Education

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.

 

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.

[table id=33 /]

 

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). 

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):

[table id=28 /]

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.

[table id=29 /]

 

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.