Examination of Witnesses

Education and Adoption Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:23 am on 30 June 2015.

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Dr Rebecca Allen, Professor Becky Francis and Robert Hill gave evidence.

Q 1

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Will the witnesses introduce themselves for the record, starting with Dr Allen?

Dr Allen: Hello. I am currently director of Education Datalab, a research venture supported by FFT Education Ltd. I am currently on leave from my academic position at the UCL institute of education.

Professor Francis: I am Professor Becky Francis of King’s College London. I was a special adviser to the Select Committee on Education for its recent inquiry into academies. I am a professor of education and social justice, so my interest in academy sponsorship is through the lens of raising attainment for disadvantaged kids.

Robert Hill: I am Robert Hill. I work as an education consultant supporting development of school partnerships and multi-academy trusts. I am also a visiting senior research fellow at King’s College.

Q 2

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

I thank our witnesses for coming this morning and for their patience. The Bill is not ready; the room was not ready, so we are going on as we started.

Because of the truncated time available, could you be as pithy as possible? I am afraid this session is a bit like “Just a Minute”, rather than an opportunity to expand at great length. You have all had a chance to look at the draft regulations the Government published last night. What do you make of them?

Professor Francis: You go, because I haven’t.

Dr Allen: My concern relates to whether we will be able to identify schools that are truly coasting. I think we all agree that there are schools that provide a perfectly adequate education for their children, but could do a great deal better for the children they educate. My reason for concern is that I believe those schools are much more likely to be serving more affluent communities. I think that these schools are not currently being judged as inadequate by Ofsted. That is because Ofsted inspectors judges what they see—the lessons and the practices—relative to the typical school that they visit, rather than relative to schools that operate in similar circumstances. The consequence of thisis that if a school serves an affluent community, the chances that Ofsted will deem it to be inadequate are extremely low indeed.

This underlies our need for another piece of the accountability mechanism, which judges whether schools are underperforming by a different metric. My concern about the metrics that have been chosen to define coasting schools is that they display exactly the same type of what I call a social gradient. By that I mean that if a school serves an affluent community then it will not be judged to be coasting using these metrics. So we continue to perpetuate the problem that, on the one hand, schools which serve deprived communities are subject to multiple accountability mechanisms, all of which they have a relatively high chance of falling below. However, even more importantly, schools which serve more affluent communities will escape all of the different threshold measures which we set up.

Q 3

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

What would you do to identify and deal with coasting schools?

Dr Allen: First, I would prefer that we did not have this legislation. I would prefer that we redefined the terms of Ofsted. I do not believe that what Ofsted does in judging schools is wrong given its current remit, which is just to say whether or not the quality of the teaching, learning and practices within the school are good when compared to the average school. In the new remit I would ask Ofsted explicitly to judge schools relative to schools that serve similar communities.

Q 4

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

There is no need for legislation, in your view, to create a separate definition of coasting schools and set it out on the face of a Bill. What you could do is change the remit of Osted in order to identify these schools.

Dr Allen: I would prefer that approach, because I worry about having multiple accountability mechanisms. There would be a significant possibility that schools, on the one hand, are judged by Ofsted to be good or, indeed, outstanding, and on the other hand we deem them to be coasting. That creates a confusing accountability  regime for schools. I would prefer that we maintain the current accountability regime, in which Ofsted has the last say on whether or not a school is underperforming.

Q 5

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

Do you think it would be possible under these regulations for a school to be deemed not to be coasting, and yet to be inadequate or requiring improvement?

Dr Allen: It would.

Q 6

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

In that case, what should a school do if it is not coasting but requires improvement or is inadequate?

Dr Allen: It is very difficult. That situation will arise where schools serve more deprived communities and have very high levels of free school meals. They risk falling below the bar for the definition of coasting schools as it is currently proposed. What can we ask those schools to do? The problem with data is of course that we cannot tell whether a school is coasting. In data, coasting looks exactly the same as paddling very hard to keep your head above water. It is extremely difficult for a number of reasons to run schools that serve deprived communities. Of course, schools must compensate for any significant social dysfunction in the families of the children who attend. They experience higher teacher turnover. Because they are at significant risk of being deemed inadequate by Ofsted, they find it more difficult to recruit outstanding leaders.

Q 7

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

May I ask Professor Francis to respond to some of those issues?

Professor Francis: I think that that was a very good summary. I am afraid that I did not receive the email this morning and I have not managed to get to my emails yet. I was interested to hear about the definition from colleagues. I think that there is a massive risk of confusion here. To respond to a question raised by Kevin, of course if a school is judged to be inadequate and it falls below floor targets, it may become sponsored in any case. We already have actions and measures to respond to those schools in those situations.

Regarding the scale-up to include this new group of schools, I think that Dr Allen is exactly right to suggest that there may be a situation where a school is judged by Ofsted to be outstanding, but is judged to be coasting against a range of other performance indicators, and that could be extremely confusing both for schools and also for parents. We already have a somewhat paralysing climate of fear where schools are trying to play every measure. I worry that this risks exacerbating that. Clarity is really important. When I did my original report on unsatisfactory schools for the RSA, we purely looked at Ofsted judgments and schools that had been stuck at satisfactory. I therefore think that it is very important to have clear messaging for schools about what a coasting school is.

