Beyond the inner-city: underperformance in the UK education system

West Berkshire is one of the most affluent local authorities in the country. On the Indices of Deprivation it ranks as the 287th most deprived out of 326. Yet in 2012 only 21.9% of pupils eligible for free school meals left school with five good GCSE’s, putting it second from bottom in the country. In many ways West Berkshire neatly illustrates what Ofsted Chief Michael Wilshaw said when launching the Unseen Children report last year. According to Wilshaw:

Poor, unseen children can be found in mediocre schools the length and breadth of our country. They are often found in leafy suburbs, market towns and seaside resorts. They can be found in comparatively prosperous communities, many of them achieving far less than they should. They are labelled, buried in lower sets, consigned as often as not to indifferent teaching. They coast through education until – at the earliest opportunity – they sever their ties with it.

These children are not unseen in our best schools, which have good knowledge and high expectations of every child. But in more complacent schools such children do badly. So, let me be clear; disadvantage and poor achievement are not necessarily tied to urban deprivation and inner city blight.

Looking at the data it is becomingly increasingly clear that Wilshaw is right. The underperformance of poorer pupils is most acute outside of our major cities, often in places not traditionally associated with endemic underachievement. Moreover, there are huge variations between the performance of these pupils in different parts of the country. A pupil living in the least affluent part of London leaves school with eight C grades at GCSE on average. For a similar area in the East of England the average is slightly worse than eight D grades.

This gap in achievement is not just confined to the performance of the least affluent. Many of the worst performing local authorities in terms of overall attainment are found well away from the inner city. Amongst the worst performing are places like Norfolk and the Isle of Wight. A similar picture emerges when you look at university progression.

The locus of significant educational underperformance seems to have shifted from the major cities to smaller towns and cities. Similarly, pronounced underachievement of the least affluent seems to have diffused into the more prosperous parts of the country. We can no longer talk of underachievement as primarily an inner city problem.

The bigger picture

This is not a phenomenon that is confined to education. There is growing recognition that some of the most entrenched social deprivation is to be found not in the urban sprawl but in provincial towns. Last year the Centre for Social Justice published a report looking at social breakdown in five seaside towns. The report argues that despite the fact that ‘cities have come to embody how we view modern deprivation and poverty’ much pronounced disadvantage can be found in previously prosperous coastal towns. The highest rate of teenage pregnancy in the UK, for example, can be found in a part of Great Yarmouth – a town where as many as one in three adults do not have any form of qualifications.

Trends in crime rates (which are generally falling) also support the view that social ills are increasingly shifting away from the big cities. The murder rate in metropolitan areas has declined five times faster than for the rest of the country.

Nor is this a problem that is limited to the UK. Suburban poverty in the US has started to attract attention, at least amongst researchers. Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube ended up writing Confronting Suburban Poverty in America after discovering in 2006 – to their initial surprise – that there were more Americans living in poverty in the suburbs than in the big cities. This matters according to Kneebone and Berube because ‘as poverty becomes increasingly regional in its scope and reach, it challenges conventional approaches that the nation has taken when dealing with poverty’. Their argument is that many approaches to tackling poverty in the US assume a level of infrastructure and expertise that is simply not realistic outside of inner-city urban areas.

An education policy fit for the provinces?

Given that there are big social forces at play here it would be unrealistic to expect education policy to counteract them completely. Schools capacity to compensate for the context in which they operate is ultimately limited. Nonetheless, it is worth considering whether current approaches to education policy are any more suited to the challenges schools in non-urban areas face than the conventional approaches lamented by Kneebone and Berube across the Atlantic are suited to tackling suburban poverty.

There certainly seems to be a significant dollop of metropolitan-bias in the education system. To start with the obvious example, the current system for allocating school funding is a mess. Funding per pupil ranges from £4,000 to £7,000 and not all of this variation can be accounted for by differences in pupil characteristics (see this from the IFS for a good analysis of the current system). There is clear evidence that these variations penalise schools outside of urban areas. As David Laws pointed out in a recent announcement, the current system means that a ‘school in Birmingham with only 3% of pupils receiving free school meals (FSM) gets higher funding per head than a school in Shropshire with over 30% of FSM eligible pupils’. Unfortunately in the same announcement Laws effectively put on hold plans to move towards a consistent national formula, instead announcing a £350 million boost to funding that will benefit some underfunded areas. It seems the school funding system will continue to exacerbate the regional variations in school performance for the foreseeable future.

