Judging schools on ‘performance’ of former pupils at 25 tells us nothing about current schools

Janet Downs's picture

Sir David Carter, the National Schools Commissioner*, suggested schools should be judged on the performance of former pupils at age 25, TES reports.  

But this would tell us nothing about the current quality of education in schools in the same way as Ofsted judgements which are eight or more years old don’t reflect what’s going on in those schools today.

The suggested measure would require judgements to be made about how to assess ‘performance’.  Using earnings as a metric assesses performance solely in financial terms.  But it does not follow that the highest earners are doing the most valuable work.  If performance is linked to job status, then this raises question about how to assess status.   Vocational v academic?  Practical v intellectual?  Blue-collar v managerial?

If it were to be measured by post-school achievement, this would judge schools on factors outside their control.  A promising student may drop-out of university, for example.   Or a pupil who left school with no qualifications could work hard and gain a degree.  The qualifications achieved, or not achieved, by such young people have no bearing on the quality of education they received in schools.

Sir David also said the attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils was ‘our civil rights challenge in this country’.   But the best way to close the gap is to bring children out of poverty not to place all the responsibility on to schools.  And, as we’ve pointed out before, the ability of schools to promote social mobility is limited.  


*Although called the National Schools Commissioner, anyone holding this post is expected to beat the drum for academies and free schools  thereby ignoring the rest until, of course, they join the sector labelled 'academies'. 

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Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 26/04/2018 - 15:02

You are right that Sir David Carter's suggestion is stupid for all the reasons that you give. It makes one wonder what qualifications or experience in education is needed to become the National Schools Commissioner.

He is also completely wrong about the 'attainment gap', which is discussed in this article.


However, you too are falling into the trap of assuming that because children from less affluent backgrounds do worse at school, then the solution lies in increased wealth equality. This sort of fallacy is discussed in this article.


Instead of 'school discipline' being tagged in the title of the article it could just as well be, 'the attainment gap'. Despite my scepticism about 'the attainment gap', I do not share your view and that of Goldthorpe that schools have little part to play in improving the life chances of children from impoverished backgrounds.

The fundamental reason for the apparent ‘attainment gap’ is that pupils from poorer backgrounds tend to have lower cognitive abilities. That this fact is unrecognised, ignored or rejected for ideological reasons is why the ‘attainment gap’ has persisted despite all the Labour and Conservative government initiatives, ‘zero tolerance of failure’, head sackings, school closures, Academisations and Free School promotions of recent decades.

None have made any impression because they are remedies for something that does not exist, based on an incorrect diagnosis of the problem.

The key EEF findings are as follows.

The widest attainment gaps relate to FSM and SEN pupils, but not those that have English as a second language.
While it is often assumed that not having English as the first language must be a significant disadvantage for primary pupils, the facts do not support this. The EEF study is just the latest to come to this conclusion.

Cognitive Ability Test (CATs) data, however, do show a clear link with Socio-Economic Status (SES), for which eligibility for Free School Meals (FSM) is a reliable proxy. This relationship between poverty and cognitive ability has been known to heads and governors of secondary schools for decades, which is why after the 1988 Education Reform Act compelled all schools to compete on the basis of the raw aggregated attainment of their pupils, those schools that had powers over their admissions policies (Academies and Religious Schools) were increasingly inclined to find ways of cutting down the numbers of FSM, and therefore less cognitively able, children they had to admit.

The ‘left establishment’ blogsite ‘Reclaiming Schools’ published this article on 30 January 2018.

“Schools in North East England are under attack again. According to Progress 8 scores, its schools are the least effective in the country, with the highest percentage coming ‘below the floor’. But Progress 8 is a flawed and misleading measure. It assumes that social factors make no difference. Once again, the Government are in denial about poverty and the economy. It’s so much easier to attack teachers again.”

This reaction is entirely predicable. The political left prefers to interpret ‘The Attainment Gap’ as a form of prejudicial class-based discrimination further confirming the malign outcomes of growing social and economic inequality. The ‘Reclaiming Schools’ schools article goes on as follows.

“Poverty has a big impact on pupils’ progress: on average, students on free school meals score -0.5 on Progress 8. (-0.5 is also the threshold for ‘below the floor’.) Schools with large numbers of FSM students are far more likely to score below. In the North East, 17% of students are FSM (13% nationally). In some places it’s worse:

24% Middlesbrough
23% Newcastle
20% Sunderland
19% South Tyneside
19% Hartlepool.
Not surprisingly, all these areas have large numbers of schools ‘below the floor’.”

It is not ‘poverty’ that is the cause of the lower attainment, but the lower mean cognitive ability that prevails in these impoverished communities. I can see why this truth is difficult to accept for Labour politicians and the trade unions, but it is the truth. We know this from ‘GL Assessment’, the commercial marketer of the national Cognitive Ability Tests (CATs) formerly provided by NfER. p10 of this 2009/10 report provides the irrefutable data.


