Progress or attainment?

“You value attainment. I don’t. You have failed to understand that progress rules.”

A well known blogger once tweeted this to me. It is actually quite shocking when you think about it. An educator who says “I don’t value attainment”.

If David Laws’ book “Coalition” is to be believed, he takes the credit for persuading Michael Gove to make Progress 8 the key accountability measure f0r schools. According to Laws, Michael Gove “wasn’t, if truth be told, terribly good with numbers”. Perhaps that was why he was hoodwinked into a measure which I think he would have otherwise opposed. I’m not good with numbers either, but my initial scepticism about Progress 8 (later to become opposition) was rooted in the fact that I didn’t know of any other country in the world which used a similar system. If anyone knows otherwise please let me know.

Then I started to read that I wasn’t the only sceptic out there. Tom Sherrington came out with this article. Then I read this and this from James Pembroke. However, in addition to the points they make, I guess I have 3 main objections.

Firstly, supporters of the Progress 8 measure say that it forces schools to look at every pupil, rather than just those on the C/D borderline. This, I would contend, is impossible. You simply can’t focus everywhere. So isn’t it better to have a real “focus” and an attainment goal “a GCSE pass” at the end of it, rather than try to run countless intervention groups with every student who is below some spurious target grade? I have heard it said that, before Progress 8,  in some schools some departments only taught what was necessary for a C grade, in order to boost the 5 A* – C pass rate. I am sceptical about this, as there is always a kind of informal “competition” in schools for departments to achieve a string of top grades in their subject.
Secondly, the obsession with expected progress leads to the ludicrous situation where a teacher can be told they have “failed to add value” to a student who achieved an A grade at GCSE in their subject, a subject they may never have studied at KS3. I referred to this in a previous post. All those teaching hours, the homework, the marking, the hard work put in by both pupil and teacher simply dismissed in four words. After all, the attainment is irrelevant – what matters is whether they achieved above whatever target had been set. Really? Do we really believe that?
Thirdly, and this is arguably where my selfishness comes in, is the effect the Progress 8 measure could have on the curriculum, if SLTs throughout the country become obsessed with it. It is likely to lead to excessive curriculum time being allocated to English and mathematics, squeezing other subjects lower down the school. At this point someone may say to me, “well your subject is all right because MFL is in the Ebacc and schools will need to boost their Ebacc pass rate as a result of the government’s performance measures, right?” Well, wrong actually. Because of a little known change in the performance measure, namely an “average points score ” for Ebacc subjects, rather than a pass rate. The whole point of a baccalaureate type exam is that pupils need to pass all elements of it. However the government has rowed back from this idea and accepted an average points score, doubtless under pressure from SLTs terrified of compulsory MFL at KS4.

Having taught abroad and seen what pupils achieved there, I actually do believe it is possible for 90% of pupils to pass the range of Ebacc subjects, provided that the curriculum time is allocated appropriately and, crucially, the pupils know they have to pass all elements of it. The one element of the Ebacc which is most difficult to pass? Yes, you’ve guessed it, MFL. Ofqual’s own data shows that on average those that enter GCSE MFL get half a grade lower in the language.

So what you could end up with is even “academic” schools deciding that MFL isn’t worth the bother. Might as well accept a 0 in the MFL slot from the start. Even in schools which make it compulsory, there will be no desire from SLT to support the MFL department by allocating appropriate curriculum time to get their students over the threshold. MFL teachers will be breaking their backs to get the pupils to take the subject seriously, but could be undermined by an SLT thinking it’s not worth the hassle. They are likely to be criticised if a significant portion do not pass it, but may not get support if they beg their SLT to tell pupils to prioritise their weakest subject for intervention (again, likely to be MFL). After all, the Progress 8 Ebacc buckets are easily filled with science and humanities (or all science if students do triple sciences). Maths and English (double points) could end up being massively promoted and MFL could end up with the worst of both worlds, a subject where SLTs might reluctantly enter pupils for GCSE but without the necessary curriculum time or intervention support it may need.

However, I have somewhat strayed from my title, progress or attainment. When I take an exam, I want to pass. I don’t care whether I made more or less progress than whatever some algorithm decided I should have made. I want to pass. When I studied for a GCSE at night school, I passed. I was delighted. I had attained a qualification. I cannot accept a measure which might have said to my teacher at night school that they failed to add value to my education.

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