Now we must tackle social inequality not just assess it

Value-added approaches are an instrument, not a substitute for policy, says David Reynolds. The recent publication of the report from Labour's Literacy Task Force and of primary school league tables has again directed attention to the vexed issue as to how we measure school quality. The political debate has generally been between those who support the use of "raw" examination or test results with no allowance made about the context of individual schools and those who support "value-added" approaches that show school quality by making allowances for schools' varied intakes.

The history of this debate is well known. Because there are so many influences upon children's development other than their schools, school effectiveness researchers began 20 years ago to use data on children's family background and on their achievement levels on entry to school to calculate the effects of the individual school upon achievement. This was done in order to identify "effective" schools which were then studied further, generating the substantial school effectiveness research base that exists currently.

The subsequent publication of "raw" school examination results from the early 1980's, which culminated in the publication of the examination league tables from the early 1990s, was heavily criticised by school effectiveness researchers, some of whom, such as Harvey Goldstein and the late Desmond Nuttall, generated their own comparisons between schools using value-added approaches. Such approaches have become increasingly recognised as essential if any comparisons are to be made between schools.

Value-added approaches are not without their problems however. It has been argued that by "taking account of" family background, schools are encouraged to neglect their historic task of educating all children, whatever their social background might be. Value-added methods also require very good predictors of children's achievement to take out the influence of factors other than children's schools.

Crucially, value-added approaches can be criticised because they make it possible for schools which do not do well in an absolute sense on "raw" data to be seen as doing well relatively to their intake, as would be the case for example of a school with quite moderate examination results in a very disadvantaged catchment area. Value-added, put simply, makes it possible for low levels of achievement to be regarded as a relatively successful outcome for a school, if the starting point of that school's pupils were to be relatively low.

The problem with the value-added approach, as it has moved away from being a simple research tool to identify effective schools towards being an agency of national education policy, is that it is pupils' actual, uncontexted levels of achievement with which they enter our labour markets. It is pupils' actual skills obtained that employers use to generate wealth, and, indeed, it is the actual achievement levels of British children that will determine their own value-added that they will generate in employment.

A further problem is that the nature of international competition in an increasingly global economy means that we have increasingly to prescribe very high rates of these actual levels of achievement, for all schools and children in order to compete economically. The National Education and Training Targets goals for the year 2000 and children's universal attainment of level 4 English at key stage 2 proposed by the Literacy Task Force are two examples of this. No one in a highly competitive world will make allowances for Britain's comparitively low levels of educational achievement, in the way that we make allowances for or "context" the low levels of educational achievement of some of our schools.

What we have to do therefore is to reconcile the need for all children to get to high finishing points in terms of their achievement standards, with the existence of huge differences between schools in their starting points and their achievement levels that are shown by research. The only way practically to do this is to introduce massive programmes of positive discrimination, of which two types are likely to be needed: that to most schools with disadvantaged intakes, and that to those schools that perform poorly despite having good intakes.

The positive discrimination that the schools with more disadvantaged children need must clearly involve financial resources and there are interesting schemes to look at in other countries like the Netherlands, where children from disadvantaged homes andor from ethnic minority backgrounds are "weighted" to increase school budgets.

It is important though that none of these additional resources should be swallowed up in general improvements to these schools, but that they should be ring-fenced for spending only upon specific programmes that are established as effective. Examples of these might be Reading Recovery, the National Literacy Association learning systems being piloted in Docklands and the First Steps literacy programme from Western Australia. From the United States, examples of successful and effective projects include Bob Slavin's Success for All programme, in which a combination of strategies including reading instruction, homeschool liaison and school restructuring are utilised to ensure that all elementary school children in his mostly disadvantaged project schools are performing at the level of other schools.

Other forms of support that these disadvantaged schools need could be provided by revived, resourced and reinvigorated local authorities, by an enhanced developmental role for the Office for Standards in Education and by enhanced use of the rapidly increasing school effectiveness and school improvement networks that involve higher educationpolicymakerpractitioner collaboration.

It is important to note that while the need for positive discrimination and help for schools with disadvantaged intakes may be understandable, the failure to develop children's talents in some schools in more advantaged areas which we noted in the Literacy Task Force report probably requires some considerable ineptitude on the part of the schools. Dealing with the problems of those schools which perform poorly despite good intakes may well require different policies.

There is no doubt that value-added research, and the national value-added system that will soon be proposed from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, is of considerable importance. This approach identifies those schools which perform below expectations and predictions across a wide range of different socio-economic contexts, in ways which are not routinely done currently. These approaches also remind us that at the moment the influence of schools upon their children is less than that of the children's backgrounds.

Value-added approaches, though, are best seen as an instrument of education policy - they are not a substitute for the policy itself, which must ensure that the explanation of individual schools' poor or mediocre actual levels of achievement does not become a legitimation or justification of those levels.

The challenge for educational policy and practice is not to deny the obstacles that some schools and children face because of their family backgrounds, as using "raw" school results does, nor to use children's characteristics and backgrounds to recalculate absolute failure to be relative success, as value-added approaches can be used to do.

The solution is to use both the techniques of value-added analysis and the setting of high targets that are a necessity for all schools and all children together, in combination. Assessing the impact of social disadvantage upon schools and upon children need not mean accepting that impact, and what is now needed is for educators in Britain to continue the creation of a technology of educational policy and practice that is so strong, so relentless, and so powerful that it outweighs the effects of outside school influences and helps bring all schools to high standards of achievement, independently of their different backgrounds and starting points.

David Reynolds is professor of education at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He was a member of the Labour party's Literacy Task Force.

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