Making Oxbridge entry matter less

Yet again, universities are under the spotlight for their admission processes. On the one hand, of course we need to do all we can to get under-represented groups into our elite universities. Alternatively, we could enquire as to why it is so important that they get into these universities in the first place. I’d[i] argue that this is largely because educational achievement is unmeasured at the end of degrees and so name of university attended is still acting as a (poor) signal of IQ/knowledge/effort [delete as appropriate] to employers.

One of the many reasons for this is that degree class inflation is out-of-control, with places such as the University of Surrey now awarding a first-class degree to over 40% of their students. Degree classifications clearly no longer reflect genuine attainment, either for cohorts passing through the system in different years or indeed across different institutions.

The consequence is that young people are hugely incentivised to apply to highly-selective courses, rather than ones with high quality teaching. For this is the only way they can signal their intellect in the labour market. For this reason, incidentally, the TEF alone cannot degrade the market quality of an LSE degree.

We could fix all these problems by introducing a common core examination in all degree subjects, set externally by learned societies. All students would sit them, say, two-thirds of the way through their degree, thus allowing specialised final year examinations to continue. Performance in this exam, by subject, would determine the number of first-class, upper-second, lower-second and third-class degrees the department is allowed to award that year. It would not determine the degree-class of the student.

Agreeing a common core of the curriculum would be more controversial in some subjects than in others. We should try this first in subjects where this is not controversial: the sciences, maths, economics, and so on.[ii]

This degree design would still leave the majority of time free for esoteric topics, set by a university (e.g. 50% of the first two years and 100% of the final year), who could choose to combine papers into a degree classification in any way it chooses. It would simply be restricted in the proportion of different classifications it could award, based on the common exam results.

The alternative is that we introduce some sort of IQ-style SAT entrance examination that in turn determines how degrees can be set. But this does not incentivise universities to ensure that students are learning anything.

Establishing robust and comparable degree classification will help fix the extraordinary stratification of universities in the eyes of employers. Getting into Oxbridge rather than, say, Nottingham undoubtedly gives people an easy ride in the labour market. As someone who got one of these free passes to pretend I am clever I used to think this was justified. I changed my mind when I had the chance to interview 17 year-olds myself.

A decade or so ago I was roped into interviewing for undergraduates at an Oxbridge college, not because anyone particularly valued my opinion but more because newspaper scandals meant the college didn’t want Fellows interviewing alone. The experience completely revolutionised my view that university admissions were efficiently selecting students by ability.

We handed out about seven offers in the subject in each of the three years I helped out. Three were given to candidates who performed exceptionally well at interview and had great AS point scores; the other four were given rather arbitrarily from a long list of over a dozen candidates who did well at interview and on paper. I could see the consequences of the offers we made because I supervised first year students. Those who performed exceptionally well at interview often didn’t seem to turn out to be genuinely interested and motivated by their subject. The interview didn’t help those from disadvantaged backgrounds, in my experience, who clearly hadn’t been prepared. And the ‘thinking skills’ test that we introduced during the time I interviewed was clearly not tutor-proof; we observed striking mark inflation as it moved from a pilot to a known-test with companies offering preparation.

There are weak students studying at Oxbridge; there are outstanding students studying at Nottingham. The latter group, even if they are awarded a first, find it much harder to signal their talent to the employers who understandably place little store by degree classification. If we ensured genuine comparability in achievement across universities then university attended needn’t act as a signal for anything at all.



[i] Well, technically most of this argument comes from a conversation with a very smart man who is not in the position to make these arguments publicly at the moment!

[ii] The question of how degrees should be awarded across subjects is a question for another time, but one that is debated frequently by school examination boards. Essentially, there are principles that can be applied to achieve this where subjects have similar academic characteristics; deciding the national degree awarding proportions is almost impossible for art, music, nursing and so on. School examination boards also deal with questions about how to maintain comparability over time, etc…

If Engelmann taught swimming

I have been thinking about social inequalities and education for the past decade and feel like I’m walking a well-trodden path that has a hopeful ending. Perhaps by telling you where it leads it’ll help you get to a productive destination quicker.

