For the first time this year the government will publish provisional school level performance data in October, some ten weeks earlier than the full performance tables. The measures being published for schools will be five or more A* to C, including English and maths, the percentage of pupils attaining the English Baccalaureate and, for those schools who have opted in, the new Attainment 8 measure.
Assuming for a moment that the intentions of government are good, we should welcome their broad ambition to speed up publication. Schools are left in limbo for a frustratingly long time at the moment; from results day in August to performance tables and RAISE online in January is nearly five months. During this time it is not really possible for school leaders and governors to get a clear idea of how their school’s performance stacks up against the national picture.
We should also welcome the government’s desire to give more current information to parents, especially during the time they are making choices about places for their children.
However, whilst the intentions may be good, there are a number of serious flaws in the implementation of this policy which undermine those intentions.
1. The measures being published are unvalidated
The DfE publish a “Statistical First Release”, usually towards the end of October, which contains data at a national level relating to performance in the previous school year. This would include, for example, the national rates for pupils obtaining a grade C or higher in mathematics. It is accepted that the first release contains errors; it does not reflect all the changes which arise when schools have sent back scripts to be remarked for example, or the errors schools find when they check their results files. Because this is at national level, overall errors make very little difference to the big picture.
At school level, however, this can make a huge difference. It’s not uncommon for schools to have several grades altered following re-marking which, if in certain key subjects such as English or maths, can have a dramatic effect on headline measures, including those being published. Publishing unvalidated data in this way therefore poses a real risk to some schools who have suffered from inadequate marking of their pupils’ examinations.
2. The measures being published are partial
The three measures which will be published are all attainment measures which make no reference to the starting points of the pupils concerned and do not address the progress they make. A number of measures exist which do this, such as value added and levels of progress but these are not being published early. The progress pupils make at a school is arguably more important than the overall standards they reach, but in any case, is an important feature of the school’s performance.
Parents need a rounded picture when they choose a secondary school. Presenting them with only half of the picture is misleading. It seems disingenuous to say this move will support parental choice.
3. The measures being published undermine government policy
The previous government launched a new headline measure, Progress 8, which is intended to be a much better indicator of performance; schools wishing to be held to account by this measure have opted in to publication in performance tables in 2015. Those schools did not know that their Attainment 8 data would be published early, some might have changed their minds if they had.
ASCL has welcomed the Progress 8 measure. It reflects the performance of all the pupils in the school across a broad range of subjects, with an emphasis on English and mathematics, and goes a long way towards eliminating overemphasis on C grades. Schools which secure very good progress from their pupils’ starting points are identified by this new measure, but they could still have relatively low overall attainment and it is the latter which will be published. This undermines the very reason for introducing a progress-based headline measure and misrepresents those schools doing a very good job with deprived, low-attaining intakes.
The current government has signalled its intentions to tackle what it has dubbed ‘coasting’ schools. Its aim is to identify those schools where the current performance indictors mask relatively low progress made by its pupils, who nevertheless manage to secure C grade passes and therefore appear to perform well against the current measures. The absence of any progress measures alongside the three figures being published could continue to disguise that performance.
However, these three shortcomings in the implementation of an otherwise sensible idea pale into insignificance beside the greatest risk of all – reporting in the media.
I have lived through such ill-informed reporting when my own school (established from scratch but with a handful of special needs pupils in all years) registered as 0% on what were then attainment only performance tables. The experience of fending off media, hungry for a bad news story only to find a perfectly valid explanation (in my case, no mainstream pupils in the cohort) is one that continues to haunt me. Recent experience in response to the announcement on ‘coasting’ confirms that things haven’t changed.
Will the media recognise that this data is partial and liable to be incorrect and moderate their reporting accordingly? I hope so. Will they have the stamina to report on performance tables twice? I doubt it. Will some schools be unfairly treated as the result of this policy? Sadly, I fear so.