Policy Exchange to the Rescue?


This post is mainly about Policy Exchange’s plans for ‘super-selective schools’, as proposed on Total Politics and reprised in Schools Week



It’s been a strange six months.

Last July I officially retired the Gifted Phoenix Blog and the @GiftedPhoenix Twitter feed, leaving the former open access and converting the latter into a private archive.

I had embarked on both with the notion that consumers of these free services would reciprocate with a steady stream of paid consultancy. But I found myself devoting all my time to producing freebies while the trickle of consultancy work dried up entirely. So after a five-year stint it was time to pull the plug.

In late August I launched my new Eponymous Blog and opened a parallel @TimDracup Twitter feed. I still cover education issues, alongside other interests, but I will only blog or tweet when I have something I particularly want to communicate. I don’t bust a gut. The consultancy is still open, but I pick and choose and I don’t tout for business.

I do reblog my Eponymous education posts on the Gifted Phoenix blog to give them a little more exposure. Much to my surprise I produced a dozen of those between August and November 2015.

But then there were two fallow months. I’ve published zero posts and only a smattering of tweets to punctuate the social media silence. Why?

Back in April 2015 I was invited to give an Access Lecture at Brasenose College Oxford, building on an earlier post I’d written about Oxbridge admissions. That led to a major commission from Oxford University which I can refer to thus:

‘As part of its on-going commitment to increase the participation of under-represented groups to the higher education sector, the University of Oxford has commissioned Tim Dracup to provide a review of effective practice in the area of widening participation and fair access. He will also be an adviser to a group on the development of key information sets to support Oxford’s undergraduate Admissions and Outreach practice.’

I’ve been working intensively on this review during December and January. The workload has been heavy and the learning curve pretty steep at times but, thus far at least, I’ve found the experience rewarding.

Moreover, the news over the weekend of Prime Ministerial intervention suggests that my own small contribution is perfectly timed.

I’ve reached a short window. I had been looking forward to a well-earned break but, having been so industrious for so long, I’m finding it hard to relax. So I thought I’d write this instead.


A revival of interest?

I’ve pointed out a few times that there’s an as yet unfulfilled commitment on page 35 of the Conservative Election Manifesto:

‘We will make sure that all students are pushed to achieve their potential and create more opportunities to stretch the most able.’



I’ve been wondering whether some specific response to the second phrase might surface in the Government’s Life Chances Strategy, described by the Prime Minister as

‘…a comprehensive plan to fight disadvantage and extend opportunity’.

It will be published in the spring. This must be the Government’s new social mobility strategy, though under a different name.

There should be something more than the mentoring campaign already announced by the Prime Minister, which the DfE press notice suggests will address the fact that:

‘…many bright children from disadvantaged backgrounds are not fulfilling their potential with figures showing pupils who score highly in primary school often struggle to continue that success into secondary school’.

Mentoring is ‘low impact’ in EEF Toolkit terms and I’ve always believed it most efficacious as part of a coherent support package.

News has reached me that there is some research under way within DfE into what Ofsted calls ‘the most able’.




There is no reference on Contracts Finder, so I assume this must have been entrusted to one of the Analytical Associate Pool comprising some 160 independent academics and researchers who ‘carry out small-scale data analysis, rapid literature reviews, primary research and peer review’.

It is a positive sign that the research has been commissioned, though it is not clear whether it is intended to identify policies to fulfil the Manifesto commitment or, indeed, whether it is addressing the issue from a strategic perspective.

If the findings are published then of course I’ll review them here. I’m cautiously optimistic that I’ll find plenty of my own posts cited in the text…

During the last few weeks it has also been confirmed that Policy Exchange, your favourite right-of-centre think tank:

‘…will be publishing a report later in the year on the challenge of educating the most gifted and talented children’



The irony is not lost on me that this apparent revival of interest coincides with the demise of Gifted Phoenix. But I doubt it has anything to do with his efforts to introduce stronger evidence-based analysis of the issues.

The welcome influence of HMCI Wilshaw is most likely to have made the difference, and possibly Labour’s rather vague pre-Election commitment which appears to have vanished without trace.


Policy Exchange has previous

It seems that this new publication may have at least some input from James Frayne, the Exchange’s Director of Policy and Strategy. Frayne is erstwhile DfE Director of Communications, during the Gove regime, husband of Rachel Wolf (founder of the New Schools Network and now a No. 10 adviser) and a close former colleague of Dominic Cummings.

