Into the twilight zone -when school statistics cease to make sense. Go figure!

I am an avid listener of the Radio 4 statistics programme, More or Less, in which its presenter Tim Harford challenges broad sweeping statements made on the media that might not actually be true. Last week (14 Sept) was entitled “Male suicide, School ratings, Are female tennis players treated unfairly by umpires?” You can find the broadcast here, and the section I ask you particularly listen to is from 6m50s, when Tim turns his attention to the claim of the chairman of the Conservative party, Brandon Lewis this August that “Since 2010 the number of pupils in good or outstanding schools had risen from 66% to 86%”.  To be honest, Mr Lewis is just quoting the DfE’s own recently statistics, so how could his claim be exaggerated?

It has been well publicised that Ofsted no longer has the resources to do everything, so its current focus is on moving schools from the bottom 2 categories of ‘inadequate’ and ‘requires improvement’, inspecting them quickly to move them upwards, rather than reinspecting ‘Good’ and ‘Outstanding schools’.  ‘Good’ and ‘Outstanding’ schools are not expected to be inspected in perhaps less than a ten year period, so inevitably, there is going to be a ratchet effect lifting standards, with there only existing a one way ticket upwards!  Even more confusing is that some 700 failing schools have been ‘closed’ and reopened, which ‘erases’ their ‘inadequate’ rating and they won’t be inspected for a further 3 years – in the meantime they enter that twilight zone of invisibility.

Education journalist and researcher, Laura Mcinerney helps put sense to the statistics in the broadcast, and is challenged to explain why the changes in the exams structures at GCSE and A level damage the research base further. Regular readers of this blog will have read me bang on about this before, but I love the fact that McInerney (whom I have admired since her days writing on Twitter as a Fulbright Scholar back in 2014) is affirming my thinking. Every GCSE and A level has been so substantially changed now, that there is no way we can compare the statistics of the past with pupil performance now from 2018 onwards. For any research to be of value, you need at least 5 years of data,  so it’s fair to say we will not know whether the changes that have been brought in have raised the standards of education in England as the DfE (led by Mr Gove at the time of initiating these changes – back when McInerney was stateside 2014) until 2023 at the very earliest, given that the new style GCSE exams only hit Bus Stud and Tech in 2019.

In practical matters, such as running a train set, when the ‘Fat controller‘ decides to change the train timetables, almost at once when they are implemented, we learn whether they are going to work. On 20 May 2018, the new England train timetables were introduced, chaos ensued, and we know just 4 months later the reasons why (from the report by the Office of Rail and Road).  The ORR  said that:

  • Network Rail was best placed to manage the risks relating to delays with Network Rail’s electrification work, pushing back the development of the timetable and gave train operators less time to prepare for the introduction of new services but did not take sufficient action
  • Neither GTR or Northern were prepared for the disruption that arose, nor did they do enough to provide accurate information to passengers
  • Both the Department for Transport (DfT) and the ORR itself failed in their duties to oversee the industry

Almost exactly the same set of circumstances have preceded the changes to the public examination system in England.  The Education departments in both Wales and Northern Ireland were able to ‘stay’ the changes, and have reflected more carefully on what is actually needed in their jurisdictions. It’s quite one thing for maniac politicians to insist on changing the content and style of examinations within its schools, but you’d think as a profession we could have caused some restraint so that the outcomes of such change could be tested and unforeseen circumstances made more visible prior to final implentation?. McInerney concludes “The amount of change that has gone on over the past eight years makes it almost impossible to compare anything.  Even these Ofsted grades have different marking criteria since 2010… We can’t even take a small group, for example pupils that are on free school meals, because the criteria for a child qualifies for free school meals has changed over the last few years…”.

As a school principal within the Independent Sector, untroubled by Ofsted grade criteria or free school meals, you might wonder why I am bothered by this ‘education crash’ of epic proportions in the state sector?  The reality of course is that we share the same broader education ‘environment’ and our politicians and public consider all schools together in their thinking and conversation. There is an incredible clamour from the Education Secretary and his acolytes within the DfE that Independent Schools should be doing so much more to assist our state partners, and also be tring much harder to widen access and improve social mobility.  DfE has dramatically ramped on the pressure on its own schools, who have seen reduced per capita funding, coupled with an ever increasing population of children set against a declining population of teachers. The growing evidence from the state sector and its inspectorate of the narrowing of the curriculum, accountability measures forcing teaching to the test, the diminution of co-curricular activities coupled with staffing and resource crisis has resulted from the direct actions of the DfE and this government’s financial and budgetary decisions. Here’s the Chief Inspector of Schools, Amanda Spielman writing three days ago: “School inspectors in England have put too much weight on tests and exam results when rating schools.”

What’s worse is that Spielman knows what its teachers have been doing: “Too many teachers and leaders have not been trained to think deeply about what they want their pupils to learn and how they are going to teach it.  We saw curriculum narrowing, especially in upper key stage 2, with lessons disproportionately focused on English and mathematics. Sometimes, this manifested as intensive, even obsessive, test preparation for key stage 2 sats [national curriculum tests] that in some cases started at Christmas in Year 6.”  She also knows what her schools need to to better, which is to have a much richer and deeper curriculum at the heart of each school.  “The content, structure and how it is developed is down for school leaders to decide. It should depend on a number of factors relevant to a particular school’s context and the knowledge and expertise of curriculum leaders.”

And therein lies the rub, because far from worry about how we can share facilities or aid social mobility, schools like mine really do understand how to build deep and rich curricula and we would willingly share our knowledge and expertise. The trouble is, government simply won’t fund it.  We are indeed entering a Twilight zone for some schools, where the light does not shine brightly, and the urgencies are so immediate, and where there is little statistical evidence to draw upon to identify quite where the schools and the pupils are currently at. As the Americans are won’t to say – “Go figure!”

About jameswilding

Academic Principal Claires Court Schools Long term member & advocate of the Independent Schools Association
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1 Response to Into the twilight zone -when school statistics cease to make sense. Go figure!

  1. paulmartin42 says:

    As a fan of new-Ofsted, but not so Mr Harford, I can see their strategy when crossing the border southwards. The arc of educational support is a long one and clearly the important numbers are financial. As the call on the national purse increases (everyone wants a spare aircraft carrier) I can see why little money is now devoted to curricular studies. Indeed the main man in Scotland laid it bare here:

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