League Tables – how far can they drive school policy?
One of the strategies used by the current education secretary to enact policy quickly is to use the performance tables as a lever for change. This has several advantages. Firstly, it does not require legislation or debate in parliament. This avoids any troublesome opposition – not that there has been much to speak of to date in any case. Secondly, it is fast, and the pace of change is really the hallmark of the current DfE’s policy drive. The secretary of state can make a decision about a change, leak it to the press to gauge the public’s reaction on a Sunday, then make an official announcement in the early afternoon of Monday tweaked to pick up on any of the major problems gathered from the Sunday tester. Thirdly, and perhaps most brilliantly, changing the construction of the performance tables is the kind of soft compulsion that puts schools in a lose-lose situation. This was most evident in the changes to early entry GCSE announced on 30th September. The text of the official announcement reads:
If schools are confident that pupils will achieve well even when entered early and that early entry is therefore in the interests of the pupil, they should not need to make any changes to entry plans. Any pupil who does enter early from this point on will still be able to retake if they receive a disappointing result. That result will not count towards the performance tables for their school, even if it is an improvement on their earlier entry, but pupils will still be able to use their best result to support applications to further and higher education, or for employment.
This strategy forced many school leaders to confront their consciences. Which do we care more about – the school or the students who attend it? Of course, these are (or should be) one and the same. At #TLT13 Jamie Portman memorably said that when his school buildings burnt to the ground in an accidental fire he learnt that “a school” is a community of people that exists independently of location or environment. A school really is that – a community. When national policy drives a wedge between the school and the students in it, there is something wrong with that policy.
Further amendments to the performance tables have continued, including the 14th October announcement of full-scale reform to secondary school accountability. On the face of it, Progress 8 seems like a step in the right direction, in that it incentivises progress for students of all abilities rather than just at the C/D borderline. In a Progress 8 world, it makes a difference to the school whether a student gets a D rather than an E, or an A* rather than an A. Of course, it should already matter to the school. But does it? Here, the tables are being used to leverage change that I see as potentially positive, beneficial and inclusive, albeit with the massive flaw that progress is being measured from an average points score baseline in KS2 English and Maths to a GCSE grade in whatever eight individual subjects a student happens to take. And that their progress is measured as better or worse than the national average for their peers with similar prior attainment, meaning that half the schools in the country will automatically have negative progress and half positive. Which means that one school can only do well in the new accountability measures at the expense of another. Aside from that, as I say, potentially positive, beneficial and inclusive.
Mock up of how the new accountability measures might look (from BBC)
This use of the tables as a policy lever has been evident from the early days of the new Department for Education. Back in December 2012, the policy on the table was the English Baccalaureate Certificates. I was so incensed by the proposals that it made me start this blog. A key component of this policy was that the EBCs were going to be offered by a single examination board. To get around the awkward problem of commissioning a multi-million pound contract to a monopoly, all the exam boards were to be invited to submit EBC specifications which would be openly offered to all schools. However, only one EBC specification per subject would be approved by the secretary of state for inclusion in the performance tables, thus effectively (though not actually) creating a single national specification. As it happens this particular monstrosity was the subject of a U-Turn on February 6th when parliament heard that the replacement of GCSEs was “a bridge too far.”
Were EBCs really a “bridge too far” or are they being ushered in under another name?
In actual fact, many of the elements of the original EBC proposal have still been enacted under different names. The proposals for new GCSEs sound very like the EBCs but under an old name – linear, single-tiered, exam-only terminal assessments graded numerically and only offered in the EBacc subjects. The latest rumours in the press include the removal of “soft” subjects (including, apparently, PE, drama and media studies) into another, as-yet-unnamed, form of qualification outside the GCSE stable. So, rather than promoting EBacc subjects to a new EBC qualification, non-EBacc subjects will be demoted. And, presumably, not included in the performance tables (which only include GCSEs).
It doesn’t have to be this way.
This year, we are running a core ICT qualification at KS4 which does not count towards the performance tables but is definitely the best fit for our students in that it will provide them with the skills and knowledge we feel they will need the most. We feel the course we have put together is in the best interest of the students whether or not it counts for the performance tables. We have maintained the November entry of all our English Language candidates in Year 11 because we believe it is in the best interests of our students even though it may impact on our performance table 5A*-CEM figure. Dance and Drama are discounted against one another at GCSE (meaning that if students achieve both they only count as one in the performance tables) – we offer both and will continue to do so because we believe that this is in the best interests of our students even though, if students take both, the school only gets the credit for one. The same goes for subjects not on the DfE post-Wolf-report approved list either now or in the future – if they are in the best interests of the students it is the school’s duty to include them in the curriculum offer.
In summer 2014, the school’s performance tables figures will not reflect the actual examination achievements of students at the school. John Tomsett has described how, in York, “all secondaries have agreed to publish “final result” figures…when the DfE performance tables are released.” We shall certainly do the same on our website, as will any school (I would imagine) which continued with November entry. We will also include achievement in non-performance-table qualifications and pack the site with the broader, deeper life of the school. Any parent who even looks at the performance tables will certainly also look at the school’s website, and I want them to find the beating heart of the school there. I wonder how many do actually go to the tables at all?
Raise Online will be an issue. The new floor standards will be based on Progress 8 and are described as follows:
Our intention is that schools will fall below the floor standard if pupils make an average of half a grade less progress than expected across their 8 subjects. So, for example, a school is underperforming if its pupils were expected to gain 8 Cs (because that’s what their peers, with similar prior attainment, secure elsewhere in the country) but they actually achieve less than 4Cs and 4Ds.
Falling below the floor standards could result in special measures, constant scrutiny and forced academisation. Heads could roll. But surely – surely – offering a curriculum that is right for the students, rigorous, challenging, demanding and broad, is defensible. School must be more than just academic. It must be.
And, if the performance tables don’t show the results that students actually got at a school, how can they have any value at all?