A trained psychologist myself, I took great interest in today’s call of the British Psychological Society for a departure of the biomedical model of mental illness. And, to my delight, so did other colleagues – read a great blog post from Social Brain’s Emma Lindley here, where she writes that we might be right now witnessing a bona fide revolution that may change mental health services so radically, ‘they will be unrecognisable to the children of my generation.’ As Emma points out, the debate is as much driven by differing concepts of human nature as it is by politics, and the struggle for professional relevance and power. It is the latter aspect that I want to focus on in this blog post.
The RSA has long taken an interest in professions and their future (including this project in the early 2000s), and is currently managing an independent review of the Police Federation. Further international projects with other professions may follow soon.
Interestingly, even though Psychiatry is the younger term, it is the arguably the older science, and literally means ‘the medical treatment of the soul’, whereas Psychology means ‘study of the soul’. Psychology and, specifically, its subdomain Clinical Psychology, have always had a hard time standing up to their medical cousin. Part of the reason for that one can find in the etymology; isn’t medical treatment is just so much more tangible than mere study? Thus, in more than one hospital of the world (including one I interned in a long, long time ago), Psychologists have not been much more than overeducated sidekicks to doctors. This may change soon.
The main reason for this is that over the last decade, and particularly since 2008, Psychology has arrived in the scientific establishment. It did so by using a strategy applied by underdogs since the advent of mankind: collaboration. (And, of course, the emergence of discipline rockstars like Steven Pinker has helped.)
Not having enough leverage itself, Psychology entered functional marriages with up and coming disciplines like neuroscience and traditional ones like economics, a process that led to the creation of new interdisciplinary fields like behavioural science. A prominent victim of this process was homo economicus – the notion that humans are wholly rational and narrowly self-interested. Homo biomedicus (not an official term, my inadequate creation), the similarly reductionist paradigm underlying present day psychiatry that acknowledges only the physical side of human existence, but leaves aside the social and psychological aspects, may very well be next.
There are two reasons to be concerned about the potential revolution of mental health services given that professional battle lines are drawn:
Firstly, while for Psychology there was the possibility of a non-threatening complementary relationship in the mutual interest with economics or neuroscience, with Psychiatry it is different. Here the question is ‘who runs the show?’, or, if you will, one of professional hegemony. Still, one hopes that the critical voices on both sides steer the process away from the zero-sum-game it is in danger to become, which certainly would leave everyone worse off.
Secondly, the homo biomedicus model is not entirely wrong, just as the homo economicus model is not completely off the mark. The concept has its merit and adequate areas of application, and it will need to be taken into account when designing future services based on a richer, more complex understanding of man as Homo biopsychosocialis that is embedded in a capabilities-based approach. Throwing out the baby with the bath water would be just as wrong.
Josef Lentsch is Director of RSA International – follow him at @joseflentsch
As a committed Labour supporter, Alex Ferguson’s announcement to retire could have been better timed. It took the heat and light out of a Queen’s speech that was even duller than her annual Christmas message. If Ed Miliband did give the front bench the hairdryer treatment, it was lost in the photos, eulogies and trophy infographics of one of Britain’s greatest post war leaders (or is that brand-builder?)
We shouldn’t judge a government by the content of its Queen’s speech. Halfway through an administration, the big policy changes have already been pushed through, and the inevitable suite of unintended outcomes have not yet revealed themselves. It may be that “we don’t need much legislation”. New laws don’t grow economies, although like most of us I can’t quite work out what might.
But a dearth of real parliamentary business offers a potential opportunity. Margaret Hodge pointed out recently that too many MPs don’t have enough to do. This year’s legislative programme may lead to even more slack time.
How might MPs fill this time? There probably isn’t any room for more MPs at Number 10, whatever school they went to. As more policies become scrutiny-ready, Select Committee members should get even busier. The unlucky ones will be swallowed by the dull machinations of party business. Others may find more interests to register this time next year (one of the greatest ideas to come from Mark Thomas’ People’s Manifesto was that MPs, like F1 drivers, should be forced to wear the logo of any organisation which pays them). The natural and ethical way to fill your time will be to serve your real employers, your local constituents. A few MPs such as Stella Creasy and Robert Halfon are taking this beyond the standard reactive surgery and letter-passing approach to become genuine community entrepreneurs in their patch. Matthew Taylor once proposed that MPs should be given specific government projects to oversee, to improve their understanding of implementation, and feel the heat of accountability.
