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.]

Does ‘the gap’ matter to children eligible for free school meals?


Rebecca Allen

David Laws, the Liberal Democrat Minister for Schools, has been making a series of speeches over the past month about “closing the gap” in the attainment between pupils from deprived and more affluent backgrounds. Yesterday, he warned that schools should not be judged as outstanding by Ofsted if they failed to close the gap, a goal that sounds fair and even laudable in principle, but I believe is rather unfair in practice.

The “gap” is the difference in GCSE achievement between the average for pupils who are eligible for free school meals and the average for those who are not. Pupils eligible for free school meals have similar characteristics across schools since they all come from families claiming some sort of benefit. The problem is that the background of pupils who are not eligible for free school meals (FSM) will vary considerably across schools, since the group includes…

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Who fails wins? The impact of failing an Ofsted Inspection

CMPO Viewpoint

Rebecca Allen and Simon Burgess

What is the best way to deal with under-performing schools? This is a key policy concern for an education system. There clearly has to be a mechanism for identifying such schools. But what should then be done with schools which are highlighted as failing their pupils? There are important trade-offs to be considered: rapid intervention may be an over-reaction to a freak year of poor performance, but a more measured approach may condemn many cohorts of students to under-achieve.

This is the issue that Ofsted tackles. Its inspection system identifies failing schools and supervises their recovery. How effective is this? Is it even positive, or does labelling a school as failing push it to ever lower outcomes for its students?

It’s not clear what to expect. Ofsted inspections are often dreaded, and a fail judgement seen as being disastrous. It has been argued it triggers…

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The social mobility challenge is not impossible

Schools-datajournogenius Christopher Cook of the FT wrote a nice blog post this week showing how forcing academy conversion for low performing schools probably wouldn’t do much to fix social inequalities in educational achievement. I agree. But I want to show some (quick and dirty) data to help keep alive the dreams of school reformers. This data refutes his suggestion that poor children do badly in the majority of England’s schools.

Schools do make a difference to the lives of poor children, far more so than for rich children who do well everywhere. Professor Simon Burgess and I noticed this when we were working on local school performance tables, which consistently showed that choice of local school appeared to matter far more for low ability children than it did for high ability children:

Equally, the variation in achievement for children from deprived neighbourhoods is greater than than for children from affluent neighbourhoods. This chart shows the 10th-90th percentile range of GCSE achievement by deprivation of neighbourhood:

Which schools make a difference to poor children’s lives? Well, Chris Cook shows it isn’t the schools in the top half of the national league tables on the % 5+ A*-C measure. But why should they? These schools aren’t necessarily ‘good’ schools, they are just relatively affluent schools. I’ve opened up my dataset to look a little harder for some high quality schools.

How do high quality schools, as judged by Ofsted, do on the social mobility challenge? This chart here shows that Ofsted-judged outstanding schools are pretty good social levellers, on average (i.e. they are much better than the average school for poor children but only moderately better than the average school for rich children)…

…And how to high value-added schools do on the social mobility challenge? Not so well overall. But this chart does show that schools who perform poorly on a CVA-style value-added measure appear to be a serious drag on social mobility…

…and, of course, if we start digging deeper into the data we can find hundreds of individual examples of outstanding schools that truly appear to transform the lives of children from deprived neighbourhoods, such as this well known north east London academy that recently lost its headteacher:

So, while I agree with Chris Cook that within-school variation in attainment remains a huge problem and that education policy can never fix all of society’s problems, I want to give a ray of hope to the policy makers, headteacher and teachers who work in education because they believe they can transform lives.

It’s not all hopeless (although it also isn’t easy). There are schools where pupil achievement isn’t entirely dependent on social background. We can’t close the social class attainment gap, but the best schools do help make it much smaller.

School autonomy and pupil achievement

One of the stated policy motivations behind the move towards greater autonomy for schools from local authority control has been the claim that this is a route to improving academic standards. This might be through more efficient decision-making and resource usage or because autonomy is a necessary precursor to market-like reforms whereby schools are somehow incentivised to compete for pupils.

Schools with voluntary-aided and foundation status appear to do well in schools league tables including contextual value added calculations, but is it possible to causally attribute this to autonomous status? This causal relationship is difficult to establish because household factors such as parenting styles and household educational backgrounds affect both the likelihood of attending an autonomous school and the chances of achieving good GCSE exam results.

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