Ofsted – a fairer future?

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Rumours are circulating that schools in poor areas will stand a better chance of getting a good Ofsted grade, but where is this coming from? There are no such promises in the new draft Inspection Framework. In fact, page 11 shows that test results remain an important consideration, as part of the judgement about Quality of Education.

Ofsted’s hit and run approach to inspection – sending total strangers into a school to make a judgement in just two days – means they will continue to rely heavily on test and exam data accessed before they start. The inspectors simply don’t have time to do otherwise. Just a third as many person-days are allocated to inspections as in the 1990s, Ofsted’s first decade.

We need to question whether inspectors are capable, within such a short time, of tuning in to the positive work of teachers and their relationship with children and their families. When four inspectors have only two days to inspect a large secondary school, they can only skim the surface. The hit-and-run approach includes observing only fragments of lessons and skimming through a few exercise books. With the best will in the world, Ofsted will continue to pre-judge schools on the basis of the data.

A fairer system in the future?

The story of a fairer approach to inspection seems to originate with a BBC website journalist, rather than any senior Ofsted official. On 16 January, reporter Judith Burns wrote:

A school in a tough area which has great teachers and a great curriculum could be rated outstanding from September, even if pupils’ results are mediocre, says Ofsted.  

This exact sentence was copied by dozens of other media outlets, but the BBC reporter gave no source. Later she quotes Ofsted’s director for education Sean Harford on schools that game or cram and achieve good results by narrowing the curriculum, but includes nothing to support her opening sentence.

Even if the quotation did come from an authoritative source, the word ‘mediocre’  betrays a terrible contempt for these schools. The pupils and teachers will have worked their socks off to achieve the best possible results – results which are a fantastic achievement, even if they’re not as good as the A*s in more privileged schools.

Ofsted are desperate to rebrand themselves, and maybe Judith Burns is quoting one of their spin-doctors. Instead of rumours of change, we should look to Ofsted’s record.


The record so far

Continue reading

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Progress 8 – a biased and misleading measure

Progress 8 was supposed to be a fair measure of secondary school ‘effectiveness’. New research confirms that it is seriously biased against schools with more disadvantaged pupils.

It is vital to expose this injustice because scoring ‘well below average’ on Progress 8 triggers consequences such as an early Ofsted, forced academisation or transfer to a more ruthless MAT. Poor Progress 8 scores can also lead to families avoiding schools they assume to be of poor quality.

This new report by George Leckie and Harvey Goldstein (University of Bristol) shows that these problems potentially damage schools, particularly those serving poorer neighbourhoods. The researchers look at the impact of the government’s decision not to consider a range of social factors, including disadvantage (measured by free school meal eligibility, but also living in an areas of multiple deprivation).

In particular, Progress 8 fails to recognise that pupils growing up in poverty tend to make less progress – on average, almost half a grade lower in each GCSE subject. For schools with many disadvantaged pupils, this will push down their Progress 8 scores and will often push them below the government -0.5 floor standard (the boundary for being deemed ‘well below average’).

In order to demonstrate the extent of injustice in Progress 8, the Bristol researchers produce an Alternative Progress 8 calculation. This considers poverty, gender, SEN, and ethnicity. This alternative calculation would result in a third of schools changing bands (eg from ‘below average’ to ‘average’). The number of schools targeted for intervention as ‘below the floor standard’ (i.e. ‘well below average’) would fall by a third, from 303 schools to 196. Continue reading

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Grammar schools and “ordinary working families” again

In our last blog post, we looked into a new and deeply flawed ‘research report’ by former Department of Education official Iain Mansfield. It was written in support of the Prime Minister’s argument that expanding grammar schools across England would help ‘ordinary working families’.

The pro-grammar lobby know they’ve lost the social mobility argument in terms of grammar schools and children on free school meals (FSM). Less than 3% of children at grammar school are listed as FSM, and most of those only spend a short time on FSM. That is why Theresa May has shifted the argument to what she calls ‘ordinary working families’ i.e. above free meal entitlement but low income.

Faulty figures have been used to suggest that 45% of grammar school pupils are below median income – an unlikely calculation. Even if that were true, the data in Mansfield’s report still ends up revealing that grammar schools are letting down low income families.

The report (page 53) draws on data from Cambridge University. It divides the population into five: the lowest quintile Q1 are largely FSM. The second quintile Q2 fit Theresa May’s notion of ‘ordinary working families’. Cambridge admitted 572 grammar school pupils in 2017, but only 22 from Q1 and 32 from Q2, compared with 297 from Q5. Even this might not tell the whole story: the quintiles are based on the areas where children live, and not every Cambridge entrant living in Q1 or Q2 is from a low income family.

The argument for grammar school expansion falls flat on its face. If grammar schools were set up across the rest of England, i.e. if another 500 or so grammar schools were opened, only an extra 20 or so young people would reach Cambridge – hardly the basis for such major policy change.

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Grammar schools helping “ordinary working families”?

