School improvement by scale
The number one problem in English education is the underachievement of the bottom 30% of pupils, especially white boys. Our top end of pupils are excellent by international standards but the difference between the best 30% and the worst 30% is greater in England than in most developed countries. What is more, in England children’s exam performance correlates more closely with their parents’ social class than almost anywhere in the world.
Attempts to solve this problem can be found at different scales. At the national level the social class problem is being tackled by means of the pupil premium – a grant for schools taking ‘disadvantaged’ children. For example, the 2015-16 grant is £935 per pupil for Years 7-11 children who qualify for free school meals, including those whose family income falls below about £16,000 a year. Some schools appear to be having much more success than others with such disadvantaged pupils.
Also at the national level are measures designed to reduce the level of child poverty (a term which is itself subject to much debate). Measures such as lifting the minimum wage and increasing employment would come under this heading.
Also at the national level the government has tried to improve the supply of good teachers in disadvantaged areas by means of Teach First, which recruits good graduates to work in difficult areas for two years. This has been successful, but in fact a high proportion of pupils who do poorly at school are not in schools in problem areas. Very large numbers of schools with good overall results have a tail of underachievers.
At the local level governments of the past ten years have focussed on transferring responsibility for schools from local authorities, who were thought to have been ineffective in many cases, to Academy sponsors – businessmen and educationalists. The first schools to be transferred were the lowest achieving and unsurprisingly they improved. Two Academy chains seem to have had a good deal of success in the past five years; otherwise it is too early to assess the success of this policy.
Also at the local level the government has encouraged the best schools to become Teaching Schools and to manage teacher recruitment and training across local clusters of schools through School Direct or School-Centred Initial Teacher Training groups. These groups are building their capacity at the same time as some university teacher-training courses are losing theirs. There is as yet inadequate evidence that this is working – it might work, but it is early days.
At the school level the government requires schools to be inspected every few years and given a grade by Ofsted. If a school receives a less-than-good grade then the frequency of inspection rises and if a school is inadequate it can be taken over by an Academy chain. Ofsted is used to implement government policy; for example, schools have been told that they cannot get a top grade if their pupils do not take the EBacc GCSE subjects – maths, English, science, history or geography and a modern foreign language.
The government sets minimum standards for individual schools which, if they are not met, can also result in the school being taken over by an Academy chain. This may mean that the school’s governors are dismissed and the head teacher replaced.
*the floor standard for primary schools is currently 65% of children get to level 4 in English and maths by age 11, for secondary schools 40% of children get five GCSEs graded A* to C including English and maths at age 16.
*from 2016 this will be succeeded by a new measure called Progress 8 which measures the progress made by every child between the age of 11 (when they take Key Stage 2 tests in maths and English) and the age of 16 when they take GCSEs. There are other accountability measures but this is the main one. The measure looks at the pupil’s eight best subjects including maths, English, the three highest point scores from any of the EBacc qualifications in science subjects, computer science, history, geography and languages, and three others. Schools will fail on this accountability measure if their average progress score is significantly below that achieved by other schools with similar ability pupils.
*in 2015 a new accountability measure was announced – coasting schools. Now 60% of pupils must get 5 GCSEs graded A*-C including English and maths at secondary, and 85% must get Level 4 in English and maths at primary. If schools fall below that and have lower than average rates of progress of pupils, then they be called coasting. A school will need to fall into the definition of coasting for each of three years in a row to be categorised as coasting.
At the level of the classroom we know that a good teacher can achieve 18 months progress for children in a year while a weak teacher will only achieve 6 months progress. This is why schools have not only introduced more lesson observation, training and appraisal systems in recent years but have also, in many cases, embarked on performance-related pay. An analysis by Robert Coe, Cesare Aloisi, Steve Higgins and Lee Elliot Major in 2014 looked at over 200 pieces of research and concluded that the two teacher qualities with the strongest evidence of improving pupil attainment are the teacher’s subject knowledge and the quality of their instruction.
So measures to improve schools are operating at a variety of scales, from national-level policies down to the individual classroom. Of course these are overlapping – attempts to improve the performance in the classroom may be driven by central government’s accountability measures. If we cannot recruit good teachers to teach the least motivated pupils there is little chance that the nation’s social mobility will be improved.