Higher floor standards lead to higher standards, said press release endorsed by Clegg and Laws. But the evidence so far doesn’t support this.

Janet Downs's picture
"There is strong evidence that higher ambition and higher floor standards lead to higher standards."

Nick Clegg and David Laws Press Release, July 2013

But the evidence supplied by the Department for Education (DfE) doesn’t support that statement.

The first piece of evidence, OECD Education at a Glance (2011), describes school accountability. However, it doesn’t mention floor standards - it refers to PISA-based “targets”, the proficiency levels for 15 year-olds in reading, maths and science within the OECD’s “key competencies” framework. They’re not the same as floor standards whereby a certain percentage of pupils are expected to reach a particular level.

The link to the second piece of evidence On Educational Performance Measures (IFS 2011), connected to an abstract which concluded:

“We suggest that the present [accountability] institutional set-ups in both England and the US too often hold schools accountable for outcomes over which they have little control - but that such problems are far from insurmountable.”

The full report focussed on Quantitative Performance Measures (QPMs) but didn’t mention floor standards.  The report said these can “have a positive role in improving the quality of education” but emphasised the importance of measuring value-added rather than making conclusions solely based on raw test results.

“If the government, acting on behalf of parents, seeks value added, then it should not reward outcome levels…Here, England excels with its contextual value added measures, though it would do better to drop the levels measures entirely.”

The Government took no account of this advice. Since the report’s publication the Government has dropped the contextual value added measure praised by IFS and implemented higher floor standards based on test results and progress.

The third piece of evidence, Accountability and children’s outcomes in high-performing education systems (IoE 2008) included children’s health and well-being outcomes as well as education in 13 countries. It considered a wide range of indicators and researched how countries used them. Some countries used indicators to monitor education, health and well-being services but researchers were surprised by the lack of evidence about how outcomes were used for accountability purposes at national level.

The DfE said the IoE report found “high-performing school systems monitor performance through examinations and inspections…” But exams were not used as extensively as this statement suggests: for example 8 of the 13 countries measured attainment at the end of upper secondary (age 18/19) but only 5 at the end of primary (age 11/12). Attainment was measured more frequently within stages. However, the report didn’t make it clear how attainment was actually measured. Was it by exams, teacher assessment or a combination?

Whatever methods of attainment were used by “high performing school systems” they don’t appear to have included floor standards. They were not mentioned. In any case, the IoE report contained warnings about "issues" around learning from ‘high-performing education systems’”. These included a concern that “the concept of ‘high-performing education systems’, despite its ready acceptance in policy discourse, remains relatively unexamined.”

Instead of endorsing floor standards, the IoE report said the then Government:

“…should now reflect on whether reporting of child outcomes at school level in league tables may be counter productive.”

The final piece of evidence did mention floor standards: Lord Bew’s review of Key Stage 2 assessment. He described what floor standards were and welcomed the inclusion of progress measures in the floor standards. But the review contained no evidence that higher floor standards increased standards.


Only one of the pieces of evidence offered by the DfE referred to floor standards but this was a description not an evaluation of their effectiveness in raising results. The three others mentioned targets but these were not the same as the floor standards used to judge English schools. Two of the reports contained criticisms of accountability regimes in England over the past five years.

The evidence so far, then, doesn’t show that setting higher floor standards also raises results. I will ask the DfE to look again.

UPDATE 17.43

The article has been changed.  The original post made it appear that the statement at the start of the article was directly attributable to Clegg and Laws.  This has been changed to make it clear that the statement appeared in a press release issued by Clegg and Laws.  My thanks to Rebecca for pointing out that the original post could have been misleading.  Apologies.

UPDATE 16 August 10.34.

The headline has been changed from Higher floor standards lead to higher standards, said Clegg and Laws... to Higher floor standards lead to higher standards, said press release endorsed by Clegg and Laws...  This is to avoid any misleading impression that Clegg and Laws actually voiced the words.  I wouldn't want to be accused of putting words into their mouths.

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