On becoming prime minister Theresa May decided to expand grammar schools in order to benefit ‘ordinary working families’. There is no evidence that this is what grammar schools do. This week a former Department of Education official Iain Mansfield tried to provide the evidence, and failed miserably.

Firstly, he claims that 45% of grammar school pupils are from families with below median income, i.e. the poorest half of the population. This is based on a faulty DfE calculation  according to which 70% of the population are the poorest 50% ! No wonder the DfE has disowned its own calculation as ‘provisional’ and ‘requiring further work’. In fact, expert research has shown that grammar schools give around 25% of their places to the poorer half of the population.

Secondly, the logic of Mansfield’s report is nonsense. It goes like this:

A) because 45% of pupils at grammar schools come from families with below median incomes (“ordinary working families”)


B) because grammar school pupils are more likely to get into Cambridge and other high-ranking universities,


C) pupils from these ‘ordinary working families’ would have more chance of getting into Cambridge if they attended grammar schools.

There is nothing in Mansfield’s report to suggest that it is substantially grammar school pupils from ‘ordinary working families’ who are winning places at Cambridge. In fact, from figures later in the report (page 53) we find that Cambridge University only admitted 22 grammar school pupils living in the poorest fifth of areas. To emphasise, the 163 grammar schools drawing pupils from a quarter of England sent only 22 pupils to Cambridge from the poorest fifth of areas.

By contrast, grammar schools sent 13 times as many of their pupils living in the richest fifth of areas to Cambridge – 297 pupils.

We can deduce from the data (page 53) that if grammar schools were expanded throughout England, as the Prime Minister wishes, perhaps another 18 pupils living in the poorest fifth of the country might gain a Cambridge place. That is hardly a convincing argument for wrecking comprehensive schools across three quarters of the land.

Nowhere in the report is there any suggestion that Oxford and Cambridge universities should change their admissions systems to overcome social discrimination. As it is, private schools and grammar schools have all the advantages because of their longstanding connections and traditions. They know all about the special entrance exams, what to write in a CV and how to succeed in interviews. Sixth Form tutors at these schools have conversations with the admissions tutors of particular Oxford and Cambridge colleges.

Cambridge gives over over half its places to private schools, which serve just 7% of the population. The university gives only a third of its places to comprehensive schools, although they serve three quarters of the population.

Comparing the areas where students live regardless of the schools they attend, 1240 places are given to students from the richest fifth of areas, compared with 70 living in the poorest fifth of the country. This shows that the university has some responsibility for this inequality. As a modest step, it could, for example, provide foundation courses  for a few hundred students from poorer families (as one college has started doing for a handful). It could provide summer schools for young people living in poorer parts of England.

Grammar schools are not a vehicle for social mobility. They do nothing to improve the life chances of children from “ordinary working families”. Like the private fee-paying schools, they are part of a machine for reproducing a starkly divided society.

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Test scores and poverty 2: parents’ education

The mountains of data which overwhelm schools are next to useless, because the categories they use don’t measure up to reality. A major reason is that the categories ‘Free School Meals’ and ‘disadvantaged’ don’t reflect the serious burden of poverty that many children face. They don’t show either the length or the severity of that poverty. There’s no such thing as a standard FSM child. (see our previous post)

On top of that, many children don’t match the criteria for claiming free school meals but are still experiencing serious hardship. There is no such thing as a standard’ non-FSM child. Some are living in poverty, and others live privileged lives.

Here we present another reason why the data is almost useless: it says nothing about parents’ education and what they have been able to pass on to their children. Statistically the biggest influence on children’s attainment is their parents’ education, particularly the mother’s.

A major government-funded study run by Oxford University tracked large numbers of children from nursery school to leaving school. Children of mothers with GCSE as their highest qualification had Key Stage 2 scores around the national average (i.e. the 50th percentile rank). The average score if mothers had no qualifications was well below average – around the 30th percentile. Few of these children score above average in SATs, and some are right at the bottom.

The average score for children whose mothers had university degrees (or NVQ level 4) was very high – averaging at the 78th percentile. Very few of these pupils score below average, and many will leave primary school with SATs scores near the top. Well educated parents are able to pass on many educational benefits to their children. Continue reading

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Test scores and poverty – it doesn’t add up

England’s schools are drowning in data. Everybody is obsessed with accountability statistics, from Ofsted down to the school cat. This  obsession with data distorts the way we look at pupils and their education.

300 spreadsheet columns running from A to KD are produced for every primary school in every local authority. Every child has a cumulative data record from starting to leaving school. These numbers forms the basis for Ofsted judgements, school takeover bids and parents’ choice of school. And it’s next to useless.

The system claims to make fair judgements about how ‘effective’ each school is, after making allowances for ‘disadvantage’. This is based on the proportion of pupils in a school who have been entitled to free school meals (FSM) at some time in the past six years, known as FSMever6.

It is true that even a short spell on FSM tends to reduce attainment, but the data makes no distinction between the length or the severity of child poverty.

