Endowments could help postgraduate students

Conor Ryan argues in a new Centreforum report that university endowments can make a contribution to postgraduate funding.

Sutton Trust research has highlighted the growing importance of postgraduate degrees in today’s labour market. Stephen Machin and Joanne Lindley have shown that 11% of 26-60 year-olds in the workforce now holds a postgraduate qualification, up from 4% in 1996.[1]

They also showed that somebody with a Master’s can on average expect to earn over £200,000 more over a 40 year working life than someone only holding a Bachelor’s degree.[2] The Sutton Trust report highlighted how the recent growth in UK postgraduates, dominated by international students, poses a threat to social mobility.

This makes it all the more important that postgraduate courses are affordable to the brightest graduates, regardless of financial circumstances. Universities and government need to think imaginatively about how to fund them. Without action to enable bright students from all backgrounds to access postgraduate qualifications based on their ability rather than their ability to pay, this could become yet another barrier for those from low and middle income homes.

The Trust supports targeted state-backed loans for postgraduates. But Government is concerned about affordability, given the growing cost of the current student loan scheme. One way to keep costs lower would be develop income-related bursaries funded by universities through their alumni alongside means-tested loans for postgraduates.

Funding today

Tim Leunig’s earlier research for Centreforum has shown that while there is some funding available through university bursaries, research councils and other sources, fewer than 4% of students on taught master’s programmes receive sufficient funding to cover their fees in full.[3] Most universities offer some partial bursaries, but these are often a fraction of the costs of fees and living costs, which can be £18-£20,000 a year, depending on the course.[4] This is an expensive proposition for graduates with debts already set to exceed £40,000 from their undergraduate studies.

Endowments

In the United States, many universities, including the Ivy Leagues, fund undergraduates from low and middle income homes fully through their endowment funds. Many also use their endowments to provide targeted support for postgraduates (as well as to develop new buildings and facilities, often their primary purpose in the UK.)

With a state regulated system of undergraduate fees and loans in the UK, and substantial mandated access funds linked to the new fees regime, there is a strong case for focusing a growing endowment pot on postgraduate studies and research. For this to happen, UK universities need to grow their endowments. Only Oxford and Cambridge currently have endowment funds comparable in size to the top 20 US universities, with the next largest, Edinburgh, significantly smaller at £248m.[5]

The 2004 Thomas report led the Labour Government to introduce a match-funding scheme designed to stimulate greater fundraising by English universities from alumni, and the development of larger endowment funds.[6] That scheme, which ran from 2008-11, had some success: annual fundraising by UK universities rose from £513 million to £694 million.[7]

But the potential is much greater. While US Ivy Leagues have always had large endowments, much American alumni fundraising is relatively new. Many state-funded universities have only developed their funds in the last 50 years: for example, the University of Florida increased its annual donations from $2m in 1976 to produce an endowment fund now worth $1.3 billion.[8]

Only 1.2% of UK graduates donate to their universities regularly, compared with 9% of US alumni. A Higher Education Funding Council for England report in 2012 proposed a target of 5% for the UK within the next 10 years, with some universities achieving double digit rates, to put the UK onto the US track.[9]

Explicitly linking some of those funds to support for postgraduates could make giving more attractive to some donors. Some universities already do this. Sheffield has alumni fund scholarships, funded by donations from 1500 alumni each year, worth £2000 each, and targeted at bright students who might not otherwise be able to study there.[10] However, such scholarships remain small scale: in 2013, they plan to provide them to 15 students, but only provided 6 in 2012.[11] Others with larger endowments say they are relatively generous. Oxford, with £3.7 billion in university and college endowment funds, says that 62% of its research students and 17% of its students on taught Master’s courses receive full scholarships covering fees and living expenses.[12]  

Building endowments into wider postgraduate funding

Such endowments may not cover all postgraduate costs, but they could make a significant contribution, when coupled with targeted student loans for those of modest means. Sheffield targets its scholarships to those who received maintenance grants as undergraduates. A similar approach more widely applied to those able enough to study as postgraduates would help ensure such support was well targeted where it was needed most.

Government may not want to cover the full cost of postgraduate studies and living costs, given the prevailing climate. While wealthier UK and overseas graduates may be able to turn to family funds, those for whom a postgraduate degree is the final rung on the social mobility ladder are unlikely to have access to such resources. Such students should have access to more means-tested bursaries, funded by universities through alumni fundraising. For that to happen, universities will need to improve their fundraising capacity. Government should make it easier for them to do so: the tax system needs to be simpler for large donations, and more pump priming should be available to enhance fundraising capacity.

