November 2012

The know zone

  • Warning signs
    Schools and colleges owe a duty of care to pupils and the wider public and could be held liable where damage is caused to a person or property by their actions or failures. Richard Bird explains. More
  • Energy crisis
    Exhausted teachers don’t make for good teachers. As funding gets tighter and pupil-teacher ratios increase, schools need to help staff lighten their load, says Sam Ellis. More
  • Lead vocals
    Quotes from Mark Twain, Aaron Levenstein, WIE Gates, Louis Brandeis More
  • The Write Stuff
    Alistair Macnaughton, 53, has been head of The King’s School, Gloucester, for five years. A former arts journalist, his previous posts include director of theatre at Charterhouse School and second master at King’s School, Worcester. More
  • Political insight
    Parliament’s Education Service aims to inform, engage and empower young people to understand and get involved in Parliament, politics and democracy. More
  • Clean bill of health?
    Nearly half of ASCL members say that preparing for inspection is one of their top concerns. Here, leaders share their views on whether the latest inspection reforms, especially short notice and the focus on teaching quality, have made inspection more or less fit for purpose? More
  • Adding value was one of the big stars of the road this summer, providing roadside assistance to members on their way to be part of the Olympics, off on their holiday or even something as simple as taking the kids to school or driving to work. More
  • Leaders Surgery
    Teachers' Standards advice and Advice on allegations against teachers More
  • Shifting sands...
    With flawed data being used in this year’s performance tables and by Ofsted inspectors, exam results being kept artifficially low, and the huge inconsistencies in GCSE marking, how do schools and colleges measure improvement? How do parents and governors? Is it now time to take matters into our own hands, asks Brian Lightman? More
  • Layered Cake
    Most people have an idea of what to expect when becoming a headteacher, but there are many aspects of the role that simply only experience will reveal as Geoff Barton explains. More
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With flawed data being used in this year’s performance tables and by Ofsted inspectors, exam results being kept artifficially low, and the huge inconsistencies in GCSE marking, how do schools and colleges measure improvement? How do parents and governors? Is it now time to take matters into our own hands, asks Brian Lightman?

Shifting sands...

Ask any school or college leader whether they have gone as far as they can in raising standards of attainment, achievement or pupil progress, and I am certain that the answer would be a resounding no. Rather than reflecting a defeatist frame of mind, this is evidence of the level of ambition we all share for the young people in our care.

Even the leaders of the most successful schools and colleges would be the first to recognise that there is work to be done and that they can improve further – their ambition is a key to their success.

Those high expectations could not contrast more sharply with the destructive clamour of the gloom and doom crowd whose cynical voice pervades certain parts of the media, accusing us of somehow being the agents of falling standards. Nevertheless, the events of recent weeks have brought into sharp focus the very real question of what constitutes real improvement and how we measure this.

The simple answer, which might be expected from government circles, would be to look at the data as published in performance tables and RAISEonline but this year is different and there are real problems with that approach.

First, the stated intention of the government to halt the year-on-year improvement in examination results – regardless of the real achievements of young people – means, to quote Ofqual's letter of 22 August 2012 to Michael Gove, "that whilst some schools will see improvement in their exam results, due to a comparable outcomes the overall results will not show significant increases. So it will be difficult to secure system level improvements in exam results which you have said you want to see."

Second, the enormous and inexplicable variations between the performance of schools in GCSE English have meant that many of those results are subject to challenge. The DfE has stated that resit results will not be counted in performance tables, meaning that these tables will be based on results that many schools know do not reflect the attainment of their pupils, rendering them invalid and misleading.

Flawed data

A number of further points add to this confusing and unsettling picture.

Evaluation of the impact of the Pupil Premium is going to be based on flawed data this year. The 2011-12 Pupil Premium was allocated according to the number of young people registered for free school meals at that time. A welcome change announced for future years is to allocate funding on the basis of registering for free school meals any time during the previous six years, increasing the number of pupils who will attract it.

However, this year's performance tables are also based on the 'last six years', rather than the pupils who actually attracted the Pupil Premium. Basing performance tables on a model of funding that has not yet been implemented is yet another example of moving the goal posts halfway through the game and it renders those outcomes invalid.

Destination data has been published, albeit as a trial, for the first time this year. The data is incomplete and does not include important groups of pupils, notably those who have gone to employment-based training routes, which are growing rapidly in importance as a valid and worthwhile route into highly skilled employment. Again – misleading and incomplete data.

Of course all of this means that target setting has – to quote an eminent chief executive of a leading academy chain – been "blown out of the water". That has far-reaching implications in terms of school leadership, as well as teaching and learning, not to mention performance management of individual teachers, departments and institutions. How to identify or measure genuine school improvement is a real question for school and college leaders, Ofsted, local authorities, the school commissioner, government and a very confused electorate.

Government own goal

The combined effects of the grade inflation debate and the (leaked) proposed changes to GCSE have caused an enormous and in my view very serious crisis of public confi dence in the exam system that will be in operation during the next four years. It is a spectacular own goal for a government committed to raising standards.

Add to this toxic mix the concerns expressed by the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC) in their report on England's 'examinations industry': deterioration and decay – A report from HMC on endemic problems with marking, awarding, re-marks and appeals at GCSE and A level, 2007-12 (see and it is very clear that there is an urgent job to be done to reassure all of the pupils who are currently in secondary school and their parents.

All of this makes it absolutely clear what individual school and college leaders, and we as your professional association, need to be doing this term.

ASCL will stand up to and challenge the misuse of data, which makes a mockery of the coalition principle of 'fairness'. In terms of individual schools, it is more important than ever to tell your own story. Schools have been given high levels of autonomy over what is published, how it is published and how self-evaluation and monitoring are managed.

All schools are in possession of a vast amount of qualitative and quantitative information about what they are doing. Schools can put as much of this as needed into the public domain and show parents and other constituents with confidence the success stories that are going on in our schools, as well as setting out what they are doing to address the challenges they face.

That information should be confidently and assertively presented to Ofsted and other external bodies that come into schools to discuss performance. ASCL will support schools and insist that Ofsted looks at this data. In addition, we must all challenge incomplete and inaccurate data such as Parentview, which is often based on tiny samples.

Above all, we cannot allow the obsession with accountability to distract us from what we know students need in terms of the curriculum, teaching and learning – as our responses shape the embryonic proposals for GCSE reform.

No illusions

I am under absolutely no illusion about how difficult that will be for many ASCL members and what the implications are in terms of the support we provide. If anyone tries to use flawed data to reach a judgement about our members' schools and colleges they can rely on strong support from ASCL from the moment they call the helpline.

Like everyone else who has led a school, I know what improvement looks like. Part of that is undoubtedly in the examination results but much more can be detected by walking around the corridors and visiting classrooms and taking a measure of the ethos of the school. Behaviour is often a refl ection of the ability of students to access the curriculum and the engagement of pupils often tells us at least as much as the data, important though that is.

Many ASCL members will have come across critical incident theory in some of the leadership training they have attended. I would contend that the crisis of confi dence in our qualifi cations and accountability systems that currently exists has all the hallmarks of a critical incident.

We must take the lead in order to ensure that the current and future education policies are not, to quote the HMC report again, "built on the sand of the deteriorating national industry of public examinations". We owe that to future generations of students.

  • Brian Lightman is ASCL general secretary