The Government says , with respect to its recent Green Paper, ‘ Within our new proposals, we have been clear that we expect selective schools to support non-selective schools, looking to them to be engines of academic and social achievement for all pupils, whatever their background, wherever they are from and whatever their ability’ So the clear presumption is that selective Schools have better teachers and teaching than non-selective schools.. but where is the evidence? The fact that selective schools perform better could be entirely due , or due at least in significant part, to the quality of their intakes, surely? You would have to demonstrate that selective schools add more value to their pupils than non-selective schools across the board to justify such a claim. In which case, where is the data that shows us that this is the case?
One reason why Theresa May seems now to be focusing more on those’ hard working families just about managing’ rather than on the most disadvantaged cohort, as refllected in her speech to Conference and the recent Education Green Paper, is for sound political reasons, in that they are the voters disillusioned with establishment politicians, who feel they are not being listened to, are on stagnant incomes and who voted in huge numbers for Brexit . She wants to attract them back into the fold, with what she sees as more ‘inclusive’ policies. Another reason could be that despite successive governments best efforts and attempts to intervene to help the most disadvantaged and to close the attainment gap between them and their mainstream peers , only glacial progress is being made in this area. Could it be that the government has all but given up on narrowing the achievement gap between pupils on Free school meals and mainstream pupils ? As Sir Michael Wilshaw pointed out recently the attainment gap between FSM and non-FSM secondary students hasn’t budged in a decade. It was 28 percentage points 10 years ago and it is still 28 percentage points today. Thousands of poor children who are in the top 10% nationally at age 11 do not make it into the top 25% five years later. He added that the fact that a quarter of a million youngsters leave school after 13 years of formal education without a GCSE in English and Maths is a national disgrace.
One interesting issue raised ,and question put, in the recent Green paper, was how to identify and target these hard working families who don’t quite qualify for FSM. The short answer is that ,at the moment it is difficult and it seems pretty widely accepted that the FSM measure is too clunky and indiscriminate to be an accurate indicator for the most disdavantaged, and isnt much use for the group that May seeks to target, . Neither The Pupil data base nor the standard returns made by schools give the granular details necessary. However work is being done behind the scenes with HMRC and other agencies to improve the metrics and data to enable more forensic targeting. So watch this space.
The Government said in its recent Green Paper that it wants all universities either to sponsor existing schools or set up new schools in exchange for the ability to charge higher fees.
In addition to, but not instead of, the above requirements, the government said that universities could consider:
- supporting schools through being a member of the governing body or academy trust board;
- assisting with curriculum design, mentoring of school pupils, and other educational support; and
- provision of human resources, teaching capacity (for example in A-level STEM subjects), and finance support.
‘In addition to driving attainment, we could ask universities to consider taking into account geography, the number of good school places or higher education participation rates when deciding where to focus their energies’.
This proposal doesn’t even look good on paper.
It is not the business of universities to run schools . Besides, there is no evidence that they are any good at it. Why would they be? Even specialist organisations that run schools as their core business find setting up, or sponsoring, a new school, a challenging business. A number of Universities have tried, and to say that their record is patchy is an understatement.
If a University wants to set up a new school then it needs to make a compelling business case for it, with a rigorous risk assessment attached. Otherwise we will have more failed ventures on our hands, that are wasteful , damaging to the institutions involved , and , most importantly, hugely damaging to pupils.
As one insider put it to to me ‘ In what other sector could you imagine being required to do something you have no experience of in order to be able to ,or allowed to, develop and market your core business?’
Good leadership ,and above all high quality teachers and teaching, are at the heart of every good school . But , who with their hand on their heart, can honestly say that these are currently the perceived strengths of our Higher Education Sector ?Indeed one of the major motivating factors behind the Higher Education and Research Bill was the poor quality of teaching in too many universities . So, the government is now actively incentivising institutions , many with poor quality teachers and teaching, to set up or sponsor schools… really?
Of course, the HE Sector could , and should, support schools and pupils and add value in various ways. There are many partnership programmes up and running already. This engagement between the HE sector and schools though should be informed by hard evidence of what works and is most effective. Some Access programmes could be better structured and evaluated, for example but there is plenty of sound practice to be built on too. Student progression, transition (and careers guidance), to higher education is an area where universities can do much more. Curriculum and professional development are two other areas , as well as those mentioned above in the Green paper.
But forcing a university to set up or sponsor a school in order for it to raise its fees makes no sense. It could also do a lot of harm.
A much more flexible, evidential approach is required from the government and one should pray that this will be reflected in the eventual proposals that come out of the consultation process.
A version of this article was published in Education Investor (September 2016)
Last April, it was reported that No 10 was in talks with the University of Buckingham about funding a new school leadership college. Although details were sketchy, the aim seemed to be to fast -track top graduates fresh out of university, into leadership positions. With structured support from the college and experienced mentors they could serve an apprenticeship, and be accelerated into Headships, where they are needed most. (mainly in Coastal and Rural areas, as it happens)
The discussions reflected growing unease in the government about a looming Leadership crisis in schools. These concerns remain. There is a dearth of good heads, particularly in disadvantaged areas. Supply is not matching demand.
