A response to the House of Commons Education Committee report on Multi-Academy Trusts

The number of schools joining multi-academy trusts has grown over the last five years, and it is expected that this growth will continue. The House of Commons Education Committee has, as a result, looked into the performance and role of these trusts. This blog, which I co-authored with Steven J Courtney, Ruth McGinity, Robert Hindle, Stephen M Rayner and Belinda Hughes focuses on four key aspects of the Committee’s report and argues that broader questions about the government’s policy remain untouched. It was originally published on the LSE’s Politics and Policy blog.

The House of Commons Education Committee published its report on multi-academy trusts (MATs) on 28th February. At a time when the health of school budgets is increasingly jeopardised, the report is a timely reminder that the role of the select-committee system is to hold government to account. The report consequently critiques some aspects of the development and administration of multi-academy trusts, whilst largely accepting the overarching policy strategy.

Academisation since 2010 has increased rapidly, leading to new types and configurations of academy. A MAT is the most common way of uniting diverse academies into one legal entity, governed by a single board of trustees. Government policy on MATs reflects an expectation that maintained schools should become academies and that these should join or form a MAT. What is in doubt, and is addressed by this report, is how this policy aim is being operationalised.

In this response to the report, we focus on four key areas: the report’s attitude towards local authorities; how it addresses MATs’ financial sustainability; its distinctive treatment of leadership; and the report’s use of language.

The role of local authorities

One of the most striking features of the report is the marked change in the way in which local authorities are described and positioned. After many years as a target of what Stephen Ball called ‘discourses of derision’, local authorities are now seen as the potential saviours of an incoherent programme of MATification.

Allowing local authorities to set up their own MATs, which has been impossible until now, might entice hitherto reluctant school governors and leaders, particularly in primary schools, to join a MAT, because they would expect to retain valued relationships and support structures. We support the report’s conclusion that the fundamental problem remains, however. A triangle of power-bases – Ofsted, Regional School Commissioners and local authorities – has been established, without clarity about the place of each within what the present Secretary of State calls ‘the schools ecosystem’.

Financial sustainability

The report gives a warm reception to the idea of a ‘growth check’ on MATs and we await the metrics on which such checks will be made. This acknowledges that larger MATs increasingly become monopoly providers, both regionally and nationally. Previous thinking might have suggested that larger-scale organisations benefit from cost-saving economies of scale­ – important in a tight financial climate – and an Austrian economics view of the power of innovation driven by greater funds. The need for ‘growth checks’ suggests a consideration of the drawbacks of monopoly positions.

Are some MAT leads driven by power rather than quality? In The New Industrial State (1967), JK Galbraith introduced the notion of a small number of larger corporations dominating markets, a ‘technostructure’ of self-interested managers, a system by which ‘predator’ firms govern and which serves to maintain their own power through expansion. The performance of many academy chains to date suggests that the scale of a MAT has at best an inconsistent impact on outcomes. Furthermore, the report’s warning that neither the Department for Education nor the Education Funding Agency may cope with future MAT growth should ring alarm bells.

Leadership

‘Strong leadership’ is the fifth of the six characteristics identified by the Committee as key to MAT success. It is not called leadership, however, but ‘a shared vision’, supporting findings that the former is increasingly reducible to the latter. ‘Leaders’ in this report mean MAT CEOs and the overarching Board of Trustees, which includes sponsor representation.

In fact, there are many more references here to ‘sponsor’ than ‘leader’. This has the effect of diffusing the act of leadership, of partly removing its exercise from a single, perhaps heroic figure in the New Labour mould. If trusts may ‘do leadership’, two questions immediately follow. First, which activities apparently constituting leadership are possible or impossible? Second, how is accountability for the impact of such activities understood and experienced?

