Rescue Plan (or how to get from where we are to where we ought to be)


This post:

  • Reviews progress to date on white paper policies to improve the education of higher attaining learners
  • Considers some wider implications of the white paper’s commitment to equality of educational opportunity, regardless of background and prior attainment, and
  • Proposes a dedicated national centre, based in a leading university, to specialise in the education and progression of higher attaining learners, from reception to graduation.

There is also a leitmotif: that arguments for and against more grammar schools must always be set in the wider context of how best to educate high attainers, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds


Initial reflections – a summary of sorts

Rarely have I been less confident of the prospects for securing a coherent policy response to the needs of high attaining learners, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Expectations were raised by the recognition of past ‘neglect’, the new equal opportunities vision and three specific commitments in the schools white paper, only to be confounded by evidence of perfunctory implementation.

We are still at a very early stage, but progress to date hints that the true scale of ambition may be pitched far lower than the white paper suggests. It would be hugely disappointing if all the promised reforms were to go off at half-cock.

The earlier and contradictory ‘no child left behind’ orthodoxy still holds sway in some quarters. This adds a further layer of confusion while also undermining collective commitment to the alternative vision of ‘excellence for all’.

So there are grounds to fear half-hearted tokenism, but that would also play directly into the hands of the pro-grammar school lobby.

For want of a convincing alternative we face the very real prospect of more extensive between-school selection, perceived by its supporters as a meritocratic driver of social mobility, despite the lack of evidence to support their case.

We risk substantial sums of taxpayers’ money being diverted towards a fresh tranche of politically totemic institutions, regardless of the substantial deadweight costs, at a time when the wider schools budget is under particularly heavy pressure.

Small groups of disadvantaged learners might benefit, typically at the expense of their lower-attaining peers, but the vast majority of ‘poor bright kids’ will continue to be neglected, suffering from our system-wide confusion over how best to meet their needs.

National excellence gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged high attainers will not be closed, indeed may grow wider, and England will continue to struggle in comparison with leading international competitors.

But hope persists, even in the shadow of disappointment.

Recent machinery of government changes provide an opportunity to forge a new, stronger relationship between schools and HE policy, to apply consistently the white paper vision of equality of opportunity regardless of prior attainment, and to develop a coherent, cross-phase, learner-centred support strategy that reaches into every school and college.

If there is any case for more between-school selection, it should be made and justified in this wider context.

An independent, university-based national research centre would bring much-needed clarity and substance to this debate. Interested institutions and funding partners should be cordially invited to step forward.

The remainder of the post presents the argument beneath these reflections.


Confusion over terminology and definitions

Confusion is widespread because of muddled terminology and competing definitions. Failure to appreciate the difference between the concepts of ability and attainment is endemic.

The nature of ability is increasingly contested, whereas attainment is far less controversial, but confusion between them bedevils all efforts to establish consensus on the way forward.

Ofsted’s preferred term is ‘most able’, even though its measure is based exclusively on prior attainment. Recent government publications have also referred to:

  • The most academically able
  • The brightest students
  • Highly able
  • More able
  • High performing
  • High ability

These subtly different terms are never defined. We do not know whether they are assumed to be synonymous.

This post uses the terms ‘high attainers’ and ‘higher attaining learners’ synonymously, to describe all those assumed to be within scope of the white paper reforms.

Ofsted’s definition applies only to the secondary sector and includes all learners achieving level 5 or higher in KS2 tests of maths and/or English.

It is therefore different to the ‘high attaining’ distinction used in the secondary performance tables up to 2015.

This 2013 document defines ‘high attaining’ as those with a KS2 average points score (APS) for English, maths and science of 30.0 or higher – essentially performance above L4 averaged across all three assessments. The equivalent measure in the primary tables is defined as a KS1 APS of 18.0 or higher across reading, writing and maths – essentially performance above L2 averaged across those assessments.

Ofsted’s definition has not yet been updated to reflect the shift from levels to scaled scores. While the current formulation still works for secondary year groups who took end of KS2 assessments up to 2015, it is invalid for those who completed KS2 tests last May and will form the September 2016 Year 7 cohort.

One assumes that ‘high attaining’ will continue to be defined in this way in the 2016 performance tables, both primary and secondary. This methodology will continue to be possible until the 2016 KS1 cohort reaches the end of KS2 (in 2020) and the 2016 cohort reaches the end of KS4 (in 2021).

