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It’s the accountability measure that’s most revolutionary of all

Article | Published 7 February, 2013 | By: William Stewart

If the idea was that today’s unveiling of new school accountability measures would help distract attention from the government’s embarrassing exams U-turn, then it has backfired badly.

Instead it is the accountability proposals that have been largely ignored. But these rather dry-sounding technical measures stand to make the biggest difference to what is actually taught in state schools.

Anyone who doubts the power of league tables need only look at what happened when the English Baccalaureate measure, focusing on academic GCSEs, was suddenly introduced a couple of years ago.

There was no requirement for schools to take any notice of the EBac as it was not used by the government to measure its official targets. Yet it triggered an instant wave of collective panic among secondaries, which at its extremes saw pupils pulled off GCSEs mid-course and a real narrowing of the curriculum.

Today’s proposals are the real deal and will mean new kinds of official “floor targets” alongside the biggest change to the “headline” measure since school league tables were first introduced in 1992.

Out will go the main benchmark of five A*-C GCSEs (including English and maths) in favour of a points score indicator based on pupils’ achievements in eight qualifications.Because points will be awarded for every grade, schools’ “excessive focus” on pupils on the C-D grade borderline should end.

English and maths will be compulsory in the points measure, alongside any three of the other EBac GCSEs: languages, computer science, history, geography and sciences. The three remaining “slots” could be filled by further EBac GCSEs or “or any other high-value arts, academic or [government approved] vocational qualifications”.

The measure may address many of the concerns that arts and sports lobbyists have voiced about the need for greater breadth in the curriculum. But there will be no compulsory need for pupils to study a science – or indeed a language or humanity – to achieve a points score on the new measure.

The government points out that science will remain a compulsory part of the national curriculum. But of course that curriculum will no longer apply to the nearly 60 per cent of secondaries that are already academies or about to convert.

The EBac itself – with its requirement for a much more prescribed range of its qualifying subjects, including compulsory science – will stay, although whether schools will take as much notice of it under the new regime is open to question. But if they ignore two new measures, which are proposed as the basis of new floor targets, then schools will risk closure.

The government is planning to look at the proportion of pupils in each school who have achieved at least C grades in GCSE maths and English. Secondaries would also be judged on the progress their pupils make on the eight-subject points score measure, relative to their test results in primary school.

The changes should make the important floor standards less dependent on the schools’ intakes, by placing more emphasis on the value that teachers can add.

Ministers are trying to address another much criticised aspect of the league table system by proposing new Pisa-style sampling tests for key stage 4 pupils as a way of tracking national standards in education. The change would mean rising GCSE results would no longer be used as a measure of the success of ministers’ education policies, therefore removing a big incentive for political interference in the schools exams system.      

There is also a proposal for an online “data warehouse” giving everyone access to all the detailed school performance data that exists, allowing them to make more sophisticated comparisons between schools.

Many teachers would question the ability of data to encapsulate all that schools do.
But the government’s philosophy is that the greater the number of measures and amount of information out there, the more parents will know and the harder it will be for schools to “game” the system.

One thing that is not proposed is any successor to contextual value-added scores, which took into account pupils’ socio-economic backgrounds when judging overall school performance. This absence comes despite education secretary Michael Gove telling MPs in December: “I think one of the most important things we can do is ensure in any successor league table system the performance of students, based both on prior attainment and on their socio-economic background, is a feature.”

Schools’ achievements with particularly disadvantaged pupils will be published, it is proposed. But social background will not play a part in any overall measure school performance.

Academics warn that coming up with a reliable way of doing that would be very tricky. But without one, the truth is that despite reforming ministers’ best efforts, league table positions will usually tell you more about the characteristics of a school’s intake than the quality of its teaching.


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