’t published any acknowledgement of its mistake and the subsequent correction,  on  either its web site , or  the report

Remember this statistic was seized upon by campaigners calling for universities to do more to improve access for state school pupils – such as by setting them lower entry grades.

This what the HEFCE report as amended now states:

  1. In 2013-14, 73 per cent of state school graduates gained a first or upper second class degree compared with 82 per cent of independent school graduates. This is a nine percentage point difference.
  2. There is only a small difference between the two groups at the highest entry grades, but this difference widens considerably for those entering with A-level grades AAC and below.
  3. The modelled results show that after taking other factors into account, the percentage of state school graduates is higher than predicted. The observed nine percentage point difference is more than explained by other factors (such as the different distribution of A-level achievement), which results in an unexplained four percentage points advantage to state school students.

Professor Smithers said: “It is extraordinary that an influential body like HEFCE should have got its figures wrong and failed to publicly rectify them after being alerted to the error. So long as these figures are out there uncorrected, they will continue to influence both perceptions of schools and how universities are expected to go about recruiting students. “I call on HEFCE to set the record straight so that everyone understands the true picture.”

Although HEFCE has, as we can see above, changed the figures in the report it still repeats that state school pupils are four percentage points ahead rather than nine points behind.

How come? It could be that HEFCE is calculating what state school students would have achieved had they the same entry qualifications as independent school students. But they haven’t said this.

Professor Smithers said: “While statistical alchemy may be able to turn a nine-point deficit into a four-point advantage, ultimately university admissions tutors have to deal with real people not statistical constructs.”

Mistakes, of course, are made. What matters probably more than the mistake itself is how you react when you find out you have made one. Given the amount of media coverage generated by this error passing as fact, HEFCE  really ought to be more up front with the media and public, otherwise they will lose  some credibility.


For at least 10 years Kids Company received funding from central government, including from the Department for Education and the Cabinet Office. In its last set of published accounts, for 2013, 23% of its income came from central and local government. The charity never reached a position where it was able to operate without government assistance and the government was well aware of this. Kids Company received larger grants than any other charity from DfE’s grant programmes .In June 2015 the Cabinet Office’s Permanent Secretary received a Ministerial Direction to award a grant to Kids Company of £3 million, despite his advice that the grant was not likely to be value for money. A grant of £4 million had also been made to the charity for 2015-16. On 5 August 2015, Kids Company closed as insolvent.

This raises a number of issues, not least how come in an age of austerity, and against the backdrop of the government’s commitment to secure better value for money for taxpayers (ie more bang for bucks) that one charity was given such preferential treatment and nobody was looking at how effective it was?  It transpires that there was no agreement on how to measure its impact or outcomes. So, in effect, it was unaccountable. Until 2013, Government relied heavily on Kids Company’s self-assessments to monitor its performance.  Was this the best way to support disadvantaged children, and was Kids Company deserving of more taxpayers money than other bigger and more longstanding charities working with disadvantaged young people ?. The Public Accounts Select Committee is looking into it now.  The National Audit Office delivered its report on Kids Company this week and it raises many more questions for DFE and Ministers to answer. Weak management , governance and oversight was in evidence at Kids Company, but the same charge can be levelled at successive governments DFE  and Cabinet Office officials. At one stage the DFE had an official attached to the company, for goodness sake. Needless to say the establishment will close ranks, no individuals will be held responsible, or take responsibility (remember that quaint idea)  and the great and the good will issue statements about important lessons  being learnt, etc, it was ever thus. Meanwhile, where has all our money gone?  Kids company cant tell us, nor it seems can the government.



The government says that one in 10 children has a diagnosable mental health disorder –that is around 3 children in every classroom. Improving children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing is one of this Government’s key priorities as part of the drive to put mental health on an equal footing with physical health.

In oral questions, on 26 October, the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan mentioned the £1.5 million” we are contributing to a pilot for single points of contact between schools and specialist mental health services. That pilot will run in 250 schools, with training starting later this term. I should also like to mention that this year, for the first time, the Department for Education included just under £5 million in our voluntary and community sector grants for organisations such as Mind and Place2Be and for putting new resources for parents on the MindEd website.”

The Government, overall, has committed £1.25 billion to be invested specifically in young people’s mental health over the next 5 years. It says ‘ This money will transform local services so that every organisation involved with caring for children and young people works together to support them with their mental health, not just the National Health Service (NHS).’

Junior Education Minister Sam Gyimah added later, in response to an oral question,  “Good mental health and attainment are different sides of the same coin, which is why the Secretary of State appointed me as the first Education Minister with responsibility for mental health in schools. We are taking a number of steps, working with partners, to improve the mental health of young people.”

