‘How many perfectly good teaching careers are in ruins because we treat pupils as data not individuals?’

When will the powers-that-be finally sit up and take note of serious research, asks the general secretary of a major teachers’ union

Mary Bousted

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Pupil progression targets dominate teachers’ working lives. For many, failure to meet these targets will have severe consequences, including increased observation and monitoring by their line managers. For others, failure to hit pupil progression targets will result in denial of pay progression.

Increasingly, teachers are being put into capability proceedings if their pupils’ progress is deemed to be inadequate – and for many the capability process quickly leads to them leaving the profession. (As an aside, it is remarkable just how many women teachers over 50 complain to me that they are being given impossible pupil progression targets and are being shown the exit door with alacrity when these are not achieved.)

It is important to know, therefore, that there is no such thing as linear progress, and that school performance pay systems which place an undue reliance on this notion to judge teacher competency are inadequate and inaccurate (in addition to being punitive, unjust and unprofessional).

Research conducted by Dr Becky Allen, director of Education Datalab, and summarised in the highly readable report "Seven Things You Might Not Know About Our Schools", reveals that just 45 per cent of secondary school pupils make expected progress between Key Stages 2 and 3; and just 33 per cent between Key Stages 3 and 4. Of the pupils who do make expected progress, the majority will do so at an uneven rate, including periods of both slower and more rapid progress. This means that many children will be underperforming at some stage of their school career.

Pupils who have low levels of attainment at Key Stage 1 have particularly uneven progress projections, an observation from which the researchers make one important recommendation: “That these children are not unthinkingly receiving curriculum restriction through placement in lower ability teaching groups or given low targets for attainment, because many of them will go on to achieve later in their school career.”

Education Datalab’s research findings are pure dynamite and should blow up powerful forces in our education system: “Our evidence suggests that the assumptions of many pupil tracking systems and Ofsted inspectors are probably incorrect. The vast majority of pupils do not make linear progress between each Key Stage, let alone across all Key Stages. This means that identifying pupils as ‘on track’ or ‘off target’ based on assumptions of linear progress over multiple years is likely to be wrong.

“This is important because the way we track pupils and set targets for them influences our teaching and learning practice in the classroom, contributes to headteacher judgements of teacher performance and is used to judge whether schools are performing well or not."

These findings could not be more important. They are a fundamental challenge to powerful forces including government ministers and Ofsted, whose policies and inspection framework are based on mistaken notions of linear pupil progression. Yet how many teachers' and school leaders’ careers has Ofsted ruined because of its inadequate and inaccurate conception of linear pupil progress?

And how can the government insist on baseline assessment, upon which progress across KS1 and KS2 will be measured, when the vast majority of pupils will make uneven progress? As the Education Datalab research concludes: “Monitoring systems that trigger rewards or warnings if deviation from the mean average takes place can only work if these deviations are relatively rare.  The way that children learn is too idiosyncratic to do this and so pupil target setting should be more flexible and take into account a range of likely outcomes rather than a single number.”

Is there anyone out there listening? Ofsted? Government education ministers? Anyone at all?

Mary Bousted is general secretary of the ATL education union


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