We know that the 2016 primary tables will include performance on a measure of high attainment across the 2016 end of KS2 assessments (called ‘the higher standard’), requiring a scaled score of 110 or higher on reading and maths tests and a ‘working at greater depth’ teacher assessment in writing. This measure might form the basis for a high prior attainment distinction in the secondary performance tables once the 2016 KS2 cohort reaches GCSE.

Ofsted’s definition counts as ‘most able’ some 40-45% of learners in each secondary year group. The percentage will vary depending on that cohort’s KS2 test outcomes, and from school to school depending on the intake. In some comprehensive schools the vast majority of learners will count as ‘most able’; in others they will be much more scarce.

By comparison, the ‘high attainer’ distinction in the secondary performance tables accounts for approximately one third of the relevant GCSE cohort in state-funded secondary schools (and approximately one quarter of the relevant KS2 cohort in state-funded primary schools).

So, to sum up:

  • Ofsted’s definition is different to that in the previous secondary performance tables
  • Ofsted has no definition equivalent to that in the previous primary performance tables
  • Ofsted’s secondary definition is incredibly broad
  • The performance table definitions – both primary and secondary – are somewhat less generous, but still comparatively broad
  • The performance table definitions ensure a substantially larger proportion of high attainers in the secondary GCSE cohort than in the primary KS2 cohort
  • Ofsted’s definition will not work with Y7 from September 2016 but it has not yet been updated
  • It seems likely that 2016 performance table definitions will be unchanged – the present methodology will work until 2020 in the primary tables and until 2021 in the secondary tables.

Schools white paper policies are assumed to apply exclusively to high attainers – as opposed to those with ability (however defined) not yet translated into high attainment – but there has been no confirmation of this, nor has there been clarity about the prior attainment threshold(s) that DfE intends to apply.

One option would be to leave this to schools to determine, but that would add a further layer of complexity on top of an already confused picture.

I believe the existing inconsistent definitions are inappropriately broad and that it would be preferable to include:

  • At the maximum, the top two deciles by prior attainment (20%) within each annual national cohort and, at the minimum, the top decile by prior attainment (10%) within each annual national cohort. My personal preference would be to report separately on both of these measures so that two levels – higher attainment and high attainment – are delineated.  
  • Learners aged 7-18 at state-funded primary schools (KS2 only), secondary schools and post-16 institutions, with prior attainment based on performance at the end of KS1, KS2 and KS4 respectively.

White paper commitments

In May 2015 the Conservative government was elected on a manifesto pledging to:

‘… make sure that all students are pushed to achieve their potential and create more opportunities to stretch the most able.’ (p. 35)

In February 2016 the DfE’s new Single Departmental Plan implied that action was already under way:

‘In line with our government commitments, we are…embedding rigorous standards, curriculum and assessment, for instance by…creating more opportunities to stretch the most able’.

One month later the schools white paper ‘Educational Excellence Everywhere’  articulated a new educational vision in which:

Every child and young person can access world class provision, achieving to the best of his or her ability regardless of location, prior attainment and background.’ (p. 8)

It acknowledged that the needs of high attainers had been neglected:

‘We will also focus on boosting the attainment of four groups of children neglected by the previous curriculum and accountability system: ensuring all schools stretch…their… most academically able pupils’ (p. 21).

It argued that the coalition government had already contributed towards this end by:

  • Increasing opportunities for stretch through:

‘the study of Mandarin and funding enrichment activities aimed at high-attainers – like Isaac Physics, a joint project between the Department for Education and the University of Cambridge’ (para 6.53 p. 98) and

  • Introducing assessment and accountability reforms:

‘From May 2016, all pupils will take tests at the end of primary with more challenging questions. More rigorous GCSEs have a new grading structure which will provide greater differentiation and stretch at the top end, and the new focus on progress measures in performance tables will reward schools that stretch their brightest pupils. Ofsted’s 2015 Common Inspection Framework explicitly highlights the need to ensure effective teaching, learning and assessment for the most academically able pupils.’ (Para 6.54, p. 98)

But it expressed a desire to ‘to go further to open doors for the most academically able from all backgrounds’ (p.99).

