If you read only one book on education, read this one: Francis Gilbert’s preface to ‘Learning Matters’

New cover with new typeIt is my firm belief this passionate polemic is one of the most important investigations into education published in the last twenty years. Why? There are two reasons:

First, Roger Titcombe really shows you more clearly than anyone else where things have gone wrong in schools.

Second, he offers genuine, practical solutions to the problems.

This is a book both about the tragedy of millions of lives scarred by educational failure, but it also offers genuine hope: it is both a rigorously researched polemic and a guide.

There are a number of things that make Roger Titcombe’s polemical guide so unique. It is written by a teacher but it is not exclusively for teachers, although, I am sure, many will find it essential reading. It combines gritty, no-nonsense analysis with powerful personal stories that show beyond doubt that a toxic cocktail of factors have poisoned our school system.

There have been many books which have outlined the problems of our system but very few have brought together so many disparate elements into a coherent whole: Titcombe’s scope is huge. He not only analyses our school system, but he shows us how children learn, how we think, how free markets work, how marketised education is linked to social disorder and how successive governments have implemented policies that have stopped learning happening in our schools.

It’s worth here going through Titcombe’s central arguments because once you’ve got the “big picture” of what he’s saying, you’ll better appreciate the masterful way he marshals his arguments and evidence.

Throughout the book Titcombe illustrates with a number of powerful examples why our examination system, school league tables and competition between schools since the late 1980s has caused a catastrophic change in the way our pupils are taught. Put bluntly, our schools are making students stupider. This isn’t primarily our teachers’ fault but the fault of a system which encourages students to learn in a very superficial fashion. Instead of learning deeply, students are drilled to pass exams and pretty much forget everything they’ve learnt after they’ve taken them.

What is exceptional about this book is the evidence Titcombe provides to back up his points. This is no woolly liberal diatribe against exams-per-se because Titcombe argues if used sensibly exams can be a powerful tool for helping students learn in a “deep fashion”. Throughout the book, Titcombe refers to Cognitive Ability Tests or CATs for short (a form of IQ test widely used for school admissions) because they are the most reliable measure we have of students’ current cognitive ability levels. You don’t have to be a fully paid-up believer in IQ tests to agree with Titcombe’s points. Personally, I think IQ tests are not always a reliable test of intelligence in individual cases but the general picture they paint is tremendously powerful: they are a much more reliable indicator of the state of intellectual development of a pupil than most external exams, like the SATs tests administered in the UK at the moment. Most serious educationalists would accept Titcombe’s diagnosis: we have a school system at the moment that is very poor at getting children to master the challenging concepts needed to become more intelligent. Titcombe believes that intelligence is plastic: it can be increased or inhibited by the nature of schooling. Sadly, we have the worst of both worlds. We have students who pass their exams with flying colours and think they’re really clever (when they’re not) and a lot of students who have failed their exams and think they’re really stupid (when they’re not). Read this book, and learn just how inane our current exam system is: it makes for damning, chilling reading.

Many commentators – both on the left and right — have said similar things to this but not many (none I would dare to say) have joined the dots in the way that Titcombe has: Learning Matters is superb at tying together many disparate threads. Titcombe manages to show that the shift from a locally accountable school system to one which is both very centralised and market-driven has meant that many schools have chucked “deep learning” out of the window in favour of “quick fixes” to get good exam results. He points out how all of us have been affected by this change: the way we’re taught has wrought an insidious, hidden change in the way we relate to each other as human beings. We have become a society which not only has a social underclass but a “cognitive” one as well. This has made us more dependent in our lives on consumerism, achieving status through spending our money on things instead of relating to each other in meaningful ways.

This is a very brave book because it will alienate people both on the left and right. Many people on the left may have serious problems with the way Titcombe suggests that poorer communities have become dumber, while those on the right won’t like his eviscerating attack on the way a market-driven school system has eroded educational standards. It is a fearless book: Titcombe goes where no serious educational commentator has dared to tread.

Read it and weep, but also note its message of hope. Titcombe shows that it wouldn’t take that much to change things. He welcomes some of the changes recent government has made to the examination system but says that they need to go further. He points out that every teacher could defy the current predilection for superficial learning and modify their practice to teach “deep learning”. I know I’ve changed the way I teach as a result of reading this book.

By Francis Gilbert

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Potential for Success – response to Sutton Trust article by Dr Rebecca Montacute

Dr Montacute’s  article is linked to a Sutton Trust media release of 31 July 2018, purporting to show that high attaining disadvantaged pupils are under-performing at school. Considerable mainstream media coverage resulted, none of which was in any way critical. On 1 August 2018, I sent a detailed refutation of the claims in the article to Dr Montacute, care of the Sutton Trust. I also copied in all of the mainstream media that had published stories based on the Sutton Trust Press Release. Not a single acknowledgement or response resulted, let alone any challenge to my arguments and evidence.

I am not surprised, because the narrative that disadvantaged pupils are being failed by the school system plays into both Conservative and Labour ideologies. In the former case our comprehensive education system is blamed, despite the evidence that grammar schools and zero tolerance Academies are no more effective at ‘closing the gap’. Too many on the left are obsessed with a ‘discrimination’ based explanation for low attainment (in the face of the evidence), combined with an ideological revulsion to the concept of ‘intelligence’, which is addressed in Parts 1.2 and 1.3 of my book. This is like trying to understand physics while rejecting the concept of energy.

Dr Montacute’s article (which is the basis of most Sutton Trust policy pronouncements) and its conclusions are flawed by the failure to distinguish attainment from ability and the further failure in the study to define and measure ability. The following claims in the article are in italics. My comments  are set out paragraph by paragraph.

Authored by Dr Rebecca Montacute, Potential for Success analyses how high attaining students fare in secondary schools in England. The report also explores issues surrounding how to maximise the potential of high attaining young people through analysis of existing literature and case studies of good practice in schools that do particularly well for these students.

The report does nothing of the sort. The majority of it reflects on the fact that disadavantaged pupils (presumably mainly identified by eligibility for Free School Meals) are under-represented as high attainers at GCSE. The high attainers to which the study then goes on to repeatedly refer are not identified as high ability by IQ or Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs). The factual link between Free School Meals eligibility (FSM) and lower IQ/cognitive ability is either not recognised or ignored. But CATs data linked to FSM eligibility that prove the link have been published by GL Assessment. See p10 of the document.

The national mean CATs scores, Verbal Reasoning (VR), Quantitative Reasoning (QR) and Non-Verbal Reasoning (NVR) for non-FSM pupils are as follows. The corresponding percentiles are in brackets.

VR – 102 (55th), QR – 101 (53rd), NVR – 102 (55th)

But for FSM pupils the national mean scores are:

VR – 92 (30th), QR – 93 (32nd) , NVR – 94 (34th)

These are huge, highly significant differences that readily account for the disadvantaged pupils attainment gap claimed in the article.

Had the study targeted pupils in Academy schools that use CATs screening in Y6 or Y7, of which there are many, then the fact that FSM pupils in general perform at GCSE according to their lower CATs scores, rather than their inflated SATs scores would have been evident. All schools that use CATs screening are well aware of this, as is GL Assessment, the company that markets the CATs. My own extensive research, with my colleague John Mountford, has involved comparing CATS and SATs data for intake cohorts as a whole and for the intake pupils with FSM. We too find the same strong pattern in which while intake SATs scores are consistently somewhat lower for FSM pupils, intake CATs scores are much lower. We conclude that FSM pupil’s SATs scores are significantly inflated by the ‘high stakes’ nature  of the tests (OfSTED judgements and local league tables in relation to primary schools), whereas CATs, which are in any case much stronger predictors of GSCE results, are not.

It is easy to see why the link with social disadvantage/relative poverty and lower cognitive ability is so uncomfortable, but no reputable educational research organisation, let alone the government and the media, should be ignoring or covering up uncomfortable truths. Once these are accepted all of the consequential flaws in Dr Montacute’s  paper become readily apparent and make immediate sense, thus establishing the urgent need for national changes to teaching methodology prioritising developing the cognitive ability of all pupils, over the chasing of exam results by ‘exam factory’ methods that fail to result in permanent deep learning.

Students from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to be in the top 10% for attainment in English and maths at the end of primary school – referred to in this report as high attainers. Disadvantaged students are three times less likely to be in this high attainment group than their more advantaged peers: only 4% of disadvantaged students have high attainment at KS2, compared to 13% of non-disadvantaged pupils.

