Time to tackle teenagers’ fears of fees

Sir Peter Lampl says that a new Sutton Trust/Ipsos Mori poll highlights cost concerns among the next generation of university students.

Earlier this year, the Government breathed an audible sigh of relief as university applications appeared to rise again after falling off in the first year of higher fees, although they are still not at 2010 levels.

But a new Ipsos Mori poll for the Sutton Trust suggests that ministers may have been a little premature in taking too much comfort from the latest UCAS data. The poll shows that two thirds of school children worry about the cost of going to university. Only 7 per cent of the 2600 11-16 year-olds polled said they had no concern about the cost.

At the same time, aspirations remain as high as ever. More than four in five young people say they are likely to go to university, even though in reality the proportion of 18-30 year-olds who do so is still less than half. 38% of young people say they are very likely to go to university when they are older, and 43% say they are fairly likely to do so. This is the same proportion as last year when the same question was asked.

Two thirds – 65% – of all the young people polled had significant concerns about university finance which break down as follows:  28% were concerned about tuition fees; 19% were concerned about student living costs and 18% were concerned about lack of earnings while studying.

And although 67% of young people said the most important consideration when deciding whether or not to go to university would be their exam grades, 17% said it would be the cost of going to university, with students from the least affluent families (23%) more likely to cite cost as the biggest consideration than those from the most affluent families (14%).

So, despite high aspirations – and a realistic sense of what they might need to do to realise them – nobody can argue that most young people aren’t still worried about the cost of higher education.

It’s hardly surprising that they are worried when graduates face debts of over £40,000 with fees of £9000 a year for most courses. The truth is that young people are caught between a rock and a hard place.

They know that they still need a university education to get on in life and get a good job. For all the talk of falling graduate premiums, a degree – especially one from a good university – still brings a substantial income bonus. And as Sutton Trust research showed earlier this year, a postgraduate degree is increasingly important, and brings with it an additional substantial premium.

And even if graduates may be finding it harder to gain an immediate job after university, their long term prospects remain brighter than for non-graduates.

But the canny teenager knows something else too. He or she knows that a degree comes with a much higher price tag than ever. Where this year’s graduates might be paying off their student loans into their thirties, those graduating from 2015 onwards will be paying back right into their fifties.

There may be some lower up-front costs, but a £40,000-plus debt with interest rates of up to 3% over inflation a year means that those repayments could impact on whether or when to buy a house or have a family. We’ve asked the Institute for Fiscal Studies to look into the implications of these debt repayments and to model the likely impact on important life decisions. They will report later this year.

But I think there is something else the Government could do now to ease the burden on low and middle income graduates in the future. They should means-test the tuition fee – as happened from 1998-2006 when fees were first levied on undergraduates – in the same way that the maintenance grant is already means-tested. As I noted in an earlier post, this is already commonplace in the United States.

Given that the Government already expects to write off a third of its loans – and some observers think they will have to write off much more – this need not be a particularly costly option. But it could start to allay the fears of debt that face all too many of those who should become tomorrow’s students. That would be a real investment in the future.

A divided nation losing its American dream?

Lee Elliot Major on how political grid-lock is harming education in the US

Manhattan’s frenetic streets in New York have always been a thrilling, nerve jangling experience for visiting Brits. Perhaps I’m just getting less relaxed in my middle age, but last week during a Sutton Trust visit, I noticed that the traffic has become all but grid-locked on the famous mesh of streets and avenues that define the city. All road etiquette seems to have been abandoned, as the yellow taxis and black limos fight for every inch of space, with little respect for people crossing the road. I opted for the much easier mode of transport: travelling by foot.

This image stayed with me as I flew back to London – as it symbolised so perfectly America’s current troubles. As someone who had admired greatly the United States for its aspirational spirit, ‘can do’ culture and work ethic, I came away feeling like I’d left a deeply divided and dysfunctional country. I worry that this will damage the nation’s education prospects. And render the American dream a relic of a once golden past.

The problem is that Senators and Congressmen are aping the worst tactical games of our Members of Parliament in the UK. Personal or local considerations are being sacrificed for the greater interests of the political party as a whole. That sort of works in Westminster, where the ruling party enjoys a majority of votes in Parliament; but not in Washington. In contrast to the UK, the executive and legislature are separated in the US: even if President Obama wants to pass a Bill he doesn’t have the loyal foot-soldiers in the Senate and the House of Representatives to make it happen. And to make matters worse, the very concept of federal Government action is anathema to some Republicans.

Education is the helpless victim of this political impasse. US Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who oversees billions of dollars in federal education budgets, is all but powerless to enact some of the programmes he envisioned for his second term. One flagship policy was to fund pre-school education for all four year olds from low income homes – to narrow the stark education gaps that already exist when children start school. Instead he has had to oversee cuts to education spending as part of the recent compromise budget agreed by Republicans and Democrats.  Education, unlike a bad economy or a military action overseas, is by its nature a long term issue, unlikely to get the immediate political spotlight. It was conspicuous for its absence from the Presidential election debates last year.

