Tories heading to wrong destination over use of education data

How should we rate which schools are best? It is one of the biggest questions for those writing education policy.

How should we rate which schools are best? It is one of the biggest questions for those writing education policy. Last week, Michael Gove, the Conservative shadow schools Secretary, announced that he plans to overhaul the present system. Currently, schools are ranked on an attainment based system, meaning they are positioned on a league table according to point scores based on their A-level results and the percentage of GCSE students gaining five grades A*-C.

This system has led to complaints that schools have become too focused on exams, meaning teachers are obsessing over exam technique and children suffer great anxiety. As one of a number of measures to get around the stranglehold of league tables, Labour have proposed a “Report Card” system, which gives every school an overall score, plus individual grades for things such as exam performance and children’s behaviour, crediting those schools which do well with more challenging intakes, for example.

Gove has argued that the report card offers “fuzzy accountability” and that league tables are here to stay. However, he has also acknowledged that attainment data does not provide the full picture of “success” for any pupil. He is therefore proposing to measure schools according to the universities, apprenticeships and jobs their students go onto rather than focus on A Level point scores. He said:

“Destination data, which tells us if students are moving into high-quality apprenticeships, satisfying jobs or good college and university courses, will give parents real-world information about how well schools are doing.”

It sounds nice, doesn’t it? Possibly a bit like Gove has been scanning Alan Milburn’s social mobility report, Unleashing Aspiration from last year, in which he said schools should focus on student outcomes, and decided to copy and paste a few chunks. However, the Tories’ plans are fatally flawed.

They say they want to reduce bureaucracy, but does Gove know how difficult and time-consuming it is for schools to provide this kind of data, and doing it in a reliable way? Requiring staff to produce comprehensive information on each pupil’s destination will increase their workload in a system already in a state of flux. There would be costs in trying to pin down elusive leavers, but the real question remains: what exactly are the Tories’ measures of success? What is deemed as a “satisfying job “or a “good college”?

The Conservatives’ further and higher education reform proposals show they are completely hung up on placing great emphasis on “good” universities, but how will this be measured? It is well known that universities excel in different subject areas; an institution that IS great for languages, for example, may not be the best institution for the sciences. Furthermore, what might be a “top” university this year may have slipped or climbed in a few years’ time. A standardised points system would have to be established, and it would need updating each year in order to account for factors such as staff changes, new research and funding allocations.

The limit on the number of university places will also make it very difficult for some schools to increase the number of students going to university, just as levels of unemployment will make it hard to judge how many school leavers have found “satisfying jobs”. And will this destination data show how many students graduated from the university and how many dropped out? A good education should lead to a fulfilling adult life and economic independence, and there’s no doubt that schools should be looking at better ways of monitoring their leavers’ academic and career paths, but this should not be the principal measure of a good school.

Gove has nabbed Milburn’s proposal, but he has failed to acknowledge the ideas about social mobility that it was rooted in. Milburn was talking about schools that “did best for their children in terms of contextual value added”. In other words, you cannot measure a school’s success in getting its students into a good university or job unless you have some idea of the students’ starting points.

But this week, the Tories said that if they took office, they would disregard measures used to demonstrate the achievements of schools with tougher intakes because this information is “spurious”. Contextual value added (CVA), used in league tables since 2006, measures the progress children make from entering to leaving school, and takes into account external factors such as levels of deprivation, special educational needs, gender and ethnicity. It is a measurement which has flaws, but it is still the best measure available.

Experts say it could take five years to develop a replacement measure, and Gove has yet to disclose what this will be. Poverty and the context teachers work in should always be considered, but the Tories remain frustratingly baffled by the idea of a level playing field for schools.

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