I’ve spent my whole research career thinking that our best hope for fixing educational inequalities is to shuffle children, teachers and money across schools and/or classrooms. That is why I have spent so much time writing about school admissions and choice, measuring school performance, school funding and the pupil premium, and the allocation of teachers to schools and to classes within schools.

We have made essentially zero progress in England in closing the attainment gap between children who live in poorer and richer households. Zero. It is easy to feel despondent about this and wonder whether no solutions lie within the education system.

But two things that have happened over the summer – my daughter learning to swim and listening to Kris Boulton talk – have given me renewed hope.


We have a daughter who is a low ability swimmer. Like other families, every Saturday morning we’d bargain over whose turn it was to take her to her lesson. One half-term became two. Then three. Then four. And yet still she was in Beginners One. She was fine about this – she liked the classes and only causally noted that other children were learning to swim and moving up to the next class.

Other parents said, ‘Don’t worry. Everyone learns to swim in the end. She’ll get there.’ And I knew they were right – she would get there eventually and we should just accept it’ll take her longer than other children. But then someone suggested we try another swimming class. So we did. And from the moment she got into that new pool with a new instructor it was like watching some sort of miracle. By the end of the first lesson she was doing something approaching proper swimming and by the fourth lesson she was good enough to practise on her own at the local pool with us.

Did she just ‘need time’? Was it chance that it ‘just clicked’ on that particular day? Would she ever have learnt to swim in Beginners One at the old place? Was she really a ‘low ability’ swimmer?

As I was mulling over this small miracle whilst swimming in the local leisure pool on a Saturday (not a tranquil experience that is conducive to deep-thought), I remembered Kris Boulton’s strange picture of classroom desks with a probability that each child learns a concept. This is a photo of him presenting at researchED, but you can also hear about it on Mr Barton’s maths podcast or read his blogpost.

Kris Boulton

Kris thinks the problem with the accepted educational wisdom is that it deems most instructional methods as fine because some children always ‘get it’. From this observation, they then deduce that other children in the same classroom must be failing for reasons outside the classroom – poverty, genetics, and so on. If you read his blogs, Kris doesn’t deny that these other things are present, but he views these all as factors that increase the sensitivity of the child to instructional method chosen.

Kris has come around to this way of thinking through his study of the work of Zig Engelmann. Engelmann isn’t popular in many educational circles for his commitment to Direct Instruction. But you don’t have to be a fan of D.I. (I’m not particularly) to admire the scientific approach he has taken to constantly refining his programmes of instruction. And at the heart of the approach he takes is the following belief:

The best instructional methods will close the gap between those students who have a high chance of understanding a new concept and those who have a lower chance of understanding it.

This! This way of thinking about inequalities in rates of learning is simply not part of the narrative for many policy-makers and researchers. There are some children who will ‘get it’, regardless of instructional method used (the Autumn-born middle-class girls in infants and the kids in my daughter’s first swimming class who raced through and onto Beginners Two within a term). Then there are those for whom the probability that they learn the new concept is highly sensitive to methods of instruction. My daughter wasn’t a ‘low ability’ swimmer; she was just a novice swimmer who was more sensitive to instructional methods than others for whatever reason.

I don’t know whether Zig Engelmann has ever thought about swimming instruction, and I don’t know what he would make of the methods used to teach my daughter in the second swim school. Who knows whether her swim instructor has given much thought to questions of sequencing and the benefits of what Kris calls atomisation in his blogpost. I’m confident that she is not following a Direct Instruction script! But just imagine if the method of instruction she has devised through years of experience could be codified, at least in part, so that other instructors could follow it too.

There will always be differences in how easily humans are able to learn new concepts, but I’m more convinced than ever that we can reduce the size of these gaps in rates of learning by paying close attention to the instructional methods we use. An instructional method doesn’t work if only some children can succeed by it. Let’s work on developing methods that give every child the highest possible chance of succeeding.


I showed this post to Kris and he wrote:

Engelmann has applied his ideas to physical activity, including tying shoelaces, doing up buttons, and I think some aspects of sport.  I had an excellent instructor for Cuban Salsa a few years back. She created three 10 week courses, at differing levels, and broke everything up into different moves, from small components up to more complex combinations. One evening several of us went out to a dance event that had a lesson with a different instructor – he spent most of the time saying ‘No-one can really teach you how to move, you just have to feel the music.’ Utterly useless.

