Progress 8 gives grammars a ‘head start’, adviser admits

13th May 2016 at 00:00
Measure designed to be fairer is biased in favour of schools with high-ability intakes, DfE analyst says

The government’s new “fairer” secondary accountability measure contains a built-in advantage for schools with high-ability intakes, a senior ministerial adviser who helped to devise it has admitted.

Tim Leunig, an academic and one of the driving forces behind Progress 8, has said that the new indicator will be “biased” in favour of grammar schools.

The comments from Dr Leunig, the Department for Education’s chief scientific adviser and chief analyst, are surprising because he has previously highlighted the particular efforts made to avoid an “unfair” grammar school “bonus” in the Progress 8 measure.

He revealed in 2013 that an earlier version of the measure was “somewhat generous to grammar schools and other [schools] with particularly high-performing intakes” and had placed virtually every grammar “in the top quarter by value added”.

“I thought this cannot be right, it is just implausible,” he said. And in response to this “flawed” methodology he commissioned academics to “work out how we can do this better”.

But now, Dr Leunig has admitted that the final version of Progress 8 – which is replacing the benchmark of five A*-C grades at GCSE, including English and maths – is not “perfect”, “might be flawed” and still contains a built-in grammar school advantage.

Addressing arguments that “grammar schools still do pretty well under Progress 8” at the recent annual conference of the National Association of Secondary Moderns (NASM), Dr Leunig said: “I think that it is biased towards grammar schools in that they have their own exam on the way in so they kind of double-test kids.

“In so far as their exams are good at spotting potential – and I think that’s an open question – they will have a small head start.”

His comments come after an Education Datalab study earlier this year found that secondaries with pupils who had lower average prior attainment were more likely to have low scores on Progress 8.

Duncan Baldwin, deputy director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “There is a systematic issue with any value-added measure whereby schools with higher levels of prior attainment do better.”

Dr Leunig was open about the possibility that his “fair to all schools” system might not work as intended. “The fact that Progress 8 shows that some schools do better than others does not show the methodology is flawed,” he said. “It shows the methodology might be flawed. But it should lead us to ask deeper questions.”

He questioned whether the recruitment of “better teachers” in grammar schools could also have a role to play in differing scores.

“I think it’s plausible that grammar schools find it easier to recruit good teachers because they have fewer disciplinary problems,” he told the conference of secondary modern heads. “They don’t seem to readvertise as often. So it is plausible that they do have better teachers and get better progress outcomes.”

Last year, Ofsted officials suggested that better teachers might account for the disproportionately high numbers of glowing Ofsted verdicts for grammar schools.

But Mr Baldwin dismissed the argument as a “generalisation”. “You will find extraordinary teachers in secondary moderns so that’s a very broad and unsubstantiated claim.”

Grammar school representatives rejected the idea that selective schools found it easier to recruit, and that they had an advantage under the new measure.

Phillip Bosworth, treasurer of the National Grammar Schools Association, said: “Grammar schools have the same problem in recruiting certain subject teachers.

“It is unfair to target grammar schools and say it’s easier.”

But Ian Widdows, founder of NASM, welcomed Dr Leunig’s admission that grammar schools would still be at an advantage. “The government seems to be chasing after a single measure that judges all schools clearly, and that doesn’t exist,” the deputy headteacher at Giles Academy in Lincolnshire said.

See next week’s issue of TES for more in-depth coverage of Progress 8

Secondary moderns: call for extra funding

Secondary modern schools are being encouraged by a senior ministerial adviser to lobby the Department for Education for extra government funding.

The DFE’s chief analyst, Tim Leunig (pictured, inset), said that the schools, which take pupils in selective areas who fail the 11-plus exam, should call for a “very high premium on low prior attainment” in the new national funding formula.

Dr Leunig also suggested that funding could be transferred from grammar schools to secondary moderns.

Addressing the annual conference of the National Association of Secondary Moderns, he said: “It is a legitimate question. If we find that Progress 8 shows you are doing less well, I think you want to be turning around to government and saying, ‘What are you going to do about it?’”

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