Free school meals or breakfast clubs? Child hunger in England

by Stacey Dingwall

For a lot of us, the removal of the turkey twizzler was the biggest school meals-related political upset of the last decade. However, during the recent election campaign another, more serious, row emerged: over the provision of universal free school meals to English children in Reception through to Year 2.

Manifesto proposals

The proposal to scrap the policy introduced by the coalition government in 2014 was one of the Conservative manifesto proposals that didn’t make it to the Queen’s Speech. Schools minister Nick Gibb confirmed that the policy had been ditched at the start of this month, stating that existing provision would be retained following the government having “carefully listened” to parents.

In their manifesto, the Labour party promised to extend universal provision to all primary school aged children, to be funded by introducing VAT on private school fees.

Is FSM for all viable?

Financially, Labour’s proposal was deemed to be viable, in theory at least. Charging VAT on private school fees was calculated to be worth just over £1.5bn a year, provided all pupils were paying a full fee. The IFS have suggested that extending provision to all primary pupils would cost in the region of £950m annually.

In 2012 the IFS, in partnership with NatCen, carried out an evaluation of a pilot study which offered free school meals to all Year 6 pupils in Newham and Durham. The evaluation found that the pupils made around two months’ additional progress over a two-year period compared to similar children in other areas, although it wasn’t able to definitively identify how this progress was made – i.e. it was unable to conclude that the provision of free school meals was the reason.

Breakfast clubs

Discussing the evaluation findings within the context of the 2017 manifesto proposals, the IFS highlighted findings from other research they’ve carried out into breakfast clubs.  This is something we’ve discussed before on the blog: our 2015 post highlighted a range of evidence that school breakfast clubs have a positive impact on children’s academic performance. The IFS study looked at one of the schemes, Magic Breakfast, and found that improvements in pupil performance were “likely to be the result of the content or context of the school breakfasts”.

The Conservative manifesto pledged to provide free breakfasts in place of universal free lunch provision. This was dismissed as “not comparable” by parents however, and described by some in the education sector as merely a cost-cutting exercise (that had not in fact been costed correctly) rather than a drive to boost attainment.

Child hunger in 2017

The reason why so many were critical of the proposal to remove the universal entitlement to free school meals is that for some children, it’s the only nourishment they’ll receive all day. Just because a child is entitled to a free lunch doesn’t mean they’ll claim it – a range of evidence has highlighted the stigma children can be exposed to if meals aren’t free for all. Extending provision to all has been found to be the best way of helping those who need it most, rather than singling them out.

In 2017, it’s shameful that children in a developed country are still suffering from hunger. As new figures from the Trussell Trust reveal that the already shocking levels of reliance on foodbanks increases even more during school holidays, it’s clear that any policy which risks making the situation for already vulnerable children even worse needs to be abandoned.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other education articles. 

A teacher recruitment shortage in deprived areas – are financial incentives the answer?

by Stacey Dingwall

In February, we reported on the publication of the House of Commons Education Committee’s report on teacher recruitment and retention in England. The report suggested that there are “significant” teacher shortages in the country, and highlighted data indicating that more than 10% of teachers leave the profession after a year, and 30% leave within five years.

Recruitment and retention regional trends

The Committee’s report focused on issues of recruitment and retention in terms of subject and regional areas, but didn’t comment on regional trends. This is an issue which the previous head of Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, raised in his annual report for 2014/15. The report cites findings from surveying carried out by Ofsted which suggest that headteachers see teacher recruitment as a “real problem”, due to a shortage of trainees coming through which has resulted in “huge” competition for them between schools. “Unsurprisingly”, the report states, the majority of trainees are opting for well-performing schools in more affluent areas.

This isn’t just an issue among new teachers. According to research carried out by the University of Cambridge last year, more experienced teachers are also less likely to be working in schools in areas of high deprivation. The analysis found that teachers working in more advantaged schools have, on average, 18 months more experience than those in the least advantaged schools.

