Differentiation in the ITT core content framework


This short post anticipates the coverage of top-end differentiation in the imminent framework of core content for initial teacher training (ITT).



The Carter review of initial teacher training (ITT) (January 2015) dates from the last months of the Coalition Government. The first recommendation is that DfE should commission a sector body to develop a framework of core content for ITT.

Carter stresses that this should be undertaken outside of central government and proposes that the framework should be informed by the areas for improvement it highlights. One of these is differentiation.

The Government Response to the Carter Review (January 2015) endorsed the recommendation to develop a framework. The government would commission an ‘independent working group made of expert representatives from the sector’ to report back to the Secretary of State.

In March 2015 a press release announced that a group had been commissioned to undertake the task. It would be chaired by Stephen Munday of Comberton Academy Trust, and include several familiar names, amongst them Tom Bennett, Ruth Miskin and Alison Peacock.

In September 2015, some six months into the project, a second press release was issued to confirm the introduction of four additional members. Described as ‘from a diverse range of backgrounds’, they are intended to supply some additional Tory ballast.

The first press release said the group would report ‘by the end of 2015’; the second extended their deadline to ‘spring 2016’.

Both these actions must have been taken in recognition that the group was making less than satisfactory progress and was at risk of producing a framework that the new Government could not endorse.

The Educational Excellence Everywhere white paper (March 2016) says that the framework will ensure trainees have:

‘a greater understanding of the most up-to-date research on how pupils learn. We’ll ensure discredited ideas unsupported by firm evidence are not promoted to new teachers’ (p. 12)

It will also provide them with:

‘a greater understanding of evidence-based practice and how to adapt their teaching to unlock the full potential of pupils with a wide range of different needs’ (p.28)

Paragraph 6.59 (p. 99) adds that:

the new core ITT framework will now include a specific focus on stretching the most academically able pupils and cutting edge evidence on how these pupils can be challenged and stimulated to achieve the very highest standards.’

The ‘now’ makes it sound as though this is a late addition to the remit. The working group’s report is expected imminently, however.

An ideological adjustment

In ‘Doing Differentiation Differently?’ (February 2016) I drew attention to a recent speech by Minister of State Nick Gibb in which he questioned the value of differentiated teaching:

‘Differentiated teaching is not common in Shanghai, as it reinforces the performance gap between pupils. Across the OECD as a whole, the use of differentiating by ability whilst teaching has a negative relationship with pupil outcomes…

There appears to be no conception in Shanghai that some pupils can ‘do’ mathematics, whilst others cannot. Instead, the focus is on all pupils mastering a concept before moving to the next part of the curriculum sequence, allowing no pupil to be left behind.’

I pointed out that such emphasis on ‘no child left behind’ was a hangover from the Coalition government and fundamentally out of kilter with ‘excellence for all’.

I suggested that Gibb should get with the programme while noting that:

‘this new position…raises some awkward questions about elements of Gibbian orthodoxy and the education policy it has engendered’.

I devoted part of ‘Will the national funding formula support ‘excellence for all’?’ (March 2016) to spelling out the implications of the statement in DfE’s single departmental plan 2015-20:

‘Educational excellence everywhere: every child and young person can access high-quality provision, achieving to the best of his or her ability regardless of location, attainment and background’.

And in ‘Education excellence everywhere for the most able’ (March 2016) I drew out the implications of the white paper for the education of high attainers, remarking the significance of statements like:

‘Equally, we reject the notion that our schools should limit their focus on bringing every child up to a minimum level – instead, they should stretch every child, including the most able, to reach their full potential’ (p. 10)


We will ensure that all schools can stretch their…most academically able pupils by increasing the focus on, and supporting approaches aimed at, boosting their attainment’ (p. 99).


Carter is caught in the old paradigm

Carter’s treatment of differentiation is very much in line with yesterday’s ideology.

The substantive section of the report dealing with differentiation is on page 34. This is what it says (my emphasis):

‘We believe all pupils in the class, including lower and higher achievers, should make progress and keep pace with the curriculum

It is critical that attainment gaps are not reinforced through approaches taken to pupil differentiation. Effective differentiation does not mean having several different lesson plans for one class, which can lead to lower attaining pupils falling further behind…

Additionally, new teachers should…understand how to deepen and to enrich the understanding of pupils who grasp curriculum concepts quickly. These will include, for example: provision of additional tutorial support and practice outside the lesson for pupils who have not secured the concepts covered; and, for higher attaining pupils, more complex tasks and exercises or outside-lesson enrichment activities on the same topic.’

The language of Gibb’s speech is heavily redolent of this (‘attainment gaps are not reinforced’ compared with ‘reinforces the performance gap between pupils’; ‘can lead to lower attaining pupils falling further behind’ compared with ‘allowing no pupil to be left behind’).

This is the ideology of mastery-style teaching, a la NCETM, in which top-end differentiation is confined to problem-solving and independent investigation.

Depth (extension) is preferred to breadth (enrichment) and pace (acceleration) is foresworn entirely because it tends to expand the achievement gap between high and low attainers. This is out of kilter with national curriculum guidance.

How can it be reconciled with the new commitment to ‘stretch every child, including the most able, to reach their full potential’?


There is limited consensus

There is an additional and fundamental conflict between the very concept of a core content framework for ITT and the pedagogical autonomy that teachers are supposed to enjoy – a position reinforced in the white paper.

The framework will enable the government to push a ‘what works’ agenda:

‘We’ll ensure discredited ideas unsupported by firm evidence are not promoted to new teachers.’

But, as I tried to show in ‘Doing differentiation differently?’ the evidence base is all too often incomplete, disputed and tainted by ideological bias. Radically different paradigms of effective practice succeed each other frequently.

Unless it is superbly balanced, the ITT framework will be interpreted as a mechanism to impose a preferred ideology on trainees and so undermine the autonomy of the profession. That would be a presentational own goal for the government.



The big problem is that there is no clear consensus over what constitutes effective top-end differentiation and wider support for the most able. That is why I have repeatedly called for further work to include:

Sponsoring guidance and associated professional development for schools and colleges on effective institution-wide provision for their most able learners, developed from a set of core principles and designed to re-establish national consensus in this field.’

I even offered a set of draft core principles to set the ball rolling. These are broadly consistent with ‘educational excellence everywhere’ but not with ‘no child left behind’, for they include:

‘The route to high attainment may involve any or all of greater breadth, increased depth and a faster pace of learning. These elements should be prioritised and combined appropriately to meet each learner’s needs; a one-size-fits-all solution should not be imposed, nor should any of these elements be ruled out automatically.’

I cannot see how it is possible to accommodate within a pedagogy designed to close gaps between high and low attainers (the English mastery movement) a renewed commitment to stretch high attainers to ‘achieve to the best of their ability’.

Acceleration done badly should be dispensed with, but not acceleration per se. It is a necessary and important constituent of the differentiation toolbox. It is not a discredited idea unsupported by firm evidence.

Hattie adherents will discover a startlingly large effect size for accelerative interventions. The EEF toolkit all but sidesteps acceleration, though the references for the section on setting and streaming include a 2011 meta-analysis:

‘ The findings are consistent with the conclusions from previous meta-analytic studies, suggesting that acceleration had a positive impact on high-ability learners’ academic achievement (g = 0.180, 95% CI = -.072, .431, under a random-effects model).’

A new third way is needed. Willingly I will suspend disbelief until I see the draft, but I am not convinced that the ITT core framework group is the right locus for this discussion.



March 2016




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