National Curriculum Assessments – Key Stage 2

Today, the Department for Education published data on National Curriculum Assessments at Key Stage 2.  The data from these has  shown a drop in the number of schools falling below government targets.  As such, the DfE was was able to claim its “new tougher floor targets” had proved successful with the following statement:

“Higher floor standards driving up performance”

The logic being that higher targets will lead to higher standards.  At the same time as celebrating the success of England’s primary schools the Department for Education highlights those Local Authorities where relatively high proportions of schools have fewer than 60% of pupils achieving the expected level 4 at Key Stage 2. These schools face being converted into academies as part of the current government’s plan to transform ‘weak’ schools.   The optimistic rationale is that the “expertise and strong leadership” of an academy sponsor  gives pupils “the best chance of a first-class education”.   At this point it is worth reading Henry Stewart’s post for the Local Schools Network which provides some interesting counter analysis for such a claim, based on the data released today.

We also need to consider which pupils are doing better, and which pupils are not achieving expected levels:

  • Chinese pupils are most likely to achieve level 4 at Key Stage 2 in English and Maths
  • Children who are entitled to Free School Meals (FSM) are less likely than their peers to achieve level 4 or above at Key Stage 2
  • The size of this gap differs according to gender and ethnicity, with the gap between white and black boys on FSM and the national average of particular concern

Therefore, improvement is not uniform. The persistent differences in attainment between socio-economic groups suggests the ability of individual schools to transcend these inequalities is limited.  Can primary academies really do any better?


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?

Continue reading “Missing out on Free School Meals?”

Michael Gove introduces the Schools White Paper

The Department for Education has appropriated a range of technologies to get its message across, following on from the previous Labour administration, the Department for Education has a YouTube site.  Its visual appearance is somewhat more sombre than that of it’s predecessor, the DCSF. Perhaps this indicates a greater emphasis on substance, rather than style. Or, perhaps, that is what we are supposed to think.

With the launch of the Schools White Paper, comes Michael Gove appearing on video introducing it. You can watch the video here.  It leaves you in no doubt as to what the key themes of the Schools White Paper are.

The White Paper is, as Gove tells us, called The Importance of Teaching

Firstly, this refers to the quality of teachers.   The Government is committed to raising the prestige of teachers.  That sounds unproblematic, on the face of it.   Note, however, the emphasis on the quality of teachers, not teaching. The White Paper invites us to believe that improvements in schools will be as a result of good quality teachers.   Presumably that implies that good quality teachers practice good quality teaching.  But this is not merely a semantic point. Good quality teachers will be identified through their degree classification.  Graduates will require at least a 2:2  in order to receive government funding for initial teacher training.  This might not appear to be a bad thing, after all, we want teachers who know their subject and can demonstrate this at degree level.  However, it does suggest that the qualities that are required to become a good teacher, exist, and are fixed before initial teacher training takes place.  In reality, given the popularity of many PGCE programmes, this level of selection is likely to have being taking place for some time. However, as a result of these proposals, providers of post-graduate teacher training programmes will now no longer be able to provide a place to a potentially excellent teacher who has less than a 2:2.

Secondly, there is the power that is to be given to teachers.    Again, this sounds unproblematic.  Teachers will be able “to take control of the learning that goes on” and will be given “new powers to take control of order and discipline in the classroom”.  If teachers are important, this sounds reasonable, let them get on with teaching, and, while they are at it they can get on with disciplining children.  How very generous of the Government to give teachers power.   So, let us problematise this. Can power be ‘given’ to teachers in this sense?  I doubt it.  Unless the Government genuinely sees that it has nothing to do with education, and will disband the DfE, and never again propose education policies,  it still has power, and it can just as easily take back this so called power that it is giving teachers. 

Alongside this new power, is freedom.  As the webpage for the Schools White Paper states, schools are to be  “freed from the constraints of central Government direction“.  The Schools White Paper, presumably, should not be seen as an example of  that “central Government direction”.   

So, there it is, teachers have power, and schools have freedoms, and, there is no “central Government direction”.  Except that “central Government” is pressing for the teaching of synthetic phonics, and the introduction of the English Baccalaureate.  Testing remains, with a new “age six reading check”  to be introduced, inspections remain, and minimum “floor standards” will be imposed on schools. The curriculum is to be reformed, with a focus on “essential knowledge”.  We can accept that teachers have new powers, and schools have freedoms, however, they have these as long as they implement this Government’s policy

League tables

School League tables based on the GCSE results of pupils were published this week.

The Department for Children Schools and Families hailed the results as a sign of continuing success.  The Schools’ Minister Vernon Coaker pointed to the increased proportion of pupils gaining 5 or more A*-C at GCSE, with a higher percentage of pupils gaining good grades at GCSE in English and Mathematics.  London was identified as the region of top performing schools, a dramatic improvement on GCSE results since 1997.

The Government also pointed to the reduction of the number of  schools designated as ‘National Challenge’ – this is where GCSE passes have been typically low, with schools challenged to improve their results. 

The Government also claimed that Academies have demonstrated that they are successfully reversing low levels of attainment in neighbourhoods they serve.