A generic and universal commitment:

‘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.’ (para 6.56, p. 99)

was backed up by three specific actions:

  • ‘To identify and spread what works for the most able, we will investigate, fund and evaluate approaches to help the brightest students in state schools to fulfil their potential. This could include developing new, prestigious challenges and competitions at key stages 2 and 3, like the UK Mathematics Trust challenges. These would be open to all able pupils – wherever they go to school. And they could aim to provide both additional content that stretches these children beyond their school’s regular curriculum; and opportunities for further stretch outside school. We will also look for opportunities to extend the approaches used in Isaac Physics and the Cambridge Maths Education Project to other A level subjects.’ (para 6.58, p. 99).
  • 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.’ (para 6.59. p. 99)
  • Further action to ‘ensure that the pupil premium is used effectively in all schools, for all children – including the most able.’ This would be achieved through: a new model framework, work with the Teaching Schools Council and EEF to update pupil premium review guidance, additional material in the governors’ handbook and Ofsted follow-up on reviews through subsequent inspections. (paras 8.23 and 8.25, p. 118).


Progress to date on these commitments

Four months on, at the end of the 2015/16 academic year, what progress has been achieved?

Before considering the three new commitments it is important to give some account of the coalition-inspired initiatives mentioned above.


Increased opportunities for stretch

There have been very few of these – I could identify three only, all of them subject-specific, two of them intended solely for post-16 students.

Meanwhile other potential opportunities have been passed by. The maths hubs programme, for example, is largely a stretch-free zone.

A Mandarin Teaching Programme was announced by the coalition in November 2010, although the original programme was established in 2006 by a Labour Government.

A partnership between the SSAT Confucius Institute and Hanban (the Chinese headquarters of the Confucius Institute movement) it was scheduled to begin in July 2011, continue until 2015, and train 1,000 teachers.

The press notice said:

‘In five years, the supply of qualified Mandarin teachers should have increased sufficiently to match demand, but the situation will be kept under review.’

In June 2012, the Confucius Institute transferred to the UCL Institute of Education, which inherited responsibility for the Teaching Programme.

Exactly two years later Minister for Schools Elizabeth Truss announced fresh targets. She wanted to reach 1,200 teachers by 2019, so only 200 more than the original 2015 target. Her speech revealed that there were only 263 teachers in place by 2013, way short of the 1,000 supposed to be trained by 2015.

In September 2015 former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne announced a new £10m programme for at least 5,000 additional learners to be taught Mandarin in schools by 2020.

The published tender documentation does not specify the number of trained teachers necessary to deliver this outcome. The contract seems to have been won by the IoE’s Confucius Institute but I could find no sign of it on Contracts Finder, where all such contracts are supposed to be published.

The initial documentation specifies that the new programme will begin in September 2016 with Y7 pupils in some 20 schools. (The Institute is advertising for more schools that meet the selection criteria.)

It will:

‘be rigorous and involve the study of Mandarin by the most able and motivated pupils for eight hours a week made up of a combination of class-time teaching, after school teaching and self- study’.

One assumes that participating schools will decide which of their pupils will undertake the programme.

Recent research does not paint a positive picture of progress to date in establishing Mandarin in English schools. The supply and retention of trained teachers is clearly a major brake on expansion from a very low base.

The most recent language trends survey suggests only one in seven state secondary schools offer Mandarin, even as part of an optional enrichment offer. Just 2% of state secondaries include it in their KS3 timetable and only 5% offer a GCSE option.

In June 2016, Nick Gibb, the recently reappointed Minister for Schools, said in response to a Parliamentary Question that the government does not know how many Mandarin language teachers are teaching in schools and/or undertaking relevant training.

So it is unclear where Truss got her figure, or how the government expects to establish a baseline against which to monitor progress.

There have been suggestions that the latest tranche of funding should have been deployed in a more strategic fashion.

There has also been widespread criticism of how Confucius Institutes promote the Chinese political agenda and suppress any political dissent.


The Cambridge Maths Education Project (CMEP) was announced in October 2012. It was designed as a five-year initiative with a potential break after three years. DfE paid £2.8m over those three years, suggesting a total budget of around £5m. I could not find published details of the value of the contract extension, or the contract itself.

It is run by the University’s Faculty of Mathematics in conjunction with NRICH.

Cambridge describes the purpose of the project thus:

‘It will provide rich resources for advanced post-16 mathematics which will augment and support current teaching, be published online and be freely accessible to all…

…While individual students will also be able to work through the resources independently, the project will provide extensive teacher support material to encourage classroom use. In addition, the programme will include professional development summer schools for teachers.’

A password-protected pilot website was launched in September 2013, but it took until summer 2016 to publish an open-access site, branded as Underground Mathematics.

During the trialling period (summer 2013 to February 2016), the team worked with 45 partner schools, appointed in two waves, and about 500 affiliates.