Conservative MP, Graham Evans, asked how the Government is ensuring that teachers have access to appropriate materials to teach pupils about mental health in an age-appropriate way “so that we can break through this stigma”

Gyimah said “I am glad my hon. Friend has asked that question. We have been working with the PSHE Association to develop age-appropriate lesson plans, as well as improving counselling and guidance, so that teachers know how to teach about mental health and deal with the range of issues they come across in young people.”

Sam Gyimah is working closely on this  with Alistair Burt MP, Minister of State for Community and Social Care at the Department of Health.  Officials from DfE and Department of Health are working together on a programme of work.

Natasha Devon a writer, TV pundit and founder of the Self-Esteem Team  ,in August 2015, became the Department for Education’s (DfE) first ever mental health champion for schools  and is tasked with  helping  to raise awareness and reduce the stigma around young people’s mental health.


Note 1

Pilot Scheme


Note 2

Action plan to tackle mental health stigma in schools-March 2015


Note 3

The PSHE Association has launched new guidance and primary and secondary lesson plans for schools on preparing to teach about mental health and emotional wellbeing. The document has been produced under a grant from the Department for Education.





Dr Paul Cappon, a Canadian academic and DFE Policy Fellow, was asked by the Secretary of State to undertake, in 2014-15, a review and to formulate findings, conclusions and recommendations that could inform policy deliberations in the Department.

Some of his findings and recommendations will make uncomfortable reading for Ministers. but it is to the Departments credit, at least in this instance, that they have made Cappons findings public. He notes that the UK  in Pisa rankings is stagnating. He writes:

’ It is certainly a troubling trend that the UK has failed to increase its absolute scores in any of these competencies (maths, science, reading) since 2006.’ ‘Whilst other countries have improved their performance and therefore their ranking through better educational practice, the UK has not’.  Indeed, while  top performers are regarded as key drivers  of economic prosperity in the UK, just 11.% of students are top performers  ( Levels 5 and 6)which is below the OECD average of 12.6% . Nor can the UK be proud of its record on Equity. He writes ‘ In some countries, a deficiency of elite performers may be partially compensated by educational performance equity, by which there are smaller gaps between higher and lower performers. Such, however, is neither the case in the UK, where there is neither elite performance nor notable equity in educational outcomes in key areas.’ This is troubling, of course. But  its perhaps even more troubling , given the focus and priority  afforded to improving  our pupils Literacy  and Numeracy ( (during the  the Blair Years) how badly  our young students are performing in these critical areas. It doesn’t augur well for our future competitiveness.

‘In both literacy and numeracy, for each of the age bands from the 55-65 group to the 16-24 cohort, English scores decline progressively. In the example of literacy, English people aged 55-65 rank third in the OECD whilst the 19-24 group ranks 20th –even lower than the U.S.(US angst over Pisa results is even greater than ours where both wealthy and disadvantaged pupils perform worse than the OECD average).’

Cappon says ‘England is unique in the developed world as the only OECD country in which literacy scores achieved by the oldest group are actually higher than those achieved by the youngest cohort – in direct contradiction to the expectation that the younger cohorts  globally are benefitting from improved education.’

What is clear is that although policy makers here understand the nature of the problem and have, through the Literacy and Numeracy Strategies for example, sought to address it, it hasn’t worked. And it cant just be a matter of resources, given the amount of investment that has gone into addressing the problem. It’s the quality not the amount that matters.  This is where we have to rethink from the bottom up our approaches to Literacy and Numeracy and to ensure that interventions  are properly informed by the latest empirical evidence.



Some see the world of teaching through the lens of a  Manichean struggle between traditionalists and progressives. Between the Blob   and the Germ fighting a great ideologically driven battle, with the classroom the battleground and pupils the subjects. One can always find some evidence to back these  respective   views.  But  many would argue that the  reality at the chalk face , now  at least, is much more nuanced, fifty shades of grey rather than black and white.

At the heart of good teaching is pragmatism, adapting to what the best evidence shows ,taking into account context, and feedback, accessing real time data, using professional judgement, sharing best practice. There is no single approach that works in all circumstances and contexts. Teaching is an adaptive craft.

Professor Larry Cuban of Stanford University, who has watched the ebb and flow of education reforms in the US, captures the reality better than most.   Cuban wrote in a recent Blog

‘No single way of teaching works best with all students. Because students differ in motivation, interests, and abilities, using a wide repertoire of approaches in lessons and units is essential. Direct instruction, small groups, whole-group guided discussions, student choice, worksheets, research papers, project-based instruction, online software, etc., etc., etc. need to be in the tool kit of every teacher. There are, of course, reformers and reform-minded researchers who try to alter how teachers teach and the content of their instruction from afar such as Common Core State Standards, the newest version of New Math, New Science, New History, or similar curricular inventions. I support such initiatives as long as they rely upon a broad repertoire of teacher approaches to content and skills. When the reforms do not, when they ask teachers to adhere to a certain best way of teaching (e.g., project-based teaching, direct instruction) regardless of context, I oppose such reforms’