PISA (Slice 1)

A lot can be said about PISA  (Programme for International Student Assessment) 2015, the triennial test and survey completed by a sample of 15 year olds in OECD and other nations.   Databases and interactive data visualisations are available on the PISA website.  Potentially, anyone with skills in data analysis can use these data sources to explore their own questions about the data, and research will no doubt be forthcoming. In the meantime, the first slice of PISA looks at news reports of the PISA results.

Results of the 2015 PISA test were published on 6th December 2016.  UK based news sources have been keen to report on the performance of the UK, and its constituent countries, in comparison with the other nations taking part in PISA 2015.  BBC News ran with the headline: PISA Tests: Singapore top in global education rankings reporting that, in comparison, the “UK remains a middle-ranking performer”.  The Telegraph asks: Where does the UK rank in the international school league tables?   While it reports that the UK has climbed up the ranks for science and reading, it cautions that the average point score had dropped in both subjects, though only by one point in reading.   As the Telegraph report goes on to say:  “only 11 per cent of students in the UK are top performers”  in comparison with Singapore where 35% of pupils are ‘top performers’.   Similarly, The Guardian focuses on the apparent lack of success of UK schools with the headline:  UK schools fail to climb international league table.   The Independent too warns that UK schools are falling behind leading countries.  These reports suggest that there is little to celebrate in the latest PISA results. The position of the UK in the PISA rankings signifies, according to news reports, that we are falling behind.

However, where average, or mean scores form the basis for comparison we should not be surprised to see some variation in the results between schools as highlighted by the case of Alexandra Park School in North London. As BBC News reported, the average score of the pupils in  this school surpasses the average score of pupils in Singapore, the top performing country taking part in PISA.    So, while the UK is ‘middle ranking’, some UK schools are not.  Some score higher, some score lower. Perhaps in an effort to highlight which country is to blame for bringing down the UK average,  the differential performance of constituent parts of the UK has also received attention. The PISA scores for Wales are lower than other UK countries, and falls below the OECD average.  The BBC reports that Wales is “still worst in UK in world education tests” as the performance of Wales’ pupils has failed to improve on previous PISA tests.   Wales Online reminds us that politicians may be judged by and held accountable for the educational performance of a country’s pupils, reporting that First Minister, Carwyn Jones has been described as a ‘failure’, partly as a result of the country’s performance in PISA 2015.

These reports, in highlighting the apparent mediocre position of the UK in global league tables suggests that the comparative performance of the UK should be a concern for both educators and policy makers. Grek (2009) discusses a politics of comparison where the PISA ranks provoke policy responses in an attempt to increase a nation’s position in future tests.  Future slices on this blog will pick up on these and other issues related to PISA.

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Big Data and Social Science

This was a training course organised by the NCRM (National Centre for Research Methods).   Held at the LSE in Holborn, and facilitated by Frauke Kreuter, two days were dedicated to considering the ways in which social scientists could engage with Big Data.  The content of the two days is supported by a book Big Data and Social Science: A Practical Guide to Methods and Tools.  It was a shame I could only find a hard copy at the time of purchase as it really is a weighty tome, and not something one wants to carry around.

What is Big Data?

This is a good question.  One response to this, that Big Data is “anything that is too big to fit onto your computer” (Foster et al, 2017: p3) reveals the temporality of this as a defining characteristic.  As the computing capacity of personal computing increases, so does the ability to handle vast amounts of data using a personal computer or laptop. So, this may not be a good yardstick for defining Big Data.  Still, this gives us an indication of the ‘Bigness’ of Big Data.  There are three key characteristics of Big Data, including volume (large datasets), velocity (data that may be in real time, or streamed), and variety (data in various formats and from multiple sources).  This is discussed in more detail in Chapter 5 of Big Data and Social Science: A Practical Guide to Methods and Tools.

Accessing Big Data

References to the proliferation of Big Data and the datafication of everyday life can be found in social scientific literature (boyd and Crawford, 2012; van Dijck, 2014; McFarland, et al, 2016).  While data may be ‘everywhere’, it is important to know where to look as well as develop the skills needed to access the data. Techniques such as web scraping were discussed.  This involves searching for data on the web and extracting it.

