Legitimate Accountability or Educational Attainment Determinism

At first the following statement by David Laws in October 2013 seemed reasonable: “The current situation is unfair due to focus on C/D borderline, not rewarding progress from E to D or C to B or B to A. A pupil’s key stage 2 results, achieved at the end of primary school, will be used to set a reasonable expectation of what they should achieve at GCSE. Schools will get credit where pupils outperform these expectations. A child who gets an A when they are expected to get a B, or a D when they were expected to get an E, will score points for their school. This approach will ensure that all pupils matter, and will matter equally.”

The immediate question to spring to mind was, “Can achievements made by the end of primary school accurately predict achievements in a GCSE examination five years later?” I wasn’t sure so I asked Professor Robert Coe in an informal conversation. He was very clear in his reply. Statistically and on an individual basis the predictions are robust for English, Mathematics and Science. I told him I was particularly interested in predicted performance with regard to design & technology. He admitted straight away that data from primary schools was unlikely to provide an accurate predictor. “What should d&t teachers do?” I asked as it seemed clear to me that they would be expected to make predictions and held to account for them. Robert indicated that there were several ways forward, all involving not inconsiderable effort. Much closer liaison with feeder primary schools was a possibility. In an ideal world yes but given that it is widely acknowledged there is considerable variability in primary d&t provision and some schools have 10 plus feeder schools this didn’t seem that feasible. Make the prediction at the end of Year 7 after teachers have had a chance to teach and assess pupils’ responses. He agreed that this was useful but stressed that there should be some cross-school comparisons to ensure that the d&t curriculum and its assessment in a particular school wasn’t so at variance with typical data from other schools as to skew the possibility of making a reasonable prediction of GCSE performance in d&t. This made sense but added significantly to the work load of the task.

Then it struck me. Just how useful is it for the pupil aged 11 (or their parents) to know what he or she is likely to achieve in an examination in 5 years time, even if that prediction is accurate (which seems unlikely in d&t)? What is likely to be the response of the pupil told that their predicted grade is low, or high or middle of the road. Will high grade expectation cause the pupil to slack, will the low grade expectation cause the pupil to give up? Will the expectations be achieved on a self fulfillment prophecy basis? Why should pupils starting secondary school and their parents be saddled with this information? What seemed important to me was that the curriculum they were offered was engaging and enjoyable in that it intrigued without baffling, challenged without being daunting and as a result the pupils worked as hard as they could and received useful on going feedback on how to improve. Clearly it is very important to track progress across Key Stage 3 (more on this in a future post) and from this tracking and the knowledge of pupil progress it gives to be able to have a three way conversation (pupil, parent, teacher) at the end of Key Stage 3 about whether a pupil should continue with a subject to GCSE level (assuming it is optional) and if the pupil does opt for it what sort of result can be expected (based on three years worth of information and experience) and what might be done to improve on the expected result. I can’t see that delaying the act of prediction of GCSE performance until the pupil is 14 will do much to damage accountability. I don’t see that this would invalidate information that primary schools might provide secondary schools. Such information is useful if it provides a snapshot of where the pupil is and any particular strengths or weaknesses that pupil might have. This will help secondary teachers enhance the learning prospects for that pupil.

Are these new accountability measures a form of educational attainment determinism? What do others think?

3 thoughts on “Legitimate Accountability or Educational Attainment Determinism

  1. There are three major things that jump out at me with this. Firstly it strikes me that education policy in this country now seems to be dictated by how best, in the eyes of politicians, to hold schools to account. In other words, come up with the assessment system first, then watch as schools move around it. This of course has led to the so called ‘gaming’ of the system, teaching to the test and teaching methods that are designed to ‘get students through’ at their target grade. What should surely be happening is the reverse – look at the best ways to help children to learn effectively, and then build a school accountability system around that.

    The second thing that jumps out at me is the way that data from testing now seems to have become the main focus in many schools. Testing is useful, as is data, but only when it supports learning as a diagnostic tool, and not when it starts to obstruct it by becoming the primary focus of what happens in a school. When you look at what schools are judged on, and who the winners and losers of the results based accountability system are, it is not surprising that schools place so much emphasis on making the data look as good as possible. Often this comes at the expense of actual learning.

    The third thing, as is already pointed out in this article, is the reliability of such data. Schools are being told that they must use data from core subjects to form the basis of their GCSE targets for pupils. In our school we use a baseline test to look at the D&T capability of our students. Often there is little or no correlation with the English, Maths or Science KS2 scores. In addition, not all subjects at GCSE have meaningful national data available to judge how many pupils of a certain ability should be achieving a certain grade, but targets still have to be set. Does this not also forget the fundamental fact that all children are different, have different talents and therefore will make faster or slower progress in different subjects? Therefore saying they should make the same amount of progress in every subject, in exactly the same timescale, is unrealistic?

    In conclusion, I believe that the current system is still fundamentally flawed. It seems to me that the emphasis on learning, in all its forms, is being lost in a sea of data and results driven accountability. It is important to have accountability of course, but surely this should be based on what makes effective learning, not what is ‘easiest’ to assess by Ofsted and/or government ministers?


  2. Yes! Well said. I cannot believe there is no self-fulfilling prophecy factor in grade predictions, often made many years in advance. And the Primary entry ‘baseline assessments’ come on stream in 2016? How can it be that the evidence for the predictions being ‘correct’ is seemingly not influenced by self-fulfilling? Are there control cohorts who (or their parents) absolutely never knew they had predicted grades?

    In Mathematics, research has shown that the ideology of ‘ability’ including ‘setting’ by group/table in Primary has a long term impact on pupils’ attainment and attitude (e.g. see Rachel Marks). At FE level e.g. the LSIS Post-16 Participation in STEM Interim Report (2009 Appendix) – “TLRP Number 38, 2008 (general/STEM, FE) notes that connectionist teaching practices make a significant difference to those with lower GCSE grades and that a culture of performativity can be damaging to learners. The TLRP paper ‘Challenge in change in FE’ (general/STEM, FE) also notes that “the impact of assessment on pedagogy can be damaging”, “an emphasis on target setting and achievement, regulated through outcome based assessment, has led to an impoverished curriculum for the majority of (students) in FE”.

    Bill Nicholl also has something to say about performativity in a 2008 (vol 34) British Educational Research Journal article. Stephen Ball’s 2003 paper ‘The teacher’s soul and the terrors of performativity’ (Journal of Education Policy vol 18) is seminal as well as, way back, Jackson (1968 Life in Classrooms), Keddie (1970 The Social Basis of Classroom Knowledge), Michael Young (e.g. 1971 Knowledge & Control) … & etc.


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