Can within-classroom inequalities ever be closed?

Roger Titcombe's picture

I return to the work of Professor Rebecca (Becky) Allen, Director of the Centre for Education Improvement Science, UCL Institute of Education, who has published a set of three articles analysing the fallacies peddled by DfE, the Sutton Trust, the Social Mobility Foundation, the Education Policy Institute and others that are so frequently and uncritically echoed in the mainstream media. I discuss her first two articles here.

I now move on to her third article, which addresses profound issues at the heart of the debate that Chief Inspector of Schools Amanda Spielman raises in her letter to the Public Accounts Committee, which is currently causing tension within OfSTED and the DfE.  Janet Downs discusses this here.

The following selection of quotes (in italics) from Becky’s third article are my attempt to summarise her arguments. My comments are in square brackets.

I used to think social inequalities in educational outcomes could be substantially reduced by ensuring everyone had equal access to our best schools[However EEF research found that ‘outstanding’ schools are no more effective than ‘Special Measures’ schools in closing ‘The Attainment Gap’.]

That is why I devoted so many years to researching school admissions. Our schools are socially stratified and those serving disadvantaged communities are more likely to have unqualified, inexperienced and non-specialist teachers. We should fix this, but even if we do, these inequalities in access to experienced teachers are nowhere near stark enough to make a substantial dent on the attainment gap. In a rare paper to address this exact question, Graham Hobbs found just 7% of social class differences in educational achievement at age 11 can be accounted for by differences in the effectiveness of schools attended [my bold].

Despite wishing it weren’t true for the past 15 years of my research career, I have to accept that inequalities in our schooling system largely emerge between children who are sitting in the same classroom [my bold]. If you want to argue with me that it doesn’t happen in your own classroom, then I urge you to read the late Graham Nuthall’s book, The Hidden Lives of Learners, to appreciate why you are (probably) largely unaware of individual student learning taking place. This makes uncomfortable reading for teachers and presents something of an inconvenience to policy-makers because it gives us few obvious levers to close the attainment gap[But you have already argued convincingly that the ‘attainment gap’ is a distraction. Pupils become inattentive and frustrated when they are bored, or more seriously, when despite their best efforts they don’t understand what the teacher is going on about and the school culture is so oppressive that they are afraid to ask the teacher and not permitted to ask their peers for help.]


New cover with new type


In an increasing number of Academies and Free Schools the two students illustrated on the cover of my book would get a detention, or even ‘solitary confinement’ for revealing their cognitive discomfort in such a way. Such punishments would no more enable the understanding of complex concepts than does the ‘instructional’ approach of the teacher.

So, what should we do? We could declare it all hopeless because social inequalities in attainment are inevitable. Perhaps they arise through powerful biological and environmental forces that are beyond the capabilities of schools to overcome.

It is true that inequalities are indeed inevitable, but this does not mean that schools are powerless to enhance inherited levels of intelligence.

The basis for the incredible diversity of patterns of life on earth is evolution through natural selection. Natural selection is driven by inequalities between offspring.Rare, large scale differences can emerge through genetic mutations, but significant smaller scale differences are the inevitable result of sexual reproduction. The reason why sexual reproduction is near universal amongst  dominant species of complex animals and plants is because it has so successfully driven natural selection through the generation of diversity of offspring. Every parent with more than one child knows that siblings (except identical twins) often vary greatly in temperament, personality, physical ability, talents and intelligence.

Schools need to adopt the same policy that comes naturally to parents – unconditional love, celebration and support for all their children to develop their abilities and talents without limit. No sensible parent expects ‘equality’ of attainment between their children in all aspects of their talents and abilities. Before the disastrous marketisation of the English education system, the common law dictated that schools and teachers should always be guided by the principle of ‘in loco parentis’ – respond as would a reasonable parent.

This principle is as sound now as it has ever been and all schools should act on it at all times.

If you read a few papers about genetics and IQ it is easy to start viewing schools as a ‘bit part’ in the production of intelligence.

