For schools, headline accountability measures matter. Perhaps unsurprisingly the measures we use to make a judgment about how ‘good’ a school is are powerful drivers of school behaviour and have the potential to significantly change priorities within the education system. It is, therefore, with some justification that many people have identified the government’s proposals to reform these measures as potentially the most significant change to the education system of Michael Gove’s tenure as education secretary.
At present, secondary schools are primarily judged* on the percentage of students who get five ‘good’ GCSE’s (i.e. grade C or above) including in Maths and English. The problem with this measure is well-known. In short, it encourages schools to focus disproportionately on a particular group of students, namely those sitting on the C/D borderline. The current proposal is to replace this one measure with two new measures: a slightly different threshold measure and a more sophisticated progress measure. The former will simply show the percentage of students getting C grades or higher in both Maths and English. The progress measure is slightly more complex. It uses a value add method, with Key Stage 2 attainment used to generate predicted outcomes at Key Stage 4 which are then compared with actual outcomes to give a measure of pupil progress. The measures are standardised by basing the predicted outcomes on the average amount of progress nationally for the year in question. As a result, a score of 1000 will always be equivalent to the average progress nationally. Arguably the most significant feature of the measure is that the points system used to calculate Key Stage 4 attainment scores (which will also be published) will penalise students not taking the EBacc. As such, the proposed measure is also seeking to incentivise the study of those subjects generally considered to be more academically rigorous.
Many of the responses to these proposals have been broadly positive (£). One particularly detailed assessment of the proposals has come from the think-tank Centre Forum. They argue that headline measures should reflect the goals of the education system more broadly. Noting Gove’s two key priorities – securing the best outcomes for all and closing the gap between disadvantaged students and the rest – they proceed to evaluate the proposals in those terms. Quite rightly they question the wisdom of retaining a threshold measure, suggesting that it encourages schools to concentrate attention on the middle rather than on the ‘tail’ of the attainment curve. By contrast, the progress measure is viewed more favourably. According to the report, it ‘provides a direct and equal incentive to raise outcomes for all’ and will work ‘with rather than against efforts to close the gap’.
A closer examination of this conclusion highlights the difficulties of designing an accountability measure to reflect the objectives of the education system. It is, at least in a narrow sense, true that the progress measure would work with rather than against efforts to close the attainment gap. However, it is only true to the extent that the attainment gap is caused by an unequal focus on students from different backgrounds in our education system, and whilst such a focus may well exacerbate the problem it is almost certainly not its cause. The attainment gap is firmly entrenched by the end of primary school. You would expect, therefore, that even if all students receive equal attention at secondary school the gap would still exist by the end of it. So despite being much better than the current threshold measure, the progress measure is not a particularly good indicator of whether or not a school is doing a good job of closing the attainment gap. To close the attainment gap what you actually need is unequal progress.
In the introduction to the report the authors concede that in one sense devising a measure that reflects the objectives of the education system is impossible. Their evaluation of the proposals ultimately serves to reinforce that point. The goals of education policy are not, and should not, be so simple that they can be neatly encapsulated in a couple of simple measures. We should not conclude from this that we should ignore headline measures or that reforming them is not worthwhile. What we should learn is that we need to be realistic about what can be achieved by incentives alone. Headline accountability measures might be the most powerful way of changing school behaviour, but they are not going to be able to bring about the kind of fundamental change in our education system that we need. If, for example, we want our schools to be closing the attainment gap (and we should also be realistic about quite how big a task that is) then we need to promote a culture within our schools which reflects this objective. Incentives are good at producing certain outcomes, but they are much less effective at promoting a clear sense of purpose in schools. For that we must look elsewhere.
* In the sense that they use this measure to set floor targets for school performance.