Postgraduate studies are the next social mobility frontier. It is now widely accepted that we need to do more through nursery education, schools and undergraduate access to enable bright young people from low and middle income homes to fulfil their potential. They must not encounter a brick wall when it comes to postgraduate study. A new partnership between alumni, universities and government could help ensure they don’t.

The Centreforum report Postgraduate Education: better funding and better access is edited by Tom Frostrick and Tom Gault and available at the Centreforum website.


[1] Stephen Machin and Joanne Lindley, ‘The Postgraduate Premium’, Sutton Trust 2012
[2] This is a gross figure, so it doesn’t allow for lost earnings, fee costs, extra taxes due or inflation, as some other analyses showing smaller premiums have done.
[3] Tim Leunig, ‘Mastering Postgraduate Funding’, Centreforum 2011
[4] Cambridge suggests these figures for most courses at http://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/students/studentregistry/fees/costs/coursecost/costs2013v9.pdf . Taught course fees for home or European students at Sheffield and Newcastle universities are typically £5000-£6000 a year, with research fees starting at around £4000 a year, but often much higher depending on the course.
[5] http://www.suttontrust.com/research/university-fundraising-an-update, drawing on data from ‘Caritas Higher Education Yearbook’ data in the UK and the US ‘Chonicle of Higher Education’.
[6] ‘Increased Voluntary Giving to Higher Education’, DfES, 2004,
[8] ‘Increased Voluntary Giving’, p.25 and University of Florida website for latest data http://www.uff.ufl.edu/AboutUFF/Endowment.asp
[9] ‘Review of Philanthropy’
[11] Information supplied by University of Sheffield. The University also uses alumni funding to provide £3000 scholarships for undergraduates.

Opening up our top comprehensives

Conor Ryan gives the background to this week’s Sutton Trust drive to encourage more schools to use ballots in their admissions policies.

This week, the Sutton Trust revived the argument for school ballots as a way of admitting a significant proportion of places to popular urban schools. Of course, it is not an uncontroversial idea, but it seems the best and easiest way to introduce some fairness into a system where our highest performing comprehensive schools and academies are more socially segregated than other schools in their area.

After all, the evidence suggests that low and middle income students do better academically and socially if there is a mix of students from different income backgrounds in a school.

When I was Tony Blair’s education adviser, in 2005, I still remember the Times front page when they picked up our plans to allow ballots – random allocation of places where a school is oversubscribed – and fair banding across all abilities to achieve a comprehensive intake. The Times chose to illustrate banding, a move designed to achieve a comprehensive intake, with an 11-plus exam paper. The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, became convinced that we were planning a return to grammar schools and took some dissuasion on the point.

I tell this story because ballots, a simpler measure without any tests, have their own perception difficulties. Most newspapers prefer the term ‘lotteries’ which has obviously negative connotations. But it has also been confused by the Brighton system, which allied some very tightly defined catchment areas with ballots to assist some families losing out under a traditional neighbourhood system. The losers were unhappy, and the winners stayed silent, and the way the catchment areas were drawn meant little change to social segregation.

Yet, less arbitrary catchments can work. Some academies have been quietly getting on with it. After I did the Today programme on Monday, Liz Sidwell, the former schools commissioner and a dynamic former head of the Haberdashers’ Hatcham Academy in South London, tweeted to remind us that her school uses a mix of neighbourhood admissions and a ballot, splitting the two components 50:50. With huge local popularity for the school, this clearly makes sense. It’s the sort of model that the Trust would like to see more widely.

On Monday, we also highlighted another South London academy, Platanos College in Stockwell, a ‘converter academy’ where nearly 60 per cent of its pupils receive free school meals, yet 80 per cent of all its pupils gained five good GCSEs including English and Maths in 2012, including 77 per cent of those on free school meals. Platanos uses banding, whereby a proportion of places are allocated to pupils of low, medium and high abilities to ensure that it takes a good mix of students.

And although the Department for Education keeps quiet about it, academies and other schools that are their own admissions authorities – around two thirds of all secondary schools are in that category with a surge in converter academies – are allowed to use fair banding or ‘random allocation’ within the statutory admissions code, though the code bans local authorities from using ballots (Code, pages 13-14). Some academies may also give preference to pupils entitled to free school meals, just as all schools are required to do for children in care. (Code, page 10, note 22).

