Why the Sutton Trust is Wrong about ‘Open Access’

In Uncategorized by Alex Quigley19 Comments


When I was eleven years old I sat a tricky exam. I remember very little of the exam itself, but I remember small, tiny cracks of the day with some vividness. I was driven to the school site by my mother, on her way to work, rather than simply wandering to the end of my road. The whole day was an odd change in routine. This rather grand, mysterious place, was hidden at the end of a car journey. My best friend came with me and we sat in a stark, mahogany-clad exam hall scribbling away at unfamiliar questions.

What I remember most of all was my unceremonious snot-smeared grey jacket. Full of cold and without tissues, I used my jacket in the most practical way an eleven year old boy knows how. I felt adult eyes scold me, as my burgeoning status as unwashed urchin formed.

It turned out I didn’t pass the exam. It didn’t matter much to me then. I got a day off school, followed by an afternoon watching wrestling videos with my friend. What more could a young boy want and need?

It turned out that the curious test I failed was an equivalent of the 11+. A grammar school ‘open access‘ exam. A great opportunity, they said. I’d been recommended by my teacher, in my complete ignorance. My parents had gone along with the happy notion that their son was special enough to be selected for this local grammar school test.

Only my parents were as unawares of a world of tutors and test question preparations, as indeed was I. I don’t know if the dice was already loaded against me, or maybe I simply wasn’t sharp enough to make the cut, but I didn’t feel very prepared to seize this seeming opportunity.

Somehow, my snotty grey jacket and my failure felt important and worthy of staining the memory. When I hear of ‘open access‘ schemes to ferry the ‘bright but poor‘ away from their friends and to an independent school the same grey jacket emerges in my mind.

Last week I read a new report from the Sutton Trust – see here heralding an ‘open access‘ scheme. I respect the work of the Sutton Trust hugely. Their work in making university within reach for thousands of students, whose family background meant they never saw higher education as a birthright, is deeply important.

Only I disagree with their notions about ‘open access‘ – right from the bottom of my snot-smeared grey jacket.

Their recommendation is that there should be ‘open access‘ for the ‘bright but poor’ kids from state schools, to join a select band of independent schools funded by the government. It resembles the old policy of assisted places. Only, like assisted places schemes, it is only a paltry sticking plaster of a policy.

Such schemes are gorged upon quickly by knowing middle class parents. Middle class parents like me, now, with all my middle class privileges and secrets. We understand the ‘system‘. All the while, state schools lose their ‘brightest‘ (invariably not children who are bright, but without any familial support) and academically best. Their performance, predictably, only worsens. Gaps become widened into chasms.

The report also goes on to perpetuate ideas about education that are, by my understanding, unsupported by a wealth of international evidence. In the ‘executive summary‘ of the report it states:

One only has to glance at the lower teacher ratios and the higher qualifications of teachers in the independent sector to see the advantages that fee-paying schools enjoy. Partnerships between the two sectors, which the Sutton Trust pioneered, as well as new moves under the academies and free schools policies, may help blur the divide, but they do not overcome it.

Class size is a classic red herring in education policy. Our instinct tells us it matters more than anything. The wealth of research evidence tells us otherwise. Teachers with high degree qualifications, although no doubt desirable, simply does not correlate with better educational outcomes for students.

Now, I am not decrying independent schools. There are undoubtedly great independent schools that litter our country. Just like there are great grammar schools, like the one that spurned my clumsy advances. Though sometimes the media would have you think otherwise, there are great state schools too. For every great school of these different types there are average schools and worse. The simple stereotype of ‘state versus independent‘ is too often lazy and fundamentally flawed.

Dylan Wiliam, celebrated educationalist and purveyor of research, is happy to cite the evidence that sees the state sector match the teacher quality of the independent sector, however it may strike hard against our stereotypical prejudices and an often unfavourable press:


The Sutton Trust themselves conducted a memorable study only five years ago, that showed that students from state schools are likely to achieve higher class university degrees than independent school students with similar A-levels and GCSE grades.

I rail against the notion of an unbridgeable divide between state and independent schools. I myself have worked as part of a cross-sector school partnership. One for ‘bright‘ students selected from the crowd, just like I was once. Like many of the schemes that the Sutton Trust backs, it helps to break down divides, without hampering either party. It doesn’t parachute local state school kids into independent schools with the notion that they are all ‘better‘. I also work, to the brim with pride, in an excellent state school where my own kids will go in a few years.

