Game over

14th December 2012 at 00:00
Lib Dem minister proposes points system to end league table `gaming'

Ministers are considering new league table measures that would assign points to each grade a pupil achieves at GCSE in a bid to stop schools "gaming" the system by focusing on the five A* to C benchmark.

Schools minister David Laws said this week that he was looking at the measure among a range of options to overhaul the ways school standards were held to account.

The proposals come as Mr Laws dismissed concerns held by employers, teachers and even the head of exams regulator Ofqual around the new English Baccalaureate Certificates (EBCs). He claimed that many of the fears around the new exam were misinformed.

Speaking to TES, the Liberal Democrat said the Department for Education was aware of the need for a more accurate accountability framework and was considering a measure that would assign a point score to each grade in an attempt to counteract the focus on the CD borderline.

"That type of thing is something we're looking at," he said. "It is among quite a number that we're looking at and for each of these things we need to test what behaviour it is likely to drive and will it drive good behaviour."

Mr Laws said there should be a range of measures so that the system did not become "excessively dependent on one thing that can be gamed".

"[This needs to be done] without adding so many different elements to accountability that schools don't know whether they are coming or going and nobody can see whether schools are doing well or badly," he added.

The extent to which schools try to "game the system" was recently highlighted in TES by news that hundreds of schools were entering pupils for GCSE and IGCSE English at the same time in an attempt to boost their position in league tables.

Earlier this year, Graham Stuart, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, raised the issue of "perverse incentives" created by the government's focusing too heavily on the proportion of pupils gaining five A* to C grades, including English and maths.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, welcomed the idea of a point-based system but warned against a reliance on any single measure when it came to league table accountability.

"We need something like it: the exact mechanics will have to be carefully thought through, but as long as we have this threshold we will get these perverse incentives," Mr Hobby said. "As long as the point system was communicated clearly to parents, it could be used to report pupils' progress effectively.

"But you must guard against relying on just one measure, as schools will change their behaviour in accordance with it over time."

The DfE is in the middle of drafting a consultation paper on secondary school accountability, which is expected to be launched imminently. The move comes alongside plans to replace English, maths and science GCSE with the new EBCs.

Various groups from the CBI and independent school leaders to heads' and classroom unions have voiced concerns about how the proposed qualifications will be designed.

A consultation on EBCs closed this week and Mr Laws pledged to review every submission, but he dismissed many fears for being based on outdated information.

"Of course if you introduce the scale of change that we're talking about there are going to be lots of people with strong views," Mr Laws said. "Some of those views I have found as I have gone round the country are based around issues that we have already resolved.

"There are a lot of people who have a vision based upon ideas trailed around in the media months ago, which is not what we're proposing. When we sit down and explain to people what we are proposing they are much more positive about it."

The remark drew criticism from the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) group of elite independent schools, which has "grave reservations" about the qualification.

"HMC schools welcome greater rigour, and we are very pleased that proposals are for an inclusive award that all young people will sit," William Richardson, HMC general secretary, said. "But we hope the consultation will give the department an absolutely clear sense that there are fundamental technical and structural problems that need to be resolved before EBCs have a likelihood of succeeding."

C change

Since coming to power the coalition has attempted to expand the number of league table measures in a bid to move schools away from focusing too heavily on the five A* to C benchmark.

League tables now show the percentage of pupils in a school that sit and gain good grades in the English Baccalaureate suite of subjects. And for the first time, this year schools have been required to show the "destination data" of how many pupils go on to university.

But critics are concerned that while the five good GCSE threshold remains the fundamental performance measure by which schools are held accountable, schools will continue to adjust their behaviour in accordance with it.

Photo credit: Alamy

Original headline: Points-per-grade scale proposed to tackle league table `gaming'

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