Balloting is neither as unpopular with parents nor as rare as some suggest. Earlier polling by the Sutton Trust showed that almost as many parents backed ballots as a fair oversubscription criterion as proximity to the school, when given those two options for popular schools, with a majority making it the better option for faith schools. Moreover, research by RAND Europe for the Trust showed they are used in other countries, including for admissions to US Charter Schools and Swedish free schools and universities.

Yet the reality is that the vast majority of comprehensives still admit on the basis of proximity to school, or an often ill-defined definition of religiosity in the case of faith schools, where ballots among members of a faith would be less arbitrary.

Doing nothing should not be an option. Our research shows that the proportion of pupils from low income families, as measured by free school meal take-up, which is a measure of the social mix of the school, at our top 500 comprehensives is less than half the national average.

More significantly, 95 per cent of the top 500 schools take fewer pupils on free school meals than their local average.  Of the 16.5 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals, just 36 per cent of them gained five good GCSEs last year, compared with 63 per cent of other pupils.

With higher house prices close to good comprehensives and academies, the bottom line in England is, as Sir Peter Lampl put it on Monday, how good a school you go to depends on your parental income. This applies from independent boarding school fees to inner city school catchments. A significant number of comprehensives and academies are not academically selective, but are socially selective because of the neighbourhoods or faith communities they serve.

Covert selection needs more than covert permissiveness in the Code. Ministers should actively encourage popular schools, particularly in urban areas, to consider ballots or banding. That way we could have a fairer – and more comprehensive – school system. Unless our best schools are open to all, we will never improve our low levels of social mobility.

No legislation no bad thing

Conor Ryan suggests that the absence of education legislation in the Queen’s Speech may be a blessing for education reform

When I was a special adviser at the Department for Education in the late 1990s, it was seen as a measure of a Department’s success the extent to which it achieved legislation in the Queen’s Speech. This essentially macho test often led to more legislation than was strictly necessary to achieve policy goals.

Many people forget that although the Labour government needed legislation to restrict most infant class sizes to 30, it needed no legislation to introduce the literacy and numeracy hours in primary schools. The latter were the result of a mix of persuasion and accountability, and were arguably more effective as a result.

And legislation was too often used as a way to trumpet changes that could have been introduced less dramatically. Trust schools – the centrepiece of Tony Blair’s 2005 education reforms – were a good example. As with Michael Gove’s first academies legislation, the essential architecture was already in place, and what changes were needed could have been introduced with less fanfare through regulations.

So, it is no bad thing that there was no education legislation in this year’s Queen’s Speech. Of course, that didn’t stop the Government using the occasion from getting Her Majesty to remind Parliament of changes already in train, such as the curriculum overhaul or performance pay for teachers.

But nobody would argue that Michael Gove is any less powerful because he hasn’t got a fifty or a hundred clause bill to take through Parliament over the next twelve months. And I doubt any of his junior ministers – who would be tasked with the legwork – is overly concerned either.

However, what it does mean is that it is all the more important that changes the Government is introducing get the scrutiny they deserve, and that they are subjected to the sort of rigorous evaluation – usually through randomised control trials – that the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation are using.

That is important not just for ministers who want to ensure that their reforms are making a difference to results, particularly for the poorest pupils, but also if they are to gain buy-in from teachers and headteachers.

With more than half of all secondary schools now having academy status, as well as a growing number of free schools and university technical colleges, schools are getting used to having more freedoms than before. And while complex legislation can be important on some issues – such as ensuring a fair admissions code – it is a blunt instrument over issues such as the curriculum or performance related pay.

Over-complexity militates against successful reform. When Estelle Morris first introduced performance pay in 2000, the intervention of the teaching unions ensured the whole process was wrapped in endless bureaucracy.

Leave aside for a moment the perfectly valid issue of the impact of PRP on attainment – though Gerard Kelly’s recent TES piece show why in this case there are other issues to consider – the real problem is that legal issues come to outweigh the flexibility that allows heads to reward good teachers in a straightforward way.  A less complex system may prove to be more effective in overcoming the culture against PRP in some schools. And we might then have some serious research on the issue too.

