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

There is an iron law in English education: as any given argument about any problem with schools progresses, the probability that someone will claim grammar schools are the solution rapidly tends towards 1.

I thought I would set out the data on the grammar counties, where children are sorted at the age of 11 according to an academic test.

To do this, I have defined a new region of England: Selectivia. I have removed the biggest selective counties – Kent, Lincolnshire, Medway and Buckinghamshire – from their geographical regions and shoved them together into one new region*. So what is it like? First, you can see that this region is quite well off, compared to most regions, especially London.

Region IDACI score FSM
East Midlands 0.195 12.0%
East of England 0.168 9.2%
London 0.340 22.4%
North East 0.245 17.4%
North West 0.233 16.2%
Selectivia 0.162 8.8%
South East 0.150 8.3%
South West 0.164 9.4%
West Midlands 0.236 16.4%
Yorkshire and the Humber 0.216 14.6%

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Chris Cook

It is fairly well established, as various people have pointed out over the past few days, that poor children in the UK are more likely to be overweight than their richer peers. This is often seen as a curious reversal of older norms: poor children used to be lean.

But one aspect of modern poverty is the same as ever. Inner city school leaders sometimes talk about children looking poorer than others. What they are referring to is not weight, but height. Poor kids are usually shorter (especially ex-refugees). Read more

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

Next week, the Department for Education is unveiling access to the Key Stage 4 league tables. The interesting policy thing to watch for is how many schools are under the floor target – these schools are at risk of a takeover by an academy chain. This is not straightforward: academy chains are not all equal, there is a limit to how far they can grow -and some of them are already struggling with the load they have.

Based on early drafts of the data returns (and assuming the DfE doesn’t calculate this stuff in an odd way*), about 240 schools last year failed to get 40 per cent of their pupils Cs in English, maths and three others. Of these, about 220 had a below-average number of pupils making “adequate progress” in English and maths, putting them at risk of takeovers.

Before the DfE starts its getting-tough-on-failing-schools routine, I thought I would update and republish two graphs. First, I have worked out what happens if you remove the failing schools. Answer: not an enormous amount. As ever, these are average results for poor pupils (on the left) running over to the richest (on the right).

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Chris Cook

This week, I have written a fair amount about England’s schools, and how well the capital does. I thought that today, I would publish some data that will help explore some finer differences: how well do children do at a borough level?

Below the fold, I have worked out the FT score for each child (a score based on their performance in English, maths and three other GCSEs). I then ran a regression through the data, which predicts performance based on background and by local area.

This is, in effect, a similar exercise to the one in benchmarking school systems, and has all the same caveats. But this time around, the objective is to get a steer on how levels of attainment vary in different boroughs for an individual child of similar social circumstances. 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.

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Chris Cook

Last summer, there was an eruption of concern among schools that the GCSE English exam had suddenly been made harder by a change in grade boundaries. Ofqual, the exams regulator whose job it is to keep exams equally easy in all years, certainly intervened: what is not clear is if it got it right, or whether it made it too difficult.

A judge is considering whether the boundary-setting was conducted via a fair process. But we now have some data with which to look at the issue from the National Pupil Database. I have GCSE English (or English language) results and each candidate’s scores at the age of 11 (although not which exam they took, nor their exam board*).

Since the aim of boundary-setting is to keep exams equally difficult, and since Ofqual believes the school system has not improved, we can use these two results together to tell us something: similarly able children at the age of 11 should get roughly the same grade in 2011 and 2012. There are horribly complex ways to do this formally, but I am going for an intuitive method. 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

Students From Liverpool's John Moore University Receive Their Degrees Today’s UCAS statistics are pretty grim: the number of people applying to UK universities is falling, and the drops are big. A 6 per cent fall in applications since last year is a big deal.

At the same stage last year, 321,908 people had applied for places. This year, it is 303,861. At the 2011 peak, it was 344,064. These are preliminary results: lots of students are still weighing their options and will apply in the coming months, but it is a big fall. Read more

Chris Cook

At the moment, the Department for Education is considering changes to the league tables and the exam system. This seems an opportune moment to make a simple point about qualification-awarding and accountability: English school examinations are subject to measurement error in a really big way.

Here is a simple thought experiment to flesh it out. Imagine a class of 100 students. Let us specify that each one has a “true” ability that means that one pupil should get one point, one pupil should get two, one should get three and so on – up to 100 marks. Now, let’s award this class one of 10 grades: 90+ gets you an A, 80+ a B and so on.

Let us assume that the tests are perfect. If that were the case, you would get ten individuals in each grade. Easy enough. But what happens if we start introducing errors into the test? We can do that with a set of exotically named (but very simple) “Monte Carlo” estimates, which I calculated using this simple spreadsheetRead more

Chris Cook

Last week, I went to Wolverhampton where I spoke at a local debate, organised by the university and Pat McFadden, the local MP, about the local authority’s school. I was the warm-up act for Lord Adonis, former schools minister, setting the scene about the city’s education system before his talk on lessons on school improvement.

It was interesting event – and the city is clearly considering its future and the role of education within it. There is – judging by my inbox – serious and deep interest in improving schools in the city. One of the things I sought to do was set out Wolvo’s position in relation to the rest of the country – and what statistics about the city tell us.

Here is my presentation: Read more

Kate Allen

The Treasury’s long-awaited review of the Private Finance Initiative has been released as part of today’s Autumn Statement. It contains some pretty damning findings – and some interesting proposals for the years ahead.

Firstly, it’s ditching the much-maligned name “PFI”. Instead, from now on we will have “PF2″. Get used to it. Here are some of the other interesting points in the report. Read more

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

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

The argument about GCSE English grades continues to boil away. Legal actions are commencing. The attention has uncovered clues that exam reforms over the past few years have, by accident, been more substantial than ministers or officials had intended. The marking system used for the old O-level might have been reintroduced by stealth – and accident.

Here’s why: English exams used to deploy a process called “norm referencing” (or “marking on a curve”). That means that, in effect, you hand out grades depending on their position. In 1963, it was decided that roughly the top 10 per cent of A-level entrants would get an A, the next 15 per cent a B and so on.

Since the 1980s, exams have used “criterion referencing”. That is to say, they say “if you know the date of the Battle of Hastings, that is worth an C. If you know about William the Conqueror’s claim on the throne, you get a B. If you know about Hardrada, get an A…” Under this model, you can have changing numbers of pupils getting each grade.

This graph, from Alan Smithers at Buckingham, shows what happened when England switched from one to the other in the late 1980s.

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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