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 Schools

In 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 Workforce

Teacher 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 2013

Switching 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 Ranks

Countries 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.

A-Levels 2012

A-Levels 2012 (click here to view) shows 2012 was the year when Ofqual’s ‘comparable outcomes’ policy really began to bite. The percentage achieving at least a B was held at 52.6%, and there was a fall of 0.4% in A*/As.

Most subjects identified as core by the government and universities gained entries, but modern languages and computing continued to decline. Critical thinking and general studies took big hits.

Girls were 5.0% ahead at A*-C and 1.4% ahead at A*/A, but boys were just in front at A*, in spite of girls doing better in 28 of the 36 subjects. The boys’ lead overall is due to their preponderance in high scoring subjects like further maths, maths and physics.

Northern Ireland’s A*/A grades fell sharply as it has moved away from grammar schools. England has overtaken Wales in the past decade perhaps due to its use of accountability measures.

Making 14-18 Education a Reality

Education in England lacks a clear shape. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the final years of secondary schooling. Raising the participation age to 18 creates the opportunity to design an array of academic, practical, creative and occupational pathways to take people forward to university, training, employment and future lives.The GCSE is no longer needed as a school leaving examination. It could be dropped to treat education 14-18 as a coherent whole.

Entry to a particular pathway should be by choice providing that entry requirements had been met. The first year of the pathways could be an orientation year to confirm that the right choices had been made. Examinations at the end of lower secondary education would provide an objective basis for making the choices.

Where’s Best for Teacher Training

In The Good Teacher Training Guide 2012 (click here to view) the Centre for Education and Employment Research compares 214 providers on entry qualifications, Ofsted grades, newly qualified teachers’ ratings, and employment in teaching.Teachers trained in schools are more likely to get a job and rate their training highly than teachers trained on university courses. The universities recruit trainees with better degrees and are more likely to receive an outstanding grade from Ofsted. But Ofsted inspections appear to miss the point of teacher training: the grades bear no relation to entry to teaching.

Of the individual providers the Billericay Educational Consortium comes top followed by the King Edward’s Consortium, with the University of Cambridge third. There was wide variation, with the same providers among the also-rans each year.

GCSE 2012

The GCSE results published in August 2012 have been like no others. From the moment of their release there was turmoil. It was only quieted when a judicial review in February determined that Ofqual and the exam boards had acted lawfully.

There has nevertheless been considerable fallout. A number of pupils and schools feel cheated; Ofqual is making immediate changes to the GCSE examinations; and the separation of GCSEs in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is on the cards.

GCSE 2012 (click here to view) looks at the data behind the uproar. The impact of the new Ofqual is evident. Changes in the pattern of entries can be traced to the Ebac.

Other highlights include: English and maths are among the subjects with the lowest pass rates at C and above; girls continue to be well ahead of boys; and England has overtaken Wales and is catching up on Northern Ireland.

England Neglects the Brightest

Educating the Highly Able (Click here to view) shows that England lags far behind other countries in educating the brightest. ‘Gifted and Talented’ is too broad a construct to be the basis of sensible policy and should be scrapped. The focus should be on those capable of excellence in major school subjects.A first step would be to hold schools to account for the progress of the highly able. Current measures are pitched at the lowest and middling performers. Bright pupils from poor homes are most likely to miss out through being isolated in unsuccessful schools.Other countries bring together the brightest. There is no need for GCSEs when the leaving age is raised to 18. They should be replaced by a national examination at 14. An array of pathways post 14 could then be allowed to emerge on the model of the university technical colleges.

Is there a ‘Sweet Spot’ for Selection in Education?

Click here to view

Little in education is more hotly contested than selection. At age 11 it carries a lot of emotional baggage, but at ages 16 and 18 it is readily accepted. Is this too late?

Unlike most other OECD countries, which often allow four or more years, we attempt to squeeze into just two years at the end of secondary schooling the pathways that carry young people forward to their future lives.

Guided choices at age 14 would put us on par. Could this be the ‘sweet spot’? About 10% of 15-year-olds persistently truant from the exclusively academic curriculum.

