Consequences of the fear of floor target failure

rogertitcombe's picture
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A Guardian article of 24 August was entitled, 'Deprived schools facing uphill struggle to meet GCSE targets'.

"Stephen Ball, the principal of the New Charter academy in Ashton-under-Lyne, in Tameside, Greater Manchester, said that unexpectedly poor results in this year's GCSE English exam had plunged the school well below the government's 40% floor target, which he attributes to changes in the grade boundaries."

"For us, we're very vulnerable. Our intake is very poor, our intake is below the national average. A lot of our work is around the C-D borderline," said Ball.

"We're doing our damnedest to get the kids across the C-D border, so we are very vulnerable to boundary changes."

I am not criticising Mr Ball and still less his teachers and pupils. The school is forced into this approach by the English education system. But the blame for his predicament is not changes to grade boundaries. It is the sheer, irrational stupidity of the floor targets that he admits are forcing his school to concentrate on the C-D borderline. This suggests less attention for his G-E and B-A* pupils. I am in no position to judge the quality of teaching in the New Charter Academy, but the pressures on teaching methods set out in my posts, and widely reported in the national media for the first time, will be present.

See 'Early Entry' and 'Teaching to the test'

The curriculum policy of schools should not be driven by the threat of floor targets. Surely all pupils of all abilities should share the same entitlement to cognitively enhancing curriculum and teaching whatever school they attend.

The irony is that I suspect that Michael Gove strongly agrees with this, despite his policies being the root cause of the malpractice he recognises and deplores.

This will not be a problem at schools like Mossbourne Academy and other Hackney schools where the CATs driven banded admissions system provides intake cohorts that are sufficiently balanced to lift the schools well clear of the floor target trap door.

My (unpublished) book makes four key arguments based on two detailed school case studies and many years of researching the perverse consequences of 'school improvement'.

1. Marketisation, competition and league tables generate perverse incentives on an apparently uncontrollable scale that infect the education system with waste, inequality and degraded curriculum and teaching methods. As soon as the government condemns new malpractice (usually blaming teachers and schools), up pops another clever and innovative way to 'game the system'.

2. The relentless pressure for 'school improvement', with ever-changing and frequently invalid criteria, drives the generation of such perverse incentives.

3. This lowers real educational standards across the system in a way that should be expected to be showing up in international comparisons like PISA. Such cognitive ability decline (an anti-Flynn effect*) has been measured and recorded in the published work of Michael Shayer and James Flynn.

4. The pupils in schools with the lowest mean intake cognitive abilities are those most in need of cognitively enhancing curriculum and teaching methods, but are the least likely to get them.

I have been making the same arguments for many years. It is not that educationists tend to argue with me. It is more that I am ignored as some kind of educational maverick. This last week has seen the emergence of a raft of evidence supporting my arguments.

I am further encouraged by the letters page in the same issue of the Guardian. Four of the five letters, mainly from educational professionals, under the heading, 'GCSEs and the unsustainable pressure on pupils', support my arguments. (The fifth berates the Guardian for publishing far more photographs of girls than boys on results day.)

With the Labour shadow cabinet showing stirrings, see my post 'Thinking Bigger', is this a turning point?

* The 'Flynn Effect' is the tendency over many decades for mean IQ test scores to rise year-on-year, requiring regular restandardisation, wherever there are national education systems. There is growing evidence that this has gone into reverse in England (the anti-Flynn effect). My book hypothesises that this may be the result of the increasing degradation of curriculum and teaching methods arising from the perverse incentives generated by the marketisation of the English education system. I have to keep revising my manuscript to keep up with the growing evidence in support of this hypothesis.
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