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Higher Education Policy Institute report on access: the debate rages on

Blog Editor, IOE Digital15 January 2019

Lindsey Macmillan, Matt Dickson, Simon Burgess.
We appreciate the response by Iain Mansfield on WonkHE to the widespread criticism of his paper on selective schooling. However, the points we made about the dataset used and the methods employed remain.
A major critique that has yet to be answered is the inappropriate comparisons made when analysing progression to HE. The key part of the argument about the effectiveness of selective schools is hinged on analysis that is far too simple to support the strong statements made. Mansfield returns to the 39% vs 23% rates of progression from selective compared to non-selective areas in his response. The fact that he again attributes these large differences in progression rates directly to the schooling systems, rather than other factors involved that muddy the waters, is a basic stats mistake. The comparison group of all non-selective areas is wrong. If instead the (more…)

Grammar schools: the rise and fall of ‘evidence-informed policy’?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital12 September 2016

Geoff Whitty and Emma Wisby. 
In her first major foray into domestic policy as Prime Minister, Theresa May has offered us more grammar schools. Not a return to the selective system of education that existed in England prior to the 1960s and still exists in modified form in a small number of local authorities; not the grammar school in every town envisaged by John Major in 1997; but new grammar schools where parents want them as part of the diverse mix of secondary schools that has developed in England over the past 30 years. We know that this would entail relaxing the restrictions on new or expanding grammar schools, as well as allowing existing non-selective schools to become selective in some circumstances. A fuller set of proposals will be subject to consultation in the light of a new Green Paper.
Our concern here is what to make of this development in relation to the rhetoric of evidence-based or evidence-informed policy that has been espoused by politicians of all three major political parties for some time now. On the face of it, it looks like a particularly stark illustration of how policy is in fact more often driven by ideology and the personal experiences and preferences of policy makers and their advisors – as well as the internal management of party politics. This is a point we made in our publication earlier this year, Research and Policy in Education. The conduct and outcome of the EU referendum (more…)

Ofsted, school accountability and the most able students

Blog Editor, IOE Digital13 June 2013

Chris Husbands
OFSTED’s report on the progress made by the most able children in non-selective secondary schools has hit the headlines, finding that more than a quarter (27%) of previously high-attaining pupils had failed to achieve at least a B grade in both English and Maths. For the Daily Mail, this is evidence of the failure of the comprehensive system; the Daily Telegraph reported calls for secondary schools to set pupils from the beginning of year 7. The report is in practice – as reports always are – more complex than the press release headlines, but it still makes sobering reading: a significant number of those who do exceptionally well at the age of 11 do not perform to expectation by the age of 16.
The first observation to make is that whilst the report focuses on non-selective (comprehensive) schools, it includes some glancing references to selective (grammar) schools that suggest all is not well there either: in comprehensive schools, 35% of those who secured level 5 or above in both English and Maths went on to secure an A or A* at GCSE, whereas the figure was 59% in grammar schools. But this means that 41% of those who secured a Level 5 at age 11 and went on to selective secondary education did not secure an A or A* at GCSE.
For over 20 years in assessing English secondary schools, we have held schools to account based on the proportion of 16 year olds who move across a threshold of GCSE grade C or above. In accountability terms, there are no further incentives for schools to address the needs of their highest attaining young people. There are, however, many disincentives for schools not to address the needs of middle attainers. In these circumstances, it’s not terribly surprising that the needs of the highest – and, indeed, the lowest – attainers may have been neglected.
Much of the press debate has focused on the issue of setting or – a different concept entirely – streaming, arguing that grouping children by ability would address the problem. In fact, the evidence is much more nuanced on this. In practice, all classes turn out to be mixed attainment classes – the only point at issue is the breadth of the attainment span in any given class. Once this point is accepted, the issue is about how teachers provide for pupils of varying talents and attainment, and, though it has barely been reported, the OFSTED report stresses the importance of well-focused teaching, and the identification tracking of individual pupils.
And there’s a further point: over the same twenty year period, policy and press discussion has tended to divide schools into “successful” and “failing” schools. The OFSTED report on higher attainers demonstrates that it’s a lot more complex than this: it turns out that “successful” schools are often no more successful in meeting the needs of very high attaining pupils than less successful schools. And, for all the difference between comprehensive schools and grammar schools, if grammar schools are not securing the highest grades for two-fifths of their highest attainers, the observation holds there: they, too are just not doing well enough with higher attainers. Put slightly differently, it does not matter much which school you go to, but it may matter a great deal who teaches you when you get there. In English education, within-school variations in pupil attainment are more significant than between-school variations.