Quick and dirty

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

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

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

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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