The Sutton Trust defends its approach to the attainment gap

Roger Titcombe's picture

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 FoundationThe 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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Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 10/05/2018 - 11:07

Education's role in social mobility is limited.  That's what Goldthorpe wrote in 2012.  I summarised his report here.      Yet his work has had limited impact on those who think social mobility is solely the responsibility of education.

A year before, academics Phillip Brown, Hugh Lauder and David Ashton wrote The Global Auction which argued that promising young people good jobs after studying well and getting high qualification was a myth in a world where jobs can easily be outsourced to equally-qualified workers in other countries who will do the work more cheaply.  The book argued for a re-evaluation of work which recognised the value of low-paid or non-remunerated work which neverththeless added value to society as a whole (eg caring for the elderly and disabled).

I would argue that education also needs to be re-evaluated - less as a sole route to higher remuneration and social standing but more on its intrinsic worth as a life-long pursuit not just as something done to children and young children in schools and unis.  That's unlikely to happen - education is a convenient scapegoat for stalled (even falling) social mobility.  

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 10/05/2018 - 11:19

I strongly agree with your last paragraph, but urge you not to be so pessimistic. It is what Labour's National Education Policy is all about, which is why it is so worring to see so many past and present members of the party taking the Sutton Trust and Social Mobility Foundation line, rather than rising to the challenge of Labour's current and excellent proposals.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 10/05/2018 - 17:36

Goldthorpe's work is called into question by my academic correspondents. They argue that the staticistal method he used is flawed. Neither can I agree that education has a 'limited role' in any sense, not just in relation to social mobility. The role of free state education was and continues to be transformative in terms of the life chances of everybody. I strongly commend the work of Derek Gillard, whose authoritative studies of the history of education in England are free to view on-line.

From its origins in the 19th century to the present day, quality education has been the engine of positive social change. But it has to be quality education. This article explains how cognitively developmental teaching and learning produced remarkable results in the Victorian period, but gave way to a much inferior marketised version later in the century.

Unfortunately, this history repeated itself at the end of the 20th century, and once again the villain has been the marketisation paradigm within which the Sutton Trust is confined.

I know from my own headship experience how our school succeeded in enhancing the life chances of our students, many of whom lived in the surrounding Victorian terraces, through a cognitively developmental approach to curriculum combined with the student empowerment philosophy explained here.

It is a common fallacy that educated, affluent parents are essential to improving educational outcomes. Good comprehensive schools, if properly resourced and organised, can do the job, as I set out in the research described in Part Four of my book, 'Learning Matters'.

The Education Endowment Foundation, only this week has published its work revealing the limitations of a sociological approach to improving education outcomes.

Our experience was that very often it was our students that educated their parents, not the other round.




John Mountford's picture
Fri, 11/05/2018 - 12:17

Janet, I endorse Roger's remarks about your final paragraph. Your assessment of what is happening in education is on the button. When you write:  "I would argue that education also needs to be re-evaluated - less as a sole route to higher remuneration and social standing but more on its intrinsic worth as a life-long pursuit", you challenge the utilitarian perspective of education heard in the many voices that shout so loudly for social mobility as a key driver of change. However, your final analysis that  "education is a convenient scapegoat for stalled (even falling) social mobility." is something I would respectfully challenge. I would argue that the only inevitability is that if we don't keep chipping away at the perception that social mobility can be solved, then for sure, nothing will change. The role of education is only as limited as our perspective of what it can be and of how it can better serve society. Until we address the needs of students of ALL abilities through delivering cognitively enhancing teaching, preoccupation with 'the gap' will continue to devalue education. 


I have been in close contact with Roger recently looking into the whole area of social mobility and the fact is that it has driven education reform in directions that do not and cannot serve our young people well for the future. I have seen the evidence that counters the Goldthorpe view and I have a challenge to make to the Labour Party and the NUT or other professional bodies with an interest in this area - get your statisticians to review Goldthorpe's methodology. The work is highly technical but well within the remit of independent analysts with the right kind of background to re-evaluate the findings. Far too much weight has been afforded to the claims Goldthorpe makes despite the fact that, as Roger indicates, Goldthorpe admits, “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, I would argue, is the 64 thousand dollar question.