Language

Finally, it is worth noting the subtle shifts in language that pervade the report. As well as the now-familiar market-based metaphors (“sponsored” school, “brokered” deals, etc.), we also find new imagery. For example, some MAT-less schools are framed as “untouchables”, presumably because they are deemed financially unviable rather than because they belong to a caste system that regards them as impure. The term seems to follow similar rhetoric used by Warwick Mansell and others when characterising such schools as “orphans”. This image may capture a sense of rejection, but the danger is that in framing schools as in need of benevolent parenting we disguise the truth – that they’ve been forsaken not by misfortune but by an ideology.

In conclusion, this report ostensibly leaves untouched the broader questions concerning the appropriateness of the overarching MAT policy: who the winners and losers are from their very existence, for example, and what this means for public education. However, the extent and radical nature (for these times) of some of its proposals amount to a damning indictment of the direction of travel. For instance, it is highly unorthodox to call for the sort of role for local authorities that it has; to call into question MATs’ financial sustainability and to downplay (relatively) individual leadership. In that spirit, it is seeking to obtain maximum value, effectiveness, and usefulness from a policy constructed as unopposable.


It’s not easy to raise prior attainment, but universities could better contextualise applicants’ grades

Note: this piece was originally published here on LSE’s British Politics and Policy blog.

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The government has challenged the Higher Education sector to double the proportion of pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and to raise by 20 per cent the number of undergraduates from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds. However, last month’s report by the Social Market Foundation (SMF) casts doubt on the achievability of either  goal.

Among the observations offered by the SMF is that the spread of disadvantaged students across UK universities is very patchy. While some institutions’ Widening Participation (WP) intake is pushing 30 per cent, proportions elsewhere barely top 2 per cent. No surprise there, perhaps. But what may come as more of a shock are differences in the rate of improvement. As the SMF graph below shows, progress since 2009 among Top 10 institutions (according to rankings in the Times Higher) is less than half that made by institutions ranked 11-20 and by those outside the Top 20. In other words, the rate at which the UK’s highest prestige universities are growing their WP intake is more sluggish than everywhere else.

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Does that matter? Well, as the Social Mobility and Child Poverty commission has noted, the top professions tend to be dominated by alumni of the highest ranking universities. And according to the Sutton Trust, graduates from such universities enjoy the more substantial earnings premium. The risk is that the sector’s uneven distribution of WP students allows social hierarchies to be reproduced and causes social mobility to stall.

The response of selective universities invariably involves locating the problem further down the food chain by arguing the “real” barrier to access is the attainment gap: the difference in the grades with which young people from different socio-economic backgrounds leave school or college. This position is starkly reinforced by UCAS data reported in the SMF report: in 2015, the total number of young people from society’s most disadvantaged quintile holding entry qualifications that placed them in the top attainment bracket was 1,880; however, the total number of young people from the least disadvantaged backgrounds was 17,560. As the graph below shows, the ratio of high-attaining applicants to low-attaining applicants increases exponentially with socio-economic advantage.

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One option suggested by the SMF is that “institutions themselves get much more involved in raising prior attainment.” Clearly, there are important ways in which universities could and should work more closely with lower-attaining state schools and colleges. We can ‘inspire’; we can do more to smooth school-to-university transitions; we can ensure that pupils apply to appropriate course and that our admissions processes treat them justly. Research continues to indicate that young people from low-participation backgrounds conceptualise higher-prestige universities as beyond their reach and worry about not fitting in. Selection practices may also disfavour them.

However, it’s another matter entirely to suggest that university staff have the expertise needed to close attainment differentials. The SMF suggests we offer tuition, provide summer courses and “directly take on responsibility for running schools”. However, the pedagogies favoured in higher education – those that develop critical thinking, independent scholarship and research-driven enquiry – are a far cry from the teach-to-the-test model to which schools are increasingly forced to submit.

