Making sense of centres of excellence


This post probes the ‘centres of excellence’ proposal in the selection green paper.

Schools that work for everyone’ (September 2016) includes within its chapter on selection three proposals for ‘existing selective schools to do more to support children at non-selective schools’

This context is critical for understanding much of the confusion over centres of excellence. They are ostensibly a means by which existing (and potentially new) selective schools can extend their provision to learners attending other institutions.

Some wrongly believe they create additional de facto selective schools. I do not qualify with ‘ostensibly’ because I accept that argument, but because:

  • It is not strictly necessary for a selective school to be involved and
  • It seems doubtful whether selective school pupils could participate in such a centre alongside their non-selective peers.

The proposal in question is designed to ‘encourage multi-academy trusts to select within their trust’. But this is just one means of achieving that outcome, and it is not confined exclusively to MATs.

The relevant section reads:

‘We will make clear that multi-academy trusts and/or other good or outstanding academies can already establish a single centre in which to educate their “most able” pupils. This centre could be ‘virtual’ or have a physical location. This would enable the schools to provide a more challenging and targeted curriculum, and to create an ethos within the centre of excellence which supports all children to achieve their potential. As pupils are identified as ‘most able’ pupils after they had been admitted to their individual school through a non-selective admissions process, this is currently permissable [sic]’. (p.27-28)

Glossing swiftly over that howler…


Media commentary and clarification

Media and social media coverage has thrown a little more light on the proposal, while also generating not a little heat.

Most of the media coverage has been provided by Schools Week.

In ‘Academy trust CEOs reject ‘centres of excellence’ proposal’ (16 September 2016) the idea is said to worry some MAT chief executives.

Two are quoted. The incumbent at Oasis Community Learning dismisses it as ‘whisking away the ‘most able’ pupils’, contrasting this with local academy schools supporting all learners to make excellent progress. His opposite number at the Co-operative Academies Trust agrees that it would ‘siphon off the most able from our community academies’.

The problems associated with a single physical centre serving geographically dispersed academies are mentioned – ‘the time and cost of travel would be better spent ensuring they achieve highly in their ‘home’ academy’.

A virtual alternative is briefly mentioned, with reference to some other online and blended learning establishments.

This led me to tweet suggesting that MATs shouldn’t be too ready to dismiss such centres, especially if the alternative could be losing eligible students to a new or expanding grammar school.

This prompted a discussion about the nature of such centres which I have reproduced below.

I suggested that lawyers had likely determined this to be ‘post-entry’ and so ‘strictly within-school’ selection, as opposed to a variety of between-school provision.

I added that I believed the green paper was describing a standard ‘pull-out’ model with all learners remaining on their school rolls.




Two weeks later ‘Grammar get-out clause confirmed: selection ‘permissible’ within trusts’ (30 September 2016) provides clarification obtained from DfE.

This makes a distinction between the centres of excellence notion and the more straightforward allocation of pupils to a particular school within a MAT on the basis of ability.

The source advises, by means of such centres, ‘pupils of both low and high ability could be moved between schools in a multi-academy trust’.

The provisos are that the pupils ‘remain on the roll of the school they have been admitted to’ and ‘receive some of their education there’. Parental consent would also be necessary.

The source refuses to confirm or otherwise whether legislation would be required.

The report goes too far in asserting that this would ‘effectively change the trust’s remaining schools into secondary moderns’ and ‘throws open the possibility for existing schools to become grammars’. These two statements compound the confusion described above.

This led to a second Twitter discussion, also reproduced below, in which I suggested that the legal distinction could likely hinge on quantification of ‘some of their education’ – ie what proportion of their education the learners continued to receive in their home schools.

There may or may not be case law on this point.

I added that I thought such ‘pull-out’ models should be piloted with full EEF evaluation, to assess the impact on disadvantaged high attainers compared against a matched control group that continued to receive their education entirely in their home schools.

One implication – which I tried to encapsulate in my final tweet – is that this proposal extends the potential reach of the green paper debate, to include the full panoply of within-school selection strategies. It doesn’t make sense to include one and ignore the rest.




Several further points emerge from additional scrutiny of the green paper text.


Participating institutions

As noted above, centres of excellence need not operate entirely within the confines of a single MAT.

They might extend across two or more MATs, or across two or more singleton academies, or across a combination of one or more MATs and one or more singleton academies.

At one extreme they might serve just two academies; at the other, one national centre might serve every MAT and every eligible academy in England, though it would have to be established by the participating institutions.

Despite appearing in a section of the green paper about strengthening the capacity of selective schools to support pupils attending other institutions, there is no stipulation that one or more of the participating schools must be selective.

So a centre of excellence could be operated exclusively by comprehensive and/or secondary modern schools.

For reasons given in the next section, it seems that any selective school involved could only operate as a ‘sleeping partner’, without benefit to its own pupils. Nor could a group of selective schools establish their own centre of excellence.

But I refer to ‘eligible academies’ because, while the government is not proposing a quality threshold for MATs wishing to operate establish such centres, it stipulates that only good or outstanding academies can do so.

As far as I am aware, that distinction is newly imposed. Presumably it could be imposed through changes to funding agreements rather than legislation.

But it should be rethought anyway since it would be inequitable to exclude high-attaining learners at schools rated inadequate or requiring improvement, who might be expected to need the benefits of a centre of excellence rather more than their peers.

A further layer of inequity is almost inevitable since it seems unlikely that learners could or would be excluded if their school fell back a grade, a not infrequent occurrence.

As things stand, one might reasonably argue that it would be inconsistent to permit such provision across MATs with questionable records of performance.

The white paper ‘Education Excellence Everywhere’ (March 2016) committed to the publication of:

‘new accountability measures for MATs, publishing MAT performance tables in addition to the continued publication of, and focus on, inspection and performance data at individual school level’.