Of course students with cognitive abilities in the 30th – 34th percentile range are less likely to be in the top 10% of attainment in SATs at the end of primary school. It’s cognitive ability that counts. FSM pupils are also even less likely to have benefited from a cognitively developmental curriculum in Y7 as a result of pressure to cram/revise for SATs, so they in fact suffer a double disadvantage.

Furthermore, even for those disadvantaged pupils who do perform strongly in primary school, they are much more likely to fall behind at secondary school, compared to other high attaining students, across a range of measures. While high attainers overall make about an average level of progress between key stage 2 and key stage 4 (a Progress 8 score of .02, where the national average is zero), those from disadvantaged backgrounds fall substantially behind, with a negative Progress 8 score of -0.32.

Because FSM ‘high attainment’ in SATs is frequently brought about by extreme coaching/cramming/revising it does not generally last even to the end of the Y6 summer holidays, let alone to Y11 of secondary. Every secondary school that takes a substantial proportion of FSM pupils knows this, which is why so many of them screen their Y7 intakes with CATs.

They are also less likely to achieve the top grades that open doors to universities and employers: while 72% of non-disadvantaged high attainers achieve 5 A*-A grades or more at GCSE, only 52% of disadvantaged high attainers do. If high attaining disadvantaged students performed as well as high attaining students overall, an additional 1,000 disadvantaged students  would achieve at least 5A*-A at GCSE each year.

Dr Montacute is simply recognising that FSM students with lower cognitive abilities, along with all other students in the cognitive ability percentile range 30th – 34th, perform less well at GCSE than students of average cognitive ability (50th percentile) and above. The way to improve these outcomes is to replace the behaviourist teaching and learning approaches brought about by the government’s ideological promotion of the marketisation of our education system since the 1988 Education Reform Act, with the cognitively developmental approaches that have been proven to enhance deep understanding and raise cognitive ability/IQ.

High attainers from disadvantaged backgrounds who are white have the lowest level of attainment at GCSE compared to their peers in any other ethnic group. Only 45% of disadvantaged white students with high prior attainment gain 5A*-A at GCSE, compared to 63% of black students and 67% of Asian students from similar backgrounds.

This is accounted for by low mean CATs scores especially in the white working class communities of former industrial northern towns. For example, the mean intake CATs score in my former headship school near the docks in Barrow-in-Furness was 85 (16th percentile). I only know this because Cumbria was the only LEA in northern England where there was universal CATs screening in Y7, and I was a member of the LEA working party responsible for the CATs screening policy. A far greater proportion of schools in the affluent south use CATs and they will all be well aware of the pattern, but disinclined to publicise it.

Students with high attainment do better at GCSE in schools with lower proportions of students on free school meals, schools in London, in converter academies, and in schools with higher numbers of other previously high attaining students.

Much of that is readily explained by CATs data. Repeated research now shows that Academies in general are no more effective in raising attainment than Local Authority schools. What we do know from EEF research into the ‘attainment gap’ is that it exists in schools judged by OfSTED to be ‘outstanding’ to the same extent as those judged to be ‘requires improvement’ and ‘inadequate’. You can find an informed discussion of these issues here.

Disadvantaged students make up a much smaller proportion in grammar schools, compared to those in comprehensives, with disadvantaged high attainers only half as likely as high attainers overall to enter a grammar. In grammar schools, only 1 in 17 of all high attainers are from disadvantaged backgrounds, compared to 1 in 8 high attainers in comprehensive schools.

More confusion on attainment and disadvantage here. We do know that FSM students have typical cognitive abilities in the 30th – 34th percentile range and are therefore unlikely to pass the 11plus cognitive ability test. No surprise there.

Maximising the potential of highly able young people poses three main challenges in schools: identifying the right students, offering them the right programmes and interventions, and managing the process organisationally in a sustainable way. While highly able students from certain backgrounds, in certain parts of the country, and attending certain types of schools face substantial barriers, what schools actually do for such students can be crucial for success.

But EEF research shows that the alleged attainment gap is the same in all types of schools, grammars, comprehensives, ‘inadequate’ and ‘outstanding’ alike. If high ability is not rigorously identified and distinguished from the illusion of high attainment produced by the high stakes SATs regime, then it is unlikely that useful suggestions for improving educational effectiveness will emerge.

The further recommendations that follow in the report range from truisms to incoherent generalisations. There are effective evidence based approaches for raising cognitive ability and hence attainment for all students of all abilities including those on FSM. You can find these explained and discussed in my book and on my website. This article would be a good place to start.

Comments/criticisms of this article are welcome. I can also be reached by email and Twitter




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OfSTED and ‘Outstanding schools’ are harming national educational attainment

Consider these quotes from this recent Guardian article.

The system is now pushing schools and their heads to prioritise “the interests of the school over the interests of groups of, usually more vulnerable, children”. Some schools were found to be engaged in “aggressive marketing campaigns and ‘cream skimming’ aimed at recruiting particular types of students”. Schools that sustained or improved their judgment to ‘outstanding’ in the 2010-15 period saw, on average, a reduction in the percentage of students eligible for free school meals (FSM), while schools retaining or being downgraded to a ‘requires improvement’ and ‘inadequate’ judgment saw, on average, an increase in FSM eligibility.

The reason is and always has been obvious.

The market imposed by the 1988 Education Reform Act requires performance indicators to drive it. These have been various arbitrary combinations of the aggregated attainment of pupils through KS2 SATs (primary) and GCSE (secondary), on the assumption that the large variations in these measures to be found between schools reflect variations in the effectiveness of the education provided. This ‘common sense’ assumption has long been known to be false.

By far the greatest factor in the variation of school attainment is the mean cognitive ability of admission intakes. School heads have always known that this is closely mapped by the relative affluence of postcodes, as is confirmed by Cognitive Ability Test (CATs) data going back decades.

So the formula for school success has always been to attract children from wealthy postcodes and deter those from poorer ones. This needs power over admission policies that Academies, Free Schools and many faith schools have, but LA schools do not, hence this is the main incentive to become one of these sorts of government favoured schools.

The ‘killer fact’ revealed by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is that OfSTED ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools are no more effective than ‘inadequate’ schools in closing the gap between the Free School Meals children they can’t avoid admitting and their more able (and wealthier) peers.

In this important Local Schools Network article, Fiona Millar questions the common assumptions about improvements in school standards claimed by Labour and Conservative governments. She writes as follows.

“It is still debatable whether “standards” have improved.  I discovered very quickly while researching my book that the lazy assumption (of which I have been guilty) that children are better educated, because more get to the expected level at the end of primary and secondary school, masks a real can of worms. Existing independent tests of competencies such as spelling and mathematical concepts carried out by academics at some UK universities over the last 30 years, seem to show that in terms of what children can do and know little has changed. Meanwhile we aren’t even really clear about what we mean by standards, which currently only relate to exams and test results rather than any wider interpretation of teaching, learning, behaviour or personal development.” [Especially development of cognitive ability]

Professor Rob Coe of Durham University argues that despite the apparently plausible and widespread belief to the contrary, the evidence that levels of attainment in schools in England have systematically improved over the last 30 years is unconvincing. Much of what is claimed as school improvement is illusory, and many of the most commonly advocated strategies for improvement are not robustly proven to work.

The anti-Flynn effect, detected in the US and UK, the countries most affected by marketisation-based educational reforms, suggests that while exam-based attainment has been rising steadily, this has been at the cost of a decline in cognitive ability. Put simply, our school leavers are getting dimmer because passing exams to benefit their schools has been prioritised over the acquisition of deep understanding that provides much greater benefits to their students and society as a whole.

John Mountford and I have been researching the ‘Attainment Gap’, falsely claimed by the government, The Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Foundation to be a result of low standards in secondary schools in northern England.

John has obtained Y7 intake SATs and CATs data for secondary schools along the ‘M4 Corridor’ in southern England. Most of these schools serve prosperous communities that provide their primary and secondary schools with high mean cognitive ability intakes. But islands of relative deprivation exist along this channel of affluence. Some striking patterns emerge as can be seen in this table.