Q 8

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

Would you also be of a view that in order to avoid that confusion rather than to legislate separately in this way, it would be better if the concept of coasting is incorporated in Ofsted assessments and judged through inspection?

Professor Francis: Yes, or that perhaps the very term “coasting” is re-examined and we think, “What is that we are trying to get at there?” Is it schools that are not  improving, in which case, what is it that we are looking to improve and what is it that is not happening? I think that would be helpful.

Q 9

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

Could I ask Robert to respond?

Robert Hill: It seems to me that the regulations on coasting are a redefinition of the floor standards in a new form. To come back to the Minister’s starting point of not wanting to have children in underperforming or coasting schools, it will mean that we will still have pupils in quite a lot of schools or in parts of schools—because there is a lot of variation within schools—that will be let off the hook by this. It will not really search out or find underperformance with these definitions.

I understand the intention behind this bit of the Bill and the regulations, but I think it is a very blunt instrument. There are two other concerns. One is what Dr Allen referred to as the layers of multi-accountability. We almost have a teetering accountability system. It is getting heavier and weightier and weightier, layer upon layer. I think it will become increasingly difficult to provide any sort of incentive for people to go into a lead—even good schools—because of the risk of them being done-to and intervened on. We already have problems with recruiting for many positions and the field for candidates is small.

My other concern is that the Committee should be focusing on what are we going to do about it. The definitions are only a means to an end to identify. The question is what is the resource to solve the problem? Suddenly putting considerable numbers of schools, RI schools, inadequate schools, and now coasting schools into an ever larger pot, and loading that on to a regional commissioner system that is in its infancy and is already very stretched and ensuring that we have an integrated way of supporting that have not been thought through.

Q 10

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

I will be brief because I want to hand over and let the Minister also speak while we are on coasting schools. Do the witnesses envisage that under the regulations as defined and from the Government’s intentions we are going to have a situation where heads and governors and so on are going to have to deal with the concept of being an outstanding school but also deemed to be coasting; a good school but also deemed to be coasting; a school that requires improvement deemed to be not coasting; and an inadequate school deemed to be not coasting? Is that possible under the regulations as far as we have seen them? I am aware that they were only released to us in the usual manner after they had been released to the press. The Government briefed this to the press all through yesterday, but we eventually got it at 10 o’clock last night. Are all those scenarios possible?

Robert Hill: I do not think quite all those scenarios are possible. It is technically possible, but I think it is unlikely that an inadequate school—

Q 11

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

So that is not possible under the regulations as defined? That is what I am asking you?

Robert Hill: Well, Dr Allen may be able to answer. I think some of the other scenarios would be possible.

Dr Allen: We have not crunched the data yet, because we received it at 10.30 last night, which is a shame. In 24 hours we will be able to tell you. By our judgments  on various different types of scenarios of progress and value added measures, there are, indeed, schools in most of those categories. For example, some schools that have very negative progress or value added measures in 2014 are judged to be outstanding, and some schools with superb value added measures are judged to be inadequate.

Q 12

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

Is not the point of the legislation to try to weed out the schools that are judged to be good or outstanding but that have been concealing poor progress? Is not that what we are trying to tackle? Would you support that?

Dr Allen: Perhaps, but I would ask why Ofsted has walked into those schools, given what we know about the quality of the education that they provide, and judged them to be good or outstanding. I come back to the question of whether we need to change the remit of Ofsted.

I reiterate the more important point, which is little understood, about the social gradient of progress 8. I will give you some examples from 2014 data. Just 42 out of 380 schools with less than 10% of pupils on free school meals had a negative progress 8 score, whereas 191 out of 347 schools with more than 50% on free school meals had a negative progress 8 score. It is not always obvious why that should be that case. The idea of progress 8 is that we judge children from the starting point of their test scores at the age of 11 and we expect children with the same starting point to make the same amount of progress.

That social gradient emerges for a number of reasons. The most important is just that there is clustering of social circumstances within schools. For example, take two children who performed equally poorly on their key stage 2 tests and, at the age of 11, we say are low-attaining children. One of them attends a relatively affluent school. The very fact that they are attending a relatively affluent school means that they are more likely to have a supportive home environment, which means that regardless of what happens in the school—the thing that we want to influence—that child is more likely to do well at GCSE. I am concerned that that social gradient is letting schools that serve affluent communities off the hook on this definition. I would prefer schools to be judged relative to schools like them and, unfortunately, progress 8 does not quite do that.

Q 13

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

In your written evidence, you said that you think that it is difficult to run a school in a poorer area. Do you think that they should be subject to a different form of metrics when they are being judged?

Dr Allen: It is more difficult, which is why I am kind of okay with the idea—it is correct in one sense—that metrics should find that schools that serve affluent communities are, on average, making better progress for the children. That is correct. It is also correct that Ofsted walks into schools that serve affluent communities and sees, on average, better teaching and leadership. All those things are true and we know that they are true because they have a larger pool of teachers to recruit from and a better choice of school leaders.