So, the Government have used the latest statistics to demonstrate that their education policies have been successful. 

However there is another side to this apparent success story. The Guardian reported that a 10th of schools had failed to meet GCSE targets and claimed that Academies, while being hailed as key to raising stands make up a significant proportion of ‘National Challenge’ schools.

A form of ‘value added’ which measures the progress a child has made between the ages of 11 and 16 has been introduced this year, this indicates that over half of state schools are failing to meet expected levels of progress.

Interestingly however, it is the schools in the most deprived areas that have improved the most.  As sociologists of education will observe it is such schools that are most likely to struggle, with the social class of their intake impacting of educational attainment.  While these results do not prove that social class no longer influences educational attainment it indicates that policy interventions may lead to improvements in some areas.  Funding has been targeted in these areas, and rightly so, given the consistent evidence for low levels of attainment in these areas.

Now the Lib Dems have criticised the Government for failing to provide the same amount of targeted intervention in ordinary towns, with schools in this area demonstrating less improvement, with some schools struggling to meet targets.

It is almost as if the Labour Government has become a victim of its own success.

At the bottom of the scale, the number of schools where a large number of pupils are leaving without 5 good GCSE’s is increasing.  This indicates a polarisation of attainment – with more pupils gaining more good GCSEs while at the same time more pupils with few qualifications.  An added problem is that these pupils are likely to be concentrated in these so called ‘failing schools’ which then struggle to improve, because their levels of attainment are largely shaped by their intake. 

Perhaps to put the criticism into context we should take note of what Vernon Coaker has to say:

“A decade ago, just 35% of children left school with five good GCSEs including English and maths, now with our best results ever it’s 49.8% for all schools. In fact, the average school performance in 1997 is now roughly where we put the absolute bottom benchmark expected. This hasn’t happened by chance.”

Achievement and Attainment tables

This is the new term for performance tables which were published earlier this week by the DCSF.  You will find details of each primary school’s performance at Key Stage 2, the test that pupils take in the final year at primary school, aged 11, here.

School performance league tables are receiving some bad press at the moment.  Introduced by the previous Conservative administration as part of a marketisation of education, league tables were intended to provide parents with information upon which they could base decisions about their child’s education, and they could choose to send their child to the school of their choice.  In a free market economy it was believed that this would lead to raised educational standards, with parents exercising their rights to send their child to the best performing school, which schools ranking low in the league tables would be forced to improve in order that it retained and attracted pupils.  In other words parental choice would drive up standards.  Brilliant, just by choosing to send your child to a highly performing school parents can drive up standards.

Except it doesn’t work like that.  Parents have numerous reasons for selecting schools, and many parent have little choice about where to send their children, the local school becomes an automatic choice for many without cultural capital, knowledge to seek out the ‘best’ school or transport to ensure that their child can physically attend a seemingly better school on the other side of town.  For a comment about some research which examined this, see a previous post on the impact of parental choice.

The publication of the 2009 Achievement and Attainment tables follows bad news stories for performance tables.  In recent years we have seen the delay in publication of the tables along with the termination of contracts.  Key Stage 3 testing was recently abolished and political parties continue to vie  for votes  in a future General Election by telling us what they will do about League Tables.  The current Labour Government who inherited the legacy of league tables has hinted that they will probably disappear, replaced by teacher assessments with these to be introduced alongside test results from next year.  The Conservatives who introduced them, claiming it was necessary to inform parents about the ‘quality’ of local schools has suggested replacing them with a test in the first year of secondary school.  The problem here is that the league tables will not actually relate to the performance of the seconday school  but that of the primary school the child has just left.  So quite what the purpose of such performance tables will be is unknown.  Next year’s tests are threatened by members of  some teaching unions (the NAHT and the NUT), just in time for a General Election.

The publication of the 2009  Key Stage test results has prompted concern over falling standards with the Guardian reporting on the growing numbers of schools where pupils are failing to reach Level 4 (the expected level) in English and Maths by the end of Key Stage 2.  Yet, elsewhere Dian Morgan, the Schools Minister has highlighted the improvement in the number of pupils reaching Level 5  (beyond the expected level), particularly in Maths.  The DCSF press release also singles out Darlington as the most improved Local Education Authority.

League tables have been criticised since they came into existence because of the problems with reporting on the raw scores of pupils, failign to take account of the value that a school has made to the child  (known as value added) and the context of the school, such as deprivation, which is known to impact on educational attainment.  Under the Labour Government the issue of the various social contexts in which schools exist has been dealt with by a Contextual Value Added measure (CVA).  If you look at this on the DCSF website you will see this explanation:

“The CVA measure is shown as a score based around 100. Scores above 100 represent schools where pupils on average made more progress than similar pupils nationally, while scores below 100 represent schools where pupils made less progress.”

But this isn’t a remedy to the limitations of league tables as it based on having the Key Stage 1 scores of all pupils, which may not be possible in a school with a high level of mobility, particularly from abroad.

Just how much does the publishing of school tests actually tell us about the quality of education that takes place in that school?

