Social Disadvantage, Widening Participation and the Green Paper
The Green Paper proposes to double the entry rate of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and raise the number of black and minority ethnic students by 20 per cent by 2020. Social Disadvantage and Widening Access to Universities (report here) shows that the proposals go against the grain of the evidence on student performance. The Government’s figures on social disadvantage are those for low participation areas. Data for 2013-14 graduates show that only 66 per cent of the students from these areas gained a good degree compared with 77 per cent of those from high participation areas. Minority ethnic pupils are both more likely to be admitted to university and do less well there. DfE data show that 64 per cent of Asian applicants and 61 per cent of Black applicants with A-levels obtained university places in 2012-13, but only 45 per cent of the White applicants. Degree outcomes were the reverse. HEFCE data show that of the 2013-14 graduates, 76 per cent of White students gained a first or upper-second degree compared with 63 per cent of the Asian and 49 per cent of the Black students. Universities face a difficult dilemma. If they stick to offering places on merit the Government’s targets are unlikely to be met, but if they comply then they will struggle to keep up their degree standards.
HEFCE’s Blunder
The Higher Education Funding Council for England has made a crucial error in its latest report on degree outcomes. In Issues Paper 2015/21 it said that 82 per cent of graduates getting firsts or upper-seconds in 2013-14 came from state schools compared with 73 per cent from independent schools. HEFCE’s Blunder (report here) reveals that, in fact, it was 82 per cent of graduates from independent schools that had been awarded good degrees. The Issues Paper was quietly altered after we had privately drawn the error to HEFCE’s attention, but it still has not issued a public correction. Professor Smithers has called on HEFCE “to set the record straight so that everyone understands the true picture.” Although HEFCE has changed some of the figures in the report, it still repeats that state school pupils are four percentage points ahead rather than nine points behind. At the heart of the confusion, is what entry qualifications are included and how many students from state and independent schools have achieved at these levels. When all the relevant information is taken into account, it is the students from independent schools who gain more good degrees.
The Paradox of Recent Exam Results
The remarkable thing about recent exam results is that although there have been major changes to the exams, the results have remained much the same (click for links to A-Level report and GCSE report). The exams have been changed to make them tougher. To put a stop to grade inflation Ofqual, the regulator, decided the results would be kept constant providing the candidate cohort stayed similar. This has certainly halted the incessant rises. But there have not been marked falls either. If the exams have indeed been made tougher one would have expected grades to decline. It is possible that the marks have been lower, but fewer were required to reach the grades. If so, one wonders what has been the point of it all? The changes to GCSEs and A-levels so far are only a foretaste of the reforms that begin to unfold with the courses taught from September 2015. Here the grade scale at GCSE has been recalibrated. This gives the opportunity to adjust the grades so that they distinguish more and provide better information to schools, parents and pupils.
The Coalition Effect, 2010-15
In his chapter, ‘Education’, in The Coalition Effect, edited by Anthony Seldon and Mike Finn, (sample pages here), Alan Smithers argues that the government rushed to unsettling reforms, but was given an ‘easy ride’ by Labour. The coalition partners found it relatively easy to reach agreement on education policy with one disastrous exception. They both readily signed up to more autonomy for schools, a pupil premium and re-basing teacher training. But on student tuition fees the Liberal Democrats had to renege on a highly-publicised pledge. In compromising on fees the Lib Dems extracted a price which has left the taxpayer with an unaffordable bill for higher education. They also blocked the reunification of education in one government department so as to have higher education under their control. Michael Gove, as education secretary, pressed hard, anxious to embed major reforms while he still held the reins. But his increasingly mistrusting and pugilistic style discomforted even those who strongly supported his aims. Gove’s departure left a lot of unfinished business on academies, qualifications, apprenticeships and fair funding. A new Conservative government, or a new Conservative-dominated coalition, is very likely to see these through. But what a Labour-led government would do is far from clear. Rather than an attractive alternative narrative, it has so far only offered bits and pieces.
The Dilemma of Selection in SchoolsIn The Ins and Outs of Selective Secondary Schools (report here) launched by the think tank, Civitas, at the House of Commons on 16 March 2015, Alan Smithers argues (pages 194-205) that there has to be selection in schools. It is the other side of the coin from choice. Choice and selection are inherent in society. People differ greatly in their talents, interests and aspirations. Not everyone can do everything. But selection within the school system is bitterly opposed, largely as a consequence of the 11-plus. Those picked out by the test often benefitted greatly, but in its heyday about three-quarters of the age group were cast aside. While selection at age 11 is questionable, it has to happen at some stage. It is accepted at age 16 and beyond, but not before. This leaves only two years for the routes through to university, apprenticeships and employment in contrast to the three or four years of upper secondary education in other countries.With the raising of the participation age, the GCSE is no longer needed as a school leaving exam. If it were adapted to be taken a year earlier there would be three years for interconnected pathways taking students towards their futures. Fifteen would be a good age for choice/selection to take place in schools.
The Science and Mathematics Teacher WorkforceTeacher provision in the physical sciences and mathematics has been a long-standing and deep-seated problem in many countries. As part of its Vision for Science and Mathematics Education project, The Royal Society commissioned CEER to review provision in England, the UK, and worldwide.The review (review here) found that England from the first school courses in the sciences has struggled to find the teachers. Successive UK governments have tried and failed to recruit to the required levels. Currently, the staffing is dominated by biologists, with acute shortfalls in physics and also maths. Not all countries are in the same boat. In those with a strong workforce, such as Finland, Japan, Singapore and South Korea, teaching is regarded as an attractive high status profession. It is difficult to get into, which enhances its status. The report makes ten recommendations to The Royal Society including that it puts its weight behind helping the profession to establish a Royal College of Science and Mathematics Teaching.
Good Teacher Training Guide 2013Switching teacher training from the universities to schools is one of the biggest and most controversial of the government’s education reforms. The universities have cried foul and predicted disaster. But what is the evidence? The Good Teacher Training Guide 2013 (report here) shows that trainees in schools are more likely to become teachers and to report favourably on their training. But university-led training is seen as better by Ofsted and attracts more applicants with good degrees.The King Edward’s Consortium, a school partnership in Birmingham training teachers for secondary schools, was the top provider overall. The Billericay Educational Consortium, a school partnership training primary teachers, top last year, came second tied with the University of Cambridge. School-led programmes dominated the rankings. All of the top providers for entry to teaching were school-led, with no university higher than 20th for either primary or secondary ITT. Prof Smithers comments: “this is a strong plus for school-led training”.
Confusion in the RanksCountries are increasingly comparing themselves in education league tables. But how is it that England can be 27th and sixth at the same time? Confusion in the Ranks (report here) highlights three reasons. England comes higher when fewer of the top-performing countries take part. Random fluctuations are treated as real differences. England gets to be as high as sixth when some unsound data are added. East Asian countries fill the top places whenever they take part. The schools need not be better. Chinese children star in England. It could be hard work, personality, or ‘tiger mothers’. The tests are also taken much more seriously. Not only do education league tables vary, but there is also the spin that is put upon them. The Labour government celebrated the results as evidence of the success of its initiatives; the Coalition government has taken a gloomy view to make the case for reform.

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