However, there could also be scope for under-occupied MPs to use some of the time to transcend the short term needs of their constituents, and the myopic demands of parliamentary non-business. They could do what politicians of all sides find most difficult, partly because we voters make it so difficult for them – to think about the longer term challenges we face, outside of traditional party or departmental divisions, and develop philosophies and policy ideas that will probably have too much depth to be manifesto-ready.
So for those MPs who are twiddling thumbs rather than fiddling expenses, here’s an offer of work. RSA education is currently developing a new research programme to redefine adolescence. How can society relish rather than fear the teenage years, harnessing its ‘hidden wealth’? How might attitudes, funding and policy towards adolescence make the same step change that we saw in the Early Years during the last 15 years? We are looking for a small number of MPs from all parties to help develop this programme. The salary is less than minimal, the coffee isn’t great, and the chances of promotion and prizes are zero, let alone of winning cups with big ears.
Joe Hallgarten, Director of Education @joehallg
Is there anything Ofsted won’t do? Fresh from Michael Wilshaw’s ‘Damascene Moment’, changing his mind to pitch for Ofsted sticking around to support school improvement (aided by their new regional directors), David Laws claimed last week that Ofsted would make sure that the Pupil Premium was well spent.
Last week’s TES leader questioned Ofsted’s mission creep. Accountable to the Queen, Ofsted has a clear role: “to inspect and regulate services which care for children and young people, and those providing education and skills for learners of all ages.” The Chief Inspector’s comments should be limited to telling the world what inspection evidence, and inspection evidence alone, tells us about the English education system, and priorities for improvement. Conflicts of interests around inspecting your own school improvement programme are not insurmountable, but are probably an unnecessary risk, given the emerging market amongst teaching schools, academy chains and other schools and providers to deliver school improvement services.
This mission creep goes against the original instincts of our Chief Inspector. As a brilliant school leader, his philosophy was about focusing headship on the key role of improving the quality of teaching and learning. All other activities, if not necessarily a distraction, should be subservient to this goal. This steer, and a much more focused inspection framework, rightfully reminded those headteachers who were tempted towards excessive innovation, social entrepreneurship and peripheral issues that they should to some extent ‘stick to their knitting’.
Ofsted has enough to get right, right now. Raising the quality of its existing inspectors, strengthening their scrutiny of the FE sector, and sensitively changing its inspection framework to incorporate new priorities should be enough for any body. All public bodies occasionally feel the seduction of extending their remit. Unless it’s a clear takeover of someone else’s powers, this strategic slipperiness is often problematic. Ofsted should resist.
Building on an earlier blog about four foundations for a self-improving school system, I am currently thinking through what the idea of self-regulation might mean in a school system context. It is too early to claim any breakthrough, conceptually or recommendations-wise, but I am fairly sure that a truly self-improving system will need to develop the power to self-regulate, and therefore to write Ofsted, if not totally out of the script, into the margins of footnotes and stage directions. A decade ago, Matthew Taylor and I wrote that ‘Ofsted’s long term aim should be to render itself unnecessary.’ I remember Chris Woodhead laughing off this idea, and perhaps it is fantastical. However, the principle of “inspection in inverse proportion to success” as currently applied to outstanding schools should hold true for the system. Our school system is improving, whilst Ofsted’s role may simultaneously be growing. This makes no sense.
When I was a primary school history coordinator (in those heady, deluded days before literacy and numeracy targets swept most other priorities away, and QCA schemes of work did the rest), I had the delightful job of planning a whole-school history scheme of work. One of the many attainment targets for history was for children to be able to ‘distinguish facts from opinions’ by the time they got to secondary school. Given their collective seniority and expertise, I am hopeful that the Education Select Committee has the same ability, even if some of their witnesses struggle with this distinction.
When asked this week by the Select Committee about the Academies Commission’s critique of some aspects of policy, former schools minister Nick Gibb claimed that the RSA had a ‘particular view’ and didn’t come from ‘neutral ground’. This contrasts to others who wondered aloud (via twitter) whether a commission led by an academy provider such as the RSA would ever be anything other than positive about academies.