Sch %














K 4 108 103 108 98 1.00 1.05 O
D 9 106 103 106 99 1.00 1.04 O
B 10 103 100 97 91 1.06 1.10 G
A 12 105 102 100 93 1.05 1.09 G
L 14 106 102 106 97 1.00 1.05 G
J 20 102 98 99 90 1.06 1.09 RI
H 44 101 100 94 95 1.07 1.07 Inad

The SATs figures are the means of the Reading and Maths KS2 test scores. The CATs figures are the means of the Verbal, Non-Verbal and Quantitative scores. The SATs and CATs figures cannot be directly compared because unlike the CATs, the SATs are not standard scores in the statistical sense. In the 2017 SATs, DfE announced that 61% of pupils had met the ‘expected standard’ and attained a scaled score of at least 100. It is therefore clear that the DfE ‘expected minimum scaled score’ of 100 cannot be the 50th percentile if  61 percent attained it last year. Nevertheless, when the SATs and CATs data are compared, clear patterns emerge.

The latest OfSTED grade (last column) follows the mean cognitive ability of the intake, and this in turn reflects the relative affluence of the communities served, as shown by the %FSM column. Note the huge disparities in mean cognitive ability. Schools K & D (Outstanding) have mean intake CATs scores of 108 (70th percentile) & 106 (66th percentile).  Schools B, A & L (Good) have CATs percentiles of  58th, 63rd & 66th. All these are well above the national average (50th percentile). School J (Requires Improvement) has a mean intake CATs score at the 47th percentile and School H (Inadequate) has a mean intake CATs score at the 34th percentile. The %FSM follows a matching pattern, so confirming the observation in the Guardian article. We have not ‘cherry picked’ these schools.

The differences in the intake SATs scores (108 – 101) are less than for the intake CATs scores (108 – 94) showing that intensive preparation for SATs in Y6 can ‘bring up’ the scores of lower ability pupils, thus saving their primary schools from the dire consequences of falling below the ‘floor targets’. However this is a short term boost that is not reflected in the CATs scores or the internal assessments of the secondary schools to which they transfer. The secondaries are lumbered with SATs-based GCSE targets that the schools with lower ability intakes (eg J and H) struggle to meet so they incur negative data-based OfSTED judgements before the small team of inspectors even set foot in the schools for their superficial visits. Unlike with the large teams of inspectors involved in the week-long OfSTED  inspections of the 1990s, current reports are written to support the data-based judgements already made, making it impossible for the inspectors to take account of any available CATs data and any high quality teaching and learning that might be observed from spending longer in a much greater number of lessons. For example, in my headship school in Barrow-in-Furness (intake CATs score 85 – 16th percentile) good reports were received in 1990 (HMI), 1995, 1998 & 2004 (OfSTED), even though the ‘floor targets’ were never achieved. I retired in 2003 and the school was declared ‘inadequate’ in 2007 along with the town’s two other mainland non-faith schools. This just happened to coincide with what turned out to be a disastrous Academisation plan, supported by the Labour-led Cumbria County Council, that has led to 200+ Barrow students now travelling every day by train and bus to the LA schools in the nearby towns of Dalton and Ulverston.

Which brings me back to the ‘northern schools attainment gap’ issue about which I have also written here and here.

I obtained the full list of allegedly failing northern schools that gave rise to the ‘attainment gap’ allegation. I then tried to find some such schools that use CATs, without success. It is very much in the interests of such schools to screen their Y7 intakes with CATs tests. Otherwise the schools and their LA or MAT ‘controllers’ have no sound evidence on which to judge the GCSE attainment of their students and therefore no basis for challenging any allegation that they are ‘failing’ if in fact they are actually achieving in line with their mean intake cognitive ability or better. LA schools are not ‘controlled’ by the LA in the way that Academies and Free Schools are controlled by their Multi Academy Trusts, as Henry Stewart points out here.

It might be thought that the Labour Local Authorities that might be expected to be supporting their allegedly failing schools would be encouraging, if not requiring, CATs screening, but this is clearly not the case. However, CATs data raise difficult presentational issues for school heads and LAs. In my headship school it was not possible for me to argue in public that the mean intake cognitive ability of our school was so low (16th percentile) that our GCSE results were in fact much better than the CATs predictions, with lots of A and A* grades from the the small number of our CATs 100+ students. I could foresee the headline in the local paper: BARROW HEAD BLAMES THICK BARROW KIDS FOR SCHOOL’S POOR RESULTS. This kind of populist misinformation is only possible because the basic mechanism of marketisation, which appeals to flawed common sense, has never been challenged by any political party.

It is not possible to validly judge the effectiveness of a school from its aggregated exam results. This is because intake cognitive ability, which is not even recognised as a factor by the DfE and OfSTED, is a far greater cause of variation in the aggregated exam results of schools than any other school-based differences.

The LEA (as was) understood this very well, but local councillors did not want to know. Who would vote for someone who calls their kids thick? Soon after my retirement the Labour County Council stopped CATs screening in all of its secondary schools, so depriving them of data very useful for the diagnostic identification of specific learning difficulties and for devising high quality accountability and targeting systems, but by then LEAs had been abolished and, as in many other LAs, the ‘Children’s Services’ department was not led by an education specialist. So I was not unduly surprised by the lack of interest in CATs screening by other northern Labour controlled LAs.

However I did find one large Academy (OfSTED Outstanding) that uses CATs as the basis of a fair banding admissions system. Located in a socially deprived area, this prevents the school from being overwhelmed by local low CATs score pupils and so meeting the same fate as the surrounding LA schools that are bound by LA proximity based general admissions arrangements. This means that the Academy can ‘cherry pick’ the most able students from its locality and further afield while rejecting the majority of its local low CATs students, of which there are many. This lowers the mean intake cognitive ability of the surrounding schools even further making it ever more difficult to achieve the ‘Attainment 8’ and ‘Progress 8’ targets determined from the inflated SATs scores produced by their primaries, themselves threatened by their own floor targets set without any cognitive ability evidence. Thus have the large number of failing schools been created in this and other northern Local Authorities. This ‘fair banded’ Academy is the ‘large school’ whose SATs and CATs data are discussed in this article.

The whole complex issue of the use of ‘fair banding’ for schools serving low cognitive ability communities is extensively covered in Part 4 of my book ‘Learning Matters‘, which is a case study of the CATs based admission systems of Mossbourne Academy and the London Borough of Hackney. In short, I conclude that ‘fair banding’ admissions systems administered by a Local Authority with universal Y6 CATs screening work well, explaining the success of the Hackney system. But CATs based admissions systems used by Academy MATs, but not available to neighbouring LA schools condemn them to constant fear of OfSTED on account of  low GCSE attainment, pushing them to adopting coaching, cramming and extremely controlling discipline systems similar to those that have been introduced in some high profile Free Schools.

So how can I argue that OfSTED is having a negative effect on national education standards? OfSTED, like HMI that preceded it is the national inspector and regulator of schools. Before the 1988 Education Reform Act, HMI, which was independent of government, inspected schools and LEAs to ensure high standards of teaching and learning. Where problems were found HMI would act to ensure that appropriate action was taken to restore standards to the uniform high level that parents and public expect in all our schools. This would be done in co-operation with LEAs, which could ‘move on’ ineffective headteachers and provide additional support and advice to the school. LEAs employed large teams of experienced ‘inspector/advisors’ who were almost always experienced former teachers/heads of department. There was never any question of ‘closing schools’ or seeking to undermine the long term confidence of parents in them.

OfSTED, on the other hand, is completely different. It accepts the marketisation model that underpins the 1988 Act and is the ‘enforcer’ of government education policy. The ideological basis of the model is that a ‘free market’ in schools that forces them to compete with each other is the best way of raising standards. So the government published SATs and GCSE ‘performance data’ for schools to drive local School League Tables to encourage parents to choose the ‘best’ schools and avoid the ‘worst’.

As a further ‘twist of the screw’ OfSTED introduced its four grade, inadequate to outstanding’ system of judging schools. The assumption was that failing schools must be a consequence of failing to apply market philosophy to their running, so the solution is to close such schools, so forcing parents to send their children to ‘better’ ones, or have the schools taken over by more ‘market aware’ Academies and Multi Academy Trusts (MATs)’

This philosophy has been so dominant that it has been accepted as ‘normal’ by all the UK political Parties. But there is another way and it works. Here are some features of the Finnish education system, which is regularly judged by international PISA tests to be much more effective than the market-based systems of England and the USA.

There is an emphasis on personal and cognitive development.

The best school for every student is always the neighbourhood school.

 There is no competition between schools because all schools strive to be the same.

 There is no private school sector in Finland.

There is no business culture in Finnish schools.

 All schools are student-centred.

Therefore since OfSTED is a major driver of an education system based on a false and failing ideology, it is the problem rather than the solution. The first step in its reform must be the removal of the four grades, on the principle that all schools must be good schools and that if they are not then it is the job of the state to bring this about as a matter of urgency, rather than waiting for ‘market forces’ to produce winners and losers.

