Enabling the able

James Turner asks how can non-selective state schools support their brightest students

Today’s Ofsted report on provision for the highly able children in non-selective schools highlights some alarming statistics: two thirds of students getting level 5 in English and Maths at age 11 do not go on to get an A or A* in both those subjects at GCSE. This represents a ‘lost 65,000’, many of whom should be university-bound, including to the most selective institutions.

This latest research echoed a study commissioned by the Sutton Trust from Alan Smithers, which revealed last summer that the UK ranks poorly in international comparisons of the highly able. Whereas on average in the OECD 3.1 percent of students reach the highest levels of performance at age 15 in Maths, just 1.7 percent of English pupils do the same — and the majority of those are found in independent and grammar schools. This places the UK 26th out of 34 OECD countries. It is a tremendous waste of talent and goes some way to explaining why our leading universities and professions look like they do – dominated by those from better off backgrounds.

So there’s clearly an urgent need to consider how best to support able students in non-selective state schools, who make up the majority of the pupils in our system, and particularly those comprehensive schools and academies in areas of socio-economic disadvantage. This has been a preoccupation for the Trust since our foundation in 1997: while opening up grammar and independent schools to low and middle income students is an important plank of our work, our largest beneficiaries are the tens of thousands of students in non-selective schools who have been reached by our university summer schools and other programmes. Now we have a focus on how we can engage with these students earlier on, in key stages three and four between the ages of 11 and 16, so that the ‘lost students’ stay at the top of their game.

In fact, this week also saw the launch of a new and innovative programme the Trust is funding in partnership with the Kent Academies Network and Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. The scheme is being run through a group of six academies collectively with their independent school sponsors. It picks up students from low and middle income backgrounds in Year 9 for a four-year programme of support through residential Easter and Summer schools and mentoring. The course will give students the opportunity to strengthen their knowledge of core subjects, develop new skills and interests, engage with academically like-minded young people, be coached by inspirational teachers, and experience a range of enrichment and extracurricular activities in, for example, art, music, literature, drama and science.

And thanks to funding from JP Morgan, the Sutton Scholars initiative is also getting up and running at University College London and will host its first sessions after the summer. The project seeks to create a learning community of 100 highly able pupils from challenging London schools, picking them up in year 8 and working with them throughout their school journey. It selects pupils who are in the top five percent of the national ability range, and in schools with high levels of deprivation and low attainment rates. The group will be introduced to new academic ideas, methods of study and ways of thinking that – we hope – will enable them to reach their academic potential.

Both these programmes provide an interesting model which we believe, once evaluated and if proven successful, would be ripe for expansion through other universities, partnerships and networks of schools. But how, on a more systematic basis, can we encourage schools to engage – and even commission – this type of activity for their brightest students?

The answer, as you might expect, is far from straightforward. In a non-selective state school facing multiple challenges, catering for the most able, to stretch them from a B to an A grade for example, is not necessarily a priority – basic literacy and numeracy, behaviour, and ensuring student welfare and safety is. Furthermore, there may be only a handful of students in a school who are achieving at this very high level – and so how much resource can a Head devote to supporting them? Second, for all their faults, the dismantling of national programmes for gifted and talented young people – and the ceding of more decision-making to schools – has made the job of spreading best practice and ensuring universal coverage harder. Arguably, provision for the most able has actually gone into reverse.

These issues can partly be addressed through a greater focus on able students in the inspection and performance frameworks. But as our Chairman, Sir Peter Lampl, said in response to the OFSTED report, “these findings should act as a wake-up call to ministers … our research last year found provision for these young people characterised by uneven provision and a lack of clarity about which students should be supported … schools must improve their provision too”.

So surely some sort of half-way house is possible, which recognises school freedoms, whilst encouraging real and substantial activity in a neglected but important area. One way forward would be to create a voluntary scheme which gives head teachers an incentive – perhaps through a top-up to their pupil premium or some other matched-funding provided centrally – to engage with evidence based programmes which have been shown to have an impact on the achievement of the most able students. There are plenty of expert organisations out there who could help schools meet this challenge – Villiers Park, The Brilliant Club, NACE, Children’s University and Into University to name a few . Such a framework would also help us to further build the evidence base around what works in supporting the most able children. This is exactly what our sister charity, the Education Endowment Foundation, is doing to understand what has most impact in raising basic, core academic standards for the poorest children in the most challenging schools.

