The Fair Education Alliance: A wasted opportunity?


In April 2016 the Fair Education Alliance released its second annual report card.

This post reviews progress against the five declared impact goals, as well as the recommendations for securing stronger progress in future.


What is the Fair Education Alliance?

The Fair Education Alliance was launched by Teach First in June 2014.

It claims 55 members although the website lists only 44, while the new report card mentions 46, plus Offa who are ‘advisors to the FEA’.

Recent press releases have announced the addition of the University of Oxford, UCAS, SSAT, Allen & Overy, The English –Speaking Union, Gap Education, Challenge Partners and Ladies Who L-EARN. I think that makes 55.

Several of the participating organisations have a strong interest and involvement in access to higher education. There are four university members apart from Oxford, plus several third sector stalwarts including The Access Project, The Bridge Group, The Brilliant Club, IntoUniversity and Teach First itself.

Some other relevant organisations are conspicuous by their absence.

UBS is described as lead sponsor, while Allen and Overy paid for the new report card. There is much bureaucracy: a Chair and Vice Chair, a Director and Co-ordinator, a six-strong steering group, five working groups aligned with the impact goals and a Report Card Committee.

The vision statement says:

‘The Fair Education Alliance is working towards a world where our education system is fair – where children’s educational success is not limited by their socio-economic background. This is a world where disadvantage no longer determines literacy and numeracy rates at primary school, GCSE attainment at secondary school, the emotional wellbeing and resilience of young people, participation in further education or employment based training and university graduation.’

Its mission is:

‘To use our collective voice and influence to create change by helping a wide range of stakeholders to close the gap between the most disadvantaged children and their wealthier peers.’

According to the website, members have ‘signed up to work towards achieving’ the impact goals, though it is doubtful whether they have made any specific commitments to that effect.

The website says that:

‘The Alliance will use the Impact Goals to call for where action is needed – such as numeracy, literacy and access to Higher Education – and develop a programme of far-reaching activity on a long term educational strategy [sic]. This will include securing policy change and member-led initiatives.’

Before continuing I should declare an interest: I campaigned vigorously against a misguided and self-defeating proposal in the inaugural 2014 report card to reduce the pupil premium entitlement of disadvantaged high attainers.

It is pleasing to see that this has been dropped.


No progress against the Fair Education Impact Goals

There are five goals. The Alliance is a little coy about its baselines. One assumes that they relate to 2012/13 since an appendix to the new report card implies this, but little of the reporting in the main body of the publication relates to them. Indeed it is very hard to see the wood for the trees.

Here is my best effort to clarify:

  1. Closing the attainment gap between primary schools serving lower income pupils and those serving higher income pupils.
  • The distinction is between state schools where 50% or more learners come from the most deprived 30% of families and those where 50% or more learners come from the least deprived 30% of families, these calculations based on IDACI. The Alliance has never published this data.
  • The attainment gap is based on average fine grade point scores in KS2 English (reading and writing) and maths. These are used to derive an average score for all pupils within a school. The goal is to narrow this gap by a huge 90% by 2022.
  • The 2012/13 baseline is 1.74 points. A 90% improvement would imply a gap of only 0.17 points. The 2013/14 outcome is 1.76 points, meaning a deterioration of 0.02 points, or 1%. The report card sets great store by the improvement since 2010/11, but that is not the baseline.
  1. Closing the attainment gap between secondary schools serving lower income pupils and those serving higher income pupils.
  • The distinction between schools serving lower and higher income pupils is the same as for the primary measure.
  • The attainment gap is based on average point scores for eight GCSEs with (unspecified) ‘extra weighting’ for English and maths. This is not quite the new Attainment 8 measure. Equivalent qualifications are excluded. Performance Table rules are followed on eligibility of qualifications and first entries counting for EBacc subjects. The goal is to reduce this gap by 44% by 2022, substantially less ambitious than the primary measure.
  • The 2012/13 baseline is 95 points. A 44% improvement implies a gap of 53 points and a 42 point improvement. The 2013/14 outcome is 79 points, a substantial 17% improvement on the baseline year, but ‘it is very likely that differences are due to the change in assessment methods’, so this apparent progress is illusory and should be discounted.
  1. Ensuring young people develop key strengths, including character, wellbeing and mental health to support high aspirations. A year on, measurement tools and baselines have still not been identified.
  1. Narrowing the gap in the proportion of young people taking part in further education or employment-based training after completing KS4.
  • This actually relates to the gap between secondary schools serving lower and higher income pupils, as defined for measures 1 and 2.
  • The measure is based on DfE’s destination data, giving a school average figure for those with a sustained destination two terms after the completion of KS4.
  • Strangely, the improvement required in this school average figure is not specified, but the baseline gap in 2012/13 was seven percentage points and there has been no improvement in 2013/14.
  1. Closing the graduation gap between young people from low income and high income backgrounds.
  • In this case it appears that income is still defined at the individual level – low income means FSM-eligible and high income means non-FSM eligible. The Appendix says the Alliance intends to switch to a measure focused on schools serving low and high income communities. The same intention was expressed in the previous report card.
  • There are two measures of graduation: the total number of low income students graduating each year and the number graduating from the most selective universities each year. The latter is a subset of the former. ‘Most selective’ refers to the Sutton Trust 30 measure which includes ’the top 25% of universities with the highest required UCAS scores’.
  • Curiously the targets are not expressed in terms of closing the gap, but relate only to the extra numbers of low income students graduating annually: 5,000 more per year, 1,600 of them from the most selective universities.
  • Even more curiously, the report card tells us only what has happened to the gaps, ignoring changes to the numbers graduating: the overall graduation baseline in 2012/13 was a 17 percentage point gap (23% versus 40%). This has closed by a single percentage point to 16 points in 2013/14. The ‘most selective universities’ graduation baseline is not given, but the gap increased by 0.1 percentage points. This lack of clarity may be deliberate obfuscation of poor outcomes.

Hardly a record of outstanding progress! In the first year of its existence the Alliance has made not one iota of difference.

The methodological issues surrounding goals 3 and 5 have not yet been resolved.

Current changes to the primary and secondary assessment regime will almost certainly disrupt the future measurement of progress against goals 1 and 2.

These measures are anyway over-complex and there is limited transparency surrounding them.  They need rethinking from first principles.


An impoverished policy agenda

The Alliance has little new to offer in terms of new policies to address this absence of progress. The so-called ‘main recommendations’ mostly recycle existing plans and initiatives.

In relation to university admissions there is only:

‘We will work with UCAS to support universities in improving their use of contextualised data. The Alliance supports the efforts made by universities to use such data and would welcome a renewed effort to see where improvements in use can be made.’

The ‘recommendations for practice’ are equally uninspiring. In relation to goal 5:

  • Schools should extend their professional development activities, possibly with the support of third sector organisations.
  • Third-sector organisations providing enrichment opportunities should expand and target schools serving low income communities.
  • Universities should ‘continue to broaden their more successful outreach programmes, including summer schools, campus visits and mentoring. Universities should consider how to target this work based on need, taking account of regional factors and the characteristics of potential students.’

The report card’s conclusion adds an afterthought about improving the evaluation of outreach to increase efficiency.

This is adding zero value to what is already in hand. There is no reference at all to the proposals in the HE green paper and no remotely innovative ideas for strengthening existing provision. There is no explicit link between given policy interventions and the targets within goal 5.

Frankly this is a very poor return for a full year’s work. If I were sponsoring the Alliance I would be asking some very serious questions indeed about strategy, about longer term direction and intended impact.

There is no evidence that the Alliance is anything other than a talking shop. The single positive performance measure is the recruitment of new members signed up to help achieve the impact goals. But what exactly does their commitment mean in practice?

Very little indeed

And, as the number of members increases, it will become progressively harder to reach consensus on anything but the most anodyne proposals. There is no prospect of developing a meaningful programme to achieve these ambitious targets.

Last year’s idea of reducing pupil premium for disadvantaged high attainers was foolhardy – a spectacular own goal – but at least it had substance. This year’s report card is a damp squib.



April 2016


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