There are tools such as Beautiful Soup to facilitate web scraping, and we discussed Selector Gadget which the user can use to identify the code needed to select different parts of web pages.  However, one of the challenges with this is that web sites change, meaning that this might not be a reliable way of extracting data.  Further, web scraping may be illegal in some circumstances as the providers have not given permission for their data to be accessed in this way.

Another approach is to use Application Programming Interface or API. In non technical terms, this means ‘reading the data and putting it into something else’. It is distinct from web scraping, apparently.  Chapter 2 in Data and Social Science: A Practical Guide to Methods and Tools provides more details on the methods and tools used in collecting data from web sources.

Record Linkage

Big Data may be generated from more than one, indeed several, datasets.   Tokle and Bender (2017) highlight the ways in which Big Data differs from the more usual survey data used by social scientists.  Survey data, usually, contains all the data relevant to the area of research interest.  Social scientists using Big Data may have to use data from several sources.  This relates to the ‘organic’ characteristic of Big Data.  That is, it is typically data that is found, rather than designed (as in survey data) and may come from the myriad everyday transactions of human activity.  These include credit card transactions and social media use.

Researchers using Big Data may want to ‘match’ cases that appear in both datasets.  In other words, data on individuals may be linked across datasets.  This might be very useful to a researcher trying to gain a complete picture of the activity of interest.

Of course, in linking records, there is the possibility that individuals will be identified. We discussed how this meant that informed consent, usually essential for social scientists, is not enforceable. In fact, Big Data threatens informed consent as a value of social research. The consequences of using an individual’s data cannot, yet, be known.  Such ethical concerns urgently need addressing by social scientists  (boyd and Crawford, 2012). Chapter 3 in Data and Social Science: A Practical Guide to Methods and Tools covers more on record linkage and matching.


This was the most animated part of the session and is testimony to the ability of visualisations to tell a story with data.  Of course, this is nothing new. Historically, visualisations of data including Nightingale’s Coxcombs, du Bois’ hand coloured charts of Black Life in the USA, Jon Snow’s cholera map and Mineard’s visualisation of Napoleon’s march on and retreat from Moscow have been used to tell powerful stories, that data presented as raw statistics or in tabular form could not.

We discusses how there is now an expectation that visualisations will be interactive.  One example we explored was Baby Name Voyager which provided some fun as we entered various names. However, a shocking dramatic visualisation was explored in Out of Sight, Out of Mind,  displaying animations of   drone strikes in Pakistan, and the resulting fatalities .

Data visualisations are not just a way of presenting results, they are also used for presenting findings of work in progress, which has value for Learning Analytics. Chapter 9 in  Data and Social Science: A Practical Guide to Methods and Tools covers visualisations in more detail.

What has this to do with Education?

Another way of phrasing this might be, why would Big Data not have anything to do with education?  Education and educational practices have long been the subject of quantification (Smith, 2016).   Today:

“Schools are increasingly caught up in the data/information frenzy”  (Smith, 2016: 2).

Big Data has become part of the way in which education is governed (Sellar, 2015; Selwyn, 2015; Williamson, 2015).   In particular, student performance data is increasingly used for accountability purposes.  Leaders and managers of educational institutions will rapidly need to become familiar with Big Data analytics.  Within Higher Education, data is routinely collected from every student transaction (lecture attendance, library visits, assignment submissions) and is collected by institutions, constituting a wealth of digital data on students. They may not be aware we collect, and use this data, and again this raises more ethical issues that researchers are engaged with.   Along with Learning Analytics this data may be be used used to identify those students at risk from failing or dropping out. As Learning Analytics develops, JISC has published a review of Learning Analytics practice in UK and internationally.

A two day course couldn’t cover everything, or produce Big Data experts. Other sessions included text analysis and machine learning, which both have relevance to education, and are  covered in more detail in Data and Social Science: A Practical Guide to Methods and Tools.


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Cutting the Pupil Premium for ‘bright’ pupils

Last week, the TES reported that it was aware of ministerial discussions on making changes to Pupil Premium spending.  Pupil Premium is additional government funding given to state funded schools to help raise the achievement of ‘disadvantaged’ (which is determined according to ‘eligibility’ for free school meals and having been a looked after child for more than 6 months).