But this would be a mistake. Part 4 of ‘Learning Matters’ comprises my study of the importance of admissions systems to the effectiveness of schools, using the example of Mossbourne Academy in particular and the London Borough of Hackney in general. Mossbourne demonstrated that a good, well resourced comprehensive school can, to a very considerable extent, overcome disadvantageous home backgrounds such that the strong link between cognitive ability and attainment persists, despite variations in Social and Economic disadvantage (SES).

Similarly, children’s home lives heavily influence attainment, but how we organise our schools and classrooms is an important moderator in how and why that influence emerges [my bold].

I disagree with Sir Michael Wilshaw about a great deal (especially his enthusiasm for academisation), but he is right in his confidence in the power of comprehensive schools to enhance the life chances of pupils of all abilities, from all social backgrounds and for his persistent, soundly-based criticism of the destructive impact of selective schools.

Focusing on inequalities in cognitive function rather than socio-economic status

In earlier blogs I have argued that noting the letters ‘PP’ on seating plans does not provide teachers with useful information for classroom instruction. I think paying more attention to variation in cognitive function within a class has far more value than their pupil premium status [my bold][You are right.]

The neuroscience of socio-economic status is a new but rapidly  growing field and SES-related disparities have already been consistently observed for working memory, inhibitory control, cognitive flexibility and attention. There is much that is still to be understood about why these inequalities emerge, but for a teacher faced with a class to teach, their origins are not particularly important [my bold].What matters is that they use instructional methods that give students in their class the best possible chances of success, given the variation in cognitive function they will possess. 

But what we also now know is that ‘instructional’ is a poor descriptor of the collaborative approaches to teaching and learning that have been proven to enhance cognitive development in all pupils regardless of SES.

Implications for the classroom

There are a number of very successful schools I have visited where shutting down the choices about what students get to pay attention to during class is clearly the principal instrument for success.

But, there is dangerous circularity here. ‘Successful’ schools are presumably those that get ‘outstanding’ judgements from OfSTED. But there is growing evidence that OfSTED inspectors have favoured extreme, punishment-based, oppressive approaches. This incentivises schools to adopt such methods.

I am glad I have visited them, despite the state of cognitive dissonance they induce in me. On the one hand, I am excited to see schools where the quality of student work is beyond anything I thought it was possible to achieve at scale. On the other hand, their culture violates all my preconceptions about what school should be like. Childhood is for living, as well as for learning, and I find it uncomfortable to imagine my own children experiencing anything other than the messy classrooms of educational, social and interpersonal interactions that I did [my bold].

But beware – the Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) that tend to impose such approaches are often the very ones that increasingly concern the Chief Inspector of Schools in relation to ‘off-rolling’ and other ways of seeking to ‘unload’ the pupils unlikely to boost the GCSE results of the school.

There is also growing evidence that the apparent success at GCSE achieved through ‘zero tolerance’ enforced by harsh discipline does not survive well from Y11 to Y12 in terms of the take-up of demanding academic subjects at A Level, because students have been so ‘turned off’ by their KS4 experience. Even when such courses can be filled, the drop out rates are often high. This has led to OfSTED concerns.


The pupil premium, as a bundle of cash that sits outside general school funding with associated monitoring and reporting requirements, isn’t helping us close the attainment gap. [True, but in your Part 1 you correctly stated that] tracking whether or not ‘the gap’ has closed over time is largely meaningless, even at the national level [my bold].

We shouldn’t ring fence funds for pupil premium students, not least because they may not be the lowest income or most educationally disadvantaged students in the school. We should stop measuring or monitoring school attainment gaps because it is a largely statistically meaningless exercise that doesn’t help us identify what is and isn’t working in our school. In any case, ‘gaps’ matter little to students from poorer backgrounds; absolute levels of attainment do [my bold].


Why absolute levels of attainment are far more important than futile attempts at ‘gap closing’.

Let us consider an analogy with physical ability and health. I am a member of a Nuffield Health Club gym and swimming pool in Barrow. Members can have a ‘physical ability check’. Let us hypothesise that ‘physical ability test scores’ (PATs) could be provided on a standardised scale like IQ.