But those increasingly independent state schools will equally need to be persuaded on the curriculum – including on the detail now planned in subjects like history – and on other issues where ministers feel strongly. As they do so, it is important that they use evidence rather than past practice or even DFE guidance to make their decisions.

That’s why the increasing popularity of the Sutton Trust/EEF Toolkit is so important. Next week, we plan to publish new evidence of just how popular it is becoming. But in the meantime, we should reflect that giving Michael Gove and schools a break from the 2014 Education Act is not only no bad thing, it may allow the breathing space needed for genuine reform to take place.

Are boys the losers with tuition fees?

Conor Ryan considers the lessons from this week’s report by the Independent Commission on Fees.

Students are well into the first year of higher tuition fees. While 54,000 fewer young people started university in 2012 than in 2011, the Government has been congratulating itself that the dip was not much greater.

And the water has been muddied by the changes in student controls that took effect just as the £9000 fee cap was introduced. Moreover, this year’s applications suggest that there is some improvement on last year’s dip.

So is all well in the world of higher fees?

The truth is it is too early to tell. And a new report this week from the Independent Commission on Fees highlights a number of areas where there is some cause for concern.

The first is what’s happening to boys, particularly working class boys. The Commission’s study of UCAS acceptance data has shown not only that the gender gap continues to widen, but that it appears even more pronounced in the lower participation neighbourhoods.

Women are now a third more likely to enter higher education than men and the gender gap seems to have widened as a result of the new fees regime. Among UK residents, 143,600 women aged 19 and under were accepted to English universities in 2012 compared with 118,952 young men.

This represents a decline since 2010 of 2.6% for girls and 4.0% for boys, and a 5.9% decline for girls and a 7.5% decline for boys since 2011.

But in the 40% of English neighbourhoods where university participation is lowest, there were 1700 fewer boys aged 19 and under who were accepted for places in 2012 than in 2011. This represents a decline of 5.4% in the number of young men from these areas going to university this year. By contrast, the fall in the number of young women from these neighbourhoods going to university was smaller, at just 3.7%.

Perhaps of more interest, since it discounts any surge into 2011 to avoid the higher fees, when compared with 2010, the number of young male acceptances fell by 1.4%, while young female acceptances increased by 0.9%. By contrast, between 2009 and 2010, male and female acceptances rose.

In England, while the overall change in the gender gap in the less disadvantaged neighbourhoods was 1.6 percentage points between 2010 and 2012, the overall change in the gender gap in more disadvantaged neighbourhoods was greater, at 2.3 percentage points.

Although the decline in male participation in the most advantaged neighbourhoods was even larger, 20,000 more boys go to university each year from the two top fifth neighbourhoods than from the two bottom fifth neighbourhoods.

It means that the female: male ratio is now nearly 57:43 in the less advantaged neighbourhoods whereas it is closer to 53:47 in the more advantaged neighbourhoods.

With 2013 applications, UCAS has suggested that this gap is persisting. Its January applications report noted that 18 year women remain a third more likely in England to apply to university than men, but this rises to 50 per cent in disadvantaged areas.

If this is the case, it suggests that the information about the new loan repayments may be proving more attractive to young women than to young men, or that young men from disadvantaged areas are less likely to believe that the cost of a degree is worth it. Either way, there is a challenge here for policymakers to meet.

The Commission’s new report has two other important findings that should cause policymakers to take pause. The first is the familiar data on mature students – those aged 20 and over – who had 7.6% fewer acceptances in 2012 than in 2010, more than twice the 3.3% decline for younger students as a whole.

The decision to allow part-timers to have access to student loans hasn’t seen full-timers move to part-time courses either. HEFCE has shown a dramatic drop in part-time numbers, with 105,000 fewer students since 2010, or a 40% drop.

This is important for access, as studying later is an important route to social mobility for those from less advantaged backgrounds, and it is vital that the impact of fees on this group is not neglected just because the reductions among young people are smaller.

As the new President of Birkbeck College, Baroness Bakewell, put it at the weekend:

“Part-time study is crucial for our society. It improves skills and kick-starts new careers – exactly what we need for the economy, employers and individuals during these difficult economic times. In response to the dramatic downturn in part-time students nationwide, unprecedented support is needed now to ensure part-time study thrives in future.”

And the other key finding is perhaps a warning shot at this stage, but one that will need closer scrutiny as the university-level data becomes clear.

