Are we happy with Progress 8?

Written by: Dr Bernard Trafford | Published:
Dr Bernard Trafford, head, Royal Grammar School, Newcastle

Is Progress 8 a better way of ranking schools? As the dust settles, Dr Bernard Trafford offers his view

A new year, and a brave new world of government league tables. This month has seen the new official Progress 8 (P8) scores that the Department of Education has created for English secondary schools.

Rather than just counting those who achieve at least five A* to C grades, as has been the measure until now, Progress 8 is designed to take into account the achievement of all children in year 11, not just those who attain those particular grades.

Sounds good. Critics of league tables, me included, have long claimed that, if we must have such tables at all, simple measures of exam results are misleading and inequitable. If we must have them, we’ve suggested time and again that they should be more useful and fairer to all types of schools by measuring the value the school has helped students to add to their attainment.

That’s what P8 claims to do. Take children’s prior attainment as measured in the key stage 2 SATs, list whatever GCSEs they attain five years later, and measure the progress made. Simple! Sadly, as always, there are unintended unfortunate consequences.

Schools find that lower-ability pupils risk doing as much damage to their scores as under the old system. Those who make little progress through lack of ability or who underperform because of because personal, emotional or mental difficulties (often rooted in poverty, in defiance of minsters’ assertions to the contrary) will drag down their school’s results – sometime disproportionately.

Schools generally bust a gut to keep struggling students in school. But if one is in danger of falling below floor-standards, how great will be the temptation, with government and Ofsted breathing down its neck, to “lose” some of those problematic pupils who will drag its scores down? Once again the insidious effect of constant government pressure will be to encourage wrong behaviours.

The pressure this new measure will add to some schools will, sooner or later, be transmitted to pupils. I know: it shouldn’t be. But it will take superhuman qualities from school and staff to resist.

That there is something of a mental health timebomb ticking away in schools was recognised by the prime minister recently: it’s surely immoral to ramp up anxiety levels among young people by driving their schools so hard.

Some schools will have rejoiced at their P8 figures. A school in a tough area which never got credit for what it was achieving in terms of A* to C grades may have seen its P8 score surpass its rival in a more affluent middle-class area, perhaps even out-scoring the nearest selective school. Winners and losers, then: perhaps it’s high time that things were shaken up?

Except that progress is easier to maintain in a comfortable rather than in a challenging setting. In some of the primary schools serving desperate areas in my part of the country, the North East, heads describe how far back children start in school. They work miracles with kids from the most alienated, deprived, “hard-to-reach” families. But, notwithstanding the miracles worked earlier, in key stages 3 and 4, with all the difficulties that adolescence brings, such children’s progress scores are unlikely to improve a school’s overall figures. It is just too hard for them, and thus for their schools, to make significant progress.

This is not about the smell of defeatism. No-one’s giving up on these children: quite the opposite. But I have yet to meet any secondary school leader happy with P8. It’s fraught with risk: and the consequences to schools and heads when the data doesn’t satisfy government are severe indeed.

It’s all about the data. The strengths and weaknesses alike of P8 tables demonstrate yet again why policy-makers should not employ simplistic figures to drive policy and judge schools. Education is a sophisticated and complex business: reducing it to a single figure demeans both its nature and purpose while doing huge damage to schools.

Our schools, and the children in them, deserve better measures.

  • Dr Bernard Trafford is head of Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School and a former chairman of HMC. His views are personal. Follow him @bernardtrafford


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