My sense is that people across the education system have yet to fully appreciate the implications of the slow-creep bell-curve hold that’s been applied to school outcomes. Talking to folk from OfQual on a couple of occasions recently, they have reiterated the view that, even in systems regarded as successful, year on year improvement might only be on the scale of 1% in terms of outcomes across a national cohort. The improvement in Maths GCSE outcomes of 0.7% A*-C last year is regarded as generous; certainly not overly harsh. To a great extent, this equates to a zero sum scenario (more poetic than a 0.7% sum). If school A increases maths outcomes by 10% in a year, a school B somewhere must have seen maths outcomes go down by 9.3% OR 9 schools must have gone down by 1% each (assuming same-size cohort.) We can’t all be winners.
The philosophy in the zero sum, post-gaming era is that any rise in outcomes needs to reflect a genuine improvement in standards. It’s hard to argue with that. We all know that this hasn’t been the case for the 20 years up to 2013/4. Even if schools were getting better, with students and teachers working hard etc, the scale of improvements in that time were inflated; they weren’t a true reflection on the actual scale of improvement in educational standards. I can think of lots of schools that experienced rapid improvement up to 2013/4 that have since fallen back down dramatically. They are not worse schools – they might even be better- it’s just that the outcomes are now more authentic; a closer representation of what students actually know and can do in academic terms, not the result of various misplaced equivalences, re-takes and coursework ‘interventions’.
A year ago I raged about this in my Nicky Morgan vs The Bell Curve blog. At the highest level, ministers and DFE folk have not appreciated the implications of what is happening. They still appear to possess the demented mindset where ‘below average = failing’ and they have yet to produce any model where all schools can be above the threshold for coasting without returning to grade inflation. They are still talking in disparaging terms about Grades 1-4 even though, by definition, a high proportion of each cohort must get those grades, however hard they try. Despite the new heavily stabilised regime, with Speaking and Listening gone, coursework gone and equivalences gone, there remains a widespread notion that anything other than year on year improvement is a failure; it’s still believed that ‘rapid improvement’ should be attainable; ie where large rises in outcomes are gained within a single year. The fact is that, in the zero-sum era, this is highly unlikely.
In biology, the concept of limiting factors and saturation is well understood. In photosynthesis, plants can only absorb so much light or carbon dioxide; there is a limit to how much more photosynthesis you can generate if you increase light or CO2 levels. Below certain thresholds these variables limiting factors but, after a point, they exist in excess. The same is true of vitamins in our diet. We all need a bit of vitamin C; but you can’t improve the functions that it supports beyond a certain limit. You only need enough vitamin C – to avoid a deficiency level; but having more than you need doesn’t help you to be any healthier. The same must be true in the multi-variable world of education – if only we knew the thresholds where saturation kicks in! You can only give so much feedback; you can only run so many catch-up clinics and interventions; you can only reach a certain level of optimal syllabus/revision time planning or give so many motivational assemblies; you can only improve teacher confidence in various areas of their practice to a certain degree within a given timeframe. In this context, we’re more likely to gain success by identifying and addressing the limiting factors; those things that are below their optimal threshold; things holding us back – rather than looking to bang away at doing ever more of things that we think ‘work’.
In the new era, schools that have already addressed the deficiencies, where all the low hanging fruit have been picked (to quote a HT colleague), that have reached saturation levels in most of their endeavours, are going to find the gains harder to find. Stable results for good schools (in raw and value-added terms) will actually look like a saw tooth with year on year fluctuations up and down. Let’s be ready for that and understand the success that this really is. And let’s understand that, with this model, rapid improvement is only likely to happen where a) the school was performing significantly poorly in the first place b) the cohort has changed significantly or c) something dodgy is going on.
More positively, an outcome of this will be that chasing data outcomes will cease to be the be-all and end-all of defining success. As good schools produce their year on year fluctuations, they will start looking to all the other things we value but can’t measure to celebrate; to define their success. That can only be a good thing.