Education and social mobility: how the government is getting it wrong

September 15, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

Amongst the flurry of free schools, test tinkering and curriculum changes, there was at least one overarching purpose to Michael Gove’s constant battle against ‘the blob’; to turn schools into ‘engines of social mobility’, thus enabling  talented young people to rise above their social background. The logic here was that raising standards in education would send a much-needed ripple effect through the stagnant waters of social mobility. This has been the government’s adopted approach in response to a society where the wealth gap between rich and poor continues to increase and parental income is intimately linked to their child’s future educational attainment. However, new research into the effect of Gove’s changes, particularly his fervent acadamisation of schools, urgently points to this approach as ‘seriously flawed’.

Education and Social Mobility: Dreams of Success by Dr Kate Hoskins and Prof Bernard Barker is a case study of two high-achieving academies, with 88 interviews conducted with students between the ages of 15-18. Breaking this government’s approach down into three proposals, the research conclusions challenge each in turn: firstly, the characterisation of the talented disadvantaged youth as overcoming inheritance of deprivation is shown to be out of step with the thoughts and feelings of young people, who acknowledge family as an important source of guidance and support; secondly, that acadamisation will work by closing the attainment gap, which in this case has proved itself untrue, with the two high-standard academies still seeing 36% of students fail to get good GCSEs; finally, that academy students will be drawn into aspirational academic routes, aiming for high-level destinations when, in reality, these students did not value social mobility and rated job satisfaction and happiness as more important.

It is not as if the Department for Education have been completely misguided – the stats on education and social mobility are indeed stark: out of 80,000 students on Free School Meals last year, only 45 got into Oxbridge and only 21% of the poorest fifth achieved 5 GCSE A*–Cs (including English and Mathematics), compared with 75% from the richest fifth. There is clearly a link to be made between narrowing the attainment gap and thus narrowing the destination gap – as such, it is right to aim to widen participation at the very top. However, it is dangerous to create from this a complete social mobility narrative. There are only so many places at Russell Group universities, only so many high-level jobs to move into afterwards and only so many students from a socially deprived background who, problems of aspiration aside, would want to follow this very particular future path.

The revised government approach must move away from its current obsession with students achieving the right grades in the right subjects to attend one of a handful of top universities; instead, it must be seen to truly value the variety of skills and interests of young people by investing in all destination routes, including the woefully neglected vocational options. Let’s hope the new Secretary of State for Education is ready to make such revisions.

Roisin Ellison is the RSA Academies Intern

If you love Academies, set them free

September 4, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters, Uncategorized 

It is the first week of the new school year and Academy chains are already back in the news.  Last week Ofsted wrote to AET (Academies Enterprise Trust) expressing concern that too many pupils were not receiving a good enough education, and yesterday the House of Commons Education Committee continued their scrutiny of Academies and Free Schools with an evidence session involving representatives of Academy sponsors and local authorities.

For all the controversy Academies are here to stay, irrespective of the outcome of next year’s General Election.  And good news that is too, given the growing body of evidence that some Academy chains are making a positive difference to outcomes for pupils – see for example the Sutton Trust report Chain Effects on the impact of Academy chains on low income students.  That said, yesterday’s Select Committee reminded us of concerns about the Academy programme as currently conceived that just won’t go away: limited local accountability; too much money being diverted from the classroom through top-slices; and signs that some academy chains are failing to provide sufficient support for school improvement.

A reluctance to address these issues risks damaging the Academies sector as a whole.  Three simple changes could improve the system dramatically. Read more

State or private – it’s the wrong question

July 22, 2014 by · 5 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

A recent twitter spat about which of the new set of DFE Ministers are privately educated has got me thinking about whether and how far it matters where the DFE Ministers went to school. My conclusion: state or private is the wrong question.

I’m tempted to leave it there – it’s a hot day and there are other things I should be doing – but let me explain…. Read more

Admissions and segregation: an unfinished conversation at the Education Reform Summit?

