In my view it’s a sad state of affairs that we are a long way down the road towards absolute Data Delusion; where teachers, school leaders and commentators are engaged in discussions about the quality of education provided by a school via a single two digit number that purports to capture a measure of the average progress made by every child. It’s not the maths of it – I get the maths; it’s very idea of it that bothers me. Averaging every child’s achievements into one number is so far removed from what I would consider to be a rounded evaluation of children’s education experience, it’s hard to fully comprehend that here I am writing about it – and will be for years to come. This is our system. There is no evidence that this raises standards and, for sure, around the world no other nation has felt the need to turn learning into an inter-school zero-sum data contest with such myopic zeal.
Ok… so, having got all that out of the way, what we have to do is try to make the system work for us as best we can. This includes the challenge of making sure P8 pressure does not unduly compromise our values about curriculum choice breadth whilst being pragmatic about matching student choices to the framework. It also includes keeping firmly focused on the curriculum experience, the depth of learning in each subject (I nearly said ‘ in each bucket’ but recovered just in time) and the importance of formative assessment that actually informs teachers’ teaching relative to summative assessment that merely feeds the data tracking machine.
Maximising the Macro:
Make sure every learner has a subject in every slot. The simplest way to do this is to make everyone do at least double science. This leaves just one Ebacc slot to fill: language or humanities. If you prioritise P8 over Ebacc %, combined science allows you to release some students from a language (if they do History or Geography) or to do RE/Sociology as a humanities subject (if they do a language) and still fill the bucket. (And who ever does better on single science than double anyway?) How many students do RE/Sociology and no MFL? That’s something to keep an eye on. You can ride it out for a few students but not too many.
In the open slot, with one taken up by the second English, and your Ebacc slot sorted, you’ve got scope for just having two more subjects. Lots of schools are doing this. However, if you are also pushing for Ebacc, you’ve only got one true open choice in a three option block model. Here’s where you have be comfortable with students giving up on arts/DT altogether if they do History and Geography and MFL. Or you could hold on to breadth and keep four options subjects (nine in total) giving more room for a ‘best 8’ as opposed to ‘the only 8’ – which is increasingly common.
Next step is to make sure you anticipate and tackle the big hits from negative outliers. These are likely to be students with middle and high prior attainment who have struggled to engage or have health issues. A student dropping from an expected haul of As and Bs (60+points) to a handful of Cs and Ds, (30points?) will cost you 30 points – the same as 30 students gaining a grade elsewhere. Stark realities! Identify these cases early and put a big institutional arm around them to get them through. (Of course you can now tell this story to inspectors but that’s no use in the public domain when everyone will only ever see your crude published P8, outliers and all, without any contextual information.)
Finally, use could use the P8 scores internally to prioritise interventions. If you work out estimated P8s for each student and rank them, you can see those students who are furthest away from their trajectories in the big zero-sum bun fight. This will take in high attainers alongside lower PA students. High PA Pupil Premium students would be a sub-group worth special attention, for both tactical and ethical reasons. Top end students getting Bs and Cs will cost you more than students getting Ds and Es instead of Cs. If resources are finite, the P8 ranking helps to see where the priority underachievers lie. Of course, the ethical issue is important here: Grade 4/C is still a ‘good pass’. Are you more interested in P8 – which only benefits you- or students getting ‘good passes’ which actually opens or closes doors for them. I’ll leave that dilemma with you.
(An even more tactical P8 driven approach is to just concentrate on the top end students who could get even better. As to A*s. Bs to As. 7s to 8s. Make the rich richer! My view is that if we’re using additional intervention resources for this you have to wonder what lessons are for! And then there is the moral question. Who is P8 for – you or them?)
Maximising the Micro
Really, this is where the action is. If you are feeling slightly soiled having sold out your hand-on-heart curriculum design values for some P8 bonus points, this will make you feel better. The curriculum is obviously a lot more than just the names in the buckets. Success in maximizing grades in each subject is a healthier goal – not withstanding the fact that our learner are all prisoners in the bell curve cage.
There’s no point trying to write some kind of universal recipe for success but it’s going to be based around the following:
- Teaching to the top.
- Following sound principles of instruction – including some of these strategies teachers can practice
- Establishing and communicating knowledge requirements that are absolutely explicit.
- Delivering regular retrieval practice and sound revision techniques – see FACE It and this post about GCSE questions.
- Developing sound formative assessment practice that actually allows student to improve in low stakes situations, not in endless mock exams.
The truth is that the data tracking system that rules the roost in most schools has virtually zero impact on the micro. Beyond picking up some of the cases for intervention as mentioned above, all those colour codes on SIMS don’t penetrate into different actions in the classroom. You can report progress to governors and SLT all you like – but it makes no difference to how much French or Maths anyone knows. Don’t kid yourself. You could pull the plug safe in the knowledge that nothing bad will happen.
When it comes out in the wash, remember that P8 doesn’t come anywhere near defining your school. You have no idea if your score is good or bad because of issues with the KS2 baseline of whether your cohort of students have been penalised in the bell curve contest, losing out despite everyone’s best efforts because other schools in different contexts did slightly better. We can’t all be winners. And don’t read too much into the scale. There is NO WAY that a P8 or say 0.3 is necessarily a measure of better progress than 0.2 or even 0.1. There is just too much error.. If your score goes down – you did not necessarily deliver an education to your students that was any worse. If your score goes up, you did not necessarily deliver an education to your students that was any better. Obvs.