If the problem is that the highest prestige universities are not pulling their weight in terms of progress with WP, an alternative approach would be for them to become more sensitive to the educational background in which applicants’ grades were achieved and more explicit about how this information is used in admissions processes. Contextual data is not a new idea, but the sector lacks a consistent, transparent policy on how, when and why it is applied. We even have the absurd situation of league tables using entry tariffs as an indicator of institutional quality, thereby incentivising the more elite end of the sector to continue fishing in familiar waters.

Some colleagues express concern that students admitted on the basis of contextual data might not have the skills needed to cope with higher education. But let’s not forget that state school applicants outperform their independent school peers at university on a like-for-like basis. It’s not so much social engineering as rational investment in talent that hasn’t yet had the opportunity to manifest as attainment.

The SMF doesn’t mention admissions. Instead, it turns to market-based solutions, speculating that some new providers may provide a boost to WP. However, as Andrew McGettigan and others remind us, newly-created private colleges have so far been associated more with empty classrooms and suspect business practices than with driving forward the nation’s social mobility agenda.

The job of improving attainment levels among society’s least advantaged groups is deeply specialised, and one that may be better left to trained, time-served professionals than to well-meaning university staff. However, the sector could seek to address social mobility in other ways. Our rankings could reward diversity and inclusivity, not penalise the use of contextual data. Our admissions processes could become more transparent and less gameable. Our teaching could compensate for previous educational shortcomings by offering targeted, sustained support. And we could fixate a little less on prior attainment and the league tables that peddle it.

Making A Statement

qLast week, the Sutton Trust published a Research Brief that I co-authored with the HE Access Network. The theme is a familiar one for me: the UCAS personal statement. I’ve blogged about it here and here, written a previous Sutton Trust report, and published findings in an academic journal and a book about global HE admissions practices.

Saint-Mary-s-School-oqLD3CThis study was a really interesting addition to the evidence because it was the first to compare how teachers at state schools and admission tutors at high-prestige universities read statements. The results were alarming: what teachers think make a good personal statement is a far cry from what universities are looking for.

The researjohnhumphMS2010_468x402ch attracted plenty of press attention, including an excellent opinion piece by Catherine Bennett for the Observer. Other print coverage included reports in The Sun, The Times, The Daily Telegraph and the Times Education Supplement. My interview on the BBC Radio Four’s Today programme is available here (listen from 52’45”) until February 26th 2016.

While I think personal statements offer a useful lens through which to view distributions of social capital and explore teenagers’ self-conceptualisations, I’m hoping this will be the last time I write about them. A review of their use in the application process – ideally as part of a wider review of the HE admissions in the UK – is long overdue.

 

Willetts’ Legacy? Too soon to say…

This piece was originally published on LSE’s Impact of Social Science blog as “Higher Education community responds to cabinet reshuffle, but it is too soon to foretell David Willetts’ legacy” (July 15th 2014)

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Last night, @timeshighered initiated a Twitter hashtag to gather users’ thoughts about how posterity might record the outgoing Universities minister’s contribution to the sector. It was fascinating to watch #WillettsLegacy develop, with initial ire that “Higher Education has never been so deep in the shit” (@dolbontboy) slowly giving way to “real admiration” (@mikegalsworthy) for a “thoughtful and respected” (@keith_herrmann) minister with “passion” and “enthusiasm” (@Suzanne_Wilson) for his brief.

For some, the legacy was “crippling debt” (@tmyoungman), “accelerated marketization” (@DrLeeJones) and a “black hole in funding” (@cmsdengl).  For others, Willetts was “a visionary” (@LE_Aerospace), “brilliant” and “outstanding” (@ProfRWinston). Often mentioned was “the value of having a universities minister who understands science” (@AlanHeavens).

At the time of writing, about 30% of the #WillettsLegacy tweets were positive, 45% were negative and 25% were mixed.