The article reports on a proposal that would see Pupil Premium allocations cut from ‘bright’, but disadvantaged pupils, and reallocated to those disadvantaged pupils with low attainment.  The rationale is that the ‘bright’ children are less in need of additional support, presumably because they are ‘bright’.

Firstly, the use of the adjective ‘bright’ is problematic.  Antonyms of bright include ‘dim’, dull’, or ‘lacklustre’, or, perhaps in the context of educational attainment, ‘thick’.  None of these are explicitly expressed, of course, but certainly some opposite of bright is implied.

In defence, the Fair Education Alliance Report Card of 2014 in which this idea is recommended does not use the term ‘bright’. So, maybe we could blame the journalists in this case?  Possibly, but there is hint in this document that attainment is somehow inherent, and as such those pupils who are achieving in line with their non Pupil Premium peers are in less need of additional support.

The Fair Education Alliance proposes the following recommendation for policy:

Target pupil premium by attainment as well as disadvantage measures. This could be achieved through halving current funding per pupil for FSM Ever 6. Half of this funding could then be re-allocated to pupils eligible for FSM Ever 6 who have low prior attainment. This would give double-weighting to those low income pupils most in need of intervention without raising overall pupil premium spend. The change of funding model would increase school accountability for ‘catching up’ pupils.

As Pupil Premium is paid to schools for the purpose of raising the attainment levels of the most deprived pupils and the rest (ignoring for the moment the assumptions around homogeneity of the rest) and thus narrowing the attainment gap, this may appear to make sense.  However, one of the problems is that this assumes that where a pupil, who attracts the Pupil Premium, has a previous level of high attainment will maintain a high level of attainment throughout their school career.  As if being bright is an innate state that will be maintained with or without intervention and support.

The evidence does not support this. New transition matrices, discussed here by Tim Dracup paint a more complex picture, suggesting that prior high attainment isn’t always maintained between KS2 and GCSE, with widening gaps between the most and least deprived. This questions the rationale of re-allocating Pupil Premium Funding from pupils with previous levels of high attainment.  Elsewhere, the knowledge that attainment gaps widen throughout a young person’s school career is supported.  For example, the recent publication of Too many children left behind which examines the education trajectories of children from the USA, UK, Australia and Canada adds further evidence about the widening gaps in attainment, even where pupils of different social backgrounds have started school with similar levels of attainment.

Perhaps further attention could be given to the last line of the above extract from the Fair Education Alliance Report Card of 2014:

The change of funding model would increase school accountability for ‘catching up’ pupils

The implication is that, because Pupil Premium is not currently weighted by prior attainment, schools are taking credit for the attainment of those previously high-attaining pupils, when they have no right to, because they are ‘bright’.  A new formula would mean they would have to focus on those pupils with lower levels of prior attainment.  Of course, if we know attainment gaps get wider as children travel through school, this makes little sense, other than as a means of further holding schools to account for failing to mitigate against social inequality.

While the effectiveness of additional funding such as the Pupil Premium in narrowing the gap may be  questioned overall, cutting this from ‘high attaining’ pupils isn’t going to help.

View the lecture on Too Many Children Left Behind held at the LSE:

NASUWT on the importance of Local Schools

This week NASUWT published the results of a survey, commissioned last year, seeking parents’ views of schools and colleges.   Alongside views of education the results reveal the most and least important factors that parents consider when choosing a school or college for their child, as well as the strategies they have used to inform their decision making. The following table reveals the responses to the question:

Which, if any, are the most important factors when choosing your child’s school/college?

(Comres, 2015: 7)
(Comres, 2015: 7)

In reporting these results NASUWT has highlighted location (referring to the school’s proximity to the family home, or parent’s workplace) as the most popular factor to be identified as important by parents.  In contrast, league table position is highlighted as being considered as important by only 21% of parents surveyed.   Clearly, in publishing these survey responses NASUWT are trying to challenge the importance that UK Government discourses place on quantitative measures of school ‘performance’.  The message  given is that parents believe other things are more important when considering the future education of their children and the Government should, therefore, focus on providing more ‘good’ local schools and focusing less on league tables:

“It remains the case that for the majority of parents the locality of a school is a key factor, supporting the NASUWT’s long-argued view that what every parent wants is access to a good local school.”

Aside from what is mean by a “good school”, while it may not appear a surprising result, the identification of locality may be more complex.  As Burgess et al (2014) discuss, while location may be an important factor in school choice decision making, this factor is itself influenced by the context in which the parents are identifying that location as an important factor.

