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.

What a university summer school did for me…

Anne-Marie Canning, the Head of the Widening Participation department at King’s College London, was one of those students who won a place on a life-changing university summer school. Here’s her story.

“I owe a lot to the old, creaky fax machine in Doncaster that whizzed off my Sutton Trust Summer School application in the nick of time about ten years ago. I was in the common room late on a Friday afternoon when my teacher pushed a form in front of me with the words, ‘I’ve just found this summer school thing and I think you should apply. We’ve got half an hour, so hurry!’ I didn’t have much time to think about which course to apply for so ticked the thing I liked doing most at that point in time: reading books, English Literature.

My mum was over the moon when a letter came through the post telling me I’d won a place, and I promptly set about reading all the books by authors I’d never heard of, like James Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’. They were not easy books to read but it made me realise that the summer school meant business and would be intellectually challenging.

Fast-forward to August and there I was in the glorious summer sunshine at the gates of the University. I felt a kick of homesickness in my stomach but steadied my nerves and went to the sign in desk, where I met by a group of friendly undergraduate students. They showed me to my room and told me what I could expect from the week ahead.

The summer school involved all sorts of exciting things I’d never had the chance to do before, like watch a Shakespeare play, debate my ideas, listen to a lecture, have a tutorial and experience the freedom of an entire library. And as well as learning a lot about my chosen subject I also learnt a lot about myself during that week.

I learnt that there were lots of like-minded people out there, and that they were just as clever (if not more clever!) than me. I also learnt that my northern accent was much, much stronger than I ever imagined it to be! I made some good friends, too, and we all ended the week with a swanky dinner. I went home happy and determined to work hard and get good AS-level grades.

That Autumn I applied to lots of highly selective universities and made sure I talked about my summer school experience in my personal statement. The Autumn after I joined the University of York as a student of English and Related Literatures, and ten years later I am now the head of the team that will be running the Sutton Trust Summer School at King’s College London.

This blog post first appeared on the King’s College website

 

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.

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.

Evaluating the impact of widening participation initiatives

Lee Elliot Major argues for a more evidence-based approach to university access work.

It is nothing short of a scandal that the vast majority of work in our universities and colleges aimed at opening doors to students from low and middle income homes is not evaluated properly. We spend over £1 billion a year on programmes to widen participation and broaden access into our academic elites; yet we know very little about what impact most of these efforts are having. Well-intentioned efforts to aid social mobility – from school outreach programmes to financial support for students – are effectively operating in the dark, uninformed by any hard evidence of what has worked before.

The problem has come to light again with the release of a report for the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) which “found little evidence that impact is being systematically evaluated by institutions”. Previous reports have revealed a lack of even the most basic monitoring of data and outcomes across the sector, prompting the English funding council to issue guidance on evaluation.

The national strategy unveiled by Hefce and the Office for Fair Access (Offa) meanwhile has recommended a light-touch network of regional coordinators to facilitate collaboration between universities and schools. This sounds suspiciously like ‘AimHigher light’- a slim-line version of the previous national outreach programme in England. AimHigher was cut in the last Whitehall spending review due to lack of evidence of its impact. A lot of good work was undermined by the absence of hard data.

The gathering of robust evidence remains the Achilles heel of the sector. It seems tragic that this should be so in our respected seats of learning. Once when the Sutton Trust offered to evaluate an outreach scheme at a highly prestigious UK university, the head of access declined, arguing that they would rather use the extra money to help more students.

The problem with this response is twofold: Firstly, we didn’t (still don’t) know if the programme was actually having any impact on the students taking part. Secondly, if we did evaluate it, then the lessons could enable many thousands more students to be helped properly in the future. The current default – to simply survey participants to see if they enjoyed the experience – is no longer good enough. The question must be asked: did the programme impact on the student in the desired way that would not otherwise have happened if the programme had not existed. Did the programme enable students from poorer backgrounds to enter university who otherwise wouldn’t have done so?

But there are signs that the tide is at last turning. To its credit Offa is urging institutions to adopt a more ‘evidence based’ approach. What is now needed is the full mix of evaluation and monitoring – local pilot studies as well as national randomised trials – to measure the outcomes of access work.

Universities can look to the work we have been doing with schools on interventions in the classroom to learn some of the basic principles. The DIY evaluation guide published by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) offers simple advice on how to evaluate the impact of a programme at a local level. This is about combining professional judgment with knowledge of previous evidence to devise a programme, and then monitor outcomes of participating students in comparison to similar students not on the programme. The Trust is currently developing a common evaluation framework for all of its programmes. This will enable evaluations for small projects without the resources to commission an independent evaluation themselves.

The Government recently designated The Sutton Trust and EEF as the ‘What Works centre’ for education following the publication of our highly successful toolkit for schools. The Trust is currently developing an ‘HE access toolkit’, which we hope will summarise current evidence on the impact of access work in an accessible format. Although it is not clear how much this will be able to say, given the paucity of research in the field.

Undertaking ‘gold standard’ evaluations which involve selecting participants at random to ascertain genuine impact remains a tricky task. But the Sutton Trust has already funded a feasibility study on how a proper randomised control trial (RCT) might be undertaken for an access programme. We are now considering commissioning a fully fledged RCT.

Even if RCTs are currently a step too far for others, then evaluations need at least to involve the use of comparison groups. Two examples of such usage can be seen in recent evaluations commissioned by the Trust. Our review of summer schools used UCAS university admissions data to compare the outcomes of summer school students against similar students not on the programme. The Reach for Excellence programme meanwhile constructed a comparison group from students who qualified but didn’t enrol on the programme.

If I had my way every access programme would require an evaluation that met these basic standards. Robust evaluation is not easy to do, costs time and money, and often produces awkward and humbling results. But not to do so, is in the end failing the students we are trying to help.

This blog post first appeared on Westminster Briefing.