1. A ‘bell curve’ distribution (like IQ) would result.

2. There would be a ‘PATs attainment gap’ related to SES (like IQ).

3. As in Cognitive Ability Test (CATs) scores, the Cumbria coastal band associated with  low CATs scores would be replicated with PATs scores. See my previous article.

4Part of PATs scores would be attributable to genetic inheritance (think Usain Bolt and Simone Byles) and part to environmental factors (training) , with ongoing debate as to the relative weightings (as with IQ).

5. PATs scores would indicate general physical ability that transfers to other physical activities and sports (think Usain Bolt and football), just as general intelligence/cognitive ability transfers across different cognitive challenges in different subjects (eg music).

As a gym member I witness high levels of obesity and poor health, such that many older members (and some younger) struggle to walk up and down the pool, while the fitness machines and high intensity exercise classes cater for the younger sport and ‘body shape’ enthusiasts.

So what should be the aim of the gym? To achieve physical ability equality, or to maximise the health and physical capabilities of all members at all levels of health and fitness? It is obviously the latter and the benefits to the costs of the NHS, welfare/disability benefits and to individual mobility and quality of life would be huge, for even modest gains in absolute levels of health and physical fitness.

So why should it be any difference for cognitive ability and performance? The national benefits of raising the cognitive ability of the whole population from school children to the very old would be massive. I discuss some of these here and here.

There is a direct transfer to physical and mental health. Millions of people make irrational decisions about nutrition in response to clever marketing, and millions more suffer disastrous mental health consequences, including suicides, from becoming addicted to forms of gambling, like fixed odds betting terminals and ‘betting in play’ during televised football matches that disproportionately entrap those with lower absolute levels of cognitive ability.

Daniel Kahneman makes a huge contribution to this field through his distinction between ‘System 1’ (fast and reactive) and ‘System 2’ (slow and cerebral) thinking.

I first came across Daniel Kahneman by accident on listening to BBC Radio 4 in June 2012, when he was being interviewed about his new book. He repeated the following puzzle and the programme presenter asked the audience to phone in their solutions.

A bat and ball costs £1.10 in total.

The bat costs one pound more than the ball.

How much does the ball cost?

System 1 provides the almost instant answer of 10p, which is of course incorrect. The correct solution requires the conscious slow thinking in the cerebral cortex that Kahneman refers to as System 2. Everybody has a System 1, primed for action. You can find the explanation here.

Many pupils in genuinely good primary schools are taught to acquire System 2 thinking ability in KS2 (eg through P4C). Genuinely good secondary schools will extend this to still more pupils in KS3 (eg through CASE) to maximise the attainment of the highest GCSE grades in all subjects in KS4.

None of this will be happening in many of the ‘outstanding schools’ that use the ‘instructional’ methods that Becky’s instincts and experience rightly judge to be so repugnant.

I conclude on the same theme by expressing strong support for Labour’s ‘National Education Service’ and Angela Rayner, the Shadow Education Secretary. This is an exciting idea that provides real hope and optimism for the future in the current depressing times of Trump and Brexit.

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John Mountford's picture
Tue, 06/11/2018 - 18:19

The alleged attainment gap is seen by many as an indicator that, in the present school system, social mobility is being thwarted for certain categories of student, identified broadly as those from disadvantaged backgrounds who may or may not be entitled to free school meals. In addition, these same pupils may have entitlement to a pupil premium (PP) but the link between those perceived as being most disadvantaged and those for whom schools receive the PP support is called into question here by reference to the work of Professor Allen. The received wisdom about promoting greater social mobility, through the interventions currently in place in the education system to support those most in need, is deeply flawed.

There is good reason to focus on the education system as a means by which all pupils can maximise their life chances, often perceived as achieving their potential. However, opinion is changing. There are voices questioning whether there is a fundamental misunderstanding about what is meant by potential in this context.

