What would happen if we had a few years without the league tables? I have been pondering this idea since reading the letter
Ofqual sent to schools in late June. In it the chief regulator, Glenys Stacey, warns of even more “variability” in this summer’s exam results than we have experienced in recent years
Actually that is probably a polite interpretation of what she was was saying. Having read the letter several times it is clear that no one really knows what is going to happen this summer, other than that ALL schools will be probably be affected and the overall results are unlikely, according to the regulator, to provide a valid comparison with previous years.
So much change is being forced through the system at the same time, in a rush and without proper piloting or modelling, that the impact is almost impossible to predict. Gove’s legacy if you like, from beyond the political grave.
HOW DID WE GET HERE?
We know the reasons why we ended up here, anxiously anticipating a set of results that may be meaningless in terms of reflecting real improvement. For too long heads and teachers have been given hoops to jump through and, however honourably, they have duly found every which way to maximise their own schools’ performance.
This is what they have been encouraged to do by successive government and we can’t blame them for following the incentives put before them. Unfortunately sometimes this has been at the expense of individual pupils’ needs and has even at times verged on the dishonest and fraudulent. See here
for my piece in the Guardian on cheating.
The result is a belief in government that qualifications have become degraded and that too many schools are “gaming the system” by manipulating the curriculum, using “easier" GCSE equivalent qualifications which may not all provide suitable pathways to further or higher education, by over generously marking coursework and even by moving children off their rolls
in advance of the GCSE years.
All these point to a deeper malaise in the accountability system, now over-reliant on broken statistical measures which paint a very limited picture of how “well educated” our children are in the widest sense. Even the headteacher of Eton
is now speaking out about this.
BUT WE KNOW LESS ABOUT WHAT THE CHANGES WILL MEAN
The switch from modular to linear exams, the demise of controlled assessments, the end of English speaking and listening tests being counted as part of the overall GCSE English grade, a dramatic drop in the number of early entries following the government's abrupt ruling that only the first exam entry will count in school league tables, not to mention the elimination of some vocational qualifications from the approved list; these factors are all converging on this August’s results day. Henry Stewart has already posted here
on the impact this latter change to approved qualifications would have had on last year’s results, according to the DFE’s own figures.
Exam entries in some qualifications (notably IGCSE English) have risen this year, in others they have dropped (see here
for the figures). No one knows what the net effect of this will be other than that the cohort of applicants this year is very different to last year’s.
Negotiations between Ofqual and exam boards are almost certainly underway already about this year’s grade boundaries. Who can forget what happened in 2012, when GCSE English grade boundaries were subtly shifted because the results didn’t tally with the predictions for that year’s cohort, based on their KS2 SATS results.
I wrote about that here
, pointing out that if the results are already “written” in this way it is hard to see how schools can demonstrate exceptional progress or encourage their pupils to excel. The distress to schools and individual students may well be repeated on an even greater scale in the next few years.
As Ms Stacey’s June 2014 letter explains :” If the cohort is similar in terms of ability to the previous year’s cohort then we would expect overall results to be similar. When the cohort is different, this approach means the prediction will reflect those differences. The exam boards then report to us if the actual results are significantly different from the predictions and explain why this may be. We will either accept the explanation or challenge those results if we don’t think the explanation is backed up by enough evidence”
A story in this week's Sunday Times
( behind the paywall unfortunately) only adds to the sense of confusion. It claims some grade boundaries are now being lowered by the exam boards in order to compensate for the turmoil anticipated by Ofqual. Though this too may be part of a media strategy to justify what is to come if the exam boards are overruled.
It could be that Ofqual is simply covering it's back. The regulator didn't get an easy ride in 2012. Maybe Glenys Stacey has decided it is better to get her excuses in first this time?But if she is right and the results should be “ approached with caution” isn't it time to think seriously about whether to publish the league tables at all?
THE CURRENT ACCOUNTABILITY MEASURES HAVE HAD THEIR DAY
The performance tables have always had a dual purpose. The first is to provide information to parents and the wider community about how their local schools are doing. The second is to give government and Ofsted school level data.
Schools, government, Ofsted and individual pupils could still be told their results and schools may well choose to share them with all local parents. If they are as unstable as Ms Stacey predicts, one would hope that Ofsted will take them with a pinch of salt and, in the course of an inspection, focus on the evidence of teaching and progress they see in schools, across all year groups, rather than just relying on one year’s possibly flawed data set. Or is that wishful thinking on my part?
But government could admit this is a period of flux, the dying days of what its own proposed reforms suggest is a discredited system, and mothball the performance tables in their current form. This would alleviate the confusion, and possible misery, that parents and pupils will inevitably experience presented with a set of results by one arm of offialdom (DFE) while the other arm (Ofqual) suggests those same results may not be reliable.
The introduction of the new progress 8 accountability measure
begins tentatively this year. Schools will be given “shadow data” for their 2014 results, showing how they would fare under a new metric which measures the progress from KS2 of each individual student across 8 subjects. The will replace the moribund 5 A*-C headline figure. In 2015 schools can opt in to a pilot for this new measure- it is a shame there wasn’t a similar considered approach taken to the changes in exams - and in 2016 the league tables as we know them should no longer exist.
This new and welcome approach is intended to encourage schools to value every child equally and not focus disproportionately on the C/D borderline pupils. It should also help counteract the impact of intake and prior attainment on a school’s rankings and limit the amount of “gaming” that goes on.
A PERIOD OF CALM AND SOUL SEARCHING
Earlier this year the Royal Society of the Arts published an excellent report “Schools with Soul”
. The report probes how schools can develop the broader human qualities of their pupils through social, moral, cultural and spiritual education (SMSC), something that often gets relegated to the sidelines once all the hoop jumping is exhausted.
The report suggests designating 2015 as a “year of reflection” in which no new education policies are announced, no Ofsted inspections take place unless schools are judged inadequate and no schools are forced to become academies. It proposes instead a year of detailed thinking about how to develop SMSC at national and local level.
I would add government performance tables to the list of banned activities. Heads, teachers and governors could then do some soul searching too about the real meaning of progress, about what good levels of achievement look like, how we measure improvement and which subjects and qualifications are best for their pupils, rather than for their schools, or indeed for the egos of individual politicians.
This would also send a strong signal from the new Education Secretary that she trusts schools to work through some of these pressing questions on their own, or collaboratively with other local schools, but without the heavy hand of the state hanging over them.
We are not going to get rid of school accountability altogether. Ofsted reports will still exist; parent word on the street does half the job with school choice anyway. But we know that the system of ranking schools by the headline five GCSEs measure has run its course, which is why we are in transition to something new.
Let schools embrace that change gradually, with a bit of breathing space and without being battered by crude rankings (now almost a quarter of a century old) that have lost credibility, may be demoralising for schools and pupils and, if there is another upset this year, will only gratify the enemies of state education in the media, who will seize on any turbulence to damn the whole system.
The world wouldn’t come to an end. In fact it may turn out to be a rather better place.