The governments flagship free schools programme also seems to be doing little to tackle low attainment in the provinces. Free schools are overwhelmingly concentrated in urban areas. More than a third of free schools that have either opened or will open by the end of the year are in London. By September the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham alone will have more (7) than the whole of the North East (5) (full data here). Whatever contribution they make to the standard of education this impact will be felt primarily in areas that are already performing relatively well.

Moreover, the whole idea of choice driving up standards which underpins the free schools programme seems to be urban-centric. Genuine parental choice might be a reality in London or Birmingham where there is high population density (and therefore lots of schools) and excellent public transport, but in many parts of the country geography will always be the primary determinant of where parents send their kids to school. The free school agenda lacks any coherent narrative about how it can improve school standards in small towns.

Similar doubts could also be raised about whether other in-vogue policies are cut out to address regional underperformance. Teach First are starting to make inroads into some non-urban areas but the prospects of them parachuting bright graduates into Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Somerset in anywhere near the kind of numbers that might actually make a difference are incredibly slim. The sad truth is that convincing graduates to spend at least 2 years in Skegness or Great Yarmouth is far more difficult than convincing them to spend 2 years in London or Birmingham.

Initiatives that aim to foster collaboration and knowledge-sharing between schools will need to adapt if they are to replicate the apparent success (I’m hugely sceptical about the causal claims made around London Challenge, but that’s a story for another blog) of the London Challenge. The proximity between schools seems to have been an important factor in making such collaboration practical and there are plenty of schools across the country that don’t have an Outstanding school nearby.

Conclusion

Despite the growing recognition that low educational achievement is increasingly concentrated outside of big cities our approach to education policy still seems to be framed in the context of underperforming inner-city schools. This is particularly true when it comes to efforts to improve the attainment of the least affluent. What’s needed is a recognition that often the same problem in a different context requires a different solution. Our approach to school improvement needs to take account of the fact that the areas that are most in need of improvement now are very different to those that needed it in the 1990s. It is imperative that we adapt approach accordingly.

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Where are the dividing lines on free schools?

With just over a year until the election it is worth considering exactly where the dividing lines are between the major political parties on education. Identifying them is tricky. This government has pursued an ambitious agenda, including overseeing the most significant change to the school landscape in a generation through the introduction of converter academies and free schools and a radical overhaul of the examination system. In opposition Labour has, to put it politely, picked its battles carefully. They have chosen to remain largely silent on a number of issues and instead used a couple of key themes and policies to attack the Gove agenda.

Free schools are an obvious place to start. Labour has got itself into something of a tangle over the free school programme. In part this is a legacy of their time in government. From most angles free schools and converter academies look like a logical extension of the original academies programme introduced by the Blair government. Indeed Andrew Adonis, one of the key architects of that policy, says as much in his book. However, long-running distrust amongst elements of the party about the autonomy agenda and the realities of the free schools programme have put increasing pressure on them to take a stand. Both Tristram Hunt and his predecessor Stephen Twigg have said Labour would put an end to the free schools programme. Quite what that means was for a long time unclear. Hunt has ruled out the possibility of returning schools to local authority control and has offered the prospect of ‘parent-led academies’ as an alternative to free schools. As articulated so far these parent-led academies sound a bit too good to be true, having all of the benefits of free schools but apparently none of the downsides. Perhaps the most important difference is that they will only be opened in ‘areas of need’.

