Several of my recent educational posts have mentioned the new-found commitment to ‘educational excellence everywhere’.
This was the title selected for the March 2016 white paper, but it is also the strategic goal at the heart of this government’s education policy. It should influence every part of the white paper, informing every educational decision taken while the government remains in office.
I have drawn attention to the ‘clear blue water’ between this new goal and the default position adopted by the previous coalition government, perhaps best described as ‘no child left behind’.
One is focused on supporting all learners to maximise their achievement; the other on eradicating the ‘long tail’ by concentrating disproportionately on the lower end of the spectrum, so reducing the span of achievement and improving performance against standard national benchmarks.
Both positions give due priority to closing the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged learners but, under the old orthodoxy, disadvantage and low attainment were too often regarded as synonymous.
‘Educational excellence everywhere’ is an apparently innocuous phrase but it masks a radical change of direction with profound implications.
It is at odds with some widely-held educational ideology and raises awkward questions about the future of some policies that predate the white paper, especially when combined with a renewed emphasis on professional autonomy.
This post draws my earlier material together into a single pithy analysis. For, as yet, there are few signs that the sector has understood this new direction, or appreciated how it will influence their own policy and practice.
I’ve also taken the liberty of critiquing the expression of this new strategic goal, seeking to draw out the full implications while also pinpointing sections where consistency and/or clarity of expression could be improved.
Chapter and verse
The statement ‘educational excellence everywhere’ appeared initially in the DfE’s Single departmental plan: 2015 to 2020 (February 2016) where it featured as the second of three objectives:
‘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.’
It was used again in DfE Strategy 2015-2020: World class education and care (March 2016) published alongside the white paper.
The vision statement for the strategy:
‘Provide world class education and care that allows every child and young person to reach his or her potential, regardless of background’
is underpinned by the same three objectives, now described as ‘system goals’.
The strategy also sets out twelve ‘delivery priorities’ and five ‘policy principles’ which describe how the priorities will be delivered.
One of the principles is:
‘High expectations for every child: We are unapologetically ambitious for every child and young person, and will ensure there are no forgotten groups or areas.’
The associated commentary says:
‘Our vision and system goals demand that every policy starts with high expectations for every child and then assesses what’s needed to achieve those expectations.’
The strategy also explains very briefly how progress will be monitored:
‘It’s important that the public understands our intended direction of travel and is able to hold us to our commitments. So, our goals and the way we’re measuring our progress against them are published on GOV.UK’
In the absence of anything else, this must refer us back to the indicators in the departmental plan. They comprise:
- The number and percentage of pupils in settings that Ofsted has rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’.
- The percentage of places in primary and secondary schools that Ofsted has rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by local authority.
- The national percentage of pupils achieving the expected standard (L4b equivalent) at the end of KS2 in reading, writing and maths.
- The national Attainment 8 average point score (using alternative comparative data to account for changes between 2015 and 2018).
- The national percentage of pupils in state-funded schools entering and achieving the English Baccalaureate.
- The national percentage of pupils in state-funded schools getting a ‘good pass’ in English and maths at the end of key stage 4. Ditto for disadvantaged pupils.
The white paper is broadly consistent with the other two publications, but there is some variance.
The vision is expressed in slightly fuller terms:
‘Wherever they live and whatever their background, ability or needs, every child and young person in this country deserves a world class education that allows them to reach their full potential and prepares them to succeed in adult life in modern Britain.’ (para. 1.2)
The objective/strategic goal above is unchanged, but is now elevated above its two companions and separated into ‘two distinct parts’:
- Excellence, embodied in ‘unapologetically high expectations’ for all children, regardless of background.
- Everywhere: intensive support for underperforming areas and communities because:
‘Wherever they live, whatever their background, prior attainment or needs, every child deserves a high quality education.’ (para 1.11)
When describing the principle of ‘high expectations for every child’ the white paper adds:
‘Every part of our model is based on high expectations for every child. Children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds already achieve the highest outcomes in some schools, thanks to some of the best teachers and leaders in this country. We must share that level of ambition for every pupil, avoiding the trap of designing policies that accept lower aspirations for some. 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.’ (para 1.20)
This section runs a fine tooth comb across the vision statement, the ‘educational excellence everywhere’ objective and the principle of ‘high expectations’ respectively.
The government’s educational vision is to provide ‘world class education’ (and care). Even allowing for a fully academised future, it might have been more accurate to use ‘secure’ instead of provide’
There is no independent definition of this ‘world class’ benchmark, referring us, for example, to PISA scores.
We can only conclude that education will be deemed world class if it ‘allows every child and young person to reach their (full) potential’ and ‘prepares them to succeed in adult life in modern Britain’.
But there are no criteria defining these terms either, so all three key values in the vision statement are entirely subjective.
We do know that these aspirations are universal, in that they apply to every child and young person, regardless of location, background, ability or needs.
But the vision is not quite that every learner should experience a world class education – rather it is that a world class education should ‘allow’ every learner to reach their potential and succeed in adult life.
Location must relate to where learners live, as well as where they go to school. Does it apply to all state-funded settings and sectors?
Background may or may not incorporate gender, ethnicity, social class and socio-economic background. ‘Needs’ and ‘ability’ are similarly generic terms, but note that the former is plural, the latter singular: there are several needs, just one ability.
When submitted to close textual analysis this all becomes rather meaningless, but it is only an aspirational vision statement after all. Precision is much more necessary in the strategic objective and the principle.
‘Educational excellence everywhere’ can be broken down into three components.
The government’s central educational objective is for every child and young person to:
- Access ‘high-quality provision’. This is not necessarily the same thing as ‘world class education’. There are no criteria to explain this new benchmark, but the departmental plan indicators suggest it rests on learners being educated in settings which have a current overall Ofsted assessment of either ‘outstanding’ or ‘good’. This is a fairly crude proxy for the preferred measure. Presumably the target is for 100% of learners to attend such settings. The departmental plan supplies August 2015 baselines, ranging from 77% of secondary pupils to 87% of early years learners. The geographical breakdowns show that 68 LAs (almost half) are at 80% or lower on the primary measure, as are 105 LAs (more than two-thirds) on the secondary measure.
- Achieve to the best of their ability, regardless of location, background or prior attainment. Two of the three variables in the vision are repeated – with the same attendant uncertainties over their meaning – ‘needs’ have disappeared and ‘attainment’ is substituted for ‘ability’. (This probably has more to do with style than substance – the desire to avoid using ‘ability’ twice in the same sentence). Nevertheless, ability and prior attainment are definitely not synonymous. The latter is certainly preferable when it comes to measurement, yet none of the indicators in the departmental plan differentiate by prior attainment. Geographical location is accounted for at LA level, but only for primary and secondary settings. Only one secondary sector measure – a good pass in GCE English and maths – differentiates by background, and then solely by disadvantage (which presumably means attracting the deprivation element of the pupil premium). This has no doubt been chosen because the baseline gap is smaller than for the broader measures.
- Benefit from ‘unapologetically high expectations’ – which must not vary according to background (nothing is said of location or prior attainment) – and, where necessary, from intensive support for underperforming areas and communities. The meaning of ‘communities’ cannot be exclusively geographical, but the indicators in the departmental plan do not encompass either high expectations (difficult to measure) or community performance.
Hence the objective falls short on Specificity and Measurability.
The final component of the objective overlaps with the principle. The interpretation of ‘communities’ above is supported by the principle, which makes it clear that there will be no ‘forgotten groups’.
Later on the white paper commits to targeting support to boost the attainment of four groups ‘neglected by the previous curriculum and accountability system’ (para 1.55d.):
‘…ensuring all schools stretch both their lowest-attaining and most academically able pupils; improving support for children with special educational needs and disability; and reforming the alternative provision (AP) system.’
We are assured that all policy will be built upon high expectations (presumably regardless of location, background, ability and/or prior attainment), so policy designers must always work out how they will secure them.
The development of policies that ‘accept lower aspirations for some’ is a trap to be avoided. Of course aspirations and expectations are not quite the same thing.
This is clearly directed at policies supporting disadvantaged learners, but the same presumably applies to low attainers and those with additional needs.
Further, the principle assumes that (all) our schools should ‘stretch every child, including the most able, to reach their full potential.’ This raises questions about the precise meaning of the vague terms ‘stretch’ and ‘full potential’, but the application to the ‘most able’ (by which Ofsted means those with high prior attainment) is clear.
The broad intention is seemingly to enable every learner to achieve the very best they can. The notion of bringing every learner up to a single minimum floor is expressly rejected, but it is not explicitly stated that all learners must necessarily share the same high ceiling (unless that is taken as implicit in accepting ‘lower aspirations for some’).
Overall the direction is clear, but those struggling to master the detail will uncover more questions than answers.