An array of equivalent pathways, some academic as now, but alongside them high quality technical, creative, practical and vocational programmes would be good for the young people and for us all as we benefited from their enhanced skills.


A-Levels 2011: The year grade inflation came to a halt?

2011 seems to be the year that the examiners have finally decided that enough is enough when it comes to grade inflation. CEER’s independent Annual Review of A-Levels (click here to view) says this year’s results are also notable for the disappearance of the gender gap at the highest level. The introduction of A* is evidently picking up the wider spread in the performance of boys. Alice Heim, a distinguished Cambridge psychologist, tongue in cheek, once called this ‘the mediocrity of women’. There has been some swing back to the sciences, but numbers in physics are only three-fifths of what they were thirty years ago. There are continuing falls in Geography, French and German, and the Performing Arts, PE and Law have also dropped. Results in Northern Ireland, though still well ahead of England and Wales, have fallen back this year for both boys and girls, perhaps not unconnected with changes to the school system there. Wales once ahead of England has fallen further behind.

GCSE 2011: Twenty-Four Years of Rising Grades

CEER’s independent Annual Review of GCSEs (click here to view) shows that GCSE results have risen for the 24th year, but not in Northern Ireland where there was a sharp fall, and Wales where they have been static.  Could this have anything to do with the changes to their education systems?  The gender gap is widening with girls further ahead than ever in A*/A grades.  Controlled assessment has had little impact on the results, so it will be interesting to see what end-of-course assessment will do.  The sciences have continued to revive thanks to Gordon Brown, but are still well short of their 1988 levels.  Geography and modern languages have been in decline for two decades, and wait for the EBac to rescue them.  Entries have fallen generally, more than the age cohort.  The only gainers besides the sciences are religious studies, social sciences and ‘other subjects’, including citizenship studies.  Not something one fancies that will please the Government.

Where is the Best Teacher Training? Oxford, Cambridge, or Billericay?

CEER’s Good Teacher Training Guide 2011 (Click here to view) compares 227 university, school-centred and employment-based providers of teacher training on entry qualifications, Ofsted grades and take-up of teaching posts.

The report also considers proposed government reforms of teacher training and attempts quantitative answers to such questions as: ‘Is school-led training better?’; ‘Will £20,000 bursaries work?’; ‘Is Teach First the answer?’; ‘Are the degrees of new teachers getting better?’; ‘Has Ofsted lost its rigour?’; and, ‘What if the trainees don’t become teachers?’.

The Billericay Educational Consortium, one of the two pioneers of school-centred teacher training, is the best for teacher training in England. Oxford University comes second and Cambridge University third. Southfields Community College (Wandsworth), one of the first Training Schools, is also in the top ten, where six of the places are taken by school-led schemes.

Single-Sex Education

One of the most emotional topics in education is whether the sexes should be taught together or separately. CEER’s view is that taken alongside such factors as the quality of the head and teachers, the abilities of the children, and the support of parents, it has much less effect than is supposed. Single-sex education became the norm because initially only boys were taught in schools (girls if they were formally educated at all had governesses). Now the pendulum has swung decisively to coeducation – not always for educational reasons. We develop this argument in The Times on 4 February 2011; Dr Helen Wright, President of the Girls’ Schools Association puts the case for single-sex education.

Who Wrecked National Curriculum Science?

See 1987 campaign document here.

Michael Gove, and before him Gordon Brown, have spoken powerfully in favour of a return to the teaching of physics, chemistry and biology in schools. They want to rescue national curriculum science from the theme-based integrated mix that it has become, taught mainly by biologists. But how did school science become what it is? The Royal Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Institute of Physics and the Engineering Council, no less, are ultimately to blame. They were among 16 organisations that pushed for the double award balanced science. Their campaigning led, among other things, to the collapse of A-level entries in physics and university applications in engineering. There have recently been signs of a revival in physics, chemistry and biology GCSEs, but should they ever have been swept aside in the first place?