These claims insult the independence of the commissioners themselves, and the process they led. The RSA’s Action and Research Centre, with the remit to act and think, show and tell, innovate and recommend, will constantly need to navigate healthy tensions between our practice and our research. In combining thought leadership and social innovation, we aim to create a virtuous circle between research and practice. The Commission’s findings will inform how we develop our family of academies model, Working directly with these academies gives us insight to which areas of policy need exploring, and provides us with both inspiration for and reality checks on ideas for practical innovations. And the practical innovations we lead with larger numbers of teachers and schools, for instance through our Opening Minds framework and our area based curriculum, also help determine our priorities for future RSA programmes of work.
At the same time, recent exchanges have caused me to reflect on that slippery word ‘evidence’. When committees or commissions ‘take evidence’, they are really collecting stories, some of which will be facts, others opinions. As Dylan William and others remind us all, evidence is not the plural of anecdotes. Stephen Gorard has distinguished between the legal use of evidence, which aims to push a single viewpoint, and the academic use, which, to quote Chomsky, aims to ‘tell the truth and expose lies’. In thinking about education, only the latter will do, alongside a recognition that most evidence is far less conclusive that we’d like (and the more rigorous the evidence, the less conclusive it will probably be, as Education Endowment Foundation-funded projects are likely to find out in the next few years).
After such a deep, rigorous progress, it’s a shame that admissions ‘gossip’ (as opposed to the carefully considered recommendations about admissions in the report) dominated media headlines. We hope that the RSA’s current project on in-year admissions, which will involve surveys and data collection, may help shed light on wider questions about the impact of academisation on admissions.
Those who still have influence over the future direction of academies have welcomed the commission’s findings and want to engage in serious discussions about next steps, Whatever people’s views on the Commission, lack of balance is not the issue. Whatever Nick Gibb said, the Commission was entirely neutral in its deliberations. Mind you, given Nick Gibb’s dislike of RSA Opening Minds, he would have said that, wouldn’t he?
Commissions can be tricky beasts. Often, in the drive to achieve consensus among all parties, they can drift towards the lowest-risk common denominator. Last minute changes and compromises can skew narratives. And, as with all policy reports, subtle sets of recommendations can be misinterpreted by the media and others. Low-lying ideas can suddenly become top-line recommendations.
After nine months of gestation, we are delighted that the Academies Commission has avoided all of these pitfalls. We congratulate Becky Francis, her team at the Pearson Think Tank, and the three Commissioners Christine Gilbert, Chris Husbands and Brett Widgortz for producing a rigorous, fascinating and highly readable report.
We welcome the Commission’s contribution to the academies debate. The recommendations should have significant implications for policy and practice. The RSA, as a partner with a family of academies and with an education programme focussed on social justice, democracy and innovation, will reflect on and respond to the recommendations in due course, and we urge others to do the same. Comment below, or use #acadcomm on Twitter.
Many academies are transforming learning and form a valuable part of the school improvement ecology. However, the Government’s frenetic drive towards a fully academised system is not yet justified by evidence, and could actually damage the potential systemic value of a better targeted, more carefully supported approach to the growth of academies. We also hope that this report helps to initiate a more intelligent discussion about autonomy, centralisation, governance and collaboration in the English school system.
Two months late, and in anticipation of tomorrow’s launch of our Academies Commission report, here are some reflections from a very valuable National College for School Leadership seminar on self-improving school systems. The college is dealing well with both reduced budgets and; the risks that come through conversion to an ‘executive agency’ of the Department of Education. In truth, even as an NDPB the relationship between Department and College was usually less arms length and more Venus De Milo. But school leaders are rightly asking the College to exploit its privileged position within government without going totally native. It’s a space that the interim Chief Executive Maggie Farrar is occupying with astuteness and panache.
At the seminar, David Hargreaves discussed his fourth thinkpiece on the development of a self-improving school system in England, and offered views on progress made since 2010. Nearly three years since the white paper on the Importance of Teaching stated that “our aim should be to create a school system which is more effectively self-improving “, my own 3-point progress report reads as follows:
1. The system as a whole is up for the self-improvement challenge.
Education leaders, whether in schools, local authorities or academy providers, largely ‘get’ that this government is serious about a self-improving system, and that self improvement will only happen through collaboration. If there is recalcitrance to collaborate, it is probably down more to the prevailing uncertainties in policy direction than to the decisions that have actually been made.
2. Converter academies, despite government hopes and the fantastic work of some headteachers and chains, are insufficiently committed to and involved in school to school support and system leadership.
