Labour task force professor defends use of raw results

7th March 1997 at 00:00
Labour's much publicised report on lifting reading standards was far from an inflammatory document: its purpose was to set out the ground, in blame-free and non-political terms, for a mass literacy drive.

But it has inflamed nonetheless. Last week it was attacked by Harvey Goldstein, professor of statistical methods at London University's Institute of Education, who described it as a document flying in the face of research.

"It couldn't have been written by anyone even half familiar with the evidence," he said. This week's TES sees an angry response from Professor Barber ( page 18).

However tempting, it would be wrong to dismiss the exchange as an obscure row between academics - who happen to be senior figures at the same Institute. Labour's literacy report is a clear development in the party's thinking: on what it expects of schools in poor areas; on what educational research can tell us; and on how we should use it.

At its simplest, the accusation is that Labour has sold out to easy targets and crude statistics by setting the same demanding target for all. That like the Government, it is backing league tables. And that it now views complex "value-added" analyses produced by Professor Goldstein and others, analyses which embrace a wide range of background factors, as no more than excuses for unacceptable results.

Both the Government and the Office for Standards in Education have been seen to side with raw results. Labour's position, backed by Professor Goldstein and Professor Carol Fitzgibbon from Durham University has long been that league tables are misleading given the clear advantages enjoyed by some schools.

At the heart of Professor Goldstein's attack is the belief that using raw data will encourage parents to make ill-informed decisions about a schools' worth. Throughout the '80s he helped pioneer complex statistical analyses of school performance. Up in Durham Professor Fitzgibbon has been producing her own analyses helping schools look at their work in acute detail. Both agree simple comparisons between schools are near worthless. Professor Goldstein said, "when you analyse the data properly, most schools can't be separated."

The chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead has been notably determined to condemn poor results irrespective of poverty. The OFSTED report on reading in Southwark, Islington and Tower Hamlets is a case in point. Poor reading was attacked even though statistically speaking the boroughs have, arguably, done quite well with their pupil intake. Professors Goldstein and Peter Mortimore from the Institute replied in a trenchant attack on the OFSTED's refusal to listen to such complexities.

But now Labour has moved in with a "zero tolerance" policy of its own: it wants all 11-year-olds reading at an appropriate level by the year 2006 and has bravely promised that 80 per cent will be doing so by the end of a first Labour term in office. Schools across the poverty range show "unacceptable" variations in performance, it believes. And irrespective of poverty, schools will be expected to reach the standard. Hence the suspicion of the document. Seen in this way, Labour is moving to the right.

It is a charge Professor Barber vigorously rejects. "We're explicitly seeking to redistibute opportunity. For many disadvantaged children education is the best hope. Learning to read is crucial."

Value-added is now a part of the furniture: the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority will soon be publishing its own value-added document. But it is no longer seen as the only tool for raising standards. SCAA is promoting target setting and benchmarking as well. Generalised targets are favoured across the political spectrum in the belief that high expections, however un-scientific they might be, have actually produced remarkable results.

"There's no doubt that value-added was a great advance on what had gone before," says Professor David Reynolds from Newcastle University, a member of Labour's literacy task force. "But value added was originally a research tool. It has been pushed by enthusiasts as an instrument of public policy. And when it becomes that, you have to use it differently.

"The policy judgments to be made about value added go beyond its scientific applications. For example, a school doing moderately well in a poor catchment area would, on value added criteria, be an effective school. Yet the children coming out of the school might well not be literate or numerate. Public policy is concerned about finishing points - about outcomes being as close as possible to absolute, not relative, success. Value added relativises things."

Labour, he says, wants to move beyond value-added, but without penalising schools in deprived circumstances. "We're going beyond notions of relativism towards notions of absolute. But it's not just leaving schools on their own. The document states the need for major positive discrimination. We're not excusing schools with poor results - but we do want to give them massive help. Unlike the Tory use of raw statistics we're using the raw results to intervene. "

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