For all the changes that secondary schools have managed to cope with over the past five years, the one with the biggest impact is yet to come. This summer will see the unlamented demise of the five A*-C measure and in 2017, there will be a new set of accountability measures led by Progress 8 – a value-added measure based on grades in a tightly defined suite of subjects.
Few people outside of the school system have heard of it – and there aren’t many in the system who fully understand it – but it will change schools more rapidly and profoundly than any other reform. As we all know, five A*-C has, for over 15 years, placed ever-increasing pressure on the C/D borderline. While this has been obvious for some time, it was during the English GCSE fiasco in 2012 that I realised how much of a distorting effect it was having on the system.
The number of students clustered around the C-grade pass mark was extraordinary and one reason why a small adjustment in grade boundaries had such a huge impact on schools. Many schools – especially those serving more disadvantaged groups – have built their curriculum offer around getting as many pupils as possible to a C grade. Tracking and intervention are focused on those with the potential to get over the line.
Once Progress 8 arrives, all of the systems and processes will become redundant. It works by aggregating the school’s value-add to all pupils so that there will be an incentive to identify those who can make the most progress, whatever their attainment. It’s likely that schools will zero in on groups that can make rapid progress – notably pupils with English as an additional language and high attainers. Curricula will change so that all those capable of doing English Baccalaureate subjects will do so; those who aren’t will at least maximise their now double-weighted English and maths grades.
The government has, possibly inadvertently, hastened the process by scrapping the C-grade altogether [all exams will graded numerically from 1 to 9] – meaning that schools won’t have the option of continuing with their ways of working. It has also decided to designate a “good pass” as a 5 – roughly equivalent to a high C or low B – significantly reducing the number of pupils capable of meeting this benchmark.
If schools know they cannot get most pupils over this line – and it’s no longer the headline accountability measure – they may just ignore it and focus entirely on progress instead. Furthermore, because Progress 8 is so different from five A*-C, it will change the narrative around individual schools’ performance and that of the system as a whole. Some schools that look good now because of high-attaining intake will be shown up. Others that struggle to scrape over 50 per cent five A*-C will now be in the top 1 per cent of high performers.
Unless the media becomes much more adept at statistical explanations, this could cause undue concern. So schools have to prepare themselves for the impact of these changes, while also making sure that its governors, pupils, parents and communities are able to interpret this very different set of information.
Sam Freedman is executive director of programmes at Teach First and a former government policy adviser @SamFr