Have GCSE reforms in England led to a widening of the achievement gap?

A report published by the Sutton Trust suggests that recent changes to GCSEs – including tougher exams and a new grading system – have led to a slight widening of the achievement gap in England, but the overall impact is small.

Making the Grade uses Key Stage 4 data from the National Pupil Database from before and after the GCSE reforms were introduced. Simon Burgess and Dave Thomson looked at the results and entry rates for disadvantaged pupils (pupils eligible for free school meals at any point in the six years up to and including the year in which they reached the end of Key Stage 4) and non-disadvantaged pupils to explore the impact on disadvantaged pupils and the achievement gap.

Their findings suggest that during the period that the reforms were introduced, test scores for disadvantaged pupils fell slightly compared to their classmates. Under the previous system, 2% of disadvantaged pupils achieved the top grade of A*, whereas just 1% now achieve a 9 (the re-designated top grade). The drop is less for non-disadvantaged pupils, falling from 8% achieving A* to 5% achieving a 9.

Source: Making the grade: The impact of GCSE reforms on the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers (December 2019), the Sutton Trust

Evaluation of Maths Counts

A paper published in Educational Research and Evaluation presents the findings of a one-year efficacy trial of Maths Counts – an intensive, individualised programme to support children who struggle with basic maths skills at Key Stage 2 (age 7 to 11).

The participants were 291 pupils in Years 3 to 6 from 35 primary schools in England. Pupils were randomised within school and allocated to an intervention (Maths Counts) or control (business-as-usual) group. The programme was delivered to intervention pupils by specially trained teaching assistants three times per week, for 10 weeks, during curriculum time but outside the regular classroom. The first ten minutes of each session focused on revision of prior learning, and the next 20 minutes introduced new knowledge and skills.

The results of the trial suggest that Maths Counts is effective for pupils who struggle with basic maths skills (effect size = +0.12 for general maths skills, and +0.18 for maths attitude). However, there was no evidence that it was effective for pupils eligible for free school meals (effect size = -0.14 for general maths skills, and +0.07 for maths attitude).

Source: Evaluation of the impact of Maths Counts delivered by teaching assistants on primary school pupils’ attainment in maths (November 2019), Educational Research and Evaluation, 25:3-4

Improving behaviour in schools

The Education Endowment Foundation has published a review of the current evidence on approaches to behaviour in schools.

The review, which was carried out by researchers at the University of Exeter, synthesises the best available international evidence on approaches to behaviour in schools. The goal is to:

  • explain why pupils may misbehave
  • review what types of classroom management approaches are most effective
  • review what types of school-wide management approaches are most effective.

The report, which offers schools some recommendations for improving behaviour, suggests that universal systems are unlikely to work for all pupils, and for those pupils who need more intensive support with their behaviour, a personalised approach is likely to be better.

Source: Improving behaviour in schools: evidence review (December 2019), Education Endowment Foundation

Learning together to reduce bullying

A study published in Public Health Research reports on an evaluation of the Learning Together intervention, which aims to reduce bullying and aggression and to promote pupil health and well-being.

Forty secondary schools in southeast England participated in the trial, with 20 schools randomly assigned to deliver the intervention over three years, and 20 schools continuing with existing practices. In the intervention schools, staff and pupils collaborated in an “action group” to change school rules and policies, with the goal of making it a healthier environment. This included focusing on improving relationships rather than merely punishment-based approaches to discipline, and using a classroom curriculum aimed at encouraging social-emotional skills.

All pupils completed a questionnaire at the start of the trial, and this was repeated three years later. Results showed that self-reported experiences of bullying victimisation were lower in intervention schools than in control schools (adjusted effect size = –0.08). There was no evidence of a reduction in pupil reports of aggression. Pupils in intervention schools also had higher scores on quality of life and psychological well-being measures, and lower scores on a psychological difficulties measure. They also reported lower rates of having smoked, drunk alcohol, been offered or tried illicit drugs, or been in contact with the police in the previous 12 months.

Source:  Modifying the secondary school environment to reduce bullying and aggression: the INCLUSIVE cluster RCT. (November 2019). Public Health Research Volume: 7, Issue: 18

No impact for inquiry-based learning intervention

The Education Endowment Foundation has published an evaluation of an inquiry-based learning intervention – CREST Silver Award.

Delivered by the British Science Association, the CREST programme aims to help pupils engage with science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects by allowing them to develop their own project ideas. Eighty secondary schools in London and the south east took part in the trial, involving 2,810 Year 9 pupils (ages 13–14). While CREST can normally be delivered by any STEM department in the school, for the trial, CREST was delivered by the science department in each school. Schools had the flexibility to decide how they would deliver CREST (for example, as a whole class activity or as a STEM club) and when they would run the programme (during school, after school, lunch break, or during class time). Pupils were expected to complete 30 hours of project work in total.

The independent evaluation by NatCen found that pupils who took part in the programme made no additional progress in science achievement (as measured by the Progress Test in Science) compared to similar pupils who were not offered the programme (effect size = -0.01). Nor was there any evidence that the CREST Silver Award improved self-efficacy in science or increased the percentage of pupils aspiring to a STEM career; however, small positive impacts were found for pupil confidence and attitudes toward school.

Source: CREST Silver: Evaluation report (December 2019), Education Endowment Foundation

Do private schools give students an educational advantage?

Researchers at the Institute of Education at University College London have conducted a study that looks at whether there are any educational advantages to attending private schools in the upper secondary years (Years 12 and 13).

Published in the Oxford Review of Education, the study used data from the Centre for Longitudinal Studies’ Next Steps cohort study and linked this to national pupil achievement information between 2005 and 2009. The researchers followed a sample of 5,852 pupils who attended a private or state school while doing their A-levels.

The profiles of the two groups of pupils were very different – pupils arrived in private school sixth forms with significantly higher prior attainment in GCSEs, and from households that had twice the income of families whose children attended state school sixth form. However, the researchers used the data available from Next Steps to allow for socio-demographic characteristics and prior achievement. Allowing for these characteristics, pupils at private schools outperformed those at state schools in their total A-level score by eight percentile points. Private school pupils also performed better on those subjects deemed to be more important to elite universities.

The researchers suggest that the reason for the difference may lie in the vastly superior resources per pupil in private schools (three times the state school average), including smaller pupil-teacher ratios (roughly half the state school average). However, they caution that their results are not truly causal.

Source: Private schooling, subject choice, upper secondary attainment and progression to university (November 2019), Oxford Review of Education