So why abolish the concept of ‘Outstanding Schools’? Surely this just encourages all schools to become better? The main reason is well put in the Guardian article.

Schools that sustained or improved their judgment to ‘outstanding’ in the 2010-15 period saw, on average, a reduction in the percentage of students eligible for free school meals (FSM), while schools retaining or being downgraded to a ‘requires improvement’ and ‘inadequate’ judgment saw, on average, an increase in FSM eligibility.

The degree to which an ‘outstanding school’ achieves its status inevitably damages its neighbouring competing schools, robbing them of their more able students and dumping upon them their less able and more problematic ones.

But there is worse. Anyone that watches ‘Kirsty and Phil’ on ‘Location, Location, Location’ will have heard them referring to desirable properties ‘being close to outstanding schools’. Such properties can command much higher prices, especially in affluent areas where competition is fiercest. Such addresses then become out of reach of  parents to either rent or buy. These excluded parents must then ‘make do’ with less popular schools. Not only is this assumed by the government to be ‘inevitable’ it is seen as evidence of ‘the market working its magic’.

Except that as we have seen from John Mountford’s research and the Guardian article, there is little evidence that ‘outstanding’ schools are necessarily more effective at anything other than attracting the most cognitively able students and deterring the least able. They are therefore an engine for increasing social inequality.

Remember the ‘killer fact’ revealed by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) that OfSTED ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools are no more effective than ‘inadequate’ schools in closing the gap between the Free School Meals children they can’t avoid admitting and their more able (and wealthier) peers.

So the aim of The Sutton Trust of enabling more FSM children to get into ‘outstanding’ schools, will achieve nothing for them.

It is easy to understand the concern of the political left with reducing inequality. I support it, but it requires taking ‘markets’ out of the provision of providing essential services like education if it is to be achieved. Finland shows the way.

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It is the attainment gap fallacy that is damaging the life chances of FSM children in the north of England and elsewhere

The ‘north/south attainment gap’ claimed to exist by The Sutton Trust, The Social Mobility Foundation, the DfE, the National Schools Commissioner and virtually the entire English educational establishment is a fallacy. The actions taken by the government to ‘close the gap’ through market pressure on allegedly under-performing Northern schools from league tables and OfSTED  is counter productive and having the opposite effect to that which is intended. This has been revealed by this recent BBC News investigation.

The under performing schools  allegation is based on the comparatively poor attainment of  north of England FSM pupils at GCSE, compared to their KS2 SATs scores. A comparison is made with pupils suffering comparable levels of socio-economic deprivation in London Boroughs, where this ‘attainment gap’ is not found. The true explanation for this lies in the different cognitive ability and ethnicity profiles, featured in the BBC report, of London Boroughs compared to ‘white working class’ districts targeted by the ‘attainment gap’ allegations.

The BBC rightly draws attention to the perverse outcomes of the DfE’s ‘Progress 8’ school accountability measure, which uses KS2 SATs as the baseline for measuring the progress made by students at their secondary schools. The fact that neither the SATs themselves, nor their statistical manipulation by the DfE, are fit for purpose gives rise to even greater concerns than those raised in the BBC article.

Recent research by The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) casts serious doubts about the validity of the ‘attainment gap’ claim which is discussed in my articles on the subject here and here.

I have been supported and joined in my investigations by John Mountford, a retired headteacher and former OfSTED inspector. His inquiries have revealed that it is not just Free School Meals (FSM) children in the north of England that are affected, but also in the more prosperous south. This is the letter he has sent to his MP.

Dear Mr Rees-Mogg

Thank you for your prompt reply to my initial inquiry regarding testing in schools (copied below for your convenience). I note that you have referred the matter to Rt. Hon. Nick Gibb and are awaiting his response. I will, in due course take the opportunity to attend one of your surgeries, as suggested. In the meantime, there have been further developments I wish to bring to your attention.

The limited research my colleague and I are engaged upon is, even at this early stage, yielding results that require a response from the DfE. 

The KS2 SATs were revised for 2016. In the original version, the raw marks from the exams were used to set National Curriculum Levels, with the raw mark thresholds for each level determined each year by the DfE. The DfE then determined the minimum acceptable proportion of pupils in every primary school that should achieve Level 4. This was the ‘floor target’ with schools failing to meet it being placed in ‘Requires Improvement’ or ‘Special Measures’ categories by OfSTED. SATs have always been ‘attainment tests’ based on specified content set out by DfE.

The post 2016 SATs are different. The concept of National Curriculum levels has been abandoned. The DfE now report SATs results on a ‘scale’ with a mean of 100, a minimum of 80 and a maximum of 120. This is ‘explained’ here, except that there is no explanation, just a set of conversion charts, changed each year, to convert raw SATs exam marks to a score on the 80 – 120 scale.

There is no explanation of what ‘attainment descriptors’ apply to the scaled score of 100, nor to any other scaled score including the minimum and maximum of 80 and 120. The only valid statistical alternative to criterion referenced attainment descriptors is norm referenced percentiles. For example the IQ/cognitive ability scale enables percentiles to be obtained for every standard score. It is not clear that the SATs ‘score’ is a standard score at all in the statistical sense. If it was, then the DfE could state the percentile represented by the minimum expected score of 100 for all pupils. In the 2017 SATs, DfE announced that 61% of pupils had met the ‘expected standard’ and attained a scaled score of at least 100. It is therefore clear that the ‘expected minimum scaled score’ of 100 cannot be the 50th percentile if  61 percent attained it last year.

We have asked respected academics of international standing to comment but none have so far made any statistical sense of it. We invite you to take advice from your own contacts in the academic world alongside any response you get from the DfE. It appears that the SATs ‘scale’ of 80 – 120 is not a ‘standard scale’ of any kind. It appears to be an arbitrary creation, along with the conversion tables for converting raw marks into SATs scores. In this context, it is important to note that Cognitive Ability Tests, in contrast, are standardised according to established statistical procedures, which is why they are still employed by grammar schools for their 11 plus selection tests.

The data acquired as part of our research confirms that the SATs results are inflated when compared to Non-Verbal Reasoning test standard scores, and especially for pupils attaining the lower NVR scores. This has serious implications for secondary schools, especially in relation to setting Attainment 8 and Progress 8 targets, especially for those schools with high numbers of FSM children on roll, because we know from data published by GL Assessment, who provide the Cognitive Ability Tests, that FSM children, on average, have lower cognitive abilities.

For example, we have used FoI to obtain the data for the nine  Non Verbal Reasoning Test bands used [for admissions purposes] by one large school. These give the number of pupils in each band in brackets. Underneath each band the mean scaled SATs score for reading and for maths are provided, in that order.

NVR Band 1 (9) corresponds to -2 SD (2nd percentile)

SATs 95, 97

Band 3 (25) to -1 SD (16th percentile)

SATs 102, 104

Band 5 (40) to the mean (50th percentile)

SATs 105, 109

Band 7 (28) to +1 SD (84th percentile)

SATs 110, 110

Band 9 (9) to +2 SD (98th percentile)

SATs 117, 116

NVR Band 1 pupils should presumably be performing at the 2nd SATs percentile. We do not know what SATs score this corresponds to, but it is certainly not 95/97

NVR Band 3 pupils should be performing at the 16th SATs percentile. This cannot be 102/104

NVR Band 5 pupils should be performing at the 50th SATs percentile. Could this be 105/109?

NVR Band 7 pupils should be performing at the 84th SATs percentile. Could this be 110?

NVR Band 9 pupils should be performing at the 98th SATs percentile. Could this be 116/117?

This is like taking the bottom of the regression line and moving it up so that -2SD becomes 96 instead of 70, which we are informed is statistical nonsense. We hypothesise that this pattern results from primary schools, having a high proportion of low NVR pupils, resorting to cramming and coaching methods to meet the DfE floor target. Such children will have understood little and forgotten most of it by the end of the summer holidays, which is what hundreds of secondary schools report as the reason why they buy the Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) to reliably inform diagnostic and target setting interventions for their pupils. 

So, it emerges from our analysis that SATs scores are systematically inflated for pupils of lower cognitive ability, and the lower the cognitive ability score, the greater the inflation.

 I apologise for the volume of detail contained herein, but real life is rarely simple.  As you will appreciate this is a matter of great importance. The fate of individual pupils and schools depends on this system being transparent and reliable. Clearly, this could potentially threaten the robustness of the whole examination system. As such, we believe it to be an urgent matter, requiring a thorough investigation.