Perhaps this is because the education team at Policy Exchange seems rather depleted at present. Jonathan Simons is still Head of Education, but his Deputy, Natasha Porter, is now a DfE Policy Fellow while Annaliese Briggs has also moved on.

Policy Exchange has history in this territory. Back in 2012 I was approached by Neil O’Brien, its then Director, who invited me in for a chat to discuss ‘the most interesting research questions’ in relation to gifted education, since it was a subject he wanted to return to in the future.

The year before they had published a paper by Deborah Eyre – Room at the Top – which I reviewed in some detail shortly afterwards, supporting the broad thrust of the argument.

The discussion took place, but nothing happened. I followed up in February 2013, only to be told that they’d decided this wasn’t a priority and they’d shelved any further work for the time being.

As Schools Week has pointed out, Simons and Porter co-authored a December 2014 post called  ‘5 reasons why a return to grammar schools is a bad idea’:

‘So selection is undeniably not an answer in policy terms. But neither – perhaps equally importantly – is it good politics…The answer, as Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan have both rightly argued, is to concentrate, single mindedly and without brooking opposition, on supporting schools that can lift standards for all, regardless of background. And such schools do exist; schools which take children from all academic backgrounds and make huge strides towards closing the gap which poverty has created…all stand as beacons for what world class education for all can be.’

Then in March 2015 Policy Exchange published an Education Manifesto the very last paragraph of which said:

‘There should also be a renewed focus on how to stretch all pupils within the state sector at whatever level, and further work on identifying potential highly able talent across the wider state education sector as Ofsted have identified – both of which will be the focus of future Policy Exchange work.’

This was the tail end of a piece proposing a National Scholarships scheme for talented undergraduates. Gifted Phoenix devoted a post to critiquing this ‘poorly researched back-of-envelope’ proposal. I’m afraid he also called it a ‘hare-brained scheme’ (it was).


Tweet 1 Capture


I doubt this will have endeared me to the author (perm from one of messrs Simons, Porter and Briggs).

Still, last May I requested further details of the planned work, but was told they hadn’t yet scoped it. I offered my services


Tweet 2 capture


Again I heard nothing more.


What can we expect?

Most of the content is still under wraps but James Frayne offered some insight into one prominent feature, initially through a post on the Total Politics blog dated 4 January 2016.

This argues (my synthesis):

  • The introduction of wider diversity into the state-funded education sector will raise standards system-wide. The primary objective should be to improve the quality of all schools – including for their gifted learners, who benefit from such diversity…
  • …But ‘truly world class state schools’ can only be created by establishing ‘a very small number’ that are free to select ‘the most gifted children’ (regardless of wealth).
  • These schools would together take in ‘perhaps just several thousand’ learners per year – each school with an annual intake of about 60 – and provide ‘the most academically demanding education available anywhere in the country’.
  • They would manage their own admissions, using exams and interviews to test ‘aptitude’ and ‘potential’ – and to minimise the impact of coaching and middle class eloquence.
  • They could admit students at the start of secondary education or of GCSE courses. There should be ‘multiple opportunities’ for admission, to cater for late developers.
  • They would have full control over their curricula but would ‘learn from the best comparable schools in other countries’. Hence they would be likely to follow a broad curriculum to 18 rather than engaging in early specialisation, but also ‘focus particularly heavily on maths and science’ and ‘follow a knowledge-rich curriculum’.
  • Such schools are necessary because ‘the truly gifted need something that most schools cannot give them’, namely:
  • ‘extremely highly qualified teaching’
  • ‘a very demanding curriculum that stretches them permanently and not just occasionally’
  • ‘university level coaching and access’ and
  • ‘perhaps most importantly, other gifted pupils that they can work with’

It is acknowledged that the pressure from ‘very high expectations’ would not suit all children

  • Although in the state system, these would be unlike grammar schools. The small intake would minimise the impact on other schools and parents would not begrudge their creation.
  • The charge of elitism falls because highly selective schools already exist in the independent sector. These schools would extend the same opportunities to those from ‘poor…and ordinary middle class backgrounds’.
  • The education system ‘has the duty to get the best from each child’ and this reform might ‘help the most gifted children reach their potential’.