Whether this is due to genuine under-commitment, or the within-school capacity issues that come with conversion, it may be too early to say. But it is clear that conversion comes with very weak collaborative strings attached. If individual academies want to go for splendid isolation, there’s not much stopping them, and too many are taking the money and freedoms and running.
3. Teaching schools and especially teaching school alliances are positioning themselves to go beyond leadership of ITT and CPD towards full system leadership.
Teaching Schools appear to have a confused, multiplying set of expectations placed upon them, for very little funding. Despite or possibly because of this predicament, many are poised to grow their remit and influence. This is less mission creep and more mission clarification.
So overall, in response to Ben Levin’s question about whether we are ‘creating an institutional context that promotes or prevents collaboration’ I am generally optimistic about our education system’s collaborative potential. New drivers are coming into play. Austerity, which has barely touched school budgets (although is deeply affecting the budgets of the families they serve) could force the pace, catalysing the creation of harder federations, especially between small, otherwise-unviable primary schools. There is also the succession planning opportunity of a large number of retiring headteachers to exploit, possibly replacing them with a smaller number of executive heads. Emerging new technologies could support progress on all four of Hargreaves’ ‘criteria for deep partnerships’[i].
However, I would also agree with Hargreaves’ prediction that the next few years will see the growth of a “scattered and weakly connected self-improving sub-systems of school….but not yet a self improving school system”. I suggest four additional foundations that need to be considered if we really are going to move towards a self-improving system.
First, sustainable self-improvement will need policies that encourage genuine self-determination, so that schools have authorship and ownership over ends as well as means. To avoid the risk expressed in the DfE White Paper that “the attempt to secure automatic compliance with central government initiatives reduces the capacity of the school system to improve itself”, schools need what one seminar participant described as ‘the authority to determine the values of an education system.’ The new curriculum is a key opportunity and battleground here.
Second (and if Gove favours it for the press, why not for schools?) schools need to move to a culture of collective self-regulation – self and peer evaluation of their own performance against nationally and locally agreed goals. Challenge Partners has led the way here. Government should commit to a declining role for external inspection, in proportion to educational success, so that OFSTED gradually becomes an external moderator of collective self-regulation.
Third, schools should have a broader conception of ‘self’, and look to other people and organisations to support system improvement. Kevan Collins talked recently about a local mosque that had been successfully commissioned by Tower Hamlets Council to help reduce truancy, especially those caused by in-term visits to Bangladesh. Schools, if delegated budgets for collective approaches to school improvement, should sometimes look beyond schools for the best solutions.
Finally, system leaders need to learn the art of self-deprecation. From various off-record conversations, there is a feeling that headteachers as a tribe are developing a reputation for being self-satisfying, self-aggrandising, and self-serving, even when in the act of system improvement. This, of course, is a caricature – headteachers are as heterogeneous as any other group of leaders. One leader of a teaching school alliance talked at the seminar about the subtle differences between leadership language and partnership language, to keep the values and egos of all participating schools on board.
At its deepest level, the transformation towards a self-improving school system is a behaviour change issue, one that requires adaptive rather than technical solutions. As part of a new project on ‘re-minding education’, we are working with the RSA’s social brain centre to understand how research from neuroscience and behavioural economics might contribute to our understanding about how schools and teachers can best collaborate for improvement. Please get in touch with your insights and ideas. The project is not even half-formed yet, so this is a perfect time to shape our thinking.
Thanks to Shipa Nessa for her support with this blog. Shipa in on a short placement at RSA through Ladies Who Learn, a project developed by RSA Fellow Asma Shah with the support of Catalyst funding.
[i] Criteria for a deep partnership (in ascending order of difficulty)
- Joint practice development is well established within and between schools in the partnership.
- Social capital is high within and between schools in the partnership.
- Collective moral purpose is a value shared and enacted by all stakeholders, including students, within the partnership.
- Evaluation and challenge are practiced at every level within and between schools.
Fresh from a family skiing holiday in Colorado, our Secretary of State for Education will hopefully, like the rest of us, have new year resolutions on his mind that have nothing to do with work. Better parallel turns? Less red meat and wine? An escape from Notting Hill?