John Mountford


These data represent clear evidence of the general inflation of SATs scores compared to Cognitive Ability Test (CAT) scores for the same pupils, especially for those of lower cognitive ability.

We have also obtained SATs and CATs data for the 2017 admission cohorts of two schools in the south of England. These schools do not use CATs to drive ‘fair banding’ admission systems, but are purchased  to screen their Y7 intakes for a variety of purposes including target setting and the diagnosis of barriers to learning. These data confirm the EEF findings that the alleged FSM ‘attainment gap’ is common to all schools including those judged by OfSTED to be ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’.

School A  (101 students, FSM 10)

Mean KS2 Standard Scores

GPVS (Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling): cohort – 105, FSM – 102

Reading: cohort – 103, FSM – 101

Maths: cohort – 102, FSM – 99

Mean CATs Scores (percentiles shown in brackets)

Verbal: cohort – 99 (47th), FSM – 96 (39th)

Non-Verbal: cohort – 95 (37th), FSM – 88 (21st)

Quantitative: cohort – 96 (39th), FSM – 88 (21st)

Spatial: cohort – 97 (42nd), FSM – 91 (27th)


School B (308 students, FSM 37)

Mean KS2 Standard Scores

GPVS (Grammar, Punctuation and Spelling): cohort – 107, FSM – 104

Reading: cohort – 106, FSM – 102

Maths: cohort – 105, FSM – 101


Mean CATs Scores (percentiles shown in brackets)

Verbal: cohort – 101 (53rd)), FSM – 94 (34th)

Non-Verbal: cohort – 98 (45th), FSM – 91 (27th)

Quantitative: cohort – 101 (53rd)), FSM – 93 (32nd)

Spatial: cohort – 102 (55th), FSM – 96 (39th)


Normal Distribution data points are always clustered around the mean (100) with fewer data points towards the extremities of the distribution. Percentiles show the percentage of the general population with that score or below. (eg a mean score of 100 represents the 50th percentile). Because the SATs standard scores are not standard scores in the statistical sense, they cannot be converted into percentiles. (eg the score of 100 does not represent the 50th percentile, but some arbitrary percentage decided each year by the DfE)

The data from these schools are highly informative.

  1. The SATs scores are generally inflated compared to CATs. We believe that this is a consequence of their high stakes nature and susceptibility to ‘gaming’ through extreme coaching and cramming. Secondary schools need CATs data before they or anybody else can form valid judgements of the progress of their students. The SATs based judgements used to justify the ‘attainment gap’ argument of the DfE, the Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Foundation lack appropriate statistical validity. As stated in the BBC article by the heads of schools with high proportions of ‘white working class’ pupils, the current system is indeed ‘institutionally toxic’ towards their schools.
  1. The SATs scores of FSM pupils are slightly depressed, but CATs scores are hugely so. This confirms GL Assessment national data that shows that FSM children on average have significantly reduced cognitive abilities. Please do not shoot the messenger. This is factually beyond dispute.
  1. School B has a higher mean cognitive ability intake than School A. Therefore, all other things being equal (quality of teaching etc) it should get better GCSE results and a higher league table placing. But the ‘Progress 8’ measure is statistically incapable of validly differentiating between schools with different ethnic mixes (BBC article) and with different proportions of FSM (our research), making it unfit for purpose. 
  1. Cognitive ability is not fixed at birth, nor by anything else.  Although it is often ignored, considerable expertise exists in relation to how cognitive ability can be raised throughout life, but especially through the school years through the right approaches to teaching and learning.

Put simply, instead of cramming our children with knowledge for SATs and GCSEs in ways that inhibit cognitive development, our pupils deserve educational experiences of the highest quality that make them cleverer and wiser, as well as more knowledgeable. Ways of achieving this are well established (eg by the EEF), although not specifically recognised by OfSTED or promoted by the DfE.

This leads to the inevitable conclusion that SATs are not fit for purpose and that the DfE, OfSTED, The Sutton Trust and the Social Mobility Foundation have got the ‘attainment gap’ completely wrong.

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The Sutton Trust defends its approach to the attainment gap

I have received this response from The Sutton Trust to my article questioning the ‘attainment gap’.

Research by John Goldthorpe has shown that children of similar cognitive ability but different social origins have very different chances of educational success. Similarly, an overwhelming body of evidence tells us that high-quality teaching can have a significant impact on pupil attainment and their outcomes later in life.  We know that the quality of teaching matters more for poorer children too.  

This is why the Sutton Trust will continue to focus on improving educational opportunities for young people from less advantaged backgrounds, to give them the chances they need to reach their full potential.

  1. The Goldthorpe Research

‘The effects of social origins and cognitive ability on educational attainment: Evidence from Britain and Sweden’ (2014)

This is a long and complex sociological treatise, which I have referred to my academic correspondents for comment. However, Note 1 at the end of the paper states:

“One question that we do not address is that of the relative importance of social origins versus cognitive ability in regard to educational attainment”.

 This being the case I admit to puzzlement as to why The Sutton Trust feels that this research supports their argument that cognitive ability is so unimportant that they never mention it.

I then turned to the internet for a glimpse into the extensive work of eminent Oxford sociologist, Dr John Goldthorpe, and found the following.

In his lecture tonight (2016) at the British Academy, Dr John Goldthorpe FBA, a sociologist at the University of Oxford, will outline why having more educational qualifications than your parents and grandparents has not translated into better social mobility chances for those from less well-off families.

 Dr Goldthorpe will also outline research showing that people born in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s have been less often upwardly mobile than their parents and grandparents, while an increasing number of men and women have started to drop down the social ladder. He attributes the upward mobility from the 1950s to the 1970s to a major expansion of professional and managerial positions in that period, and dubs it the Golden Age of social mobility.

It is argued (Goldthorpe 2013), primarily on account of various limitations of the available data, [that] the economists’ finding of declining mobility is open to question; and, further, that because no explicit distinction is made in their work between absolute and relative rates of mobility, its reception, among politicians especially, has been attended by considerable confusion. An alternative to the consensus view is put forward, based on extensive research by sociologists into social class mobility, which is seen as better capturing the inter-generational transmission of economic advantage and disadvantage. This research indicates that the only recent change of note is that the rising rates of upward, absolute mobility of the middle decades of the last century have levelled out. Relative rates have remained more or less constant back to the inter-war years. According to this alternative view, what can be achieved through education, whether in regard to absolute or relative mobility, appears limited. [My bold]

  1. The Sutton Trust ‘Mission Statement’

“Similarly, an overwhelming body of evidence tells us that high-quality teaching can have a significant impact on pupil attainment and their outcomes later in life.”

Of course this is right, but unless The Sutton Trust believes in stable IQ conferred at birth through genes, high-quality teaching must be that which promotes cognitive development (in which The Sutton Trust appears to have no interest). In either event, I fail to see that the work of John Goldthorpe  (“what can be achieved through education, whether in regard to absolute or relative mobility, appears limited”), supports, “why the Sutton Trust will continue to focus on improving educational opportunities for young people from less advantaged backgrounds, to give them the chances they need to reach their full potential.”

Here, I am with the Sutton Trust rather than Goldthorpe, but the aim, “to give them the chances they need to reach their full potential”, is revealing of the Sutton Trust’s confusion in suggesting that school students have ‘a full potential‘, presumably conferred at birth through genes. My heart sinks whenever I see the ‘reach their full potential‘ phrase, for the reasons explained in this article.

The crucial assumption of Labour’s proposed National Education Service is that developmental education is never wasted on anybody, of any age, from the cradle to the grave. 

Like Professor of Applied Psychology, Michael Shayer, James Flynn and the mainstream international academic community to which they belong, I accept the general intelligence construct ‘g’ as not only valid and meaningful, but essential in any consideration of developmental learning and the effectiveness of different approaches to bringing it about.

What may be new to both ‘g’ accepters and ‘g’ deniers is the fact that cognitive ability is plastic throughout life even if its maximum plasticity corresponds with pre-adult developmental spurts. Not only is intelligence not fixed at birth through genes (or anything else), neither can it be permanently limited (rather than just damaged) by poverty or poor parenting.

This does not mean that all learners are capable of attaining the same level; the Bell Curve of natural variation applies. The important principle is that all learners, at any level, can always develop their cognition and that all such development is worthwhile, not only to the individuals concerned, but to society as a whole.

That is why Labour’s ‘National Education Service’ is such a powerful idea.

