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.



On 6 February  Professor Becky Francis of IOE chaired a debate on   ‘What if… we really wanted to support schools facing the greatest challenge? with panellists including Lucy Heller of Ark and Sam Freedman of Teach First.

Lucy proposed a National Teacher Service, a bit like national service.  Basically  a   ‘ swat team ‘of experienced teachers and leaders  to go into deprived areas and schools armed  with a  Teach First like  missionary zeal ,a bit like national service,  signing , maybe,  fixed term 5 year contracts.   They would get support including with Housing. Some other financial support and incentives may also be needed.  Their service would be career enhancing rather than career limiting. Too often , she said , going into challenging schools is risky for teachers  (and Heads)careers.  . She also suggested that access to Oxbridge and Russell group universities  should be  guaranteed  for all  top ranked pupils in  every school in country  It’s a proposal that has been mooted  before by the likes of David Lammy, the Tottenham  MP and former minister.

Sam Freedman  of Teach First offered two main    radical proposals.  First a   genuinely comprehensive education system , so  abolishing all  grammar schools for good. .A Punitive tax  he said should be raised  on private education to force  the middle classes to engage with the maintained sector  . Also he suggested a clampdown on  illegal exclusions from schools  and said   we must take better care of and support young people particularly those threatened with exclusion.  Here newly energised and engaged  local authorities should have a co-coordinating   support role in ensuring those threatened with exclusion are looked  after and have access to good education. . He also wants the social mobility issue to be approached differently. Change the mindset around  social mobility so its  about communities rather than  individuals. Rescuing pupils from communities mean its even harder for those that are  left behind. Higher Education institutions, rather than opening up campuses in Chinaand abroad , should look much  closer to home and  open them instead  in Grimsby ,Doncaster   and other deprived areas  . Sam Freedman’s leftward journey,  it seems , continues. Not all that long ago he was  a researcher for the Independent Schools Council.


Its not Just About Oxbridge

The High Master of St Pauls has mentioned the elephant in the room in the Times this week. Many more of our best students are heading off  across the pond towards tertiary education in the States. He writes’The globalisation of tertiary education and, in particular, increased knowledge of and access to North American universities led to 34 pupils from St Paul’s studying there in 2016. The pull factors towards the US include the liberal arts degree, which enables students to pursue wider academic study, and generous scholarships. The push factors from Oxbridge are the cost of student loans and a perception that they have become too focused on access and research.’ One Wellington College student a few years ago, who chose Harvard ,over Oxford,  in explaining his choice said that  in the interview Harvard asked “what can we do for you..Oxford asked what can you do  for us? ”. Twenty one  Wellington students went  to the States (and three to Canada)   last year ,Among the beneficiaries Brown, Stanford, Columbia and the University of Southern California . On the other hand,  eighteen  went  to Oxbridge.

The media here (and the Sutton Trust) seem obsessed with  Oxbridge ,paying little attention to our other world class universities.   University College London and Imperial College, to name just two.  Although Oxbridge is investing heavily in outreach it  is not to everyone’s tastes , and, of course, often doesn’t offer the range of  courses, including in the  liberal arts , that many students  here are  now looking for. Interestingly, Julian Thomas, the Master of Wellington College, is trying to get his students to take an even  broader view of what options are available to   them when they leave , including  taking Degree Apprenticeships.  Interesting times. It would help, of course,  if there were more high quality Degree Apprenticeships available.



Why did Greening have to go?

Several theories are in circulation about why Justine Greening had to go as Education Secretary.

Firstly,she was not loyally carrying out the wishes of the Prime Minister. More than  this,  she was delaying and obstructing.  The Prime Ministers  wishes can pretty much be summed up as  the proposals in the  pre-election  education Green Paper drafted by her former adviser Nick Timothy.

And its also known that Greening, along with Jo Johnson ,were not entirely in agreement with May on her approach to tuition fees.   Given the joy expressed by Nick Timothy in the Daily Telegraph  at  Greenings departure there seems to be some mileage in this. Timothy has urged Damian Hinds, the new education secretary, to be “brave enough” to cut tuition fees.