Judging by his topping of a recent Conservative Party members’ poll as the most popular Cabinet minister, and the contrasting views of teachers in a recent poll on morale, his education resolution might just be to ‘stay resolute’. Gove is seen as a success; by party members; by some repetitive columnists who fawn on and feed off half-truths about our education system; and also by those who rightly praise his conviction and passion for the job.
In comparison to others around the cabinet table, Gove has certainly brought the Prime Minister very few problems. However, the Coalition’s education policies have thus far been judged only by a series of inputs – number of new academies, amount of pupil premium funding, number of times teaching union leaders have been irritated. The big rise in primary test scores for 2012, and good set of recent international test results are more legacies of the previous government’s reforms than the results of any new policies.
Like all policies and politicians, public attitudes to Gove have been shaped by premature evaluation. However, three years in and as the Coalition publishes its Mid-Term Review, 2013 should be the year we can finally begin to judge the effectiveness of a radical series of reforms. Never mind school structures, what has all this change meant for young people? Never mind the ebacc, is the achievement gap between our poorest children and the rest closing? Never mind morale, is the quality of teachers and teaching improving? And never mind tuition fees, how will the system work for those underachieving 16 year olds who will now be legally obliged to ‘stay on’ from September?
Rather than make early predictions, or add to the ever-increasing volume of money or time-heavy recommendations that pass through the Department’s in tray, here are eight New Year’s resolutions for Gove, and all who sail in him, that might help him to steer our education system to greater long term successes.
- Do some systems thinking.
- Slow down on academisation.
- Create an accountability system to ensure that every child matters, to every school, and that lower attaining pupils matter even more.
- Release and justify your inner control freak.
- Show your hand on the future educational role of local authorities.
- Double-check your evidence.
- Interrogate and treasure our youth services.
- Stick around to finish what you’ve started.
My own work-related new year resolution is to blog more often. So, rather than explain these now, I’ll aim to expand on most of them during January.
Why do all governments find curriculum reform so difficult? Perhaps they are powerless in the face of endless lobbying. During the attempts to ‘slim down’ the national curriculum in 2000, one government official showed me letters from the Campaign for Real Ale and the Anarchist Federation, demanding that, yes, real ale and anarchy should have a place in the national curriculum. Maybe they fall prey to a ‘tyranny of experts’, who find it impossible to make real choices that could meaningfully reduce content. Overall, the demands of civil society and its myriad of interest groups who believe that what happens to children between 9 and 3.30 weekdays might solve each of society’s problems may be as much to blame as any power-fuelled or change-obsessed politician.
After making useful initial noises about curriculum change and school freedom, guided by Tim Oates’ robust and readable paper about international approaches to curriculum reform, the coalition’s approach to rewriting the national curriculum may eventually be seen as a case study in bad policymaking: Poor use of evidence and expertise, meaningless consultation processes, slippery timetables and unnecessary creation of uncertainties that destabilise schools’ strategic planning. Above all, reform has been shaped by what the ASCL’s Brian Lightman has called ‘cart before horse’ thinking in two ways. First, announcements are being made about changes to accountability and assessment regimes in advance of curriculum decisions. The assessment tail is wagging the curriculum dog. And second, as the Institute of Education’s John White has explained, curriculum reform needs to start by agreeing about overall aims, then consider content, before finally making decisions about how to structure this content, through subjects or other models. Subjects, and subject knowledge, will undoubtedly figure in any final curriculum framework (and contrary to the views of some – see my recent twitter spat – the RSA does not wish to ‘abolish subjects’), but this should not be our starting point.
At a key moment in the current debate, with more announcements due in January, RSA is stepping into the fray in the best way it knows how: blending practice, theory, policy ideas and a hint of idealism.
The suite of reports we released last week, written by Louise Thomas, summarises findings from the RSA’s three year Area Based Curriculum project in Peterborough. It includes guides for practitioners, case studies and evaluation reports. It aims to provide an honest, practical and reflective analysis of the project’s findings, and its potential implications for policy and practice.
The curriculum has always been a political animal. As a nation, and as institutions and individuals, it defines our values and reflects our hopes for future generations. Any attempt to try and ‘depoliticise’ the curriculum is neither desirable nor realistic. Indeed, most debates about the curriculum start from the wrong place. Instead of asking ‘what should the curriculum include’, our starting question should always be ‘who should determine what the curriculum includes’? As Andreas Schleicher from the OECD has argued, curriculum design should be seen as a ‘grand social project’. This links to RSA’s own values and expertise around social productivity as the best means to improve public services, and expanding human capability as the ultimate goal of society.