The pedagogy of developmentalism is founded on Piagetian epistemology and Vygotskyian approaches to teaching and learning based on metacogition and social interaction. It is all about the development of cognitive ability on the basis that this is the driver of attainment in all contexts that require deep understanding rather than just factual recall.

The theoretical basis of UK Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) originally produced by NfER- Nelson and now GL Assessment, completely contradicts the assertions of The Sutton Trust. The predictive data contained in the main body of the GL Assessment Report, which is the basis of my earlier article, makes no mention of social class or socio-economic status, yet produces what it claims to be highly reliable predictions of educational outcomes related to cognitive ability test (CAT) scores.

This is just one example from a library of CATs data going back many decades. If these claims are false then the CATs tests are worthless, yet the purchasers (schools in huge numbers) pay a lot money for such data even though the DfE SATs data that the Sutton Trust exclusively uses for its flawed claims about the attainment gap, come free.

The value of CATs, completely ignored by the Sutton Trust, has been extensively researched by Professor Steve Strand of Oxford university. For example, his article, ‘Consistency in reasoning test scores over time’, first published, 16 December 2010, of which the following is the abstract.

Background: UK schools have a long history of using reasoning tests, most frequently of Verbal Reasoning (VR), Non Verbal Reasoning (NVR), and to a lesser extent Quantitative Reasoning (QR). Results are used for identifying students’ learning needs, for grouping students, for identifying underachievement, and for providing indicators of future academic performance. Despite this widespread use there are little empirical data on the long term consistency of VR, QR and NVR as discrete abilities.

Aims: To evaluate and compare the consistency of VR, QR and NVR scores over a 3 year period, and to explore the influence of the secondary school on pupils’ progress in the tests.

 Sample: Data were collected on a longitudinal sample of over 10,000 pupils who completed the Cognitive Abilities Test Second Edition in year 6 (age 10+) and year 9 (age 13+), and GCSE public examinations in year 11 (age 15+).

Methods: Correlation coefficients and change scores for individual pupils are calculated. Multilevel modelling is used to determine school effects on reasoning scores and GCSE public examination results.

Results: The results reveal high correlations in scores over time, ranging from 0.87 for VR to 0.76 for NVR, but also show around one sixth of pupils on the VR test and one fifth of pupils on the QR and NVR tests change their scores by 10 or more standard score points. Schools account for only a small part of the total variation in reasoning score, although they account for a much greater proportion of the variation in measures of attainment such as GCSE. School effects on pupils’ progress in the reasoning tests between age 10 and age 13 are relatively modest.

GL Assessment formerly published an on-line guide to its previous (CAT3) edition of its tests, where I found the following statement..

However, reasoning scores can and do change over time. For a minority of pupils, these changes may be quite substantial. The mean scores for a group of pupils or even a whole school can also change substantially, for example where there has been an intervention such as the National Literacy or Numeracy Strategies (NLS/NNS), or Cognitive Acceleration through Science (CASE) or Philosophy in the Classroom thinking skills approaches.

If Professor Strand were to look harder where developmental methods of teaching and learning and are practised, he may find more evidence for the plasticity of cognitive ability. However his conclusion that, “Reasoning tests make excellent baseline assessments for secondary schools” is increasingly accepted by educationalists, except it would appear, those at the Sutton Trust.

  1. Evidence from the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF)

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has published what is probably the most comprehensive study yet on ‘The Attainment Gap’, which has been the principal concern of The Social Mobility Foundation, The Sutton Trust and successive incarnations of the Department for Education and its Opposition shadows over the last three decades.

The EEF conclusions are discussed here.

In so far as the Sutton Trust’s position is concerned, the ‘killer’ EEF finding is that:

The gap persists in all types of secondary schools.

Attainment 8 scores for all pupils is higher in ‘Outstanding’- or ’Good’-rated schools, than (on average) in schools rated as either ‘Requires improvement’ or ‘Inadequate’.

However, the size of the Attainment 8 gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils is all but identical across all four Ofsted-rated categories of school.

It is not, as might be expected, a problem that predominates in schools classified as under-performing: it is found to a similar degree in all types of schools.

‘Outstanding’ schools are no more effective than ‘Special Measures’ schools in closing ‘The Attainment Gap’.

This is devastating  for The  Sutton Trust and its argument that the attainment gap can be closed by improving the chances of admission to ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ schools of children less affluent backgrounds. They must surely now be forced to look again at the ‘The Attainment Gap’ and what it tells us about the best way to raise the attainment of all students of all abilities from all social backgrounds.

I await their further comments.

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Like any country, talent is spread evenly, it’s education and opportunity that isn’t – (or not)

Former Education Secretary Justine Greening has been speaking at the Sutton Trust.

Former Education Secretary Justine Greening’s powerful words [that form part of the title of this article] at the Carnegie-Sutton Trust Best in Class summit aptly sum up the social mobility landscape Britain faces today.

This is indeed the underlying assumption of not just The Sutton Trust, but the entire ‘Social Mobility’ establishment, which appears to include the Labour opposition as well as the Conservative government. This is made clear by the following Sutton Trust statement.

This event follows our earlier summit in London in 2016 where we raised important questions around teacher development, and how disadvantaged pupils can have fair access to the best schools and the best teachers.

The underlying assumption is that within a competitive education market system, some schools will always be better than others (because that is the nature of markets) and that social mobility requires the manipulation of the market so that the children of poorer families have a better chance of getting into them. But what of the children, rich or poor, that don’t get into the ‘best’ schools? Their life chances will presumably be worse, but no matter, because so long as this disadvantage is equally shared out in some kind of ‘fair lottery of life’, then that provides the best national educational provision that we can hope for.

How different it is in Finland where, according to PISA, educational standards are higher than they are here. According to my national IQ – related analysis, for maths, England is found at 49th place, whereas Finland comes out at 8th.

Finland does much better than England even in the flawed ‘raw’ PISA analysis, so what are they doing right in the land of the midnight sun?

Some of the answers can be found in this video by US journalist Michael Moore.

The following key characteristics emerge from the video.

There is no national system of standardised testing.

 Schools are about enabling their students to find happiness.

 There is an emphasis on personal and cognitive development.

 The best school for every student is always the neighbourhood school.

 There is no competition between schools because all schools strive to be the same.

 There is no private school sector in Finland.

Whenever the Finnish education system is compared with the UK, it is often argued that its apparent superiority arises from the fact that Finland has a more equal society, with much higher levels of social mobility. Is it not more likely that its highly effective education system, in which there is no competition for school places and no role whatever for ‘market forces’, has successfully brought about those very high levels of social mobility that are the root cause of its success?

Let us take another look at Justine Greening’s statement.

 “Like any country, talent is spread evenly – it’s education and opportunity that isn’t”

 What if this too is the wrong way round? What if ‘talent’ is not in fact ‘spread evenly’ at all, but is highly variable in complex patterns? How can we find out? Fortunately, GL Assessment, who market Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) has done this for us, with the results summarised on p10 of this document.

Hundreds of schools buy expensive CATs from GL Assessment to drive ‘fair banding’ admissions systems. Other schools buy the CATs to screen their Y7 pupils for diagnostic and targeting purposes. If asked, such schools say that the extensive SATs analysis provided for free by the Department for Education is not up to the job. Why should this be?

In many primary schools, especially those threatened by DfE and OfSTED floor targets as a result of a low mean intake cognitive ability, Y6 is primarily devoted to ensuring that the school does not meet the dire fate that results from falling below those floor targets. This means that cognitively developmental teaching (which is what the pupils from poorer backgrounds most need), is abandoned in favour of coaching and cramming, which may actually make their pupils dimmer, while lifting the school over the floor targets, but landing the secondary to which they transfer with inflated SATs scores that produce ‘Attainment 8’ and ‘Progress 8’ targets they cannot meet. Thus is the ‘attainment gap’ created.

When it comes to ‘academic talent’, which Justine Greening believes to be ‘evenly spread’, she must mean cognitive ability/IQ, either gifted through genes, developed through parenting and schooling, or all three. The purest form of cognitive ability/IQ could be regarded as ‘Non-Verbal Reasoning’ (recognition of patterns and relationships) as tested by the third of the Cognitive Ability Tests reported on p10 of the GL Assessment summary. Let us examine how ‘evenly spread’ these ‘talents’ really are in terms of CATs scores, which are reported on the IQ standard scale where the national mean is 100 and the Standard Deviation is 15.

