Yesterday’s release of the Key Stage 2 assessment data for 2015 provides cause for cautious optimism but by no means complacency. The continued improvement in overall pupil attainment at primary school, and the narrowing of the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers at age 11, both paint a positive picture. Yet there is much work still to be done in order to progress to a high standard for all, particularly in ensuring that the gains being made at Key Stage 2 are sustained beyond primary school to Key Stage 4.
In 2015, 80% of pupils achieved Level 4 or above in all of reading, writing and mathematics, representing a 2 percentage point increase from the equivalent 2014 figure of 78%. This means that a large majority of children who started at secondary school in September had met or exceeded the current expected level of academic attainment. At the same time, however, it is crucial not to forget that one-fifth of children have started secondary school without the basic skills considered necessary to embark successfully on the secondary curriculum.
Furthermore, definitions of ‘sufficient’ attainment, including the government’s ‘expected’ level of attainment are neither objective nor fixed. Indeed, evidence suggests that the current expected standard of Level 4 is not a strong predictor of future achievement: in 2012, less than half of pupils who had previously attained Level 4 at Key Stage 2 achieved 5 or more GCSEs at Grade C or above, including English and mathematics. For this reason, the Department for Education has announced that the new national Key Stage 2 standard from 2016 will be roughly equivalent to a Level 4b, using a new system of scaled scores and thus raising the expected standard.
Applying this higher level of expectation to Key Stage 2 data from 2015, only 69% of children achieved a Level 4b or above in both reading and mathematics and also a Level 4 or higher in writing. Although an improvement from the 67% of pupils in 2014, this figure nevertheless indicates that a very large minority of children – nearly one-third (31%) – have begun secondary school this year without the basic prerequisites that give them a good chance of succeeding at GCSE level.
In the New Year, CentreForum will be publishing a report setting out new findings about the performance of the education system and considering the level of ambition which should be set for educational performance in England. This will include an evaluation of whether Level 4b is indeed a sufficiently rigorous standard, or whether the aim should be for more children to achieve above the equivalent Level 5 threshold.
Despite the improved attainment at Key Stage 2, rates of progress between Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 remained remarkably similar between 2014 and 2015. The percentage of pupils making expected progress (at least two levels of progress) between the ages of 7 and 11 remained the same for reading (91%) and mathematics (90%), with only a slight increase of 1 percentage point for writing (93% in 2014; 94% in 2015). For mathematics, the Department for Education suggests that the increased level of attainment and the static level of progress may be caused by higher prior attainment by pupils on entry to Key Stage 2. This indicates that there is scope to increase levels of progress and raise attainment by the end of Key Stage 2 further still.
Similar trends are evident when looking at the gaps between disadvantaged pupils and their peers: improvements in attainment but static levels of progress.
The chart below shows the percentage of disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils achieving Level 4 or above in reading, writing and mathematics, and also Level 4b or above in reading and mathematics plus a Level 4 or higher in writing, over the past 3 to 4 years. Alongside this is the attainment gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils for each of these measures.
There are two important points to be taken from this, albeit with the caveat that the Department for Education’s definition of ‘disadvantaged’ was widened from 2015 and therefore straightforward comparisons across years have to be treated with caution. Firstly, the proportion of pupils achieving Level 4 or above in reading, writing and mathematics seems to be increasing for all pupils and at a faster rate for disadvantaged pupils. Therefore the attainment gap as measured by proportion of pupils at Level 4 is currently at 15 percentage points, down from 16 percentage points in 2014 and 18 percentage points in 2013. This still means, however, that only 70% of disadvantaged pupils are achieving a Level 4 and above in reading, writing and mathematics in 2015, as opposed to 85% of their peers.
Secondly, when looking at the proportion of pupils achieving Level 4b or above in reading and mathematics, plus a Level 4 or higher in writing, the attainment gap is greater and appears to be narrowing more slowly: the gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils was 20 percentage points in both 2013 and 2014 and 19 percentage points in 2015. Only 56% of disadvantaged pupils achieved a Level 4b or above in reading and mathematics plus a Level 4 or higher in writing in 2015, meaning that nearly half of disadvantaged pupils have started secondary school this year without the basic prior attainment which will provide them with a strong chance to succeed at GCSE level, compared to one-quarter of their peers.
In addition, the percentage of disadvantaged pupils making expected progress remains unchanged and lower than the equivalent statistic for their peers, standing at 88% (92% non-disadvantaged) for reading, 92% (95% non-disadvantaged) for writing, and 86% (91% non-disadvantaged) for mathematics. These figures are identical to those for 2014, with the exception of the percentage of pupils making expected progress in writing, which has increased by 1 percentage point since 2014 for both disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils.
The Chief Inspector for Ofsted, Sir Michael Wilshaw, recently drew attention to the stark geographical variations in school performance at secondary level. It is worth noting that the Key Stage 2 data released yesterday suggests that, whilst not as stark as at secondary level, geographical differences also exist for primary schools. Although a crude North-South divide is not borne out by the Key Stage 2 data, it is true that London retains its pre-eminent position, whilst Yorkshire lags behind the rest of the country: in London, for example, 73% of pupils achieved Level 4b or above in reading, writing and mathematics, whilst in Yorkshire and the Humber the equivalent figure is 66%.
Looking ahead, we need a better understanding of the factors that are causing the trends identified in the Key Stage 2 results data, as well as what they might mean for performance at secondary level. In 2016, much of CentreForum’s work will explore the issues and questions outlined below.
