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Coasting vs. Progress

Coasting vs. Progress

‘Coasting’ is to the education world what Greece is to the economic one at the moment: divisory, critical and with big implications for the future.

As the concept of ‘coasting’ continues to dominate education news, here at TheSchoolBus we thought it important to delve a little deeper into the positives, negatives, and misinformation surrounding this aspect of the Education and Adoption Bill.

Attainment and progress

Under the new definition of ‘coasting’, schools will be judged on their attainment and progress, not one or the other. This means that, in order for a school to be considered to be ‘coasting’, it has to fall below the current floor-standards, and have lower than average rates of pupil progress.[1]

This dual measure has pros and cons, and it depends on your school’s position as to which category the following implications fall into. It means that schools that are managing to meet the requisite attainment levels can effectively hide behind these with regards to progress. It’s this achievement factor which could protect those “leafy area” schools that Education Secretary Nicky Morgan mentioned in her press release.[2]

On the other hand, from 2018, the plan is to move to an entirely Progress 8 based assessment, meaning there will be a more general measure of school accountability in place, and deprived areas won’t (theoretically) be facing tougher scrutiny than their typically higher-achieving counterparts.

Scrutiny should also be more data-based and considered due to the implementation of a rolling, three-year ‘coasting’ assessment method. Under this approach, schools must be considered to be ‘coasting’ for three years in a row in order to be sufficiently ‘coasting’ to require intervention. It’s a little confusing, but this does mean that schools have time to pull themselves up to expected standards. Next year will mark the beginning of this three year Progress 8 cycle, with floor-standards already raised by 20 percent at secondary school level to get the ball rolling. (DfE, coasting)

But once these floor standards are phased out in 2018, how does a school with typically high-achievement prove that it has ‘above average’ rates of pupil progress? Progress 8 scores are a very mathematical measure based on subtracting the pupil’s expected Attainment 8 score from their actual Attainment 8 score, and then comparing this to the average for all pupils.[3] For children who consistently achieve highly though, their progress score will be low.

Perhaps Nicky Morgan isn’t aware of the Pareto Principle, but applied to school marks (and I’m sure many pupils who’ve just finished studying for their GCSEs will agree with this one) it suggests the dedication required to climb those final steps between, say, a B+ and an A*, are the toughest and take the longest. In terms of progress then, schools with large numbers of pupils achieving A grades are going to be demanding a lot more to get these up to A*s than it would take to raise attainment from a D to a C+. It seems then, that the pendulum could be swinging the opposite way, placing high-attaining schools under greater scrutiny than typically low-achieving ones.

And if you agree that this concept of progress is a slightly elusive measure, Ms Morgan’s dedication to “push every pupil to reach their potential” probably got your heckles up a bit too. How do you measure and estimate a child’s potential? How do you ensure they reach this within a rigid examination structure where they must now achieve a GCSE in English and maths? And should it really reflect negatively on a school if an A* pupil cannot progress further?

The statistics

There are a lot of differing opinions on the solution to the ‘problem’ of ‘coasting’. Currently, ‘coasting’ schools eligible for intervention will have to submit an improvement plan and if this isn’t accepted, a number of other measures can be put in place, including forced academisation. There has been some misinformation here, with many ignoring the fact that the draft Bill does outline alternatives to help schools, academisation isn’t the only option.[4]

With academisation the most debated (and arguably, likely) outcome however, the DfE and Local Government Association (LGA) have offered wildly differing statistics on the benefits of this. The DfE states that:

  • Established sponsored academies have far better GCSE results than their predecessor schools.
  • Academies improve test results at double the rate of non-academies (although, given that academisation is forced upon failing schools, it’s easier to improve results when they’re dire to start with).
  • Results for pupils receiving free school meals improve quicker at academies. (DfE, coasting)

On the other hand, LGA statistics suggest that:

  • There is little evidence that pupils eligible for free schools meals make more progress at academies.
  • Children in convertor academies don’t perform significantly better.
  • There’s no evidence that general pupil progress is better at an academy as opposed to a maintained school.[5]

A number of problematic academy chains are cited to support these statistics, for example, Oasis Community Learning Trust, where Ofsted claims “disadvantaged pupils, particularly boys, make significantly less progress than their peers nationally”.[6]

Despite this, the LGA statistics do concede that the percentage of pupils achieving five or more A* to C grade GCSEs is higher at academies, and the longer an academy is open, the faster its pupils’ results appear to increase.

Other problems

Among the other concerns levelled at these new ‘coasting’ measures is the fact that regional school commissioners appear to be incentivised to turn schools into academies. It’s a conflict of interest that has so far escaped excessive scrutiny. Regional school commissioners, the individuals responsible for reviewing school improvement plans and deciding whether these should be implemented or the school converted, are evaluated based on the number of conversions they make. With regional school commissioners allowed just seven staff members, and an ever-increasing workload, the government’s preference for academies may as well be written into the commissioners’ job descriptions.

Another potential concern as Ofsted is scaled back (be careful what you wish for!) is that a more data-based assessment of schools may overlook other important concerns. The Trojan Horse scandal was a recent example of how important it is that the government see what’s happening in schools, rather than just adding up GCSE scores. Increasing fears around youth-radicalisation make this an issue which the new measures simply don’t account for.

Storm in a teacup?

It’s unpopular to say, and its cold-comfort for headteachers with their jobs on the line, but with over half of England’s secondary schools already converted to academies, is the conversion issue really that outrageous? New uniform, new rules, new name, new support networks, etc. Yes, academisation signals changes, but it’s not the end of the world. There are likely to be around 1,200 schools in the firing line, but many of these are already in special measures.[7]

A lot of the fear around the Education and Adoption Bill isn’t that ‘coasting’ schools will be forced to become academies, some academies are exceptional examples of educational provision, it’s that it represents an unknown, and a vehicle for the government to continue its campaign to privatise education more generally. With children’s futures at stake, that’s an experiment schools, parents and young people are right to be concerned about.

[1] 60 percent achieving A*-C GCSEs and 85 percent achieving level four in English and maths in primary school. (DfE (2015) ‘Hundreds of ‘coasting’ schools to be transformed’) <https://www.gov.uk/government/news/hundreds-of-coasting-schools-to-be-transformed> [Accessed: 1 July 2015]

[2] DfE (2015) ‘Hundreds of ‘coasting’ schools to be transformed’ <https://www.gov.uk/government/news/hundreds-of-coasting-schools-to-be-transformed> [Accessed: 1 July 2015]

[3] DfE (2015) ‘Progress 8 measure in 2016 and 2017’, p.17

[4] Education and Adoption Bill 2015, section 66A

[5] The Telegraph (2015) ‘Academies do not perform significantly better than local authority schools’ <http://www.independent.co.uk/news/education/education-news/academies-do-not-perform-significantly-better-than-local-authority-schools-says-research-10356408.html> [Accessed: 1 July 2015]

[6] The BBC (2015) ‘Is academy status the answer for ‘coasting’ schools?’ <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-33308278> [Accessed: 1 July 2015]

[7] Schools’ Week News (2015) ‘Things bothering me about the coasting schools definition’ <http://schoolsweek.co.uk/5-things-bothering-me-about-the-coasting-schools-definition/> [Accessed: 1 July 2015]

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