  1. Ethnicity

Highest mean score – 112 (79th percentile)

Lowest mean score –  90 (25th percentile

These are enormous differences. If neighbourhood schools are located in areas where different ethnicities predominate then the effects on the exam performance of equally effective schools that serve them will be massive. England is hugely ethnically diverse, so the idea that associated cognitive ability patterns are ‘evenly spread’ across the country is plainly nonsense. A close study of the mean ethnic cognitive ability differences reveals a complex pattern that provides no succour to racists, because mixed race children tend to have significantly higher mean cognitive abilities. There appears to be a ‘hybrid vigour’ effect from maximising gene mixing along with no evidence of disadvantage from the resulting cultural diversity. Bilingualism in children is an established cognitive as well as cultural advantage.

  1. Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI) 

1 Standard Deviation above mean – 104 (61st percentile)

1 Standard Deviation below mean – 97 (42nd percentile)

These too are large differences. It has long been well established that the children of more highly educated parents do better at school and the converse. More cognitively able parents tend to have better paid jobs and live in areas of more expensive housing. It should not be surprising that they tend to pass on these advantages to their children through genetic and cultural mechanisms.

  1. Entitlement to Free School Meals (FSM) 

Not entitled mean score – 102 (55th percentile)

Entitled mean score – 94 (34th percentile)

These data confirm the previous pattern.

The key, unavoidable conclusion is that we are a diverse nation in all manner of ways that include mean cognitive abilities related to both ethnicity and affluence. The assumption of the ‘social mobility’ establishment, that variations in educational outcomes are the consequence of differential access of a cognitively uniform population to ‘good schools’ is not supported by the evidence.

The truth is that ‘good and outstanding schools’, as defined by DfE performance measures echoed by OfSTED inspectors who really should know better, are overwhelmingly those that can attract sub-groups of pupils with higher cognitive abilities. Every secondary head knows this, but the scope for LA community schools to do anything about it is now very limited. Local Education Authorities (LEAs) knew this and the best of them manipulated catchment areas to provide cognitively ‘balanced’ intakes, which had the additional benefit of at the same time producing cultural diversity. Academy and religious schools can design their own admissions policies that can free them from any competitive disadvantages of being primarily neighbourhood schools.

Some such Academy admissions arrangements, like ‘fair banding’, are both reasonable and educationally desirable. Others are manipulative, devious and dishonest. I know of an urban Academy school whose admissions policy was based not on proximity to the Academy, but negatively, on proximity to a neighbouring LA school serving a poorer neighbourhood. If two pupils lived equal distances from, but on opposite sides of the Academy school, pupil A, living in an affluent neighbourhood, and pupil B living in a deprived neighbourhood, pupil A could gain admission over pupil B even though she lived further from the Academy than pupil B. This is because pupil B could have lived closer to the neighbouring LA school than to the Academy. This admissions device was not enough to save the Academy from ‘Special Measures’, while condemning the LA school to the same fate, which was then itself forced to become an Academy.

The greatest threat to social mobility is not allegedly poor secondary schools, but the imposition for ideological reasons of a marketised education system that corrupts teaching methods through the ignorance of politicians and Academy bosses that favour ‘behaviourist’ over ‘developmental’ approaches to teaching and learning while politicians, the media and the public misunderstand the real reasons for the differences in aggregated exam results between secondary schools, which do not validly measure the quality of education provided by the schools.

What is even more shocking is that I am not able to freely make this entirely rational, evidence-backed case, because of a taboo about mentioning cognitive ability or general intelligence. The Guardian newspaper deletes any such comments on its education articles and the NUT website, ‘Reclaiming Schools’, does the same. I live close to a shipbuilding town. It is as if the design office was forbidden from taking account of the Principle of Archimedes. John Mountford and others discuss the IQ taboo here.

I will conclude by anticipating some misunderstandings (deliberate or otherwise) that might arise from this article.

  1. I am not suggesting that intelligence is immutable, whether arising from nature, nurture, or most likely, both. Part 5 of my book ‘Learning Matters’ describes many developmental approaches to teaching and learning that enhance cognitive development. More can be found here and here.

Cognitive ability can however be inhibited by bad approaches to teaching and learning. Unfortunately these are often the very approaches feted by the government and rewarded by OfSTED. They inevitably arise from the perverse incentives that flow from a marketised education system.

  1. It is well established that East Asian ethnic groups have high national IQs. The GL Assessment figure of 112 is the same as that widely measured in many other studies. The mistake is to look at the PISA studies where East Asian countries score highest and conclude that this high IQ is conferred by their excellent education systems. There are two problems with this. The first is that East Asian children born in the US and UK that pass through the deeply flawed education systems of these countries still record the same high cognitive ability/IQ scores and are massively over-represented in the top universities of both countries and elsewhere in the world.
  1. The second problem is that the education systems in these East Asian countries are in fact poor, worse even than ours. This is revealed in my IQ mediated analysis.

This study is the basis of one of the most widely read articles on my website, with the number of visits increasing by the week from all over the world. It has been validated and endorsed by international academics of the highest standing. It has been widely circulated and so far no challenge to the methodology has been received.

  1. How do national/ethnic IQ differences arise? There is no need to resort to theories of ancient racial superiority. Culture can play a role, but not through the false Lamarckian theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics. Cultural memes can get into your descendant’s genes through sexual selection in relatively few generations. This article provides a possible explanation.

To conclude, cognitive ability data show that the Sutton Trust and Justine Greening have got social mobility all wrong. The north/south attainment gap disappears when cognitive ability differences are taken into account. Failure to do this is resulting in the impoverishment of the curriculum of primary schools and invalid judgements of secondaries.

The victims are children of all abilities that are denied the rich, developmental, inspirational state schooling that should be a human right, all sacrificed on the altar of free market ideology.



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Bird’s eggs, common sense and school discipline

On 31 March 2018, I watched a BBC 2 Sir David Attenborough programme about birds’s eggs. Although I have only a modest interest in garden birds, largely through my granddaughters, I should not have been surprised at the profound implications that flowed from another masterpiece of communication from this brilliant scientist and presenter. Sir David described many examples from the science of avian eggs that exemplify the ‘common sense’ fallacy.

I will start with the blue tit. This tiny bird and garden favourite lays lots of very small eggs. The female bird sits on the eggs to incubate them. The rate of development of the embryos depends on the incubation temperature. So ‘common sense’ tells you that the female blue tit would sit on the eggs for longer in cold weather than when the weather is warm. Wrong. When blue tits are observed, the incubating behaviour is the other way round, but why?

It turns out to be much more complicated, with many other unrecognised factors involved. The newly hatched chicks are tiny, bald and dinosaur like. As the eggs are so small, the hatchlings are born in a relatively undeveloped state, with voracious appetites supplied by the adult birds providing the most nutritious food, which is baby caterpillars. These only appear over a time interval of a few Springtime weeks. If the blue tit chicks were to hatch too soon when there are no baby caterpillars, they would die of starvation. Somehow, the mother blue tit ‘knows’ this, so she tunes the development of the embryos to ensure that this does not happen. She does this by reducing the amount of incubation provided in colder weather.

A second example relates to the shape of guillemot eggs. These are unusually long and ‘pointy’. Scientists have for decades tried to explain this. Guillemots lay their eggs on tiny, overcrowded ledges on vertical cliffs. So the ‘common sense’ answer was that their ‘pointy shape’ stops them rolling off the ledges. Except that it doesn’t. Experiments showed that rounder shaped eggs were no more likely to roll off.

The true explanation has nothing to do with the ledges at all. Guillemots lay large eggs from which the chicks develop in an advanced, feathered state of development. They are fed with small fish which the parents catch by diving below the surface propelled by their wings. The chicks need a lot of fish. The bodies of adult guillemots are slim and streamlined for efficient flying and diving. A large round egg would not fit down the oviduct of this slim bird, so it has to be long and ‘pointy’.

The subtext is the power of Natural Selection to produce such a compelling illusion of design in the variety and complexity of life on our planet. The counter-intuitive, anti-common sense nature of truth is explained in ‘The Unnatural Nature of Science’ by Lewis Wolpert. The illusion of intelligent design through Natural Selection is the subject of Richard Dawkin’s classic ‘The Blind Watchmaker‘.

So what has this to do with Education? There can be no better example of the ‘common sense’ fallacy than that everybody who has been to school has a view. That these views are nearly always hopelessly ill-informed and wrong is well illustrated by the comments on the regular ‘Secret Teacher’ feature in the Guardian newspaper. Education is immensely complex, which is why the mainstream media do such a bad job of reporting on it. It is not that journalists are lazy. They just lack the specialist knowledge required.