The key stage 2 attainment of ‘poor’ white boys

This week saw the release of statistics on Key Stage 2 attainment, broken down by pupils characteristics for 2008/09.  The figures are published as part of the Department for Children, School’s and Families’ (DCSF) programme of releasing education statistics, and is published in a Statistical First Release available as a PDF here.   While news reports have focused on the 48% of poor white boys who achieve the expected Level 4 at key stage 2, the figures need to interpreted carefully.  The term ‘poor’ comes from the measure used by the DCSF, that is eligibility for free school meals  (often referred to as FSM) and is not an unproblematic way of measuring the poverty experienced by school pupils. The key word eligibility for free school meals is misleading, as it actually describes the claiming of FSM.  Children who are ‘eligible’ for FSM also share some family background characteristics, particularly coming from a  single parent family.  The FSM figure is therefore only a proxy for poverty, although it is a widely used one.  It will exclude some children who live in ‘poor’ households.  It also serves to homogenise all children eligible for FSM, ignoring differences between them, in other words not all pupils eligible for FSM will be suffering from cultural and material deprivation and be growing up in households where educational attainment is not considered important.   Graham Hobbs and Anna Vignoles, from the London School of Economics provide a detailed analysis of the utility of using FSM data to measure pupils’ experiences of poverty.  In addition the Statistical First Release provides information on the Key Stage 2 attainment of other pupils, which to some extent has largely been ignored by the focus on ‘poor’ white boys.   The figures show that pupils from an Irish Traveller background and those of a Gypsy/Romany background do particularly poorly at Key Stage 2.  Pupils from a Pakistani and Bangladeshi background continue to do less well than their white peers, as do children from Black African and Black Caribbean backgrounds.   Indian and Chinese pupils continue to outperform other ethnic groups.  The figures also show a continuing gender gap, as overall a higher proportion of girls (74.4%) achieved Level 4 at Key Stage 2 than did boys (69.3%).The figures do indicate that class (which is difficult to measure with any degree of certainty), gender and ethnicity shape educational attainment and that an intersection of all three is significant, it is this intersection which needs to be examined in greater detail to help explain the subtleties in differential attainment of pupils by class, ethnicity and gender.

Statistics on pupil attainment at small area level

Today the DCSF announced the release of small area,  National Curriculum Assessment GCSE and Equivalent Attainment and Post 16 Attainment by Pupil Characteristics in England, 2008.   This means that  you can use the National Statistics’ neighbourhood statistics service to examine educational attainment for local geographic areas.  The statistics reveal patterns of attainment – for example a relationship between gender and attainment.  However by looking at this data for small areas (areas smaller than local authority areas) it is possible to see that differences between genders is not the same in all areas of England.  In some areas the gender gap is widening while in other areas in is narrowing.

These figures provide useful evidence for differences in educational attainment which are aligned with existing inequalities in society.   The DCSF reports that more data will be added soon, to include Free School Meal eligibility and pupil ethnicity.  Accompanying the release of the data is the following Map of Key Stage 2 Average Point Score by Local Authority District of school location, 2008.  This shows that the average point score of a pupil differs according to the area in which the pupil’s school is located.  Again it is interesting to consider how these differences are related to the social characteristics of these areas.


Scrapping SATs?

The debate over SATs intensified this week when the Conservatives announced that they would ‘scrap’ primary school SATs for 11 year olds.

At first glance this sounds like dramatic news, and a great victory for those who have long campaigned for the abolition of SATs.  However the announcement does not mean the end of testing.

In their place an incoming Conservative Government would instead introduce testing for pupils in Year 7 (the 1st year of secondary school) which would be assessed by teachers.

So, how has the Government,  teachers and their unions responded to these proposals?

Firstly the new Schools Minister, Vernon Coaker described the proposals as “half-baked”, and a “huge step backwards”. 


The main argument is that as a result of the SATs being taken in Year 7 this would remove accountability from primary schools.  This means it would not be possible to see how well an individual primary school had performed, this would also mean that parents would not know how well their local school was performing.  Politically this is particularly significant as SATs and League tables were introduced, by a Conservative Government partly to make schools accountable and so that parents could make ‘informed decisions’ when choosing a school for their child.

Continue reading “Scrapping SATs?”

SATs Marking problems

In 2008 the marking of SATs tests taken by 11 and 14 year olds in UK schools were beset by problems leading to the delay in their publication.  Later that year, ETS Europe, the company responsible for running the tests had its five year contract terminated by the Department for Children Schools and Families.

In its place Edexcel was appointed to run this years tests.  It has agreed to deliver  99.9% of test results 7 July 2009.

Today however there are reports that the delays are set to be repeated with the 2009 test results. 

Writing in the Guardian, Polly Curtis reports  that hundreds of applicants who had applied to be examiners for the 2009 tests were wrongly disqualified from marking, leading to extra scripts being allocated to the remaining examiners.

Edexcel has had to recruit extra examiners in order to fill the places of those examiners wrongly disqualified.

A spokesperson for the QCA , the body for ensuring the quality of the test said:

“We are working hard to deliver results on time”

Once again issues of marking standards surround the SATs as well as the prospect of delays.