Schools Week followed up this story on the same day by interviewing Frayne. A few new details emerged:

  • There might be ‘a few dozen’ such schools
  • They would be ‘outside the existing system’ of state schools, in ways yet to be defined
  • The current state system doesn’t give sufficient attention to ‘the very best pupils’
  • Such provision will be ‘just one option’ proposed in the forthcoming Policy Exchange report.

Frayne also:

‘…denied his call for action was a reversal of the influential organisation’s stance against grammar schools’

Is this selection?

Of course it is. Regardless of the small numbers involved and the suggested special status of these institutions within the state-funded system, they would be admitting learners – selected on the basis of attainment, ability, aptitude or potential – who would otherwise have attended existing comprehensive or grammar schools (or independent schools, presumably).

Frayne suggests this wouldn’t matter because the impact on other schools would be negligible. It might not be quite so minimal for at least some of the 163 grammar schools, but perhaps one might justify that as ‘the biter bit’, providing a much-needed challenge to complacency.

There are those who would argue that Frayne’s list of what ‘the truly gifted need’ applies equally to all learners – and the fact that they will be provided exclusively for those most likely to become outstandingly high achievers may be the clinching argument against such provision.

The selection process will also be a focus for criticism, unless the arrangements give explicit priority to students eligible for the pupil premium. It is notoriously difficult to design a selection system that does not give some advantage to the ‘sharp-elbowed middle classes’

So it is impossible to reconcile this proposal with Policy Exchange’s 2014 post, meaning that they will have to execute a judicious U-turn.



There are sufficient clues in the piece to show that the genesis of this idea lies in the examples of similar specialist institutions abroad.

So it comes from exactly the same stable as the university-sponsored 16-19 maths free schools championed by Frayne’s former colleague Dominic Cummings.

Here is Cummings – from his essay ‘Some thoughts on education and political priorities’ (2013):

‘We know that at the top end of the ability range, specialist schools, such as the famous Russian ‘Kolmogorov schools’…show that it is possible to educate the most able and interested pupils to an extremely high level…We should give this ~2% a specialist education as per Eton or Kolmogorov, including deep problem-solving skills in maths and physics.’

A DfE press release from January 2013 repeats the reference:

‘The ultimate aim is to create a network of schools that operate across England which identify and nurture mathematical and scientific talent. This is similar to the Russian model, which includes the renowned Kolmogorov School in Moscow, established by Andrei Kolmogorov – one of the 20th century’s most respected mathematicians.’

Only two such schools have been established to date – because far too few university sponsors have come forward. Neither is focused at the very top of the attainment distribution in the Kolmogorov fashion.

Frayne’s proposal seems intended to get closer to the original vision, relaunching the same idea in a slightly different guise. He rather hedges his bets over whether these schools should be generalist or specialist STEM-focussed institutions: most of the overseas examples I know of are the latter.

Two points in passing:

  • It is a mystery why the Russian Kolmogorov precedent took such hold when there are so many other instructive examples worldwide – witness this post I wrote in 2012 about provision in South Korea, one of the Asian Tigers that leads the PISA rankings. The Korea Science Academy of KAIST is probably the best known institution there.





Frayne appears to argue that the needs of most high attainers and potential high attainers can be met within the existing diversified state school system, but that this does not hold for those at the very extreme of the distribution.

Their needs cannot be met even in our existing selective schools, so they should have dedicated specialist institutions.

His numbers are deliberately vague, but he seems to be envisaging perhaps 30-50 schools nationally, some catering for Y7-13 and some for Y10-13, each with a typical initial annual intake of 60 pupils, so 2FE.

But 11-18 institutions might take in an additional cohort before Year 10 and, presumably, another again before Year 12.

If we assume a maximum of 50 schools, all 11-18, with 2FE in Years 7-9 inclusive, 3FE in Years 10-11 inclusive and 4FE in Years 12-13 inclusive then, assuming a zero drop-out rate, my calculations suggest a maximum student population in steady state of some 30,000 students.

Assuming a total national year group of around 540,000 in state-funded secondary schools, the initial annual Y7 intake of 3,000 represents approximately 0.6% of the cohort. Higher up the age range the intake increases to approximately 1% of the cohort. That represents on average one or two pupils lost from each upper secondary year group.

