Thursday 15 December 2011

Primary schools: the right target?

Today's primary school league tables reveal that there are 1310 schools - about 1 in 12 of those reporting results - that are below the Government's floor target of 60% of pupils getting a level 4 in English and Maths. The government is right to focus on attainment at the end of primary school, as those not reaching this standard are unlikely to get good GCSE results later on. They are also right to include a progress measure within their target to address those schools that are coasting.

Floor targets were introduced by the Labour government and have been a significant success story, particularly in secondary schools, where they have helped raise the game of many. After the substantial improvements in primary school results between 1995 and 2000, the result both of stronger accountability measures and the emphasis provided by Labour's literacy and numeracy strategies, there were substantial improvements in test scores in both English and Maths. And while progress slowed for several years in the early 2000s before the Rose report renewed an emphasis on phonics, today's results show 82 per cent reaching Level 4 in English and 80 per cent in Maths (and 74 per cent in both). In 1995, the figures [pdf: Table 1] were 49 per cent and 45 per cent respectively. Whatever today's failings - and there are still a quarter of pupils who are not making the grade in one or both subjects - it is no mean achievement of thousands of schools and their teachers.

The problem is greatest for the poorest students in the weakest schools. Analysis for the new Educational Endowment Foundation based on last year's data has shown that only 40% of pupils on free school meals in below target schools gain a level 4 in English and Maths compared with 57% of FSM pupils in other schools and 81% of those not receiving FSM in non-target schools. Those are huge gaps, and a lot of work will be needed to close them.

The Government has rightly extended the academies programme to the primary sector, and is requiring the worst primaries to become academies. It is right to want them to link with strong sponsors. But it needs to strike a balance here: there are to be 1000 National Leaders of Education by 2015, and many of those can provide the challenge and help needed to improve schools, especially those that are improving and are close to the target. Mergers and federations provide opportunities that schools may embrace for financial as well as educational reasons. With a still limited capacity among sponsors, their efforts need to be well focused on the persistent low attainers and to be properly targeted.

But ministers have also missed a trick with their pupil premium. It was announced this week that the premium paid for FSM pupils will rise from £488 to £600 per pupil in 2012-13, with eligibility extended to those who may previously have been in receipt of free school meals. The slow rate of increase suggests it is unlikely the premium will reach Nick Clegg's promised level of £2,500 a year by 2015, but more importantly there are far too few levers with the premium, as there is no element of reward or sanction linked to the performance of FSM pupils. Ministers are very keen on the power of accountability, but ignore its lagging effect. More improvements could be secured if schools could see that the premium was genuinely linked to progress.

The basics matter enormously, and the biggest gainers from an emphasis on improving them will be the poorest pupils in these target schools. But the Government must make better use of its limited levers and restricted remaining resources if it is to be successful.

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