I reject the deficit model notion that state schools are unable to improve. In memory of every snotty young boy who doesn’t know any better, I reject that idea.

What irks me most about the Sutton Trust report is its gross poverty of ambition. In heralding the place of independent schools in our school system, it has to hammer down thousands of schools in the state sector, and hundreds of thousands of students, as being unworthy of improvement. Unworthy of greatness. State schools are dismissed as merely ‘blurring the lines’ and not blazing through barriers of social inequality.

With idealism spilling from the heart, I want every state school child, from its bright to its broken, to experience the opportunities that a brilliant education can provide. I want to strike through the blurred lines spoken of in the report with boldness.

The bold notion of a world class state education system for every child isn’t beyond the wit of us all.

I don’t want ‘open access‘ for a bright few into a separate, more rarefied air of a handful of schools. I want genuine open access for every student. I raise my whiteboard pen to the board every day with such an aim.

Open access to opportunity. Open access to the best of what is thought and known. Open access to the highest expectations of conduct and effort. Open access to the happiness that most often attends achievement, for every student in all schools.

I am happy to fight to this end with blood, snot, and tears.

Related reading

Proper writers have written about this misguided ‘open access‘ policy. Take a look at just two examples:

Richard Adam’s excellent Guardian article the ‘open access‘ subsidy – see here.

Then read Gerard Kelly’s brilliant article skewering the ‘open access‘ policy recommendation – see here.


  1. There is something deeply is sinister about the notion of lifting the able poor out of their poverty. All of our every sinew should be aimed at lifting all of the poor out of their poverty.

    1. Brilliant blog. Feel exactly this myself. And JamesWilding hitting the nail on the head. Eliminate poverty, dont just aim to ‘the smart’ ones out of it.

        1. Successive governments seem to have abandoned the quest to eliminate poverty except through hectoring state schools, demanding they close the attainment gap.

          1. Thanks NMurphy. Met an LSA working fulltime in a hectoring academy recently, and the child at the centre of such support has been lost. In the absence of anything useful in terms of CAMH support, many LSAs do a startlingly good job in keeping children at school and mentally well. Now they seems judged against progress made that lesson in spelling. ‘Tis a corruption on our land.

  2. Open Source Software and Open Education Resources licensed for sharing through a community of professional educators with relatively safe incomes, prepared to share their work freely. That’s the openness that reflects the present and the future. We should stop wasting energy on trying to recreate a bygone age, arbitrary divisions and dependency culture. Apart from anything else it will be a lot less expensive and make embedded CPD manageable. Teachmeets, free web based resources and collective sourcing of data as in the NAACE Computing baseline testing project all show not just what is possible but the direction things are moving.

  3. Another issue with the scheme is that if private schools are so good, it would be far better to take the less able poor and send them to private schools. They would potentially benefit far more than the bright kids (who are probably bright because of the advantages of parenting anyway).

    1. Author

      I almost made the point, but my blog was a bit long. Laura McInerney had a brilliant Guardian article which proposed this very thing. As you can imagine, it gained very little traction.

  4. Thanks for this, Alex. I think it’s superbly written, if you don’t mind my saying so!

    I have a range of complex feelings about this issue, having worked in both state and independent schools and having been committed to the principle of real collaboration and co-operation across the sectors (which I know is the case in York). I would say this co-operation has achieved a huge amount and the Sutton Trust’s reference to simple ‘blurring’ is dismissive of that.

    I realise that my experience gives me insights I wouldn’t have if I’d only had experience of the state sector (and I was educated entirely in state schools), or only of the independent sector. When I was a deputy head the ‘Assisted Places’ system was still in operation but was being gradually phased out, so I saw the effect of that, too.

    I think my concern is that such schemes benefit such a small proportion of pupils – although I also saw how they transformed the lives of some of those pupils. I agree whole-scale improvement across the whole education service (and schools in both sectors can improve) makes far more sense.

    But where Assisted Places/open access has worked for individuals, in my view/experience it isn’t because of this, as the Sutton Trust says:

    “One only has to glance at the lower teacher ratios and the higher qualifications of teachers in the independent sector to see the advantages that fee-paying schools enjoy.”

    See my response to the Guardian Teacher Network piece about this?


    1. Author

      Thanks Jill. I think my key point is that different sectors can work together, but that such a scheme damages our ability to make all schools better. Also, the openness isn’t so open. These schemes are chewed up by parents in the know. They do very little for social mobility.

  5. Saturday 12 July, and I am hosting a Google Apps, The story continues… training day and we have primary, secondary state and independent sector schools in attendance. Free to use, open source, chromebrowser and chromeOS tools and add-ons which link thousands of schools and whole continents, hardware independent and agnostic to parochial examination levels and hurdles. Almost 4 years ago I visited the Sutton Trust to explain the existence of these tools and the major benefits that exist from schools and educators using a common palate and toolbox. In their EEF toolkit they talk about Technology being High cost – yet at a stroke by switching to GAFE, costs for software reduce to zero. As the Chief Inspector of Schools, Christine Ryan reported in her Inspections and the pursuit of excellence report, The “has also been able to visit schools where interesting initiatives are being undertaken, about which we shall also give more information in the coming months … and digital learning at Claires Court Schools”. What’s not to like, particularly when the mission to raise standards in all schools is shared by all schools.

  6. Sutton Trust toolkit:
    Reducing class sizes – “Low impact for very high cost”

    Sutton Trust report on teacher impact:
    “Paper qualifications and personal characteristics tell us very little”

    Sutton Trust report on Open Access:
    “One only has to glance at the lower teacher ratios and the higher qualifications of teachers in the independent sector to see the advantages that fee-paying schools enjoy.”

  7. Pingback: Why the Sutton Trust is Wrong about ‘Open Access | The Echo Chamber

  8. Whenever I read about ‘state school pupils getting better university results than private/grammar school pupils with the same GCSE grades,’ I can’t help but reach the following conclusion:

    The reason the pupils have the same grades in the first place is because the grammar/private schools have pushed and supported the pupils to achieve the absolute best grades they could, whereas the state school pupils, even those with excellent teachers, have had to encounter much more classroom apathy, poor behaviour around school etc.

    Therefore the conclusion is that the state school pupils would have actually received better grades had they gone to a private/grammar school, rather than that the state school somehow prepares ‘equally able’ students better for later academic life…

    1. Author

      You could interpret the influence of private tutoring or the extra hours of teaching on a Saturday in Independent schools as being factors in those more successful GCSe/A level results; however, like your notion, that would be pure supposition.

      The OECD study is meant to equalise many statistical factors in their pursuit of such evidence. It has controlled for the factors you describe.

      The fact stands that an Independent school education doesn’t prove itself be a better grounding for university in accordance with the evidence.

  9. Pingback: ORRsome blog posts from the week that was. Week 27 | high heels and high notes

  10. CEM centre, University of Durham has vast tracks of data gained from Independent and State schools over the past 2 decades. It produces a valued added graph for all schools, showing how they perform not just as a school but at subject specific levels.
    Making such Big data available to independent research teams clearly is an essential part of the kind of evidence-based education that those interested in improving education and provision for children seek. Irrespective of funding sources (state or private) the more elective a school is, the less likely it is to add value. BTW, that’s the nature of statistical adjustments, as NFER found on in checking our data back in the late 80s 90s. If you adjust the data for the one school out of your cohort that is private in a leafy suburb, the its value added moves from good to neutral.
    I am interested too in work by world companies such as Hapara, who now have the contract for analysing the Big text data from countries such as Singapore who have gone Google Apps. By accessing everyone’s documents at a certain age level, and by agreeing one or two key changes to vocabulary development, Singapore can now study whether those changes actually are giving rise to the predicted improvement in performance.
    My school is in its own way a remarkable research lab because we are broad ability from Nursery to Sixth Form, and much of the time are switching pupils in and out between the sectors as affordability of our service is matched against the availability (or otherwise) of places in the state sector. The biggest win for pupils with us, and the biggest loss they report when they leave, is the mix of longer day length and greater co-curricular provision. We don’t work Saturdays and we are not residential – so comparisons between children we have educated whose data we have but who switch out at say 9+ or 11+ makes very interesting reading.
    Such is the very broad brush of OECD, it tells us reliable stuff on comparisons between countries but very little about individual school performance within each country. As Singapore and Shanghai have found, their chase up the OECD league table has led to problematic evidence arising that the very creativity a country needs to nourish its future manufacturing base is crushed out if all you produce are number crunchers.

  11. I think the real conclusion is that worrying about the details of a few points here and there or grades here and there is probably misplaced. After all if the final outcome is better (and its probably marginal anyway) the grades along the way don’t make that much difference in themselves one way or another. All seems a bit emperor’s new clothesish from here :-).

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