Such schools would presumably be distributed throughout England so that as many learners as possible can access them – Frayne does not discuss whether boarding facilities will be necessary. That would obviously add significantly to the cost.

Even a tranche of 50 new day schools, admittedly rather small ones, would not come cheap. We might assume an initial average capital outlay of £5m per institution, giving a total one-off capital cost of £250m.

It is hard to estimate recurrent costs without more detail. But such schools are likely to require very low pupil – staff ratios and extensive specialist facilities. If we assume £10,000 per student per year then, on the basis of the calculations above and in steady-state, the total annual recurrent cost would be some £300m.

Those are very large sums indeed to spend on such a small pupil population. The relatively few additional places might make some marginal contribution to the overall under-supply, but this money would need to be found at a time when the overall schools budget is under considerable pressure.

Perhaps this might be a call on the funding set aside for 500 new free schools – though whether these institutions would qualify as free schools seems rather up in the air for the moment.



I’m not persuaded.

First of all, I’m not sure the core premiss stands. Some would argue that outstandingly gifted students must of necessity be siphoned into a specialist institution, while others would contend that they are best supported in their mainstream schools and colleges. Both solutions have their advantages and disadvantages.

On balance I favour tailored support for learners who remain based in their existing schools and colleges. The clincher for me is that all the funding can be spent directly on the students rather than paying for bricks and mortar. There is less deadweight (including students transferring in from the independent sector) and no risk of a ‘postcode lottery’ associated with the location of the schools.

Secondly, if new selective institutions are necessary, they should ideally be confined to the 16-19 sector, where the precedent is firmly established and there is negligible political opposition.

New 14+ selective schools may be a bridge too far; new 11+ selective schools almost certainly would be, regardless of the proportion of the student population they accommodate.

Thirdly, Frayne has outlined the pinnacle of provision without describing the supporting pyramid underneath. There has to be strong system-wide provision for high-attaining learners at every level, to support upward progression, including for those who aspire to enter these specialist institutions. Look again at the South Korean model.

Schools such as these must have substantial outreach programmes that extend throughout their (regional?) catchment, not least for the purposes of talent-spotting.

But there must also be a bedrock of high quality teaching and learning in every school and college, together with additional out-of-school support, supplied by a variety of providers but co-ordinated by the home institution.

Disadvantaged high attainers need particularly focused support to sustain their initial performance and so prevent attrition as they move through the Key Stages. That is the key to improving social mobility through improved access to the most selective universities.

If there was a budget only sufficient to provide either schools for the very top of the attainment distribution or in-situ tailored support for all high attainers from disadvantaged backgrounds – I would certainly plump for the latter, on the twin grounds of equity and efficiency.


What else to do?

I have plenty more suggestions for Policy Exchange and DfE alike, including:

  • Requiring all existing grammar schools to prioritise the admission of those eligible for the pupil premium – ideally giving them equal status to children in care. Too many are falling short of this expectation.
  • Requiring all new selective schools, including 16-19 institutions – and all those increasing their PAN or establishing a satellite – to commit to challenging targets for pupil premium admissions.
  • EEF should invite bids for projects and associated RCTs designed to test innovative new within-school selection arrangements. This would inform guidance encouraging schools to explore options beyond setting and streaming. EEF should also hold a bidding round specifically to develop and test effective whole school practice with disadvantaged high attainers.
  • Radically improve transparency through the annual publication of performance data for the full set of high attainment benchmarks at KS2, GCSE and A-level, all broken down by pupil characteristics including FSM, disadvantage, gender and ethnic background, as well as combinations of these.
  • Commission updated guidance on how breadth, depth and pace can be harnessed to differentiate classroom teaching and learning for high attainers – and encourage schools to consider this as an alternative to mastery, which so often advocates a much narrower, more impoverished approach.
  • Reinvent quality standards to help schools understand the parameters of effective practice in whole-school provision for high attainers, while giving them flexibility to develop solutions that fit their needs and circumstances. Accompany these with a set of core principles. Ensure the Ofsted inspection regime is consistent with both.
  • Top-slice £50m from the pupil premium budget to underwrite a coherent market-driven programme supporting high-attaining disadvantaged students to progress to selective universities. This would integrate the ‘push’ from schools and colleges with the ‘pull’ from higher education achieving efficiencies on both sides (more details here).

Always happy to discuss!




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