No one wins in this race of perverse incentives

11th January 2019 at 00:00
The Progress 8 measure has been criticised for encouraging schools to game the system. But the real problem is the blinkered English Baccalaureate, argues J L Dutaut, who calls for the system to be overhauled before history repeats

On 14 October 2013, the Department for Education announced that it was creating Progress 8 because the previous accountability measure was driving perverse incentives.

On 17 October 2018, the department announced that it would be reviewing Progress 8 – on the grounds that it was driving perverse incentives.

I don’t need a time machine to tell you that circa 20 October 2023, the DfE will be announcing a new school-measurement review, because whatever it comes up with in the coming months will by then be driving perverse incentives, too.

The situation has all the depressing hallmarks of Ofsted’s regular inspection-framework revamps: it’s just as political and – no matter what any of them say about the process being evidence-informed – just as morally bankrupt.

Evidence can’t tell you where to go, only how best to get there once you’ve decided. What we seem to have decided is that the only acceptable destination for our education system is ever-increasing numbers of students passing a narrow set of exams at the age of 16. Taken at face value, this is unsustainable. Pressure in the bottleneck invariably begins to increase upstream, so that we are already talking about early years reforms designed to prepare our youngest for their childhood-long journey to this outcome.

For these reasons, every political cycle starts or culminates with a review of the national curriculum itself. Teachers invariably learn to simultaneously dance with Ofsted and flirt with the DfE in sufficient numbers that the whole rigmarole risks being revealed in its stark nakedness or, worse, being labelled successful. The latter is the nightmare that keeps DfE civil servants awake at night. There are all sorts of veils and makeovers for unsightly politicking. Failing that, a good moral panic never fails to distract attention. But success? Great Scott, Marty! How would mandarins keep their ministers busy?

What are the connotations of the DfE’s use of the word “perverse” in describing incentives? Now there’s a question worthy of a GCSE exam paper. I wouldn’t want to be accused of teaching to the test, but the best conclusions to such an essay would consider whether it was the incentives themselves that were truly perverse or the methods we developed to meet their desired outcomes. After looking at the reasons for the existence of Progress 8, and the arguments against it, one might explore how it interplays with other measures of school accountability, including the English Baccalaureate.

Policymakers ought to be most concerned about the policies that people rarely question, and the EBacc is one of those. Far be it from me to query the subjects in its pantheon. Literacy, numeracy, a knowledge of the world’s history and its workings, and an introduction to its languages seem unassailable basic privileges that all should enjoy. But what of the arts? What about music and drama? How can you say that engineering, sport or ICT are any less important? What about the demands of our modern society and its economy?

Considered broadly, these questions shouldn’t concern schools. Whether education provision meets the government’s industrial strategy is a matter for families and communities – dare I say, for students themselves – to determine. For us, it must be a question of providing choice, and we are increasingly failing to do so.

Getting EBacc on track

Reviewing Progress 8 because of its detrimental effect on the arts in schools categorically will not solve the problem. Calls to do so are either naive or deliberately obfuscatory. Adding more compulsory subjects – or buckets – to what is a blunt measurement tool risks perverting what we might aim to achieve by such a policy. Making more students sit exams they don’t value can lead only to the devaluation of the subjects in question, and a nightmare for teachers.

The last thing Progress 8 needs is some piecemeal reform, or even scrapping. Because the problem is not Progress 8 but the EBacc.

When policymakers speak of the EBacc, they refer to its strands as if they were single subjects, and the notion they peddle is one of educational equality. We know that the strands are much broader, and the resulting EBaccs far less equal than billed.

Some EBaccs include geography, some history. Some don’t include physics, others biology or chemistry. Some include French, some Mandarin, some both. Because each subject specification is developed to be equally challenging, this acts as a “good enough” proxy for equitability. We think no further on the matter – yet, it is precisely this equal weighting of subjects in the EBacc (and not Progress 8) that causes all the problems elsewhere. The system we have is designed to provide versatility while securing access to a common core. The reality is that it is doing neither.

In truth, the EBacc is of no value to anyone but policymakers – and it isn’t even of value to them. This is in stark contrast to the International Baccalaureate or its French counterpart. These are qualifications in their own right. No British school graduate is going to their employer with “EBacc” on their CV because no employer is asking for an EBacc as an essential criterion. That’s a big problem.

Imagine instead that there were different prescribed routes through the EBacc, and each of these routes culminated in a qualification in its own right. Come Year 9, students would choose to follow one of, say, three EBacc pathways. From Year 10, they would continue to study all the current EBacc subject areas, but with different weightings – and varied modules – according to their fledgling specialisations:

 

* A scientific EBacc with all the sciences, lots of maths, English language, a foreign language and combined humanities.

* A literary EBacc with English language and literature, two languages, some maths, combined humanities and combined sciences.

* A humanities EBacc with history, geography and RE, English language, some maths, a foreign language and combined sciences.

 

Alongside each would be a full choice of real options. Students choosing an extra history GCSE would do so because they loved history – not because it wasn’t French.

At present, the arts are pushed out of Progress 8, not because there aren’t enough buckets but because a rigid EBacc remains a school’s priority measure for accountability. When schools are entering more students for more core humanities subjects, sciences or languages instead of more arts or, say, media studies, they aren’t gaming the system. They are playing the game precisely by its rules.

Enabling more modularity of the EBacc itself – not the subject specifications within it – would allow us to preserve the high level of challenge our curriculum ought to demand, as well as the common core entitlement for all students. Importantly, it would remove the truly perverse incentive: the one that positively encourages schools to present students with false choices from timetable blocks designed to prioritise EBacc subjects. Better yet, it would allow students to opt for a level of specialisation while creating the time for them to pursue other academic interests.

So, if we must embrace school measurement by exam results – and that is a big if – then let’s at least make the accountability measure one that reflects as much on the politicians at the top as on the teachers below. If we accept mere tampering with Progress 8, then schools will continue to be forced by the DfE to deliver a broken vision of educational equality, and be beaten by Ofsted for failing to do it.

Let’s instead make sure that the DfE:

 

* Joins Ofsted in refocusing on the real matter of education: curriculum.

* Moves away from punitive measures towards creating the conditions for real and sustainable educational success.

* Reviews the EBacc to create more diverse routes that allow students to take real first steps towards educational agency.

* Ensures all EBacc pathways preserve the common core entitlement of future citizens to literacy, numeracy, a shared identity, and access to knowledge and culture.

* Empowers schools to broaden their curriculum offer without sacrificing depth.

 

Come 2023, there won’t be a time machine to bring us back. It is in our power now to demand something better than to see our successes consistently rebranded as gaming or perversions. Tampering with incentives is a political cop-out and the future of that kind of policymaking is already written.

If we want to relieve the bottleneck pressure reaching back to early years provision, then we have to get serious about our qualifications. Otherwise – no matter what the latest Ofsted framework says, nor which bucket gets added to Progress 8 – the future we’re hurtling towards is one of decline for the curriculum, and eternal recurrence of the same.

J L Dutaut is a teacher of politics and citizenship, and co-editor of Flip the System UK: a teachers’ manifesto

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