From a London-centric UK, it has always been refreshing to experience the fierce independence of the different States in the US (which allocate around 90% of education funds).  But across the country bitter battles are being fought over education at state level as well.

On one side are reformers wanting to introduce more competition between schools, common test scores and teacher evaluations that distinguish genuinely between good and poor performers. On the other are the skeptics, backed by the powerful teacher unions, who argue that the focus on competition and test scores will hinder not help teaching and learning in the classroom.

The uncomfortable truth for the US is that progress is only likely if these two polarised camps can find some common ground. Nations that have performed well educationally on the global stage have one stand-out feature: a partnership between Government reformers and teacher leaders working together for the greater good.

The real victims in all this are of course America’s children. The most shocking divide is that between the education haves and have-nots – in this nation once the global beacon of social mobility. Just to quote one of many depressing statistics: seventy-five percent of students at the most selective colleges and universities in the US are from the top quarter of the income distribution; while only 3 percent are from the bottom quartile. The US is slowly but surely losing the global education talent race.

An educationalist respected on both sides of the Pond, Sir Michael Barber, recently posted a thought on twitter after visiting Silicon Valley: “Incredible entrepreneurship + the Common Core = US at forefront of global education reform. May be?”

I really hope his slightly guarded optimism is proved right. The impact of establishing common standards across States should not be underestimated. But right now I can only remember the cars jammed against each other amidst the fumes, stuck in New York’s streets, all sense of common purpose seemingly lost.

 

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.

Worlds Apart

Lee Elliot Major on the challenge of getting research to impact on education practise

As I revealed the next slide, there was an audible gasp among the 200 strong audience. I knew at that moment I had lost the crowd. Whatever I said next, everyone’s mind was focused on the big fat zero that sat at the bottom of the impact table staring out from the screen. As I turned to face the angry faces, I saw that the throngs of hard working, decent teaching assistants (TAs) had turned into a lynch mob.

On reflection, presenting the findings of the Sutton Trust-EEF teaching and learning toolkit to TAs at the end of a long hard term was not the best idea. This guide to the best (and worst) bets for improving results in the classroom shows that TAs have on average zero impact on the attainment of children. Now as I told my audience that doesn’t mean we should sack all classroom assistants. But it does mean better training, preparation and management are needed to enable the 220,000 of TAs in our schools (costing the public purse over £2 billion a year) to help our children learn.

Sadly this nuance was lost as the discussion descended into an increasingly fractious argument. No amount of caveats and constructive comments could calm the enraged ranks of TAs. All they could see was an attack on their livelihoods. I returned to London that Friday afternoon feeling like I had been mauled in a playground fight.

This admittedly was one of the more contentious toolkit talks I have given to schools during the last two years. The experience highlighted the potential evidence has to improve practise and policy, and the power a succinct accessible summary of research can have. But it also demonstrated the huge challenge of enabling evidence to actually impact on classroom practise in a constructive and useful way.

I’ve been reflecting on all this, as I prepare a talk for an Institute of Education this week on how research can impact on policy and practise.

What I will say will seem blindingly obvious, but is almost universally ignored. My ‘take home’ message is that we must acknowledge the fundamental cultural differences between the worlds of media, academe, policy and practise – if we are to reach the promised land of evidence based practise. We must recognise that communication is as an academic might say a ‘highly non-trivial task’.

Each of these worlds has its own jargon, beliefs, rules, aims. Like working with different countries, we need to embark on genuine translation and efforts from all sides to make it work.

As a former news editor, my one piece of advice to reporters was to spend as much time on the writing and presentation of articles, as gathering the news itself. What’s the point if no-one will read what you have found? I now hold the same view for the work of an education foundation: our toolkit has been successful as we spent many hours thinking carefully about how to present the often abstract and complex findings of education research.

But after years of working with schools, I’m afraid I’ve had to re-assess this rule. To affect genuine change – this is just the start: much more has to be done, and in the schools themselves. Powerfully presented evidence isn’t enough. There are countless examples of things we know work, but fail to embrace. We don’t do exercise – even though we know it’s good for us. Doctors still fail to wash their hands regularly – the most simple of medical safeguards.

For evidence-based education to work, we will need to free up time for teachers to consider research. We may need to create research leaders in every school. Inspectors may need to encourage the use of evidence more when they visit schools.

This I’m glad to say is the increasing pre-occupation of the Education Endowment Foundation as it strives to find out what works in schools. It won’t be an easy task: as with the assembled TAs during my talk, we all tend not to want to listen to evidence that confronts our own prejudices – even when the messenger has the best of intentions.

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.

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.