In addressing this, the role that genetics has to play is key but not widely understood and even more widely rejected. Considerations about the nature versus nurture debate need to be assessed in light of better understanding gained through in-depth research into neuroscience, in particular findings about brain plasticity and how this relates to cognitive development. It is interesting to understand just how confused the current discussion about potential has become and why it is important to change mindsets, especially among educators.

In response to the final part of Professor Allen's exploration into why she believes the pupil premium isn't working, respondent Headteacher, Lynn Williams had this to say:
"As head teacher of a primary school in an area of high social disadvantage I have spent much time influencing and adjusting the mindset of the staff, parents, governors and pupils towards the belief that whilst the pupils may be experientially, environmentally or socially disadvantaged/deprived, the students are not cognitively different to their more affluent peers and are equally as capable of learning as the next person."

It is becoming increasingly clear, as more research is done, just how far this view is from the reality. We are all different cognitively. Our starting points could not be more different. The genetic profile inherited by each individual is unique. Every human attribute has, at its core, genetic components. Whereas pupils from disadvantaged homes may indeed be as capable of learning as their more affluent peers this does not mean they can attain the same levels of understanding and it is especially in this regard that the 'social mobility cure' favoured by so many has be challenged.

The confusion for the head quoted above is evident. When addressing 'cognitive disadvantage' and the 'lack of opportunity to learn' in her pupils, she poses the question, "Are these disparities considered to be environmentally or neurologically induced?" thus missing the point that understanding attainment cannot be resolved through such a binary choice. It is difficult to overstate how important it is to appreciate what is being said here. Our DNA does not determine our fate. However, in minimising the role our genes play in our development, we risk grasping the significance of the highly complex interplay between our genes and the environment. Even before birth, environmental circumstances, diet, etc, help directly shape the development of individuals, moulding what nature has provided by favouring certain genetic attributes over others or indeed suppressing them.

In education, tackling the issue of inequality without accepting the need for an up-to-date understanding of how nature and nurture interact in human development, is like taking on a heavyweight boxer with one hand tied. It is time for those who, for moral or other reasons reject this link, to engage in this dialogue with an open mind. The weight of evidence supports the premise that intelligence is initially genetically defined but is in a state of constant revision and development in response to environmental factors such as diet, stress, parenting, pollution and so on.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 07/11/2018 - 11:06

"As head teacher of a primary school in an area of high social disadvantage I have spent much time influencing and adjusting the mindset of the staff, parents, governors and pupils towards the belief that whilst the pupils may be experientially, environmentally or socially disadvantaged/deprived, the students are not cognitively different to their more affluent peers and are equally as capable of learning as the next person."

John is right about this. The statement by the head may be how we would like the world to be, but it is just plain, factually wrong.

We know this both from from national Y7 CATs data related to Socio-Economic Status and from our reaerach into Y7 CATs data related to FSM in many schools in both the deprived north and the afflient M4 corridor in England. Professor Allen confirms what I state in this article.

from which the following is quoted.

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.

The primary head in question may well be doing her best to promote the attainment of all the pupils in her school and the best way to do that is use approaches like P4C that develop cognitive ability, rather than wasting Y6 by cramming for SATs. It is not her fault that the DfE and OfSTED impose contrary perverse incentives.


Matthew Bennett's picture
Wed, 07/11/2018 - 14:58

Roger -- I agree that any break in the DfE-EPI-Sutton Trust party line is to be welcomed.

Re Mossbourne -- have you looked at Christy Kulz's book Factories for Learning, published last year?  It's an account of 'Dreamfields', a flagship academy in a historically deprived borough of 'Goldport', written by a former member of staff.  Obviously it is just one person's view.  But what I found very striking was the similarities between what Kulz describes, on the one hand, and the testimony of teachers in US charter schools, collected in Jim Horn's book Work Hard, Be Hard: Journeys Through 'No Excuses' Teaching.