In a recent speech on the subject Hunt attempted to articulate the philosophical differences between the free schools programme and Labour’s alternative. He characterised the free school programme as a free market approach that accepted or even welcomed the possibility of failure. Labour, by contrast, supported autonomy, innovation and ‘competition of esteem’. This type of competition is apparently different to the rough and tumble of the free market. Schools will ‘compete’ to provide an excellent education but there will be no winners and losers. All schools will be supported to become outstanding and no new schools will be opened in areas where there is limited need for places. This analysis rests on a rather uncharitable characterisation of the free schools programme. Even free schools are too tightly regulated to be part of anything like the law of the jungle type free market that Hunt suggests, and recent high-profile interventions by Ofsted would suggest anything but a welcoming of ‘creative destruction’.

Nonetheless there is a hint here of a genuine divide between the parties. The government is committed to the idea of free schools as engines of system-wide improvement, with new schools being established to challenge the status quo and force nearby schools to up their game. From this perspective it doesn’t matter if there is no pressing need for places: if there is demand from parents for a new school because they are not satisfied with existing provision then that is sufficient (probably the clearest articulation of this point and the philosophy of free schools generally is in Gove’s 2011 speech to Policy Exchange). Labour, by contrast, see the role of free schools (or parent-led academies) as more limited. As a mechanism for meeting well-established need or as complete replacements for underperforming schools that have closed (much like the original academies) they are welcomed. But Labour does not accept the broader role of free schools as drivers of system-wide improvement. This is reflected in their insistence that free schools should only be opened in areas of genuine need. Ultimately the difference is one of purpose and not means. Both parties accept the principle of new schools with increased freedom operating outside of local authority control, they just disagree about the conditions under which they should be established.

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The RCTs have landed – but has anyone noticed?

Last month the Education Endowment Foundation published their first set of evaluation reports. The six studies involved 238 schools and 6,800 pupils and represented the first stage in a process that aims to deepen our knowledge of what works in education, with a particular focus on raising the attainment of those eligible for free school meals. Several of the studies were designed as randomised controlled trials (RCT’s) which are widely acknowledged as the most powerful way to determine causality in education research.

Given the clamour for RCT’s amongst the education community – most evident at the ResearchEd event last autumn – it was surprising how little coverage these reports got. Kevan Collins (from the EEF) did his bit with a rather self-congratulatory piece in the TES trumpeting the reports as an example of what can be achieved when schools work together. A couple of other articles commented on the findings in relation to teaching assistants who came out of these studies slightly better than they have done in other research. But on the whole the reaction was muted: nothing groundbreaking had emerged to shake the foundations of the education system. Instead we got a preview of the kind of nuanced findings that these RCT’s are likely to produce over the next few years.

It is no coincidence that the effect sizes detected were relatively small (typically ranging from 0.10 to 0.25). The attraction of RCT’s is that they can do a good job of isolating the impact of a particular intervention. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the reported gains were modest. Improving attainment is difficult and it would be extraordinary and implausible if relatively small interventions led to huge gains. Hopefully the publication of these reports will lead to a greater questioning about the reliability of much of the existing research. The truth is that many of the studies included in Hattie’s Visible Learning, for example, fail to meet the basic standards of methodological rigour. Reading Recovery is a good example. As the evaluation report from the EEF notes, of 78 existing studies on Reading Recovery only 4 met basic evidential standards. In the coming years we will see an increasing divide between the methodologically sound studies that report modest effect sizes and the less rigorous that will continue to claim implausibly large benefits for certain interventions. It is critical that consumers of education research are aware of that divide and encouraged to look beyond effect size and instead at how robust the finding is. The EEF could help here by getting rid of the conversion they use in the toolkit between effect size and months progress. It is neither rigorous nor particularly illuminating and it promotes a one-dimensional analysis of the evidence.

The other point that stands out from the first round of reports is the difference between evaluation and endorsement. Even where a positive outcome is detected it does not follow from this that the intervention is worth pursuing. The costs – both financial and opportunity – need to be carefully considered. In some cases an intervention that appears effective on the surface might actually be a poor use of time and resources. The Catch-Up Numeracy study, for example, found that although the carefully designed small-group intervention programme was effective compared to equivalent time in the classroom, it was actually less effective than other small-group interventions. Until we have built up a large-number of RCT’s looking at a whole range of interventions we are unlikely to be able to make accurate judgments about what constitutes best practice. In this sense the utility of the toolkit is cumulative: the more reports that are included the more powerful it will become as a guide for decision making in schools.

For now the publication of these initial reports should be welcomed. They will not immediately tell us how to improve the education system but they will start to give us an idea about what works (reading recovery-style literacy catch-up programmes) and what doesn’t (Catch-Up Numeracy). If this knowledge informs decisions that school leaders make about where to invest time and money then we are certainly moving in the right direction.

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The tragedy of widening participation

Imagine a social problem which is widely documented. Imagine that policy-makers, having noted its existence and broadly decided that it’s a bad thing, set out to address it by spending vast sums of money on a range of solutions. Imagine also that after a given period of time – let’s say 10 years – evidence emerged to suggest that the problem was just as big as it was when it first prompted policy-makers to delve into the public coffers. What would the appropriate response be?

There’s no prize for getting the answer right. You’d hope that the response would at least involve a significant element of reflection, of attempting to discern why despite significant investment there had been little change. You’d also expect a pretty thorough investigation into the impact of specific policies to find out whether there were individual successes (and failures) that had been masked by the general lack of progress. You’d be disappointed – to put it mildly – if none of this happened and the policy pronouncement was basically more of the same.

Looking at the attempt to widen access to our most selective universities over the last decade it’s difficult to feel anything other than disappointment. The preceding two paragraphs serve as a crude characterisation of the approach to ensuring that our best universities are more socially representative. The great tragedy is that it’s not nearly as crude a characterisation as it should be. On almost any metric access to the most selective universities remains heavily skewed in favour of the socially advantaged and there really is no evidence that the gap has narrowed over the last 10 years. This is despite significant financial investment and a range of policy initiatives.

To give an example, in 2014-15 the Russell Group of leading research universities will spend a staggering £216.3 million on widening participation, £36 million of which will be specifically spent on outreach work. This figure is not particularly exceptional in the context of recent university (and government) spending in this area. Whether this represents value for money is a fair question. You don’t have to be particularly cynical to suggest that it doesn’t. We know that in 2010-11 1,540 students were admitted to Russell Group universities who had previously been on free school meals (this works out at an average of about 64 per university). Assuming that the number next year is pretty similar – and there is little evidence to suggest otherwise – the Russell Group will be spending about £140,000 or £24,000 (depending on whether you use the entire widening participation budget or just the outreach figure) for each free school meal student that it accepts. When considering whether that represents a good return on investment it is worth bearing in mind that for about £70,000 you can put a child through Westminster School for their entire secondary education (I am definitely not suggesting this as an alternative).

No doubt the Russell Group would want to point to the broader impact of their widening participation work. The trouble is there isn’t any substantial impact for them to be able to point to because almost nothing has been done to evaluate the impact of their spending. As others have pointed out, most work carried out by universities in pursuit of fair access is not subject to any form of robust evaluation. Even the notoriously pliant OFFA has identified a need for more evidence about what works in improving access. Putting aside the obvious irony of institutions renowned for their research excellence failing to properly evaluate their work, this lack of evidence has depressingly obvious consequences. Universities continue to invest money in things that probably don’t work (e.g. bursaries and scholarships) and have no solid evidence on which to base future spending decisions. This week the government announced that it would be partnering with the Russell Group to provide visits to universities for Year 9 students from schools with low rates of university participation. Beyond ministerial intuition the sole basis for thinking that this will be effective seems to be that last year 97% of participants agreed that the experience was ‘useful’. There also seems to be no plan to properly evaluate the impact of the scheme going forward.

A lack of evidence about what works is not the only thing missing from the widening participation discourse. There is also a frustrating lack of clarity about the underlying causes of the problem. Most of the commentary – and indeed most policy – tends to focus on either aspiration or attainment. In other words, the focus is usually on either making sure students from disadvantaged backgrounds want to go to top universities or on ensuring that they get the grades that are required to do so. Until recently far too much emphasis was put on the former. So-called poverty of aspiration was often identified as being the primary barrier to improving access, with the rather patronising consequence that the participation gap was frequently explained as being a result of the fact that students from disadvantaged backgrounds just didn’t want to go to top universities. Fortunately this seems to be changing. The wealth of evidence demonstrating the correlation between attainment and social background has led to recognition that grades are the real barrier to fair access.