“household location is a choice and may be endogenously affected by demand for high-quality schools. Suppose a family had moved to an area with good academic schools for this reason. This would give undue weight to proximity to the school in estimation, so the true preference for academic quality would appear as a preference for proximity.” (Burgess, et al, 2014: 7-8)

Location is clearly important, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that parents view academic performance as any less important, even though they may appear to do so when asked this question in a survey.  As Ball and Vincent (1998) observe, the school choice process may be a long term project, particularly for middle-class parents, which takes several years.  So, in the example from Burgess et al (2014) parents who may have moved house in order to be in proximity to what they view as a ‘good’ school would have done this because of the importance they place on academic standards.  However, they may well identify proximity as the most important factor if asked about choosing a school for their child.

When asked about strategies employed in school-choice decision making, 29% of parents reported they had checked school performance data tables, which is slightly higher, but not inconsistent with the percentage identifying this as an important factor in decision making.  School Performance Tables are provided by the  Department of Education and this facility allows anyone who is interested to view a range of selected data on schools and to compare this ‘performance’ with other schools. Presumably, if the statistics from the NASUWT survey are representative, around a third of parents are using this tool in their school choice decision making, meaning most parents, around two thirds, are not. Again, the results from this survey are far from nuanced.  As Ball and Vincent (1998) revealed in their study, school-choice decision making is a complex process and the importance placed on ‘cold’ knowledge, such as performance data is shaped by a range of factors, such as social class and gender.  The NASUWT survey  makes a valid point in highlighting that relatively few parents consult this kind of data when choosing a school or college for their child, but more information is needed.  An interesting question remains: what type of parent believes performance tables are an important factor in school-choice decision making and how do they interpret this data?  Or: Are some groups of parents being super-served via school performance tables

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Who is getting the Pupil Premium?

The office of David Lammy MP this week released analysis of the pupil premium – funding given to schools and targeted at supporting the most disadvantaged children. The analysis suggests that, rather than the additional funding going to the most deprived areas of the country, more affluent areas are seeing the greatest benefit.

Analysis has revealed that Buckinghamshire and Surrey, with 11% of under 16 year olds living in poverty will see a doubling of the pupil premium.  In contrast, in Tower Hamlets where over half of children under the age of 16 are living in poverty the premium will increase by  60%.  At the other end of the country, Middlesbrough is also among the ‘biggest losers’, seeing an increase in the pupil premium of 54% while 35% of it’s under 16 year olds live in poverty.

Data can be downloaded from the Guardian’s Datablog page:


When Satisfactory is not Satisfactory

Declining standards of pupil behaviour in UK schools makes good news copy, especially when that behaviour can be used to justify increasing the powers of teachers to discipline pupils.  This week, the apparent declining standards of pupil behaviour in schools was in the news following the publication of statistics on Behaviour in Schools, relating to school in England.

There is no doubt that the current Government sees behaviour and discipline in schools as important.  Elsewhere on this blog I have discussed the eagerness with which Michael Gove, the current Minister for Education embraces school uniforms as a means of raising standards, including behaviour.  Additionally, there are a number of consultation documents on behaviour and discipline available on the Department for Education’s website.

The Guardian reported that Nick Gibb (Schools Minister) was concerned by the statistics, as they revealed that behaviour was judged to be no better than Satisfactory in 20% (one fifth) of schools.

Which means what?

The recently released statistics are based on Ofsted inspections, which, using the familiar Ofsted nomenclature judge behaviour in schools to be either Outstanding, Good, Satisfactory, or Inadequate.

Without knowing the detailed criteria which Ofsted uses to determine their judgement it is not immediately apparent what types of behaviour might constitute Outstanding, as opposed to Good and how they both differ from Satisfactory.  It is however, the judgement of Satisfactory which is the most interesting term.  It can be stated with reasonable confidence that the term Satisfactory means, well, just that. The implication however from Nick Gibb’s apparent concern over these figures is that Satisfactory actually means something else.  Unsatisfactory perhaps?

Ofsted do have another judgement reserved for those schools in which it has judged behaviour to be less than Satisfactory.  That judgement is Inadequate.  Surely the Minister should be focusing his attention on thee schools, not on those schools where behaviour is considered Satisfactory?

