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United Learning Respose to DfE Green Paper "Schools that work for everyone"

The Green Paper’s analysis of a group left behind in current policy thinking is important and welcome.  These families described as ‘just about managing’ in current political debate are an important group to consider and to support.  Historically, eligibility for free school meals has been used as a proxy for poverty and to identify those who are in particular need of support in education.  The pupil premium policy has ensured that schools receive additional money for all pupils eligible for free school meals.  Many local funding formulae also include funding amounts targeted at these pupils.

However, amongst those not eligible for free school meals, there is a very wide range of wealth, including many families who may not be poor in absolute terms but who have very little disposable income and have not seen any increase in their family income for some time.  Our academies serve communities with many such families, which in our experience are found in significant numbers in (often predominantly white working class) estates around towns and cities in the north, the midlands and in coastal regions.

In this group of ‘just about managing’ families, a large proportion of parents have had poor educational experiences; some have lost faith in education as a route to success for their children.  While some of their local communities experience significant social problems – high levels of worklessness and of substance abuse, for example – others have plentiful work but of a low skill, transient variety.  Children often arrive at school aged 5 well behind the nationally expected level of development.

In this context, it is welcome that there is a commitment to identify better this group of families and children, understand how well the education system is serving them and design policy interventions to support their increased success. 

While IDACI and other area-based indicators of deprivation are imperfect as a way of identifying individual children’s level of deprivation (since by definition they consider factors relating to the area not the individual), they will almost certainly be good enough indicators to provide valuable evidence at the national level.  It would be extremely helpful for the government to provide a considered, statistically robust bulletin setting out what is known or can be deduced from matching area-based indicators of deprivation at super-output area level to the achievement data in the National Pupil Database.

We would therefore encourage the government to publish the information it has in as comprehensive a form as possible, and to begin a serious debate on the issues this reveals.

Delivering more good school places

The Green Paper argues strongly that there is a need for more good school places.  It is hard to disagree with this while any child attends a school which is less than good.  While there has been a significant increase in the proportion of schools judged at least ‘Good’, we accept that this is partly (though probably not wholly) an artefact of changes to the inspection system.

So, we agree with the ambition of the Green Paper.

Implicitly, the Green Paper’s diagnosis of the key problem that needs to be solved in order to achieve the ambition is that some of the people with overall charge of schools are not good enough.  Therefore, the key thing that needs to be done to ensure that there are more good school places nationally is to increase the number of effective organisations managing and governing schools.  

We would contend that this is the wrong diagnosis and that any solutions coming from this diagnosis will be insufficient.

The right central diagnosis is that there are insufficiently many good school places because there is insufficient human capacity to provide good teachers and excellent leaders for every school in the country.  So, one of the key solutions is to grow human capital – i.e. to develop the workforce, increase the supply of excellent teachers and school leaders and increase the reach of the most effective professionals.

In our view, the Green Paper is proposing school improvement strategies to meet a system improvement challenge.  Changing the leadership or governance of a school may have an impact on the effectiveness of that school, but does nothing to grow the effectiveness of the school system as a whole – unless it comes with measures to improve the effectiveness of existing teachers or leaders, bring new teachers or leaders into the system or extend the reach and impact of the best teachers or leaders.  Otherwise, it is simply moving effective leadership and teaching from one school to another – which will benefit the receiving school, but cost the ‘donating’ school.

The current system is under-capacity in excellent teachers and leaders.  The local effect of this is that schools at the top of the local ‘pecking order’ still have a good choice of teachers and leaders, while those at the bottom cannot attract good quality candidates, particularly in some parts of the country and in some subjects.  Schools which are at the bottom of the pecking order are having to ‘make do and mend’ and have unqualified staff, teachers teaching out of subject, over-reliance on supply including long-term supply staff and people moving into ‘middle leadership’ positions before they are ready with the skills and experience they need.

Unless there are steps to grow the capacity of the school system, changing management and governance of some schools will not improve performance of the system as a whole.  It will at most change the distribution of performance between schools.  If the local ‘pecking order’ is changed, it will not mean that there are no schools at the bottom struggling to recruit good staff – it will simply change which schools these are.

