New GCSE Measures: A Cautious Welcome

Henry Stewart's picture
After Gove's U-turn this week, the question is whether there's a genuine change of course or simply a repackaging of the old proposals in a new way. Some have suggested its all "smoke-and-mirrors".  Putting aside the proposals on the National Curriculum and the method of GCSE assessment, I'm going to address the new measures suggested in the Secondary School Accountability Consultation (SSAC). Surprisingly I do find the paper a positive contribution.

It proposes two key measures to hold schools accountable. The first will simply measure the % of students getting a C or better in both English and Maths. The second will measure progress in a Best 9 GCSEs - including English, Maths, 3 ebacc subjects (sciences, computer studies, a language and history or geography). For me an effective school measure must meet these criteria:

1) It should align the school's interests with those of its individual students.
2) It should be based on  the value added, so that the result is not primarily based on the intake.
3) It should provide challenge and also be inclusive.

1) Mutual Benefit: The measure must align the school's interests with those of its individual students.

The measure of 5 GCSEs including English and Maths (5ACEM) did meet this criteria, as this is generally what students need to progress. So devoting resources to shifting Ds to Cs is acceptable as it can make a difference to the life chances of those individuals. However taking Maths a year early to bank a C grade, if a student is capable of much more, is not acceptable because it is not in the interest of the student. In both of these I find myself in agreement with the SSAC paper.

One of the biggest problems with ebacc is it doesn't meet this criteria. For instance, it becomes in the interests of the school to persuade a student to take a language in which they might get a C, when the student might be better off to take, say, Music if they could get an A in it.

The SSAC proposal of a new measure of % of students achieving English and Maths meets the criteria as this is the basic requirement for so many courses and jobs. And the Best 8 value added measure ensures schools focus on the progress of all students.

Value Added

The most significant predictor of GSCE achievement is very simply how well those students did at age 11. The 5ACEM is a very poor measure for comparing schools. A school achieving 65% could be coasting on a strong intake, while one on 50% could actually be making major progress for its students. The DfE uses a measure of "% making expected progress" as a proxy for value added but it is deeply flawed.

A true value added measure would compare KS4 achievement with what each student could be expected to achieve, based on their KS2 results at age 11. The odd thing is that this measure exists, is published annually in Raise Online and is one of the primary measures used by Ofsted to assess schools. Yet it doesn't appear in league tables and is difficult for parents to discover (especially the version that doesn't include GCSE equivalents like Btecs).

This appears to be what is being proposed as the 2nd key measure, alongside the % achieving English and Maths level C. One benefit of a value added measure is that it removes the incentive to covertly select the more able students. (Though it may become in the interests of schools to search out students achieving below their potential.)

Challenging but Inclusive

Schools should be aiming to fulfil the potential of all students. 5ACEM encourages only the achievement of C grades. Schools will normally (out of moral purpose or to maximise their Raise Online scores) be aiming for this already but it is good to have the key measure based on this. It rewards schools both for getting its most able students to A and A* and getting the most out of any students not able to achieve 5ACEM.  The paper suggests "A school would gain recognition on this measure for a pupil with good results in English and mathematics along with three good grades in vocational qualifications", presumably because this would count as value added for a student arriving on low grades such as a 2 or 3C at age 11.

Other Elements

So the paper is asking the right questions. It puts value added at the core of school assessment enabling schools to be properly compared on the real progress they help their students make. Some of you will ask whether all this is overly focused on GCSEs as the only measure of a school's success. The paper even addresses that question: "How can we recognise the achievement of schools beyond formal qualifications?". Perhaps I'm missing something but, for me at first read, this is one of the most well-thought out papers to come out of the DfE recently, asking the right questions and raising the right issues.

My biggest concern is with the continued attempt to define which GCSEs students take, though it's approach is more flexible than the ebacc. Students can take two Sciences and no language, unlike in the ebacc. The paper claims that it leaves three GCSEs for arts, technical and other subjects but in reality, as most students take English Literature (which doesn't seem to count in the first five), it probably only leaves two others for those taking just eight GCSEs.

My appreciation for this paper doesn't take away from my horror at £1 billion being spent on an academies programme that brings no benefits, the moves towards privatisation, a restrictive and narrow National Curriculum, the obsession with synthetic phonics, the switch to exam-only assessment, the distortion of Russell Group requirements, the removal of the local authority role, the danger of chains and many other threats. But this DfE paper does seem to be on the right lines.

And one can live in hope that if Michael Gove can say "When the arguments overwhelm me and I recognise that I am wrong" on the EBC, perhaps those are words that - with enough pressure - we can hear him say again.
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