The Premier League: secondary school accountability reform explained

In the autumn of 1992 two new leagues were introduced that would transform Britain. One brought new levels of competition, sponsorship and foreign talent into an environment that had long been insular and dated. The other was English football’s Premier League.

The first league I was referring to is school league tables (of course), which were introduced by the Major Government in 1992 and allowed competition in the schooling system so that eventually the door could be prized open to allow in “academy sponsorship” over a dozen years later, and more recently for Swedish inspired free schools to offer further educational choice. Marketisation in the Premier League exploded from 1992 onwards, while in the education system the process has understandably been more of a slow burner, yet both leagues are built on the same principle: encouraging competition improves standards.

Standards have improved as a result of both leagues, although there has undoubtedly been casualties. In secondary school league tables the equivalent to “three points for a win” is currently educating their pupils to achieve a C Grade at GCSE, with the incentive to teach pupils to achieve pupils higher than a C comparable to goal difference – school league tables have created a C Grade at all costs climate in education. For most schools, the aspiration to educate their pupils achieve to study at elitist universities is a superfluous luxury and a pursuit worthwhile only for the best institutions. Just as the Premier League has created a climate whereby for most football clubs three points is more valuable than a win in the cup.*

I believe the new secondary school accountability system will be transformative only if it can be understood, if it can be engaged with and if schools and teachers are given good advice and support. I hope this introduction helps to do that.  We have until 2016 to get it right.

Since their adoption, the most effective criticism about school league tables has been that teachers are incentivised to support pupils on the so-called “C-D borderline”, at the expense of those pupils at the top and bottom of the class. The system has increased competition but only in how well schools ensure their pupils receive an intermediate, C Grade, education; a constant complaint is that English schools are not producing enough world-class scientists, mathematicians, financiers and business leaders capable of boosting the economy.

December’s PISA results – an international survey of 15-year-old school pupils’ performance on mathematics, science, and reading – found that England educational performance has stagnated and sits in an intermediate position in the global rankings, especially against jurisdictions in east-Asian. As in football, in regards to education England is some distance from competing from the world’s elite (Shanghai is currently the Spain of school performance).

In the name of ensuring that English schools compete in the “global education race”, as Education Secretary Michael Gove calls it, this Government last year announced a radically new system for ranking the performance of schools in league tables, which Gove insists will help England compete with the best within ten years.

And it is eye-wateringly complicated.

To put it in perspective, just imagine, that in the name of improving the English national team, the Premier League introducing reforms to the league table so that teams are ranked by: two points for a win, with an extra point if they win by two clear goals, a further point by winning by three clear goals and having over 55% possession in a match, with a point awarded for losing by less than two goals and having over 55% possession, with bonus points awarded for how many goals a team scores outside the penalty box… and additional points for how many British players a team plays in its side, plus and how many more times they play than the previous year, and the average performance ranking of those players over five years compared to rival clubs.**

Let me explain:

How the new accountability arrangements work

From 2016, secondary schools in England will be ranked according to ‘Pupil Progress 8’ and ‘Attainment 8’ criteria. Both are based on a very similar model, where pupils’ progress and attainment will be assessed in 8 subjects:

  • English and maths – which will be double weighted to reflect the importance of these subjects (the English Language qualification will count for this element, but will only be double weighted if the pupil has also taken English Literature);
  • 3 further “EBacc subjects” (science based subjects, history, geography and French) to encourage pupils to take the English Baccalaureate;
  • 3 other “high-value qualifications”, which can include further traditional academic subjects such as art, music and drama, and vocational subjects such as engineering and business.

So… ‘Progress 8’ will show whether pupils have performed better than expected at the end of Key Stage 4 (GCSE level) against their starting point in school. Key stage 2 results (end of Primary school) will be used to predict each pupil’s likely grades across 8 subjects at the end of Key stage 4.

The predicted results are calculated using the actual performance of other pupils with the same prior attainment, so if a pupil receives an average score at the end of primary school at the end secondary they will be expected to receive the mean score of pupils who performed similarly at that age.

For example, pupils with a point score of 29 on their Key stage 2 tests achieve, on average, 8 C grades at GCSE. If a pupil with this level of prior attainment achieves 8 B grades in a GCSE then she has made an average of one grade more progress than expected. The average of all pupils’ progress scores across 8 subjects will create a school’s result. Schools will get credit where pupils outperform these expectations. A child who gets an A when they are expected to get a B, or a D when they were expected to get an E, will score points for their school.

On the other hand the ‘Attainment 8’ measure is relatively simple (although the use of the relatively is all relative), as this will show the school’s average grade across the same suite of 8 subjects as the progress measure through a single average grade.

… You can see why the system has stuck with the simple C Grade requirement for so long can’t you?

However, if the new measures are explained clearly and schools and parents are not overwhelmed by the whole system then it could be the most important of all the Coalition Government’s reforms, which is how the House of Commons Education Select Committee Chair Graham Stuart described it. Bigger than academisation, free schools, changes to the curriculum or SEN reform – this system will be the driving force behind educational improvement for all pupils.