July 9, 2014 by · 3 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

While thousands of teachers strike this week, the three main parties’ Education ministers will be joined by their European counterparts to speak at the Education Reform Summit in London. The summit, running today and tomorrow in the spirit of ‘ambition’ and ‘inspiration’, will ‘celebrate England’s success in leading the world in education reform’. Members of NUT protesting around the country – and others – may well question the premise that this celebration is based on. It’s hard to argue, for instance, that England is leading in education reform where others follow; some of our structural reforms have trailed Sweden’s, a worrying omen given their recent fall from grace. It’s harder still to argue that England is a leading global player in standards, when in 2013, the country did not make the top 20 in the PISA tables for Reading, Maths, or Science.

 

So what can we expect at the Summit? With the election less than a year away, and the Westminster machine in full action, we can look forward to a showcase of manifesto policies from Gove, Laws and Hunt. The exclusively positive rhetoric of the Summit blurb suggests we might be in store for a fair amount of back-patting, and a sponsor-fuelled optimistic vision of the role of technology in education.  We can also be fairly sure, judging by the last 5 years, of frenetic announcements and recommendations; teachers hoping for a brief respite to allow schools to catch up with policy, as recommended by the RSA, look away now.

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No justice, no peace: An introduction to the Fair Education Alliance

June 21, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

The lead singer of Iron Maiden Bruce Dickinson last week claimed that the Glastonbury Festival was “the most bourgeois thing on the planet.  Anywhere Gwyneth Paltrow goes and you can live in an air-conditioned yurt is not for me.” My unsubstantiated guess is that this weekend’s Festival of Education, held at Wellington College, might smash Glastonbury in any game of bourgeois Top Trumps. However, the Festival yesterday hosted the launch of a new campaign that RSA Education is delighted to have helped initiate and excited to be playing a continued role in.

The Fair Education Alliance aims to work towards ending the persistent achievement gap between young people from our poorest communities and their wealthier peers. Our aim is hardly novel; in some ways, it’s been an implicit ambition since 1870’s Education Act, made more explicit through the birth of the comprehensive movement. This is why Gove and others’ flippant dismissals of those with different views about how to close achievement gaps as ‘enemies of promise’ can be so corrosive. In contrast, the Alliance carefully brings together partners who may have very different routemaps to a fairer education system, but are prepared to collaborate to achieve common goals.

Our five Impact Goals, all measurable statements of progress, are as follows:

  1. Narrow the gap in literacy and numeracy at primary school
  2. ​Narrow the gap in GCSE attainment at secondary school
  3. Ensure young people develop key strengths, including resilience and wellbeing, to support high aspirations
  4. Narrow the gap in the proportion of young people in education, employment or training one year after compulsory education
  5. Narrow the gap in university graduation, including from the 25 per cent most selective universities

The Alliance recognises that the “the underlying causes of educational inequality are complex and interconnected, and they need to be addressed across the education system and society. No single organisation has the knowledge, resources or expertise to bring about the changes we need to make our education system fair for everyone.”  Today’s silly Times leader column, which gave an outdated, un-evidenced view of Universities’ role in teacher training, and claimed that the best way to improve the performance of white working class pupils was to “motivate them with more vocational training”, exemplifies the kind of rhetoric we do not need. Michael Wilshaw’s speech yesterday, reclaiming the comprehensive agenda with a more nuanced account of recent progress and current predicaments, was far more balanced and helpful. For once, read the speech, not the headlines.

The Education Endowment Foundation amongst others has recognised that most interventions which successfully improve outcomes also widen gaps in outcomes. This serves as a useful precis for the last few decades of schooling in England. Leaving doubts about grade inflation aside, the performance of white working class pupils at GCSE has risen significantly, and now outperforms the average… of twenty years ago. The problem is that overall average performance has risen faster.

