Let’s replace our Fortnum’s v Walmart system with a John Lewis model of schooling

Sandra Leaton Gray

Last week, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published an analysis of fair opportunities for pupils (PDF). Andreas Schleicher, its Special Adviser for Education, has said that social division represents a long term issue for the UK education system, and that there is distinct polarisation between the attainment levels of rich and poor pupils.

Using the example of London – where one-fifth of the country’s children attend school – Geoff Whitty and I found that children getting free school meals (a marker for deprivation) were very much more likely to attend poorly-achieving schools than successful ones.

The graph below demonstrates this. On the x-axis, we have plotted something the Government calls Families of Schools, based on official data and grouped according to shared characteristics such as attainment, number of children having free school meals and so on. On the y-axis, we have plotted the different types of school, as a proportion of the whole family: community, voluntary aided or controlled (usually faith schools) and foundation (funded directly by the State).

From the graph we can see that there are comparatively few community schools in the top performing Family, and a higher number of voluntary aided or voluntary controlled schools, in the case of this group, selective schools.

In contrast, all the schools in the bottom performing Family, where most of the children receiving FSM are concentrated, are community schools, and none are selective. (Data source: DfES, 2005).

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As these data are from 2005, we have revisited our earlier research. In the 2011 Families of Schools data, 2% of children in Family Number 1 (highest achieving, mainly selective schools) received free school meals (FSM), compared to 45% of children in Family Number 23 (lowest achieving, mainly community schools)..

So it is clear that the children suffering the most social and economic deprivation still have the least opportunity to attend academically successful schools. This is because the UK currently offers parents variable educational provision, usually depending on factors over which they have little or no control – for instance, whether the school is selective, its geographical location, or the family’s religion.

This variable provision has been described as a “spectrum of diversity” by academies sponsor Sir Bruce Liddington, but to some families it can simply seem confused and fragmented. In response to a situation where some children are “in” and the others “out” – a kind of Fortnum and Mason versus Walmart model of education, if you like – I propose a John Lewis model of schooling. In this model, all the main stakeholders play a part in its success, and it is designed to be mutually beneficial to all. Wherever you go in the country, you know what you are getting, and it’s reliable.

If it goes wrong, as is occasionally inevitable, other parts of the system step in to make sure your child is well looked after and that his or her education is attended to properly. In my John Lewis educational world, teachers would fraternize regularly and exchange best practice, pupils would learn to work in a schooling system where knowledge is pursued as a means to understanding rather than examination passes, and there would be a national consensus on what the education system is trying to achieve.

It’s time to ditch the language of division, where some people are “in” and some people are “out”, and reform our fragmented, artificially competitive education system. Instead we need to move towards the collaborative, high reliability schooling this country deserves.

Confusion in the (social mobility) ranks? Interpreting international comparisons

John Jerrim 

Last Friday the Sutton Trust published a very interesting report questioning the validity of global educational rankings. Having written extensively on this subject myself I can only welcome this report as making an important contribution to policymakers’ understanding of international comparisons of educational attainment. Yet the report also brought to mind the robustness of cross-national comparisons of another area of great policy interest – social mobility.

Readers have probably heard that social mobility is low in the UK by international standards. A number of sensationalist stories have led with headlines such as “Britain has worst social mobility in western world and that “UK has worse social mobility record than other developed countries.

Leading policymakers have made similar statements. To quote England’s Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove: “Those who are born poor are more likely to stay poor and those who inherit privilege are more likely to pass on privilege in England than in any comparable country”.

But is this really the case? Are we sure social mobility is indeed lower in this country than our international competitors? Or is it the case that, just like global league tables of educational achievement, there remains great uncertainty (and misunderstanding) surrounding cross-national comparisons of social mobility?

The answer can actually be found by exploring a little further academic research that has been published on the Sutton Trust website. Figure 1 is taken from a Social Mobility Report published on 21 September 2012.

Figure 1: International comparisons of social mobility – Sutton Trust report 21st September 2012

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Saving the technical details for another time, the longer the bars in this graph, the less socially mobile a country is. Here we see a familiar story; Britain ties with Italy as being the least socially mobile.

Figure 2, however, tells a different story. This is taken from another report published by the Sutton Trust just three days later.

Figure 2: International comparisons of social mobility – Sutton Trust report 24th September 2012

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This graph plots a measure of income inequality (horizontal axis) against an economic measure of social mobility (vertical axis). Thus the closer a country is to the top of the graph, the lower its level of social mobility. Now, it appears that the UK may actually be more socially mobile than France, Italy and the US, and very similar to countries like Australia, Canada and Germany. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the UK is also similar to Sweden, Finland and Norway. Indeed, the only country that we can have any real confidence that the UK is significantly different to is Denmark.