(I think those last two words are his less polite way of saying that he is a novice dancer who is very sensitive to instructional methods!)

Kris is a little further on in his journey than me, as he explains here. He believes so strongly that this is how we reduce inequalities in rates of learning that he is joining Up Learn, a company dedicated to this same belief, that is putting the theory into practice and believes they can use it to guarantee an A or A* to every A Level student who learns through their programme.

We don’t need better sorting hats to improve social mobility

This is roughly the talk I gave at a Policy Exchange fringe at Conservative Party Conference in 2016


I don’t like the words social mobility because they are so slippery as to give carte blanche to politicians to do exactly as they please.

We appear to have entered an era where social mobility policies involve the creation of new sorting hats. Educational sorting hats can be useful at the right time and place in life, to funnel some students into elite universities and others into technical training programmes, for example. But they often have pre-determined destinations in mind for the individuals who are pulled out, rather than leaving everyone to receive the kind of broad, academic education that enables citizens to have options throughout life.

This might make sense post-18 where some students are starting to push against the boundaries of what it is possible for them to achieve and where work-place preparation becomes important. (I have personal experience of these boundaries, having started a degree in maths at Cambridge before changing subject to something I found easier.)

But the idea that at age 11, children are ready to be put through the sorting hat that decides the type of education they deserve and will suit them for the sort of job we have in mind for them is deeply regressive. It is fundamentally in conflict (as are UTCs, incidentally) with the Govian belief in an academic education for all. One that gives every child the freedom to be everything they want to be. Is this not a truly Conservative ideal?

But to return to the sorting hat that Nick Timothy would like to introduce. At no stage has he, or other proponents, articulated how they would like the hat to sort. Is it IQ? Academic achievement so far in life? Likely future academic achievement? Whatever it is, he must know we cannot accurately measure it at age 11 and that some set of children will be ‘wrongly’ sorted, depending on what day of the week and on what test paper is sat.

Whatever system is devised, we pit sections of society against each other in ways that are divisive. We want August born children to have a decent chance of gaining a place so we allow them a lower qualifying score than September born children. Is this fair? And why are boys allowed lower qualifying scores than hard-working girls? How can it be fair to the working poor that the children of families on benefits in Birmingham now have dedicated spaces for them at grammar schools? And if we make spaces for the working poor too, as the PM has intimated they might, what about the ‘just about coping OK’ families or the ‘coping fine but no way we have the money for private schools’ families?

Proponents have expressed a desire to use grammar schools to support the white working class whose children are indeed struggling more than any others. But to do this we will have to require higher qualifying scores for Asian and black students, all of whom have excellent success rates at passing the eleven plus. At what point does this become racial discrimination?

Thankfully, I would argue, we do not need to worry about the complex questions that are intrinsic in putting eleven year olds through any sorting hat.

We do not need this sorting hat at age 11 because we want the same thing for everyone: a general, academic education that leaves them free to make choices about the kind of path in life they want to take as a citizen.

And there is nothing we propose to do with children in these grammar schools that we do not want every other child to experience.

[At the end of the session, Nick Gibb admitted he wanted to introduce a grammar school into a place like Knowsley because the teachers there have refused to improve schools and implement the EBacc. So our only choice is to abandon the 80% so that we can save the 20%. How sad. In response, I told him about a little place he might know that once had the kind of schools that caused the middle classes to flee the city. We invested lots of money, devised school improvement schemes and created programmes to plug teacher recruitment. That little place was Inner London.]

I’m data blogging elsewhere…

Nearly all my blog posts here have involved data or reviews of fairly quantitative research. Except for one of the most popular, which was just a polemic about keeping school buildings open for longer. (I guess people aren’t so interested in cold, hard facts about education policy after all.)

From now on, all my ‘normal’ data posts are going to be on the Education Datalab blog. I won’t be reposting them here, not least because it isn’t WordPress powered (long story…). Do take a look – I’ve already blogged on non-specialist teachers and free schools, amongst other things. If you are a Twitter-type you can keep in touch with our posts by following @edudatalab.

