As Unbalanced as the Premier League ?

The recent publication of the Department for Education’s performance tables was a big deal for schools. Having been a Headteacher in a school that is performing well, and another with its back against the wall, there is a mix of anticipation and fear. Will the school stack up favourably ? Will the governors or trustees be happy ? Will staff get a boost or a kick in the teeth ? Will the Head keep their job ? How many parents look at them anyway ?

Nowadays, the performance tables largely judge school’s on their Progress 8 figure for Year 11 results. Previously, schools were ranked on attainment which simply listed schools on how may A*-C grades they got. This was obviously skewed towards schools with a More Able intake, so unsurprisingly the usual trend saw grammar schools do best, then schools in more affluent communities, then the rest all followed in behind.

Progress 8 was about levelling this playing field by comparing school’s Year 11’s results with how well the children did in their Year 6 SATs. This was to show what progress had been made in each students’ best 8 subjects (hence Progress 8) from the beginning to the end of their secondary education. The students are compared on English, Maths, often Science (Double), and then the other best four results they got. The theory was that the school’s with more challenging cohorts would not be penalised.

Even so, Progress 8 is not without its faults. The scoring system does not take into account the school’s cohort or catchment – a partly understandable legacy of Michael Gove’s determination that expectations should not be limited for any child.

However, those schools with higher Disadvantaged / Pupil Premium students (usually measured by whether they have ever needed Free School Meals) are hampered by the fact that statistically those children will make less progress than those that are not Disadvantaged. On average they will be 3 grades lower in their Best 8 than the national average. Consequently, can we really say a school with 60%+ of Disadvantaged children can be fairly compared to a school with less than 10% ? Can a school drawing from a deprived city community be fairly compared to a school sitting in a leafy village ?

Elsewhere, if you look at the Top 10 schools in the performance tables they all have a common trend: high numbers of EAL students. EAL students are children whose first language is not English. The average % of EAL student in schools is 16.9% but in the top Progress 8 schools their portion is far higher. Only two of the Top Ten have less than 50%, and even they are well above the national average. Eight out of ten are treble, or even five times, higher.

Conversely, the ethnic group with perhaps the biggest problem in terms of making good progress in schools is White British: especially White British working-class boys. The evidence is clear that certain ethnic groups perform far better than others with factors including aspiration and opportunity playing a part. Elsewhere, a child entering the UK education system in say Year 6 might score poorly in their SATs but once their English improves their progress (and the school’s results) will rocket from that artificially low base. Again, can a mixed school with 90+% White British students be fairly compared to Tauheedul Islam Girls High School (82% EAL) in Blackburn who top the performance tables ? Clearly, they are doing an amazing job, but the argument is not a debate on their excellence, but rather the justness of the comparison .

The list goes on… In 2017-2018 London schools had an extra £800 per pupil compared to schools in the East Midlands – is a comparison fair ? You can compare figures of SEND students… Looked After Children… Girls v Boys… Context is everything.

In many ways these performance tables are like the Premier League. The context of the club is everything. If Aston Villa or Sheffield United stay up this season, will that be a lesser performance than Manchester City gaining a Champion’s League place ? How much was the excitement for the greatest Premier League win – Leicester City – down to their flowing football or their context compared to their far bigger spending rivals ?

The reality is that the performance tables tell a story but not the whole story. They are similar to OFSTED Reports that give snapshot – in OFSTED’s case, often from years before – that somehow becomes a daily reality in the mind of a reader or prospective parent. It is often schools in a tougher catchment that struggle to recruit, and when league tables and OFSTED slam the school, then jobs there become all the more difficult to fill. It is dangerous when the means of judgement become a barrier to improvement. Indeed, The Fair Secondary School Index, published recently by the University of Bristol and the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, reveals that: “More than half of schools currently classed as ‘underperforming’ would no longer fall into this category if pupil background was taken into account in progress measures.”

There are numerous ways to compare schools and you can view the different performance tables.

  •  You can check out the DfE Performance Tables here.
  • You can compare Staffordshire secondary schools here.
  • You can evaluate schools – based on 2018 results though – through the Fair Secondary School Index here:

I’ll leave you with two final thoughts.

My favourite performance tables story comes from watching the news about five years ago when a government minister or the like came onto the national news and expressed his anger at school performance. He was incredulous when he said: “Do you know that almost half of secondary schools are below average!” I guess that’s deal with averages isn’t it ?

Finally, as a school, we very much view the DfE Performance Tables as a quick check on how we are doing, but not the be-all-and-end all. By the time they have come out we are already well set on driving up the new Year 11s for the following summer. We could be up, we could be down, but as long as we know we have done the best we possible could for each and every student then we’ll take that. Rudyard Kipling said: “If you can meet success and failure and treat them both as imposters, then you are a balanced man”. We celebrated last summer’s GCSE results with our Year 11s back in mid-August, and as a senior team had a quiet celebratory drink that evening, but it is now November, and our eyes are already fixed on Summer 2020.

Life moves on, time passes, and that’s one measurement no one can argue with.

Matt Allman
The Friary School

November 2019


Not Skirting the Issue

The summer holidays bring a gnawing in the pit of your stomach. Two ‘Judgement Days’ are looming. You’ll not sleep the night before, you’ll need no alarm, and the adrenalin will be pumping. It’s Results Day.

Thankfully, students and staff did amazingly – I know every press release says that – but they really did. I’ve been primed to talk to all and sundry about Jaguar apprenticeships, Russell Group, hard-won ‘4s’, but they’ve not been the hot topic. Instead, I’ve been talking skirts.

Skirts have never been my specialist subject – not my Mastermind first pick – but as a school we made a change and this term saw D-Day. Our new school skirts created a fuss, certainly a cost to parents, and I’d be lying if I said every child was over-enamoured. Even so, the girls (and parents) have been fantastic and I’ve had more compliments about the skirts than anything else. Sure, we’ve had great exam feedback, but the skirts are the show-stopper!

So was change worthwhile? Will new skirts make students safer? Bring better results? Well the simple answer is ‘No’, but often there isn’t a simple answer.

The summer saw the latest wave of our refurbishment programme. Does a painted wall bring more 9s? No. Does a smart, clean environment make work more pleasurable and show we mean business? Absolutely.

Every Year 10 and 11 student received a personalised Headteacher postcard? Does that guarantee exam success? No. Does it show that each student is unique, prized and cared for? Absolutely.

Does the new skirt mean everyone passes English and Maths? No. Does it instil pride, high expectations and bring a real buzz to the school year? Absolutely.

A school should pride itself on pursuing every marginal gain. Graft to nudge every individual over their line. Standing still as a school, accepting the status quo, resting on laurels or reputation, will only let a child’s education drift and fail badly. If a school isn’t relentless in championing their students’ education, then who is ?

So if you drop in on The Friary School’s Open Evening (24 September), you’ll hear the rallying cry to go again, to keep refreshing school life, and to continually move forward. Last year’s students shone, but next year’s need to shine brighter still, and fighting every child’s corner is a commitment not to be skirted.

Matt Allman
The Friary School

September 2019