Stop screwing with our schools

There is no TL;DR. Be patient and read all the way through.

Our education company delivers study skills workshops in schools across the UK. Historically at the end of the first session we get students to agree what they can collectively achieve as a year group. I am a reluctant advocate of school targets but it always fires up students. A sense of competitiveness as it were.
The target has historically been based on how many of them could achieve 5 A to C’s in their GCSEs including Maths and English. It has always been an incredible motivator for students in the schools we have worked in.

In this particular school, I was about to do this exercise and realised that we might have a problem.You see, Maths and English GCSE are being graded from 1-9 this year and all other subjects are being marked from A* to C. Trying to map the old system to the new is a Herculean task that I was not prepared to do in the moment.

So on my way home on the train, I decided I was going to explore the new changes in exam requirements. I would read up about Attainment 8, Progress 8, Ebacc and new changes to the A Level Curriculum.

Twenty minutes into my journey my head was hurting and I stopped.

A few days later I was speaking at an education conference. Afterwards, I shared a taxi to the station with three former head teachers and one current one. I was telling them about the study skills workshop I ran and also my dilemna at the end of it.

I also informed them of my attempt to read about the current updates on Progress and Attainment 8.It was met with hearty laughter as they all welcomed my explanation of it when I understood it because they didn’t have a clue.

If we as educators don’t get the changes what about parents who aren’t as involved in understanding education policy in schools?
I am the parent of a young daughter just starting her GCSEs and quite involved in education and it still puzzles me. If I am puzzled what of others?

What is this Progress thing?
So what is this Progress 8 and Attainment 8?
This is is the blurb from the Department of Education.

Progress 8 is the government’s new way of being able to measure progress of pupils from primary to end of secondary school. It is a comparative measure of students based on prior attainment.

Attainment 8 will measure the achievement of a pupil across 8 qualifications including maths (double weighted) and English (double weighted), 3 further qualifications that count in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) measure and 3 further qualifications that can be GCSE qualifications (including EBacc subjects) or any other non-GCSE qualifications on the DfE approved list.

The basis for this is determined by a floor standard. The floor standard for a school is the minimum standard for pupil achievement and/or progress that the Government expects schools to meet. Floor standards do not apply to special schools, independent schools, pupil referral units, alternative provision or hospital schools.
This will affect not just GCSEs but BTEC, A Levels but also the SATS that were used to measure students coming in from primary level.

Teachers are confused.
Students are figuring out the new changes.
Educators are confused.
Parents are confused.

I reckon even in government some are confused with this. I am pressing on with it though as I think it is important to get a full understanding of it.

New Rules of the Game
I started out in education as a motivational speaker explaining to students WHY it was important to nail their exams and giving tips as to HOW to pass them. Weaving stories of humour, success and failure, to explain why doing well at school and ultimately in exams can set you up for life. My first goal was to play my part in social mobility through education.

Since then (for the last fifteen years ) I have run workshops with a small team, in partnership with schools addressing student learning, progress and exam technique. In that time I have seen schools raise the bar with their students but I have also seen some game the system.

Early exam entries.
Guest students.
ECDL exams.
Adjusted (remarked) coursework.
EBACC heavy subject options (removing creative arts subjects)
BTEC diploma entries (they counted as four GCSEs)

The historic pressure to look good on the league tables for state schools forced the hands of lots of senior leaders, governors, and staff to try and game the system.

Interestingly my work in the independent sector was not affected by this. Many used IGCSEs anyway and the kind of stipulations placed on state never really affected schools who have guaranteed fee income and higher chances of their student getting into the best universities.

But now league tables, as they once stood, no longer have relevance.
The goalposts have moved again.

Education Policy is a hot mess

So now I have introduced the fact that we have these new issues of measuring progress, and that in part some of  this thinking is aimed at stopping schools from gaming the system, let’s have a bit of a conversation around school choice.

Here are the school choices, depending on location, that are open to students and parents.

  1. Community School /Secondary Modern (controlled by local authority)
  2. Foundation Schools ( Local auth school with more control than community schools)
  3. Grammar (run by local authority, foundation or trust)
  4. City Technology Colleges (the precursor to academies; including BRIT performing school)
  5. Academies (run by foundations reporting to central govt)
  6. University Technical college (specialist subject free schools for 14-19, funded by central govt)
  7. Studio Schools (small free schools focused on project-based learning; funded by central govt)
  8. Independent Schools (fee-based private schools)

These schools can be broken down further into single gender, faith schools and those with specialisms. There are also Pupil Referral Units, less a choice and more a form of alternative education for those student with serious behaviour problems. And finally  you can also home school as well, although this is not promoted as popularly.

Now the thing is as a parent I think there is way too much choice on the table, but to be honest the choices are limited as to where you live. Whilst I have visited some amazing free schools, (School21 sticks out for me) I have concerns about the lottery of just allowing schools to be set up and yes their selection is very political and much about who you know.

In addition if you are maintained school (community, foundation or most grammar schools) you have to follow the national curriculum. Free, Academy or independent don’t have to. They have much more flexibility. For me this is already a divisive measure.

The recent Tory government have been pushing for more grammars because they believe this will push standards up and address gaps in social mobility. For those who do the research know this is bullshit and is more a political move than anything else. In fact grammars account for 5% rather than 25% of state schools and it is suggested create more division than cohesion.

To be fair the previous coalition and Labour government before them also tinkered with education so much that teachers and parents just don’t know whether they are coming or going. There is nothing consistent. No ten years of seeing whether what works really works and then parking the ego to see what is in the best interest of our children rather than some rose coloured picture of the past.

Can it be less political?
Outside of the secondary school system, the Further Education system has been crushed under unbelievable financial cuts. Like elsewhere in education, some people gamed the system by getting income for bums on seats alongside huge drop out rates but the cuts have been brutal. Students suffer most.

Universities now have to up their fees and grants and other scholarships are being reduced or in many cases removed. There is still an under representation of students from poorer backgrounds getting into Russell Group universities which many see as a pathway for social mobility. Whether through better local jobs or international opportunities.

Is it any wonder why people think our current government should stay the hell out of tinkering with education?

With the best intentions in the world we have to understand that education is a political football. It will be played back and forth between the government of the day and the opposition. I just wish they would stop screwing around with our schools. Engage people in educational policy who are often in the classroom who get what it takes to inspire, engage and empower a generation for present and future learning.

It’s difficult to sit and watch them play. While those who can afford to opt out or pay for better alternatives be it private tutoring, better education or living in areas with access to smaller free schools.

I haven’t even got onto pupil data collection, teacher burnout, academy group excessive pay and a host of other free market pressures besetting our children. For those of us who can choose to circumnavigate the space because we have the option to choose, this is not so much a problem, but for the vast majority of parent and students who do, this is a very real and present issue.

I just wish the government would stop screwing around with our schools and do what they always reckon they do and truly listen to the electorate (be it parents, student, teachers or business) about ensuring we do the best for ALL of our children.

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