DfE maths

Chris Cook

Today, I gave a brief presentation – based on our previous stories – on the performance of London schools to the excellent Centre for London. Some slides are a little mysterious without my burbling over the top, but I hope it’s understandable enough.


Chris Cook

Last week, the TES, the leading UK teachers’ magazine, ran a number of fascinating pieces on the “EBC”, the proposed successor to the GCSE – the exam taken by English children at the age of 16. The basic point is that the Department for Education has come up with a plan for a new qualification that is causing grave concern within Ofqual, as has been made public, as well as among school leaders, inspectors and its own civil servants.

When the plan to reform GCSEs was originally leaked to the Daily Mail, it contained the claim that the new GCSE would only be for the brightest three-quarters of children. I wrote at the time that this would be problematic. The Lib Dems insist this aspect of the plan has gone. Some rightwingers appear to hold the opposite impression.

For their part, DfE officials are working under the assumption that children will need to know more to reach the lowest passing grade on the new qualification. But they also assume children will respond to the exam changes by learning more, so no more children will fail. This is, it is fair to say, an assumption resting on a rather thin evidence base.

Would it matter if this were to be wrong, and children were to leave with no qualifications, rather than getting an F or a G? After all, it is certainly true that an F or a G gives a pupil very little labour market benefit. For pupils themselves, these lower grades primarily act as a guide to how much further they have to go.

But the main benefit of awarding Fs and Gs at GCSE is to the school system. They mean that schools do not strong incentives to pick weaker pupils out for other, easier exams. And keeping such students on the GCSE track means they have some chance of getting a C or better, even if teachers misread their ability early on.

If you reform the system such that the exam does not measure the ability of more children, this important benefit will, one way or another, be eroded. And who will be affected? Once again, it is the children in the poorest neighbourhoods.

To illustrate this, this graph describes an exam system that works on the basis that 95 per cent of people will get some kind of passing grade – however low. I have used the average GCSE grade for each child in a mainstream state school as a proxy for their overall academic ability, and assumed that the five per cent with the lowest grades would fail under the new system. This is a bit rough ‘n’ ready, but is good enough for our purposes.

So what happens if a given exam excluded the bottom 5 per cent of children on this measure from some notional new examination? How many fail and so get “excluded” from measurement? You can see that a child in the poorest neighbourhoods has a 10 per cent chance of being in this band – twice the national average.

I have added a second band: “at risk”. This takes in the next 10 per cent of children, too. Schools might – wrongly – guess they will be below the line. Again, this line skews poor.

 Read more

Chris Cook

On the Today programme last week, Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief inspector of schools, announced that Ofsted, the inspectorate, will start trying to piece together which local authorities are good at driving school improvement and which are weak.

This plan, intended to focus fire on local government, could end up drawing attention to the Department for Education. This is because Sir Michael will hold the local authorities to account for all local schools – including academies, independent state charter schools.

On the radio, he was up against David Simmonds, a Tory councilor from Hillingdon representing the Local Government Association, who pointed out that there is a particular problem with academies. He noted that academies, which now constitute half of all secondaries, answer directly to civil servants in the DfE – not to their local authority.

As a result, Mr Simmonds correctly pointed out that, councils have no power to sort things out when it comes to academies. Sir Michael replied, also rightly, that good local authorities do it anyway. The way that this works is that they lobby the DfE to take action. As it happens, a few days later, the TES reported that the pressure from the DfE on academies might soon become a bit more active.

But there remains a problem for local authorities if the DfE is slow-acting. This has been happening with Islington – one of the fastest improving boroughs in the country. Islington has urged the DfE to act on a struggling academy in the borough – the City of London Academy (COLA) – for some time. The COLA case study demonstrates that this can drag on and on. The department has been pestered about the school constantly.

We have some DfE officials’ notes on COLA from a year ago. Originally written for ministers, the notes explain the background and their position. Some betray a touch of irritation about the persistent London borough. Read more

Chris Cook

I wrote a piece yesterday on the continued astonishing rise of London’s state schools. One of my brilliant colleagues posed an interesting question: what happens if a child moves into London?

Below, I have published how children who lived outside London at the age of 11 went on to do in their GCSEs (using our usual point score) at the age of 16.

I have divided this set of pupils twice: first, by whether they had moved into London by the age of 16 or not and second by how well they did in standardised tests at the age of 11.

 Read more

Chris Cook

In today’s Times, Greg Hurst writes about concerns that some academy chains might be a bit overstretched and find it difficult to continue growing. It has been pretty well established that the first round of “sponsor” academy takeovers was a success. The chains definitely improved the failing schools that they took over.

But some of the groups mentioned by Greg are not doing that well. To start with, here is a sample of academy chains’ results, using the government’s favourite measure: what proportion of children got Cs or better in English, maths and three other GCSE subjects in 2011? I have only included schools in the measure under their current leadership for three full years or more.

Provider Total Low PA Mid PA High PA
Academies Enterprise Trust (AET) 55.8% 28% 74% 95%
Ark Schools 63% 70% 83% 93%
The Bourne Family Trust 82% 88% 75% 100%
E-ACT 40% 28% 78% 100%
Harris Federation 67% 62% 86% 100%
Jack Petchey Foundation 61% 43% 59% 92%
Thomas Telford School 57% 47% 89% 100%
United Learning Trust (ULT) 50% 33% 73% 92%

 Read more

Chris Cook

John Goldthorpe, a pioneer and leader in sociology, is always worth reading. This week, he has written a piece that delivers a kicking to assumptions in Whitehall, Westminster and Fleet Street. But it also poses a significant challenge to organisations like TeachFirst.

The piece centres on the misreadings of the academic literature of social mobility. But, from there, it moves on to the limitations of an education policy on its own. His work suggests school reform is not going to improve mobility. This should be taken seriously.

He has been pointing this out for some time. But, this time, he’s done two things that ought to make this easier for journalists to follow. First, he uses smaller words than usual. Second, he talks about the media, and we are obsessed by that.

He posits why the media have not followed the argument. I rather like the idea of “media hysteresis”:

the tendency within the media, once a particular ‘line’ on any issue has become widely accepted, for this line to be maintained as the standard output, regardless of any further inputs.

Read it here. Or at least cast your eyes over the conclusion, which I have pasted below. Agree or not, they are fantastically interesting and his voice carries a level of authority usually only accorded to those of burning bushes. Read more