Progress or attainment? The real question

As an MFL teacher, I am used to the fact that many pupils often find my subject extremely difficult and much harder than their other subjects. Actually, I do not believe that UK pupils are intrinsically less able in MFL than pupils in other countries. However schools in other countries seem to recognise that “little and often” is essential in MFL if material is not to get forgotten. I recall my time spent teaching in a selective school in eastern Europe where pupils did not start learning a foreign language until their equivalent of our “Year 9”. However, once started, they had nine 45 minute lessons a week in the first year. They were taught very traditionally with a lot of drilling and grammar practice. As the native speaker, I had to do the “conversation lessons” which were based on the particular grammar points covered. Surprisingly, you might think, other subjects including maths, science and the native language were relegated to just one or two periods a week in that crucial first year of pupils learning a foreign language. The time for foreign languages was accordingly reduced in the second and third year of learning them. But the pupils’ level of English after 3 years was far in advance of the standard needed to gain an A grade in MFL in the UK.

However, I digress. I accept I have to deal with the curriculum time I am given and try and make it work the best I can.  Before “Progress 8” this was much easier. Basically, my task was to ensure my pupils passed, ie. got a grade C or above. As they were academically able pupils, they were usually doing so in their other subjects and if there was a subject where they weren’t quite making the grade, it was often (but not always!) MFL. In response to this, my department began to organise appropriate “intervention.” Pupils would turn up (however reluctantly in some cases!) and we began to succeed in our underachievers getting the vital C grade which they knew was considered to be the key “pass grade” and could therefore be put on their UCAS forms. I lost count of the number of times year 11 pupils rushed up to me on results day delighted at having attained that C grade, even when they had a string of As and Bs in everything else.

Since Progress 8, the situation is rather different. Instead of just having intervention in their “worst” subject, pupils are now pulled all over the place. They are told they need to attend intervention in every subject where their current attainment is below their target grade. The “Moving the A to an A* intervention group” (soon to be moving the 8 to a 9!) is of equal importance to the ” Moving the D to a C”  group.

One unintended consequence of this is that pupils attend the intervention sessions in their best subjects, rather than their worst. After all, a pupil working at a grade A standard in a subject might well be considering taking it for A level. But what if their target grade is an A*?  Right then, intervention is required! But what about the subjects where the pupil isn’t quite making the C grade? Oh, no need to bother with those – it’s too much effort to get them up to a “pass grade.”

Another consequence is that if a pupil is below target in English and Maths, the school is likely to encourage the pupil to attend intervention in those subjects at the expense of others, even if they are already achieving top grades in those subjects. English and Maths count for double points remember! So off they go to unnecessary intervention in those subjects and then are too exhausted or have no time to attend intervention in subjects where they are not quite a pass grade standard

The Progress 8 cheerleaders might be happy with this situation. I am not. As I have stated before, I see nothing wrong in having a pass/fail benchmark. In the world outside education, no one seems to have a problem with this. Speaking personally, I would find it far more satisfying to say ” I passed the test” rather than “I achieved my target grade.” I also feel it is more beneficial for a pupil to have achieved pass grades in a range of subjects, rather than superb grades in Maths and English (double points in Progress 8!) and mediocre “fail” grades in subjects which do not count for so much under the Progress 8 system. I may be a lone voice at the moment, but I look forward to the abolition of Progress 8 in a few years time…


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