Where you come from matters after all, says Gove

18th January 2013 at 00:00
He wants league tables to consider socio-economic background again

Just over two years ago, the government condemned the idea of league table measures taking into account pupils' socio-economic background, describing the idea as "morally wrong".

But now Michael Gove appears to have had a change of heart. Speaking ahead of a forthcoming review of the school accountability system, the education secretary has said that the relative wealth of pupils should again be reflected in school performance measures.

"I think one of the most important things we can do is ensure in any successor league table system (that) the performance of students, based both on prior attainment and on their socio-economic background, is a feature," he told MPs last month.

The Department for Education has stressed that the wide-ranging contextual value added (CVA) measure - which took into account nine different factors including the gender, ethnicity, wealth and first language of pupils - will not return, having been scrapped by the government in 2011. But Mr Gove's comments suggest that another way of acknowledging the relative disadvantage of pupils could be on the cards.

The DfE is yet to reveal its proposals for overhauling the accountability regime, with a consultation originally slated for 2012 now expected "in the new year", according to officials. A statement from the government says that it will "explore how we can ensure that schools are rewarded for teaching high value qualifications and are able to make decisions about qualifications on the basis of their worth without perverse incentives".

The DfE's previous stance on accountability was set out in its white paper The Importance of Teaching, published in November 2010, which revealed that CVA was to be abolished. It was not just that the league table measure was difficult to understand, the paper said. "It also has the effect of expecting different levels of progress from different groups of pupils on the basis of their ethnic background, or family circumstances, which we think is wrong in principle," it explained. "It is morally wrong to have an attainment measure which entrenches low aspirations for children because of their background."

But, speaking to the Commons Education Select Committee last month, Mr Gove said: "I agree it is a good thing to have a value-added measure that takes account of socio-economic background."

Christopher Anders, head of Park Community School in Havant, Hampshire, which finished in the top 10 schools for CVA for every year that the measure existed, welcomed the signs of a rethink. "Not taking account of socio-economic factors when judging a school is the wrong thing to do," he said.

Mr Anders said he never saw a CVA score as an end in itself, but added that the measure had helped him to monitor the progress of his school, which has the most disadvantaged intake in its county.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said he was "very pleased" to hear of the government's apparent change of heart. "ASCL never believed that CVA lowered expectations," he said.

Professor Stephen Gorard of the University of Birmingham identified difficulties with CVA before the measure was introduced that he said made it a "nonsense". He says those problems - such as missing data invalidating the final score - would have to be overcome by any new measure.

"In principle, we want something like this because there is obviously a demand for it," Professor Gorard said. "But I don't think we have anything that actually works and it would be immoral to go live with something that doesn't."

Professor Gorard said a new measure should be less inherently competitive than CVA, which only measured a school's performance relative to other schools. This made it impossible for them all to do well on the measure at the same time, discouraging collaboration.

A DfE spokesperson said: "The secretary of state is crystal clear that it is morally wrong to presuppose that particular groups of children will underachieve because of their background.

"This is why we reintroduced value-added scores - these take into account pupils' prior attainment without providing the excuses CVA gave for poor progress."

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