The Education and Employers task force’s latest publication, exemplifies this dilemma. Taken in totality, employer engagement in education reproduces social inequalities. Put simply, if all employer engagement, from informal internships to formal programmes in schools to work experience, stopped tomorrow, this would probably narrow gaps in education and labour market outcomes. This, of course, is undesirable, and does disservice to the many initiatives that are designed to work with those who most need them. Yet it chrystallises the issue: If you don’t target resources with precision, a terrible thing happens. The Pupil premium has become a powerful, helpful nudge on school spending and wider strategic planning, supported by the new accountability rules which will make sure, that, to borrow a much maligned phrase, every child matters.

Teach First has achieved a terrific job in initiating the Fair Education Alliance without hubris, pulling in favours and resources, and carefully constructing some early theories of change around each change goal. yesterday’s Telegraph article by CEO Brett Wigodrtz cogently explains the organisation’s rationale for creating this alliance. It’s now up to us, as twenty-five organisations with our own priorities, deadlines and baggage, to work collaboratively, involving thousands of others to maximise our collective impact.

Too often, alliances such as these become a half-hearted bolt-on to each individual organisation’s ethos creating inertia rather than momentum, smugness rather than anger. Agreed actions can feel a million miles away from the task at hand – (“What do we want? Mapping our activities across localities! When do we want it? Soon!”). To quote Whitley RSA Academy’s mission statement (a school which puts huge efforts into closing achievement gaps, with increasing success), we need ‘deeds, not words’.

Words may matter too, however. Effective alliances dare to speak truth to power in a way that individual alliance members (many of whom will be reliant on ‘Power’ for funding) cannot.  We should be brave enough collectively to think radically about school admissions and segregation, funding, teacher choice and allocation, and practices such as setting and streaming. We may want to challenge the current, confused orthodoxy around school autonomy, and the extent to which is a route to or a reward for successfully achieving our impact goals. Nick Clegg’s social mobility strategy seems heavy on indicators and light on everything else. I still haven’t met any of these oft-quoted academics who argue that ‘deprivation is destiny’, but as an alliance we should be prepared to question broader government approaches to poverty and regeneration, whilst remaining passionately optimistic about what schools can achieve, regardless of wider contexts.

Key to our success, as one alliance member suggested, may be to “reposition education as a public good”. In other words, am I prepared care a little less about my own children’s performance, and a lot more about the outcomes of their poorer peers? This is challenging terrain. Education has always been couched largely as a private, positional good, and the forces of consumerism and an increasingly unstable economy has reinforced and positively encouraged this attitude. As a society, we generally agree that closing class gaps in health outcomes is desirable (unless you are particularly callous, health is not seen as a positional good). In terms of education outcomes, if we’re honest with ourselves we aren’t so sure how much equality we really want, so continue to hoard advantage whenever possible (and it’s usually possible).

RSA Education has always engaged in issues relating to social justice in education – my predecessor Becky Francis’ review of social justice in education, and report on progression in further education, provide fantastic foundations. Last year’s report on in-year admissions highlighted one cause of injustice, and our Academies work daily to address educational inequality.  As a founder member of the alliance, will now make a simple commitment. We won’t engage in education programmes, whether policy research or practical innovations, unless ‘closing the gap’ is built into the design and ambition of these programmes. Our own focus will move increasingly on what we are calling ‘closing the creativity gap’ across all stages of life, always connecting this agenda with attainment and other broad outcomes. That’s for another blog. For the moment, we hope that thousands of RSA Fellows and others participate in the alliance and sign up to our goals. We don’t care how bourgeois you are, and even if you’re an Iron Maiden fan, you’re welcome.