So, how many schools are judged to be Inadequate?

Without wishing to diminish the problems that schools, pupils, teachers, parents, and communities face poor pupil behaviour,  the answer is, a relatively small number.  The statistics as at December 2010, reveal:

  • 25 Primary Schools were given a behaviour grade of Inadequate (0.1% of all English primary schools)
  • 32 Secondary Schools were given a behaviour grade of Inadequate (1% of all English secondary schools)

Putting the two figures together, 57 (or 0.28%) schools were judged to have Inadequate levels of behaviour.

What about good behaviour?

The news attention does appear to be on the rather strange concept of ‘no better than’ Satisfactory.   However the key points are clearly stated on the first page of the Statistical Release.  They reveal that:

  • 94% of primary schools were judged to have either Good or Outstanding standards of behaviour
  • 82% of secondary schools were judged to have either Good or Outstanding standards of behaviour

Those figures, apparently do not make such a good newspaper headline.

The Department for Education also details the figures by local authority, as well as providing figures for special schools, and pupil referral units.

Lost Elementary Schools?

All the ancient histories, as one of our wits say, are just fables that have been agreed upon“.

Voltaire, in Jeannot et Colin

Recently, I discovered Philip Gardner’s The Lost Elementary Schools of Victorian England.  It is a book which presents an alternative account of elementary education before state elementary education became widespread at the end of the nineteenth century.   It was published in 1984, so it is hardly new, though the critique Gardner offers is not a loud voice in the history of education.

There is an accepted version of the emergence of state education in England and Wales.  Following tentative state intervention, The Elementary Education Act of 1870 introduced school boards with the powers to enforce attendance, and, gradually, over the following decades, attendance (at least up until aged 10) was made compulsory. Gradually the school leaving age has increased, and we now face an education leaving age of 18.

State elementary education did not, of course, drop out of the sky. A rationale can be briefly summarised as follows.  Britain, as an industrial nation needed a skilled workforce, and this imperative for a state education system was expressed in the 1870 Forster Act.  Further, so concerned was the state for the moral welfare of the poor, that mass schooling was deemed necessary to ensure potential delinquents grew up to be sober, law abiding citizens.  Additionally, it was no longer feasible to leave the Church with the burden of educating the poor. This account presents the emergence of state elementary education as necessary and desirable, with the state presented as a kindly benefactor.  How kind of the state to provide an education for us plebs.

Of course, there is a critique to this.  Britain became an industrial nation long before state education began to be formed at the end of the nineteenth century, so presumably an educated workforce wasn’t entirely necessary for economic prosperity[1].

An argument can be made that state education emerged as a form of social control.  Indeed, Roebuck, a nineteenth century politician expressed such a view in 1833:

“…as mere matter of police, the education of the people ought to be considered as a part of the duties of the Government…”[2]

While not suggesting that state education does not serve a function of social control,  at times, on behalf of government, this rationale is not an entirely convincing one for the passing of the 1870 Act.  Was the threat of a revolting population greater in 1870 than in previous decades?  There had been revolts across Europe in 1848,  and in England, the Chartist petition. These did not prompt a mid century Elementary Education Act.   The recently passed 1867 Reform Act which extended male suffrage may have strengthened the argument for the introduction of state education, though perhaps not to quell revolution.

The apparent unsatisfactory state of elementary education uncovered by the Newcastle Commission justified state intervention. Attendance was poor, teaching was poor.  There were, apparently ‘nurseries of ignorance’ throughout the land. While the Church did their bit, something to be done about the state of elementary education.

These descriptions of inferior schools which were merely babysitting establishments may sound plausible.  However this attack on working class private schooling raises a number of issues. They present the working class  in need of, a wealthy, educated saviour.  That saviour apparently came in the form of the 1870 Act.

Is it not possible that, over the centuries, the working classes have been organising and providing education for themselves and their children?  It is plausible, afterall, we know other social classes have organised and provided an education system for themselves, and continue to do so. We have the great public schools of England to remind us of this heritage.

Tangible evidence of a working class educational heritage is a little more tricky.  What we do have, from nineteenth century inspections and statistical returns on elementary schooling suggests the working class were not very good at educating their children.

