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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2 Responses to The Sutton Trust defends its approach to the attainment gap

  1. John Mountford says:

    In my view we have already devoted far too much time as a society to this very vexed subject. It seems on the basis of this blog, the alleged gap is just that, alleged. Opposing parties in this debate seem impervious to reason as this latest round of correspondence between Roger and others indicates. What we need to do as professionals, politicians and the wider community is to take the only sensible course of action in such a situation, change the focus.

    That translates into “raising the attainment of all students of all abilities from all social backgrounds”. It’s time to recognise the futility of regarding social mobility as a problem in search of a solution. It’s part of the fabric of life that while some ‘reach the heights’, others are apparently ‘left behind’. However, this outcome does not have to be the end of the matter.

    The Sutton Trust’s (TST) Mission Statement emphasises the need to ensure all pupils receive the highest quality teaching. They acknowledge that first and foremost that is about developing cognitive ability. At the same time, this is something TST seems to have very little interest in addressing, so sidestepping the matter of how to address what this means in practical terms.

    If we accept EEF’s conclusions that the gap persists in all types of secondary schools and that outstanding schools are no more effective at closing the gap than special measures schools this calls for a paradigm shift.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You are right John. Thomas Kuhn is surely right about the inertia of current establishment paradigms and just how much contrary evidence is needed to make them creak, let alone succumb to a new paradigm. We just have to keep chipping away.


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