Why is there such a contrast between these two sets of results? The trouble is, cross-national studies of social mobility have to rely upon data that are not really cross-nationally comparable. Rather, data of varying quality have been used in each of the different countries. Individuals are interviewed at different ages, using different questionnaires and survey procedures. Indeed, even different statistical analysis methods are used. No wonder, then, that social mobility in the UK can look very different, depending upon which dataset and method of analysis are used.

So although global rankings of educational attainment can be misleading, so can those of social mobility. In fact, problems with international comparisons of social mobility are often significantly worse. Yet this does not seem to stop journalists and policymakers making bold claims that “Britain has some of the lowest social mobility in the developed world“. Things are rarely so black or white in the social sciences – and social mobility is no exception. This uncertainty should be recognised when journalists and government officials report on social mobility rankings in the future. Otherwise, I fear for the credibility of this extremely important social issue.

What does social mobility look like? It depends on your point of view

Chris Husbands 

Social mobility is news. At the Sutton Trust/Carnegie Foundation London social mobility summit last month, leading politicians from all three parties lined up to decry Britain as a country with lower levels of social mobility than almost any other advanced society.

Michael Gove, the Conservative education secretary, has said before that domination of positions of leadership and influence by those educated at private school results in ‘stratification and segregation [that] are morally indefensible’Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem deputy prime minister, has bemoaned the failings of a society “that still says where you are born, and who you are born to, matters for the rest of your life” and Labour leader Ed Miliband declares that “the doors of opportunity are open much wider for a wealthy and privileged few than they are for the many”.

Political consensus rarely holds for long and this is no exception. Proposed solutions spin off rapidly into quite different policy prescriptions. For Gove, the key is for all schools to match the best, so as to expand the opportunities available to children and young people. For him, the key is curriculum and assessment reform so that all schools mimic the best practice in independent – and, he is careful to say – state schools. 

For the deputy prime minister, “social mobility is all about creating a truly level playing field, and a fair race”, so that, for example, universities recruit students on the basis of “objective potential… not purely on previous attainment”. For Clegg, therefore, the pupil premium, which offers schools additional resources for the education of the most disadvantaged children is key, in order to bring more children to the starting line of the “fair race”. For him, it is misleading to conflate social mobility with inequality. 

For Ed Miliband, the solution is different again: it is to “improve opportunities for everyone, including those who don’t go to university. He argues that “we must reject the snobbery that says the only route to social mobility runs through university”.

Unlevel playing fieldThese disagreements are important in policy terms, but they also demonstrate something else:  when we think about social mobility, people “see” many different things. This leads to very different assumptions about what the problem is and what the policy solution should be. Some policy approaches – and Nick Clegg uses the image explicitly – talk about “levelling the playing field”.  The argument is put by the Cabinet Office 2011 Social Mobility Strategy: “For any given level of skill and ambition, regardless of an individual’s background, everyone should have an equal chance of getting the job they want or reaching a higher income bracket.” The job of government is to try to ensure that all can participate in such a race.  

ElevatorFor others, the issue is about access to the top – the elevator  – opening access to the most prestigious universities, the most prestigious jobs and the most influential positions in society. This “elevator” model focuses on the fact that – again in the words of the Cabinet Office paper – “Only 7% of the population attend independent schools, but the privately educated account for more than half of the top level of most professions, including 70% of high court judges, 54% of top journalists and 54% of chief executive officers of FTSE 100 companies”, and considers how these positions can be opened up. This point of view emphasises opening access to “elite” universities and schools – perhaps expanding grammar schools, although the evidence for grammar schools as motors of social mobility is extra-ordinarily thin on the ground.   

Esher-like staircaseA third, quite different, approach focuses on overall social movement: moving all up by expanding opportunity – the constant upward movement of Escher’s optical illusion, referenced in the picture here. Ed Miliband believes that “social mobility must not be just about changing the odds so that kids from poorer backgrounds make it to university”, but about widening routes and increasing opportunities.    

Snakes and ladders boardFinally, and most challenging for politicians, is a fourth idea: that social mobility involves movement down the social scale – from more to less influential positions, from rich to poor. The social mobility strategy is explicit on this “relative” social  mobility but it is hugely challenging for any government: social mobility is something we all agree on when the opportunities are expanding at the top of the system – as they were in the 30 years after the second world war. Much more difficult in times of constraint.

It’s naive to assume that all can agree on an issue as complex and challenging as social mobility which has some powerful implications for the sort of society we are and want to be. But recognising that when we think about it we all ‘see’ different things might help to clarify some of the differences. Level playing fields, elevators, step ladders, snakes and ladders boards: understand the image, understand the point of view.

Picture credits: unlevel playing field, John Kelleher; elevator, Dirk Anger

The pupil premium: should schools invest in teaching assistants?