It is this evidence that Philip Gardner tackles in The Lost Elementary Schools of Victorian England.  The critique focuses on possible bias recording through a middle class lens of working class schooling.  It is the kind of critique which should be familiar to any social scientist familiar with the limitations of statistical evidence.      Gardner does suggest that far from being nurseries of ignorance working class elementary schools were well established, and valued by working class parents,  offering an alternative to church and charity schools.

He takes apart the Newcastle Commission, the 1851 Education Census as well as historic census returns.  With the relatively accessibility of census records for family history it is possible  for anyone keen on tracing their roots to look up the educational history of their family.  According to census returns going back to 1851 schooling was a common experience for my working class ancestors, teenage girls as well as boys.

Unfortunately Gardner doesn’t provide a definite answer, no irrefutable evidence of an underground network of established, scholarly working class private schools which far excelled the standards of church and charity schools.  Unsurprisingly, working class elementary schools didn’t keep the kind of records you will now find in local records offices.    But, there is enough to suggest that the established view of the emergence of state education in England and Wales is a fable that is agreed upon.

Continue reading “Lost Elementary Schools?”

Missing out on Free School Meals?

Children are eligible for Free School Meals if their parents receive certain benefits.  Eligibility for Free School Meals has long been used as a proxy indicator of socio-economic status; if a child receives Free School Meals, they are likely to be socio-economically deprived in comparison to children who do not.  As  sociologists of education will tell you, socio-economic status (some of us even dare use the word ‘class’) shapes educational attainment.  A lifetime ago, employed by an LEA, I would benchmark schools Key Stage results according to ‘FSM eligibility’, so that we could claim to be comparing the results of schools with a similar pupil intake.

The FSM statistics are not without controversy. To what extent can this statistic reliably measure socio-economic status?[1]

One of the problems with the ‘FSM eligibility’ statistics is that, despite the title, the figure measures claimants of Free School Meals.  There is a big difference between eligibility and the claiming of benefits entitled because of that eligibility.  Benefits go left unclaimed.

The significance of all this?   The Pupil Premium, which is additional money which the Government has pledged to benefit the education of “deprived children”. It will be allocated to schools’ budgets according to the number of children in receipt of FSM. Middlesbrough, in the North East of England has some of the most deprived wards in the country, and as such you would expect their to be a significant number of children eligible for Free School Meals.  Middlesbrough Council is concerned that as many as 3000 children who are eligible are not receiving this benefit. It amounts to additional £1.1 million in Pupil Premium funding for Middlesbrough schools.   They have urged eligible parents to complete a form in order to claim their entitlement.  That is the way Free School Meals works, a parent has to apply for it, it is not automatic. In Middlesbrough, there are, at present approximately  6000 children already in receipt of Free School Meals.  So, in other words, around one-third of parents have not claimed this benefit.   Who knows what the real eligibility figure is if this level of non claiming is repeated in other socio-economically deprived areas.  The Government has set aside £2.5 billion a year for the Pupil Premium.  Will it be enough?

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A “radical overhaul of school league tables”?

This is how Anushka Asthana and Toby Helm, in the Guardian described the new coalition’s plans for school league tables.  In fact, it appears to be not so radical. 

League tables, providing statistical information on the ‘performance’ of pupils are published by the government’s education department (as in the illustration below), and reproduced in national newspapers. 

On the face of it, they provide robust, statistical information about the performance of a school.  Though deciphering the information will not be straightforward for everyone, the figures show what percentage of pupils attained a specified level.  It appears objective, scientific, unbiased.  However, the problem with these tables is that they only provide a partial picture; there is a lack of information on the social context  of the school, and, although there is now a contextual value added measure, there is little information on the attainment of pupils on entry to that key stage.  So, in short they do not compare like with like, and, are biased.

League tables were introduced to give parents information about schools in their areas.  They could use this information to make informed decisions about selecting the most appropriate school for their child.  Parents, thus became consumers in the education market place.  Further, it should be noted that this development was not introduced by the previous Labour administration, but by the previous Conservative government.  In particular, it was the 1988 Education Act which ushered in many changes which have resulted in the intensification of the education marketplace.

Now, we have the ConDem government intent on changing the league table system.  Plans, however, are at the ‘suggestion’ stage.   One suggestion, not a definite, is to group schools according to their socio-economic context.  So, schools in poor areas will be grouped with other poor schools. 