Whilst this shift is to be welcomed there are still considerable problems with this self-imposed dichotomy between aspiration and attainment, not least of which is the fact that they are closely related. Boosting attainment typically boosts aspiration. Similarly, provided they are given the right opportunities and support (this is a significant caveat) those with high aspirations tend to do well academically. Even those who profess to appreciate the respective role of attainment and aspiration often fail to use this understanding constructively. Universities have been known to use the attainment problem as an excuse for not admitting more disadvantaged pupils – the subtext being that it’s not their problem if schools don’t produce enough students from disadvantaged backgrounds with the right results. This ignores the possibility that universities themselves can play an important role in helping boost attainment in schools, especially if they are willing to genuinely collaborate with them (rather than ‘partner’ with schools, which in university speak-basically means approaching schools with a set menu of opportunities designed by the universities themselves).

The other problem with the separation of attainment and aspiration is that universities end up with a rather misguided impression of what aspiration actually is. In contrast to attainment, which is acknowledged as something that requires sustained long-term intervention (and therefore not universities problem), aspiration is seen as something which can be transformed overnight. From this perspective all we need is to ship kids off on a summer school or parachute them into a Russell Group university for a day and their aspirations will rise accordingly. The reality is that aspirations are shaped and cultivated over a much longer period of time. Aspiration isn’t like a tetanus jab – one quick shot in the arm won’t keep you ticking over for the next 10 years. Genuinely raising aspirations requires students to be in an environment with high aspirations for more than just a few hours.

All of which brings us to a criminally neglected element of this debate: the role of schools. Schools are the primary drivers of change in the education system.  No long-term change is going to take place in our education system that doesn’t heavily involve them. But despite the fact that universities all claim to be working with schools, too much of the widening participation agenda unwittingly presents them as part of the problem. Like the trappings of poverty they are seen as something that students need to be liberated from if they are to attend a top university. As long as universities view schools simply as the route to working directly with students rather than as the key to improving both aspirations and attainment their achievements in widening access are likely to be limited. Instead of investing all their energy and resources in developing summer schools and placement schemes with complex eligibility requirements universities should approach schools individually and find out what support they need. Interventions like this that are small-scale, heavily personalised and sustainable (i.e. the benefits are retained once the university withdraws direct support) are the best way of promoting fair access in the long term.

A widening participation agenda that has at its forefront a dual commitment to evaluating its impact and to working closely with schools has a far greater chance of succeeding where the current one has so clearly and painfully failed.

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Educational inequality: a report card

Is the attainment gap narrowing? Given the consensus across the political spectrum about the need to reduce it and the number of policies ostensibly directed to that aim this is an important question. Last week the Institute of Education published an insightful paper by Blanden and Macmillan that looks at trends in education inequality using a range of data. Their conclusion is broadly positive, albeit with an important caveat. They found that:

‘It is very clear that absolute improvements in educational attainment have closed gaps by family background at several important milestones. … This is clearly encouraging for the promotion of children’s life and may lead to improvements in mobility if returns to education remain stable.’

Some of the findings they rely on to support their conclusion are worth highlighting. In particular:

  • There has been a clear reduction in the attainment gap at age 16. The absolute gap between FSM and non-FSM students receiving 5 A*-C at GCSE closed by 12.3% between 2002 and 2011. This has been accompanied by an equally significant reduction in the relative gap, from a ratio of 2.3 (i.e. for every 1 FSM student meeting the threshold there were 2.3 non-FSM students also meeting it) in 2002 to 1.3 in 2011.
  • Perhaps most importantly, evidence of a reduction in educational inequality is not confined to a single measure.  Those sceptical about the trend at age 16 could point to grade inflation or the blunt nature of FSM as a measure of deprivation as potential confounds. However, the authors identify other sources of evidence which verify the trend and that are not susceptible to these problems including attainment at KS2 , analysis of PISA results between 2000 and 2009 and the proportion of students taking at least one A-level at different bands of household income.
  • The participation gap in higher education between the most and least deprived by socio-economic status has also reduced. A modest reduction in the absolute gap of 3.8% (between 2004 and 2009) masks a more significant change in the relative gap from a ratio of 4.3 to 3.1, suggesting that the general increase in participation in higher education has disproportionately benefitted the most deprived.