The disadvantage / FSMever6 category is misleading because it doesn’t differentiate between temporary hardship and chronic poverty. Analysis of national data shows that any length of time in poverty is damaging, but there are substantial differences between a brief period and chronic poverty.

On average across England children who have been entitled to FSM in just one term of primary school score about 4 percentage points below the average at KS2, but those who have been FSM for six full years are over 10 percentage points down. The impact during secondary school is worse: from around 6 to 13 percentage points at GCSE.

One indicator of long-lasting poverty is if more of the pupils classed as disadvantaged are currently entitled to free meals. Nationally around half of children classed as Disadvantaged have a current entitlement, but in some places it is as high as two thirds, for example Middlesbrough and Knowsley, which suggests that more families are trapped in chronic poverty there. In some other areas such as Harrogate or Winchester, only a third of children classed as disadvantaged are currently FSM-entitled, suggesting better opportunities and a faster escape from poverty.

As well as the physical effects, being trapped in chronic poverty has a deep psychological effect, leading to depression and despair. This often impacts on children’s mental health and attitudes to learning.

Children with a current FSM entitlement are only two-thirds as likely to reach the ‘expected standard’ in reading, writing and mathematics. Things get worse as time goes on: they are less than half as likely to achieve grade 5 or above in English and maths at GCSE.

This is not the only distortion. There are degrees of poverty, and many children are in desperate situations. It is no wonder that some areas have been near the bottom of school league tables for years. By themselves neither disadvantage, nor even current FSM figures, can reflect the extent of some children’s misery.

Free School Meal entitlement is a ‘proxy indicator’ of poverty, used because the data is easy to collect. It cannot reflect whether children are sleeping in damp rooms, not eating properly, and don’t have winter clothes. It doesn’t show that some parents have become deeply depressed or addicted to drugs. It doesn’t show the demoralising effect of living in a deindustrialised town with no job prospects – in some cases for 30 years or more. This complexity is better reflected in other social data, such as the Index of Multiple Deprivation, available on a geographical basis.

There is no such thing as a ‘normal’ FSM pupil. There is also no ‘standard’ non-FSM child.

We cannot assume that children who are not FSM-entitled aren’t affected by poverty. Many are in poverty but do not match the criteria. It is nonsense to compare two schools just because they both have 70% of non-FSM children. In some schools most of the families are struggling to make ends meet; in others there are many families with affluent lifestyles and the means to boost their children’s school performance.

For more posts exposing the uselessness of ‘accountability’ based on test scores, see: 

Sats tests are still a shocking failure (July 2018)

Phonics test – Nick Gibb fails again (Sept 2018)

Progress 8 and the North East (Jan 2018)

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International evidence and the phonics test

In a previous blog post, we were able to show that the Phonics Check is not a useful indicator of actual reading. Decoding regularly spelt words is only one component of reading. The rapid increase in scores in the phonics check has not led to significant improvement in reading for understanding. The schools minister Nick Gibb’s claim that ‘155,000 more six-year-olds are on track to become fluent readers’ is far from the truth.

It is possible to check such claims against PIRLS, the international reading test taken by a representative sample of 10-year-olds (i.e. around 4 years after they had taken the phonics test). PIRLS is, unlike the phonics test, an assessment of real reading – reading for understanding.

When PIRLS results came out, Gibb claimed credit for what he saw as a massive improvement – the move from 10th to joint 8th place. It wasn’t actually so significant. This arose, in fact, because Croatia didn’t take part in 2016 and Denmark and the USA fell down the table. England’s score had shifted slightly, from 552 to 559.


It is interesting that Ireland’s score rose twice as much, and it is now the highest ranking European country. Ireland’s approach to reading is very different, without the obsessive approach to synthetic phonics which Gibb has imposed on England’s schools. Ireland expects its teachers to be:

‘familiar with the various strategies, approaches, methodologies and interventions that can be used to teach literacy’.

Ireland’s primary school teachers are encouraged to combine analytic and synthetic phonics, sight recognition, rhymes and initial letters, pictorial cues, and a sense of texts. Phonics is embedded in real uses of literacy.

Approaches to education are child-friendly and developmental. Year 1 teachers are advised to be

‘developmentally appropriate and avoid premature formalities… be child-centred, broadly-based, prioritise play and reinforce the concept of the child as an active learner‘.

The emphasis in Year 1 is on spoken language (Irish as well as English, to ensure that all children are bilingual).

None of this will mute Nick Gibb’s trumpet. He loves to take the credit for England’s success, and is adept at using statistics selectively. Comparing PIRLS down the years, he recently boasted that:

England has risen from 19th place in 2006 to joint 8th in the world reading league table (PIRLS).

Using 2006 as his starting line is cunning but dishonest. The PIRLS international tests began in 2001, when England came 3rd, with a score of 553. In other words, England’s children are reading no better now than before Gibb started telling teachers how to do their job.

For more research on the phonics test, please read:
Challenging the tyranny of the Phonics Check

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