To Threshold or Not to Threshold – thoughts on accountability reform

28th September 2013

My first concern relates to the difference between measures which look at “average” compared to “percentage of pupils” – I think there is a way of resolving this without retaining a threshold. The second is trickier and has been explored by Professor Simon Burgess – it is the question of whether all levels of attainment and progress are equally important. It is this question that leaves me at a troubling impasse which I’d appreciate help escaping.

To begin with the first issue: If schools are measured by average levels of progress then large amounts of progress by some pupils can balance out small amounts of progress by others. Similarly, progress by most pupils can mask a minority who make no progress at all. Given that some pupils, particularly the lowest achieving, can be much harder to teach than others, this is incredibly risky. It creates an incentive to write these pupils off. While no self-respecting teacher would want to do this, we need to learn from history and recognise the power which accountability frameworks have to lead to unwanted behaviour. There is an easy way round this (well actually there are two- you could just get rid of accountability measures altogether but this is not something I’m in favour of. For more on this argument see Sam Freedman and Graham Birrell’s Shift-ed discussion). The solution would be to maintain a ‘percentage of pupils making expected progress’ measure as exists at present. If the threshold measure is to be dropped I would argue strongly for this option. However, now for the tricky bit – is there actually a meaningful threshold of attainment which matters more than others, and should it be maintained?

As Professor Simon Burgess argues, where an accountability measure encourages schools and teachers to place particular emphasis on a particular group of pupils, this incentive is only a perverse one when it is the wrong group of pupils or where there is no group of pupils who should receive particular attention. The question is, ‘is all progress equally important’- is it of equal importance for a pupil to move from an A to an A* as for a pupil to move from a D to a C? Surely basic fairness and justice answers this question by saying, ‘yes- all pupils and their needs are equal’. Indeed, when I was Gifted and Talented Pupils co-ordinator I used to spend time reminding teachers that high ability pupils, who they sometimes neglected, had an equal right to make progress as their classmates. But there is another side to this. As Professor Burgess puts it:

“If society feels that 5 grade C’s is a fair approximation to a minimum level that we want everyone to achieve, then it is absolutely right to have a ‘cliff-edge’ there because inducing schools to work very hard to get pupils past that level is exactly what society wants”

(Burgess notes that whether 5Cs corresponds to this minimum is a separate question)

A similar argument was put to me during a discussion at the DfE when the accountability changes were being discussed: ‘if colleges and employers frequently ask for 5A*-C as a minimum level shouldn’t we ensure that the accountability framework pushes schools and teachers to ensure pupils achieve this’. At the time I argued that this was a ‘chicken and egg’ type argument- surely the reason why they ask for this is that the measure exists rather than the other way round. But there is another way of looking at the issue – in terms of pupils’ capabilities and freedoms. Do all increases in attainment result in a similar increase in pupils’ freedom to determine the course of their lives? If not then how do we recognise that not all incremental increases in attainment are of equal importance.

Take this as an example: At school I did less well in Maths compared to other subjects. However, over the years I have increasingly seen the importance of Maths and wanted to learn more of it. I have therefore started to teach myself more Maths using textbooks and helpful friends. I am able to do this because I have a basic level of Maths to build on and the ability in English needed to read books combined with the study skills I need. Would I find it as easy if I had not achieved a basic level of Maths and English? Probably not. It is therefore easier to get better at something when you have the basics in place than if you do not reach this level. I always used to tell my pupils that education was incredibly valuable because it gave you freedom and options. If you think of the set of options that different levels of attainment open up to you, they vary significantly:  being able to write an A* essay rather than an A grade essay does not buy you as many additional options as being able to read and write confidently. The question is therefore, whether there is a ‘cliff edge’ grade that represents this difference. If so then surely there is an argument for a threshold measure.

But now it gets tricky: one of Stuart and Paterson’s arguments is that thresholds distract attention from G grade pupils whose progress towards a D, E or F matters enormously too. They’re right. And if there is a meaningful threshold then surely all progress towards it matters too, whether or not the bar is crossed. However, we then find ourselves saying that the progress of pupils up to a threshold matters more than beyond it and as a result, that pupils with a low starting point are a bigger priority than those starting from a higher level. Instinctively, this troubles me deeply (even though in effect it is what the Pupil Premium does) – it seems too far removed from the justice and fairness- ‘all pupils are equal’ position.

So what should we do? If the threshold is only secondary to a more egalitarian progress measure, then maybe this is an acceptable compromise, but perhaps not. As such I find myself at an impasse and I can only appeal to others for thoughts/views/ideas on how to resolve this conundrum.

Feel free to do so using comments below or on twitter @LKMco.