I understand your concern that we should hold schools that serve deprived communities to the same very high standards to which we hold schools that serve affluent  communities. However, the problem is the extent to which those schools are able to compensate for all the things that happen in homes in affluent communities that lead to those children making good progress, regardless of what happens in those schools.

Saying that all schools must ensure that children make exactly the same levels of progress is bad for both ends of the spectrum. Setting up accountability mechanisms means that schools that serve deprived communities have no hope of ever being deemed anything other than underperforming. They then give up, and find it impossible to recruit headteachers and hard to recruit teachers. We set up a spiral whereby it is difficult for them to operate at all, and it does not raise aspirations for those schools.

Q 14

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

May I interrupt? What research have you done on King Solomon academy? Does that school find it difficult to recruit? The school serves a very deprived area; more than 60% of pupils are on free school meals. Last year, 93% achieved five or more GCSEs including English and maths. Do you think that school is not delivering?

Robert Hill: May I reply?

Q 15

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

May I just ask Dr Allen first? Then I would love to hear from Mr Hill.

Dr Allen: I do not think it is. In fact, one thing that we see is that the variation in school quality is much higher among schools that serve deprived communities than it is among schools that serve affluent communities. There is also a distinction between those schools that are operating in London and those that are not, for a variety of reasons.

Q 16

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

But is not that what we want to achieve? Is not the King Solomon academy what we want in very deprived areas, rather than putting a lower level of expectation on schools serving deprived communities, as you seem to be implying in your evidence to the Committee?

Dr Allen: My concern is not so much about the schools that serve in deprived communities, because they are already subject to a raft of accountability mechanisms. They are already being deemed to be inadequate and falling below the floor and everything else. We have all that in place. What we do not have in place is something that brings to account schools that serve affluent communities. This piece of legislation will not do that.

Q 17

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

Would Robert Hill answer that? I would also ask you another question, Mr Hill, because I want to make this my last question if I can. Do you think the progress measure is the right approach in dealing with these problems, and in addressing Dr Allen’s concerns, rather than using just attainment or just Ofsted?

Robert Hill: I am a big fan of progress measures. I think you are absolutely in the right ballpark doing that. Indeed, I think we should be looking at progress within student cohorts, within schools from one class to another. I do not think we should construct a national system to do that, but that should be the discipline that we apply. I think that progress in that sense is king, so you are in the right ballpark.

On your King Solomon point, absolutely all credit to King Solomon and others. Although, when you look at the distribution, the number of schools both from affluent and certainly deprived areas that are bucking that trend, closing the gap and doing that is a very small cohort.

The regrettable truth, for someone who supports the development of multi-academy trusts, is that for every one that has been compulsorily academised that has worked, you will be aware that there have been a considerable number that have struggled and are still struggling, and are still in something akin to that spiral. You are having to re-broker, I think, 100 sponsored academies and another 100 are in the pipeline. My concern, if I share your ambition, which I do, is where is the resource and support?

Just declaring them “coasting” or “requiring improvement” is in some ways the easy bit. The much tougher bit is to get the right mechanisms and support systems in place, as it were, to drive the improvement. That is where I think the Bill is in the wrong place. Although there are clauses in the Bill that do broaden the scope of things that you as Minister and local authorities and school commissioners can do, that is the real challenge for the education system.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I am afraid we have time for only one more question, and I hope it will be brief.

Q 18

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

We have talked predominantly about secondaries. What about primaries? What is the impact of the draft regulations on coasting when it comes to primaries?

Robert Hill: It is a threshold measure, as I understand it. If you get above the 85%, you are let off the hook. There will be a lot of primaries that will be above that measure where there will potentially be quite a lot of coasting going on. It seems to me that when people thought that the Government was going to act on the concept of coasting, they thought it was going to be seeking out underperformance in good or outstanding schools. In primaries the extent it might do that will be pretty limited.

Q 19

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Labour, Sefton Central

Rebecca, you said that identifying coasting primaries would be more difficult.

Dr Allen: I did. On the current definition, which includes a threshold measure—65% achieving level 4—and a median progress measure, by including the threshold measure you are knocking all of your schools that serve affluent communities out of having any risk of being deemed to be coasting. You have to be okay with that happening. If you are not okay with that happening, there is a simple solution: just cross out the threshold part of the measure and base it purely on progress. I would recommend that that happens.

The second thing to say about primary schools, which is serious, is that some primary schools are very small. When you have small schools, the measures of progress made by children from one year to the next are a relatively poor reflection of the true underlying quality of teaching and learning that are taking place in the school. The consequences of that are not quite in the direction that you think. A small primary school is going to have very volatile progress measures, which is not necessarily bad, under the definition of coasting;  under that definition, a school has to be bad for three years in a row. The risk is that for very small primary schools—by which I mean a one-form entry and below—there will be poorly performing schools that manage to always just about escape being deemed to be coasting, because they maybe get lucky one year in their intake. This is an issue and means that the proportion of schools that are deemed to be coasting will relate to the size of primary schools.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

Thank you. I am sorry that the evidence session was shorter than we might have wished, but thank you for your contribution.