Financial incentives

The University of Cambridge’s findings were presented at the Sutton Trust’s 2016 Best in Class summit, alongside polling from the NFER which found that teachers believe that offering financial incentives is the best way to attract teachers to more deprived schools. 63% of those surveyed also supported bonuses for those teachers who improve their pupils’ results.

The Social Market Foundation also supports the provision of financial incentives for teachers who choose to work in schools with high levels of pupils eligible for free school meals, and has proposed an additional £530 per year for primary teachers, and £1,300 for secondary level teachers. Their 2016 report, Social inequalities in access to teachers, found that, in addition to having a higher proportion of inexperienced teachers, secondary schools in areas of higher deprivation are also more likely to have teachers without an academic qualification in their relevant subject.

The Talent Transfer Initiative

Evidence on the impact of providing financial incentives for teachers is limited, however, and that which has been published provides mixed results. One initiative that has produced results which indicate that ‘teacher merit pay’ can produce positive outcomes is the Talent Transfer Initiative in the US. TTI involved teachers with a proven track record of improving pupil attainment in deprived areas in districts of cities including Miami and Los Angeles, transferring to schools with the highest levels of deprivation. If a teacher stayed in their new role for two years, they received $20,000 across five instalments, regardless of whether pupils’ test scores improved. Over 90% of the teachers stayed in their new jobs for the required period, and 60% continued after the trial ended. Pupil attainment was increased by between 4 and 10 percentile points for those taught by the transfer teachers, compared to a control-group of teachers.

A crucial thing to note, however, is that less than a quarter of the 1,500 teachers identified as being eligible for the initiative chose to apply to participate. This is down to the issue of what motivates teachers; in the UK as well as the US, research has consistently shown that teachers are more motivated by working conditions and improving pupil outcomes than pay. In its report, the Social Market Foundation also acknowledged that it is difficult to know just how large financial incentives would need to be to attract experienced teachers to schools with high levels of free school meals (FSM) eligibility. And as the controversy over school funding rages on – and the country faces more electoral upheaval – this is a calculation that is unlikely to be made anytime soon.


Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other education articles. 

Modern language learning in a globalised world

Elementary school students raising hands. View from behind.

by Stacey Dingwall

In November, the Teaching Schools Council published Ian Bauckham’s Modern foreign languages pedagogy review, which looked at modern foreign languages teaching practice in key stages 3 and 4 in England.

The EBacc and modern languages

The review was announced in May last year by schools minister Nick Bole, shortly after it was indicated that 3,500 more language teachers would be needed in order to realise the government’s desire for 90% of pupils to sit the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), which includes a language component.

Only 40% of English pupils currently take the EBacc. The Education Datalab’s estimate of the number of additional language teachers needed to increase this to 90% represents an increase of almost 40%. The government has missed its recruitment target for language teachers for the last four years, achieving just 87% of its target in 2015.

The Education Datalab’s latest data on the EBacc, published in October, suggests that the number of pupils who sit the qualification has stalled because there hasn’t been a significant increase in the number of entries in languages.

The Bauckham review

Ian Bauckham’s review emphasises the “clear educational, personal, cultural, social, cognitive, career and business benefits in being able to communicate confidently in another language”. However, it notes that the latest edition of the CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey found that over 50% of employers were not satisfied with their employees’ foreign language skills.

Although this is problematic for the country on a variety of levels, the Bauckham review points to the difficult context in which schools find themselves with regards to teaching foreign languages. Aside from recruitment issues, teachers are also dealing with some negative attitudes to foreign language learning from pupils and their parents, who may have had a poor language learning experience themselves. The review highlights that it is much easier for non-native English speakers to acquire the language due to its global dominance.

Schools also have to juggle the competing pressure of increasing the number of pupils taking STEM related subjects. The issue of a shortfall of people with STEM skills in the UK has received a great deal more attention from researchers and policymakers in recent years than a lack of those with language skills.