I’m going to reserve blogging here for things that are utterly unsupported by data and maybe even some non-education policy things. New posts to follow very soon…

Economics of Education

Economists analyse the production of education in this world where resources such as the capital invested in buildings or technology and the labour of the teacher workforce are necessarily scarce. This scarcity of resources means that policymakers must decide:

  1. How much to spend on each stage of education (i.e. what to produce);
  2. How to provide educational services in a way that maximises its benefits to society (i.e. how to produce education); and
  3. Who should have access to each stage of education (i.e. for whom is education provided).

Economic theory is able to help policy makers by providing both facts about the education system and values to inform decision-making. The part of economics that is concerned with establishing facts about the world is called positive economics. It asks questions such as ‘can we improve the quality of teachers by increasing pay’ or ‘will smaller class sizes raise pupil attainment’? Normative economics asks questions that require value judgments such as ‘is it fair to charge higher education students tuition fees’?

A social welfare framework underpins the dominant approach in the economics of education. According to this framework, society should strive to arrange educational services to be produced and distributed in manner that is both efficient and equitable. Efficiency means that educational outputs are maximised, given a set of constrained resources. Equity means that services are distributed according to some principle of social justice or fairness.

Individuals and governments often face hard choices because of the scarce resources they possess. For example, expanding higher education and increasing provision of early years care might both appear to be policies that have the potential to improve the well-being of society overall, but which should a government prioritise? Economists describe the costs of taking a particular action as opportunity costs, because the greatest cost of expanding higher education might be the lost benefits of not undertaking the next best alternative policy, such as increased provision of early years care.

Short history of the economics of education

Economists are normally associated with ensuring that profit-making companies and the overall economy functions well, but they have slowly expanded their interests to new spheres of society. The origin of the economics of education as a significant field within economics dates back to the theoretical and empirical developments made by American economists such as Gary Becker and Jacob Mincer in the 1960s. Their work introduced the idea of education as human capital and they attempted to calculate the economic returns to acquiring education.

Over the past decade there has been an enormous growth of interest by economists in education policy, both in the UK and across the world. This has been accompanied by a growing political interest in market-based reforms across the public sector. These types of reforms include devolvement of financial planning to front-line institutions such as hospitals and schools and giving consumers of public services choice about which provider to use. Economists from other fields such as labour economics have been attracted by the growing availability of large-scale datasets that facilitate complex statistical analysis to analyse the impact of particular policy initiatives. Examples of these data include the National Pupil Database in England, which has collected annual information on the background characteristics and Key Stage attainment data of all pupils in state-maintained schools since 2002, and the PISA, an international survey of the skills of 15 year olds across many industrialised countries.

What is the economic paradigm?

Economic theory makes certain assumptions about human behaviour in order to make predictions about the effects of policy changes. The starting point of economic analysis is that individuals and institutions are rational agents (often given the name homo-economicus), operating with self-interested intent as they make decisions about providing or participating in education. Individuals are assumed to set themselves a goal of maximising their own well-being (or utility), given fixed preferences or tastes for education and a well-defined money constraint. Many economic theories assume that human brains possess perfect computational powers to process all the information needed to make optimal choices at all times!

These economic models of individuals and institutions present a simplified version of reality and for this reason they have been criticised by many sociologists and psychologists who claim they bear little resemblance to the real world. However, economists would argue that these simplifying assumptions are necessary to make precise predictions about the likely impact of policies in this complex world we live in. To put it another way, economists do not really believe that humans are so selfish and simple in their motivations; they just believe that this simplification is a useful analytical tool to help us understand the world better.