The consequences of failing to get a clutch of five good GCSEs are well documented and severe. It is right we focus on those young people. But the failure of a bright student from a low/middle income to realise their true potential is equally a personal tragedy and one that, in an increasingly competitive world, our economy can ill afford.

A meeting to remember

James Turner reports on a discussion between students on the Sutton Trust US Programme and Mrs Heinz Kerry, wife of the US Secretary of State

There are some meetings which will live with you for a lifetime, some which give you a renewed conviction for your work and for life in general.  Last week we were fortunate enough to host a round-table with Theresa Heinz Kelly – IMG_5295_resizedbusinesswoman, philanthropist and wife of the US Secretary of State, John Kerry – for participants on our US university programme.  For many of us, this was one such meeting.

Mrs Heinz Kerry found time in her hectic London schedule (she’d flown in the day before from Istanbul and was heading home the day after) to spend over an hour talking to our students – asking them about their own university choices and offering them advice on education and career paths. The conversation ranged widely; Mrs Heinz Kerry also gave us tantalising glimpses into a whole range of areas of her academic, philanthropic and professional life, from her efforts to combat apartheid in South Africa to her concerns for the environment.  Wisdom and common sense peppered her remarks, and the consensus was she was an impressive and inspiring lady.

As the discussion closed, and Mrs Heinz Kerry was saying goodbye to the students, I reflected that this has been an extraordinary journey for the Trust, our partners the Fulbright Commission and, of course, for the young people who have been on the Sutton Trust US programme.IMG_5306_resized

Eighteen months ago we were sitting in Millbank Tower planning the initiative – tea for us Brits, Diet Coke for our American colleagues – asking just what could be achieved by a non-profit in such a competitive space, and wondering whether more than a handful of our students would be successful in gaining admission. Yet here we were, in Millbank Tower again, almost 20 of our students bound for US universities this autumn, accessing millions of dollars of aid, with one of the most influential women in the world taking a genuine interest in what we’ve achieved.

For the young people themselves, many had never seriously thought about studying in the US until they saw our programme – and even then, it seemed a very distant prospect indeed.  But, thanks to the exceptional efforts of those involved in running the scheme and their own sheer hard work, we now have ordinary (in the best sense of the word) state school students heading to some of the highest ranked US universities in the world.  The don’t live in million pound houses or attend elite schools; they simply have talent and motivation and that has shone through.

IMG_5313_resizedIt is a high bar we have set ourselves for this year’s group of 150, who we’ll be taking to MIT and Yale in the summer.  But having met many of those young people over Easter at our selection residential, I am confident we have a great starting point for this year’s programme. There were some exceptional young people with some incredible stories, a voracious appetite for learning and for expanding their horizons.

In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if, amongst them, we have some future leaders of the likes of Mrs Heinz Kerry.

Paving the way for Pathways to the Professions

James Turner reflects on the new phase of Pathways to Law and hopes of extending the model to other areas

Today we announced a £2.4m extension to Pathways to Law, backed by a grant from the Legal Education Foundation, which means that the programme will reach 1200 more students. This is great news for the Trust, for the legal profession and for the young people who will benefit.

Since Pathways was originally developed, based on a model at Edinburgh University, back in 2006/7, the access to professions area has changed considerably.  As I have written before there are now many more projects and organisations working in this space, and the issue has increased policy and media prominence. In fact, it was the work the Trust published in 2005 drawing attention to the social exclusivity of top lawyers – and, subsequently, those in other leading professions – which paved the way for Alan Milburn’s report in 2009.

The challenge has been to keep Pathways fresh and relevant – and to show that, despite all the other good work going on, there is still an important place for it. Pathways scale and reach, for one thing, sets it apart: in its next phase it will be delivered by around a dozen universities all over the country. Importantly, a large swathe of provision will be outside the capital, where the biggest problems of social mobility lie.

