- Someone should really explain to the Trust that the academic results any school posts are the outputs of the children who attend the school
- ‘Highly successful schools’ are taken to be those with the highest results; ‘Top universities’ are those which serve the cleverest and the elite; the ‘best jobs’ are those with the biggest barriers to entry; The ‘best schools’ serve the clever elite
- The base prejudices are obvious, and obviously wrong
- The recommendations based on misinterpretations, fallacies and whims rather than hard evidence
The foreword by the Sutton Trust’s head honcho Sir Peter Lampl sets the scene:
“There is nothing more important for promoting social mobility in schools than access to the best teaching. Great teachers in great schools have the most positive impact on the disadvantaged pupils who need it most. But too often, those from less well-off homes don’t have access to the best schools and the best teachers. Who gets into highly successful schools matters, because these students are more likely to go to a top university and get into jobs in the most sought-after professions.”
To be fair to Sir Peter, he’s been remarkable consistent in this message over the years. We get ‘best schools’, ‘highly successful schools’ and ‘top universities’ in the first paragraph. His ‘best jobs’ has become the ‘most sought-after professions’. We even get the massively insulting ‘best teachers’ line – you, teaching in a tough school with a difficult intake? You’re not ‘the best’ – they teach the clever children who go to top universities in the schools which are hardest to get in to!
There is a lot to be said about access to schooling in each of the three countries the Sutton trust has looked at, but the report doesn’t bring very much new to the discussion; by ignoring huge swathes of what is known about education and schooling, it reveals itself as – on the whole - yet more policy-based evidence.
The Sutton Trust's mission, on the evidence, is to get more economically disadvantaged children into schools with lots of massively economically advantaged children, which it believes to be the 'best schools'.
‘Top performing schools’ are held to be those with the best attainment, despite the huge focus on progress rather than attainment in education, for reasons too trivial to detail, and a growing understanding in government that attainment is not directly linked to the quality of education in a school.
It does allow me to introduce something I’ve been postulating for a while, which I’m grandly going to call a law:
Selfridge’s First Law of School Results: The harder it is to get children into a school, the better the raw attainment in the school.
This seems to hold no matter what, which is why I suggest that it is a law. It doesn’t really make much difference what it is which makes it difficult to get children into a school. It could be the cost of housing within the proximity cut off for admission. It could be the need to pass a test to get into the school. It could be the need to be interviewed. It could be a religious affiliation. It could be a language restriction. It might be the teaching style of the school. It could be a school’s reluctance to support those with special needs or disabilities. It might the cost of uniform, tuition or boarding. It could be the school hours, or the term dates, or the need to attend at odd times of the week.
Anything which makes it hard to get into the school will lead to higher academic performance when compared to a school which is easier to get in to.
There is a corollary to Selfridge’s First Law of School Results: The harder it is to get children into the school, the greater the uninformed belief the school is likely to be ‘better’ than others.
This is complex, because schools with better results are better schools, surely? But schooling, and society is complex, and it has been known for quite some time that school results are primarily driven by school intake, not the actions of the school itself.
It’s useful to read the Sutton Trust report findings and recommendation in the light of Selfridge’s First Law and its corollary.
Recommendation 1, “The Scottish Government should work with local councils and school leaders of the top performing schools to increase the socio-economic diversity of their intake”
The ‘Top performing schools’ fallacy writ large; the academic results any school posts are the outputs of the children who attend the school. The more poor children in a school, the fewer rich children. On average, school attainment and income are linked. More poor children, fewer rich children, lower results.
Recommendation 2, “Deprived families should receive greater support in terms of transport” and 4, “In the longer term, the Scottish government should review how to broaden access to high performing schools. For example, consideration should be given to a system with fewer incentives for middle class parents to purchase homes in the catchment areas of attractive schools. Use of random allocation (ballots) could form a central part of this”
I wrote a bit about this last time, but in summary: This isn’t supported by evidence, and may have unintended side-effects.
Recommendation 3 – “There should be a focus on improving standards at schools in deprived areas, so that pupils of all backgrounds have access to good schools”
What an insult to all those in schools in deprived areas. Extraordinary.
Recommendation, “The Welsh Government should work with the Regional Consortia, local authorities and school leaders of the top performing schools to increase the socio-economic diversity of their intake”
As with the first recommendation in Scotland – a basic understanding of school results.
Recommendation 2 – “Local authorities, particularly in urban areas, should consider implementing random allocation ballots for admission” and 3, “Schools should give students entitled to free school meals priority in school applications when places are oversubscribed”
As with Recommendations 2 and 4 in Scotland – evidence-free policy, which may make things worse
Recommendations 4, “Faith schools need to look at their recruitment of disadvantaged pupils” and 5, “The Welsh Government, Regional Consortia, and Welsh language schools should work together to explore why pupils from low income families are less likely to attend Welsh language schools”
The assumption that these are ‘the best schools’ is flawed, and is simply based on a circular argument based on the ‘best attainment’. The schools are hard to get in to because of Selfridge’s First Law of School Results, they are believed to be better because of the corollary.
Recommendation 1, “More schools, particularly in urban areas, should take the opportunity where they are responsible for their own admissions to introduce random allocation ballots” and 2, “Schools should give pupil premium students priority in school applications when places are oversubscribed”
As with Scotland and Wales, evidence-free policy, which may make things worse
Recommendation 3, “The Government should improve the range and quality of information available to working class parents” and 4, “It is particularly important that parents are aware not just of the school choices available, but of their rights to free transport”
Whilst it’s a bit patronising to suggest that parents aren’t aware of their choices, this is simply a call for government to carry on doing what it is doing, just a little better.
The Sutton trust, to give it its due, has been banging similar drums for a long time. The underlying assumptions which drive the Trust – ‘better schools’, ‘better teachers’, ‘top performing’ – are clearly compelling for many responsible for education policy.
There clearly are barriers to entry into the hardest to access schools in each country, but is the solution to, in effect, bus in the disadvantaged? This only makes sense if you don’t believe that all schools can be good schools, if you think that all schools can’t be ‘top performing’, if only some schools can be desirable.
The Sutton Trust should look at the underlying beliefs which they perpetuate, exemplified in the fourth recommendation in Scotland:
“In the longer term, the Scottish government should review how to broaden access to high performing schools. For example, consideration should be given to a system with fewer incentives for middle class parents to purchase homes in the catchment areas of attractive schools.”
Read that again. The report actually recommends that, “Consideration should be given to a system with fewer incentives for middle class parents to purchase homes in the catchment areas of attractive schools.”
Why should anyone take an education think tank which doesn’t believe that all schools can be ‘attractive schools’ seriously?