Three recent reports bear this out. In one, Professor Simon Burgess of the University of Bristol’s Centre for Market and Public Organisation (CMPO) explored the data relating to the ethnic background of students living in different parts of the country. In a second, Professor Alice Sullivan of the University of London's Institute of Education reported on her team’s analysis of the education histories of more than 7,700 people in England and Wales whose lives are being followed as part of the 1970 British Cohort Study. In a third, Sam Baars of LKMco used the Office of National Statistics latest ‘Output Area Classifications’ to analyse Ofsted reports for secondary schools in different parts of the country.
All three reports clearly suggest that pupils, and not schools or teachers, are the main driver of educational achievement
The London Effect is due to pupils, not schooling
Contrary to the widely held belief held by many, the change in exam performance in London Schools is not due to changes in teaching and management, despite many Halo Effect reports claiming this was the case. Simon Burgess found that, ‘London’s diverse ethnic population is the reason for its pupils achieving significantly better GCSE results than the rest of England’.
It isn’t simply that the children who attend secondary school in London are different to those elsewhere in England. It is that London is a city for the ambitious and keen, and their children reflect their parents' values and desires.
As Professor Burgess says, “My interpretation of these results leads to a focus on pupil aspiration, ambition and engagement. There is nothing inherently different in the ability of pupils from different ethnic backgrounds, but the children of relatively recent immigrants typically have greater hopes and expectations of education, and are, on average, more likely to be engaged with their school work. This is not by chance of course. A key point about London is its attraction to migrants and those aspiring to a better life.
“London has a right to be pleased with itself in terms of the excellent GCSE performance of its pupils. These results help to explain the London Effect but they do not explain it away. The London Effect is a very positive thing, and much of the praise for this should be given to the pupils and parents of London for creating a successful multi-ethnic school system.”
It’s all about the pupils.
Grammar schools 'made it no easier' to gain elite university degrees, study finds
Professor Alice Sullivan and her team at the Institute of Education have been researching the educational histories of people born in 1970. She has reported in advance of publication in December that schools made ‘surprisingly little difference’ to pupils educational outcomes. This is only surprising if you assume that schools and teachers are the main driver of pupil outcomes. In fact, as Professor Sullivan reports, "higher levels of aspiration in the private sector – both the parents' and the schools' – may provide part of the explanation (as to why a greater proportion of former private school pupils were went on to be awarded Russell Group degrees)," she said. "Then there are the links between the universities and the private schools. The latter factor could be particularly salient in the case of top universities such as Oxford and Cambridge and a small number of elite private schools."
Once again, it’s all about the pupils.
The coastal question: Ofsted and the new frontiers in education research
Sam Baars, Research Associate at LKMco has reported that, ‘new data reveals that whilst 90% of Secondary schools serving areas classified as "ethnicity central" are graded good or outstanding, this figure is as low as 58% in areas classified as "hard pressed living" and "constrained city dwellers".’
The Office for National Statistics has recently released its area classifications groupings, which links geographic areas according to key characteristics, derived using data from the 2011 census, which are common to the population in that grouping. There are 8 groups: Rural residents, Cosmopolitans, Ethnicity central, Multicultural metropolitans, Urbanites, Suburbanites, Constrained city dwellers and Hard-pressed living.
As Sam Baars notes, “Merging OAC data with Ofsted’s latest official statistics reveals stark differences in school performance in different types of area. In areas defined as Ethnicity Central 80% of maintained primary schools have a good or outstanding judgement, rising to 90% of secondary schools. In comparison, in areas defined as Hard-Pressed Living 76% of primary schools and just 58% of secondaries are judged good or outstanding. In fact, on all aspects of Ofsted’s evaluation schedule, from teaching quality to leadership and management to behaviour and safety – cosmopolitan, multicultural and ethnically diverse areas have secondary schools that are rated similarly well, or better, than their primary schools. Hard-Pressed and Constrained City Dwellers area types, meanwhile, start from a lower base at primary which erodes further at secondary.”
As I have reported previously, Ofsted’s performance grades are driven by their achievement grade. Sam Baars’ analysis shows, therefore, that schools are graded according to their pupils, and not their teaching. It simply is not credible to suggest that the finding that teaching in all Secondaries in one area, and only in 3 out of 5 in another, is Good or Outstanding is based on the actual teaching which the children experience in their schools. Schools are clearly graded according to the achievement of the pupils in their care, which is driven by the area in which the school is situated and not the teaching.
Once again, the pupils matter much more than their schools.
Is this all bad news for hard-pressed teachers and schools?
In the current climate, yes. Those judging schools make the assumption that teaching, and not pupils, drive results and the consequent judgements of schools. Until this assumption is shown to be entirely erroneous, it needs to be challenged vigorously. These reports all support the proposition that children matter much more than their schools.
Should teachers be downhearted? Are their efforts really drowned out by pupil effects? I would argue that teachers shouldn’t underestimate their influence. Pupils deserve the best teaching they can possibly experience, and children need dedicated adults working to help them learn. Every good teacher can see the effect of their efforts reflected in the children in their care. Background is not destiny, and children can and do influence their own achievement.
But the facts don’t lie. Children are different in different places, with different levels of advantage. The population from which a state school draws its pupils is unique to that school. Furthermore, each cohort is unique within a given school. Comparisons with any other school are largely meaningless. And until those judging teaching, schools and the success of education understand what the data is actually indicating, we will continue to head down the dead-end street of ‘school effectiveness analysis’ which is wrong, damaging and striking at the heart out of English education. We need to stop comparing schools in the way which we currently do. School effectiveness analysis is nothing of the sort, and it needs to stop. Just. Stop it.