Language learning in Scotland: the 1+2 approach

In 2012, the Scottish Government published “Language learning in Scotland: a 1+2 approach”. Intended to be rolled out across two parliaments, the approach was included in the government’s 2011 manifesto, which stated their intention to “introduce a norm for language learning in schools based on the European Union 1+2 model – that is we will create the conditions in which every child will learn two languages in addition to their own mother tongue”.

The Scottish Government’s ambition for the approach is that by 2020, all children will start to learn an additional language from P1 that they will continue studying until at least S3. They will also be given the opportunity to start studying a third language no later than P5. This ambition also fits in with the government’s focus on closing the attainment gap during its term, with the language approach working to achieve key goals such as increasing the employability of school leavers.

Overall, the Scottish Government says its key aim in improving and expanding language learning in schools is that “young people are equipped with the skills and competencies they need in our increasingly globalised world” – a prudent ambition in increasingly uncertain times.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our other education articles. 

Mindfulness in schools: does it work?

by Stacey Dingwall

Over the last couple of years, the concept of being mindful has almost become a buzzword. However, mindfulness has actually been around since the 16th century, before being developed as a modern day western Buddhist practice from the 1970s.

Transform your life?

On the 17th of March, along with almost 400 other people, I attended the Transform Your Life event at Glasgow’s Trades Hall. The event was organised by the Kadampa Meditation Centre (KMC) in Glasgow, a Buddhist temple which opened in 2013 with the aim of providing a space for people to learn how to meditate and practise Buddhism.

The talk was delivered by Gen Dao, a senior Kadampa teacher who has been ordained for over 20 years, teaching at centres in America and Australia before taking up her current post as principle teacher at KMC Liverpool. Its focus was on equipping attendants with the ability to cope with everyday stresses and anxieties, by applying some simple meditation and mindfulness techniques.

After demonstrating a basic breathing technique, Gen Dao opened her talk by commenting on how prevalent mindfulness has become, noting that it is now used as a management technique and as a means of selling women’s magazines. She spoke about the benefits of using mindfulness not only on a personal level, but also how actively improving your mind can awaken the potential to bring benefit to others. Mindfulness, she explained, was essentially just remembering to breathe, and trying to focus on experiencing only positive states of mind.

The remainder of Gen Dao’s talk concentrated on the importance of mastering the ability to ‘oppose’ negative thoughts, and making the decision to be content and happy, without the intervention of others. Also highlighted was the need to strive for ‘patient acceptance’, or the ability to give up on the feeling that things in your life should be different – instead, we should learn how to view our feelings from a more detached perspective, and not identify with painful feelings, or “bad weather” in the mind.

Speaking to Gen Dao after the talk, I raised the point that, although not a physical pursuit, mindfulness is something that you have to train in, and learning to adapt to a new way of thinking is something that could take some time. Essentially, adopting a mindful outlook could mean changing the habits of a lifetime.

Mindfulness in the classroom

This could explain why some schools are now incorporating mindfulness exercises into classes, in order to prepare young people for the future. Last July, BBC News reported on the first large-scale trial of mindfulness exercises in schools across the UK conducted by the Wellcome Trust, during which researchers will look at whether introducing mindfulness at an early age can help build psychological resilience. The exercises, which will include deep breathing and a practice called ‘thought buses’ in which participants will be taught to see their thoughts as buses that they can either get on or allow to pass by, are designed to show children how to live in the present and eventually, equip them with the ability to solve problems while under stress.

The study will involve around 6,000 children and young people; a considerably larger amount than have taken part in previous evaluations of the impact of mindfulness in schools. While the existing evidence is currently described as limited, these smaller studies have indicated that mindfulness interventions with children and young people do have some success in generating lower stress levels and a greater sense of wellbeing among participants. These findings are important, given that a recent survey of school leaders by the Association of School and College Leaders found that 55% of respondents reported a significant increase in the number of young people in their schools who are dealing with anxiety and stress.