An initial evaluation did not attempt to quantify the impact on attainment, arguing that it would be too difficult to isolate the effect given wider changes in post-16 maths. This seems set to continue in subsequent phases of the evaluation, so we shall probably never know whether there has been any positive effect on participating students’ A level grades.


Isaac Physics was originally branded as the Rutherford Schools Physics Project, It launched in May 2013, attracting a total DfE grant of £6.9m over a five-and-a-half-year period, with a review after three years. I could find no contract online.

The purpose is to:

‘…deliver a mix of on-line learning, independent study, and work in schools with teachers. Cambridge computer science experts will develop an on-line delivery platform inspired by the successful use of MOOCs in the USA.

The Rutherford School Physics Project will develop its resources in close collaboration with teachers and schools.  Experienced physics teachers will lead CPD sessions and masterclasses, while the Project will work in close partnership with schools interested in teaching their own students and those from surrounding schools on a regular basis. This may include schools with less experience of supporting students into Physics at university.’

A Cambridge press release from September 2015 says the project initially intends to reach 3,000 maths and physics teachers and (rather meaninglessly) ‘a considerable fraction of their 100,000 students’.

By that point some 900 schools were using the site and there were almost 10,000 registered users, but the proportion attending state funded schools in England is not given.

I could find no published information about the evaluation of this programme.


Assessment and accountability reforms 

I need not rehearse generic issues, especially with the introduction of primary assessment reforms, but there are also several issues relating specifically to high attainers:

  • There have been widespread complaints about the degree of difficulty of the 2016 KS2 tests, but I have not yet seen any evidence that the hardest questions were any more difficult than those in the separate level 6 tests that preceded them. (Exposure of lower-attaining learners to difficult questions – and vice versa – is an obvious design issue with single tests.) A performance ceiling is imposed by the standard scale which tops out at 120, although a scale from 80 to 130 appeared in earlier material. There has been no explanation of the decision to impose a lower ceiling. In this year’s tests pupils needed to get full marks in maths (110/110), 69/70 in GPS (99%) and 44/50 (88%) in reading to achieve a maximum scaled score. The relatively low pitch in the reading test suggests issues with that assessment. It will be interesting to see what proportion of learners achieved the scale maxima in each test. Meanwhile ‘working at greater depth’ is the only option for reporting high attainment in the teacher assessment of writing. The proportion achieving this outcome is not yet known. The interim teacher assessment arrangements have been imposed for a further year despite almost universal criticism.
  • It has been confirmed that the primary performance tables will report the percentage of pupils in each primary school who have achieved:

‘a high scaled score in reading and a high scaled score in mathematics; and have been teacher assessed in writing as ‘working at a greater depth’’

The necessary ‘high scaled score’ was confirmed, rather belatedly, as 110. Provisional statistics have been released showing that only 5% of learners achieved this outcome, which is disappointing (even allowing for increased demand and the learning curve). We also know from the Statement of Intent that the 2016 Performance Tables will show, for each school, the percentage of disadvantaged learners who achieve this ‘higher standard’ across reading, writing and maths, and also the percentages of disadvantaged learners who achieve each element separately (as well as in the separate GPS test). However, the tables will not give achievement gaps between disadvantaged and other pupils in each school, but only the gap between disadvantaged pupils in the school and other pupils nationally, this because: ‘Focusing on in-school gaps risks setting limits on the ability of all pupils to achieve to their full potential, including those identified as disadvantaged.’

  • Turning to KS4 assessment and accountability, the introduction of a 1-9 GCSE grade scale, providing scope for additional top-end differentiation, has been complicated unnecessarily by confusion over exactly where to pitch grade 9. Ofqual recently closed a consultation proposing its third variant within two years. It has not explained why it could not get this ‘right first time’, nor has it apologised for the disruption and uncertainty caused in schools. The newly-publish Statement of Intent confirms that secondary performance tables will continue to contain achievement data for high attainers and disadvantaged learners respectively, but there will still be no cross-tabulation to reveal information about the achievement of disadvantaged high attainers.
  • The post-16 performance tables will now have destination measures integrated within them and the Statement of Intent confirms that these will include measures for KS5 progression to Oxbridge and Russell Group universities as well as to ‘high-tariff’ universities. However, performance data relating to disadvantaged learners (attracting pupil premium in Year 11) is delayed until publication of the 2017 tables.
  • The barcode graphs provided alongside the new disadvantaged attainment gaps indices (in the SFRs relating to last year’s tables) have helpfully illustrated the dramatic scale of excellence gaps, at both KS2 and KS4. These indices are designed to show trends independent of assessment reform and will presumably be incorporated in the government’s life chances strategy when eventually it emerges. There is however a fault with the design of the secondary index, which is based solely on performance in English and maths rather than any wider measure. The justification for this is weak.
  • The government will face significant pressure if the outcomes of the next PISA, TIMSS and PIRLS cycles prove disappointing. PISA and TIMSS results are published in December 2016. The government’s targets for 2020 are extremely ambitious and they look unlikely to reach the trajectory for achieving them, whether through median scores or the achievement of high attainment benchmarks. Governments typically blame the previous administration, or else argue that it is too early for the effect of its reforms to be felt. Those arguments will be rather less convincing this time round. Comparatively poor performance against the high attainment benchmarks can only serve reinforce the arguments made in this post.
  • The changes to the Ofsted inspection framework have had negligible impact. According to HMCI Wilshaw’s own recent monthly commentary on the subject:

