Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Doesn't add up

It appears that Ofsted and the DfES have been trying their best to invent new mathematical principles and rewrite the Oxford dictionary.

There are times when I believe that those working in the DfES and Ofsted need a reality check. It was David Blunkett, when education secretary, who first introduced a new mathematical principle when he declared that he wanted all schools to be above average.

Unfortunately he started a trend which has been studiously followed not only by his successors and civil servants but also by Ofsted.

Now we find the Chief Inspector, Christine Gilbert following the lead of her predecessor and redefining the meaning of 'satisfactory'. I always believed that when I had 'satisfactory' on my school report, things were perfectly fine; at least that is what I told parents!

The HMCI report led to horror stories in the press about 40 per cent of secondary schools failing. Only Mike Baker on the BBC appeared to understand the nature of the statistical evidence and present an accurate, authoritative view.

How helpful it would be if we could have a media that took a more positive view of the achievements of our young people and the schools and colleges that educate them.

Value added measures

As an association, we have generally welcomed the move towards a contextualised value-added (CVA) system as one of the key indicators of student progress. The CVA measure is, we believe, better than a simple value added measure and, although not yet perfect, is providing useful data enabling schools to monitor both student and school performance.

As with all statistical measures CVA and VA have their limitations and these must be recognised and accepted. Value-added measures are norm-referenced, something that is apparently either ignored or not understood by the DfES and Ofsted.

If we take either the VA or CVA measures and assume that every student makes exactly the expected (normal) progress, individual students and schools will all come out with the 'norm' value, usually 1,000. This would of course place all students and all schools in the satisfactory category which, as we know from Ofsted, is not good enough!

An additional problem is posed to those schools currently above 1,000. If those below 1,000 improve the performance of their students, their VA and CVA scores will rise and this will lead to a drop in the numerical value for those currently over 1,000.

There is a risk that this will be seen as a fall in the performance of high-scoring schools even though the students have gained as much value as before but are now measured against a higher norm.

Aspirational or accountable

We are being told at ASCL information conferences that SIPs are 'under persuasion' to ensure that 50 per cent of schools set targets at the Fischer Family Trust (FFT) D level. This could appear to be looking for 50 per cent of schools to be in the top quartile!

There is nothing wrong with 50 per cent of schools setting this as an aspirational target. The problem comes when the target is seen not as aspirational but as an accountability target by the local authority, governors or visiting inspectors. The school and its leadership team are then taken to task if the target is not achieved.

It is good practice to set aspirational targets for individual students and the school, but the outcomes must be treated in accordance with that.

Missed DfES targets

Schools are not the only ones to miss targets. The DfES and Ofsted have missed some of theirs lately. RAISEOnline has been delayed until the new year, the SEF and school profile were frozen and the percentage of inspections led by HMI is below the 75 per cent target. The proportion of schools having a SIP with headship experience also is well below the 75 per cent target.

This has led to two strategies that schools perhaps could usefully learn from. Firstly follow the Ofsted model and, when you can't hit 75 per cent, lower the target to 70.

The second technique is to use the DfES approach - you haven't missed the target; there is 'slippage' in the system.

Progress measures

One potentially helpful development in measuring achievement was announced by Alan Johnson in November. He is keen to look at a system of measuring schools by the progress of each student, rather than overall exam results.

This links in well with the personalisation of the curriculum and means that the progress of all students is recognised, rather than only those who 'clear the barrier' of five A*-C grades. It would also recognise the excellent work done in raising the attainment of students with learning difficulties.

Details of his proposals and a pilot scheme should be with us early in the new year. Hopefully something positive to look forward to in 2007.

By Malcolm Trobe, ASCL President

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