Under the previous Labour government, Every Child Matters (ECM) represented the foundation of Tony Blair’s “education, education, education” mantra and was an educational principle that was difficult to argue with.
Since the formation of the coalition government, the use of this terminology has disappeared from political rhetoric. Nonetheless, many in education will still recall and work within the five fundamental principles of the ECM framework.
It has always been frustrating, however, that this undeniably ethical and equitable initiative was introduced by the same government that also developed the current school accountability system, which through several fundamental flaws does not provide a level playing field for all children and all schools.
The five A* to C including English and maths measure, introduced in 2006, is particularly unequitable for a number of reasons. First, by using it as a blunt instrument for judging the “quality” of a school, we are unable to show how well a school performs in terms of the “distance travelled” by its students. As a pure attainment measure, it merely tells us where they got to.
It is a sad fact that schools in more affluent areas generally tend to have a higher percentage of students achieving the five A* to C benchmark than schools in areas of high deprivation. For schools in deprived areas, this is incredibly frustrating, given that their students might well be making more progress. However, they have not always received recognition for this from Ofsted or indeed the media because of the obsession around the current “headline” figures.
Inevitably this has led to schools finding ways in which they can get their students over that magic “D to C borderline” in three subjects as well as English and maths. Until the recent implementation of the Wolf Report, schools were often using vocational qualifications worth up to four GCSE grades each to ensure students “banked” their GCSE equivalents and then had extra time dedicated to achieving those illustrious C grades in English and maths.
This approach of course narrows the curriculum for a child, but perhaps the worst side-effect of this accountability measure is that schools are often pressurised into investing a disproportionate amount of resources into those students who are deemed capable of achieving a C grade.
More specifically, this is happening to the detriment of other students – those who are achieving several grades lower and perhaps deemed incapable of achieving that golden C grade, or indeed those at the top end who should be achieving A*s but aren’t being challenged enough.
This is illustrated in the graph here, which was presented by Chris Paterson from the Centre Forum think-tank in his August 2013 report Measuring What Matters: Secondary school accountability indicators that benefit all. The graph outlines the effect of different groups of students on whole-school performance under the five A* to C including English and maths GCSE performance measure.
It shows that middle attainers, those students ranked in the 5th and 6th decile of key stage 2 prior attainment, have the largest influence on whole-school performance and that students in the lowest and highest deciles have the least impact.
Translated into simple terms, this means that the most able students, with the highest key stage 2 scores, are extremely likely to achieve a C grade or better, and that those students who have the lowest key stage 2 scores are very unlikely to achieve a C. Therefore these two groups do not have any influence on a school’s performance in league tables.
When analysed in this way, it is difficult to assert that the key headline performance indicator for schools is one that encourages parity. It is also very difficult to argue that this services the Every Child Matters agenda (which was introduced three years before the five A* to C including English and maths benchmark). As such, many teachers and school leaders have welcomed the planned 2016 accountability reforms, and in particular the introduction of the Progress 8 measure.
I described the details and some of the early implications of Progress 8 in a previous article for SecEd (see further information) so I won’t go over old ground here.
However, I believe Progress 8 will give a clear indication of the “distance travelled’ by a student and that this will become a more accurate indicator of the quality of a school. This will mean that for schools in deprived areas, or where prior attainment from key stage 2 is low, there will be a real opportunity to have their “value added score” recognised.
Another welcome consequence of Progress 8 is the way in which the floor standard will be calculated. Currently the floor targets for schools are set by the government and this is another purely attainment-driven measure.
As such, schools where key stage 2 prior attainment is very low will always be fighting an uphill battle to meet these standards, even if they add significant value to their students’ performance.
However, from 2016 the floor target will be judged against the progress made by students in a school compared to the progress made by students who had similar prior attainment nationally. Furthermore, it will be calculated based on the results of similar ability students from three years previous. This enables the national averages to be known and set out in advance of a child entering key stage 4, and therefore gives all schools the opportunity to know what they have to achieve to be above the national average.
The system that we currently operate in measures schools using data from students in the same national cohort and is a retrospective measure, which means that schools have no idea of what they must achieve to be above the national average.
The final and arguably the most important impact of Progress 8 on equality for schools and young people is the way in which every child’s performance has an equal influence on the performance of the school.
The graph here (again from Chris Paterson at Centre Forum) shows a comparison between Progress 8 and five A* to C including English and maths in terms of the affect that any child with any level of prior attainment can have on whole-school performance by moving up or down a grade.
What is clear is that the new school accountability reforms mean that every grade for every student counts because the progress scores for students of all abilities will have an equal effect on a school’s performance. As a result, schools will need to ensure that they distribute their resources equitably and that staff begin to shed their obsession with the C to D borderline.
Ben Solly is vice-principal at Long Field Academy in Melton Mowbray. Follow him on Twitter @ben_solly
- Ben Solly’s previous article for SecEd, Preparing for Progress 8, was published on April 3, 2014. You can read this online at http://bit.ly/1ksauCj
- To download the Centre Forum report Measuring What Matters: Secondary school accountability indicators that benefit all, visit http://centreforum.org/assets/pubs/measuring-what-matters.pdf
- In SecEd next week (May 15, 2014), Ben Solly will continue his focus on Progress 8, outlining key priorities and what schools need to plan for.