Hyper-accountability catch-up

Tuesday, November 23rd

OK, this is just a chance to round up a few articles which have touched on the effects of results pressures on schools in the last couple of months.

I have gone back over national coverage since the start of October to highlight claims of alleged side-effects caused by accountability pressures, in line with the goal of this site to try to document as many of these effects as possible.

Accountability pressures are likely to change following tomorrow’s white paper. Negative effects, however, are unfortunately unlikely to go away.

In no particular order, then, here are these reports:

-An article in the Guardian on November 12th, cited a Civitas report saying that pressures on schools to climb league tables meant some low-achieving pupils were more likely to be transferred away from a school into off-site provision.

“Conversely, the incentives for schools to hang on to intelligent students, no matter how bad their behaviour, is strong. This is hardly a just state of affairs, but the fundamental source of the problem is the pressure on schools to achieve high examination results,” said the report.

-A piece in the Telegraph on October 14th included a claim from the historian Sean Lang that schools were forcing “less academic” children to drop the subject in favour of vocational options “which are worth more points in league tables”.

This reminded me of a study last year which, as reported in the TES, found that pupils were being steered away from the subject because of league table pressures. If you click on the TES link above, do have a look at the third comment for detailed claims of what this poster says can go on.

-Isabel Nisbet, the chief executive of the exams regulator Ofqual, was quoted in the TES on October 29th as calling for targets based on the proportion of pupils achieving C grades or better at GCSE to be scrapped. Her suggestion was backed by Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.

The TES report mentions criticism that the targets have led to too much focus being placed on children at the C/D borderline.

It is debatable whether Ms Nisbet will get her wish in tomorrow’s white paper. Targets, at least in the New Labour form, seem to have had their day, in that this month’s Department for Education business plan did not feature any of the statistical indicators which the past government set itself and then sought to get schools to achieve.

However, there will a new “English baccalaureate” measure, effectively ranking schools in league tables on the proportion of their pupils achieving five GCSEs at C or better including English, maths, a language, a humanities subject and a science. This will still encourage schools to focus extra resources on pupils on the threshold of  achieving this measure.

-Also in the TES, on October 15th, the head of England’s largest GCSE board was quoted as saying that entering pupils early for GCSEs in an attempt to help them secure a C grade could damage the depth of their learning.

This followed a warning from the Advisory Committee on Mathematics Education (ACME), reported in September by the TES, citing the rise in the number of 15-year-olds entered early for the subject, with numbers growing by 250 per cent in two years.

Achieving C grades in maths and English has been made central to results accountability in recent years, with pressures including the fact that league table indicators now centre on them and that schools with poor scores on this measure have faced closure threats from ministers.

In a letter to Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, Professor Dame Julia Higgins, chair of ACME, wrote: “Learners gaining an early qualification is not necessarily a sign of success.

“Our concern is that the achievement of the C grade is overriding all other educational objectives, and as such the mathematical understanding of learners is secondary to targets and league tables.”

Brian Lightman, of ASCL, is quoted in the same piece as saying that pupils can be entered early for legitimate reasons, and I would agree, having been put through maths exams early myself in the 1980s, long before league tables arrived.

However, it seems unlikely that some schools are not “gaming” the system – predictably given the results pressures on them – by taking the decision to “bank” a C grade early for some pupils who can then move on to focus on other subjects which are important to the school.

I have had testimony that this happened in the unnamed school featured in my piece for the Guardian back in September. My source there claimed that pupils were put in for exams in maths and English early, and then pulled out of lessons in that subject as soon as they had gained a C, even if they might need a higher grade in that subject for their further study, in order to concentrate on subjects which were still important for the school’s published figures. Absolutely scandalous, if true, and a seemingly blatant example of how this system can encourage schools to put their own interests to look good ahead of pupils’ long-term needs.

-There was a claim in the Telegraph from Gillian Low, president of the Girls’ School Association, that an exams culture in schools was fuelling teenage mental health problems. The last government, she said, had burdened schools with “endless testing”

– A first person feature article last Tuesday in Education Guardian, documenting a teacher’s encounters with badly-behaved pupils as he taught in what were said to be some of the country’s most challenging schools, said results pressures could be partly to blame for teachers leaving the profession.

The author wrote that one welcome move would be the “removal  of the league table culture – where schools are unfairly ranked by a cold system of results-based numbers”.  

-Katharine Birbalsingh, the teacher who spoke at the Conservative Party conference at the start of October, also condemned league tables. In her speech, as reported by the Telegraph, she said:”League tables have all of us pursuing targets and grades instead of teaching properly.”

-With all the emphasis on exam results as the main measure of school success, perhaps the most arresting finding of all came in an Ofqual study, covered in both the TES and the Daily Mail, which sought to gauge employers’ attitudes to qualifications.

Only 14 per cent agreed with the statement: “We select candidates for interview primarily based on their exam results.”

Yet the effectiveness of schools and their teachers is, of course, judged primarily on their pupils’ exam results.

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