Pathways also offers a sustained programme throughout the sixth form, rather than a one off hit, which experience suggests is more likely to have a transformative and lasting impact.    And Pathways twin approach – of offering university access support alongside professional skills and work experience – remains the ‘best bet’ in terms of increasing access to the profession for low and middle income young people.  It is the combination of soft skills with the right academic credentials which is so important in securing a job in this highly competitive area.

This employability dimension will be greatly strengthened when the seventh cohort of students join us in the Autumn. A new component – Pathways Plus – will support the most engaged Pathways graduates and other top students into their undergraduate years.  We will offer them a range of mentoring, skills development and networking opportunities – feeding in to law firms’ own talent pipelines. This should be a tremendous boost for the Pathways students’ prospects of gaining a training contract – whether they are aiming for the Magic Circle or a legal aid practise.

Crucially – and all too often forgotten – we are putting in place an independent academic evaluation of Pathways to add to the promising tracking and survey data we have collected to date.  After all, changing trajectories and showing impact is what the scheme is all about.

The legal profession has grasped the nettle when it comes to Pathways and realised the added value it can bring to their own CSR work – and their graduate recruitment efforts.   But there’s no reason for it to stop at law. We know that other professions – the media, medicine, accountancy, the City – all face similar problems and can ill afford to fish in a shallow pool of talent.

Pathways is already up and running in real estate and property at Reading University and we are keen to consider other opportunities. The model is an important way of cultivating the talents of bright students in state schools who are forging their education and career paths.  Time and again, the Trust’s programmes prove exceptional low and middle income students are out there  – let’s make it easier for the professions to access them.

Two countries united by a common access problem

James Turner considers access issues State-side

I had some respite from the London cold last week, when I was invited to speak at a British Council event at the University of California, Los Angeles, on widening access to university.

It was a fascinating session and underlined that – while our weather may be quite different – our two countries are facing similar issues when it comes to educational inequalities.

Even in setting the scene, the contextual factors at play are strikingly resonant – low levels of social mobility compared to many other developed nations; increasing inequality leading to a widening gap between rich and poor; and marked segregation in the school system, which makes the pre-college playing field anything but level.

The debates on either side of the Atlantic have been brought further into line because many in the US now see class and income, rather than ethnicity, as the defining obstacle to wider university access.  It is poverty more than colour that dictates chances of progression.

And both countries face the conundrum that, between them, they have the majority of the top-ranked universities in the world, but opportunities to study at these institutions are far from equitably spread, with those from better-off homes dominating admissions.

As in the UK, one of the major reasons underlying this trend in America is the lower levels of achievement of poorer students, allied to issues around aspirations and the quality of advice and support they receive.  Such is the complexity and breadth of the US higher education scene, that college counselling is critical – but, as here, it is often worst where it is needed most, in those communities with little experience of further study and no networks on which to draw.   This is exacerbated by the fact that school resources depend on parental income, with school districts funded through local taxation.

One difference though – at least for the time being – was that affordability and credit constraints have played a much larger part in the US picture.

While debt aversion has always been a factor in the debate, research from OFFA a couple of years ago showed that bursaries did not make a difference to English students’ decision making.  In other words, it wasn’t the cash that mattered, which is why the Trust has long-argued for more investment in outreach work in schools.  Whether this holds true under the new fees regime, of course, remains to be seen.

Participation rates in the US are higher than here, markedly so in fact, but the need for college graduates remains strong – in fact, the US government forecasts a demand, particularly in STEM areas, that is not being met by current supply. That should give heart to those in the UK pushing for more high quality higher education opportunities.

The final session of the conference looked at new digital platforms – including the possibility that College education could be made free, or at much lower cost, through the web.  Bandwith, content and hardware have converged, meaning that now could be the time that this type of provision really takes off.

If that happens, and the currency of the courses remains high, then the opportunity to share in the bounty of university could extend well beyond those who physically enter the lecture halls of our great universities.

