Michael Wilshaw’s Ofsted has made a fool of itself yet again as it publishes a report which says more about its naive approach to statistics than it does about the progress of the most able students.
Ofsted is not happy. Its 2013 report on the progress of those students who achieved level 5 in their Key Stage 2 exams made some recommendations. Apparently, Ofsted were unhappy then that less than a quarter of those achieving the highest level in Maths and English went on to achieve a B grade or above in their GCSEs, and two years later nothing has improved.
Notwithstanding that expecting that two years is enough time to see improvements when the children involved had been through twelve years of education already, is it a reasonable complaint? Read More…
It is the season of heart-warming warming tradition, joy, pre-Christmas sales and crass householders generating enough global warming for a whole town with their shameless lighting displays. So what better way is there to prepare for the holidays than unwrapping the education sector’s annual ticking-off, as Michael Wilshaw issues his Annual Report on Schools?
Wilshaw, forever fighting the urge to tell us how he single-handedly turned his Hackney school into an outstanding beacon of excellence by recruiting middle class students from out of town, this year ripped in to schools with little sixth-forms. Apparently, students attending small school sixth forms “achieve considerably poorer results than those in larger sixth forms”.
Very Small Sixth Forms
Wilshaw said: Read More…
The English school system is fractured right down the middle, with county schools on one side and government academies on the other. While county councils try to develop relationships with the whole family of local schools and get to know the staff in them and their particular issues, the Department for Education has thousands of schools and a strategic view that means they will only get involved when there is already a known issue. Hands on versus hands off: it is, after-all, what the academy system was all about, freeing schools from the dead hand of council control.
But do schools work best when no-one is watching too closely?
Birmingham schools get their OFSTED reports today, with the politicians and press focussing on the extremism, but the real issue is the governance of Academy schools and the fact that OFSTED found itself hoodwinked by the schools themselves. Now, the fact that Head-teachers routinely game the system to the school’s advantage should not be news to anyone involved in the education sector, but it seems to have surprised Michael Gove, the Education Secretary. Read More…
Since the Schools Secretary has failed to answer any questions I’ve addressed to him in posts, I submitted a question to Sarah Ebner’s blog over at the Times. She had managed to get Balls to join a live Q&A session and had asked for questions to ask his. Needless to say, the slimy minister read all the questions and proceeded to answer the ones he had prepared earlier, in true Blue Peter style.
The full discussion is here , with my question down at times 14.02 to 14.05. The accompanying photo, captioned http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/live_debate/article7012253.ece is reproduced here — does he look shocked at the quality of the question?
The edited sequence goes like this:
14.02 Sarah Ebner:
This is another point which comes up often on the blog. Glen asks: why persist with judgements of schools based on raw percentages of students achieving 5 grade C GCSEs? It penalises schools serving deprived areas – schools which need a hand up, not a kicking. It also pressurises schools to focus on grade D students, and encourages entries into easier ICT online courses and such like.
14.05 Ed Balls:
Sarah, you are completely right and so is Glen, as parents we all have to look at the current league table and try to work out what they really mean on the basis of what we know about the school itself, the catchment area etc. And league tables can sometimes suggest schools are ‘high achieving’ when they actually do a poor job at raising standards and supporting progression. Our new Report Card is designed to give parents much more information – about raw results but also whether all children make progress, discipline, parent satisfaction etc. I think it will be much fairer and more informative – it will be in all schools over the next 2 years.
So, I had asked him about the huge pressure that the government and Ofsted puts, often unfairly, on schools in difficult circumstances, distorting their priorities, and he answers an imaginary question about league tables!
OK, he did that to all of the questions, but then why did he bother to travel to the Times offices, just to act as if he were in the House of Commons (not) answering questions put to him there?
Sixth form students will by now have dragged themselves through the January exam series. They can relax until scores are released in March, when most will be judged according to their college ‘target grades’. And it is likely to be a miserable experience for most.
I used to talk to my students and get to know their individual strengths and weaknesses. I would encourage those who I perceived were studying hard, and chide those who were just attending class without the necessary intellectual engagement. Reports to parents and managers were based on my professional opinion of each child. But not any more.
Teachers still get to know each of their charges, but their professional judgements are now routinely tempered by the knowledge that performance against their grade target trumps all other information.
Target grades are now the ubiquitous tool of comparative assessment in schools: Key Stage 3 results are used to predict GCSE grades, while GCSE grade averages are used to compute the most likely grade a student might achieve at A Level. This is a very good process for working out if the school is doing a good job, since if a year group cohort gains a mean score above the mean predicted grade, then the group has learned more than could reasonable been expected. The school thus has recorded some value added, in the language of education.