‘It is…dispiriting to learn that in spite of Ofsted’s sharpened focus in recent years, little progress seems to have been made since I first reported on this important issue.

The most recent statistics paint a bleak picture of under-achievement and unfulfilled potential. Thousands of our most able secondary-age children are still not doing as well as they should in the non-selective state sector where the vast majority of them are educated.’

This supports my case that piecemeal reform will not achieve the improvements necessary. There is too much resistance in the system – and too little concerted effort from the centre to overcome it.

The overall picture is of a limited work programme and significant issues still to address, but what of the new commitments set out in the white paper?


Progress on the three new commitments

Four months on from publication of the white paper, one of the three commitments has already been realised and the most significant elements of a second are also in place.

The third and most substantive commitment is under way, but only by virtue of the ongoing work on the pre-existing ‘stretch and challenge’ initiatives outlined above. The overall scale and design has yet to be revealed.


Pupil Premium

The most substantive commitments to ensure effective use of the pupil premium were completed with the publication of ‘Effective Pupil Premium Reviews’ (May 2016) by the Teaching Schools Council.

This combines into a single document both the model framework and updated pupil premium review guidance.

The ministerial foreword says:

‘…this updated Guide asks reviewers to ensure the needs of all disadvantaged pupils are supported. This includes the highly able, who often lose traction during secondary school’ (p. 4)

The guidance mentions them in a paragraph under the heading called ‘What does the research tell us?

‘Effective schools also recognise that disadvantaged pupils are not a homogenous group and employ targeted approaches for groups or individuals facing particular barriers. For example, whilst the pupil premium has focused many schools’ attention on raising the attainment of low performing pupils, more able disadvantaged pupils are at risk of underachievement too. Analysis by the Sutton Trust shows that many disadvantaged pupils who are high performing at key stage 2 fall badly behind their peers by key stage 4. This underachievement is also reflected in the low proportions of disadvantaged pupils progressing to higher ranked universities after key stage 5. Ofsted has highlighted a lack of support for more able disadvantaged pupils, particularly during key stage 3, as an area that many schools need to address.’ (p 10)

This goes some way towards explaining the issue, but stops short of guiding schools towards the most effective ways of addressing it.

The framework itself contains the briefest reference at Step 4 – analysis and challenge:

‘To what extent has there been a focus on specific groups of pupils e.g. high ability, service premium, adopted children?’

I have highlighted the terminology – ‘highly able’, ‘more able’, ‘high performing’, ‘high ability’ – to demonstrate its variability. None of these terms is defined. Is it being assumed – wrongly – that they are synonymous, or are subtle distinctions intended?

While the guidance identifies the problem of underachievement by disadvantaged high attainers in secondary schools (but not in primary schools), it does very little to explain how solutions might be subtly different for this target group. One of the case studies briefly attempts such distinctions, but the treatment is sketchy and mediocre at best.

There are no specific references to high attainers in the templates, which increases the risk that their needs will continue to be underplayed in many schools.

It would have been far preferable to include in the guidance a specific section on addressing the needs of disadvantaged high attainers, analogous with that dealing with adopted children.


ITT core content framework

But such cursory treatment is positively detailed by comparison with the coverage in the ITT core content framework, published on 12 July.

The white paper commitment to 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’

Resulted in one vague sentence in the framework:

Providers should equip trainees to be able to inspire and provide extra challenge for the most able pupils.

Quite how this can be interpreted as ‘a specific focus’, let alone ‘cutting edge evidence’, is anyone’s guess.

