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David Laws on the need to focus on early years and non-selective education

Since Theresa May became Prime Minister, she has made a welcome commitment to prioritise action to improve social mobility. However, the recent report of the Social Mobility Commission demonstrates just how much progress needs to be made, in the face of the strong headwinds which are blowing directly in the opposite direction.

Any serious strategy to improve social mobility has to involve significant improvements in educational outcomes for those from more disadvantaged groups. Our recent Education Policy Institute Annual Report on “Education in England” highlighted that when the new, more challenging, GCSEs had been introduced, only 20% of children from disadvantaged backgrounds are likely to achieve the new benchmark of exam success. Indeed, in 2015 there were 569 secondary schools in England – almost one in five – where 90% of disadvantaged pupils were failing to achieve the likely new benchmark of success. That is hardly a recipe for closing the disadvantaged gap, in spite of modest recent progress in primary education.

In the face of this huge challenge, the Government has published a Green Paper – “Schools That Work for Everyone”. This identifies a number of education providers which are considered to be highly successful, and which the Government sees as potential drivers of social mobility – namely private schools, grammar schools, faith schools and universities. The absence of emphasis on high performing multi-academy trusts looks striking in the light of the direction of schools policy prior to Theresa May taking over as Prime Minister.

Of course, the Government is right to indicate that grammar schools, faith schools, many universities and private schools are all strongly associated with high attainment. What is far less clear is whether these institutions have the characteristics necessary to significantly close the disadvantage gap. What these four types of institutions generally have in common is their ability to select students – this is certainly true for private schools, grammar schools and most universities. It is less overtly the case with some faith schools, though others tend to attract students whose backgrounds are notably less disadvantaged than their catchment areas.

So it may not be a sensible leap to suggest that these institutions have the capacity or effectiveness to raise outcomes for large numbers of students from generally low prior attainment backgrounds.

Recently, the Education Policy Institute looked at the impact of grammar schools on social mobility, given the central role an expansion of grammar schools seems to play in the government’s emerging social mobility strategy. Our analysis, using data from the government’s own National Pupil Database, led to some conclusions which the government will no doubt welcome. For example, we found that the Leader of the Opposition’s claim that “grammar schools depress overall educational achievement” is not supported by the data. We also found that pupils attending grammar schools achieve, on average, an estimated one third of a grade higher in each of eight GCSE subjects, compared with similar pupils in non-selective schools in comprehensive areas.

However, the other aspects of our analysis cast doubt on whether grammar schools are likely to provide a serious and scalable social mobility solution. Because almost 40% of the disadvantage gap emerges before entry to school, and around 60% emerges by the end of primary school (Education Policy Institute Annual Report 2016), any social mobility solution based on selection of highly able students at age 11 isn’t likely to be very effective. Only 2.5% of grammar school pupils are entitled to free school meals – a key measure of poverty – compared with 13.2% in all state funded schools. Even the higher ability poor children are less likely to gain entry to grammar schools, and a mere 500 of 90,000 free school meal children in each age cohort gain access to selective schools each year.

The EPI analysis also found that the positive grammar school effect on attainment declines, as the proportion of pupils attending grammar schools rises. Importantly, our research also showed that in the most selective areas we begin to uncover a small negative effect of not attending a grammar school. For pupils who live in the most selective areas but do not attend a grammar school, negative effects are estimated to emerge at around the point where selective places are available for 70% of high attaining pupils – which is a concern given that the government has indicated that it will prioritise grammar school expansion in the areas where these schools are most popular, which is largely where grammar schools are already prevalent.

What else might a government intent on improving social mobility do? Well, at a school level, research commissioned by the Education Policy Institute from the London School of Economics shows that the first 200 sponsor academies have been successful at both raising overall attainment (on average by about one GCSE grade in each of five subjects) and serving large numbers of disadvantaged pupils. The first 200 sponsor academies now educate around 50,000 pupils entitled to free school meals, compared with just 4,000 such pupils in total in the 163 grammar schools.

EPI researchers compared high prior-attaining pupils in grammar schools with similar pupils who attend high quality non selective schools. These are schools in the top 25 per cent based on value-added progress measures, and represent good quality schools operating at large scale. There are, according to our calculations, five times as many high quality non-selective schools as there are grammar schools, based on this measure. These schools also turn out to be much more socially representative than grammar schools, admitting close to the national rate of FSM pupils (12.6% versus 13.2% nationally). Compared with these high performing non selective schools, we estimate there is no benefit to attending a grammar school for high attaining pupils, measured by “best 8” GCSE grades.

There is therefore a strong case for the government seeking to prioritise the creation of more high performing non selective schools, particularly in those parts of the country where the attainment of low income pupils is very poor.

The other striking conclusion from the analysis set out above is that government should be much more focused on early action to close the gap – including in the years before starting formal schooling. However, when we look at recent government policy in the early years, we see that the current priority is an expanded childcare offer, in which the extra 15 hours of provision is not open to children who have either parent out of employment. This means that many of the poorest children will in fact have less spent on them in the “early years” than children from significantly more affluent backgrounds. Of course, the Coalition government introduced an Early Years Pupil Premium to seek to support disadvantaged children in early years education – but this premium (of around £300 per child per year) is very small in relation both to the cost of the extra 15 hours of childcare and in relation to the primary school pupil premium of £1,320 for each eligible child.

As the Social Mobility Commission has therefore recently argued, there is a strong case for increasing the Early Years Pupil Premium and for taking steps to raise significantly the quality and availability of early years education for our most disadvantaged pupils.

This is an article from Bright Blue’s latest magazine ‘The End of Establishment?

David Laws is Executive Chairman of the Education Policy Institute,