The important caveat to all of this is that, as Blanden and Macmillan put it, ‘there is little evidence that these improvements have reduced inequality at the highest levels of attainment’. For example, the percentage of FSM students getting A*-B in 3 or more facilitating subjects at A-level showed no change between 2004 and 2010 (remaining a measly 3.9%, compared to a rate of about 8% for non-FSM students). Similarly, there has been no noticeable change in representation at high status universities. As the authors note, this may well have significant consequences for the degree to which the general reduction in inequality translates into broader changes in levels of social mobility.

This is clearly an indictment of the focus on threshold measures and average levels of attainment. We know that the correlation between socio-economic status and academic attainment applies across the ability spectrum. It follows that any attempt to weaken the correlation must be directed at all levels of attainment, rather than at an arbitrary point somewhere in the middle. Upcoming changes to the school accountability framework are a step in the right direction but don’t yet go far enough. As long as any form of threshold is retained as a headline measure there is always going to be a chance that progress is skewed towards that boundary.

It is worth ending with some observations about what we don’t learn from the paper (or indeed from other sources). Firstly, as an assessment of progress in this area this definitely falls into the summative category. We are able to retrospectively describe some broad trends in educational inequality. We are not, however, able to make causal statements. We do not know if the reduction is attributable to changes in our education system as opposed to other factors, and we are certainly not in a position to reliably attribute the reduction to any policies in particular (not that this has stopped some people). As a guide for future policy the data is, unfortunately, of limited use. Secondly, and partly as a result of these limitations, we are not in a position to make any judgment about whether these changes are a reasonable return on the considerable investment in this area. It could well be that with a different set of policy priorities we could have reached this point more quickly. To put in another way, it is difficult to say whether or not this progress is impressive or mediocre. These points demonstrate both the importance of well-designed research in this area (to address the causal question) and the need for robust evaluation to accompany policy.

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The schools we need (and how to get them)

As well as providing some pretty entertaining viewing Tough Young Teachers also provides a brief snapshot into life in our schools. In last week’s episode one of the participants was reprimanded for not keeping on top of her marking. One of the suggestions for improvement (given by the head teacher) was that she should give out as many ‘Excellent Work’ stickers as possible to ensure that students were getting encouragement. In another scene one of the Teach Firsters was given some bruising feedback after what was quite obviously a pretty unsuccessful lesson. The observer was quick to suggest how this could have been avoided. Instead of attempting to introduce a number of new concepts in quick succession he should have provided the students with a list of sources for them to investigate themselves. That way they could have learnt the concepts at their own pace and also developed their research skills.

I suspect most normal people watching didn’t attach much significance to these events. Personally, however, I couldn’t fail to see in this advice the exact attitude that E D Hirsch denounces in The Schools We Need. I’ve just finished reading the book for the first time and have been struck by the extent to which his polemic against the process of teaching in the US resonates with my own experience of schools in the UK. For those unfamiliar with Hirsch’s arguments, they are probably best summarised in his own words. He concludes that:

We cannot afford any more decades dominated by ideas that promote natural, integrated project-learning over focused instruction leading to well-practiced operational skills in reading and mathematics, and well-stocked mind conversant with individual subject matter like history and biology. We need to reject the ill-founded notions that every child learns naturally at his or her own pace (whatever that means, beyond failure to teach the subject). We must not accept the claim that knowing how to learn (which is an abstract skill that does not even exist) is more important than having a broad foundation of factual knowledge that really does enable further learning.