Using the same data for individual teachers is only likely to be reliable over a period of several years, since the sample sizes from individual classes are much smaller, leading to more variation from year to year.
Blinded by Numbers
The big problem stems from applying these statistics to individual students. It is very easy to calculate an expected grade from a single child’s previous achievement, but with a sample size of just one, the precision is poor. The reliability stemming from a cohort in the hundreds is lost, and the prediction is routinely in error by a whole grade or so. (See my post Physics Exams Too Easy, Says Ofqual
Now, this would not be a problem if these figures were just another piece of the puzzle to be understood by the teacher, but OFSTED, the government overlord of teaching standards, thinks students should know these rough predictions, and be challenged to achieve them. And leaned on if they don’t come up to scratch.
Once upon a time, I got to know my own students, and made judgements as to their individual abilities and potentials, and assessed their effort accordingly. Not perfect, but at least both teacher and student were in the loop.
Forget the Child – Press the Button and Set That Target
Now, each student is given a grade to achieve by the end of a two year course, during which they will mature and develop. If they are very lucky, they will get several target grades which take into account the historical difficulties of each subject they are studying. If not, as is happening more commonly now, they will get a single grade to span the range from Photography and Media to Chemistry and Maths. And to make the target aspirational, a grade will be added to ensure that only a quarter of students will be able to meet their targets, with poor reports and disciplinary procedures for those souls unlucky enough to keep missing impossible targets.
- Simple and cheap to operate.
- Keeps OFSTED happy.
- No educational merit.
- Can turn keen students into serial target-missers.
An open and shut case for school managers. Shame about the children.
“Even more encouraging is the clear fact that children who have faced the most challenging circumstances over the past 12 years have not been cast adrift and left at the bottom, but thanks to the Academies, National Challenge and City Challenge programmes have actually seen a more rapid improvement in results than those in the least deprived areas.”
The biggest concern with the steady and dramatic increases in the figures, after grade inflation, is the widespread tactic of entering weaker pupils for the laughably easy vocational courses that have ‘GCSE equivalence’. For example, half of all schools enter almost everyone into the vocational ICT course instead of the more challenging GCSE ICT, as it can be completed in one year and can be worth anything up to four GCSEs at grade C or above. The Telegraph reports:
A report last year by Ofsted, the education watchdog, found that qualifications such as the one run by OCR were “less demanding” than other mainstream exams. It said pupils were able to pass “whether or not they had understood what they had done”.
It is true that the number of students nationally that gain 5 A*-C grades is only 3% less if you exclude the ‘equivalent’, vocational courses, but there are categories of schools which have a lot to lose if their pass rated don’t improve sharply.
Schools Minister Vernon Coaker’s press-release said that the new Academies A*-C grades had increased at double the national rate, so I looked at the accompanying data.
The data looks comprehensive, and even breaks down results for different types of school and with/without the vocational courses. The time series do indeed show Academies improving faster then any other major category of schools, but the figures for the Academies without the vocational courses are missing!
Vernon’s minions emphasised the Academy raw percentage increases, but rolled their key data in with that for comprehensive schools, making it impossible to see what effect the dash for vocational courses has had.
Since it is just these schools that are most desperate to bump up their figures quickly to avoid the Wrath of Balls, it is very suspicious that the data, which was released with some fanfare, should have been airbrushed like this. What is the government afraid of? Given the obsession of the government with media manipulation, one can only assume that Academies have achieved their politically essential successes through a choice of courses that benefited the school more than their unfortunate pupils.
The government intends to extend its close control of day-to-day activities of schools to include inspecting the education provided by home educating parents.
As wth much of government policy, the pretext given is reasonable – to make sure that children not going to school are given the same protection due from the Every Child Matters agenda. Some ministers seem to suspect that home education can be a cover for child abuse or forced marriage, even there is little evidence this is the case, and the main abuse story right now is the conviction of a worker at an Ofsted inspected nursery school.
But does this fear require an Ofsted inspection, with all the political encumberances and demands? School inspections long ago changed from a supportive overview from education experts to a dogma ridden tool of control.
Parents are entitled to educate their children however they wish, without state interference. They even have the right to make a complete hash of it, as many do from my experience of trying to teach their offspring when they have outgrown their home studies.
Ofsted will pressurise and threaten parents as they do with schools, and the role will inevitable evolve to demand specific activities and curricula. Several European countries have already banned home schooling, and inspections would be the first step to declaring that the rights of children to a decent education are being violated.
Councils are already responsible for ensuring that children taken out of schools are receiving an education – the switch to using Ofsted will be the beginning of the end of the right for parents to educate their children as they see fit.