Making progress

So three months in I wanted to think about what’s the biggest change I’ve noticed in school.

There are a number of things I could mention: The academy thing (though as I previously worked in a grant maintained school I’m used to being a bit of a pariah), the mobile phone thing (and I may have something to say about that another time),  the revised GCSEs (which I have definite opinions about) or even the increased workload due to data entry of various types (and I’ll admit to having misunderstood the arguments about this and now see the point people have been making more clearly).

But rather than any of those I’d say the single biggest change I’ve seen is down to the introduction of Progress 8. And if I don’t write this well enough then I might become quite unpopular.

When I was in the classroom previously, mumble mumble years ago, it was all about the grade C in terms of accountability and all about the A* and A when it came to marketing. This inevitably created a focus on students close to those boundaries of those grades. This was a rational act by schools who were judged by those figures. I’m not arguing that it was always the best thing, but it was a thing.

So along came Progress 8 (and I’m not going to rehearse here all the well-founded commentary about the voodoo statistics involved) and the focus changed somewhat. First of all the breadth required for many students increased. Secondly (as was the intention) the focus expanded from the boundaries to the higher grades to all grades. The intention here was good – to ensure that there was a focus on student progress at all levels all through (especially) KS4.

But it has exacerbated at least three problems.

Firstly I think it has had an impact on the data collection required in school. P8 is not easy to calculate and even though everyone knows it shouldn’t be calculated in year we all know it is. Schools want to know where they stand as they move through the year, across all subjects across all students. In order to even attempt to calculate P8 then a grade prediction is required. So more data is collected.

Secondly I believe it is one of the drivers behind increased teacher workload (and here comes the probably unpopular and easily misunderstood bit). Whilst I never gave up on a student who was anticipating heading for a Grade F I was not as concerned for them as I was for a student who sat on a grade D and could realistically achieve a grade C. Moving from a grade F to a grade E would change very little about that students life chances, moving from a grade D to a grade C would keep more doors open. It also has a knock-on effect that is the third problems that I’ll discuss in a bit.

This does not make me a bad person. It does not suggest my efforts were not directed at helping those students to the best of my ability. But it is obvious that it affected my priorities. I don’t suspect I am that different to many other teachers. It is what the accountability measure drove. Now P8 requires that same level of effort to be applied to all students. And the more students you are having to work with to drive up grades increases workload (and, indeed, teacher stress levels). I don’t think that bit is controversial. It may also be that it’s a good thing, but it is undeniable that it does increase workload.

Thirdly, in my experience, whilst there are many reasons students find themselves sitting on a predicted grade 1 or 2 (or fail), many of these students are among the most vulnerable in our student population. They are the ones least able to cope with the pressure and the stress inherent attempting to move that outcome up. But P8 requires we do that. That we increase the pressure on them. But the problem now is that moving a child from grade 1 to grade 2 is (in theory) as beneficial (to the school) in moving a child from a 4 to a 5.

Let me be clear. In many ways, for the right child, this can be the right thing. But for many vulnerable children it is not. But the accountability measures require the school to do it. And I think this is one of the drivers of increased stress and anxiety levels in students. Because P8 (and its partner in crime Ebacc) requires a schedule of subjects its harder to withdraw a student from one subject to provide support in others. Instead we get after school sessions, we get students withdrawn from tutor periods for extra tuition in one subject or another. We get weekend classes. Whilst these are presented in as positive a light as possible for the students they do increase the pressure on them.

So that’s my view. P8 is not only statistically incoherent it is inherently bad for both teachers and for students. All these issues can be ameliorated. The first two (essentially teacher workload issues) can be helped by increasing the number of teachers and reducing contact ratios. That requires funding that doesn’t seem to be anywhere on the horizon. The third issue can be helped by reducing the number of subject required and increasing the choice of subject available.

So now I’ll start thinking on writing about mobile phones. And then maybe IWBs.