The Big Idea: STEM, in a day, with the RSA

June 2, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

This is a guest blog from Anne-Marie Imafidon.  Anne-Marie is a Fellow who works in technology at an investment bank and has spent the past 15 months running a social enterprise alongside her main job. She was the UK IT Young Professional of the Year in 2013 and recently won the UnLtd Innovation Award for work on the ‘Stemettes’ which encourages young women to get involved with STEM. She received RSA Catalyst funding in April.

rsa-tourWe’re facing a skills shortage across the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) industries and have what seems like a shrinking minority of females in what is an important industry for our economy. [WISE 2013] 

We’ve helped girls meet a diverse set of women working across a diversity of roles in STEM and in doing so have helped break stereotypes

Many have documented the problems across STEM at all levels and made their recommendations for what should be done (see the Through Both Eyes report). Since its launch in February 2013, the Stemettes project has given positive STEM experiences featuring STEM females ‘Big Stemettes’ to over 1100 girls across the UK with our unique brand of passionate, fun & creative panel events, hackathons, workshops and one exhibition.

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An “outstanding” week for RSA Academies…..

May 16, 2014 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

The sun has been shining on the RSA Family of Academies again this week, both literally and metaphorically!

We’ve had a great response to our call for West Midlands based Fellows to get involved in a new mentoring scheme for students at our Academies. If you’re interested but haven’t yet got in touch it’s not too late to sign up and there’s an initial event in Birmingham on Tuesday 22 May.

This Tuesday Hilary Chittenden was at Ipsley CE RSA Academy, giving the school a welcome distraction from this week’s SATs. She was working with a group of 12 and 13 year olds on their pupil design awards – our new school-age version of the student design awards – demonstrating how youngsters can unleash the power to create.

On Wednesday I joined the Principals of the schools in the RSA Family to work out how to create a really top-notch teacher training offer that supports teachers at every stage of their career, from their initial teacher training right through to headship. There was huge enthusiasm for co-ordinating and developing the great existing practice in our schools, and also for developing the link with the RSA to give teachers in our RSA Academies more opportunities to engage in research and enquiry in the way that today’s British Education Research Association report advocates.

On Thursday Arrow Vale RSA Academy’s Ofsted report was published, awarding the school a judgement of “outstanding” in every category.  The weaknesses of the inspection process have been well documented, and the dominance of Ofsted’s arguably narrow mechanism for describing and assessing education brings with it significant problems. Nevertheless, in this instance the inspection team have got it spot on, understanding Arrow Vale’s many strengths, and also how the transformation of a school that had never previously been rated as better than “requiring improvement” has been achieved in such a short space of time.

The inspectors have appreciated that whilst the role of the Principal, Guy Shears, has been absolutely key, he has not succeeded by working alone. By the time the school became an RSA Academy in September 2012 Guy had been working closely with the RSA and with Whitley Academy, another outstanding school in the RSA Family, for nearly a year, and this three way partnership has been crucial.

The RSA’s model of school improvement, whereby support is provided by practicing teachers and head teachers from a school improvement partner school in the Family rather than by a central pool of advisers, is relatively unusual in the world of Academy chains. It requires no small commitment on the part of the partner school. Whitley’s Principal, Lorraine Allen, has dedicated enormous time and energy to providing support and practical advice to Guy and his team. Whitley have also seconded a senior member of staff to work as Vice Principal at Arrow Vale for the last two years, which has provided an excellent professional development opportunity for him as well as benefiting the school. But the partnership extends more deeply than this – staff at all levels, including business manager, heads of English, the SEN co-ordinators and so on have worked together, bringing benefits to staff in both schools.

As well as bringing benefits to both the school providing the support and the receiving school, our model of school improvement has the added advantage of being self-sustaining. With Arrow Vale RSA Academy being judged to be outstanding our capacity to grow as an RSA Family is increased. So, when I was asked by the lead inspector, “what next for the school?” part of my answer was that Arrow Vale will be able to take on the role of school improvement partner for another school joining the RSA Family, just as Whitley has supported Arrow Vale. What I wasn’t able to tell her was where that new school would be.  So, if you work with a school in the West Midlands that might be interested in joining the RSA Family of Academies and working with the RSA and the fabulous schools in our Family, do get in touch…..

