At last, the Department for Education (DfE) has published its response to the consultation on Schools that Work for Everyone. It’s conveniently timed to coincide with maximum publicity for plans to support grammar school expansion.
You’d expect the response to give detailed data about how far respondents agreed or disagreed with the proposals.
But it doesn’t.
The response ignores the ‘significant number’ expressing opposition to the plans especially extending selection.
The DfE claims its response is based on the consultation feedback. But it appears the only responses accepted were those supporting the proposals.
In other words, the consultation aims were a foregone conclusion.
The response says it also used ‘evidence of engagement to-date between universities and independent schools and the state school sector.’
Many of the latter are described in case studies. As you would expect they are success stories. For example, the University of Chichester is cited as an excellent example of academy trust/university collaboration.
But such collaboration isn’t always successful. Only yesterday, Schools Week reported on financial woes at the University of Chester Academies trust. This comes after a damning Ofsted report in late 2016. University involvement in state education isn’t always a success (see here).
Analysis of the consultation results showed a ‘large number of respondents’ thought university staff didn’t have the necessary skills to set up or sponsor schools. Other respondents, the analysis said, had the same reservations about independent schools.
Not all respondents thought formal academy sponsorship should be prioritised over other ways of university involvement in schools. But this is ignored in the DfE response. It ‘strongly encouraged’ universities and independent schools to sponsor academies.
The most controversial of the proposals – expanding grammar school places – fills just over two pages of the sixteen page document. It gives details of the Selective Schools Expansion Fund (SSEF) which will ‘continue to support the expansion of existing good or outstanding selective schools’. But grammar schools have already been expanding. The Weald of Kent Grammar School, for example, has built a £19m annexe 10 miles away. The cost of this expansion was surely paid for by the taxpayers. It’s unclear, therefore, why a £50m special fund needs to be found to finance grammar expansion.
The DfE says ‘setting and streaming of pupils within schools is standard practice’. Whether this is good or not is an argument for another time, but such setting within schools is not the same as completely segregating children in separate schools based on ability.
The Education Endowment Fund (EEF), the DfE says, is ‘currently conducting a trial of applying best practice in grouping students by ability’. This statement appears immediately after saying streaming and setting ensures the most able are stretched. This clever juxtaposition gives the impression that the EEF believes the practice is essential.
But the EEF is keeping an open mind. The programme has two components:
The EEF says there’s evidence that teaching children in mixed-ability groups ‘could be even more powerful, with studies showing that pupils in low sets make less progress than comparable pupils in mixed ability groups’.
Concern for pupils in low sets is missing from the DfE response. And ‘mixed-ability’, as you’d expect, isn’t mentioned at all.
The EEF has in any case already investigated setting and streaming. Its Toolkit, much admired by ministers, says this:
‘Overall, setting or streaming appears to benefit higher attaining pupils and be detrimental to the learning of mid-range and lower attaining learners. On average, it does not appear to be an effective strategy for raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils, who are more likely to be assigned to lower groups.’
But this finding has been ignored by the DfE. This is not unusual. The DfE and its ministers have a track record of only accepting evidence which accords with their prejudices. The consultation response is another example of that.