- James Kempton, associate director, CentreForum (chair)
- Chris Thoung, researcher, CentreForum
- Louis Coiffait, CEO, NAHT Edge
- Zoe Carr, CEO, WISE Academies
- Lord Storey CBE, Liberal Democrat education spokesman, former head, Plantation Primary School
Chris Thoung and James Kempton opened the event by setting out the government’s proposed reforms for primary school accountability systems. These will consist of two new accountability measures:
1) Attainment: 85% of a school’s pupils must achieve the expected standards in reading, writing and mathematics
2) Progress: A school’s pupils must demonstrate satisfactory progress in those same subjects given their starting points in Reception
CentreForum’s central recommendation is that pupil progress is the fairest and most effective accountability measure and therefore should be adopted by government as its principal headline accountability measure for primary schools.
What the government chooses to measure in terms of accountability matters because it reveals what is valued. League table positions change depending on the measure used. Therefore, it is vital that the measure is both as fair as possible, and in line with our goals for the education system. The attainment measure tends to reflect the prior attainment of the intake – circumstances outside of a school’s control. By contrast, the progress measure more clearly shows the impact of the school, as the scores account for prior attainment.
The progress measure will necessitate a baseline assessment in Reception to ascertain a child’s ‘starting point’ and predict future attainment. CentreForum’s research suggests that a well-designed assessment could provide a reasonable basis for constructing a progress measure. In order to win over teachers, CentreForum recommends that the government should provide clear, defensible evidence that the baseline assessment which underpins it is valid, fair and reliable.
Louis Coiffait welcomed CentreForum’s report, adding that he hopes that the DfE will take on board the evidence that progress is more important than attainment as an accountability measure. Only by swapping the priority will we get the right incentives in the system.
Louis argued that flawed accountability measures are to blame for the reluctance of many middle leaders to become heads. In a system that uses an attainment measure, there is little incentive to become a head in a school with low-performing intakes.
Louis added that the baseline test is controversial, but it is the right reform. He recommended patience, as it takes time to implement reforms properly, and in order to last they must be well-implemented. The NAHT is advocating for an Office of Educational Responsibility to monitor changes to the education system.
Louis criticised the government’s focus on assessment at the cost of a wide balanced curriculum for all children. Things that are hard to measure such as sport and hobbies are still important.
Zoe Carr oversees four primary schools working in challenging circumstances, where up to 76% of the pupils are eligible for Free School Meals. She thanked CentreForum for their ‘comprehensive report’, adding that she hopes that the government will take full heed of its recommendations.
Zoe supports progress as the headline accountability measure, as it is fairer. She cited the league tables modelled in CentreForum’s report, noting how the positions of schools changed according to whether they were being measured on pupils’ progress or attainment.
Zoe warned that attempting to get 85% of children to reach the new, higher expected standard will come at a cost – narrowing curricula to focus on the measured subjects. This means that the children who need to broadest curriculum, to increase their aspirations and broaden their horizons, will not be getting it. Whereas, if we get progress right, attainment will take care of itself.
Zoe also addressed the baseline assessment. She pointed out that children are already assessed upon entry to school, and if it’s done it in an enjoyable way, children won’t know that they are being tested. She believes that if the baseline test is done properly, it can predict future attainment. She cited the Frank Field report as evidence for this possibility. However, she added that we must ensure the assessments cater for all children, especially children with social issues who may have lower attention spans.
Zoe questioned how the baseline assessment might affect nursery provision. If there is a perverse incentive for schools to have a low baseline, there is little incentive for having excellent early years provision.
Zoe recommended that the baseline test should be statutory rather than optional, and that it should be standardised to alleviate concerns around pupil mobility. She also recommended that children with speech and learning difficulties be tracked separately to the rest of the cohort, as their rates of and ceilings on progression are different.
Lord Storey thanked CentreForum and Pearson for their ‘solid, intellectual research’. He shared his experience of being head of a primary school in a former council estate in Liverpool. The success of the school depended on SATs results – not meeting the standard resulted in pressure from the local authority. This led to focusing resources on pupils for whom achieving the required level was possible, and not on those low-attaining ones who were unlikely to reach it.
Lord Storey favours progress as a fairer measure. He pointed out that comprehensive schools are likely to outperform selective schools by this measure, demonstrating that it is more useful in judging a school’s performance.
Lord Storey argued that teachers have to accept that this is the right way of moving forward. He added that we don’t need to sell the progress measure to the politicians, but to the teachers and parents.
In general discussion there was widespread support for the report’s focus on the progress measure as the better measure of school accountability. Points raised in discussion included:
- a challenge to the notion of a single headline measure itself. The idea of a broad ‘basket’ of measures was posited as a fairer solution;
- whether measuring progress from a baseline assessment might inadvertently limit expectations of what children could achieve, thereby putting a ceiling on aspiration;
- concern about rural primaries with very small classes not providing a large enough sample size to reliably draw conclusions for accountability purposes. It was suggested that we group small primary schools into federations/trusts to have a bigger sample size;
- one audience member questioned how reliable baseline assessment could be when the incentive would be to lower the score. Robust moderation would be important but was an expensive process.
Report by Harriet Davison