League tables have long been controversial. But parents and students have the right to know how schools are performing – and teachers and schools need to be accountable.
To this end, the first set of Progress 8-led league tables were published earlier this year. Replacing the previous 5 A*-C pass-focused format, the reformed measures are intended to assess the progress a student makes over a five-year period.
In theory, this makes sense. It seems fairer to look at progress made, rather than judging success on GCSE results.
Unfortunately, Progress 8 does not reflect wider achievement. It is a narrow measure with a wholly academic theme. Its introduction has forced many schools to drop vocational subjects – and creative subjects have been lost at many schools.
And then there are the 22 colleges that offer provision for 14-16 year olds, seven of which have sector-specialist career colleges. These colleges create employer-led programmes that include maths, English and enterprise skills alongside an industry specialism.
Not a model system
Career colleges offer a real alternative for students who thrive in a more “hands-on” environment – and in many cases have become disengaged with school. They focus on creating a line of sight to a career in an expanding industry that offers excellent job prospects. Most of these students progress into further education, apprenticeships or employment – avoiding becoming Neet (not in education, employment or training).
It is not about “watering down” academic standards, it’s about re-engaging young people with a fresh approach to learning.
Yet most of these pioneering colleges were languishing at the bottom of the Progress 8 league tables last week. They were unfairly deemed as underperforming, because of their vocational curriculum, student profile and the fact that students join in Year 10 or Year 11, as opposed to Year 7. The alternative 14-16 set up simply doesn’t fit with the Progress 8 model and it is impossible to reflect the many successes being achieved in these colleges.
Success is not just about passing exams. For me, it is about is seeing a young person develop skills to help them progress from school or college into a great career.
Employers constantly bemoan the fact that many young people, even those with degrees and other well-respected qualifications, do not have the skills that industry needs. The narrow focus of Progress 8 will not help with this: it will instead compound the issue.
In 2016, Ofsted published a study in which it expressed concern that students did not have the opportunity to develop employability skills or get any work experience – and were therefore ill-prepared for the transition to work.
Many young people in well-performing schools will be missing out on studying more creative subjects, college students will have the stigma of attending a supposedly underperforming institution and employers will continue not to have their skills and business needs met.
So if Progress 8 is not working for students, colleges or employers, what is the point of it?
The expanding network of career colleges is evidence of the demand for high-quality vocational pathways. They are primarily judged on how effectively they help young people into fulfilling employment and long-term careers.
It is perhaps an example of disconnected government policy. How can we expect to get anywhere near the 3 million apprenticeship start target when vocational education at a younger age is more or less being forced off the curriculum?
Introducing T levels is an excellent move, but will 16-year-olds, who have had such a narrow education to that point be able to cope with what industry demands?
Last year’s Industrial Strategy clearly set out the government’s plan to “create an economy that boosts productivity and earning power throughout the UK”. I cannot see how this will happen without changing the focus and priorities of education much earlier.
Ruth Gilbert is chief executive of the Career Colleges Trust