The success or otherwise of Willetts’ reforms won’t be known for some time yet, of course. The 2012 funding model places graduates in hitherto unknown levels of debt. Indeed, the Institute of Fiscal Studies recently noted that where under the previous student loans system 50% of graduates would complete their repayment by the age of forty, only 5% will do so under the new system. The 2012 model may be more progressive during the period immediately after graduation, but future generations of middle-earners are likely to pay more for longer.

david willettsWhich? University Launch. Image credit: Which? Press Office (Flickr, CC BY SA)

 

If the reforms were an attempt to introduce competition to the sector, they were largely unsuccessful. Predictably, raising fees to £9k per year didn’t result in universities ruthlessly undercutting one another in the market place. What it did create was a plethora of “Cashpoint Colleges” teaching nothing much at all, at eye-watering expense to the taxpayer.

Indeed, early predictions of how costly the government’s underwriting of the new system would be proved wildly optimistic. RAB estimates have now risen from 30% to 45%, making the system more expensive than that which it replaced. Some call for the fee cap to be lifted; others suggest some kind of Graduate Tax may be a fairer option.

Though the widening participation agenda seems not to have taken a hit from the introduction of higher fees, UCAS report that applications from mature students and part-time students are down substantially since 2012. Even when young people from state schools get the grades for a top university, evidence shows that they’re less likely to apply and less likely to be offered a place than their equal-attainment peers from the independent sector.

Findings also indicate that some applicants are much more favoured by the applications process than others. Willetts supported the use of contextual data in admissions (“if they’ve come from a school that doesn’t get many good A-level grades,  getting a grade at that school is even more of an achievement”), but missed key opportunities to level the playing field further.

On the other hand, Willetts did much to raise the profile of teaching in Higher Education. For all of its faults, the National Student Survey shows student satisfaction rising every year. Open access for journal articles (triggered by Willetts’ own frustrations at being charged to read scholarly publications when researching his most recent book, The Pinch: How Baby-Boomers Took Their Children’s Future, and Why They Should Give it Back) is a step in the right direction.

Indeed, in Willetts, we had a minister who was willing to engage directly and openly with academic research. At a Sutton Trust event last year, I recall Willetts taking issue with an academic report authored by John Jerrim of the Institute of Education. The debate was heated, and Willetts repudiation of the evidence wasn’t entirely convincing, but it was heartening to see a policy-maker engage directly with educational research (rather than, say, dismiss its authors as blobbish ‘enemies of promise’).

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With four years’ service as the Minister of State for Universities and Science, Willetts is entitled to the odd blunder. Among his most cringe-worthy was citing feminism as the “single biggest factor” for the UK’s social mobility problem, although selling off old student loan books smacked of fiscal desperation and the proposed cuts to the Disability Student Allowance are particularly offensive.

With no student having yet graduated under the 2012 system, Willetts’ legacy can be no more than a matter of speculation. Hasty measures to open up the Higher Education sector to alternative providers may yet take their toll both on universities and on the taxpayer. Those of us who received our degrees for free may wince at the levels of debt new generations of graduates face.

However, the consensus from social media, and beyond, is that Willetts shielded the Higher Educations from the worst excesses of austerity and neoliberalism. He’s generally remembered as a minister committed to his brief and ready to engage with dissenting voices; as “one of government’s genuinely nice blokes” (@tnewtondunn).

Metaphors of HE Access: time to mind our language?

Like applying a bandage to lung cancer.”

That’s how Dr Martin Stephen last week described the idea of allowing disadvantaged students into top universities when they’re an A-level grade or two below the usual threshold.

Dr Martin Stephen is a former chairman of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HHC) and ex high master of St Paul’s School in London. He was responding to Bahram Bekhradnia expressing dismay that, in his time as director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, the top universities had remained “as socially exclusive as ever.

Mr Bekhradnia suggested that the UK should follow US institutions’ lead in seeking to create cohorts that “represent wider society as far as possible,” obsessing less about academic attainment at the point of entry.

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For Dr Stephens, such a move would let low-achieving schools ‘off the hook’. It’s social engineering gone made, or whatever.

