Chris Cook

The Daily Mail has published a rather startling story: from 2016, children will sit something akin to the old O-levels. Some parts of the story are relatively uncontroversial: the idea that there should be one exam board in each subject has many friends.

The newspaper also discusses abolishing the National Curriculum for secondary schools. However, if you have a single GCSE available in each subject, that sets a national curriculum in all but name. So these are less interesting than the sum of their parts.

But, if the Mail is correct, there is one proposal which stands out: splitting the GCSE. According to the report, under this new scheme some children would get the new O-level, and the bottom 25 per cent would take “CSEs”. This strikes me as a high-risk policy.

The GCSE’s strength is that it is a full-spectrum exam, measuring low to high ability. It includes questions designed to distinguish candidates that should get a G from candidates than deserve an F, as well as questions to filter A* candidates from those getting an A.

This is also its greatest PR weakness: it gets attacked by people citing the low-level questions. The Mail approvingly notes “questions like ‘Would you look at the Moon with a microscope or a telescope?’ from science GCSEs will be a thing of the past.”

The benefit of this system is that you get comparable qualifications, and there is no need for schools to attempt to sift children, guessing who will finish up with less than a C. The GCSE exams themselves do that work for them. But, according to the Mail:

Mr Gove believes those teenagers have been encouraged to think that a D, E, F or G grade at GCSE is a ‘pass’ when the real world treats those grades as a ‘fail’.

I confess that I do not see how it logically follows that the lower end of the GCSE should therefore be replaced with a CSE. The government would replace a D at GCSE with a certificate where the top grade is capped at a D. Maybe something got lost in the briefing.

The change would, however, have significant practical effects. Read more

Chris Cook

There’s an interesting development in Croydon, my scenic home town. The south London borough is fully comprehensive: it has no academically selective state schools (“grammar schools“). Since 1998, it has also been forbidden for new grammars to be opened anywhere in the country, except as replacements for closing ones. But Croydon council has an interesting idea.

Tim Pollard, the councillor in charge of schools, has written about a new school site that the borough is opening. The council want an existing school to run the site, in Norwood, as an annex. If the “parent” school were a grammar, the new half-a-school could be too.

…we took the decision yesterday to open up the competition to run this school to all types of secondary school, not just community-style comprehensive schools. The criteria the new provider needs to meet are that it should be a Good or Outstanding school in its OFSTED rating, that it should have well above average GCSE and A-level results and that it must be able to demonstrate that it can apply its admissions criteria appropriately and be in a position to receive funding from the Government as it expands.

So does that mean it could be a Grammar School? Yes, it could.

In Croydon we converted our last grammar schools into comprehensives many decades ago, in line with what was then government thinking. Our neighbours in Sutton, Bromley and Kent, on the other hand, resisted the intense pressure then put on education authorities to follow suit and kept their selective schools. Those schools, including Wallington Boys & Girls, Wilsons and Newstead Woods, are now amongst the most popular choices for Croydon parents who seek the best standard of education for their children. They are heavily oversubscribed, with many more children passing the exams than can possibly be accommodated.

It will be worth watching this unfold. “Satellite” schools and “annex” sites may be a loophole for establishing new grammar schools. Kent council, which is fully selective, will open a grammar school annex in Sevenoaks. But selection is firmly embedded there.

A Croydon grammar annex would be a bigger step – it would both mean a grammar crossing a borough border and introducing selectivity into a new area. This is all early on, but if Croydon gets this through, it could open up grammars once again as a national issue.

Here is why.

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Chris Cook

Since January, schools have been subject to a new inspection regime. Ofsted, the inspectorate, has changed its criteria. Data released today mean there is one question we can consider: is the new inspection regime any tougher or easier than its predecessor?

This is not a straightforward question: weaker schools get inspected more regularly, so the sample is not randomly selected. What we can do, however, is see whether schools are more likely to be promoted or relegated than in previous years.

This, too, is not simple. The Department for Education changed schools’ ID numbers when they became academies, so I cannot match every new report to the same school’s previous ones so it is a faff to match records, which has taken a bit of tinkering. We have matches for 1,711 schools – both primary and secondary.

