Flawed coasting measures can only skim the surface

23rd March 2018 at 00:00
The DfE needs to re-think how it identifies 'coasting' schools, says the Tes Data Doctor

What image does the phrase “coasting school” conjure up? I imagine a school that isn’t trying very hard – a school that’s cruising along in neutral, or perhaps freewheeling downhill without a care in the world.

The reality is quite different.

Coasting schools are identified using a series of thresholds, over three years. For secondary, this means schools with Progress 8 scores below -0.25 for the past two years, less than 60 per cent of pupils achieving 5 A*-C grades, including English and maths and which are below the national medians for expected progress in 2015. The primary school coasting definition is more complicated, involving an attainment threshold of 85 per cent achieving expected standards (or level 4) in reading, writing and maths for the last three years and being below various progress measures set for each subject.

In 2017, 9.6 per cent of secondary schools (271 schools) and 4 per cent of primary schools (524 schools) were identified as “coasting”.

I recently read an Ofsted report for a school placed into special measures. It contained the following statement in the “outcomes for pupils” section: “The school met the government’s definition of a coasting school in 2016 and looks likely to do so again in 2017.”

Although this school has not been officially identified as “coasting”, this statement suggests that staff aren’t trying hard enough.

Running to stand still

But I know this school. It is in an area of high deprivation, with numerous social and educational challenges. It is a school where teachers have to run to stand still. Yes, their results at key stage 2 are low, but is it fair or accurate to describe such a school as “coasting”?

The coasting measure is seriously flawed. It should identify schools with above average results, but low progress – those schools that benefit from the high attainment of their intakes.

Instead, we have another measure that singles out the lowest-performing schools, usually in areas of high deprivation, which are educating the most disadvantaged pupils.

If the Department for Education really want to identify “coasting” schools, this measure needs a complete rethink. Remember the quadrant plots in RAISE, where value added was plotted against relative attainment? That would provide a fairer method. It would provide a much clearer distinction between schools that are coasting and those that are below floor.

Alternatively, we could scrap the entire measure. That would make things even clearer and fairer still.

James Pembroke founded Sig+, a school data consultancy, after 10 years working with the Learning and Skills Council and local authorities. www.sigplus.co.uk

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