It is unclear whether this is considered to have been fulfilled by the appearance of SFR32/2016 in July 2016.


Participating learners

As noted above, the text suggests that students from selective schools cannot themselves attend a centre, because those who do so must be:

‘identified as ‘most able’ pupils after they had been admitted to their individual school through a non-selective admissions process’

So it would not be permissible to educate grammar school students – or students selected into partly-selective schools – alongside comprehensive and/or secondary modern students in a single centre. 

The purpose of the centre must be to educate eligible pupils belonging to the participating institutions (‘their ‘most able’ pupils’). So it could not take in learners who are attending other institutions or who are home educated.

We know from the 30 September clarification that DfE considers this approach could be applied for ‘pupils of both low and high ability’. So centres of excellence could also be established for lower-attaining learners and/or the ‘forgotten middle’.

In each case a post-admission identification process of some nature would be necessary, but potentially at least, selection could be based on any variable or combination of variables – such as White boys eligible for pupil premium.

Getting back to centres of excellence for the most able, there is no single binding definition of that term.

The government might impose a definition on all schools, which would bring much-needed order to the confusion that prevails. More likely, schools establishing centres of excellence would be left to define ‘most able’ as they saw fit.

Participating institutions would then be free to interpret the term to select in any group defined on the basis of attainment, ability, aptitude or potential.

There would be no guarantee that the most able attending one centre of excellence would be comparable to those attending another.

Age might or might not be one of the selection variables. There is nothing to prevent centres intended exclusively for primary school pupils, or for one or more designated key stages, including cross-phase establishments catering for both primary and secondary school pupils, whether or not designed specifically as transition provision.


Nature of the centres

The green paper text stipulates ‘a single centre’. So presumably the participating institutions might run other centres for different target groups, but they could not run a twin-centre or a multi-centre operation for the most able.

But it would be possible, presumably, for schools within a MAT, or indeed any group of eligible schools, to divide themselves into different sub-groups and for each sub-group to have its own centre.

The phrase ‘admitted to their individual school’ must imply the school on whose roll the pupils are registered, which further implies that they would remain on that roll and could not be transferred onto a separate roll. We now know that they must also receive ‘some education’ at the institution on whose roll they appear.

Legally then, pupils could not attend such a centre full time. Part-time pull-out is the model envisaged, but no parameters are supplied.

Further guidance on this point is desirable and, as noted above, the term ‘some education’ may also require legal clarification.

For the time being it appears that, at one extreme, pupils might attend a centre of excellence solely to participate in after-school educational activities.

At the other extreme they might attend for the bulk of their school timetable. It is conceivable that they would not need to return for anything but the odd pastoral session.

The more time pupils spend off timetable, the harder it becomes to integrate them into the school – and the more likely that other pupils will suffer from their missing contribution. Ideally they should fit back seamlessly into their normal classrooms and not be missed while they are away.

There will be substantive timetabling implications for all participating institutions, especially if travelling time has to be allowed for.

If the centre has a physical location there is apparently no need for it to be co-located within one of the participating institutions. It might even be peripatetic. The location would of course have to be selected with an eye to geographical proximity and the time and costs of travel.

The centre could be exclusively online (‘virtual’) or a hybrid blended model with a physical location and an online component. Learners might access the online element from their homes and/or their schools.

The staffing and funding of such centres will also prove a headache, especially ensuring that both costs and benefits are distributed appropriately between the participating institutions. There might need to be accommodation within the national funding formula. There should be provision to use pupil premium funding to meet the costs of disadvantaged high attainers.


Programme content

The green paper text is all but silent on this matter, but it is by far the most important.

It says the intended purpose of such centres is to secure ‘a more targeted and challenging curriculum’ and an ethos ‘which supports all children to achieve their potential’.

The implication is that neither of these would be available at the pupils’ own schools, nor could it be provided there, within the normal classroom.

Despite the vagueness over ‘some education’ it seems likely that centres are intended to supply some form of ‘top-up’ provision rather than full-scale teaching of core curriculum subjects.

They might offer:

  • Minority options that are not available in pupils’ own schools, such as philosophy, ancient and additional modern languages.
  • A judicious blend of enrichment, extension and acceleration as a supplement to the core subject experience available in pupils’ own schools. This might or might not be built around converting a B into an A* (or a 7 into a 9).
  • A supplementary programme built around cross-curricular, inter-disciplinary activities, volunteering, work experience and real-life problem-solving.
  • Targeted support for disadvantaged high attainers, to help prepare for 11+ examinations or for application to a selective university.

They might help to fulfil the white paper commitment to ‘investigate, fund and evaluate approaches to help the brightest students in state schools to fulfil their potential’.

The relationship between what is taught in each learning environment is critical to the effectiveness of all ‘pull-out’ provision. It is essential that the pupils’ twin learning experiences are fully integrated and mutually supportive, which demands careful joint planning and continuous review. There are substantial workload implications.

Pupils should not be expected to catch up in their own time work they have missed during their ‘pull-out’ sessions. Nor should any party assume that the ‘pull-out’ sessions substitute for effective differentiation in the home school classroom, or effective whole school provision for the most able.

Schools need to satisfy themselves that pupils who do not attend the centre are not receiving an impoverished learning experience as a consequence. This is not a ‘sheep and goats’ exercise: there must be flexibility to move learners regularly in and out of the centre without threatening continuity or causing loss of esteem.

Neither ‘pull-out’ nor an integrated classroom experience has the monopoly of effective provision for the most able. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, with much depending on the learning context and the differing needs of learners.

But the biggest challenge lies in joining them effectively together to create the best of both worlds. That’s why careful evaluation is essential.



November 2016







One thought on “Making sense of centres of excellence

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