David Laws writes: Reforming Labour’s league tables will end the race to the middle

schoolsignThe Conservative Chair of the Education Select Committee today praised an “educational breakthrough”.

At the same time, his Labour predecessor welcomed what he said was the best announcement the coalition has made since coming to power in 2010.

It’s not often our political opponents come together to support a Liberal Democrat manifesto commitment, but that’s exactly what happened in the House of Commons yesterday.  Indeed, people across and outside the political spectrum have welcomed our radical shake up of school league tables, that will finally set teachers free to focus on every child rather than the few in the middle.

Under Labour, schools were judged on the number of children achieving 5 grade Cs or above.  That has massively skewed schools’ priorities – forcing them to focus resources and teaching time on a small number of pupils hovering just beneath the C/D borderline.  For many years it has been too easy for schools to ignore students at the top and bottom of the ability range.

This warped system has also meant penalising schools with a tough intake – but whose students nevertheless make huge strides while they are there – while rewarding those coasting schools who let their students arrive and leave bumping along at a grade C, never asking if they could do better.

Speaking to teachers, you encounter real frustration that the way we hold them to account does not reflect the reality of life in the classroom, or the way they want to do their jobs.  So let’s be clear: this race to the middle has not been the fault of teachers or schools.  It has been driven by a blunt and un-ambitious school accountability system, introduced by Labour and scrapped by the coalition today.

In the future, schools will no longer be able to focus on getting children up to a C and then doing no more. Our new system will reward a school for any child who makes progress – whether they are a student on course for an A who manages to achieve an A*, or a student who was struggling but who manages to work hard and achieve one of the lower grades.  It is no longer acceptable to ignore these students.

It is vital that all children leave school with strong skills in literacy and numeracy, so we will give extra weight to progress in English and Maths.  But, crucially, we will also reward schools with a broad and balanced curriculum: looking at performance in 8 subjects rather than 5.  The extra three subjects can specifically include those beyond the academic core: whether that’s GCSEs in the arts or creative subjects, or high quality vocational qualifications.  There is no reason why these important subjects should be excluded from league tables.

Liberal Democrats are ambitious for all children, whatever their background and whatever their ability.  Our league table reforms will finally embed that principle at the heart of this country’s education system.

* David Laws is Liberal Democrat Minister for Schools.

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  • Anything that focuses attention on helping all students rather than gaming the league tables is hugely positive. Bringing creative and vocational subjects into the tables is also a stride forward. Good luck with these reforms.

  • Peter Watson 15th Oct '13 - 12:29pm

    This sort of value-added assessment of schools looks like a great idea in principle, but it also sounds quite complicated, especially with the mix of Key Stage 4 qualifications sounds a bit vague. Is there enough data for it to be reliable? Have trials shown that the information is accurate and understandable? Also, does it depend on rigorous assessment of children at Key Stage 2: something that Lib Dems wanted to scale back in 2010?
    Since I expect the raw data will be published, the current 5 A*-C tables could continue to be published in the media. Those tables were a poor way of assessing a school but quite useful for people looking for a good area to buy a house!

  • A great achievement. Measuring improvement is the only real test of the educational added value a school gives its pupils.

  • This is a fantastic policy. Its a REALLY big deal. I went to the fringe meeting about this at conference, hands down the best thing I attended.

    Hidden beneath last week’s headlines of our school leavers being the least literate and numerate in the developed world is the shocking fact that 20% of our children are leaving school without 5 grade D GCSE’s, let alone grade C. The fact we are completely failing to provide even the most basic education to one fifth of our children is what Centre Forum call ‘The Tail’.

    I’m not an education expert so was staggered when I discovered we are destroying the prospects of so many children in this country – and that this issue is not at the very top of education priorities for all political parties. Paul Marshall’s book http://www.thetailonline.com/ on the topic should be required reading for all Liberal Democrats.

    These new targets will hopefully bring an end to underachievers being ignored in our schools. After all, a child moving from a grade E to a grade D in English and Maths could have as bigger impact on their life chances as another child moving from a D to a C.

  • @David Laws

    As a teacher I welcome the broad thrust of this. However I have a caveat – the problem with assessing a system based on improvement or progress is that it requires fair and confident baseline assessment. My experience is that pupils are hot-housed and generously marked at key-stage 2 in order for primary schools to be able to maintain their reputations. The knock-on effect of this is that many arrive at secondary school with over-inflated levels which are then used as a predictor of future attainment. Furthermore these baseline lines do not necessarily reflect this skills needed in certain subjects; for example our targets at GCSE for History are linked to student performance at English in primary school 5 years previously. My point is that the baseline is not always reliable and that further more much can happen in 5 years which is beyond the control of the teacher, and often the student. Progress is certainly a fairer measure of the worth of a school but measuring progress by current methods is not effective.

    @gareth wilson
    You undermine your own argument by stating that ‘we are completely failing to provide even the most basic education’ to allow students to achieve D grades but then later state that “After all, a child moving from a grade E to a grade D in English and Maths could have as bigger impact on their life chances as another child moving from a D to a C.” I made make a couple of observations in relation to this. Yes I agree that all students should be pushed, helped and encouraged to achieve good grades but a) for some students a D is a good result; you’ve fallen into the very trap that David Laws is trying to move away from (seeing grades in isolation rather than contextually) and b) there are a whole variety of complex reasons why some students under-perform including homelife, parental support, political interference , funding and leadership as well as teachers and the education system. It is absolutely not the case that ‘we are failing to even provide the most basic education’ – it may need improvement and provision may be inconsistent but this is inaccurate and unhelpful.

  • This is fantastic.

    By the way, the NHS’s 18 week target is flawed for exactly the same reasons.

  • @Simon, “My experience is that pupils are hot-housed and generously marked at key-stage 2 in order for primary schools to be able to maintain their reputations. ” – I think the assessment should be shifted to the first few weeks of secondary schools rather than the last few weeks of primary to tackle this problem.

  • @ Simon

    Thanks for the reply, my post wasn’t written particularly well, I completely agree with you that for some students a grade D would be a good result and that its the progress that’s important, not the absolute grade.

    Like I said I’m no expert in education at all, but I was genuinely shocked that 20% of our kids are not getting even 5 D’s at GCSE. Sure I could imagine there are a significant group of children with special educational needs, but 20%? As you said its a sad combination of homelife issues, lack of parental support, poverty and a whole range of social issues as Paul Marshall’s fantastic book explained to me. Please don’t think I’m blaming the teachers, they do a fantastic job in tough circumstances with constant funding constraints and political interference.

    I would say that not getting at least a D in English and Maths is a failure *holistically* of our society to provide a basic education for that particular child (unless they had special educational needs), wouldn’t you agree? I guess its how you define ‘basic’, I didn’t mean to cause offence.

  • @ Duncan

    I think the problem would be if you did that it would be in the interests of the secondary schools grading new students extremely harshly in their first few weeks so they can demonstrate improvement. I guess the assessment would have to remain in the final year of primary school to avoid that.

  • @Gareth Wilson – To prevent gaming the system what you really want is both the end of Primary and the start of Secondary to assess, and then use the Primary’s values for performance forward, and the Secondary’s values for performance achieved in Primary. There should then be no incentive to game, as you are just making someone else look good (or bad). Clearly it means that kids are assessed twice in a 12 month period which might be seen as sub-optimal, but personally I don’t see why this should be an issue – surely children should always be being continuously assessed in various forms over the period of years.

  • @ Lennon – Very neat. Fancy a job in the games industry? I need designers with that clarity of thought to stop our videogames being exploited 😉

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