No definitions have been provided, to help explain the different terminology used within this new statement and within the teachers’ standards (which are reproduced as part of the framework). There is every prospect that the fundamental misunderstanding – that ability and attainment are synonymous – will be perpetuated as a consequence.

The omission of the promised evidence-based detail is particularly worrying. We do not know whether it was collected and subsequently omitted, or never collected at all. Since there is no record of the working group consulting anyone with relevant expertise it seems most likely that this aspect was completely ignored.

We are now in the curious position that the published framework is inconsistent with the government’s own policy statement explaining what it would contain.

And this statement was not simply a throwaway line in a ministerial speech but a paragraph in a government white paper.

I’ve been involved often enough to know that such documents are drafted with exceptional care and attention, precisely to ensure that they do not contain hostages to fortune. If the government said that it wanted cutting edge evidence, then it really meant it.

The vague outcome might be welcomed by ITT providers, jealous of their autonomy over course content subject only to the teachers’ standards, but it does nothing to tackle the continuing system-wide confusion over the identity of the most able and how best to meet their needs. Indeed it simply perpetuates that confusion.

It will be interesting to see what UCET’s guidance on the framework, to be published in the autumn, will make of this situation. Will they feel obliged to fill the void left by the working group and the government, or will they request further clarity from the centre?

A recent post – What’s amiss with the ITT core content framework? (July 2016) – discusses that question more thoroughly.


‘Investigate, fund and evaluate approaches’

That leaves the first commitment, to investigate, fund and evaluate approaches to help the brightest students in state schools to fulfil their potential.

The white paper description might be intended to imply an ambitious and systematic review programme – analysis of existing best practice, a tranche of carefully designed pilot schemes and EEF-style evaluations built around randomised control trials – all backed up by a substantial ring-fenced budget.

But the response to the first two commitments leads one to expect something rather less substantial.

The examples given in the white paper lead one to assume that there will be provision for primary, secondary and post-16 learners, although the nature of the target group is unclear.

At post-16 it seems likely that the entire A level cohort falls within scope, which is not entirely consistent with provision exclusively for the ‘most academically able’.

The examples also suggest that priority will be given to developing enrichment and extension activities positioned outside the standard school curriculum and also potentially outside the normal school day.

The reference to ‘prestigious challenges and competitions’ is redolent of the STEM-related olympiads so popular in many Asian countries. One guesses that the government will farm out responsibility to the different subject communities. Hopefully a variety of different models will be entertained, including some that feature real-life problem-solving.

That will help up to a point, but this is only part of the jigsaw. There are bigger issues with the pedagogy of top-end differentiation in standard classroom settings, the adoption of various within-school selection strategies and, of course, the spectre of more between-school selection.

Educators also need support with the development and implementation of effective whole school strategies to support the most able and close excellence gaps between disadvantaged high attainers and their more advantaged peers.

It is conceivable that there might be some overlap with a parallel white paper commitment to:

‘…make available funding so that it is easier for 25% of secondary schools to extend their school day to include a wider range of activities, such as sports, art and debating’ (para. 6.37, p. 95)

Funding for this was announced in the 2016 Budget and comes from a levy on the soft drinks industry (the ‘sugar tax’).

Consultation on this levy is now under way. It will not generate income until FY2018-19 (so initial costs in the schools budget will need to be met from other sources) and the income stream may be lower than expected. We do not know whether, in that scenario, the Treasury will make up any consequent shortfall in DfE budgets.

A Treasury press release said:

‘25% of secondary schools will be able to opt in to a longer school day from September 2017 so that they can offer a wider range of activities for pupils. There will be up to £285 million a year to pay for this.’

Official Treasury policy costings give a funding profile, for this initiative and breakfast clubs combined, as follows:


Financial year 2016-17 2017-18 2018-19 2019-20 Total
£m 5 85 250 350 690


Another source says that there is a total of £660m available for the longer school day, implying only £30m of the total is set aside for breakfast clubs.

It presumes an even split of £220m per academic year from September 2017 and suggests that schools will have to commit to providing activities taking up at least five additional hours per week (presumably in total rather than per participating learner).

Assuming 850 participating schools an annual budget of £220m would provide approximately £260,000 per school per year for three academic years. It is not clear whether schools would be expected to continue funding at the same level to ensure longer-term sustainability.

This source said that further details would be published by DfE in March 2016 but, at the time of writing, those have not yet materialised.

If this funding is used to develop opportunities for ‘the brightest students’, the equality of opportunity principle implies that they should benefit pro-rata.

