Friday 20 June 2008

Avoiding poverty of ambition

True to form, the National Union of Teachers has hit out at government plans to help 638 schools to set their sights at 30% or above of their pupils gaining five good GCSEs including English and Maths. The NUT attacked a similar move in 2000 by David Blunkett to get all schools above 20% and then 25% in any subject (virtually all schools have met that goal). The government has rightly divided the schools into those likely to meet the goal soon, those with a good chance of doing so, and those where radical action is needed. This, to the NUT, is a process of vilification.

The NUT points out that some if the schools are rated 'good' by Ofsted. And they get good 'value-added scores'. But neither of these measures should be enough on their own. When Ofsted rates a school good or satisfactory, it means that it has the capacity to make good progress; it is unlikely that many of those needing radical action fall into this category. Indeed the government's sub-division of the 638 recognises that some have such capacity: the target is for 2011 not the 2007 figures available today.

The NUT are onto something about contextualised value added (CVA, the government's preferred value-added measure), but not the point they think. CVA is a hugely complex exercise in excuse-making which makes allowance for dozens of social factors. By avoiding any minimum standard of success, it has allowed schools to avoid addressing the need for greater ambition. It does not, for example, give any extra credit to schools for its grades in English and Maths, so it is not surprising there is less alignment than their should be.

The government and Ofsted should ensure greater alignment, and CVA should be changed to credit good English and Maths GCSEs properly. But no student is going to go to an employer with a couple of GCSEs demanding a job on the grounds that his or her school has a decent CVA score. Benchmarks like this - or floor targets - have been the unsung educational success story of this government. Ministers must stick to their guns.

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