The key policy levers available to government to create more good places are focused on human capital – growing more and better teachers and leaders, especially in areas which are currently struggling.

There is an extremely successful model of how to do this, called London Challenge.  This combined measures to grow capacity with measures to turn around specific areas and specific schools.  Its impact is well known, but the key reason why it had a city-wide effect was because it set out to grow human capital across the city, not just to improve specific schools.  This lesson is being missed systematically.

Admissions as a lever for system improvement

Admissions policies are of course of great importance to specific children and parents: they determine whether children can get places at their preferred school.  They are likewise of significant importance to schools themselves: changes to the population of a school can significantly affect what the school does and how it does it.

However, we know of no evidence that changes to the admissions policies of schools or changes to the distribution of children between schools in the system on their own make any significant difference to the overall performance of the education system.  When I was in the DfE, I commissioned substantial work from the DfE’s analysts and statisticians to look for any such effect which could inform admissions policy.  There was none which justified any change of approach.

Indeed, it would be somewhat surprising if simply changing the distribution of children between schools while maintaining essentially the same workforce made any difference to the average educational standards achieved in the system.

For this reason, we do not share the apparent obsession with admissions on all sides of the debate about schools in England.  Changing approach to admissions is unlikely to change overall average output of the English education system.

However, there is compelling reason to believe that those with the greatest social capital find it easiest to navigate complex and stratified systems to their own advantage.  (Essentially by definition of ‘greatest social capital’.)  Those who are more affluent, advantaged or privileged in society almost always have greater social capital than those less affluent, advantaged or privileged.

Therefore, if government wishes to promote social mobility and reduce as far as possible the effects of social capital, it should ensure that admissions systems are as unstratified, simple and transparent as possible.  If there were no considerations of community, proximity or need for siblings to be transported to school, admission to oversubscribed schools by lottery would achieve this.

Selection, grammar schools and secondary moderns

In this context, the implied assertion of the Green Paper that grammar schools will definitively assist social mobility lacks any basis in evidence.  Insofar as there is evidence on this point, it appears to suggest that selective systems harm rather than assist social mobility.  This is consistent with general evidence that creating stratified systems assists those who already have high social capital.

The Green Paper proposes a number of potentially useful measures to improve the impact grammar schools have on social mobility.  These are clearly well-intentioned, but may or may not have the desired impact.  For example, lowering the entry criteria for disadvantaged children may do exactly what is intended and accelerate the progress of those admitted.  However, if these children find themselves at the bottom of the class in a very competitive academic environment, it may have the opposite effect to the one intended.  The only way to determine which of these outcomes will happen is to test it empirically in practice.

We strongly suggest that the government should pilot these measures with existing grammar schools to answer two questions: firstly, whether they do in fact improve the impact of grammar schools on social mobility; and secondly, and crucially, whether they increase social mobility in the area of grammar schools so that it is greater than that found in areas with comprehensive systems.

The government has repeatedly said that its proposals to increase the number of grammar schools do not represent a return to a ‘binary system’.  It is hard to see what this means.  By definition, a test with a pass and fail is a binary system.  Where this has consequences for children as to which school they go to, it does create a binary system for children – whether the school which those who fail go to is called a secondary modern or something else.

In this context, the Green Paper is notably silent on how what is proposed in relation to selection will help the majority of children who are not attending grammar schools.  The key question that needs to be answered in any return to selection is: how will what is proposed help those who are not selected for grammar schools?  Why, in other words, will the majority who are not in grammar schools have better education as a result?

Experience in current selective areas is that grammar schools attract a strong teaching force and of course able and well-motivated children.  However, conversely, non-selective schools in those areas struggle to attract teachers and leaders more than comprehensive schools in socio-economically similar areas.  Where this shortage of teachers is significant, this can make it difficult for these secondary moderns to provide the same standard of education as children would receive in a typical comprehensive school.  The risk that needs to be addressed is that a reintroduction of grammar schools would harm the education of a large proportion – perhaps a majority – of children.

We strongly suggest that before any new grammar schools are introduced, the government needs to set out practical measures that will be introduced to support secondary moderns or non-selective schools in areas with selection.  Again, we suggest that the impact of these measures is tested in current selective areas before new selective schools are introduced.