Our schools are not helping disadvantaged children to achieve respectable grades and these things don’t do anything about that problem,” he complained.

There are several problems with this position. First, a good deal of one-way evidence tells us that state schools pupils actually outperform independent school students once they reach university. Second, we know that state school applicants are less likely to be offered a place at Russell Group universities than independent school applicants with the same grades, even when ‘facilitating subjects’ are controlled for. Third, it is questionable whether low-achieving schools are incentivised by their students’ progression rates to top universities in anything like the way Dr Stephens implies.

But more disturbing than the views being represented are the metaphors increasingly being traded by those with vested interests.

Is academic under-performance, and the schooling system responsible for it, really like lung cancer? Or are such schools actually working hard to raise attainment among young people with multiple disadvantages, social problems and often chaotic home lives? The latest PISA findings suggest that socioeconomic background is the key determinant of educational success, not school type.

Note the similarly belligerent response to a recent report from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, who found that England’s grammar schools were now four times more likely to admit private school children than those on free school meals. This time it was the turn of Robert McCartney, chairman of the National Grammar School Association (NGSA), to return fire:

“Many, many parents from deprived areas, including what is generally called the dependency classes, are essentially not particularly interested in any form of academic education,” said Mr McCartney. “Their interests are directed towards pop culture, sports.”

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Naturally, the HHC, NGSA and other such organisation are bound to defend their market edge. Many independent and selective schools actively recruit on promises of entry to prestigious universities.

But should this defence spill over into unsubstantiated slurs against those from less advantaged communities? Poorer parents share the same aspirations for their children as their wealthier counterparts. It helps no-one to liken low-attainment schools to horrible diseases.

Let’s debate the evidence and leave the name-calling in the playground.

Revisiting Debates about the UCAS Personal Statement

This post was first published on Oct 14th 2013 by “Manchester Policy Blogs“.

Revisiting debates about the UCAS personal statement

With the first UCAS deadline of the academic year looming, thousands of University hopefuls are putting the finishing touches to their personal statements. But growing evidence points towards the current process favouring some applicants more than others – and it may be time for a radical overhaul, according to Dr Steve Jones.

“The UCAS personal statement is academically irrelevant and biased against poorer students,” ran the headline of one Telegraph blog last month.

According to its author, paying a private company to write your statement now costs between £100 and £200, and the whole thing is little more than “an exercise in spin”. Meanwhile, The Times report that tutors “often ignore students’ personal statements,” describing the indicator as “worthless”.

Perhaps more significantly, last week saw the publication of a Pearson Think Tank report called “(Un)Informed Choices“. The executive summary was surprisingly frank in its recommendation: “the use of personal statements should be ended.”

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The debate has interested me since I was commissioned by the Sutton Trust last year to collect new evidence about the personal statement.

My findings were stark. Basic writing errors (like misspelling and apostrophe misuse) were three times more common among applicants from state schools and sixth form colleges as those from independent schools. There were also big differences when it came to work experience: independent school applicants had lots more, and it tended to be high prestige.

All of the statements I looked at were written by students with the same A-level results, so I wondered whether the textual differences offered a partial explanation for the unfair outcomes reported in UK admissions processes more broadly.

For example, research at Durham University has shown that state school applicants are only 60% as likely to be made an offer by Russell Group universities as independent school applicants with the same grades in “facilitating” subjects.

So why hasn’t the personal statement been binned by UCAS already? In my experience, there are five main lines of defence:

1. “Admissions Tutors aren’t taken in by slick expensive personal statements”

This was the response of Cambridge University’s Prof. Mary Beard to my research, and I think it’s a very reasonable point. Any experienced reader of statements will have well-honed “crap detection” skills. Who’s to say our admissions tutors aren’t seeing right through the fancy work placements and LAMDA successes? The problem is, as a sector, we’re neither consistent nor transparent in how personal statements are read. Sometimes they’re given close, critical attention; sometimes not. Either way, we keep schtum about the criteria we use and the weight we attach to them.

