Unfairness of being tagged a failure

13th June 2008 at 01:00
Is it right to decide the fate of a school based on whether 30 per cent of its pupils achieve five GCSEs at A* to C grades, including English and maths? Here are some glaring problems with taking that approach
Is it right to decide the fate of a school based on whether 30 per cent of its pupils achieve five GCSEs at A* to C grades, including English and maths? Here are some glaring problems with taking that approach:

Ignoring context

The measure takes no account of the prior achievements or social backgrounds of the children. Yet research shows that only a small percentage of the difference in pupils' results between schools can be attributed to anything the school does. Labelling schools on raw results, which show them as scoring below a certain percentage and failing or even underperforming, risks treating them unfairly.

It is especially surprising given that the Government has spent years devising alternative measures, such as contextual value-added (CVA) scoring, which is designed to give a better indication of the contribution a school makes.

Some 10 of the top 30 performers on the value-added measure in this year's league tables are on the Government's hit list. Last year, the schools with the top three CVA results scored below the GCSE target, making them failures in ministers' eyes.

Kicking them while they are down

The threat of closure is likely to further demotivate teachers working in schools that educate disadvantaged children.

Two-thirds of the schools on the list have higher than average levels of children with special educational needs. Secondary moderns also feature disproportionately, although it is inevitable that they will struggle to compete because of their intakes.

Closing a school and reopening it will inevitably involve some disruption for pupils in the short term. It is not clear if that will be in their interests.

Teaching to the test

The scheme also sets up the danger of encouraging schools to pursue short cuts to success, including teaching to the test, the pursuit of "easier" GCSEs and other courses to be used alongside English and maths, and an undue focus on CD borderline pupils.

It could encourage other unintended consequences. One head, who asked not to be named, said some schools might encourage "academic cleansing", whereby pupils unlikely to achieve Government targets are permanently excluded or subject to "managed moves" to other schools in Years 8 and 9.

Other measures of success

The emphasis placed by Government on bringing in new management for the schools on its hit list suggests it is their leadership that is at fault.

But when The TES analysed the schools with GCSE scores below the benchmark last year, it found that more than half had leadership that had been rated outstanding or good by Ofsted inspectors, with only 6 per cent considered unsatisfactory.

The suggestion that all 638 schools with 30 per cent of pupils not achieving five good GCSEs are "failing" will be particularly galling to 70 headteachers on that list. They were invited to a special dinner by the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust earlier this year to celebrate their excellent work in improving their schools' results.

GROWING THREATS

1992: The Conservative Government promises to name and shame schools where fewer than one in 10 gain five good GCSEs

1998: Labour sets GCSE targets for the first time, with the goal that at least half of all pupils achieve five A* to C-grade GCSEs by 2002 (51.5 per cent do so)

2000: Secondaries told that at least a quarter of pupils in each school should be achieving five A* to C-grade GCSEs by 2006 (530 schools were then below that target)

2006: Requirement for English and maths added to GCSE benchmark.

October 2007: Lord Adonis hints at National Challenge, stating that 800 secondaries have below 30 per cent achieving grades, so are not reaching acceptable standards

October 2007: Gordon Brown says the Government will work to "end failure" and get all schools above the 30 per cent threshold by 2012, suggesting those that do not will be closed or replaced with academies

March 2008: Budget brings forward National Challenge deadline to 2011 and makes local authorities produce action plans

June 2008: National Challenge details announced: pound;400m funding.

Warwick Mansell, TES reporter and author of 'Education by Numbers'.

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