Could a research-literate teaching profession force governments to back off?

May 16, 2014 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

Given the RSA’s long tradition for running successful, influential commissions and Inquiries, it’s not surprising that we are often asked to lead commissions on various aspects of public policy. Too often, however, the instigators are frankly not that inquiring – they see a commission approach as a subtle marketing ploy to pitch solutions they already have in mind. Whenever these suggestions pass my inbox, I ask one simple question: “is this just a campaign masked as an Inquiry?”

I asked this of the British Education Research Association’s (BERA) approach to us this time last year to work on an Inquiry into the role of research in UK teacher education. Refreshingly, from the beginning, it was clear that BERA’s focus was on improving outcomes for learners, and wanted an Inquiry that was guided by the evidence rather than the interests of their members.

Our final report, launched today, demonstrates how the Inquiry has stuck to these principles. Ultimately, we are convinced that the four UK nations’ attempts to create world class, self-improving school systems will fail unless greater prominence is given to teachers’ engagement with research, and attempts are made to ensure that all teachers become ‘research literate’. However we make no special pleading for the role of universities or academics in this process. Success will be predicated on partnerships (especially with the growing Research-Edcommunity I blogged about here).

The evidence we gathered is clear about the positive impact that a research literate and research engaged profession is likely to have on learner outcomes. Despite this, we found that teachers’ experience of professional development in most parts of the UK is “fragmented, occasional and insufficiently informed by research” in contrast to that of internationally well-regarded education systems such as Finland, Canada and Singapore. Too often, schools’ ability to make a long-term commitment to creating a research-engaged workforce is being undermined by a target culture and short-term focus on exam results.

The Inquiry makes the case for the development across the UK of self-improving education systems in which all teachers become research literate and many have frequent opportunities for engagement in research and enquiry. This requires that schools and colleges become research-rich environments in which to work. It also requires that teacher researchers and the wider research community work in partner­ship, rather than in separate and sometimes competing universes. Finally, it demands an end to the false dichotomy between HE and school-based approaches to initial teacher education.

We concluded that everybody in a leadership position – in the policy com­munity, in university departments of education, at school or college level or in academy chains and other intermediaries – has a responsibility to support the creation of the sort of research-rich cultures which can both improve outcomes and close attainment gaps.

To achieve our vision, we identified ten principles that characterise the design of research-rich, self-improving edu­cation systems, organised across five themes:

research bubbles

These principles can be used as criteria against which to assess any education system’s approach. They also informed our recommendations for each of the four jurisdictions in the UK. This included establishing a National Network of Research Leaders in Education in each country and changes to the regulations governing teacher training and school inspections.

When I tell the story of the RSA’s education history, I give three examples from the 19th Century: The creation in our House of a new kind of chimney sweep; the campaign for girls’ education which led to the creation of the Girls Day School Trust; and the 1870 Inquiry into the state of education which recommended that government should create a Department for Education. Speaking to a conference for headteachers recently, one heckled back “well, two good ideas out of three isn’t bad!” Although a research-literate profession is no magic bullet to raise standards, it might provide the glue that helps all education interventions and programmes to be more effective and productive. As I wrote in an earlier blog if you can’t stand the research, get out of the classroom? “research literacy matters because it will give the teaching profession the capacity to create a genuinely self-improving system, and the clout to force governments and their regulators to reduce their intervention roles.” Get this right (and the UK’s data-drenched education systems provide strong foundations to build on), and perhaps the RSA’s next Inquiry can call for the virtual abolition of the DfE. Although of course, we would never be foolish enough to start with such a solution in mind.

Joe Hallgarten, Director of Education          Follow me @joehallg

Can you help broaden the horizons of RSA Academies students?

Question WebAre you interested in helping young people realise their potential?