So if the government adopts a definition based on the top decile by prior attainment, then 10% of the available funding should be ring-fenced for their benefit. If Ofsted’s definition is applied, almost half of the budget should be devoted to provision for ‘the most able’!

The white paper says that this scheme will prioritise ‘those schools whose pupils will benefit the most’ without clarifying what that means.

It also suggests that participating schools will design their own provision – which may not be possible to square with the ‘investigate, fund and evaluate’ methodology described above.

A further problem is that this funding is not available to support learners in primary schools or in the excluded 75% of secondary schools, so additional resources will be needed for those purposes.

It is conceivable that additional funding could be drawn from the EEF budget. I have several times urged them to introduce a work strand focused explicitly on developing support for disadvantaged high attainers.


‘An equal opportunity to reach their full potential’

There are much wider implications for education policy if the government is really serious about the vision spelled out in the white paper.

It commits to supporting all learners to achieve to the best of their ability, regardless of prior attainment.

More recently this has been articulated in slightly different terms:

‘We are determined that every child, regardless of background, gender or ability, has an equal opportunity to reach their full potential.’

Regardless of the ongoing confusion here between ability and attainment, this has potentially profound significance.

For example, it should mean:

  • The needs of the most able can no longer be treated as a second order issue which, if not ignored, can be managed through a cursory passing gesture. That is why the response to date to the white paper commitments is so profoundly disappointing. There is a big gap between the espousal of equality of opportunity and the initial efforts to realise that outcome. It is wrong to assume that there is no underachievement amongst high-attaining learners, that their underachievement is somehow less important because they still exceed national benchmarks, and that they are capable of remaining on trajectory through their own efforts without additional support.
  • Equal opportunity implies equitable funding. Just like low attainers, high attainers have additional needs, with associated resource implications. High attainers from disadvantaged backgrounds also need extra help if they are to close excellence gaps and achieve on a par with their more advantaged peers. It follows that, if the national funding formula is designed to reflect additional costs associated with low prior attainment – as opposed to low prior attainment serving as a proxy for needs associated with SEN – it should also reflect additional costs associated with high prior attainment, especially for learners from disadvantaged backgrounds. When other funding is disbursed, it should be a standing principle that high attainers (and low attainers) should benefit in proportion to their incidence in the targeted population. There is no case for diverting funding away from high attainers solely because they have that status.
  • Reviewing the pedagogy of differentiation. I have written extensively about top-end differentiation within NCETM-style maths mastery, specifically its insistence on elevating extension (greater depth) over enrichment (more breadth) and especially avoiding all acceleration (faster pace). This has begun to impinge more widely through the interim teacher assessment framework, recently imposed for a second successive year. The most recent ministerial speech on the topic continues to encourage schools to close attainment gaps between low and high attainers (as opposed to gaps between disadvantaged and advantaged learners). Worse still, it says that this is now intended to become ‘the default approach’ to primary maths teaching. It is contrary to white paper principles to close attainment gaps by imposing a cap on the achievement of high attainers, but appears to be how maths mastery operates. Further work is necessary – by the NCETM and the maths hubs – to develop an alternative model in which high attaining learners who are secure in their understanding are encouraged to work at a faster pace than their peers.
  • Revisiting approaches to within-school selection. Since I took the EEF to task on coverage of ‘setting or streaming’ in the Teacher Toolkit the text has been improved somewhat, but there are still shortcomings. The overall judgement is ‘negative impact’ (minus 1-2 months), even though the main body of the text acknowledges a typically positive impact on higher attainers (plus 1-2 months). This is justified on the basis that disadvantaged learners are more likely to be assigned to lower groups, which betrays the limitations of a single undifferentiated assessment of this nature. It is even more galling when the EEF adopts misleading shorthand such as ‘selecting by ability harmed the progress of the poorest pupils’, as in this blog post celebrating the fifth anniversary of the Toolkit. Perhaps one day these judgements will be adjusted to reflect the most effective grouping practice, hopefully to be exemplified in the EEF-funded study presently under way, as opposed to poor grouping practice. Schools should also be encouraged to explore more innovative and hybrid approaches to within-school grouping, pushing well beyond the confines of setting and streaming. 
  • Connecting support for disadvantaged high attainers in schools and colleges with fair access to the most selective universities. The decision to bring ministerial responsibility for universities within the purlieu of DfE implies extending equal opportunity for high attainers into government policy on fair access. Despite initial suggestions to the contrary, the HE white paper and the associated Bill are underwhelming in their approach to fair access to selective higher education. Moreover, the default definition of selective HE – so-called high-tariff universities’ – is insufficiently differentiated for these purposes but is set to continue in place under the new regime. I have set out the design principles for a national framework to support progression by disadvantaged learners to the most demanding HE courses and most prestigious institutions, the funding supplied via a £50m pupil premium topslice.
  • Adopting a holistic approach in every school, rather than relying exclusively on totemic new grammar schools. The answer to the question how best to provide coherent, efficient and scalable support for disadvantaged high attainers is not simply ‘more grammar schools’. All the evidence points to their poor record as instruments of social mobility. More importantly though, a solution based entirely on new selective institutions would be extremely expensive, have a large deadweight cost (because these schools will disproportionately benefit learners from comparatively advantaged backgrounds) and could only ever reach a fraction of the target population. The alternative is a multi-faceted strategy that concentrates on supporting disadvantaged high attainers within their existing schools, through a combination of: effective and effectively differentiated classroom teaching and assessment, additional targeted study support opportunities and effective whole school practice. Existing grammar schools should be harnessed for this purpose, the admissions code revised to ensure they give the same priority to those from deprived backgrounds as they do to looked after children.
  • Achieving national consensus on a set of common core principles which explain who these learners are (definitions), how they should be described (terminology) and, above all, how best to meet their needs. These must be embedded in initial training, induction and all subsequent development programmes including those targeted at future school leaders and beyond. The ITT core content framework should have made headway in this direction, outlining the foundation level understanding we should expect of our newly-qualified teachers.