The phonics screening check which is now taken by all pupils at the age of 6 was introduced in 2012 and therefore was not taken by pupils sitting Key Stage 2 tests in 2015. However, given the increased levels of attainment and static levels of progress, examining the relationship between prior attainment and progress must be a priority for both government and researchers.
Similarly, the continued strong performance of London schools relative to the rest of England has still not been fully explained: although the London Challenge must surely have contributed to the major improvement of schools in the country’s capital, recent research has identified that primary schools in the city were already improving from the mid-1990s, before this initiative began. London’s distinctive ethnic make-up also does not explain the majority of the improved performance of the city’s disadvantaged pupils.
The role of academisation is likewise unclear. Although the attainment levels of mainstream academies and free schools are very similar to those of local authority maintained mainstream schools, a robust analysis of performance between different types of schools is beyond the scope of this blog, as it would require accounting for a wide variety of factors, including reason for re-opening as an academy, date of opening, and prior attainment and demographics of pupils.
We also need a better understanding of the role of Pupil Premium in enabling schools to implement practices and interventions which support their disadvantaged pupils and allow them to narrow the gaps in attainment and progress of these pupils compared to their peers.
Perhaps the most urgent question of all, however, is the need to understand why so many secondary schools are failing to ensure that pupils sustain their performance between the ages of 11 and 16. In 2014, the percentage point gap between disadvantaged and non-disadvantaged pupils achieving the national expected standard was 16.1 at Key Stage 2 and 27.4 at Key Stage 4. Whilst primary schools still have a long way to go, they are undoubtedly further ahead than secondary schools. As a result, many of the gains at primary level are being lost. Any celebration of achievements at Key Stage 2, then, must be tempered with concern for what these actually mean for pupils in the long term.
 Full Key Stage 2 results for 2015 are available at: ‘National curriculum assessments at key stage 2: 2015 (revised)’, Department for Education, 10 December 2015: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/national-curriculum-assessments-at-key-stage-2-2015-revised, accessed 10 December 2015.
 ‘Will we ever have a fair education for all? – The Education Alliance Report Card 2014’, Fair Education Alliance, 2014, p.11: http://static1.squarespace.com/static/543e665de4b0fbb2b140b291/t/5481a731e4b0d2f5ad3b39fb/1417783096688/FEA+Report+Card+2014.pdf, accessed 10 December 2015.
 Writing is assessed via teacher assessment and is not scored according to sub-levels. Therefore the Department for Education only provides data on children who have achieved a Level 4b in both reading and mathematics and also a Level 4 in writing. The proportion actually achieving the equivalent of a Level 4b in all three areas is therefore likely to be lower.
 Please note, however, that the national standards for Key Stage 4 will also be subject to different measures, including Progress 8 and Attainment 8. For more information, please see: ‘Expected levels of school and college performance (floor standards)’, Department for Education: http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/performance/2013/fs_13/index.html, accessed 10 December 2015.
 ‘National curriculum assessments at key stage 2: 2015 (revised) – Main text’, Department for Education, 10 December 2015: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/national-curriculum-assessments-at-key-stage-2-2015-revised, accessed 10 December 2015, p.6.
 In 2015 the Department for Education defined ‘disadvantaged’ pupils as: those who were eligible for free schools meals in any of the previous 6 years; children looked after by a local authority for at least 1 day; or children who had been adopted from care. ‘National curriculum assessments at key stage 2: 2015 (revised) – Main text’, Department for Education, 10 December 2015: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/national-curriculum-assessments-at-key-stage-2-2015-revised, accessed 10 December 2015.
 Please see Footnote 3. Data on Level 4b attainment is not available for 2012.
 Between 2012 and 2014, ‘disadvantaged’ pupils were defined by the Department for Education as pupils known to be eligible for free school meals in any of the previous 6 years, or children who were looked after for more than 6 months during the year. Please see Footnote 6 for the definition used in 2015. These definitions are set out in: P Whiteman, ‘Pupil characteristic & geographical information’, Department for Education, 10 December 2015: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/483205/SFR47_2015_Characteristicsinformation.pdf, accessed 11 December 2015, p.8.
 M Wilshaw, ‘A nation divided – Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector Sir Michel Wilshaw’s speech to launch Ofsted’s 2014/15 annual report for education and skills’, Department for Education, 1 December 2015: https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/a-nation-divided, accessed 10 December 2015.
 J Blanden et al, ‘Understanding the improved performance of disadvantaged pupils in London’, Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion, September 2015: http://sticerd.lse.ac.uk/dps/case/spcc/wp21.pdf, accessed 10 December 2015.
 2014 data is used here because 2015 data for Key Stage 4 has not yet been finalised. The Department for Education’s definition of ‘disadvantaged’ changed between 2014 and 2015 and so data from 2014 has been used at both levels to ensure consistency. The Key Stage 2 benchmark in 2014 was the attainment of Level 4 or above in reading, writing and mathematics; the Key Stage 4 benchmark in 2014 was the attainment of at least 5 GCSEs at Grade C or above, including English and mathematics. For further information, please see: ‘Measuring disadvantaged pupils’ attainment gaps over time (updated) – Statistical Working Paper’, Department for Education, 19 December 2014 (updated 29 January 2015): https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/398657/SFR_40_2014_Measuring_disadvantaged_pupils_attainment_gaps_over_time__updated_.pdf, accessed 10 December 2015.