Within Education, there is no topic more guaranteed to spawn ‘common sense’ fallacies than school discipline. Our national tragedy is to have a school system where such fallacies appear to be shared not just  by the public, but by Education Ministers and Executives of Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs). An example can found in this article.

The ‘common sense’ argument is that school students are naturally disinclined to study and prefer to be rude, disruptive and unruly. Over 180 years ago The Reverend Richard Dawes showed that this was not true in King’s Somborne School in Hampshire, where he became headteacher.

In contrast, Charles Dickens satirised the common sense fallacy in his 1854 book, ‘Hard Times’.

Before I became a head in 1989 I was fortunate to have worked in a very diverse range of state secondary schools. These included the traditional Wyggeston Boys’ Grammar School in Leicester, where the young David Attenborough himself was a pupil, and the radical Leicestershire Plan 14-18 Bosworth College, where there was no school uniform and the students addressed the teachers and the head by their first names. You can read the obituary of the Principal that appointed me here.

I was also fortunate to be seconded on full pay to the Leicester University M.Ed Studies course in 1981/82, where I studied theories of learning.

By the time I was appointed head of The Alfred Barrow School, in the urban centre of Barrow-in-Furness in 1989, I was sure that the ‘learning instinct’ of children was stronger than any ‘disruptive instinct’ and could predominate in a school that had the right approach to teaching and learning, and that repressive, violent and coercive discipline fuels bullying and bad behaviour as well as inhibiting the metacognitive and group communication skills that promote personal and cognitive development.

In retrospect, there were many shortcomings with teaching and learning at The Bosworth College, but student indiscipline was not one of them. Teaching and learning at Wyggeston Boys’ School also had shortcomings, but in very different ways. The traditional grammar/independent school culture resulted in occasional outbreaks of the worst pupil indiscipline I saw in my entire career in teaching. Very clever boys would wheedle at weaknesses in teachers and extreme, skilfully synchronised disruption could result. The corporal punishment regime only encouraged a culture that was very far from optimum in terms of what could have been achieved with such bright students. I refused to ‘witness’ canings of pupils in my form, by the Head of Year. Despite this I enjoyed good relationships with the outstanding science staff from whom I learned a great deal in terms of deep subject understanding. Wyggeston Boys School became Wyggeston Queen Elizabeth Sixth Form College in the belated Labour City of Leicester comprehensive reorganisation, more than a decade behind the Conservative Leicestershire County Council.

At The Alfred Barrow School we achieved an outstanding level of student co-operation and behaviour that was recognised by OfSTED and a variety of other LEA advisors and other professionals that came into the school, including ‘Advanced Skills Teacher’ (AST) assessors who were regular visitors, conferring this status onto many of our staff. Our students got to understand what the assessors were looking for and invariably delivered an impeccable performance in support of teachers that they liked and trusted.

You can read more about our approach here.

Deeply flawed ‘common sense’ extreme coercive and abusive regimes of school discipline are on the increase in Academies and Free Schools.

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Cambridge Analytica, Daniel Kahneman, the anti-Flynn effect and education

Every Facebook user should be aware of the business model of ‘free’ social media type services. It is to collect personal data and then sell it for the purpose of individually targeted adverts. If you interrogate Google, within hours you will get an advert on your Facebook page linked to your Google query. It is no use getting upset about this as it is in the Ts & Cs and has long been accepted

However, the Cambridge Analytica scandal crosses a new threshold in terms of the use of personal data ‘farmed’ from the likes of Facebook. You can view the Channel Four News expose here

The collection of sophisticated personal information to sell on to unscrupulous political campaign teams so that they then target emotionally tuned fake news and propaganda onto susceptible individuals to gain their votes would be a serious corruption of the democratic process – if it is allowed to operate it could become a fatal flaw.

The ultimate defence surely lies in having a well-educated population that is immune to such attacks. This is illuminated by the work of Daniel Kahneman and his identification of System 1 fast, gut thinking, and System 2 slow, cerebral thinking. This article links Kahneman’s powerful ideas with the failings of our marketised education system.

And this article explains why such attacks on the democratic process would be far less effective in countries whose education systems emphasise cognitive development rather than the passing of crude exams for market accountability purposes.

The Flynn effect is the well established pattern of national IQ scores rising over time in countries with effective education systems. The anti-Flynn effect is the name given to the more recent evidence that in the last two decades it has gone into reverse in a number of countries including the UK, with profound implications including that our national IQ could be in serious decline and/or that our national educational system and the ‘Facebook culture’ are now increasingly inhibiting the cognitive growth of our school students and the adults that emerge from our education system.

This recent article by James Flynn himself and Michael Shayer, both internationally respected academics, explains the issues.

In the last few decades of the 20th century, raw IQ test scores were increasing at about 15 points per decade. According to the Flynn and Shayer paper, they are now declining, possibly at an even faster rate, the turning point being 1995.

In the paper, Michael Shayer reports that the decline in the incidence of Piagetian Formal Operational thinking in the UK population is dramatically higher than the decline recorded by IQ tests. The following are quotes from the paper. Piagetian Formal Operational Thinking corresponds to Kahneman’s System 2 Thinking.

After our analysis, we will suggest two tentative hypotheses. First, trends on conventional tests show those at most risk of IQ decline are high school students aged 14 to 18. However, Piagetian results in Britain imply losses at earlier ages. Second, Piagetian tests signal something extra: conflicting trends between top scorers (those at the highest or formal level of cognitive development) and those in the early stages of the next level (concrete generalization). Large losses at the formal level may be accompanied by gains at the concrete level. We will argue that conventional IQ tests can show this phenomenon but are less likely to do so.

 The Piagetian results are particularly ominous. Looming over all is their message that the pool of those who reach the top level of cognitive performance is being decimated: fewer and fewer people attain the formal level at which they can think in terms of abstractions and develop their capacity for deductive logic and systematic planning. They also reveal that something is actually targeting that level with special effect, rather than simply reducing its numbers in accord with losses over the curve as a whole. We have given our reason as to why the Piagetian tests are sensitive to this phenomenon in a way that conventional tests are not. Massive IQ gains over time were never written in the sky as something eternal like the law of gravity. They are subject to every twist and turn of social evolution. If there is a decline, should we be too upset? During the 20th century, society escalated its skill demands and IQ rose. During the 21st century, if society reduces its skill demands, IQ will fall. Nonetheless, no one would welcome decay in the body politic.

 Since the Brexit referendum there has been considerable media coverage of socially deprived northern towns with a high proportion of ‘leave’ voters. These towns have been characterised by the government as having poor schools that have created an ‘attainment gap’. This ‘gap’ is in reality a mean cognitive ability deficit caused not by individual schools but by the marketised education system.

TV News programmes have regularly sent reporters onto the streets to do vox pop interviews with the locals. It is hard not to be shocked by the poor quality (regardless of the side taken) of popular responses, where thoughtful rationality is in dire short supply, and trite phrases unrelated to evidence, predominate.

It is also a fact that that it was overwhelmingly the less well educated sectors of the US population that voted for Trump. This fits with the likelihood that individually targeted social media propaganda is more likely to be successful with Kahneman System 1 (Piaget Concrete Operational), rather than System 2 (Piaget Formal Operational) thinkers.

Which is a powerful democratic argument for reforming the UK education system to prioritise cognitive development over SATs and GCSE testing designed primarily to drive the marketised school performance accountability regime brought about by the 1988 Education Reform Act, which preceded the 1995 date of the emergence of the anti-Flynn Effect by just seven years.

So what would such a reformed education system look like? This is the main subject of the articles on my website and the arguments and evidence presented in my book.

However, a strong insight can also be gained through the work and publications of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).

There are two threads that are becoming increasingly dominant in EEF research into effective learning approaches.

The first is ‘metacognition’. This arises from Piagetian developmental, concept-based models of learning in which students are encouraged to explore their personal mental models of problems and phenomena and so refine and upgrade them. Einstein’s ‘thought experiments’ come to mind, although everybody at every age can develop their cognition through this process.

The second thread draws on the work of Vygotsky in emphasising the importance of the social context of learning and the power of ‘group work’ that requires the expressing, discussing, evaluating and challenging of the individual metcognitively created conceptual frameworks of the group members.

A recent article by Debra Kidd describes effective approaches to achieving this.

The following websites also promote and explain the sort of cognitively developmental education needed to increase the cognitive sophistication of the population and so defend democracy.



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