'Teachers know a pupil’s chances of success depend hugely on economic, social and cultural background'

2nd August 2016 at 12:53
Free school meals
Raw test and exam results are not fit for use as high stakes public accountability, says one education policy researcher

Sam Freedman wrote and tweeted a TES column (22 July, article free for subscribers) which I had to read three times to believe. I quote:

"… teachers [in Blackpool schools] have particular difficulties engaging parents in their children’s education… Economics explains some of the reasons… But some of the reasons are also social… These areas need strong economic incentives for companies to invest; they need high quality social housing; they need adequate mental health services… our accountability system does not properly recognise the challenges in these parts of the country."

Rejoice, the sinner repenteth. Sam speaks for Teach First, whose "can-do" message has denied or ignored these vital facts since 2010, including what all education workers know: a pupil’s chances of school success depend hugely on their economic, social, and cultural background.

When it comes to our most deprived communities, lifestyle choices are somewhat limited by not having the money for a bus fare into town or for the gas meter to cook a meal. Up and down this country, the sixth richest in the world, schools and community groups are providing food parcels for children who would otherwise go hungry during the summer break.

Of course, this is not just about Blackpool, but about communities across the country, particularly in large parts of the Midlands and the North, which have never recovered economically from deindustrialisation and have not yet been blessed by a visit from Teach First.

This is about the shared hopelessness of a whole social class in places where there are so few real secure jobs to match their skills. This is about the millions for whom national mainstream politics says nothing and governments seldom make a difference (but see SureStart).

So yes, a national investment bank is one way to raise educational performance (but with a lag, of course); others are a a real regional development policy which reverses London-centric public investment and a modern local public transport policy which once again serves the public.

Test data doesn't paint a true picture

But the most startling thought concerns school accountability. Sam’s almost throwaway remark puts a bomb under one of the key foundations of recent schools policy, that both the government and the public can get a good picture of the quality of schools by a combination of test data and Ofsted reports.

Actually, we can’t; not just because much important learning in schools is not captured by either method, but also because a school’s FSM score alone does not capture the life experience and attitudes that children bring into school from their communities and which have such a strong influence on their capacity and motivation to succeed.

While some politicians clearly continue to believe that you can tell a good school from its raw test and exam results, this has long been discredited amongst policymakers. But the implication that FSM scores, as currently used, are insufficient casts huge doubt on league tables and their uses. It is not only schools in Blackpool whose difficulties are not truly reflected in inspections and league tables, but schools across the country in struggling communities.

One major reason that the government’s assessment policy is in a mess is precisely the inappropriate use of formal assessment as an accountability tool. A much more useful and cost-effective accountability system would be school inspection and improvement conducted as an ongoing process at local level by professionals who understand the social context of the school, with their work moderated nationally. It already seems that the new secretary of state is interested in evidence (an excellent innovation). The evidence from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development is that test data is not fit for use as high stakes public accountability.

I’m still not sure whether Sam meant all this. But a penny has dropped somewhere, and I look forward to his further working through of the implications of his observations.

Martin Johnson is an education policy researcher and editor of Education Politics and a former deputy general secretary of the ATL teachers' union

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