Thursday 21 January 2016

Losing focus

In my latest Sutton Trust blog post, I worry that plans for an over-complex accountability system could backfire.

All credit to Centreforum and Datalab for their detailed report this week showing the likely impact of the myriad changes to the exam accountability system planned over the next few years. They made a commendable effort to develop a new set of indicators that they argue allow us to judge schools in years to come against the standards achieved by other developed nations.

But in performing this service, their report also highlights something else which we should take on board on the day the government publishes the latest league tables. It shows how the system is in danger of losing long-term comparability, bamboozling parents with a level of complexity that is meaningful only to dedicated statisticians and mislabelling a host of improving schools as failures. Taken together – and a lot of the changes are phased - there is a real danger that they will damage rather than improve standards, not least for the poorest students.

The starting point for all these changes was built on an assumption – utterly false, it has to be said – that previous governments had tried to undermine exam standards to flatter school performance on their watch. True, there is much to be said for raising the bar in exams, just as has been done with floor standards, but the question will be whether the price is worth it. So, the new system will effectively lift the minimum threshold expected for GCSE students from a grade C to a level 5 on a new nine-point scale, making the minimum somewhere between a B and a C.

At the same time, there is a move to assess progress in the best eight subjects as a key standard, as well as giving extra credit for attainment in English and Maths. It is not clear how this related to an extraordinarily ambitious expectation that 90% of pupils – it was 100% in the Conservative manifesto, but was reduced after representations - will be expected to study the academic subjects which ministers call the English Baccalaurate., though it is not clear how many will get the EBacc – only 39% currently enter all the subjects and just 24% achieve five grade Cs in them.

The argument is that by raising the standard, our results will be closer to those in other OECD countries. In its report, Centreforum argues that 50 points would become the new equivalent of five good GCSEs, as a minimum expectation for schools.

All well and good. But in the process, we will no longer be able to compile time series showing how schools are performing over time. We will have no idea from the data whether standards are really better – Ofqual has established more credibility than the old Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, but both are just quangos. Crucially, too, while schools may have an expectation that more students gain the higher grade 5 as the norm, there is no real incentive to do so.

The D-C borderline was widely criticised, but it recognised that for employers and sixth form studies, there was a world of difference between the two grades. Can the same really be said about a 3, 4 or 5 in the new system? Equally, while there are more points for a top grade, is there sufficient incentive to stretch at the top? I understand that there will be a little extra gain moving from a B to an A though the differentiation between 7, 8 and 9 will be finer than the current A and A* but will this be enough to outweigh the incentives lower down the scale? Why not report the proportion of pupils gaining grade 7+ as well as the overall scores if we want to encourage stretch?

But there are two other causes for concern in this upheaval. The first is that parents and employers – who have a fair idea what an A, B or C means – are likely to be left utterly baffled by the new grading system. Instead of enhancing accountability for them, it is likely to reduce it. And the second is that it is likely to leave many schools that have greatly improved their threshold scores thanks to floor targets started by Labour and maintained by the current government floundering once again, giving an appearance of failure from which – lacking the resilience of the much touted King Solomon Academy – they may find it hard to recover. Disadvantaged students for whom five good GCSEs was a real and worthwhile achievement may find their efforts deemed worthless again.

Of course, over time, it may be that the new system becomes the rigorous accountability mechanism that is the hope of its creators. The worry is that in the journey towards that point, too many passengers find themselves abandoned en route.

And none of this addresses the issues in primary school. In an act of incomprehensible madness, the system of levels by which primary schools have been judged for 20 years – and which are well understood in schools - is to be abandoned in favour of ‘scaled scores’ – supposedly ensuring consistency of standards from one year to the next – while schools can do what they like.

Most seem to want to keep levels, and the Centreforum report works on the reasonable assumption that level 4b (slightly higher than the current ‘expected’ grade) will be the benchmark. The level of ambition in primary schools is welcome, and 4b a better guide to GCSE success than anyone getting a level 4. But comparability is being lost, schools won’t have a common currency and needless chaos is being introduced where some modest adjustment would have been enough.

Sir Michael Wilshaw was absolutely right when he said at the Centreforum launch on Monday: “There will be many who think your ambitions for the future of English education are too bold and too unrealistic. I am not one of them. We simply have to aim high. Unless we can compete with the best jurisdictions in the world, all our hopes for a fair, cohesive and prosperous society will come to very little.”

However, all this tinkering with the way we measure success is in danger of overwhelming a system that should be focused on improving attainment and reducing gaps for disadvantaged pupils. The commendable focus of the last five years will be lost in a blizzard of incomprehension and new statistics. The irony is that all this change may leave us none the wiser, and set back the cause of education reform for a generation.