Be careful what you wish for. That is the warning that applies when seeking to reform the accountability system in our schools. Why the need to be so careful? Because – contrary to what every self-respecting 10-year-old will tell you – teachers are humans after all. As human beings, they respond to the incentives they face.
League tables play an important role in enabling both the Government and parents to monitor the performance of schools. But experience shows you should not underestimate the extent to which the accountability system encourages teachers to act in certain ways. This can be positive, acting as a catalyst for improvement. But it can also be negative – and often in unanticipated ways.
The current headline accountability measure for secondary schools demonstrates this. Schools are ranked by the percentage of their pupils who achieve 5 A*-C grades, including English and Maths. On the face of it, this makes sense. Obtaining five good GCSEs is vital for young people’s prospects in life. But there is widespread evidence that this measure encourages teachers to focus excessively on pupils at the crucial C/D borderline, to the detriment of both lower and higher achievers. From their point of view, they have a great deal more at stake in helping pupils move from a D to a C grade than from an E to a D – or from an A to an A*. These moves are just as important for the young people concerned, but for their teachers they are statistically much less significant.
Last year, Ofsted issued a report on Maths teaching in England which stated many schools are “still focusing mainly on pupils at risk of narrowly missing the Key Stage 4 threshold target”. A quick search on Google identifies a host of teachers posting “tailor made focus sessions for C/D borderline students”, and education consultancies selling “C/D borderline focus days”. There can be little doubt that the current system risks encouraging decision-making based on the needs of schools rather than pupils. Even the Labour Party – whose position on education reform would make the average ostrich blush – has indicated support for change.
In February, the Government launched a consultation on secondary school accountability measures after sustained lobbying from the Education Select Committee. Ministers propose a new floor standard for schools, the centrepiece of which is an attainment measure based on each pupil’s average score across eight qualifications including English, Maths, three academic (EBacc) subjects and any three other subjects. This measure will have a “value added” element to recognise schools that make higher than expected progress based on pupils’ prior attainment in primary school.
This is great news. The broadening of the focus to eight qualifications would help counter-act pressure to narrow the curriculum. It would offer a broader, more reliable picture of a school, with the performance of all pupils summarised, rather than just those students performing above a certain score. It would also be a dynamic system, which would reflect and respond to rising standards. However, there is one steroid-fuelled bluebottle in the ointment. The Government still wants to retain a threshold measure by continuing to assess schools on the percentage of pupils achieving a C grade in English and Maths.
It is easy to understand why ministers want this. In their own words, “Pupils with qualifications in these subjects are significantly more likely to find employment in future.” They are absolutely correct. English and Maths are gateway subjects, crucial to a satisfactory education, and it is right that this should be signalled to pupils, parents and teachers alike. Yet continuing to emphasise this by highlighting the percentage of students getting across the C/D borderline risks replicating the very problem that the consultation was launched to prevent – except on an even narrower basis than before.
This does not diminish the significance of what the Government is seeking to achieve. In the words of one expert I spoke to, the move towards a progress measure for schools has the potential to represent not just a step, but a leap forwards. However, retaining a threshold measure would undermine some of this good work – not least because it would remain easier for parents to digest, and for the media to turn into league tables. It risks overshadowing any new accountability mechanisms.
Accordingly, I am very supportive of a proposal developed by Pearson and the think-tank CentreForum. This would remove the threshold measure, but instead double weight the significance of grades in English and Maths within the set of eight qualifications on which schools would be assessed. This would still communicate the pivotal importance of English and Maths. But it would also encourage schools to focus on attainment across the ability spectrum in these most crucial subjects, rather than simply focusing on those students close to obtaining a C grade.
I will be meeting with ministers shortly to discuss this proposal. I will do so fully conscious of how much progress has been made, for which the Government deserve congratulations. Changes to the accountability system are not a glamorous aspect of educational transformation, when compared to curriculum reform, the Pupil Premium or a fairer funding formula for schools. But developing an accountability system that delivers – rather than distorts – the Government’s message about what should count in schools is a prize worth fighting for.
Graham Stuart is the Conservative MP for Beverley and Holderness, and the Chairman of the Education Select CommitteeReuse content