But what will it all mean? Well…

The potential impact of the new system for parents

Firstly, schools will be required to publish the following core information on their website:

  •  pupils’ progress across 8 subjects, allowing a parent to see whether pupils at a school typically achieve 1 grade more than expected or 1 grade less;
  • the average grade a pupil achieves in these same ‘best 8’ subjects, which will show what grade pupils average in that particular school for their GCSEs;
  • the percentage of pupils achieving a C grade in English and maths;
  • the proportion of pupils gaining the EBacc, which will continue in its current form.

This will offer a lot of information for parents about their school, an overload of information some may argue. But, do remember that parents will likely be only choosing between 2 or 3 local schools for their children and specific scores on these various requirements could influence their decisions. For instance, a parent of a child who has not performed well at the end of primary school, may look to send her child to a school with the best pupils’ progress performance to increase their chance of improving. On the other hand, a parent of a child who has performed well at primary school, may prefer to send their child to a school with the best average grade rating.

Under the new system, we could see two types of schools emerging, in “progress” schools and “achievement” schools. This will often link with the performance of their feeder primary schools; those secondaries with an intake from underperforming primaries are likely to look to climb league tables by focusing primarily on progress performance scores, while those whose pupils arrive from good primaries will more likely rise through their achievement scores. The worst secondaries will not adapt and concentrate on the C grade percentage, which remains relevant but not key, and their progress and achievement measures could suffer in kind. The best schools will succeed at both progress and achievement elements.

(It’s been a little while since I referred to a football analogy, but essentially every school is looking to be Manchester United, Arsenal or Liverpool, in that they develop their pupils into high achievers as well as ensuring that those already high-performing pupils succeed… United have done this most successfully – obviously.)

The potential impact of the new system for pupils (especially those with needs)

For disadvantaged pupils, as well as for pupils with learning difficulties and special educational needs (SEN), the ‘progress’ measures could transform their education. Headteachers will no longer feel penalised when they have actually performed well with a challenging intake, or be unaccountable when a more able intake underachieves but still reaches an acceptable amount of C grades. Schools will be incentivised to ensure that those pupils progress from their primary level performance, and not just consider whether or not they are capable of achieving a C grade at GCSE.

This will link directly to how schools use the pupil premium – additional funding awarded to schools who meet free school meals requirements – and SEN funding. Whether through speech and language therapists, educational psychologists, dyslexia friendly materials or through the procurement of other professionals and equipment, schools will have the means to bring in resources that may help those schools progress and these new arranges will create a further incentive to do so.

However, firstly schools must be made aware about how pupils with needs develop, so it is crucial that experts help inform them. The best schools will look to reach out for advice on how to support their pupils achieve and progress. The new system has created an unprecedented opportunity for experts to understand the incentives that schools will be expected to follow and build relationships with their headteachers and their operators, whether local authorities, academy chains, clusters or sponsors, to advise them on how to climb that table.

In football there is no one way to win. In the Premier League, the style of play is evolving year on year and those who stay still fall behind. We know that teaching evolves year on year too, but the key difference is, unlike in football, no child can afford to be left behind to a stagnant education.

There is no single one size fits all model to teach all pupils effectively, no perfect curriculum – no correct team formation. Schools and experts need to work together to develop the system that is right for them. This new accountability system will inevitably create variation, and variation can be frightening but it is also exciting as it generates innovation. From innovation, best practice may be disseminated. If schools are given time to get used to the system, then it could transform this educational system, not just for the benefit of England’s PISA rankings, but for its children too.

Will it work?

With a General Election due next year, there is one big question that looms over this reform: in politics, as in sport, how often are new philosophies given time to embed?

I would like to think that head teachers will last longer than football managers, but under those most success-hungry school chains and clusters I wouldn’t count on it.

I would hope that a future Government doesn’t call for “roots and branch reform” after one bad set of results, but I fear short-term fix always trumps long-term gain in politics – just as it does in sport.

This system will last as long everybody with a stake in it can help schools to make it work. It is important that everybody involved in the new system does their best to do just that because school pupils do not wait around for the next overhaul for an effective education.

I believe the new secondary school accountability system will be transformative only if it can be understood, if it can be engaged with and if schools and teachers are given good advice and support. I hope this introduction helps to do that.  We have until 2016 to get it right.

As for football, by the time these reforms are having an effect, we will be looking forward to Qatar 2022. Perhaps the national team will be good enough then, or maybe we’ll have to wait until the World Cup after that…   I’ve yet to see the green shoots from the last “root and branch” reform. Perhaps I should be patient. Perhaps the seeds will never grow. All I know is, right now I’d settle for a plucky English performance and losing on penalties at this year’s World Cup. For our school children, will the equivalent be good enough?

Olly, PSI

(For the low-down on Primary School accountability, please watch this space)

*This is an argument that will divide Wigan fans.

**Unfortunately I think Arsenal and Man City would still top the table.