After the end of the Christmas armistice we return to the trenches of education policy. One of the highlights of last year was the reform of secondary performance tables and measurements. Although it may seem far off, with the first published results years away, in fact choices made in the next two terms will have a profound effect on the performance of schools under the new measures.
The new measures themselves have been broadly welcomed, and they do mark a dramatic shift away from the cliff edge of the C/D boundary. For the first time in a long time, schools will be rewarded for the performance of every child, which can only be right. Secondary schools will be held accountable for progress based on an average point score in students’ best eight qualifications. This measure has become known as “Progress8”. It has implications for the distribution of teaching effort; as intended, there is no longer any specific ability range that it will makes sense to focus on – moving any student up a grade will count the same. Many schools will need to reconsider their tracking and intervention strategies.
The “basket” of eligible qualifications is also different. Or perhaps we should say baskets. Scores will count for English and maths (doubled), three qualifications from the standard EBacc list, and three from the broader approved list (which was revised before Christmas and includes non-GCSE qualifications).
The number of eligible qualifications per student will become a crucial driver of secondary school performance ranking. A school in which the average student sits eight eligible qualifications will usually outperform a school in which they sit six or seven, regardless of the quality of teaching.
Schools will need to maximise this figure and, given that English and maths are compulsory, and that the final three are drawn from a broad list, the crucial “battleground” will be the middle three EBacc subjects – this is the most likely area that schools will fall short of the eight eligible subjects. The provision of modern foreign languages for most students will probably be decisive.
This change will be a more powerful driver of take-up of traditional academic subjects than any other reform introduced by this government, certainly more so than the original EBacc rankings. It is slightly more nuanced, because schools will be rewarded for performance in non-EBacc subjects. However, given that EBacc subjects can also be included in that final third category, the temptation to move heavily in this direction, for safety’s sake, will be strong.
The reason this has become urgent is that the first cohort of students who will be measured under these arrangements begin their GCSEs in September. Schools will need to carefully consider their subject provision and staffing arrangements now in order to ensure they maximise the number of eligible entries per student. There may well be a “war for talent”, to recruit language specialists in particular.
The think-tank CentreForum has modelled the consequences of the new measures and the implications for school rankings. Their predictions suggest that – absent significant changes in the way schools operate – there could be major shifts in league table positions, with schools rising and plummeting.
Schools which already (or move quickly to) focus effort broadly across all students, and at which most students enter at least eight eligible subjects, will rise rapidly in the rankings. Progress will also count much more than attainment, which will benefit some schools more than others. There are other more subtle outcomes of the new measures. They appear, for example, to end the zero sum game introduced by comparable outcomes (aka norm-referencing), while introducing a regular annual ratcheting up of the floor.
Overall, it is hard to disagree with the general intent of the new arrangements (however much we might deplore the pace and confusion of implementation). We are moving slowly closer to alignment between what is right for most students and what is right for schools. It is almost a cunning plan.
Russell Hobby is general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers. Visit www.naht.org.uk