One view of education is to maximise the number of pupils that achieve a level worth a damn to further study and employers, it takes the stance ‘let’s face it, what’s the point of a D in Home Economics, in the real world’. It says lets churn out as many of those who can engage in the economy quickly and successfully, and well… let’s not think too much about the rest. It is a view that offers resources to those that are able and willing to play the game and says to hell with those that don’t or can’t. Although brutal, this stance makes some sense if you accept resources are limited and have to be rationed but it is fundamentally opposed to the endeavour to give every child a helping hand into adulthood.
Another view of education is that it not all about qualifications; letters on pieces of paper, instead it’s about skills, self-confidence and learning heuristics, methods of solving problems that will stand young people in good stead as they make their way in the world. It says what we should be doing is giving young people experiences of learning successfully, working through problems, teaching them to pick up whatever cultural tools they are able, to equip them in life as best as we can relative to their needs. This mode of thought applies to everyone, irrespective of ability, willingness and the support available in the home environment but it might sometimes seem be a bottomless pit into which to pour your careers energy and the states resources with few observable benefits for the kids.
Possibly the best thing about progress 8 is that it unifies these two positions that under the old regime were set to work against each other. In the current arrangement of 5 or more A*-C including English and Maths there are no incentives for schools to get pupils to achieve anything that does not count toward 5ACEM, a teacher may want to support learning likely to change an E to a D but all the pressure from government and schools was against bothering unless it’s a D to C. Simon Burgess at Bristol showed that schools do indeed get more out of pupils on C/D borderline than lower achievers suggesting schools have responded to these perverse incentives and ration resources towards those likely to make their stats look better.
Progress 8 will mean we can put the dirty business of rationing behind us because under the new measure schools get credit for almost every bit of learning that every pupil makes. That D in Home Economics now counts. Even if a pupil gets nothing else but one grade in one ‘mickey mouse’ subject that contributes the same as any other subject (but half as much as English or Maths).
Aligned with this issue another great thing about Progress 8 it might help bring to an end the practice of ‘informal exclusions’ were a school comes to a private agreement with their most troublesome pupils to leave them alone in exchange that the pupil agrees to not cause any trouble and see out their school days doing nothing of any consequence. This in my view is a deplorable practise as it represents society saying to a child, we give up on you, you’re not worth the effort, there’s something specially awful about you, not true of the other children that means your are beyond help. This seems likely to have long term psychological consequences for those individuals.
Under 5ACEM a total failure to get a pupil to pass anything has the same effect on the stats as getting one to achieve 5ACEM, so schools could compensate for a total crash and burn by getting one child perhaps a small way forward to achieve the threshold. However, in Progress 8 the damage to school statistics of a failure can only be compensated for by achieving a success of the same magnitude. That is, getting another child or group to perform the same amount higher than the national expectation from KS2 as the failure performed below.
Here is an example
Our troublesome pupil did just about ok at Primary and got 4c in the English and Maths and therefore expected to get and Attainment 8 of 3.4 (this equates to an average of a D across 8 subjects (where 3 = the old grade D) but more accurately 3.4 is four tenths of the way to an average of a C, it could be thought of as D.4). This child fails everything and so that loses the school -3.4 progress 8 points. For the schools to compensate for this failure they would have get another child or group of children to do better than the KS2 expectation by 3.4 points. That doesn’t sound too difficult right, I mean 3.4 is a small number but for an individual pupil to make up all the difference lost by this one failure they would have to average 3 and half grades higher than their KS2 expectation, this is equivalent to a 4c pupil expected to get D’s getting an Attainment 8 of 6.8 which is an average of As across 8 subjects including English and Maths and 3 Ebacc’s. Not very likely!
Schools late to figure this out are going to get very confused as to why all their focused effort on their engaged pupils, achieving good results for them but little for those they neglect (the strategy that used to work under 5ACEM) never seems to be enough to get their Progress 8 to look good compared to the national.
In my view total failures are a big risk for schools under Progress 8 because they are much more likely than equally large successes that can compensate because a) adolescence is a funny thing and some pupils who were normally engaged at primary will disengage entirely from secondary and b) because KS2 is highly predictive of KS4 and very few will massively exceed their expectations, apart from EAL whose English was poor at primary but catches up at secondary.
The high impact on averages of a small numbers of extreme results is well known in statistics and is referred to the problem of ‘outliers’.
Here an example of how outliers can have a large effect on averages:
Imagine you return from summer break and one of your Year 9 boys in your class has had an unfortunate attack of the hormones, as often happens, and he has grown a foot since June. If you measured the heights of your class in June and then again in September they might look like this:
In June the average height of your class was 5 foot, but with one kid growing a foot the average height of your class is now 5 foot ‘3 inches. But this seems nonsense!, all the pupils in your class are not suddenly 3 inches taller. This is not a fair refection of the height of your class because only one kid has grown!
Under Progress 8 beware extreme results like a kid who achieves normally at KS2 but gets nothing at KS4.