Three illustrative policy implications
Apart from policies targeted specifically at the most able, my reflections on the implications of ‘educational excellence everywhere’ have focused to date on three policy areas:
- Mastery, especially in maths: I contend that the NCETM has adopted and is promoting an impoverished model of top-end differentiation. It is designed to reduce the gap between low and high attainers, by placing a ceiling on the latter’s progress. High attainers are prevented from moving through the programme of study at a faster pace, or even taking advantage of enrichment opportunities. Instead they are supposed to concentrate exclusively on exploring the same topics in greater depth. This is justified by comparison with previous poor practice, when some high attainers were rushed on before they were ready. In correcting this fault the NCETM risks losing the baby with the bathwater. Despite favourable commentary on mastery in the white paper, its methodology is not stretching the highest attainers ‘to their full potential’ and so is at odds with the new orthodoxy. At the very least, much further work is necessary to develop a richer model of top-end differentiation for mastery practitioners, with associated guidance and implementation support.
- The principles underpinning the proposed national funding formula: I have argued that, given an assessment and accountability system in which progress is assessed, not against a fixed benchmark, but against the standards achieved by those with comparable prior attainment, there is no longer a case for weighting funding towards learners with low prior attainment. In the past that case would have rested on the bigger gap they had to make up to achieve the fixed benchmark, but now we are in a brave new world. The formula should include a weighting for additional needs attributable to deprivation and another for ‘high incidence low needs SEN’, but the latter should be a direct measure of SEN rather than deploying low prior attainment as a crude proxy. The funding formula must embody universally high expectations, supporting all learners to reach their full potential, regardless of their prior attainment (or any of the other variables above). This will be an important first test of the government’s commitment to its strategic objective.
- Assessment, especially at KS2: There has been much negative reaction to the level of difficulty of the new KS2 tests, especially the reading test, and the stress this has caused to the children taking them. This is attributable in large part to the decision to adopt single tests for the full span of prior attainment. That decision must have been influenced by the notion that no learners should have a ceiling imposed on their performance in the tests. But the corollary is that many (almost certainly middle and lower attaining) children have been needlessly exposed to too many overly difficult questions. (This is especially true of reading where, under the previous assessment regime, only a tiny proportion of candidates were successful on the separate L6 test.) In such cases universally high expectations/aspirations are better not pursued by imposing a single high performance ceiling. Some rethinking of the test frameworks is necessary. Conversely, the unnecessarily restrictive mastery model has already pushed its tentacles into the assessment regime, via the interim teacher assessment frameworks, and this should be reversed.
Implications for ‘most able’ policy
My preliminary assessment of the white paper’s provisions for the most able highlighted its three specific commitments:
- To ensure that the pupil premium is used effectively to support the most able disadvantaged.
- To ‘investigate, fund and evaluate approaches to help the brightest students in state schools to fulfil their potential’, potentially through A level support programmes and ‘prestigious challenges and competitions’ for KS2-3.
- To include in the new core ITT framework ‘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’.
I have discussed separately the prospects for this framework, expressing the hope that it will be made subject to consultation.
I have also outlined several additional policy ideas that might be undertaken alongside these, and won’t repeat those here. But it is particularly important that there is further work to build national consensus around a clear definition of ‘most able’ – as it applies in different phases and settings – and on a fresh set of common principles underpinning effective practice in meeting their needs.
Beyond this, the clear intention is that the system will mainstream the ‘educational excellence everywhere’ objective throughout educational policy and practice:
First, we have an assurance that every policy developed out of the white paper will be designed explicitly to support the highest expectations of all learners, including the most able. We should expect to see that properly evidenced in all future policy development, not least in the programmes designed to improve underperformance in academies, MATs and local authorities.
Second, we might reasonably expect all existing education policy to be thoroughly audited to ensure that it too passes this same ‘highest expectations of all learners’ test – and adjusted accordingly if it does not.
Third, there is a consequential expectation that the new accountability regime will offer far greater transparency over variations in the performance of different groups, including the most able, especially when broken down by gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background. This must also be extended to the indicators set out in the departmental plan, so that the government can be held properly accountable for progress against the policy programme set out in the white paper. We are assured that there is more detail available behind the scenes, and this must be published to fulfil the government’s commitments on transparency else, ultimately, the anticipated benefits of ‘educational excellence everywhere’ may prove illusory.
Fourth, the government must surely reiterate and reinforce the implications of ‘educational excellence everywhere’ to all key stakeholders in the system – to governors and headteachers; to the various hubs of the emergent self-improving school system; to the ‘middle tier’ (MATs, LAs and RSCs alike); to Ofsted, Ofqual, EFA, NCTL and the STA – encouraging all to consider now how far their own practice falls short of ‘educational excellence everywhere’ and what they might do about it.