The 146,075 students without FSM obtained a mean combined score of 102 (55th percentile)

The 27,536 FSM students obtained obtained a mean combined score of 92 (30th percentile)

GL Assessment provides tables and progress charts to enable schools to estimate
pupils’ GCSE subject grades based on their CAT scores. This report explains how to use these tables and charts. It also gives guidance on setting targets and discussing them with individual pupils. Information on how the estimates (or indicators) were developed, and on how to calculate estimates for groups, is included in the appendix. The results of a recent large scale study looking at the relationship between CAT scores and pupil/school factors is included at the end of the appendix [p10] for your information.

It could not be clearer. The attainment of FSM students would be predicted to be far below their more affluent classmates. See the charts for maths in Figure 1 of p2. These predicted that while 75% of non-FSM students were predicted to obtain a C+ grade, only 28% FSM students would be so predicted. Similar extreme differences can be found in other predictions of attainment.

The truth is that it is low mean cognitive ability in communities and families that causes economic inequality, not the other way round. Brighter individuals get better paid jobs. If I were to write this in a comment on a Guardian education article it would be deleted by the moderator, as would any mention of cognitive ability or intelligence. The same applies to the NUT and the 'left educational establishment', which deletes my comments on the 'Reclaiming Schools' website.

Here is the proper argument, together with the solution to the problem.

1. The right kind of teaching and learning can raise cognitive ability (ie intelligence is plastic).
2. The wrong kind of teaching and learning can inhibit cognitive development.
3. Primary Schools that take a high proportion of FSM children struggle to meet floor KS2 targets. This is an objective fact. The reason is the low mean cognitive ability of the pupils, which while being true, is not an argument that any head can make in the face of a bad OfSTED report.
4. Y6 in such schools is primarily devoted to ensuring that the school does not meet this fate. This means that cognitively developmental teaching (which is what the pupils actually need more of) is abandoned in favour of coaching and cramming, which actually makes their pupils dimmer, while lifting the school over the floor targets and landing the secondary to which they transfer with inflated SATs scores that produce 'Attainment 8' and 'Progress 8' targets they cannot meet.
5. So the poorest parts of the country (in the north of England) inevitably are inevitably characterised by 'underperforming secondaries.
6. The reason why the poorer parts of London do not follow this pattern is because of the higher mean cognitive abilities that prevail in its ethnically mixed communities compared to the white working class mono-cultures in the post industrial northern wastelands.

John Mountford and I are currently engaged on a study to obtain the data to support this analysis. It needs intake CATs scores from secondary schools with high FSM intakes, which are proving difficult to obtain.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 26/04/2018 - 15:32

Roger - I haven't fallen 'into the trap of assuming that because children from less affluent backgrounds do worse at school.'  I'm making the point that if they rise out of poverty they won't be labelled as disdadvantaged.  There may, or may not, still be a gap between their performance and those classed as 'advantaged' but if the children weren't labelled as poor (because they were no longer poor), then the so-called disadvantage gap wouldn't exist and schools wouldn't be expected to plug it.

John Mountford's picture
Fri, 27/04/2018 - 11:07

Sir David had his day in the sun, extoling the virtures of academies and free schools at the expense of really representing the interests of ALL schools and therefore ALL pupils attending those schools. He's entitled to his views but they do not add to the real debate we should be having about schools' effectiveness. Schools exist to educate and as Roger points out there are serious undelying reasons why the present system is not working for ALL pupils, especially those who sit on the 'wrong side' of the Bell curve. It is quite shocking that we cannotg have an intelligent unemotive debate about the role of intelligence in education.


As part of the work Roger and I are engaged in, I carried out a telephone survey yesterday among the 13 secondary schools in my local authority. It produced some interesting findings which I intend next to share with my MP. To date, I have learned that 9 of the thirteen use cognitive ability testing at the start of year7, just a few short months after these very same children have been subjected to KS2 SATs at the expense of the nation. So these schools opt to buy in CA testing at who knows what cost out of the school's own budget for who knows what reason. My guess is it is, as one head admitted, because they find the SATs data unreliable for the purpose of agreeing individual targets under the Attainment and Progress 8 requirements. 


Now some will ask what this has to do with your original article, Janet. To me the answer is clear. While we steadfastly refuse to engage in any purposeful debate about the role of IQ in our schools and beyond, secondary schools are side-stepping the issue, for fear of censure I would hazard, and applying a degree of common sense. If the data they have been given to work with has the quality of garbage, they are obliged to get around this problem by whatever means they can. They obviously find that knowing individual IQ scores helps in this process.


There is much more to be said about this and I believe that my recently submitted but not yet posted article on LSN,  "Intelligence, !Q and Teaching - the Elephant in the Classroom", could help move us on.

My hope is, someone from Ofsted and another from the DfE will read this and realise the gig is up. We have to overcome our fears about what harm extremists can inflict with their ideas about eugenics and engage with a subject that has been too long avoided. Thus, I suggest, we will be better informed in addressing the actual problems that bedevil discussions about what will make a difference to our children and young people. Roger's solution, shared by many, is to help raise the tide for everyone and tackle the iniquitous problem of inequality from a different perspective - time for a thorough re-examination of what can work if we're given the chance.

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