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.

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

Debunking the Myths Around School Choice

Lee Elliot Major on the difference a school really makes to academic grades

“Stop looking around at everyone!” I  am back at school and being scolded again. But not by a teacher. It is my better-half who is telling me off, as I crank my neck around to see who else is present in the packed school hall. We are sitting among rows of similarly anxious parents and fidgety children waiting for the head-teacher to deliver her ‘pitch’. Then, ten minutes later, we are swept off by a Year 9 pupil on a dizzying tour of colourful corridors, computer labs, and crowded classrooms.

Like hundreds of thousands of parents up and down the country, the start of this academic season signals the search for the right secondary school for one of our children.

In North London, this is a particularly tortuous time. Guilt-ridden liberal-minded middle-class types are at pains to justify their decision to abandon the state system for private schools elsewhere. And those who have committed to the local Comp have been transformed into evangelical zealots. There is no end in sight for England’s ancient education divide.

But what is shocking to me is that otherwise highly intelligent, sensible, well-balanced parents appear to be making school decisions based on hearsay, second-hand rumours, and, probably most damaging of all, some basic education myths and misunderstandings.

Probably the single biggest myth is that a child’s academic grades are mostly determined by the school they attend. If school A has 100% of children with 5 GCSEs including English and maths, and school B has only 50% meeting this benchmark, then school A must be twice as good as school B, right?

Well, actually no. One of the few unassailable findings of education research over the last five decades is the ’80-20 rule’: roughly 80% of the variation in children’s school results is due to individual and family characteristics outside the school gates, with the remaining 20% due to what actually happens during school.

You can do the maths in terms of final GCSE grades, and it produces a surprising result. The impact of an average pupil going to the very best performing school in the country rather than the worst performing school would be an improvement in his or her results by one GCSE grade, say from a C and to a B for each GCSE taken.

There are important rejoinders to this finding. Some schools can and do have a bigger impact than others – as shown by markedly different academic results despite very similar intakes of children. Parents would do well to look at the wealth of Government data now available for individual schools, showing progress for different groups of pupils. Even a cursory look will prompt some challenging questions for teachers. And inspection reports can provide useful context alongside these figures.

It is also true that in an increasingly competitive education race, one extra grade at GCSE can make the critical difference. It can determine, for example, whether you get into a selective sixth form.

But this doesn’t detract from the overwhelming message that if you are a child from a secure and supportive background, then you will do well academically at most schools. That puts the whole question of school choice into a completely different perspective.

In fact probably the best question parents can ask is how a school is addressing the variation in teaching quality across a school. There is no public data available on this. But education research tells us that the biggest differences in results is within schools not between them. We also know that teacher quality is the key driver – not class size, not school type, not uniform, certainly not school buildings.

This is one of the major messages of the Sutton Trust-EEF teaching and learning toolkit, a guide to the most cost-effective approaches for improving attainment in schools. Originally commissioned by the Sutton Trust, the toolkit is now being developed by the Education Endowment Foundation – and should be compulsory reading for every parent.

There are of course many things apart from academic results to consider when thinking about a school. But if you simply want to know what the school’s average GCSE grades will be in 5 years time, then just look around you at who else is present during the school’s open day. The answer is staring you in the face.