These and other crucial insights apply just as much to the UK education system today as they did to the US system when Hirsch wrote the book nearly 20 years ago. The claim that maximising independent learning and relentless praise is not the best way to develop student understanding would be met with disbelief by many teachers. The disparaging of ‘mere facts’ and ‘rote-learning’ still pervades the education debate (just look at much of the reaction to changes to the national curriculum) despite the fact that the evidence overwhelmingly supports Hirsch’s claim that basic background knowledge (i.e. ‘mere facts’) is vital both to the creation of new knowledge and to the development of higher-order thinking skills. And what Hirsch calls naturalism – the belief that learning is a natural process which cannot be forced (‘Jimmy just isn’t naturally good at maths’) or rapidly accelerated – remains deeply embedded in the thought-world of our education system.

There are some welcome signs that all this is starting to change. Before I’d even opened The Schools We Need I was pretty familiar with the main lines of argument largely because I’d heard and read quite a lot about them. In the blogosphere these ideas are widely discussed and commonly accepted.  The science on which some of the more concrete claims are based is gaining greater publicity and being more widely investigated by some teachers. Organisations have been set up dedicated to promoting these ideas and some schools are starting to apply elements of the approach that Hirsch advocates.

Despite these positive developments our schools still more closely resemble those that Hirsch criticises than any that he would endorse. What can we do to change this? Transforming arguments and ideas into systematic change is a huge challenge, but there are undoubtedly things that we can and should do.

  1. Ofsted must stop promoting progressive, child-centred pedagogy. Through the relentless criticism of too much teacher-talk and the advocacy of independent learning the schools regulator is playing a decisive role in determining the type of teaching children receive. Recent promises that Ofsted would not favour any particular teaching style do not seem to be backed up by evidence on the ground. Growing concern about the validity and reliability of lesson observations provides good grounds for reconsidering the entire inspection regime, and a central pillar of any new regime should be that to the extent that it does advocate a particular pedagogical approach it must be one that is evidence-based.
  2. Curriculum design is fundamentally important and should be informed by a knowledge-centric approach. The proposed reforms to the national curriculum are undoubtedly a step in the right direction but we need to go even further in specifying exactly what needs to be taught and when. Moving to a more prescriptive curriculum will be fraught with difficulties, not least overcoming the objections of the cynical post-modernists who object to the selection of any specific content as ideological and divisive, but the curriculum is the foundation of teaching in our schools. If we want a greater focus on core knowledge then this need to be reflected in the content of the curriculum.
  3. These ideas need to form a core part of teacher training, including both initial teacher training and CPD. Progressive pedagogy is so firmly entrenched in our schools that changing the curriculum and the inspection regime alone will not be sufficient to dislodge it. Ultimately we need teachers themselves to recognise the value of a common core of background knowledge and to appreciate what the evidence says about the best way to teach it. This is perhaps one reason to be sceptical about the greater shift towards school-based teacher training. We want new teachers to have the time and space to engage with research which is relevant to effective pedagogy so that they can mould their teaching practise accordingly. Chucking them straight into schools to learn on the job increases the likelihood that they become institutionalised – looking around them they see an emphasis on discovery learning and minimal teacher-talk which they then copy unquestioningly.

None of the above are quick fixes. Each requires a concerted effort from practitioners and policy-makers which is difficult to envisage in the near future. Returning to Tough Young Teachers, it is precisely because most people don’t flinch at the absurdities of progressive pedagogy that it retains its dominant position. There is something intuitively appealing about the teaching of broad skills and of children finding things out for themselves. Hirsch and others have tried to explain its origins in the romanticism of Rousseau and the progressive-hotbed of Teachers College but in many ways this is the weakest part of their analysis. Origins do not explain resilience. In the end it seems that there is something in our collective culture – perhaps our commitment to autonomy or liberal individualism – that primes us to continue to accept the progressive approach. If we are to get the schools we need, we first need to find a way of overcoming this prejudice.