Greater academic opportunity and an academic curriculum

Subsequent to the publication of the Green Paper, the government has argued that there are parts of the country where there is a dearth of schools offering a highly academic curriculum.  It has been suggested that the re-introduction of grammar schools would offer that opportunity for some children in that area where it doesn’t currently exist.

Up to now, it has been central to this government’s policy that every child should have the opportunity of a high quality academic curriculum.  While the ‘English Baccalaureate’ is an imperfect measure of this, its key motivation is the absolutely correct view that every child should have a proper opportunity to study academic subjects deeply.  After some years where the EBacc was an indicator but not a target, it is now clear to schools that they will be judged on it as a performance measure, and there can be little doubt that schools will respond to this over the next 2-3 years.

We think it would be a hugely retrograde step if the government were to back away from its stated view that every child should have an opportunity to study academic subjects in favour of a view that only an academically selected minority should do.

If the government has concerns about curriculum and school quality in particular parts of the country, then we think it has sufficient policy levers to change this without the introduction of grammar schools.  If it wishes to introduce beacons of academic excellence into areas where that does not currently exist, we suggest that it could do this without academic selection.

For example – the government could introduce a number of non-selective ‘new grammar schools’ into its ‘opportunity areas’.  These might be required to:

  • Teach a highly academic curriculum, including three separate sciences and several ancient and modern foreign languages;
  • Seek out highly academically qualified staff;
  • Offer an extensive programme of team sport, musical ensembles, dramatic productions and other extra-curricular activities (including outward bound activities and/or uniformed organisations such as the CCF);
  • Introduce subject-based societies, speakers and activities to develop and deepen scholarship;
  • Develop a strong programme of university entrance;
  • When over-subscribed, admit children by lottery, giving all applicants equal chance of admission.

These schools would be likely to be highly popular and likely to encourage other schools to think along the same lines as to the nature of their own provision.  The schools so designated could be new free schools or could be existing schools prepared to make commitments of the sort outlined above.  As these schools will not be selective, their introduction is far more likely to see other schools respond by trying to match them, rather than becoming an excuse for other schools not to compete.

In other words: the government’s policy objectives can be achieved more reliably without introducing selection.

Universities playing a direct role in improving school quality and pupil attainment

The government proposes that university involvement in earlier stages of education should be greater.  We support this principle.  We also support the view that government should use its available policy lever (access agreements) to ensure that the highest status, highest achieving universities take meaningful steps with more disadvantaged communities to extend access and opportunity.

The government suggests that university access agreements should require universities to sponsor one or more academies.  We have two concerns about this.

First, we are not convinced that universities have a good understanding of how to run schools, particularly schools in challenging areas.  The examples that exist of universities running groups of schools are not all encouraging.  In the small number of cases where it appears to have worked well, universities seem to have relatively little direct involvement in the leadership and management of the school.

It is in many ways unsurprising that universities are not necessarily very good at running schools.  The contexts in which schools and universities work are very different.  Universities teach young adults who have chosen to be there; selective universities teach highly able and highly motivated, mature young adults who already have significant subject expertise and can to a significant degree learn and research for themselves.  Schools teach all the children of an area, no matter what their ability or motivation, whether they would ideally wish to be there or not; they teach typically novice learners who require significant explanation, exposition and scaffolding.  Schools in challenging areas teach and need to support a lot of children with other problems in life affecting their ability to learn.

So universities do not have a particularly strong record of running schools; where it works it is because they have engaged strong professionals with a career of running schools in leading the work.  There is no reason to think that having more universities running schools would particularly improve the school system.

Second, though, we think that universities can do much more and have a much bigger educational impact on a much larger group of children in other ways, and it would make much more sense to require them to carry out these other pieces of work.  Running a single academy would benefit only 1000 children at a time even if highly successful.  Measures likely to have a much bigger impact include:

  • Requiring leading research-led universities to provide significant teacher training provision in their areas of expertise;
  • Requiring leading universities to increase significantly their programme of educational outreach to schools – including for example arranging for academics to provide subject-specific opportunities for teachers and students; and arranging for (e.g.) post-doctoral students to run symposia for sixth formers.  Organised well, one university could reach hundreds of teachers and thousands of students each year;
  • Requiring universities to use their facilities including their accommodation to offer summer school provision for a significant body of sixth form students or of teachers (or both) for at least one week each year out of university term for meaningful learning opportunities.

