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

  1. John Mountford says:

    On this occasion, Roger, I will limit my response to this, your most recent thought provoking article, to commenting on the first two paragraphs. Having worked with you recently to identify how the use of Cognitive Ability testing in Yr 7 is deemed necessary by a growing number of secondary schools because of the pressure they are under to tackle the Attainment and Progress 8 challenge, I clearly endorse the conclusions you reach in your attempt to engage with The Sutton Trust and others as outlined here.

    To begin, I turn my attention to the media’s unresponsiveness to your invitation to comment. I have felt for some time, education is on a damaging trajectory and our democracy under severe stress. In the absence of an effective opposition in parliament and after decades of education reform specifically designed to promote the marketisation of the education service (now accepted by many in authority as the education market), the system itself is becoming unfit for purpose. But where among the free press is the challenge to the status quo coming from in this context?

    As an example of what I am referring to, it does not matter which BBC correspondent or reporter you refer to who is writing in response to reports that challenge the official view on an education related matter, such as the recent A Level results, the pattern is always the same. They wheel out some ‘informed person or organisation’ to give their perspective on the matter, occasionally put up some feeble resistance to the official line in support of this source, where this is deemed necessary, and end the report with what is invariably a bland, oft-repeated comment from some anonymous departmental spokesperson. Even where the DfE has been instructed by the Education Select Committee or others to desist with repeating a particular view our lazy media persons allow the false claim to have yet another public airing and often the final word to boot. This is not good for journalistic integrity and it is letting down a whole generation of young people who are in desperate need of a champion to challenge authority when such action is required. Would that it was just the BBc doing this.

    Then there are the well meaning, sometimes philanthropic organisation, such as The Sutton Trust in this case, who seem unwilling to engage with those who question their conclusions. In doing so, I believe it weakens The Trust’s simply stated Cause, “We are a foundation which improves social mobility in the UK through evidence-based programmes, research and policy advocacy.” The evidence you have put forward to the Trust is sufficiently robust and detailed to warrant a response, even if only to refute it outright. If improving social mobility is to be tackled, it would be an objective better served if The Trust considered the very serious case you make. Their fundamental premise about the underlying causes of social immobility needs to be revisited in light of the important questions you raise. The view that cognitive ability has a minor or even no part to play in relation to how education may better facilitate social mobility is untenable. As I wrote above, our young people deserve better.

    Finally, to the part played by politicians in this vitally important arena. For many years I have been promoting an idea that would place education reform on a secure footing for the future. Education is far too important to have its direction and governance dictated by governments running their five year cycles.

    We are now in a situation where lies are being told and perpetuated in the face of evidence to the contrary that reforms to assessment and testing, for example, are working in regard to making society more equitable by increasing social mobility. This is not happening. The reforms to the examination and assessment arrangements have been politically driven, often against the better judgement of the professionals charged with delivering the changes. The outcome has been a narrowing of the curriculum experience for many children and young people and of teaching to the test. It has resulted in gaming and cheating. It has threatened the wellbeing of many vulnerable youngsters and driven teachers to leave the profession in increasing numbers. Enough is enough. It is time to establish a National Commission for Education that includes politicians and all the other stakeholders. It is time to abandon the present partisan governance of education. Our democratic future needs us to harness the potential of all our citizens through an education experience that ensures growth and the pursuit of creative solutions to the many complex issues facing us and our world.

    Keep up the pressure, Roger, on those who seem content to bury their heads and abuse their comfortable self-conferred privilege at the head of the table.


  2. Quite right John. And very eloquently and powerfully put.


  3. John Mountford says:

    Unlike you, Roger, I am surprised that not one of the individuals or organisations you copied this article to has taken up your invitation to engage on this matter. More than surprised, however, I am truly appalled.
    It makes perfect sense that no politician or political party is interested. You have identified the reasons for this perfectly above. But, academics, who claim to have an interest in this subject, declining to comment is difficult to reconcile. In behaving in this illogical manner, the idea that cognitive ability plays no more than a ‘bit-part’ in the narrative of education attainment remains unchallenged and has deeply damaging outcomes for the fate of many students of all ages.
    It may offend those with fears of determinism but cognitive capacity is a given. It is not fixed for life, but it counts. It may be incompletely understood in both educational and psychological circles but we ignore it at our peril. The general public may have confused views and an uneasy relationship with IQ, but it is something they rarely deny outright.
    We have to confront our ignorance, challenge our biases, share our concerns and commit resources to the study of how genetic factors influence learning. To do less than this keeps the door firmly closed on a subject that has the capacity to re-shape our schools and make teaching and learning more dynamic. We have an opportunity to open a dialogue with parents and carers to help them appreciate, even more than at present, how important their contribution is to the initial and ongoing development of their children.
    The last word goes to you, Roger. If we really want improved outcomes for all, we have to ensure that education reform sets new, more relevant goals in a climate of openness. If we maintain our present vision founded on what worked in times gone by, we will fail. “There are effective evidence based approaches for raising cognitive ability and hence attainment for all students of all abilities including those on FSM.”


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