Here are the results:

1 2 3 4
1 25% 50% 25% 0%
2 8% 58% 27% 7%
3 2% 44% 40% 14%
4 1% 13% 75% 11%

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Chris Cook

I’ve written before about the fact that there will be a sort of marketplace in universities, as a result of tinkering with student number controls. But while it is clear that universities compete for the best students and for research funding, that pressure might not improve teaching.

I’ll come back to this in more detail but, in the meantime, here is a video of Gervas Huxley, an economist at Bristol University, speaking about this very issue, which deserves more attention. The video is half an hour long, but HE nerds should stick with it. Mr Huxley is very clear and knows his stuff. And, if that were not enough, he is listened to inside the Business, Innovation and Skills department on this very topic: Read more

Chris Cook

At the moment, groups putting forwards bids to open free schools – new academies opened from scratch – are finding out whether they have been approved for 2013 opening. This is an opportune moment to take a quick look at this programme.

Last week, I explained part of why the “converter academies” programme is so popular: it usually comes with a cash incentive to join in. But free schools have their own funding wrinkle. This one encourages primary free schools to be smaller than other local schools.

Using the DfE’s formula for free school funding, we can work out how much a primary free school would get in revenue (day-to-day) funding, plotted against how big it is, if it were to open at full capacity in the London borough of Camden in 2012-13.

Camden free school funding per pupil

This is the output of a formula: every primary free school gets a £95,000 payment plus a certain amount per child, which varies from borough to borough. In Camden, once you have counted in the pupil premium, SEN (special educational needs) funding and other funding, each extra child brings in, on average, an extra £5,870.

But the structure of the formula – a lump sum plus a roughly flat per-pupil payment – means that the amount you receive on average falls as the school grows. This is because the £95,000 lump sum (which is the same for all boroughs) gets shared between more and more pupils.

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Chris Cook

The cash advantage for converting to become an academy is bigger for schools in more affluent areas. Read more

Chris Cook

Grammar schools are a seductive idea: skim off high performing children at the age of 11 for education together. At the moment, there are 164 such schools in England, in a few counties which did not manage to slough them off. But their success is a myth. Read more

Chris Cook

If you were writing an economists’ manifesto, regional payscales would be one of the few items on which most agreed. The principle is pretty simple: why should a teacher be paid a king’s ransom in Southport, but starved in Southwark.

Part of the principle of this idea is that it is difficult to recruit in areas of high “outside” wages, if you have a national pay-scale. Conversely, the theory goes, when the state “overpays”, it can price out local enterprise.

Some economists from the Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE found a scary natural experiment to test this idea: survival rates from heart attacks.

We predict that areas with higher outside wages should suffer from problems of recruiting, retaining and motivating high quality workers and this should harm hospital performance. We construct hospital-level panel data on both quality – as measured by death rates (within hospital deaths within thirty days of emergency admission for acute myocardial infarction, AMI) – and productivity. We present evidence that stronger local labor markets significantly worsen hospital outcomes in terms of quality and productivity.

A 10 per cent increase in the outside wage is associated with a 4% to 8% increase in AMI death rates. We find that an important part of this effect operates through hospitals in high outside wage areas having to rely more on temporary “agency staff” as they are unable to increase (regulated) wages in order to attract permanent employees.

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Chris Cook

The 282 schools outside London which pull off the feat of beating the national averages are the ones that policy makers should really keep an eye on. Read more

Chris Cook

What measures should we use for spotting schools that are effective at helping poor children? Not the one proposed by the Department for Education. Read more

Schools taking part in the government’s flagship academies programme are being overpaid by more than £120m this academic year owing to errors by the Department for Education, an investigation by the Financial Times has revealed.

The majority of the overspend will be clawed back from local authorities, stoking concerns that schools participating in the converter academies scheme are being favoured over other state schools.

    Currently seen as the government’s most visible public policy success, if local authority schools opt to become an academy, they are funded directly by the DfE rather than via local authorities. They gain autonomy over pay and curriculum, but are supposed to receive equivalent funding.