This summer we are launching an ambitious new project that seeks to improve the career prospects of RSA Academies students – and we need your help. Read more

Revealed! Secrets of school collaboration

March 18, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Education Matters 

Last week I attended an excellent Westminster Education Forum Seminar on school-to-school improvement partnerships, which managed to squeeze 17 speakers into a single morning.  In the same spirit of brevity I am sharing my top tips from the morning in tweet-sized chunks.  They are:

Collaborations don’t have to do everything – be clear about their purpose – this from David Crossley, Executive Director of Whole Education (an organisation that has its roots in the RSA).  It is all too easy to see partnership or collaboration as an end in itself, rather than as a means to an end.  Within RSA Academies one of our four strategic priorities is, “to improve teaching and learning through purposeful partnership”.  As schools within the Family work increasingly collaboratively we will need to ensure that the focus on improving teaching and learning remains central.

Professor Merryn Hutchings from the Institute for Policy Studies in Education had directed the evaluation of the City Challenge programme in London, Greater Manchester and the Black Country.  A key message from that review was that Weaker schools benefit from a single partnership; stronger schools benefit from multiple partnerships.  This too is very relevant for the RSA Family of Academies, which includes both highly performing schools and those in need of support.  Schools within the Family should have the opportunity to benefit from all aspects of the relationship with other schools and with the RSA.  Nevertheless, there is a growing understanding that the focus of this is likely to be different for a struggling school which is looking principally for school improvement support, than for a good or outstanding school with more capacity to engage in a wider range of developmental activities.

Brian Lightman, General Secretary of ASCL, argued that Partnership works best when it is based on a relationship of equals.  RSA Academies certainly would not disagree with this as a principle.  Indeed our school improvement model explicitly recognises that “all schools, irrespective of Ofsted category, have both strengths and areas for development and will therefore be both offering and receiving support and advice from other schools.”

There are, however, aspects of the current Academies set-up nationally that mitigate against this equal partnership in practice, most notably that multi-academy trusts (MATs) are required to have a single accounting officer with ultimate responsibility for key issues across all schools in the group.  This probably isn’t a problem where a strongly performing school partners a weaker school, and where the head of the stronger school will take on this role.  Nor is it an issue for medium to large MATs, which can afford to take on a Chief Executive.  But, as Anne Jackson, Director of System Reform at DFE pointed out, for all the publicity around the big Academy chains, a typical Academy chains now comprises 4 or 5 schools.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, DFE are keen to encourage more of these small chains, particularly in the primary sector.  Schools coming together to form a MAT as equals will either need to choose one of the Headteachers as the accounting officer, and therefore the person with ultimate responsibility for the group, or commit resource to creating a new post of Chief Executive.  In many cases neither option will be attractive, and this may be one reason why the significant financial incentives to primary schools to form academy chains have so far had a limited effect.

Howard Lay, Executive Principal of the Samuel Ward Academy began his slot by talking very positively about the RSA’s work in Suffolk which resulted in the No School an Island report.  His analysis of the last few years, in Suffolk and nationally, was that Schools have been on a journey from dependence to independence, and are now moving to the next stage: interdependence.  This chimed very closely with the feedback I am getting from conversations with schools and local authorities about the possibility of new schools joining the RSA Family.  The first tranche of Academy convertors generally did so alone, and in the early years the new independence (as well as the financial incentives) was a big part of the attraction of Academy status.  More recently there has been a change in tack, with some of the schools that originally converted independently now looking to form partnerships and allegiances with other schools, and those that are considering Academy status for the first time more interested in converting in partnership with other schools.  The RSA’s Academies Commission stressed that in an increasingly academised system it would be particularly important for schools to be connected to one another to accelerate school improvement.  Mr Lay’s upbeat analysis, which reflected the mood of the morning , is that more and more schools are looking to offer and receive school improvement support from other schools, and school interdependence is becoming an increasing feature of our education system.

Alison Critchley is Chief Executive of RSA Academies, a charitable company that currently works with four schools in the West Midlands.  Follow me @Ali_Critchley

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