Heads are increasingly hard to find. A 2015 survey by the National Governors’ Association (NGA), found that 43% of respondents reported that it was difficult to find good candidates when recruiting senior staff. Perhaps more alarming, many good teachers and potential leaders, eschew Headship. In 2o15 The Key found 86.8% of school leaders believed headship was less attractive as a career choice than it was in 2010. Another survey of headteachers, by The Future Leaders Trust , saw less than half of respondents saying that they still planned to be a headteacher.
It’s not hard to see why. Though still rewarding for some, too many are being put off by the challenges and lack of support. School budgets have reduced in real terms by about 7%. Pupil numbers are on the rise, with a capacity shortage. There are too few specialist teachers. Schools are also subject to relentless changes to the curriculum, assessment and accountability frameworks, while the accelerated academisation programme brings new pressures.
Meanwhile, the focus on structural reforms has shifted attention away from Leadership, though it and the quality of teaching, have the most impact on outcomes Indeed, the one factor that all good schools have in common is good leadership As Professor Michael Fullan said “effective school leaders are key to large scale sustainable education reform’. It’s a given, if you want to transform a failing school, change the leadership. Everything else follows. What we don’t have is proper career planning for Heads. And our system lacks an effective end-to-end model for identifying, encouraging, training and developing the best leaders over time.
We pretty much know what we want from Heads. A clear vision and ability to see it through. While research also tells us that the closer leaders get to the core business of teaching and learning, the more likely it is that they will have a positive impact on their students.
So what we need, in short order, is to identify the best ways of developing this. There is probably no silver bullet, there rarely is in education. But look at the Buckingham apprenticeship model, and its focus on accelerated routes to Headship. Also, The Future Leaders Trust and Teaching Leaders are doing interesting work creating a joint network of 5,000 school leaders at all levels working in the most challenging schools in the country. Make sure that Heads and Governors are actively identifying potential leaders, and supporting their development. Look at what successful MATs are up to-the Harris Federation recruits 80% of its Heads in-house. The DFE is reviewing Leadership qualifications, about time too, as they don’t seem to have much credibility in the profession. Teach First is good at spotting leadership potential. Alumni of its two-year teaching training programme, are over seven times more likely to progress to senior school leadership. What are they getting right? The ASCL, is developing its own Foundation for Leadership in Education, how can this contribute? All these elements may have a role to play. But there needs to be a coherent vision, with these elements working towards the same goal as part of a seamless effort. That will require ‘political’ leadership. But we need to act now if system- wide improvements in outcomes are to be delivered and sustained.
The Green paper suggesting ideas for more selection in the state system has been heavily criticized. Mainly because it fails to highlight any evidence that increased selection will improve choice ,or, crucially improve the lot of the most disadvantaged either in terms of attainment or social mobility. In fact, unless handled properly it could make their position infinitely worse. The authors of the paper themselves seem to accept that the current selective system is unfair on the most disadvantaged pupils, because it suggests a raft of measures, incentives, conditions and sanctions to try to make sure that these newly selective schools will take their fair share of the most disadvantaged pupils. (as clearly there is a perceived risk that unless they are heavily regulated and scrutinized that they wont) So much for school autonomy, and the removal of red tape. It was good while it lasted. This envisages something of a bureaucratic and regulatory nightmare . The Green paper does seem to concede though that the current 11 Plus test can be coached, (and therefore rich families have an advantage) and that poor children in areas that have grammar (selective ) schools tend to do worse than poor pupils elsewhere.
This is what the the Green Paper says (Pg 21, Para 4):
‘Many selective schools are employing much smarter tests that seek to see past coaching and assess the true potential of every child. However, under the current model of grammar schools – while those children that attend selective schools enjoy a far greater chance of academic success – there is some evidence that children who attend non-selective schools in selective areas may not fare as well academically – both compared to local selective schools and comprehensives in non-selective areas.’
I assume when the Green Paper refers to the much smarter tests that ‘ see past coaching ‘ its referring to those designed by CEM (Durham). There are few academics who have done more than Robert Coe of Durham has to champion evidence based /informed practice in the teaching profession . But CEM may be struggling to deliver on these smart tests. Becky Allen points out that a so-called ‘tutor-proof’ test ,offered by CEM and ‘introduced across Buckinghamshire (selective area) for 2014 admissions (they apparently have around 40% of the 11+ market) hasn’t really proved itself. ‘It claims to make selection fairer by testing a wider range of abilities that are already being taught in primary schools, rather than skills that can be mastered through home tutoring. Following the introduction of the test, Buckinghamshire – a local authority with very low FSM rates across its schools – saw the number of FSM pupils attending grammar schools fall in 2014 and 2015.’ So, not so smart then.
