John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.
For decades, governments have tried to make schools do the impossible, using paperwork, statistics, and inspection as their weapons. Labour demanded reams of policy documents, imposed ill-informed Cromwellian “strategies”, and fiddled results when they didn’t work. In recent years, Conservatives have run them a close second, imposing arbitrary and unrealistic targets, nitpicking over Labour’s cumbersome safeguarding systems, and abusing inspection findings to fast track schools into academy status without giving them a chance to improve.
Tests for 11-year-olds (SATs) are pivotal, as they are both the key indicator for primary schools, and the baseline for setting GCSE grades. The government has correctly dismissed Labour’s call to abolish SATs, because this would return us to the position we had before they were introduced. In the authority I worked for, some schools had under ten per cent of pupils reaching the standard needed for success at secondary school, and no-one was doing anything about it. Follow these pupils through to 16, and their secondary schools had five or six per cent, with five GCSEs at Grade C. Go back to the infant school, and scores on the authority’s reading test showed a steady decline of three-quarters of a percentage point each year over a ten-year period, a fact hidden from elected members by officials, until I published the figures in The Guardian.
But where there is a figure, there will be someone looking to fiddle it, which is probably what Churchill meant by “lies, damned lies and statistics.” Labour again led the way. When test scores dipped, they lowered the pass mark (2000), sacked the markers (2005), or, when even that didn’t work, in tests at 14, abolished the test. That one put them in a bind. Around 1998, a dip in test scores that put Labour, and progressive English teaching, in a bad light, was followed by crazy marking, that credited pupils whose writing was at 7 year-old level with the expected Level 5. These pupils had no chance whatever of making the expected progress to GCSE, which would have looked even worse, and so the tests were scrapped. Points only mean prizes if you can get the points.
Since 2010, our Conservative ministers have had much success in reforming tests and exams. The non-qualification of AS at 17 has been abolished, and external marking at GCSE has left outright cheating as the only, risky, opportunity for fraud. The phonics check for six year olds has a stable, child-friendly format, and focuses attention on the key skill of using information from letters, rather than guessing, to read words. The new multiplication tables check for eight year olds should be as good, and the reformed SATs for 11-year-olds have been more sensible than had been predicted from some of the non-statutory guidance.
And yet we are still in deep political trouble in education, and point scores are at the heart of it. Our coalition partners did not like Ebacc, or Michael Gove’s plans for further reform of GCSEs, and forced through a system called “Progress 8”, which measured a pupil’s best eight GCSEs against their SAT scores in English and maths. How English and maths were to provide a baseline for a GCSE in subjects that have little to do with English and maths is a question that can only be answered by a statistician or bureaucrat. They provide a baseline because we say they do. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t say it. And of course, they reduce everything to a point score, and points mean prizes, in the form of continued employment.
This thinking, in which all subjects are equal, but some are harder than others, has had a distorting and damaging effect on education that affects every 16-year-old in the country. Ofqual, the guardian of standards, interprets this role as the prevention of grade inflation, which it does by applying statistical formulae, based on SAT scores, to all subjects. If a subject, such as German, attracts a large number of higher-attaining candidates, Ofqual maintains standards by giving them lower grades than they would have received in subjects attracting less able pupils. The result of this even-handedness is that German candidates in 2018 were overall one grade lower in German than in their other subjects, and French nearly as bad. I founded the British Association of Teachers of German, which has 280 members, partly to campaign for fair testing and grading, and Ofqual’s stonewalling response would have made the Kremlin proud, if not jealous. Niet, Non, Talk to the Hand. Ofqual is right, and if German dies out at A level and in state schools, it’s not their fault. Statistics can’t lie. They shall not pass. I’m informed that Ofqual is now stonewalling over A level, even though this is now described by Professor Katrin Kohl as harder than Oxford’s first year examinations.
And of course, if heads don’t win enough points to win the prize, they get the sack, and know it. So they go for easy subjects, and are dashing to Spanish, as they think it’s easier than German or French. The statistics prove this under the current system, although Spanish has also stalled, with entries falling in each of the last two years. In the meantime, Ebacc, rightly seen as the core of education, is suffering. Its subjects don’t necessarily count in the progress 8, and, while around 38% of pupils are taking Ebacc, the pass rate is around 23%, which puts the qualification in a precarious position. The point system of Progress 8 is at the heart of it. Heads, and academy chains, look for the best chances of getting points to boost the score, and think of little else. This may be an unintended consequence, but it is a pernicious relic of the coalition and we need to get rid of it.
The solution is simple. Return to the requirement for all schools to publish their grades and entry numbers in all subjects, so that people can see what is really going, on and schools can’t hide weaknesses behind point scores in softer subjects. Then consider these scores in the context of the school. This is, I believe, the principle behind Amanda Spielman’s reforms in Ofsted, and Edward Timpson’s excellent review of exclusions for the DfE, a brilliant analysis that takes full account of the context and reasons for exclusion rather than focusing only on the numbers.
Sir Bruce Forsyth was much loved, and points mean prizes was a great slogan for his game show. It does not serve the needs of children, teachers and schools. It must be scrapped.