DfE

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

Later this morning, Michael Gove, education secretary, will announce several big things. First and foremost, he is dropping his plan to introduce the EBC, his proposed new qualification for 16 year-olds, which has been attacked as fatally flawed since its announcement. Second, he will unveil details of the new curriculum. Both will deservedly absorb lots of column inches.

But Mr Gove will also announce a new pair of measures by which league tables will be constructed. This change might actually be the most important thing he does during his entire reign. League tables set out the incentives that drive schools. They define success and failure.

So what do we know? Schools will, first, be assessed on the share of pupils getting Cs or better in English and maths. A second measure will record whether children in each school do better or worse than children of similar ability – as measured by standardised tests at the age of 11.

This value-added score will gauge performance across English and maths, as well as three more core subjects and their three best ‘other’ subjects. This replaces the current measure – a crude tally of how many children get Cs or better in English, maths and three other subjects.

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Chris Cook

Today is league table day, when school exam results are published. The most interesting part of the table is the bottom: 195 schools* are below the government’s “floor targets”. These schools are risk of being taken over by a third party to turn them around (if the process is not already underway).

Schools in this category have fewer than 40 per cent of their pupils get Cs or better in English, maths and three other subjects. They must then also have fewer than 70 per cent of the schools’ pupils making “expected progress” in both English and maths.

A few system-level observations:

  • London does really well. Really well. Only 11 of its schools are below target. Only four are in inner London. The outer boroughs are now a bigger educational problem than the inner city.
  • None of the 164 selective schools was below the floor. Grammar schools cruise to the floor target, because they select bright kids. But some might repay a visit by the inspectors: three of them made less-than-expected progress in English.
  • About one third of failing schools are sponsor academies already. The DfE has yanked on the convert-to-academy lever a lot already. But there are another 132 schools left below the floor target not already attached to sponsors.
  • The academy chains are not going to find it easy to take them on. The best academies are all in London. The worst schools are not. There is limited really good improvement capacity in chains outside the capital, where it is needed.
  • The converter academies were not all good schools. Already, there are 14 which are not meeting the standard. The DfE’s terror of sorting out struggling academies is going to become an ever-bigger problem.

And here is the data: first, what type of schools are below the floor target. For the neophytes, voluntary-aided and -controlled schools are the two types of English religious schools. Foundation Schools and CTCs are types of schools with more independence from their local authorities than others (both are precursors to the academies). Studio Schools and UTCs are types of employer-led school (see here for more on them):

School type Above target Below target
Sponsor academies 249 63
Converter academies 666 14
CTCs 3
Community schools 897 72
Free schools 5
Foundation schools 475 33
Studio Schools 1
UTCs 2
Voluntary aided 399 11
Voluntary controlled 64 2

Second, this is where the struggling schools are. I have broken this down by the GCSE-age school population, which brings out some of the variation in regional school quality more clearly.

GCSE pupils in above-target schools GCSE pupils in below-target schools Proportion of pupils affected
East Midlands 41,799 4,490 9.7%
East of England 56,847 4,054 6.7%
London 71,817 1,746 2.4%
North East 25,450 1,782 6.5%
North West 70,592 4,802 6.4%
South East 78,976 5,113 6.1%
South West 50,789 1,736 3.3%
West Midlands 57,328 3,194 5.3%
Yorkshire and the Humber 51,500 4,359 7.8%

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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.

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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

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%

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Chris Cook

Last week, the excellent Paul Francis, political editor of the Kent Messenger, reported that Kent, the most significant selective county left in England had come up with a clever plan: to make the entry test for grammar schools “tutor-proof”.

This idea comes up a lot, largely from people promoting selection. You can see why: it is often presented as a means of squaring a problem. They can argue that grammar schools help bright poor children while dealing with the fact that very few get into them.

But, in truth, a properly administered test, which accurately captures the education enjoyed by people at the age of 11, should exclude large numbers of poor children. Not because they are intrinsically less able. But, at 11, the poor-rich divide is already a chasm. Read more

Chris Cook

One question I get asked a lot is: “You say that Frewmanackshire is a terrible local authority. How do you know? Do you know what we are working with?” etc etc. It is true that schools with radically different intakes cannot be usefully compared. So I thought I would let you in on how I benchmark schools, and supply you with two jolly new maps.

What I do for secondary schools, is run a simple regression – that is to say, I fit a simple line through all the pupils’ school results in the country after asking it to account for the children’s ethnicity, poverty and prior test results. Unlike other models, the regression contains precisely zero information about the schools – only data about the children. 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

Chris Cook

So, we now know where free schools are going, I thought that I would quickly illustrate a curiosity about them. This map of local authorities is coloured by the performance of FSM-eligible children (a marker of poverty). Red is poor performance and blue good. Free schools are green.