While there has been an increase in the numbers of young people from the most disadvantaged areas going to the least selective universities, there has been minimal improvement in the numbers going to the Sutton Trust’s list of the 30 more selective universities (which includes the 24 Russell Group members) and a small dip in the numbers going to the Sutton Trust 13 most selective group.

While the only rises to the Sutton Trust 30 were in the lower participation neighbourhoods, the only quintile showing a dip in acceptances to the Sutton Trust 13 was the lowest participation group. This means that there is a widening gap between this group and other more advantaged areas, and those from the richest fifth of neighbourhoods are ten times more likely to attend these universities than those in the poorest fifth of neighbourhoods.

Closer scrutiny of patterns among individual selective universities will be important here. Already, there is some evidence from HESA data that in 2011, the proportion of new undergraduates from state schools and colleges at the 13 top universities slipped for the fourth year in succession.

There is clearly an important issue for the most selective universities and their recruitment from the poorest neighbourhoods – and it is one that the Sutton Trust will return to shortly. The Trust has also commissioned the Institute of Fiscal Studies to examine the potential impact of students leaving university with debts likely to exceed £40,000 on their ability to afford graduate study, buying a house, and having children. Their findings will be published later this year.

So, the truth is that the jury is still out on fees. We need to see whether these findings for 2012 become clearer trends in the next few years. It is vital, meanwhile, that Government, universities and schools do all they can to reach young people with the ability and potential to benefit from university, particularly in areas where university participation is already low.

Access and the avalanche

Conor Ryan considers a new report suggesting that the days of many traditional universities are numbered in the face of online and mass delivery challenges.

In 1926, John Clarke Stobart, the classical scholar and Children’s Hour creator who was also the first BBC Director of Education, had the idea that there might be a ‘wireless university’, bringing learning to the masses in a way that traditional universities, then the preserve of a small elite, could not achieve. What followed was rather less ambitious: a series of 25 minute talks supplemented by study aid pamphlets.

It would be another four decades before Jennie Lee started to develop her ideas for what would become the Open University in 1969.   Those of us old enough to remember the late night OU broadcasts will forever have the image of the typical OU lecture from the 1970s imprinted on our minds.

Nevertheless, despite an initial lack of technical sophistication, the Open University helped over 1.6 million people to gain a higher education. More recently, it has embraced the Internet with the enthusiasm due to a medium well suited to its ambitious approach to access, and it now boasts some 250,000 students worldwide with 1200 academic staff and 7000 tutors.  Its model of delivery has been picked up across the world, not least in fast-growing large nations like India and China.

Reading the fascinating new report from Michael Barber and his colleagues for the IPPR this week, one couldn’t help but think of the profound changes that the Open University made in providing access to higher education for many people, initially on TV and latterly via the Internet.

At the same time, the model did not prove as disruptive as it might have to traditional universities which now educate nearly half the young adult population in ways not so different from the approach taken when J C Stobart was expounding his Reithian mission. Nor, despite its often impressive academic credentials, has it managed to challenge the grip of the elite universities in the UK.

Barber and his colleagues argue persuasively that an ‘avalanche’ is coming in higher education which will completely transform the delivery and – in many respects – the nature of higher education. They say all universities face key challenges including the traditional degree structure, the need for specialisation, their links to employability and a devaluing of the worth of an ordinary primary degree.

Of course, we have had some false starts before. I remember all too well what happened to the ill-fated e-university initiative, a construct that was perhaps too premature. Yet, with the growth of Massive Open Online Courses – bearing the unattractive acronym of MOOCs – the world could potentially become a smaller place for students. A relatively small but growing number of UK students now prefer to study in the US – some with the support of Sutton Trust summer schools.

But some US universities including Harvard, MIT and Berkeley, using the EdX platform, are putting many courses and lectures online, opening them up to mass audiences. In developing countries, online may be the only way to achieve mass higher education, but how much will it affect tradition universities in developed nations?

Barber et al argue that it will require universities to adopt one of five models: the elite, the mass, the niche, the local or the lifelong learning. That may well be true. Equally, they point to the impact of rising fees on students as consumers, and their rising expectations as a result. Students may start to demand more contact time and fewer enforced holidays.

Already there are concerns that few students complete MOOC courses, with dropout rates as high as 90 per cent, though that could also reflect differing motivations for signing up.  It may well be that students without a higher education tradition at home are the least likely to be able to sustain such course options. However, universities cannot afford to be complacent, and must acquire far more flexibility in their approach if they are to remain relevant in this brave new world, both in their traditional and online delivery.

