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.

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.

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.

Our new board will help us achieve our future goals

Peter Lampl celebrates the establishment of a new Sutton Trust advisory and development board.

The new Sutton Trust board has met for the first time. The Board currently has 18 members drawn from the worlds of business, education and philanthropy, and each is wholly committed to help us in our goal of improving social mobility through education.

By joining the board, they will help make a difference to the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people and have a real impact on social mobility, an area of public policy that is now at the heart of national debate.

Over the last 16 years, the Trust has helped change the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people through its successful programmes. As the UK’s leading organisation improving social mobility through education, we want to improve the educational opportunities for many more young people, expanding our work nationally and internationally and increasing our policy impact through ground-breaking research.

The new advisory and development board will ensure that we can build on that success. The board model we have adopted is inspired by practice in the United States. As with its programmes and research, the Sutton Trust draws on international inspiration where we believe it can make a real difference.

As a charity, fundraising is an important part of ensuring that we are able to continue to make a difference to the lifechances of the many young people with whom we work each year.

That US model means that each member of the board, as well as contributing their precious time and invaluable ideas, is making a generous financial contribution to our ongoing research and programmes, either individually or through their foundations.

When I established the Sutton Trust 16 years ago, I knew we could make a difference, but I maybe hadn’t realised the full impact that we might have. Now, social mobility is at the heart of the agenda of all three main political parties, and a major part of the national discourse. Our summer schools and other programmes are the leading forces for social mobility in universities and key professions. Our research makes news and influences policymakers.

But there is much more we could and can do in the future.  We see real scope for further development of our summer schools. In the UK, with universities now having to contribute significantly more to access, there is a unique opportunity to create a co-ordinated access programme that ensures a clear focus on the most effective programmes.

In the US, we want to build on the incredible success of our summer school last year. We’ve already got 150 young people ready to go to Yale and MIT this year, finding out about the great opportunities that leading US universities provide to bright international students from low and middle income families to study cost-free.

We want to expand our work in primary schools, helping build aspirations at a time when doing so can be most effective, and do more in the early years to create solid foundations for children. We also want to do more to improve the quality of teaching in schools, recognising that raising the game of the 440,000 teachers already in our classrooms is the most important way to improve the education our children receive.

We’re keen to do more to enable highly able young people in comprehensive schools to fulfil their potential, and we think the Pathways model, which allies university access work with professional skills and experience, has great scope for expansion too, from our current work in Law and real estate into many more influential careers.

To achieve all this, it is vital that the Trust continues beyond me and my money. For that to happen we need significant annual fundraising and income from an endowment I want to create for the future.

I am delighted that so many distinguished individuals have already agreed to join the Sutton Trust board, committing both their time and resources. I’m very grateful to them for helping us achieve our future goals.

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.

What Works – A winning formula

Peter Lampl welcomes the designation of the Sutton Trust and EEF as the What Works Centre for Education

This week the Sutton Trust was, together with the Education Endowment Foundation, designated the What Works evidence centre for education by the Government. There will be six leading evidence centres and we and the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) have been selected to lead on education and health respectively. The centres will be the first port of call for advice on the latest research on the impact of Government programmes.

This is recognition of the Sutton Trust’s focus on evaluation and research in all the work it does. We have always aspired to subject our programmes to robust review. And as an independent foundation we have used evidence to challenge or support the Government’s education policies.

The Trust has funded over 120 research studies in the areas of social mobility and education. But it is primarily a ‘do tank’. Our flagship summer school programme for example is now the largest national university access scheme – but it is also the most scrutinised programme in this field.

We know they have impact: over three quarters (76%) of summer school attendees go on to a leading university, compared with only 55% of students with similar backgrounds who aren’t on the programme. We also know they are highly cost-effective: when Boston Consulting Group did a cost-benefit analysis of the Trust’s programmes – comparing the lifetime earnings benefits for the individuals on the schemes with the money spent – summer schools were among the programmes resulting in returns of over 20:1.

It was these disciplines – assessing the evidence on what works, assessing cost-benefit, but also ensuring that the research results are presented in a clear accessible way – that underpinned the Teaching and Learning Toolkit the Trust developed for schools on what works best at improving the results of children from poorer backgrounds. The Toolkit has now been used by thousands of schools across the country, and underpins the work of the Education Endowment Foundation.

When we established the EEF in 2011 as lead foundation with Impetus our vision was that it was going to embrace the Sutton Trust’s principles and become a gigantic do tank. The aim was to improve the results of the poorest children in our most challenging schools. But it would also have the freedom to experiment, innovate and rigorously evaluate projects and scale up those that were cost effective.

Two years on I am pleased to say that this has become the reality. To date the EEF has awarded £24.4 million to 55 projects working with over 275,000 pupils in over 1,400 schools across England. It has commissioned over 40 randomised research trials in our schools – the gold standard for evaluations on what works. Over the coming years these studies will add greatly to our knowledge of what interventions are successful in the classroom.

But with research, you have to take the rough with the smooth. Not all the Sutton Trust’s research findings have been welcome. In 2005 the Trust jointly funded a five-year study with the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills and the College Board into the US SAT aptitude test as a potential addition tool in the selection of candidates for universities.

In particular the National Foundation for Educational Research study aimed to find out whether the SAT test could identify highly able non-privileged students whose potential was not being reflected in A-levels because of their circumstances. After five years tracking the results of thousands sixth formers who then attending university, the study concluded that the SAT added little extra information to that provided by A-levels.

If the Government is true to its word on ‘evidence-based policy’ then it will have to face up to this reality. The research may not always confirm prior convictions or favoured policies, and almost always throws up some unexpected results. That’s why I think it is important the EEF and the Sutton Trust remain fiercely independent and make public all the evidence we produce. As the Government’s What Works evidence centre for education, these will be our guiding principles.