There is the same institutionalisation of yelling, for example.  One new teacher is told to 'make sure in the first couple of months you are seen shouting at a kid'.  Another teacher tells Kulz: 'I think the shouting, the bellowing ... I don't think that's right.  I don't think you need to scream as if you almost want to harm a child to some extent.'  A number of the teachers who spoke to Jim Horn share similar stories of 'very militaristic screaming at the kids'.

There is also the same use of daily chants and 'mantras'.  In a lecture given at the LSE last year, Paul Marshall, the hedge fund manager and chair of Ark Schools, made a direct connection between 'no excuses' charter schools -- the main model for Ark -- and Mossbourne:

We went to the US, which had created the charter school movement, and there were at that time four or five great chains ... and we basically copied the principles of those chains, and introduced them into the schools that we started in the UK.  In KIPP, which is the most well-known chain, they start every class with a mantra ... A couple of years later, we got to know, and actually hired, Michael Wilshaw ... who ran the most successful school in the country ... And part of what he did was the mantra.  The only place in Britain where we found the same approach...

Wilshaw became Ark's Director of Education; his predecessor was Jay Altman, the CEO of FirstLine, a chain of 'no excuses' charters in New Orleans (the FirstLine schools later switched to 'blended learning').

Finally, with regard to Professor Allen's response to seeing extraordinary levels of student 'achievement' in no excuses schools -- I imagine that visitors to B F Skinner's lab in the 1930s were equally amazed by the cognitive abilities of the rats and pigeons.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Wed, 07/11/2018 - 15:30

Thank you Matthew - very illuminating as ever. When I wrote the chapter on Mossbourne in my book, it was an entirely desk-based exercise focused on the role of CATs based admissions and relying on FoI requests to Mossbourne and the Learning Trust (now the Hackney Learning Trust). They were both very helpful as I acknowledge in my book. I have never visited the school. However, a Hackney resident whose educational views I respect has visited and told me that he was impressed, describing in particular very good SEN teaching. Although Wilshaw was obsessed with school uniform compliance, I didn't get the impression of anything like the abusive regimes that have emerged much more recently that I describe here.

However, I could be wrong.

Matthew Bennett's picture
Wed, 07/11/2018 - 18:19

Thanks Roger -- it's a difficult one.  The fact is that it's very hard to make judgments about a school's culture unless you're actually there in the classroom, day in and day out.  When I was training in London years ago, a colleague spent a few months at Mossbourne -- when Wilshaw was still head -- and was very disturbed by the experience.  But that is just one anecdote amongst others.  Kulz is not a teacher, and she has various axes to grind.

However, reading her book alongside Jim Horn's -- which draws on interviews with 25 teachers, 23 of whom worked at KIPP schools -- it's impossible not to be struck by the similarities.  And the Ark Schools management team, who had studied KIPP and other 'no excuses' chains very closely, obviously felt that Mossbourne was 'the only place in Britain' with the same approach.  Whether Wilshaw was directly inspired by KIPP remains an open question.  I once spoke to a pretty senior person in Ofsted who thought that Wilshaw had invented it all 'out of his own head'.

And this has a bearing on the question of just how extreme the Mossbourne regime is, or was.  'No excuses' is an amazingly uniform model, with minimal differences -- apart from the branding and the slogans -- between charter school chains like KIPP, Uncommon Schools, YES Prep, and so on.  It's an off-the-shelf, 'franchise' model, designed for schools with young, minimally-trained or unqualified staff.  So any English academy chain which adopts it -- as I think most of the bigger chains have, not just Ark -- will have adopted it in toto.

Warwick Mansell wrote recently about a 'no excuses' school in Sheffield, the Mercia free school, which has literally cut and pasted chunks of the Michaela Community School's website onto its own.  And Michaela's main slogan -- 'Knowledge is power' -- is itself copied from KIPP (the Knowledge is Power Programme).  And Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, who founded KIPP as novice teachers in the 1990s, themselves stole their other main slogan -- 'Work hard, be nice' -- from the maverick (and now disgraced) teacher Rafe Esquith ('Be nice, work hard').  Michaela have tweaked that slogan a bit; their students are expected to work hard and be kind.

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