I have chosen this measure because it’s a simple like-for-like metric. Differences are not scores simply accounted for by the fact that some areas have more poor children: I am looking only at deprived pupils’ attainment. This is a quick and dirty way to gauge LAs. Red areas, broadly speaking, are underperforming. Read more

Chris Cook

A big story we have published records the stunning improvement in London’s schools that has taken place over the past decade (also: analysis on the topic).

As part of the number-crunching I did for to that story, I can also provide an update from our measure on social mobility in schools – how much does poverty damage your school results? It’s not good news, alas.

Last year, we reported that our educational mobility index had been rising for five consecutive years – from 2006-10. Unfortunately, this year, things deteriorated a little. That blip upwards in 2010-11 means poverty exerted a bigger influence on the school results of children in 2010-11 than it had in 2009-10.

As a reminder, for those of you who have not committed these things to memory: we measure this through quite a simple metric. First, we draw our old friend, the Graph of Doom, which shows how exam results interact with poverty:

To come up with this graph, we divide the country into hundredths, by their neighbourhood deprivation. Then we plot each grouping’s average score on the line, according to a simple performance measure (which I’ve tweaked since we last did this). Read more

Chris Cook

Last week, the FT published an interview with Sir Michael Wilshaw. Lots of interviewees, especially in public policy, are very guarded. Sir Michael is not. This may give his press handlers nightmares, but everyone should welcome it. This is for educationally minded people more than data nerds, but I thought I’d put up some more of his thoughts.

I’ll not publish the whole thing yet (there are a few things we discussed that I intend to return to). So this is still a highlights package. First, a few shorter snippets. It’s very striking how often London Challenge, a policy to improve schools in the capital, came up. Sir Michael, who rose to prominence as a London head teacher, kept praising that policy. For example, speaking about the north, he said:

What is it about those areas like Hull and Grimsby and North Lincolnshire that prevents those youngsters doing well? Some of it is quite honestly a political failure where we’ve known that these areas were failing for a number of years and if local politicians really want to address this, they can put pressure on both schools, local authorities, the department for education to do something about this. We’ve shown through London Challenge what can be done in London. London is certainly… and I’ve been a London teacher all my life. It wasn’t a good place to be in the 70s and 80s and 90s; now it’s one of the top performing parts of the country through London Challenge. Same happened in Manchester. So, why can’t we do that in these areas?

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Chris Cook

Since January, schools have been subject to a new inspection regime. Ofsted, the inspectorate, has changed its criteria. Data released today mean there is one question we can consider: is the new inspection regime any tougher or easier than its predecessor?

This is not a straightforward question: weaker schools get inspected more regularly, so the sample is not randomly selected. What we can do, however, is see whether schools are more likely to be promoted or relegated than in previous years.

This, too, is not simple. The Department for Education changed schools’ ID numbers when they became academies, so I cannot match every new report to the same school’s previous ones so it is a faff to match records, which has taken a bit of tinkering. We have matches for 1,711 schools – both primary and secondary.

Here are the results:

1 2 3 4
1 25% 50% 25% 0%
2 8% 58% 27% 7%
3 2% 44% 40% 14%
4 1% 13% 75% 11%

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Chris Cook

At the moment, groups putting forwards bids to open free schools – new academies opened from scratch – are finding out whether they have been approved for 2013 opening. This is an opportune moment to take a quick look at this programme.

Last week, I explained part of why the “converter academies” programme is so popular: it usually comes with a cash incentive to join in. But free schools have their own funding wrinkle. This one encourages primary free schools to be smaller than other local schools.

Using the DfE’s formula for free school funding, we can work out how much a primary free school would get in revenue (day-to-day) funding, plotted against how big it is, if it were to open at full capacity in the London borough of Camden in 2012-13.

Camden free school funding per pupil

This is the output of a formula: every primary free school gets a £95,000 payment plus a certain amount per child, which varies from borough to borough. In Camden, once you have counted in the pupil premium, SEN (special educational needs) funding and other funding, each extra child brings in, on average, an extra £5,870.

But the structure of the formula – a lump sum plus a roughly flat per-pupil payment – means that the amount you receive on average falls as the school grows. This is because the £95,000 lump sum (which is the same for all boroughs) gets shared between more and more pupils.

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Schools taking part in the government’s flagship academies programme are being overpaid by more than £120m this academic year owing to errors by the Department for Education, an investigation by the Financial Times has revealed.

The majority of the overspend will be clawed back from local authorities, stoking concerns that schools participating in the converter academies scheme are being favoured over other state schools.

    Currently seen as the government’s most visible public policy success, if local authority schools opt to become an academy, they are funded directly by the DfE rather than via local authorities. They gain autonomy over pay and curriculum, but are supposed to receive equivalent funding.

    However, analysis of DfE data reveals that 90 per cent of England’s 1,421 converter academy schools are being overpaid, with the bulk of the errors coming from schools which converted in the previous academic year.

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