And so, as secondary school performance tables are published for England – more commonly known as "Let’s Clobber Schools Day" – we begin with a thought for the day.
It comes from Professor Daniel Koretz, an acknowledged international expert in that inelegantly named hinterland of education we call "accountability".
Bear in mind what is wittily said about professors: they are people who know more and more about less and less until eventually they know everything about nothing. Well, Professor Koretz seems to know everything we need to know about the ways children are tested in order that schools can be judged. Here’s his pithy conclusion: “Test-based accountability has led to a corruption of the ideals of teaching.”
Anyone picking up his new book won’t be entirely surprised by his views. Its title gives it away: The Testing Charade: Pretending to make schools better.
The professor’s compelling theory is that an obsession with using a narrow range of tests to make high-stakes judgements about the performance of young people, their teachers, leaders, schools and the nation’s education system as a whole, comes at a terrible cost. It narrows the curriculum, leads to obsessive teaching to the test, and ultimately deskills teachers. All that – plus, it’s a charade. If we believe accountability drives school improvement, let’s be clear that it doesn’t.
Obsessive teaching to the test
I think it’s worth holding on to Professor Koretz’s perspective as the annual education pantomime season begins again, with its passing flurry of media interest in the publication of school and college performance tables and the bogus conclusions that will be drawn from them.
Thus, the Department for Education has released statistics showing a set of data which is barely comprehensible to anyone other than hardcore statisticians. The most important of these is Progress 8, which gives schools scores either side of zero to two decimal places based on a complex measurement of pupil progress between Year 6 and Year 11. Because these scores are meaningless to most people, the department adds blunt labels such as "below average" or "well above average".
The department then chastises a certain group of schools by categorising them as below the "floor" or "coasting" standards. The coasting standard, in particular, is an extremely complex measure but its effects can be devastating, especially on schools in communities where education provision can be fragile, the recruitment and retention of teachers and leaders at its most challenging.
A dose of statistical humiliation is the last thing these schools need.
The department will, of course, say that these standards are intended to identify schools that may require support. But when you are on the receiving end of such blunt metrics, when your school is gleefully paraded in the local newspaper as "failing", it’s hard not to take it all personally and to crave an easier gig.
The good news is that education secretary Damian Hinds has himself acknowledged that the current system is confusing and he intends to replace it “with a single measure to trigger support for schools”. The department intends to implement the new system – which has yet to be decided – from September 2019.
League tables punish schools in poor areas
So, today’s performance tables should be the last time that we see schools categorised as being below the floor and coasting standards. However, that fails to remove the other major issue with the secondary school performance tables, which is that they punish schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged pupils.
I use the word "punish" deliberately, because research published today by the University of Bristol shows that once factors such as deprivation and special educational needs are taken into account, 40 per cent of schools currently judged to be underperforming would no longer fall into this category.
Researcher Dr George Leckie said: “It seems clear from our results that the higher the proportion of disadvantaged pupils in a school, the more it will effectively be punished for the national underperformance of these pupil groups.”
The obvious answer would be to take context into account in the performance tables, but the government doesn’t like that argument, seeing it as lacking in ambition for the most disadvantaged pupils.
What it fails to recognise is that the system itself is undermining progress in schools in the most deprived communities. Leaders are less likely to step into headship roles in the knowledge that the statistical odds are stacked against them. And schools are stigmatised by performance data, which makes it harder to recruit teachers and demoralises children, families and local communities.
What all of this tells us is that the performance tables have had their day. Wouldn’t it be refreshing to have a system instead that rewards the inclusive mission of schools with high proportions of disadvantaged and vulnerable learners rather than punishing them? Wouldn’t it be better to have a range of measurements that help us to compare like with like, so that schools in similar contexts can actively learn from each other, with data used as a tool for improvement rather than a cosh.
Use data for school improvement
Here at ASCL we are looking at how we might develop such a system. We call it inclusive accountability. And we think it could be a game-changer.
In the meantime, we need to make sure that people – politicians, journalists, parents and communities – understand that performance data can never tell the whole story of a school. It is at best a momentary Snapchat image that can never capture the full richness of a curriculum, the joy and fulfilment of human interactions, and the optimistic experiences and opportunities that we see in so many schools and colleges every day.
The labyrinthine set of data and spreadsheets published by the department today seems a million miles away from these realities of school life. That is because schools are living, breathing places that cannot be summed up by statistics alone.
Numbers will only ever tell us so much. As most parents know, there’s a much bigger, better, more optimistic story to tell about our education system and the people who make it happen. We owe it to ourselves to tell that story more.
Geoff Barton is the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders