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This brief post offers a preliminary assessment of provision for the most able in the 2016 schools white paper.

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Background

There was a little-noticed commitment in 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.’

The statement was repeated in DfE’s Single departmental plan: 2015 to 2020, so further elucidation was expected in the white paper.

Education Excellence Everywhere’ was published on 17 March 2016, together with a ‘DfE Strategy 2015-2020: World class education and care’ and an impact assessment.

The strategy document says that the Department will:

  • Engage with stakeholders throughout the Parliament to develop the detailed policies that underpin the priorities
  • Set out more detail on each strand over the coming months

It identifies 12 strategic priorities, the fifth being:

‘Embed rigorous standards, curriculum and assessment.’

This is divided into four sub-sections, the last of which is:

‘Ensure schools help all pupils progress, particularly stretching the most able pupils and supporting low attainers.’

The associated commentary argues:

‘Whilst the previous three strands will drive up standards universally, there are two particular groups on which we intend to focus especially because they have, to date, been neglected. Under previous accountability measures, schools were driven to focus unduly on students who were expected to achieve either a C or D grade at secondary school, and who were on the border of a Level 3 and Level 4 at primary. This meant schools were not credited for stretching the most able or lowest-attaining students, who didn’t influence the measures by which schools were held to account. Whilst priority 4 is addressing these perverse incentives – with our new Progress 8 measure and reformed primary accountability measures focusing on the improvement of all children – this strand will also launch strategies to cater particularly for these neglected groups.’

‘Strategies’ sounds more, well, strategic than ‘opportunities’. It is not entirely clear from this whether the commitments set out in ‘Education Excellence Everywhere’ constitute the full complement of ‘most able’ reforms, or only the tip of the iceberg.

The brief impact assessment remarks that:

‘As set out in the white paper, we aim to encourage schools to stretch their most academically able pupils, including those with protected characteristics, complementing parallel policy to support the stretch of all pupils (including Progress 8). Currently, the large majority of pupils in the top one, five and ten per cent nationally at key stages 2, 4 and 5 are of white ethnicity and so, the activity of this policy is likely to benefit disproportionately more children who are ethnically white, as well as disproportionately fewer children with special educational needs.

We will ensure that how pupils are targeted in any programmes we fund is carefully considered and that the impact of any activity on the most academically able pupils, including those with protected characteristics, is robustly evaluated.’

The reference to the encouragement of schools is promising. The source of the ethnic breakdown is not given, so we do not know what measures are being used to identify the top 1%, 5% and 10%. But these percentages provide our only clue to what the strategy and the white paper mean by ‘most able’.

The definition is clearly based on prior attainment and all three options are considerably more selective than those previously applied by Ofsted and the high attainer distinction used in the performance tables.

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Generic statements in the white paper

Thanks to the strategy document it is now official that the needs of the most able have been neglected ‘to date’. (This may or may not mean since the election of the previous Coalition government in 2010.) We can all now acknowledge this openly, even if we cannot explain all the reasons why.

‘Education Excellence Everywhere’ also refers to ‘boosting the attainment of four groups of children’ but concertinas the version in the strategy document by suggesting they have been ‘neglected by the previous curriculum and accountability system’.

This implies that the neglect was associated with this single dimension of education policy, evolved under previous Labour administrations and reformed by the Coalition.

Whereas the equivalent section in the strategy document does not mention them, the white paper’s description of the reform principle ‘high expectations for every child’ says:

‘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.’

That last phrase is not well-liked and probably best to avoid.

The introductory section helpfully commits to:

  • ‘focus on boosting the attainment’ of these groups and, more specifically
  • ‘ensuring all schools stretch…their…most academically able pupils’.

We are presumably still dealing with ability as measured by prior attainment.

Note in particular the implications behind the emboldened words: the planned reforms will be designed explicitly to raise attainment and they will apply to every state-funded school, regardless of age range, phase or sector.