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It’s all in the track record: judging the success of the free school programme

Natalie Evans of the New Schools Network (the charity that helps with the establishment of free schools) thinks that there is ‘no question’ that there will be more failures associated with the programme. In one sense she is right. It would be unrealistic to expect the programme to be free from further hiccups, just as it would be foolish expect all academies or maintained schools to be free from scandal. Nonetheless, the high-profile failings at free schools like Al-Madinah in Derby and the King Science Academy in Bradford have provided ample ammunition to critics of the programme. Such criticism raises an interesting question: how should we judge the success of the free school programme?

One approach could be to look at the raw numbers. 174 free schools have opened since September 2011. This suggests that there is at least some demand for free schools, even if many of these schools are yet to reach full capacity. As a measure of success, however, these figures are unenlightening. Many people would question the validity of using demand as a criterion of success, even if we are all tempted to do so when it supports our own ideological preference. In the early stages of the programme one of the great ironies was how quick many of those who opposed free schools on the grounds that they represented the first step in the marketisation of education were to use market signals (how many schools have opened, how full they are) as a basis for their criticism. Ultimately, using the number of free schools opening as the de facto criterion of success is to succumb to an unhealthy degree of circularity. The DfE is doing everything it can to encourage more free schools to open. The number that open tells us something about the success of the DfE in promoting them and something about demand from those who want to open them, but it tells us little about how effective these schools are. Using the raw numbers as a benchmark is to misunderstand the fundamental aim of the free school programme.

It is for a similar reason that much of the criticism of free schools from the left has rather missed the point. Free schools have been criticised for being unrepresentative of the local community and for opening in areas where there is little need for school places (or alternatively, for not opening in areas where need is greatest).  Labour in particular have used the latter as a basis for attacking the programme and have suggested this as a point of differentiation between free schools and its suggested alternative, parent-led academies. The problem with this critique is that misunderstands the philosophy of free schools. The programme is not designed as a way of effectively allocating school places or of ensuring that schools are socially representative. Quite simply they are designed to improve school quality by introducing an element of competition. It is perfectly compatible with this aim for free schools to be opening in areas where there is little or no need for additional places. The opening of a free school will, so the theory goes, force other schools in the area to up their game. From this perspective the creation of surplus places is not a bad thing: it is essential to the goal of improving school quality.

The most promising approach, therefore, would be to focus on the degree to which this central aim – improving school quality through the introduction of new schools free from the shackles of bureaucracy – has been achieved. This is notoriously difficult. Quantitative analysis of school performance is a worthy venture but rarely provides clear and definitive answers. Research of this type into the performance of academies has produced mixed results. In the US where there is a substantial body of research looking at the impact of charter schools on attainment the picture is similarly mixed. Both those who support and those who oppose charter schools are able to cite studies that support their position. This should not be taken as suggesting that such research is pointless (it isn’t) or that the research is equally strong on both sides (it definitely isn’t). It does, however, illustrate the difficulty of expecting such methods to provide clear answers in the medium term. It would be foolish to expect such research – even in five years’ time – to be able to tell us much about the success of the free school programme.

In light of these difficulties should we simply abandon any attempt to measure the success of free schools? Doing so may well suit policymakers. The main reason politicians don’t publish success criteria when introducing policy is not because they understand the methodological difficulties associated with measuring them. It is because they fear setting themselves up for failure. It suits governments if the only criterion for the success of public policy is longevity.

It is important that we do not allow free schools to be subject to the scrutiny of time alone. Nor should we let the difficulties associated with trying to quantify the impact of free schools prevent us from taking a robust approach to evaluating their success. For now we can learn more than you might think from the successes and failures of the early free schools.  Taking this more qualitative approach requires us to investigate exactly what free schools are doing with the freedom and autonomy granted to them. This is why the scandal at Al-Madinah does matter. One failing free school does not necessarily undermine the whole programme. It is relevant, however, if features of the free school programme itself makes those failings more likely or more difficult to address. As others have argued , Al-Madinah can easily be seen in this light. Ultimately the best way of assessing the success of free schools is to scrutinise them on their own terms: does the choice, flexibility and autonomy that the programme seeks to introduce make our schools better or worse? Serious analysis of the track record of free schools (including Al-Madinah) is the most promising way of answering this question in the short term. For now the jury is still out.

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