In short, it would seem that a test that ‘ sees past coaching’ has not yet been developed. It may be a long wait .
THE ELEVEN PLUS EXAM
The Eleven Plus exam determines whether or not a child gets into a grammar school. Critics claim this is an arbitrary age at which to test children on their abilities and potential and that the exam is unfair on disadvantaged pupils who tend not to have educated parents, who can help them, or access to private tutoring. There has long been a claim that the exam is cleverly designed to be tutor proof and is structured to identify ‘real’ potential and ‘intelligence’ . But, If you believe that intelligence is not fixed (Carol Dweck) and there are different types of intelligence (Howard Gardner) then you are not likely to rate this exam.
There is of course too, a cottage industry in private tutoring that exists precisely in order to get children into grammar schools . So this claim has always been open to challenge. In addition, at least 18% of successful grammar school applicants attended private primary school, most of which, offer bespoke support for grammar school applicants.
In addition, Becky Allen points out that a so-called ‘tutor-proof’ test ,offered by CEM (Durham) and ‘introduced across Buckinghamshire for 2014 admissions (they apparently have around 40% of the 11+ market) hasn’t really proved itself. ‘It claims to make selection fairer by testing a wider range of abilities that are already being taught in primary schools, rather than skills that can be mastered through home tutoring. Following the introduction of the test, Buckinghamshire – a local authority with very low FSM rates across its schools – saw the number of FSM pupils attending grammar schools fall in 2014 and 2015.’
Recent analysis from the IFS found that attending a grammar school is good for the attainment and later earnings of those who get in, but that pupils in areas with selective state education who do not pass the 11-plus entrance exam do worse than in areas without grammars.
Proposals in the Green paper suggest that Ministers have doubts about the 11 Plus too. It says that selective schools would have to admit children at different ages, such as at 14 as well as at 11 and 16, to cater for pupils who develop later academically.
Are Free Schools selective?
One interesting aspect of the Grammar schools debate, which has marked the start of May’s premiership, is how Free Schools might be used to introduce more selection into the State system. Nick Timothy, who now Heads May’s NO 10 Policy unit , used to head the New Schools Network, which promotes Free Schools. He has made it clear that he thinks expanding selection in the State sector is a good thing. So. that could mean, more Grammar schools, and also more selection in new Free schools(500 more expected in this Parliament) Either full, or partial selection . Already perhaps(see below) some Free schools are not being quite as ‘ inclusive’ as they could be.
Timothy might have been taken aback by the hostility the leaked proposals for perhaps 24 new grammar school, received from across the political spectrum, amid calls to point to robust evidence that Grammar schools improve the lot of the most disadvantaged pupils, and can drive social mobility across the board.
Government insiders are now tentatively suggesting that there would be no large scale expansion of Grammars. Just the 24, which looks like policy made on the hoof. If you believe in Grammars, and their transformative effects, you surely cant believe that just 24 schools are enough to drive transformation across the system. It also suggests too, does it not, a lack of confidence in Academies, and their capacity to transform the system. So what are they trying to achieve here?
To change any system you need to look at what drives improvement in student outcomes. Evidence is pretty clear. Yes ,structural reforms can be important, providing schools are given meaningful autonomy and are rooted in a robust accountability framework (not the same as red tape, by the way). But this is only one side of the coin. Evidence also tells us that high quality, distributed leadership is important, along with high quality teachers and teaching. We are short of good leaders and good teachers in the areas we need them the most. Ministers seem preoccupied with structural reforms, which are the low hanging fruit of educational reform, and seem to have a blind spot when it comes to the other drivers.
Returning to admissions, it seems that Free schools have a mixed record on admissions. Research by Professor Rebecca Morris in 2014 looked at admissions criteria used by the first two waves of secondary Free Schools in England. She found a real diversity of criteria being used by this new type of school and in how they are prioritising access. Free Schools are able to choose their own feeder schools, set their own catchment areas, prioritise particular postcode districts, guarantee places for children of the school’s founders or opt to use banding systems. Although the admissions policies of the majority of secondary Free Schools appear to be adhering to the 2012 Admissions Code legislation, (the Admissions code is being reviewed). Morris notes the influence that such criteria may have in creating intakes which ‘ are less balanced in terms of socioeconomic status, ethnicity or religious affiliation.’
Morris says ‘ It.. demonstrates the potential for these new schools to increase levels of stratification between schools in the local area. Some schools are clearly attempting to use their admissions policy to admit socially balanced intakes, offering priority to those eligible for the Pupil Premium or by participating in Local Authority-wide banding systems. The majority of schools, however, are not operating in this way.’
Its probably worth remembering that one of the original objectives of Free Schools was linked to the provision of high quality education for those from deprived backgrounds
Admissions Criteria of Secondary Free Schools-Rebecca Morris 2014
Other recent research has also concluded that Free Schools “are opening in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, but are taking fewer poor children than the other local schools” (Green et al., 2014).