But possibly not to all most able learners: the impact assessment promises that targeting for inclusion in every programme will be ‘carefully considered’ and the impact will be evaluated (by implication to assess the differential impact on different groups).

In this connection, the white paper acknowledges that:

‘More needs to be done to ensure that the pupil premium is used effectively in all schools, for all children – including the most able. As the Sutton Trust’s Missing Talent report has shown, more able disadvantaged pupils are at much greater risk of falling behind compared to their peers.’

We should therefore expect to see specific reference to the ‘most able disadvantaged’ in the planned pupil premium reforms, especially the model framework and updated pupil premium review guidance.

There is a discrete section of the white paper devoted to ‘stretching both the lowest-attaining and most able’ (paragraphs 6.48-6.59 on pages 98-99).

Generic points relating to the most able include:

  • There is research ‘highlighting the importance of the most academically able in boosting a country’s economic development and growth’. Three studies are cited. (For more thorough analysis see my previous posts on the economics of gifted education.)
  • Evidence from international comparisons studies ‘show that while the proportion of high-performing pupils in this country compares well to others at the end of primary school, we remain a long way behind the Far East; and are outstripped by the end of secondary’. (For clarification and analysis see my previous posts on international comparisons studies.)
  • A rather sketchy summary of progress to date which cites two ‘stretch’ opportunities – Mandarin for Schools and Isaac Physics, an enrichment project joint funded with Cambridge – assessment and accountability reforms and a reference in Ofsted’s inspection framework. Villiers Park’s Scholars Programme also gets a paragraph (Secretary of State Morgan has recently visited).

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Specific white paper commitments

The overarching commitment is again expressed in universal terms and again concentrates exclusively on attainment-raising:

‘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.’

But there are only two specific actions, neither of them fully developed:

  • 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.’
  • As set out in chapter 2, 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.

There’s that phrase again!

In relation to the first action, the text suggests the possibility of ‘new, prestigious challenges and competitions at key stages 2 and 3’ which might provide curricular stretch inside and outside school, and opportunities to replicate the Isaac Physics model in other A level subjects.

There is no hint of the budget available to support these ‘approaches’, but the sketchy coverage, especially when set against the more ambitious aims set out earlier, hint strongly that this will be small beer. If any part of the budget announced yesterday for extended hours activities is earmarked for the most able, the white paper doesn’t make that connection. Will the EEF’s remit be extended in this direction? If so, that isn’t mentioned either.

There is nothing about the most academically able pupils in Chapter 2. The reference to ‘cutting edge evidence’ hopefully implies a more catholic understanding of top-end differentiation than is embodied in the NCETM approach to mastery, which is lauded elsewhere in the white paper.

One can but hope that there will be more to come as this section of the Departmental strategy is developed into a more substantive support programme. But if there is no cash that will quickly become apparent.

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What else to do? 

There has been no shortage of suggestions from this quarter, including:

  • Incentivising and encouraging all existing grammar schools to give priority in their admission arrangements to learners eligible for the pupil premium – and supporting their wider efforts to work with primary schools to increase their intake of disadvantaged learners.
  • 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.
  • Sponsoring guidance for schools and colleges on the introduction of more flexible, radical and innovative grouping arrangements, extending beyond the confines of setting and streaming.
  • Developing a coherent strategy for strengthening the STEM talent pipeline which harnesses the existing infrastructure and makes high quality support accessible to all learners regardless of the schools and colleges they attend.
  • Top-slicing £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.
  • Building system-wide capacity, by establishing centres of excellence and a stronger cadre of expert teachers, but also by fostering collaboration and partnership between schools, colleges and all other sources of relevant expertise.

But the most immediate and pressing task now is to audit the entire policy offer set out in ‘Education Excellence Everywhere’.

This to ensure that everything is ‘most able friendly’, that support for the most able is mainstreamed rigorously and consistently across all strands – and that there are no troublesome crosscurrents.

An overall verdict is withheld pending what else of substance emerges in the next six months.

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TD

March 2016

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