So there were reasons for optimism – but it was an overall sobering prognosis, despite the LA sunshine. Such is the arms race of social mobility – and the understandable willingness of affluent parents to spend money to give their children a competitive advantage – that closing the university access gap seems like a very high mountain to climb indeed.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try —  and our work over the last fifteen years has shown that progress can be made. Every great journey starts in the foothills.

Too Young To Count?

James Turner examines the challenges of working with younger pupils

Last week, the OFFA chief Les Ebdon said that universities should look to work more with younger age groups.

We couldn’t agree more. The Sutton Trust has always believed at intervention at every phase of education, and we have a proud history of supporting initiatives reaching younger children – including Children’s University and Into University which start at age seven – and visits to universities for 11 year olds.

But like many pronouncements, it’s easier said than done.

First, is the question of how to engage teachers and schools with the university access agenda. It is often difficult enough to reach hard-pressed teachers in 11-16 schools, let alone in primary schools where higher education seems even more distant.  Tellingly, the Trust once funded university resource packs for primary schools in disadvantaged areas and, despite the quality of the material, it was hard to give them away, literally.

Then there is the question of what support is appropriate and when. What should seven year olds know about university which is relevant to their lives and likely to affect their aspirations? A general rule of thumb has been that pre-14 work should be about higher education generally; after that it can be more focussed on subjects and institutions. But there are no hard and fast rules and little evidence to help us out.

There is also a related issue around expertise – what makes an inspiring summer school for sixteen year olds is not the same as what makes a good primary school event.  And the best university lecturer might not be the person to appeal most to snotty-nosed juniors.

And then, perhaps most importantly, how do you know it works? It could be ten years plus before the children that benefit from a programme are in the UCAS cycle. Staff will have moved on, as will the political agenda, and so many other things will have intervened in those young lives.  What will we have learnt? Universities have already complained, with some justification, that only the government can track students through from age seven to seventeen to know if this work is making a difference.

More and more it looks like what is needed is a national structure for coordinating and funding this work – including some of the best of Aimhigher in a slimmed down, more focussed and evidence-based version.

As access work becomes more distant from the point of admission, it is bound to be less of a priority for universities, whose activities are principally funded by their own fee income and whose bottom line is, so to speak, bums on seats.

So a central body could also be charged with monitoring the impact of access work in a wider sense, particularly those initiatives which start young, and ensure there are no gaps in provision, both geographic and age-related.   It could also encourage disciplined innovation – allowing universities to experiment within a framework which allows for evaluation and scale-up of what works to other parts of the sector.  And there should be a defined pot of resources which are ear-marked for stimulating this particular type of access activity.

Starting early makes infinite sense; it is less clear that the current funding streams and infrastructures are able to deliver what is needed.

On your bike – social mobility outside London

James Turner says that a priority is spreading the riches of opportunity beyond the capital

A young man from a deprived borough of London, with immigrant parents, was describing his aspiration to read Law at Oxbridge. He listed the opportunities he’d accessed over the last two years in pursuit of this dream: an internship programme, a leadership development initiative, one of our Sutton Trust summer schools – and he was being mentored by a senior partner at one of the world’s leading law firms.

It was a tremendous story of determination, aspiration and – very likely – social mobility.

But a question struck me.  How likely is it that he’d have these same chances if he lived not in Hackney, but in, say, Blackpool, Scunthorpe or Hastings? Almost certainly nil.  And our society would be poorer as a result.

It is always striking how much activity is focused in London. There are good reasons for this – London has poverty and inequality; it is the centre of business for many of the wealthiest and most active corporations who sponsor much good work; and there is no better place to get your work noticed than within spitting distance of Whitehall.

But London’s school results are out shining other urban areas.  Its university progression rates are higher.  Spend per head in schools is generally greater – even before you factor in the spending of charities and corporates.

