Every time I hear a presentation explaining Progress 8, or indeed any of the various measures used to track so called “progress”, my heart sinks. This could be because I am not a mathematician and do not find such things inherently fascinating. But what I find most alarming is when such measures are presented without the slightest acknowledgement that the rationale behind them may be flawed. That whole business of saying you can predict with accuracy what a child’s attainment at GCSE will be in every subject because of English and maths scores when the child was 11.
It was the same with “levels of progress” I remember. When the government abolished levels I was surprised at how long it took so many people to acknowledge that the whole concept of levels was flawed. For many, the reaction seemed to be “they’ve taken away a means of measuring progress – how dare they!” ASCL was particularly enraged until some brave souls broke ranks and (shock, horror) agreed with Tim Oates that the whole concept of levels might be flawed. Up until that point the statistical validity of the measure was not questioned.
I sometimes wonder if I am alone in finding it somewhat depressing to be told that I and my colleagues may well have “failed to add value” to a student who achieved a string of top grades at GCSE. In my case, modern languages, a pupil often arrives without having studied a language at all at primary. Even if they have, they are likely to have taken the GCSE in a different language (eg. German, Latin) to the one they studied at primary (usually French or Spanish). So a pupil starts with no knowledge of a language and ends up with an A grade at GCSE in that language, only for the teachers to be told they have “failed to add value” to that pupil, if the KS2 SATS indicated a high Attainment 8 score. The fact that we have opened the pupil’s eyes to a whole new way of communicating, that the pupil has gained knowledge and skills in a whole new field of study, the hours spent planning lessons and marking work, even the fact that the pupil may be continuing the subject to A level counts for nothing. And not just in languages. Attainment and academic study in the whole secondary curriculum can be dismissed with “Well, you failed to add value.” Whole fields of academic study reduced to a number. And all because of scores based on KS2 SATs in maths and English.
A similar situation exists at A level, where the ALPS system is used by many schools to predict outcomes based on average GCSE attainment. Apart from the fact that A level study is very different from GCSE study, a student may study a whole new discipline at A level, one they did not study at GCSE. Let’s say they achieve an B grade. But what if their ALPS prediction was an AABB? Again, all your hard work in teaching that student, the conversations you will have had with them, the support you will have provided and the extra knowledge and skills the student will have gained can be dismissed with the withering statement “well, you failed to add value.” The implication is that you as a teacher are worthless.
To me, this is the biggest drawback of making progress an end in itself. It encourages schools to focus, not on the curriculum, but a number. Never mind what the pupil studies – the main thing is the Progress 8 figure the pupil ends up with, as that will effect the whole school’s Progress 8 score. It is no wonder that organisations like PiXL are desperate to find easy qualifications to boost that figure.
I went into teaching because I loved my subject and wanted to use it in my work and hopefully inspire others to study it. For that reason, I never found senior management an attractive idea. Yet I have recently discovered another reason why I could not be SLT. I can imagine delight in my school’s GCSE and A level results. I can imagine delight if (controversially!) those results are better than other schools locally and nationally. I can imagine delight in the range of extra curricular activities offered by my school. I can imagine delight in seeing my school lauded as a beacon of excellence and having parents queue up to enter their children.
But unfortunately, I know I just could not get excited about having a Progress 8 score better than the school down the road. I know I just could not get excited about reducing academic study to a number. And I know I could not be seduced into what Tom Sherrington memorably described as “a vortex of delusional, algorithmic data-worship.”