    However, analysis of DfE data reveals that 90 per cent of England’s 1,421 converter academy schools are being overpaid, with the bulk of the errors coming from schools which converted in the previous academic year.

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    Chris Cook

    UPDATE: 2 October 2012, to incorporate the latest ratings.

    It’s official. Well, sort of. I’ve collected up the credit ratings that exist for the higher education sector, and all of those British universities (or university colleges) which have been rated are either prime or high-grade. (Italy, meanwhile, is not an Ivy League debt repayer.)

    Institution Rating Outlook Rating issuer
    University of Cambridge Aaa Stable Moody’s
     St Peter’s College, Oxford AAA Negative Fitch
     Lincoln College, Oxford AAA Negative Fitch
     Somerville College, Oxford AAA Negative Fitch
    Keele Aa1 Negative Moody’s
    Brunel Aa1 Negative Moody’s
    De Montfort University Aa1 Negative Moody’s
    Kings College, London AA Stable S&P
    Lancaster University A+ Positive S&P
    Nottingham, University of AA- Stable S&P
    Sheffield, University of AA- Stable S&P

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    Chris Cook

    The merits and limitations of contextual data are much more fruitful things to discuss and consider than a soggy drip. Read more

    Chris Cook

    How would the Daily Mail react if a minister was asked to allow an able poor child extra tuition and deny help to a rich, less able child?  Read more

    Chris Cook

    New Hefce data show England is experiencing the start of a market in undergraduate places with a very sudden shock. Read more

    Chris Cook

    One curiosity which is often overlooked in social policy discussion is who actually pays which taxes. Today, the Chancellor said that his reforming Budget would create:

    A tax system where millions of the lowest paid are lifted out of tax altogether

    He is referring to the policy of raising the income tax threshold towards a target of £10,000. But it is a mistake to say people below that line will be “out of tax”. Here is a graph, based on table 14 of this ONS document, showing how the tax burden varies.

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    Chris Cook

    Your birthday matters: children who are older when they start school as 4 year-olds outperform their peers. This is not a small effect, nor does it peter out as they get older. We can spot it easily at the national level among 16 year-olds. Read more

    Chris Cook

    The social mobility problem is not that there is a small number of weak schools serving a lot of poor kids. It is that poor children do badly in the majority of England’s schools. Read more

    Chris Cook

    A fortnight ago, MPs caught a fleeting glimpse of a process that has, to this point, taken place discreetly: the Information Commissioner’s Office investigation into the office of Michael Gove over suspected breaches of the Freedom of Information Act.

    A transcript is now available for Mr Gove’s appearance before the education select committee, when he answered questions on the topic. He said the DfE had not released data from one document in response to FoI requests because it was political.

    The law is straightforward: only government data is covered by the FoI Act. Party political or private business is never captured, even if it is sent via a government email address. Official business, however it is transmitted, is always covered.

    In circumstances where there is a mix of party, personal and government business, official data is released and the remainder is redacted. So the whole text would need to be party political and not official for the document not to be covered by the act.

    We have published it below. Read more

    Chris Cook

    An article in the TES, an education magazine, has caused some consternation – and rightly so. In a comment piece, written by a teacher, the author appears to describe being irritated at a child who is determined to get an A grade rather than a B at A-level.

    That is not what the government wants this teacher to be doing. We can tell that from the incentives that this sixth-form teacher faces. The author works at a sixth form college, and if that child fails to get an “A”, it will show up in his college’s results. Sixth forms are ranked on the average grade attained by their students, and pushing a kid from a B to an A shows up in the school point score.

    Were this teacher teaching a 16 year-old, however, his behaviour would be perfectly rational. The central measure for schools is the proportion of children getting passes of a C or better in five full GCSEs including English and maths.

    Both regulation and league tables drive focus on that measure. There are buckets of data that reveal schools which are particularly focussed on that borderline, but as long as schools do well enough in the core measure, heads can safely ignore everything else.

    As Graham Stuart, Tory chair of the education select committee has said, this measure offers no reward for pressing a child to move from a C to an A. It is rational for teachers to focus on getting children over the D/C borderline.

    This measure also creates problems for those of us who follow DfE statistics. Read more