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Sats: 'It feels like an unpredictable blanket bog of accountability can pull us down at any moment'

As Sats attainment rises, so will the 'sufficient progress' threshold, but how much is it about maintaining the right amount of 'improvement'? Tes' Data Doctor, James Pembroke, asks

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As Sats attainment rises, so will the 'sufficient progress' threshold, but how much is it about maintaining the right amount of 'improvement'? Tes' Data Doctor, James Pembroke, asks

This time two years ago, the key stage 2 floor standard was set to be 85 per cent achieving expected standards in reading, writing and maths; the expected standard was claimed to be "broadly equivalent to a 4b", and the phrase "secondary ready" was still being used in official guidance.

Then things started to change. During the 2015 summer break, the floor standard took a holiday and came back sporting a slimmed down figure. Oh, how we celebrated this prevailing of common sense. 65 per cent achieving a 4b didn’t sound so bad. Nicky Morgan even announced that the proportion of schools below floor would increase by no more than 1 percentage point. Teachers forgot about floor standards and focussed their frustration on the missing assessment frameworks.

Then the tests happened. Fifty-three per cent of pupils nationally achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and maths. The nation had fallen way below its own floor standard.

Despite the political spin – over half had "risen to the challenge" – this didn’t look good. Surely, the promised negligible impact on the number of schools below floor would be revised? By this point, the DfE had introduced the concept of "sufficient progress" thresholds for schools where attainment fell below 65 per cent (ie, most schools). The school’s progress scores would have to match or exceed all three of these thresholds to be safe – falling below just one spelled trouble. But in order to get just the right number of schools, they were forced to set the progress thresholds extremely low. They simply ranked all primary schools by their progress scores and based the thresholds on the scores of schools ranked at the fifth percentile. The term "sufficient progress" suddenly seemed farcical.

And what of this year? Well – surprise, surprise – all results have gone up.

Writing – the focus of much debate last year – has improved from 74 per cent achieving expected standard, to 76 per cent. Maths is up by 5 per cent points to 75 per cent; and grammar, punctuation and spelling increased from 73 per cent to 77 per cent. Reading, the real anomaly last year, has improved from 66 per cent to 71 per cent, despite the pass mark increasing from 21 to 26. Most importantly for the DfE, the national combined figure has increased by a huge 8 per cent points to 61 per cent, closing the gap on the 65 per cent floor standard.

One has to wonder: what does it all mean?

In 2015 – the last year of levels – 80 per cent of pupils achieved Level 4 in the three subjects combined, and results were starting to plateau. We had reached peak level. 2016 was like a hard reset – a paperclip pushed into the tiny hole at the back of accountability system.  I don’t want to detract from the hard work of teachers, and pupils were no doubt better prepared than last year, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that this year’s Sats cohort had 50 per cent more teaching of the new curriculum than the 2016 cohort, and next year’s cohort will have had a full key stage of it.

Politicians will spin it, of course, stating that last year’s low results are proof of high expectations and rigour and that the inevitable year-on-year increase is the fruit of these reforms; but under such conditions, "improvement" is inevitable.

School improvement appears to be based on a Goldilocks principle: not too much, not too little, just right. Next year, reading will probably improve by more than other subjects to close the gap, and the combined figure will no doubt pull itself above floor. As attainment rises, so will the sufficient progress thresholds in order to maintain the "right" number of schools below floor.

I’m not much of a conspiracy theorist but I have to ask myself: how much of the tweaking of pass marks is about maintaining comparability of expected standards from one year to the next, and how much is it about maintaining the right amount of "improvement"?

Sometimes it feels as if we are navigating our way across an unpredictable blanket bog of accountability that can pull us down at any moment. It is all too easy to forget that at the heart of this system are teachers who care passionately about children’s learning, and children who love learning and love their schools.

As a parent, that’s all I care about.  

James Pembroke founded Sig+, an independent school data consultancy, after 10 years working with the Learning and Skills Council and local authorities and is the Tes Data Doctor. 

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