Universities will have to make the case for an experience that is collaborative, and which opens students up to networks that still feel more real than the social media alternatives that are supposed to act as substitutes. As importantly, they will need to show that they are delivering it.

Of course, that may mean new ways of doing things. Warwick University, which ran some excellent summer schools for gifted and talented school students in the first decade of this century, has recently created a new online network – IGGY  – that it wants to blend with face-to-face activities and use that as a way to encourage able students of all backgrounds to network.

Whatever the mode of delivery, access will surely be as important an issue to all the new types of university as it is to traditional institutions. MOOCs must not become the poor man or woman’s alternative to a place at Harvard or Cambridge, which seem unlikely to forfeit their prestige or their role in developing leaders in all fields. Unless we are careful, there is a real danger they will do so.

If elite institutions are here to stay, as Barber et al believe they are, new levels of global competition for talent will make it more important than ever to harness brainpower from the whole of society, not just a narrow elite. That social mobility challenge seems no more destined to disappear than the great universities of the world and their formidable brands.

How good is a teacher? Check the exam results

Conor Ryan on why improved test scores are a far better measure of success than student surveys

Good teaching is at the heart of good schools. We have done a lot to improve the quality of new teachers, but there has been much less focus on the quality of the existing workforce. Yet, while 35,000 new teachers enter the profession each year, the teacher workforce is 440,000-strong.

Schools need to make the most of teachers’ talents if young people are to get a decent education. For a disadvantaged pupil, an excellent teacher can deliver the equivalent of 1.5 years learning in a year, whereas a poor teacher contributes just half a year: the difference is a whole year of a child’s education.

That’s why it is important we evaluate the contribution that teachers are making and can make with the right support. A new Sutton Trust study, Testing Teachers, published today, shows that the contribution that teachers make to improving exam and test results is the most reliable way to predict a teacher’s long-term success.

The study, by Richard Murphy of the London School of Economics, drawing on the latest international research, shows that improved test scores are nearly twice as effective as student surveys and nearly three times more effective as classroom observations.

But schools can’t simply look at a single year’s test scores to assess performance. A reliable and fair approach requires a sensible combination of these and other measures taken over several years, and might also include teachers’ contributions to sports and school trips.

When Labour introduced performance related pay in 1999, it did so within a very bureaucratic framework that didn’t work as intended in most schools. By contrast, the education secretary Michael Gove is hoping that leaving schools to develop their own systems will improve results and see the best teachers more effectively rewarded.

But without the right systems in place, schools may be no readier to do so now than they were in the past. So what are the characteristics of an effective system of teacher appraisal?

Most importantly, it should involve clear standards, fairly and consistently applied. External advice can be helpful in getting this right, and could assure staff of its fairness and governors of its robustness.

Teachers or school leaders involved in evaluation should be properly trained, and should discuss their evaluation fully with the teachers concerned.

When using exam or test results, it is important to focus on value added rather than absolute results, as they are the most objective and comparable assessment of a teacher’s contribution. It is also important that the baseline for such comparisons is sufficiently robust.

With classroom observations – where teachers or school leaders witness teaching in practice – the report suggests that those designed to help a teacher improve should be carried out separately from those used for appraisal, as this is more likely to promote honest feedback.

Pupil surveys can also be used – particularly with older pupils – as they are the ones in most day-to-day contact with teachers, but when they are they should be clearly structured, be age appropriate, and should complement other measures.

Getting all this right can have real benefits for pupils and teachers alike. Earlier research for the Sutton Trust has shown that if we were to raise the performance of the poorest performing tenth of teachers to the average, we would move into the top rank of the OECD’s PISA tables internationally.

But there is a more compelling reason: by improving the quality of our teachers collectively, we can ensure that every child has a decent education, and is not held back by poor teaching. That is a goal well worth pursuing.

This blog post first appeared on Independent Voices

Can we reach consensus on secondary reform?

Conor Ryan considers the implications of last week’s announcements by Michael Gove.

Last Thursday’s unexpected U-turn by Education Secretary Michael Gove over his plans to replace GCSEs was presented by some as a sign that the most sure-footed cabinet minister in the coalition had come unstuck.

Yet a closer look at what actually happened suggests that though his plans may not have had the full rebranding he envisaged, they remain rather more intact than commentators have suggested.

While reformed GCSEs will no longer be known as EBCs, other changes announced last week could still have a profound effect on schools, what they teach and how they are assessed.

Alongside the confessional appearance in the Commons, Gove also unveiled his plans for the national curriculum, a radical change in the key league table measure for GCSEs and confirmed his plans for those exams to remain linear and become more demanding.

The draft national curriculum makes little change to range of subjects that students take – computing replaces ICT, but PSHE, citizenship and PE remain statutory requirements, even if their programmes of study are sharper and less prescriptive.

The level of prescription in subjects like history – which is now wholly chronological – and English which has a level of detail on grammar unseen since the literacy hour – stands in sharp contrast to the notion that schools would be increasingly free to decide for themselves what they would do. Teachers are freer to decide how to teach, but are much more circumscribed in what they must teach, at least until the age of 14 (and, at least for core subjects, to 16).

In that context, it was particularly surprising that Gove dropped plans to move towards a single exam board for each GCSE syllabus. He may have done so on the advice of Ofqual and worries about European competition law, but it was a reform that had wide support outside the exam boards and should be revisited.

The context for the new Gove curriculum was set out in a speech to the Social Market Foundation last Tuesday, where his belief that a core body of knowledge should lie at the heart of schools was set out more sharply than ever before, with the Conservative Secretary of State choosing the Italian Marxist father of Euro-Communism, Antonio Gramsci as his chief witness, alongside more familiar contemporary advocates such as the American academic E.D. Hirsch.

At the same time, Gove is proposing a number of changes to the league tables, which could have even more wide-ranging impacts on what schools teach.

Instead of measuring schools primarily on five good GCSEs – at C grade or above – including English and Maths, they will be measured on English and Maths grade Cs and on an average point score based on a student’s best eight subjects.

What might all this mean for social mobility and for disadvantaged students? On the one hand, there is a lot to be said for bringing greater clarity to the body of knowledge that children should learn. The curriculum had, arguably, lost the clarity it had in 2000 and earlier versions, and many will welcome this. It is also right to encourage greater breadth – and that would be welcome at A-level as well as GCSE, as Peter Lampl has argued recently.

The challenge – and test – for the new curriculum will be the extent to which it is adopted by academies, the 50 per cent of secondary schools that are free to choose most of their own curriculum, and the extent to which today’s parents expect them to adopt it.

There is a perfectly good argument – as Gove made in his SMF speech – that children need a body of knowledge if they are to benefit fully from acquiring the research and study skills that most teachers – and the evidence from the Sutton Trust/EEF toolkit – suggest can play a big role in boosting attainment.   A false dichotomy has been created between knowledge and skills, and both need to be seen as an important part of children’s educational development.

Of course, for students who go to university, it is right that they should be encouraged to take a strong suite of academic subjects, and it is to be hoped that the new GCSEs have the rigour to bring an end to the soul-destroying annual ritual of criticising the achievements of young people at the moment when they learn how well they have done in their exams.

Yet a big gap in the Government’s thinking lies in what happens after the age of 14 to those for whom a more vocational or technical education would be more motivating. EBCs may be gone but the EBacc remains, and will lie at the heart of the 8-GCSE measure in the new league tables. For students taking 8 GCSEs, it is perfectly reasonable to expect them to take five EBacc subjects, and they now have a chance to have achievements in other subjects like art, technology and religious education recognised. This has pleased those lobbying for such recognition.

Kenneth Baker’s University Technical Colleges start students on technical and vocational pathways from age 14. Further education colleges will be able to recruit from that age. Yet because of the undoubted abuses of vocational equivalences in the past, all technical and vocational qualifications, regardless of depth and intensity, have equal weight in the league tables.

The Government still has to find a satisfactory way of recognising the achievements of those who take a more technical curriculum, and it should use the reformed league tables to do so. To argue this point is to be neither Luddite nor defeatist, but it is to recognise that for some students – a minority maybe but at all ability levels – an academic curriculum post-14 will not enable them to fulfil their potential.

There is a real chance to develop a lasting consensus on education, one that outlives changes in Government, and one that caters for the needs of every child at different phases of their education.  Last week’s suite of announcements could herald a different approach. For that to happen, the consultations on the curriculum and league tables need to be as open to reasonable change as that on GCSE reform turned out to have been.