Friday Five: Persistent absence, SATs reform, reading rankings, the Manchester Baccalaureate and growing burdens on teachers


19th May 2023

Hello! It’s been another eventful week in the world of education and youth policy. Catch-up on some of the key reports, analysis and commentary with this handy round-up, courtesy of our policy team.

This week, our Friday Five covers persistent absence, SATs reform, international reading rankings, the Manchester Baccalaureate and how teachers workloads are increasing.

Education Select Committee discuss persistent absence

On Tuesday, the Education Select Committee hosted the second session of their inquiry into persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils. On the first panel, the committee were joined by Dr Daniel Stavrou (Special Education Consortium), Ellie Costello (Square Peg), and Vicki Nash (Mind).

Dr Daniel Stravou began by setting the scene. Among those with an EHCP, 37% are persistently absent (10% or more of sessions missed), while among those who are most severely absent (over 50% absent), roughly 36% have an identified Special Educational Need or Disability (SEND). A 2019 study found that one in six pupils ever identified with SEND experienced an ‘unexplained exit’. Stravou cited mental health and unmet need (either late-identified or not identified at all) as key drivers of persistent absence.

Elsewhere, Costello noted that there is greater persistent absence and severe absence in special educational and alternative provision. Costello noted that we should keep in mind the cohort here, given many of these children are facing multiple challenges, as well as access barriers such as transport to settings. Costello argued that some good practice in APs could be learned from and incorporated in mainstream settings. This could then help more children remain in mainstream settings.

Nash noted that in 2017, one in nine young people had a diagnosed mental health problem and in 2020 this rose to one in six. Due to the demand for mental health services, thresholds have been pushed up, meaning young people are on waiting lists or waiting to get sicker so they can get access to support. Nash shared information about Early Support Hub pilots, which look to fill the gap between low-level support in schools and CAMHs, acting as a sort of ‘third way’ in the middle. Here, there have been some promising results, particularly around accessibility.

Watch the session back here.

New blog makes three suggestions for SATs reform

After the controversy surrounding the difficulty of last week’s KS2 SATs reading paper, a new blog from Daisy Christodoulou explores some of the trade-offs associated with tests and makes three suggestions for SATs reform.

Setting tests is tricky. If the test is too hard, we miss out on useful information about low-attaining students. If the test is too easy, it can be hard to distinguish between high-attaining students. There are also other issues. For instance, if a test is very easy, a high-attaining student may be punished for some careless mistakes and end up with a below-average score. Pitching tests can be particularly hard in the context of a large attainment gap. With this in mind, Christodoulou suggests we could return to a two-test structure or move towards on-screen adaptive testing.

There are also challenges particular to reading tests. Christodoulou argues that a key issue here is that “all reading tests are essentially tests of backgrounds knowledge and vocabulary”. One example of this issue was a Year 11 GCSE past paper, which caused difficulties for pupils that did not know what a glacier was. A potential way forward here may be to slim down the national curriculum and be very specific about the detail and order of what is taught.

Another issue is that of thresholds, which cause various distortions, including students of very different profiles being lumped together, neglect of pupils at the bottom of the middle category, and issues with recognition of progress. Christodoulou argues that these distortions are not worth the simplicity of the current approach. A forthcoming blog will explore how we might provide parents with accessible assessment information in a way that doesn’t distort the underlying reality.

Read the blog here.

England moves up the reading rankings

This week, the results of the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) saw England climb to fourth in the international rankings for reading among nine-10 year-olds. England’s actual score remained pretty stagnant, moving from 559 in 2016 to 558 in the 2021 results. However, as one of just 11 countries (out of 43) avoiding significant decline, England improved its position, up from joint eighth last time around.

The government wasquick to welcome the results, which will be seen as a testament to the reforms spearheaded by Nick Gibb, including the phonics screening check introduced in 2012. Indeed, it is a (rare?!) piece of good news at a time of longstanding issues with teacher recruitment and retention, punctuated by unresolved disputes with unions.

In other areas, results are less encouraging. Just 29% of English pupils said they ‘Very Much Like Reading’, while 48% reported that they ‘Somewhat Like Reading’, and 24% said they ‘Do Not Like Reading’. This compares unfavourably to most other nations, such as Portugal, where 60% of pupils reported that they ‘Very Much Like Reading’.

Read the full findings here.

Read The Guardian’s commentary here.

Plans for Manchester Baccalaureate unveiled by metro mayor Andy Burnham 

The Manchester Baccalaureate, or MBacc, is set up as an alternative to the existing national English Baccalaureate (EBacc) system. The MBacc aims to promote the technical education route for young people from 14 to 19, in recognition of the growing need for technical talent in the modern economy as well as the limitations of the current academic-focused system.

The unveiling of the MBacc comes after Greater Manchester became one of the two regions outside London to have signed a ‘trailblazer’ devolution deal with the government handing over powers to various regions. This new system of technical education will include qualifications such as T-levels, apprenticeships, and degree apprenticeships. The MBacc is set to be up and running by September 2024, with its own UCAS-like support service for students.

You can read more on the MBacc here.

Education Support’s new report highlights growing burden on UK’s teachers 

A new report by Education Support brings together findings from a number of research activities including a survey (over 300 education staff), an online poll (over 1000 secondary school teachers in England), a series of focus groups and a literature review. These studies investigate the nature of additional work that educational staff are increasingly required to do, given the effects of rising child poverty, the cost of living crisis, and worsening children’s mental health.

Key findings include:

  • Around 62% of teachers acknowledge experiencing additional responsibilities to offer emotional support to pupils
  • 43% say that they spend extra hours in supporting pupils from disadvantaged areas
  • 42% face the additional duty of dealing with safeguarding concerns
  • The report also highlights a commonplace concern that schools are not able to secure timely engagement from CAMHS and social services for even the most serious issues. This has led to a significant additional burden of work for teachers, with over 25% of the staff reporting additional 4 to 6 hours of work each week.
  • The majority of the staff participating in the study (71%) reported facing a negative mental health impact of these additional responsibilities.

This situation of stressed and burned out teachers, leading to high rates of attrition, is not serving the needs of children and young people.

The report concludes with a number of recommendations: bringing clarity to the role of schools in facilitating children’s services, improved funding for supporting professionals most at risk of emotional exhaustion, systematically addressing drivers of poor wellbeing to improve the attractiveness of the teaching profession, updating training frameworks that reflect the new reality in schools, prioritising the needs of children and young people in the least well-resourced areas, and systematically including teachers’ voices to inform policy.

The full report can be accessed here.

That’s all for this week! If you found this blog useful, please be sure to share/tweet it and follow @theCfEY@Barristotle and @billyhubt for future editions.