And some of the most pressing issues of social mobility lie outside the capital – in coastal towns, ex-industrial heartlands in The Midlands and the North, and in forgotten rural areas.  Not only do these areas face material poverty, but often cultural deprivation too.  The signs of aspiration a young Londoner may see out of his or her window – Canary Wharf, The City, the towers of Westminster – seem a million miles away from a crumbling social housing estate in the North East.

The challenge for organisations like ours is to reach these communities directly through our work – and to make it feasible and cost effective for others in the capital to access this national pool of untapped talent.  It is a redistribution of opportunities from the capital outwards.

There are some good schemes underway. The Social Mobility Foundation’s programme to provide City internships to disadvantaged young people from the regions is a great example – and we plan something similar thing in the legal sector next year as part of Pathways to Law. And one of the advantages our summer schools bring to London universities is a truly national reach – with students recruited from all corners of the UK.

But there also needs to be a more systematic way – through funding, partnership work and collaboration – of ensuring activity is not focussed on a few lucky ones, but spread where it is most needed. The Education Endowment Foundation is doing sterling work.  The projects it has supported range from Bournemouth in the South to County Durham in the North, via almost every local authority region in between.

Social mobility is about more than turning on the tap of talent for one city, important though that is. The country is awash with young men and women with great potential who equally deserve a chance to shine.

A Thousand Flowers Wilt?

James Turner suggests that more coherence in social mobility programmes would benefit everyone

One of the privileges of working at the Sutton Trust is the chance to meet people who have been inspired to dedicate their working lives to improving educational opportunity. Many have given up more conventional (and high paying) careers and taken the risk of setting up new programmes to make their ideas a reality.

Over its fifteen year history the Trust has funded many of these. In the last year, we are proud to have supported the start up of The Brilliant Club, which uses PhD students to tutor non-privileged pupils, and to provide seed corn funding to Spire Hubs, which harnesses the expertise of retired teachers for the cause of social mobility.

Many of the small projects we helped to support in the past have now blossomed into significant programmes, reaching thousands of young people.

But things have changed a lot in those fifteen years – and in my eight year tenure at the Trust. As the term ‘social mobility’ has gained political currency, so the landscape has become more crowded, with more and more organisations springing up.

This has been accompanied by a dismantling – sometimes for good reason, sometimes not – of the structures which provided a framework for this activity, whether that is the demise of Connexions and Aimhigher, or the diminished role of local government.  The worlds of university access and information, advice and guidance seem busier, but more fragmented, than ever.

But does this matter?

My view is that it does for three main reasons. Firstly, it’s inefficient for a sector already starved of resources to duplicate efforts. We should be much better at linking complementary initiatives rather than sowing the seeds of new projects which substantially overlap with existing ones.

Secondly – and perhaps most importantly – fragmentation makes the area harder to navigate for teachers, parents and pupils.   Where should a headteacher go for, say, university access work – to their local HE provider, a national charity, a local not-for-profit provider, a commercial outfit or one of the many consultants working in this space?

And finally, how does the teacher know which will make the most difference to young people?   It makes evaluation of what works – already shamefully lacking – even harder.

Others are also concerned by the lack of coordination.  Accessprofessions.com makes it easier for students to benefit from the multiplicity of aspiration-raising activities out there. And PRIME is bringing coherence to work experience schemes, initially in the legal sector, with the aim of boosting quality and equity.

In the schools sphere, the Education Endowment Foundation, which the Sutton Trust set up with support from Impetus, is providing a valuable framework for activities to raise the achievement of the poorest students. It focusses on evaluating what works and funding disciplined innovation – work which is grounded in evidence, rather than a flight of fancy.

In the Trust’s own work, we are developing our existing proven programmes, linking them with other initiatives, and building in evaluation. Our summer schools, for instance, are expanding and we are developing wrap-around activities, such as mentoring and teacher events.

Of course, the Trust will continue to fund new programmes where they are needed and to take justified risks.  We are not afraid of being bold – as our ambitious US summer school programme has showed.

None of this should discourage social entrepreneurs who have a vision and who spot an opportunity to improve education for the better.

But shiny and new isn’t always the answer.   As in life, the most heroic thing to do might, in fact, be the most mundane.