If the promise of a genuinely slimmed down national curriculum is ultimately upheld, this could be a key moment for schools to reclaim a significant part of the ‘whole curriculum’ – that element (maybe 50%?) of children’s schooling which is not nationally prescribed. Curriculum innovation, as I argued at a recent Guardian conference, should not just mean creative tinkering with the national curriculum. It requires a school community to determine a set of additional aims, knowledge and skills, and innovating to make sure young people learn these in addition to the national curriculum.
Designing your own curriculum is never an easy option, especially when so many off the shelf packages exist, and ‘national curriculum overload’ can always provide a ready excuse for inaction. Our learning from Peterborough and elsewhere is that the effort is worth it. The process through which a school decides and designs its own curriculum, whilst time-consuming, forces and enables schools to think about their aims, ethos, and partnerships with the wider community – all key factors in building great schools.
However, schools that take this path need to ensure that any innovation is rigorous; the more you are breaking with conventions, the more you need to understand the conventions. They also need to ensure that the quality of the pedagogical thinking matches the quality of the curriculum thinking. Finally, design should be done through a genuine partnership with individuals and institutions in a school’s community – to create a curriculum designed by, with and for a locality. (For an example of bad practice-making in curriculum reform, read about my attempts as a naïve primary school teacher).
Will schools take the curriculum ‘road less taken’? The key factor probably won’t be the actual content of the national curriculum. It won’t be structural changes; whether you are an academy, free school or otherwise is largely irrelevant to this issue. The key factors in unleashing curriculum innovation will be other levers, especially assessment and accountability mechanisms, that all schools are subjected to. Will Ofsted ensure that both national and locally generated curricula carry equal weight? Will narrow assessment systems nudge schools to narrow their offer? Will the revised teacher and headteacher standards encourage curriculum innovation? What will government do when the media find schools that are teaching things that they don’t like?
Throughout its history the RSA has built and sustained interest in school curriculum issues. Building on this reputation, as well as our learning from the Area Based Curriculum and our Opening Minds framework, we will continue to contribute in four ways:
First, we will continue to work in Peterborough through the Peterborough Learning Partnership, and find ways to transfer our learning to other areas interested in developing local curricula.
Second, in partnership with the Institute of Education and the Curriculum Foundation, and supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, NAHT and OCR we have launched a pioneering professional development programme for teachers and other educators. Grand Curriculum Designs will foster a new generation of skilled and sensitive curriculum designers.
Third, we will continue to foster curriculum innovation in our growing family of academies.
Finally, we will continue to offer the RSA’s House and online platforms as spaces for purposeful, evidence-based debates about the curriculum to take place. This includes an event in January on the English curriculum.
Local knowledge needs local power. If this government is serious about freeing all schools from some central control, they will need to make sure that every school has the freedom, training and incentives to design their own curricula. This will need changes to accountability so that Ofsted inspect a school’s whole curriculum rather than the just the national curriculum; and so that schools have outward accountability to their communities rather than just upward accountability to Ofsted and government.
This guest blog is from Chris Wellings, UK Head of Policy at Save the Children. We are exploring a partnership with Save the Children to import and adapt the Harlem Children’s Zone model in one or more UK settings, as a long term pilot in improving outcomes for children in areas of concentrated disadvantage. The Harlem Children’s Zone “seeks to create a ‘pipeline’ of support for children by linking high-quality schools and early years provision with personal, social and health support for them and their families, and with community development initiatives. It is doubly holistic in working with children over time and across all the contexts in which they learn and develop” (Dyson, 2012).
In our new guise as part of RSA’s Action and Research Centre, RSA Education is perfectly placed to foster these kinds of partnerships, working with our Family of Academies and harnessing the expertise and energy of our Fellows.
Save the Children believes children’s background should not limit the opportunities they have in life. However, as things stand children from poorer homes do worse educationally than their classmates. Last year 34% of pupils on free schools achieved 5 good GCSEs, compared to 62% of better-off pupils.
We therefore supported the Institute for Public Policy Research to carry out new data analysis into the achievement gap at GCSE level. The resulting paper from the IPPR was published last week or you can also read Save the Children’s summary briefing.