Is this radical?


  • There is nothing new in benchmarking schools, (or other public services for that matter), alongside other schools with a similar social context.
  • Benchmarking alongside schools with a similar proportion of pupils eligible for free school meals has been used to compare the ‘performance’ of schools.  There are, however problems with FSM data as it is only a ‘proxy’ for deprivation)
  • The last government also introduced a value added measure to take account of the intake of pupils

Is this suggestion a good idea?

It depends on the motivation of the government

  • The claims that the current government makes for achieving social justice through education reforms ring hollow.  Proposals for more academies, and for free schools are not about achieving social justice, but are about withdrawal of the state from the provision of education. Academies and Free Schools will be outside of LEA control, and so, in control of their own admissions.  League tables comparing ‘like with like’  are, more likely to mean one set of tables for ‘good’ schools, and another for ‘poorer’, underfunded, LEA schools.
  • Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg claims that this move will provide a more “honest picture” of schools’ performance. Again, it is possible to debate the level of honesty that statistical information can provide about any school.  However, any picture, honest or not, it is the impact that this change will have on the consumers of league tables, and the consequences that is important. So…

What are the consequences?

In short, inequality

  •  For parents, it depends on their social class, whether and how they use this information.  As Bowe et al[1] observe, it is too simplistic to assume that parents make school choice decisions on the basis of school performance data alone.
  •  Just as important in school choice decision-making are social networks.  See the research carried out by Ball and Vincent[2].
  • Crucially, Ball and Vincent found that, for working class parents, school choice was not an anxious process, largely because choices are limited, often attend the local school.  It is these parents who are unlikely to be pouring over any form of league table.
  • For those (mainly middle class) parents who do use league tables as part of their decision-making process, this change will simply remove from analysis, those schools which they would not wish to consider for their child (the ‘poor’ performing schools, the ones at the bottom of the league tables).  There will be a middle class league table, and one for the rest.
  • The educational market place will intensify, a greater disparity between schools ‘freed’ from LEA control; academies, and free schools and the remaining state schools will be evident. Greater social inequality is likely to result. 

Continue reading “A “radical overhaul of school league tables”?”

More pupils on free school meals

A Statistical First Release (SFR), produced by National Statistics was published this week by the new Department for Education.  It provides statistical information on schools and pupils and their characteristics, including numbers of  pupils, class sizes, pupils with SEN, with English as an Additional Language, Ethnicity, and the numbers eligible for free school meals.

The statistics in this SFR are derived from a Census of all maintained schools in England, taken in January this year.  In terms of free school meals, the figures show that 1.2 million children are eligible, an increase of approximately 83,000 since 2009.

In primary schools, 18.5 % of pupils are known to be eligible for free school meals, compared with 17.1% in 2009.  In secondary schools, 15.4% are known to be eligible, compared with 14.5% last year.

This year’s rise in eligibility follows on from last year’s rise, and, is likely to be a symptom of the current economic climate.  However, for primary schools, at least, it is difficult to make direct comparisons with the 2009 figures because of a free school meals pilot operating in the following LEAs:

  • Durham
  • Newham
  • Wolverhampton

In these authorities, extended or universal free school meals are being provided to pupils in maintained primary schools.  This immediately changes the eligibility criteria: more, and in some cases, all primary school pupils are eligible.  A similar scheme is planned to start in parts of Cumbria, later this year.

The pilot figures are, however likely to explain only a proportion of the increase in eligibility.  Income inequality and child poverty are important factors. With cuts in public services expected, these children will suffer the most.

The release of these figures has not received much media attention amidst coverage of the post-election coalition formation and abolition of the DCSF.  The Independent reports on the figures, and a virtually identical article can be found in the Telegraph.  Meanwhile the Daily Express chose to focus on the issue of English as an Additional Language, and in doing so managed to conflate English as an Additional Language with not being able to speak English properly. The two are not the same.  It is true that free school meal data was not the only information reported in this SFR.  However, the relative neglect of free school meals, and the decision by some sections of the press to, inaccurately report on figures of non native English speakers  is worrying. The press is setting the agenda, focusing on ethnicity, fueling fears over immigration, while ignoring the important issue of child poverty.

Continue reading “More pupils on free school meals”