Case study: Mindfulness in Schools Project

The Mindfulness in Schools Project (MiSP) was founded in 2007 by former teachers Richard Burnett and Chris Cullen. Having experienced the benefits of mindfulness themselves, they developed “.B”, a 9-week course that aims to make mindfulness accessible, and fun, for secondary school pupils. The course, which has also been adapted for younger children as Paws B, is now being taught in twelve countries, including the UK. Teachers and pupils who have used the programme report on its ability to restore calm to a class after break, for example, or to calm pupils down at times of particular stress, such as exams or performances. It has also been suggested that the programme can help to improve pupils’ ability to concentrate.

Critics of the impact of mindfulness in the classroom argue that these results cannot be relied on, due to the experiments taking place outside of the boundaries of a randomised controlled trial. They also point to the possibility that participants’ ability to concentrate may only have improved due to their being informed that this is what the exercises are designed to do. Richard Burnett has openly recognised the limits of mindfulness himself, emphasising that it cannot replace the fact that some people require medication and clinical care to deal with their condition, and is more effective in smaller groups supervised by medically trained professionals. Trainers delivering the programme are also open about the fact that mindfulness is not something that will work for every child. What it can do, however, is provide a reminder to breathe when things get too much – something that can surely only be a positive for everyone.

If you enjoyed this post you may be interested in our previous commentary on mental health issues:

How to support transgender pupils

Elementary school students raising hands. View from behind.

by Stacey Dingwall

Last week, Brighton College, a co-educational independent college, announced that it is to stop making a distinction between boys’ and girls’ uniforms. The announcement was made in order to support transgender or dysphoric (a condition where someone feels there is a mismatch between their biological sex and gender identity, and which is unrelated to sexual orientation) students, by allowing them to choose between wearing a blazer, tie and trousers or skirt and jacket. The school stated that the decision was taken in reaction to “a changing society which recognises that some children have gender dysphoria and do not wish to lose their emotional gender identities at school”.

The school, which is the first in Britain to make such a move, has been praised for its decision by parents, and claims to have received messages from other schools who are considering following their lead. While the school’s announcement has been widely covered by the press as a landmark decision, it was interesting to note that the reaction from the students themselves has been more muted. Speaking to The Independent, one 17 year old pupil suggested that it hadn’t really been seen as a “big deal” among students, who she views as a more “open-minded generation”. A difference in attitudes between generational groups was also evident in the results of a 2015 Huffington Post/YouGov poll of 1,000 American adults: 54% of respondents aged 18-29 believed parents should allow their children to identify as a different gender than the one they were assigned at birth, a statement that only 29% in the 65+ age group agreed with.

Unfortunately, recent research indicates that there is still some way to go in providing effective support for transgender people, including in schools. When taking evidence for their recently published report on transgender equality in the UK, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee heard that transgender, and gender-variant, pupils and their families face particular challenges at school, in terms of:

  • recording a change of name and gender
  • bullying
  • inclusion in sport
  • access to toilets.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) also highlighted research which indicates that 91% of boys and 66% of girls who identify as transgender have experienced bullying or harassment at school. This is higher than the levels of discrimination experienced by lesbian and gay students, and can lead to transgender pupils experiencing mental health problems and dropping out of education early.

The evidence submitted to the Committee’s inquiry suggests that the example of Brighton College is very much the exception, with the support for transgender pupils in schools across England reported to be ‘uneven’. Susie Green of Mermaids, an organisation which provides family and individual support for teenagers and children with gender identity issues, suggested that some schools were adopting a “victim mentality”, seeing the transgender student as the problem and wanting to “get rid” of, rather than accommodating, them and addressing the wider issues.

Several witnesses argued that schools should provide better support as part of their Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) curriculum. It was noted however, that PSHE is not currently statutory, although the Commons Education, Health, Home Affairs and Business committees argue that this should be changed. The Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, contributed her view that just because something is statutory, “[does not mean] it is going to be taught well.”