Firstly the research found that school improvement strategies have a key role to play in closing the achievement gap, but on their own they will be insufficient. Children from deprived areas would benefit most from more higher-quality schools (pupils from the 25% most deprived postcodes score on average 4Bs and 4Cs at GCSE in outstanding schools compared to an average of 4Cs and 4Ds in an inadequate school) but those from wealthier postcodes would also do better. As a result absolute scores would increase across the board but much of the achievement gap would remain. Even if every child attended an outstanding school the educational achievement gap between the wealthiest and poorest pupils would only be cut by a fifth.
In fact the IPPR analysis shows that children from poorer backgrounds tend to perform worse than their wealthier peers whether they are in a strong or a weak school. This shows that to close the gap we need to focus some of our efforts at the pupil (rather than the institution) level so that we close the achievement gap within each school. The Pupil Premium could provide the sort of targeted interventions we need but it must be spent on approaches that are proven to tackle low achievement.
Secondly the research found that around half of the achievement gap we see at GCSE level is already present by the time children enter secondary school. This shows that the early years and primary schools have a pivotal role to play in closing the gap. We must do more to ensure every child starts school ready to succeed and because the positive impact from early years interventions can fade over time we must sustain this progress while children are at school. Intensive catch-up programmes as children transition from primary to secondary schools should be available for pupils falling behind. This is the approach taken in world-class systems such as Finland, where nearly half of pupils receive some catch-up tuition over their school life. The alternative is that from age 11 onwards these children will have to make equal progress with their peers simply to maintain existing performance gaps.
Thirdly the research provided some important insights into the nature of the educational achievement gap. It showed there is a clear and consistent relationship between deprivation and academic achievement at GCSE level – the trend holds across the scale of deprivation. This problem cannot be neatly divided into the achievements of children from poorer homes and the rest. It showed that the education gap is not just about pupils failing to get the top grades, but is also characterised by a long tail of low achievement. Estimates suggest that closing the gap will require a bigger improvement in grades at the lower end of the distribution than at the top end of the distribution.
The conclusions are clear. School improvement strategies are vital because all children do better in higher-quality schools and alongside raising overall performance they can also close some of the gap. However to close more of the gap we also need to focus some of our efforts on pupil-level interventions targeted at children from poor homes in every school. The Pupil Premium is a good mechanism for this but the Government must ensure the resources are spent on approaches that are proven to work. Approximately half of the achievement gap that we see at GCSE level is evident before those children entered secondary school. We therefore need a whole-system approach to narrowing the gap that combines early years reforms with a focus on the primary and secondary years and we must ensure intensive catch-up programmes are available at key points. Finally the education gap debate must recognise that there is a consistent relationship between deprivation and low achievement across the scale of deprivation and that the problem is characterised by a long tail of low achievement as well as pupils from poorer homes failing to get the very top grades.
Another day, another divisive education headline. Whilst there is much to question within current education policy, there are also potentially new areas of opportunity opening up. The policy context of greater school autonomy, and emerging clarity about the future of the National Curriculum from 2014 (and the space to develop a ‘whole curriculum’ outside the National Curriculum), could be a key moment of opportunity for teachers and localities to reclaim the curriculum agenda.
As highlighted in the recent research of RSA Education colleague, Louise Thomas, the role of teachers is already changing to incorporate greater responsibility for curriculum development. However, as Louise outlines, there are significant challenges in ensuring that teachers are provided with enough support in overall curriculum development, in addition to the current focus on teachers’ subject knowledge.
The paper also proposes a particular focus on promoting the skills required to develop competency-based curricula in schools – especially where it relates to the needs of the local community – addressing the need for students to acquire, not just knowledge, but also the skills to apply it within the framework of their wider learning, future employment, and life.
In the context of these developments and challenges, the RSA Education Team is exploring ideas for creating a national professional development programme, which will aim to foster a new generation of curriculum designers, ready to make the most of the emerging opportunities. As such, it will add to the professional capacity of the teaching workforce as a whole and the capacity of schools to operate as autonomous, collaborative organisations. The programme will blend the learning and principles from two RSA programmes (RSA Opening Minds and the Area-Based Curriculum), as well as from curriculum design programmes globally, to create a high quality professional development offer that improves educational opportunities and outcomes for pupils.
That’s the idea but what do you think? Are there models out there that you think we should incorporate? What is the key to successful CPD? What are likely to be the key concerns for teachers and schools? Over to you…