Books where you can learn more…

Checchi, Daniele (2008) The Economics of Education: Human Capital, Family Background and Inequality,  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [This book provides a comprehensive overview of most of the work currently being carried out in the field]

Le Grand, J., Propper, C. and Smith, S. (2008) The Economics of Social Problems, London: Palgrave Macmillan. [An introduction to economic theory applied to a wide variety of social problems, including education]

Machin, S. and Vignoles, A. (2005) What’s the Good of Education? Princeton: Princeton University Press. [A non-technical UK perspective on the economics of education]

Barr, N. (2004) Economics of the Welfare State, Oxford: Oxford University Press. [If you have studied a little economics before, this book gives an excellent overview of relevant economic theory]

If you can get access to academic journal articles, you might find this an interesting starting point:  Machin, S. (2008) The new economics of education: methods, evidence and policy, Journal of Population Economics, 21 pp 1-19.

Where to find relevant journal articles…

Articles by economists about education policy are published in specialist journals such as:

They also publish in other economic journals, such as:

Other articles can be found across geography, statistics and education journals, such as:

Where to find discussion papers…

IDEAS at RePEc.  Almost all economics of education journal articles are first made available as working papers here.

Institute for the Study of Labor.  The German think-tank IZA publishes many papers in the field of economics of education.

Centre for Market and Public Organisation, University of Bristol.  This is one of the the largest centres for research in economics of education in the UK.

Centre for Economics of Education.  CEE is a multi-institutional research centre based at the Centre for Economic Performance (LSE), IFS and IOE.

Institute for Fiscal Studies.  IFS publishes reports about education spending in the UK.

National Bureau of Economic Research.  NBER publishes many US working papers in the field of economics of education.  However, you need a subscription to download the actual papers.

National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education.  NCSPE is based at Teachers College, University of Colombia.

Mandating 10 hour opening times for school buildings*

*NB. Yes, buildings. Not teachers. Not headteachers. Not pupils.

Today I’m blogging without data, or even much evidence. We have had a few interesting commentaries from education bloggers on longer school days (here and here), but the twitter debate fell quickly into criticisms about impacts on family life, which need to be challenged. I believe the provision of non-compulsory extended schools is an essential reform to support families – as families by definition will include women who want, or need to work. And it is still women who are overwhelmingly expected to meet their children at the gates of schools well before the working day is over.

Schools are public institutions if they take tax-payers money (yes, even church schools and academies). Their buildings are ideal places for children to spend time, whether that time is spent learning, playing, doing extra-curricular activities, eating, and yes Tom… even just baby-sitting. Instead of the patchwork of finding childcare, after-school clubs, ad-hoc play dates and other activities to fill the rest of the day, let’s start using these expensive buildings to serve the modern needs of families.

I would like the government to mandate that publicly funded schools must open their buildings from at least 8am to 6pm, without restrictions on number of places available in their extended day. Schools can make reasonable charges to either children or providers for extended day activities, and there should be no requirement on either pupils or teachers to attend.

My reason why is the reality of combining children with work and a career.

Before I had children I had been prepared for the fact that the pre-school years would screw up my career a bit, but assumed that once children went to school, childcare would become more straightforward. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Until my child is five I can (pay of course) to send her to a nursery where I can pick and choose for her day to start at 8am, 9am, 12 noon or 12:45pm and for her day to end at 12 noon, 12:45pm, 3:45pm or 6pm. Whilst there she takes music lessons with a specialist, learns to swim, spends many hours playing inside and outside, is introduced to letters and numbers, and so on. She loves it and I love to work while she is there.

I could keep her in this institution after the age of five because the nursery happens to be attached to a private school that has been forced to extend its working day to meet the desire and/or the needs of my generation of women who mostly want to work. But unfortunately my ideological beliefs and desire for her to be educated in her local community make this impossible.

I don’t live in a part of the world where state schools generally open for 10 hours a day or where there is a pool of affordable labour looking for work from 3pm-6pm each day. So, I am resigned to spending many afternoons each week standing at the school gate, driving my children to extra-curricular clubs, sitting reading my twitter feed while the club is running, driving them home and preparing their tea while they watch TV. Yes, it is great for families to spend quality time together, but this doesn’t feel like good quality time to me. If it was so great, I suspect it would be shared more evenly across the sexes. I believe it would be better for my child and for my career if schools were required to house a wide variety of fee-charging after-school clubs (youth clubs, sports, individual and collective music activities, ballet and gym, homework support, maths catch-up, one-to-one tutoring, arts and crafts, drama, etc…) for families who wanted to use this additional care. We could, as taxpayers and citizens, choose to subsidise this provision for some groups of children or even require attendance for others, but this would be controversial and step far beyond straightforward support for working parents.