While political wrangling over the issue continues, the most important thing to ensure is that pupils are being supported as effectively as possible. Concluding their report, the Commons Women and Equalities Committee stated that more needs to be done in order that young people and their families get sufficient support at school, and that schools must ensure they are compliant with their legal obligations towards pupils across all protected characteristics, including that which relates to transgender people, and especially gender-variant young people. The Committee recommended that the government should consider the inclusion of training on these protected characteristics in its review of initial teacher training, and that trans issues (and gender issues generally) should be taught as part of PSHE.

On a practical level, writing in the Guardian, teacher Allie George suggested several ways in which classrooms can be made a safe and inclusive space for transgender pupils:

  • Creating a safe environment whether teachers are aware of transgender pupils in their school or not. This allows pupils who may be questioning their gender identity the space to do so
  • Have a seating plan that reflects pupils’ ability or current/target grades, as opposed to a boy-girl plan
  • Recognise transphobic behaviour and address it, educating pupils why this is unacceptable
  • Respect a transgender pupil’s choice of name
  • Provide safe spaces for transgender pupils, particularly in terms of bathroom access.

 

If you liked this blog post, you might also want to read our previous posts on equalities and diversity issues.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in policy and practice are interesting our research team.

Improving attainment … what recent evaluations tell us

evaluation

Image from Flickr user Beth Kanter, licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons License

by Stacey Dingwall

The Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) is an independent charity that works to break the link between family income and educational achievement, ensuring that children from all backgrounds can fulfil their potential and make the most of their talents. Funded by the Sutton Trust and Department of Education, the EEF aims to raise the attainment of children facing disadvantage by:

  • Identifying and funding promising educational innovations that address the needs of disadvantaged children in primary and secondary schools in England.
  • Evaluating these innovations to extend and secure the evidence on what works and can be made to work at scale.
  • Encouraging schools, government, charities, and others to apply evidence and adopt innovations found to be effective.

At the beginning of October, the EEF published reports outlining findings from seven of their projects. Writing on the EEF blog, Dr Kevan Collins explained that “we investigate the strategies schools use to improve their students’ attainment. We use independent evaluators to assess whether these methods really make a difference, with a focus on their impact on pupils eligible for free school meals”. On the National Foundation for Education Research’s (NFER) blog, Marian Sainsbury praised the work of the EEF in the area of evaluation, particularly their use of the randomised control trial (RCT) method of evaluation, a method which she argued is not used often enough in education.

One of the EEF’s evaluation reports received particular attention in the media: an evaluation of the ‘Increasing Pupil Motivation’ initiative, which aimed to improve attainment at GCSE level by providing incentives to Year 11 pupils in England. The initiative was largely targeted at relatively deprived schools, and offered pupils two incentives: one financial, in which the amount was reduced if they did not maintain standards in four measures of effort (attendance, behaviour, classwork and homework); and the other offered the incentive of a trip or event, under which pupils were allocated a certain number of tickets, to be reduced if they did not meet the four measures of effort.

Despite previous research indicating that the provision of incentives directly for test scores had a positive effect, the EEF evaluation of the provision of incentives specifically for effort found no significant positive impact of either type of incentive on GCSE attainment in English, maths or science. The findings did, however, suggest that the financial incentive had a significant positive impact on classwork effort in each of the three subjects, while both incentives had a positive impact on GCSE maths for pupils with low levels of prior attainment.

Findings from evaluations of another six initiatives were also published:

Continue reading

Government’s free schools programme comes under fire again

free school

By Stacey Dingwall

The government’s already controversial free schools programme in England ran into trouble again this week, with the publication of an Ofsted inspection report on Greenwich Free School which found that “too few students make good progress across the different subjects taught in the school”, alongside Labour Party analysis which suggests that 70% of the schools are still not full two years after opening. Continue reading