2. “There’s never an excuse for spelling mistakes, is there?”

This point was made to me twice by a BBC TV newscaster. The answer is no, there’s never an excuse. However, if you have lots of people to proofread your statement and you’re repeatedly told it’s something you’ve got to get right, chances are you’ll take a bit more care. The sixth form college applicant who made twelve basic language errors in his statement wasn’t stupid – his attainment record proves that – he just didn’t understand how much those mistakes could count against him.

3. “We like to be holistic in the way we select our students”

It’s never easy to argue with the word ‘holistic‘, but there’s no advantage to using lots of indicators unless every one is bringing fairness to the selection process. Perhaps a small amount of appropriately contextualized attainment evidence is actually more equitable than a wide range of hazy non-academic indicators?

4. “We use the personal statement as a starting point for interview questions”

The Oxbridge colleges sometimes use this argument, but it isn’t a very strong one because most UK university applicants aren’t interviewed for any of the degree programmes to which they apply. And, for those that are, surely it’s not beyond interview panels to formulate their own questions? Besides, the most elite universities are often the sniffiest about statements: we don’t want “second-rate historians who happen to play the flute,” says Oxford’s head of admissions; “no tutor believes [the personal statement] to be the sole work of the applicant any more,” says his former counterpart at Cambridge.

5. “Actually, we know personal statements aren’t a reliable, and we don’t bother reading them”

This point is made regularly, but with half a million statements written every year, maybe it’s time someone mentioned it to the young people who stress and sweat over writing them?

There’s room for compromise, of course. In 2004, the Schwartz Report suggested redesigning the UCAS application form to include prompts that elicit more directly relevant information in a more concise fashion. Those applicants with the social and cultural capital to secure the best work experience and highest prestige extra-curricular experience would then have less opportunity to cash in on their good fortune.

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But for the last word on the subject, here’s a member of admissions staff (quoted anonymously in the Pearson report) on just how much difference school type can make to the personal statement:

“I’ve spoken to heads of private schools about the question of how much help they give students in writing statements. They say ‘well, they’re paying £7,000 a term, of course we give them a lot of help, that’s what they’re paying for’. And yet you see statements from what [are] potentially good students from schools which have not got a lot of experience of sending their students to HE, and they’re not very good because no-one knows what to do, how to do it.”

Time to stop gambling on advantaged university applicants?

Coinciding with the publication of this summer’s exam results was a familiar spate of media pieces warning universities not to “patronise poor kids” by lowering offers to those who don’t get the grades.

As usual, such students are constructed as a “gamble”, universities as well-meaning but naïve institutions, and OFFA as meddling social engineers. The “real” problem always lies elsewhere.

But is it really an academic “gamble” to acknowledge that not all young people have the same schooling advantages?

No, says most of the evidence. Primarily because such students actually outperform those from the private sector once at university. In fact, to recruit on grades alone would be a far greater gamble – that’s why most universities now consider contextual data when choosing between similarly qualified candidates.

In this week’s TES, Tom Bennett argues that such approaches simply move the injustice elsewhere, “from lack of opportunity for some from birth, to lack of opportunity for some at the point of university admission”.

This is a quite a claim: that advantaged students, often brimming with social capital and coached to game the HE admissions system, could face a “lack of opportunity” at the Russell Group gates.

I’m not sure we need worry about that just yet.

Indeed, using a Freedom of Information request, The Guardian last week showed that private school applicants were 9% more likely to be admitted to Oxford than those from state schools with same grades. Long-term academic studies of UCAS data reach similar conclusions.

Put simply, applicants from the state sector must earn higher grades than their private school counterparts to have the same chance of entry.

This is generally lost on the authors of topical opinion pieces, where the approach tends towards “I know of one student…” anecdotes.

For Bennett, “universities are not places in which to unpick the stitches of historical injustice”.

But if those stitches need unpicking, where better to start?