Greening was not radical enough, the argument goes, in pursuing the  structural reforms —  that is more academies, free schools , faith schools  and of course  grammar school expansion . Instead, she wanted to see an unrelenting focus on the lot of the most disadvantaged pupils. So  not so much the other group,  favoured by May, those who are  just about managing to get  by.  So Greening realigned DFE Policy to focus on improving social mobility.  May is also keen on social mobility, of course,  but has a rather different approach to achieving it.

It was something of an open secret that Greening was uncomfortable with the structural agenda and increasing selection in the state system. This was  hardly surprising . The  response to the Green Paper was underwhelming.  Experts lined up to rubbish its proposals  with  a coalition of education professionals, across the political spectrum, saying, that the proposals did nothing at all to advance the government’s own agenda , providing more good school places. Significantly, we are still awaiting the government’s response to the public  consultation on the Green Paper.

On grammar schools, analysis is pretty clear . Though grammars, which by and large are good schools, might deliver a small exam grade benefit to those who gain entry, this is at a significant price to those,  often poorer children, who do not pass the entry test. More grammar schools are therefore likely, if anything, to worsen the country’s social mobility problem. So to invest time, scarce resources and political capital in this area really doesn’t make a lot of sense, and rides a coach and horses through the evidence base.

Its true that the initial academies scheme saw significant improvements in student outcomes. But the  most recent expansion of  the academies programme  has shown mixed results . Indeed LSE research points to  little, or no, significant attainment effects .Nor have  academies significantly narrowed the achievement gap, certainly at  secondary level. Greening understood this.

As far as tuition fees go Greening  and  Johnson blocked an attempt by the prime minister to overhaul them — cutting fees and possibly the interest rate charged to students.  They had argued that although the system was sound in principle, sharing the financial investment between the state and the student, as both accrue  benefit, the 6.1 per cent interest rate on loans should be reduced and maintenance grants for poorer students restored immediately, rather than after a lengthy review.  But, Mrs May’s advisers wanted to use the review to challenge Labour’s appeal to young people, which hurt the Conservatives in the election. Damian Hinds, the new  education secretary, and Sam Gyimah, the new universities minister, are understood to be more sympathetic to No 10’s ambitions for the level of fees to be reconsidered.

Post-16 education funding needs reform , but cuts to university fees and loan rates would in effect  direct more government subsidies to the disproportionately privileged children who attend the UK’s universities. This would use up scarce resources that could be applied to make a real difference to social mobility. Social mobility in this country has stagnated. But most agree that there is no silver bullet to addressing the challenge, nor is it just up to schools.  It is widely accepted, for example,   by those who look at the evidence, that if you want to improve social mobility some of the best returns come from early pre-school interventions. If England is to address its social mobility problems, it needs to intervene earlier and increase the supply and development of good teachers and school leaders. We are having real difficulty in recruiting and retaining both.  If you don’t have a sustainable supply of good teachers and leaders no amount of tinkering with structures and selection is going to make a jot of difference to  outcomes across the system.

Some in government had complained that Greening was a charisma free zone. But since when has charisma been a requirement for cabinet ministers.? Think,  Chris Grayling ,Jeremy Hunt  and  Philip  Hammond.  They    are still in the Cabinet ,arent they (and two of these three are probably less competent than Greening)

So, some observers see the appointment of Hinds as an attempt by May to seize  back some control of the education agenda- so more selection, more free schools a lifting of the cap on  religious school admissions and so on . In other words re-establishing and relaunching the pre-election Green paper agenda. That would be curious politics given that the architect of the Green paper Nick Timothy was sacked following the near disastrous  election and the Tories lost seats based on their platform including of course a commitment  more selection and grammars.

Greening deserved better treatment, frankly.

Interestingly, Mr Hinds is also passionately   committed to  social mobility. He wouldn’t do too much harm if he took on  board the  strategy that his predecessor was developing. It is worth looking at the APPG on Social Mobility report that ,as Chair, he published a couple of years ago. It reveals a sensible acknowledgement of what evidence tells us about where the priorities should lie in education to improve attainment, narrow the performance gap and to improve social mobility. Not included  in the reports  check list of actions  was  the need to  expand  grammars, increase  selection throughout the system , increase the number of  faith schools nor indeed  the need to lift  the admissions cap on faith schools.

Its hard to believe that the government would embark on a policy that is not evidence based,  but stranger things have happened in politics recently.

Just in case, the anti selection lobby  is girding its loins.