How can The Sutton Trust and its allies think for one moment that what Goldthorpe concludes offers them any succor for their ongoing agenda? Equally, how can The Trust suggest that there is an overwhelming body of evidence telling us of the impact of high quality teaching on pupil attainment and future life prospects and yet appear to show little if any interest in cognitive development, which is equally proven to have very positive benefits for pupils of ALL abilities?  How can a serious researcher admit that in coming to a set of conclusions about educational attainment, he has not taken cognitive ability into account (EEF and others)? When will those in positions of authority in education governance, who claim to favour evidential reforms, accept this whole ‘mind the gap’ approach is actually perched precariously on very thin ice?


How, how, how and when, indeed???

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 11/05/2018 - 13:08

I agree that a good education is transformative.  But I am dubious about the term 'social mobility'.   Is it judged by earning power - that young people will earn more than their parents (with inflation taken into account)?  If so, this has more to do with the economic situation than educational qualifications.

Is it having a job which is of higher status than their parents (eg professional instead of blue collar)?   If so, then there comes a time (which may have already arrived) when a large number of well-educated young people can't do better than their parents because their parents are equally well educated and already have high status jobs.  In some cases, social mobility could actually go into reverse with children of professional parents choosing to work (or having no choice but to work) in non-professional jobs.

Is it raising people out of poverty?  If so, it would be more effective to have social policies to take people out of poverty than to put the sole responsibility on schools.


Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 11/05/2018 - 14:27

Your comment reminds me of a recent conversation with my eight year-old granddaughter. In response to a tedious question about 'what she wanted to do when she grew up', she became very thoughtful and said, "It is going to be difficult, because all the good jobs, like being a suffragette, have been taken". 

Is it raising people out of poverty?  If so, it would be more effective to have social policies to take people out of poverty than to put the sole responsibility on schools.

This is a good question that demands a thoughtful response. Mine would be that it may not be possible to have 'social policies that take people out of poverty', without their being a role for high quality, cognitively developmental education.

The classic, although much reviled, work on this subject is, 'The Bell Curve', by Herrnstein and Murray (1994). Chaper 5 is about poverty and it is a brilliant statistical study of the evidence relating to the relative contributions of low socio-economic status (SES) and low IQ to poverty. Unlike the work of Goldthorpe, the many critics of the authors have been unable to find fault with the scholarship and methodology of their work. Where I disagree with them is in their ignorance and dismissal of the evidence for the plasticity of intelligence. The late Philip Adey helped me a lot with my book, 'Learning Matters' and we discussed 'The Bell Curve'.  In March 2012 he wrote the following to me.

"you are right about the intelligence problem; the left are frightened by it and the right give it too much credence. I have been trying to argue for years that once you accept that general intelligence is plastic, it ceases toi be the bogey-man ushering in racism etc. and becaomes a great opportunity."

The example of Sure Start is compelling. The mainstream view was that attending to the social needs of children and mothers would inevitably produce gains in later school attainment. This is what I wrote in, 'Learning Matters'. 

The English experience of expensive and essentially social programmes like Sure Start has certainly been disappointing in terms of measurable educational outcomes. Dr Christine Merrell of Durham University Curriculum, Evaluation and Management Centre, responsible for a long-term study into the effectiveness of Sure Start was reported in the Daily Mail of 19 April 2012 as follows. She said: “Given the resources put into early years’ initiatives, we expected to see a rise in literacy and numeracy scores in schools. So it’s disappointing that there’s been no improvement”.

This being the case it seems clear to me that if you want to improve educational outcomes, including the enhancement of cognitive ability then you have to research and invest in effective approaches  to teaching and learning.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Fri, 11/05/2018 - 14:28

sorry about their instead of there

Roger Titcombe's picture
Sat, 12/05/2018 - 07:45

The government has again ignited the grammar school selection debate, but as usual the mainstream media completely misunderstands both the issues and the data. See the BBC 'factcheck'

Children from more deprived backgrounds on average do better at grammar schools than in the comprehensive system

This tells you nothing. The translation is that children from deprived backgrounds that pass the 11plus cognitive ability test  do better at grammar schools than children from deprived backgounds of lower gognitive ability regardless of the type of school they attend.

Once again the absence of cognitive ability data makes any valid comparison impossible.

That is why Professor Steve Strand is so right when he states that CATs make excellent baseline assessments, and I am right that SATs do not.

The question the BBC shoud be asking is, do children of the same cognitive abilty do better at grammar schools than comprehensives, regardless of FSM status? What little research there is, suggests that they  do not.

That's it - matter settled.


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