I enjoyed Paul Kirby’s blog this week on lengthening the school day, but I don’t think he successfully made the case for longer mandatory opening hours for all children. Let’s look at Kirby’s arguments and some of the problems in the evidence, even where he has cited it. He says:

  • “The evidence on the impact of classroom hours on attainment is strong”, citing Kipp schools in the US. But unless we are to invite Kipp to come and run our schools, the correct evidence base is really rather weak
  • “It wouldn’t cost any money because we can redeploy Teaching Assistants to run additional activities without detriment to children they currently support”. This is not a view of the evidence that Peter Blatchford, the academic who is most quoted in this area, would subscribe to.
  • “Teachers currently work shorter hours than other workers so should be required to work a normal day”. This is a particularly ill informed prejudice. Teachers would work shorter hours, if children needed no pastoral care, lessons needed no planning and books needed no marking (see here). I worked far longer hours as a teacher than I did as an investment banker.
  • (And even if we had the money, we cannot substantially increase the size of the teacher workforce without comprising quality of new recruits.)

Postscript: Since I wrote this blogpost the government has published an interesting research report.

Five observations on the TouchPaper problems party

Last weekend, Laura McInerney and I hosted a rather experimental TouchPaper problems party. Her blog here tells you what happened on the day and a few party goers have started writing up their own thoughts on the day (here, here and here). Here are five observations from the perspective of a rather-out-of-touch-with-the-classroom academic:

1. I have never done so little preparation for event I have hosted. Laura was in the wrong part of the world; I was busy shelving research projects for my impending maternity leave. So, we could either host a day with close to zero preparation or not at all. I asked the Director of IOE, Chris Husbands, to give us a room, drinks and wifi while Laura wrote a set of blog posts to light the TouchPaper for each group. We outsourced all intellectual preparation to our fantastic group leaders in return for a couple of drinks and dinner. Without their help we would have been sunk. Thank you.

2. Smart, motivated adults don’t need as much event structure as young, easily-distracted children. Giving the groups complete discretion as to how they spent four hours produced an amazing diversity of activities. Some of the approaches reflected the size of the group (consensus is that 3 is too small and 8 is too large). One group spent an hour largely silent writing and reading pink post-it notes:

2014-01-18 11.58.13

And while a couple of party-goers commented that they would have liked more structure in the day, more appeared to value the flexibility afforded to groups to do exactly as they pleased.

3. To answer the TouchPaper problems, group work needs to be complemented by intense individual endeavour. Group work enables sophisticated discussions about the interpretation of the TouchPaper problem and how it can be broken down into necessary sub-questions. It also works well for research design. But somewhere between conceptualisation and research design somebody needs to review relevant literature.

4.  Research summaries that instruct teachers what to do in the classroom are a poor substitute for intense engagement in a research question. Educational research naturally wants to get teachers to use their studies to inform classroom practice (e.g. see current BERA and EEF efforts). Teachers are busy people and it is easy to infer that ‘digested’ research summaries and toolkits are the only practical approaches to achieving this. But these summaries are necessarily reductionist (e.g. you should give your pupils’ feedback on their work) and I wonder whether they alienate teachers who appreciate the complexity of deciding best practice across a variety of settings. Teachers live an incredibly hectic and stressful life during term-time, yet more than one party-goer said that engaging in the TouchPaper problems on a Saturday was exactly what they needed to re-fuel and reaffirm their love of teaching.

5. My dream school would employ these 40-odd party-goers, from the PGCE student through to the headteachers and ex-teaching drifters like this and thisI was blown away by some of the conversations I eavesdropped on (and occasionally baffled by our complexity group):

2014-01-18 11.43.56

Admittedly we made no effort to recruit a representative sample of teachers (see point 1). Our party was made up of a self-selected group of the most engaged of the edu-twitterati and bloggers. Any future TouchPaper problems party might have to be organised differently to reflect diversity of engagement in educational policy-making and research amongst more typical teachers.