A national research and development centre

In recent years the few small charitable organisations that represent the interests of high attainers have lost almost all of their government funding. Central government no longer has the capacity to maintain a specialist team.

The Sutton Trust campaigns on behalf of high attainers, but is badly compromised by its long-standing commitment to a scheme for placing them in leading independent schools, rather than equipping state-funded schools to better meet their needs.  The Trust also seems incapable of persuading the EEF, its partner organisation, to take an active interest.

Few other educational organisations operating at national, regional, LA or academy trust level have any specialist expertise. All that remains is a small cadre of Specialist Leaders of Education (SLEs) with a high attainer specialism. As far as I can establish they are of variable quality and tend to operate in their localities rather than as a meaningful national network.

During the heyday of the gifted and talented programme – which was of course a different animal – dedicated academic support was procured from established university centres at Oxford Brookes, Warwick and, to a lesser extent, Brunel.

Brunel’s operation continues, in a small way, mainly to service its Urban Scholars programme, and Warwick now hosts IGGY. A few scattered academics maintain an interest, but there is no entity with the critical mass to provide nationwide support.

A national research and development centre of this kind, ideally located in a large education faculty at a highly selective university, would be able to:

  • Work towards system-wide, cross-phase consensus on definitions, terminology and the principles underpinning a continuum of effective provision from early years to graduation, taking in primary and secondary schools, 16-19 institutions and higher education.
  • Collect, analyse and publish data about the attainment, progress, progression and wellbeing of high attainers, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds; provide evidence to support the economic case for investment in the education of these learners.
  • Undertake targeted research; collate UK and international research evidence relating to this population and the provision made for it; and advise the government, schools, colleges and service providers on the implications for their wider policy and practice.
  • Evaluate government-funded programmes, as well as targeted enrichment, extension and outreach activities provided by third parties, including selective universities’ own outreach to support fair access.
  • Build teaching and research capacity; support initial teacher education, professional and leadership development, helping to establish a national network of schools and colleges capable of serving as laboratories and centres of excellence.
  • Prepare and disseminate evidence-based guidance throughout the education system and support central government and its agencies to ensure a ‘joined up’ approach across the full range of national education policy.
  • Serve as national champion for the interests of high attainers, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, by ‘holding the government’s feet to the fire’, campaigning in support of equality of opportunity regardless of prior attainment and forging strategic partnerships in support of that objective.

Such a centre might be funded through a combination of philanthropy, charitable donations, income generation and matching government grant. The annual cost to the taxpayer would be small – £1m would probably cover it – and the benefits would vastly exceed the cost.

Interested universities should be alive to the marketing value of positioning themselves in this way, as well as to the likely flow of educational benefits to their own institution.

Given the win:win nature of this proposition I confidently expect them to be forming an orderly queue.



July 2016

One thought on “Rescue Plan (or how to get from where we are to where we ought to be)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s