Peter Blatchford and Rob Webster

The government has announced plans that could change the way schools manage provision for some of the most vulnerable pupils. Both the injection of cash for pupils on free school meals via the Pupil Premium and the plan to give parents of pupils with a statement of special educational needs (SEN) control over their child’s SEN budget are part of the coalition’s drive to give schools and parents the power and resources to fund the expert support they need to progress.

Of course, the groups of pupils at whom these two funding sources are targeted are not the same, though they do overlap: the government’s own data show that pupils with a statement for SEN are twice as likely to be eligible for free school meals as their peers.

Much has been made of the devolution of power from the centre in the drive to close the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, for example, made a virtue of the freedom headteachers have to spend the £488 per child Pupil Premium. He wants to see schools innovate, then publicise the most effective strategies.

Over the last 15 years, teaching assistants (TAs) have become a central part of policy and practice in meeting the needs of lower-attaining pupils and those with SEN. Over this period, TAs have grown to comprise a quarter of the UK mainstream school workforce. The general sense is that using TAs to provide one-to-one and small group support to struggling pupils works well, and it is likely that schools will seek to extend this through the Pupil Premium. However, our research offers a word of caution.

Results first published in 2009 and described in our new book, Reassessing the Impact of Teaching Assistants: How Research Challenges Practice and Policy, raise concerns about the impact of TA support on pupils’ academic progress.

Our five-year study, the Deployment and Impact of Support Staff (DISS) project (the largest study of TAs worldwide) measured the effect of the amount of TA support on the academic progress of 8,200 pupils, while controlling for factors like prior attainment and level of SEN. Worryingly, our analyses across seven year groups found that those who received the most support from TAs consistently made less progress than similar pupils who received less TA support.

So, are we suggesting that schools and parents look elsewhere to invest their funds? Far from it. Blaming TAs would, in our view, be wrong. As other results from the DISS project show, it is the decisions made about – not by – TAs, in terms of their deployment and preparation, which are at fault.

We found that there has been a drift towards TAs becoming, in effect, the primary educators of lower-attaining pupils and those with SEN. Teachers like this arrangement because they can then teach the rest of the class, in the knowledge that the children in most need get more individual attention. But the more support pupils get from TAs, the less they get from teachers. What is more, our detailed analysis of classroom talk showed that compared to teachers, TAs’ talk to pupils tends to focus on task completion rather than developing understanding – most likely as a result of having limited opportunities to meet with teachers before lessons.

The government has not ringfenced Pupil Premium cash, but it will – via Ofsted and league tables – hold schools accountable for how it is spent. Our view – outlined in Reassessing the Impact of TAs – is that schools must undertake a fundamental rethink of the purpose and role of TAs if they are to get the best use from TAs and help disadvantaged pupils.

To this end we have been conducting a follow up study, funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, in which we have been collaborating with schools to develop and evaluate strategies for improving the use of TAs. The results of this research, which to date are extremely positive, will feature in a future blog.

In selective Bucks, an academy goes comprehensive

Stephen Ball

Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden’s seminal study of grammar schooling in Huddersfield, Education and the Working Class, was published by Penguin books exactly 50 years ago. Focused on the experiences of 88 working class children, it is about class mobility, class inequality and social waste, and what Jackson and Marsden describe as a “blockage” – selective education. The authors had both attended the grammar school which is at the centre of the research and Alan Bennett, another “local lad”, has acknowledged that the book provided the basis for his play The History Boys, which is set in Cutlers’ Grammar School, Sheffield, a fictional boys’ school.

What Education and the Working Class demonstrates is how thoroughly and insidiously – and damagingly, for some young people – the grammar school is a middle class institution, a “natural extension” of middle class home life as the authors put it. The grammar school was, and remains in a few places in England, a conduit of class advantage, a privileged site within which middle class cultural capital and economic investment in coaching and tutoring could be readily converted into qualifications and symbolic capital.

All of this has been rehearsed again this month in the admission by Buckinghamshire County Council that their 11+ examination carries an inherent bias which works in favour of “the affluent”. Perversely the Buckinghamshire revelation came about as a result of the insertion into the county system of a conversion academy, Highcrest, which will become the first comprehensive school in the County, with control over its own admissions policy.

Education Secretary Michael Gove announced in December that parents will be stripped of the right to object to the expansion of grammar schools, under a new school admissions code laid before Parliament. So it is ironic that one bit of government policy – support for grammar schooling – is being called into question by another bit – the extension of academy status to more, perhaps all, schools.

We might think about whether this says something about the lack of “thinking through” of policy by its makers or wonder how the support for grammar schools relates to the government’s other commitments to social mobility and tackling social disadvantage through education, or ponder what Jackson and Marsden might think about the fact that Buckinghamshire is getting its first comprehensive school 50 years after they argued in their book that the first step towards creating “open”, “bold and flexible” schooling would be “to abandon selection at eleven, and accept the comprehensive principle” (p 246). Who would have thought that the academies policy would be a vehicle for comprehensivisation?