As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus reputedly said, “everything changes and nothing remains still – you cannot step twice into the same stream”. Philosopher or soothsayer? He could easily have been referring to the “measurement” of 16-year-olds in the English education system.
Today’s “classical” currency is about five A* to C grades with English and maths, the English Baccalaureate and Points Scores (for GCSE and equivalent subjects). But what about tomorrow? And for that matter, the day after?
We know that change is on its way. This summer’s results will show the impact of the Wolf Review – a greater focus upon GCSEs and fewer vocational subjects to be counted. After that, more changes for league tables in 2017 (or possibly 2016) with the introduction of Attainment 8 and Progress 8 as headline accountability measures. Perhaps Heraclitus’ stream is a torrent? But more of that later.
Stepping into today’s education waters, how are we faring and are we starting to close the disadvantage gaps identified by schools, educationalists and politicians alike? While heralding some improvement in overall school performance, press reports following the release of GCSE data by the Department for Education (DfE) in January saw no evidence of any closing of the gap between Pupil Premium pupils (one of the government’s flagship education policies) and non-Pupil Premium pupils.
Indeed for the EBacc indicator (another key government initiative), the gap has actually widened by 4.5 per cent, more so in the North East and North West.
But you don’t have to be Greek philosopher to know that high-level data can hide a multitude of “treasures”. Delving a little deeper, we find that the Pupil Premium/non-Pupil Premium EBacc gap has actually reduced for more able pupils. This is partly as a result of entry patterns – the subjects which pupils choose to take.
Critically, it also raises the question of whether Pupil Premium pupils are not choosing EBacc subjects because they don’t want to take them or because they are not being offered them by some schools. A bit of both is probably the answer.
So looking into the future and the flood of new school accountability measures to come – is the picture likely to change? If we apply the new Attainment 8 measure (which will arrive in 2016 or 2017’s league tables) to results for the last three years then far from growing, the gap between Pupil Premium and non-Pupil Premium pupils has actually reduced slightly – but only by an average of one-tenth of a grade per subject. At that rate it will take until around 2040 for the gap to be eliminated!
Another change on the way is the recent decision to only count first exam entries rather than the highest entry for pupils who retake exams – a decision which has annoyed schools more for its timing than its principle. One in five pupils taking maths three times or more does seem rather excessive.
Again, if we retrospectively apply the new “first entry” policy to this year’s results we find some significant changes. The headline national figure for five A* to Cs (including English and maths) would drop from 62 to 55 per cent. The change would also be more dramatic for some schools than others – ranging from zero impact to a drop of 56 per cent for one school this year (62 to just 6 per cent).
So, what can we conclude? It is clear that the new accountability changes will have a significant impact on both attainment and entry and that schools should, at the very least, be aware of this potential impact.
Early entry will become yesterday’s issue. Schools will certainly respond – as many have already started to do so – by “going back” to a more “traditional” (GCSE-based) curriculum.
Will schools be able to offer each pupil the most appropriate curriculum for their needs though? Attainment 8 provides, we think, just about enough flexibility to do that – so let’s hope it gets implemented in 2016 and is accepted by employers and others as a worthwhile measure.
This guest editorial has been written by Mike Treadaway, who is director of research and innovation at educational data specialists FFT.