There are many other possibilities of course.  We think that universities could use much better the expertise that they do have, but are not convinced that requiring them to do things which are not their expertise is helpful.

Independent schools directly assisting the state-funded sector

United Learning is a group of 57 schools.  Legally speaking, the charity running our 13 independent schools is the sponsor of our 44 academies, largely in challenging areas.  So we recognise that this is a model that can work well.

However, to make it work requires the engagement of people and leaders with a deep understanding of running urban schools.  Most independent schools do not have this and it is unsurprising that there is no better than mixed success in single independent schools sponsoring state schools.

Overall, the things that are powerful about the state/independent relationship in United Learning are not concerned with the governance model (‘sponsorship’).  They are to do with meaningful sharing of teacher development, leadership development and pupil experience.  They are fundamentally two-way, with learning in both directions.

The structure of collaboration is based as much round our teaching school alliance (led by Guildford High School; Ashford School is another independent teaching school in our group).  Our initial teacher training provision (‘United Teaching’) trains over 100 teachers per year, and is led by Paddington Academy as part of the teaching school alliance, with insight and practice drawn from both sides of the group.

Our programme of ‘excellence visits’ for leaders and teachers means that there is meaningful sharing of practice at a very practical level between independent schools and academies.  For example, our independent schools have openly shared their practice in Oxbridge entrance, in getting candidates from A to A* and in other areas where they have real depth of knowledge and experience.

Our heads of sport and music have brought together pupils and teachers from our schools to learn from the best practice that exists in them, to create exciting events at leading venues, to bring Olympians to coach our best talents and to create opportunities for meaningful interaction between state and independent pupils.  Our joint development of curriculum means that all our schools can benefit from the best that we have across both sectors.

While I could continue with these examples, the central point is that it is this meaningful sharing of resources and practice that is of value to the state (and independent) schools involved.  Our view is therefore that:

  • The government should not merely require sponsorship of a single academy.  This can be hands off and not involve deep sharing or collaboration; it can only benefit the one school involved.
  • Equally, the government should not accept any proposal from independent schools that the state gives them money to take in another group of students.  Probably, this would be financially advantageous to ‘recruiting’ independent schools while facilitating ‘creaming off’ of more able students, with uncertain benefits (as the evaluation of the assisted places scheme illustrates).
  • Instead, the government should require deeper sharing of resources and practice along the lines described above, which is extended over time and affects significant numbers of teachers and pupils rather than only a single school, and is focused on the independent sector’s real areas of expertise.  Where an independent school is involved in sponsorship, this sharing can be with sponsored schools; otherwise, it should be open to any schools in the locality.

Alternative models

One of our schools, serving two highly deprived estates, runs a ‘grammar stream’ in partnership with a leading independent school, within a non-selective comprehensive school.  The school as a whole provides an academic curriculum, and this is further enhanced in the grammar stream, for example through provision of Latin, which is taught at the independent school.

We think that this model offers the benefits that the government is seeking but without the downsides:

  • It builds on an existing strong partnership with an independent school, which is benefiting all the children of the school – including support in some subjects and for extra-curricular opportunities.
  • It is supporting in particular the development of a strong curriculum for all pupils.
  • It takes place within an existing school and allows for movement in and out of the stream, so that there is no ‘once for all’ selection which cuts off opportunities.
  • It is potentially an attractor for teachers to a school serving a highly disadvantaged area, rather than risking attracting teachers away from such areas and challenges.
  • It means that those in the grammar stream continue to mix with other pupils in the school – in form time and in a range of subjects. (So that it is as much a form of setting as streaming.) This supports the culture of aspiration and achievement for all pupils.
  • The independent school is contributing its strengths in an engaged and focused way to a wide range of pupils.

We think that this model as well as the non-selective ‘new grammar school’ model described above are worth exploring, testing and evaluating since they appear to provide a way of achieving the government’s objectives without the downside of the government’s current proposals.

United Learning/Jon Coles

December 2016

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Posted: Dec 9, 2016,
Categories: Group News,
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Author: Jess
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