Rob Leitch is a secondary school teacher and local councillor.
Education reform. Two small words which conjoined provoke an array of quite extraordinary emotions: fear in school leaders, hope in parents and frequent irritation amongst the teaching unions. They are also words which have rarely been out of the political headlines since the 2010 general election. The Govian-inspired educational revolution can tick off a lengthy list of achievements – a rapid academisation programme, a new national curriculum, wholesale changes to assessment at Key Stage Two, a new GCSE grading system, reforms to all A-level and GCSE specifications and the introduction of performance-related pay – not to mention the introduction of the Ebacc and pupil premium funding.
But whilst many of these examples have proven controversial, far too little attention has been placed on perhaps the most Conservative-inspired reform of them all – measuring progress, rather than attainment, as a basic floor standard within our education system.
In the past, many schools have suffered unfair judgements and subsequent perceptions based on a wholly unsuitable measurement of their students’ raw attainment. For example, schools have been ranked in national league tables based on how many of their students achieved 5 A*-C grades at the end of their GCSEs. Yet, too often, these tables have failed to draw attention to the starting position of students. It’s a bit like arranging for me to race Usain Bolt over 100 metres and then publishing the raw results of the race without acknowledging Bolt’s pre-existing experience and talent, or my currently undiscovered sprinting ability. It is grossly unfair that schools have previously suffered from a system which provides higher-ability catchment areas with an inbuilt advantage, particularly when the reputations of such schools dictate local preferences and admission applications.
The good news is that the Conservative Government is reforming the system and rolling out a new, and more even, playing field for all state secondary schools from this coming September. Our schools will now be measured on the progress that their students make from their academic starting point upon entry in Year 7 (aged 11) to the end of their GCSEs in Year 11 (aged 16). This measurement will use students’ attainment results from the end of KS2 to project an ‘expected progress’, which will then be measured across eight key subject areas at the end of their GCSEs, ensuring that a broad, balanced and robust curriculum has been achieved.
By measuring progress, our education system will become far more personalised towards each individual student. It will no longer be possible for schools to focus their energies and resources on the narrow band of previously crucial C/D grade students, with school leaders desperate to get as many as possible over the C grade finishing line. No longer will schools be able to allow the higher ability to cruise along without challenge, or the weakest students to be cut adrift. Rather, under the new Progress 8 measure, all students will truly matter and every student’s progress will truly count and be counted.
Furthermore, schools whose students’ average progress scores indicate an ‘added value’ of one grade or more across all of their subjects will reap the benefits of not being visited by Ofsted for at least a year. For school leaders and teachers there could be no greater carrot on offer! The move to Progress 8 will also shake up the system and force innovation. This may particularly be the case at selective and higher-ability intake schools, many of which have previously been almost guaranteed good attainment results. Now they will have to show genuine progress rather than rely on raw results alone.
Meanwhile, at schools with a lower-than-average ability student profile, particularly those in selective areas, measuring and publishing progress data as the key headline of a school’s success will finally give them a chance to compete with their academically-blessed neighbours. Indeed, in many areas it is the non-selective schools, where students start with below-average reading, writing and numeracy, whose provisional progress figures are higher than those at the local grammars. Without question, the move to progress will finally see our school system become truly competitive and transparent once more. Schools and students will be rewarded, not on their starting position or background, but on their hard work to improve and progress over time.
A relentless focus on driving up standards in our state schools will only be possible if our education offering is competitive and diverse. A focus on individual progress will allow for such competition, breaking open a once sterile and predictable education sector with new opportunities to create and enhance reputations, results and student success. We have much to celebrate since removing Labour control over education in 2010, but it is Progress 8 which could truly transform the educational landscape irreversibly.