If you’ve heard the terms ‘Attainment 8’ and ‘Progress 8’, you might be wondering about the GCSE rating changes in English schools. We take a closer look at these changes and how they might affect kids and parents.
How have GCSEs Changed?
The changes to the English GCSE system are part of an ongoing reform, which will be completed in 2020 when pupils will take the English Baccalaureate (Ebacc). You can read about some of the already implemented changes here. The new exam courses were launched in 2015, with the first exams to be sat in 2017.
What are GCSE Ratings?
The GCSE ratings are designed to enable comparisons to be drawn between schools. The idea is to identify schools where pupils are doing well, and schools that are in difficulties and may need intervention. For parents, GCSE ratings, like Ofsted reports, are used to choose which school to send their child.
The consequences for schools with bad ratings can be drastic – not only that parents with high-achieving children will go elsewhere, but also an intervention by authorities, possibly placing the schools in ‘Special Measures’, and even the removal of the school leadership team.
It’s important to stress that these ratings are intended to measure schools, not individual pupils.
How are GCSE Ratings Calculated?
Until now school GCSE ratings compared the proportion of children who achieved a grade of C or higher in 5 GCSEs, including Maths and English. There were some criticisms of this system, such as that it encouraged schools to concentrate on the magic C – since so much hinged on children achieving a C in their exams, some schools spent a disproportionate amount of time and effort on children who were on the border between a C and a D. This could lead to less attention being given to children in line to get Bs, who with a little extra support may have been able to get higher grades, and to those children who were on course to get Es or lower.
So the idea behind the changes is good – to distribute the attention and support given to all children evenly, in order to improve progress across the board. The new system aims to help kids achieve results to their potential or above – but how do you measure a child’s potential?
The system the Department for Education (DfE) devised compares the results achieved at GCSE, called Attainment 8, to expected result based on Key Stage 2 SATs that children sit in primary school. This comparative measure is called Progress 8.
What is Attainment 8?
Attainment 8 is calculated by translating the GCSE grades into numbers. So an A* = 8, A = 7, B = 6… down to 1 point for a G. (Note that this will change with the GCSE reforms).
Then the subjects are divided into categories, called buckets, with Maths and English in one bucket being double-weighted. The second bucket holds the English Baccalaureate (Ebacc) subjects sciences, history, geography and languages. The third bucket holds the other Ebacc or approved subjects including vocational and arts subjects.
We take the three best grades from buckets 2 and 3, along with the double-weighted Maths and English results from bucket 1 to find the Attainment 8 score. This number divided by 10 gives the average grade.
Here’s an example of how that works
What is Progress 8?
The Attainment 8 score is then compared with the projected score from Key Stage 2 SATs to give the Progress 8 score. You can find out how this is worked out in this PDF document from Department of Education but according to DfE pupils and parents won’t know this score in advance.
The DfE floor standard is a Progress 8 of -0.5, which means a 1/2 GCSE score below the national average of pupils with the same expected score. The school’s Progress 8 Score is the mean average of the pupils’ Progress 8 Scores.
This all sounds good, right? Instead of comparing school grades, they measure improvement. There is however, a concern that while high-achieving schools will have no issues reaching targets, schools in areas of deprivation will suffer from being compared with all schools nationally rather than with similar schools. There is also some concern what this will mean for schools with a higher than average percentage of children with Special Needs.
What Do the GCSE Rating Changes Mean for Parents?
The DfE information includes this statement for schools.
Progress 8 will be calculated for individual pupils solely in order to calculate a school’s Progress 8 score, and there will be no need for schools to share individual Progress 8 scores with their pupils.
and this statement is important
The minimum grades each pupil requires to achieve a positive Progress 8 score (also known as their ‘estimated grade’) will not be known in advance. This is because each pupil’s results are compared to other pupils with the same prior attainment within the same cohort.
The DfE states in the same document that they may in future inform schools in advance of the required Progress 8 score needed for each child.
In reality, even if schools aren’t communicating the expectations and results to children and their parents, they are of course trying to find out where they stand, and to forecast Progress 8 scores for their school (even when being advised against it!). And there is some concern that all the data crunching will be for nothing, as the entire system is flawed.
We’ll get league tables of Progress 8 measures ranking schools; Governors and prospective parents across the land will be fretting about the school next door having a higher score – all based on the most convoluted algorithm founded on the data validity equivalent of thin air; a number that says nothing of substance about how much learning has taken place over the course of five years. Nothing.
Those of you with children at the SATs stage may have already experienced what happens when children are treated as little data sets. When I spoke to parents during the SATs exam period, many of them reported their kids being under extreme amounts of pressure, with some schools concentrating on SATs to the detriment of other subjects. Some parents resorted to taking their children out of school during the SATs, with one mother telling me that her child was distressed to the point of having suicidal thoughts.
Kids who have been tutored through the SATs, now have a high ‘potential’ which they then have to live up to in secondary school. The question is, is this beyond what they’d normally be able to achieve, and will the extra pressure have an effect on their mental health and happiness?
With kids caught in ever increasing pressure to improve, with parents and schools pushing them further than is perhaps healthy, where is the boundary between encouragement and hot-housing?
The problem I’m seeing is that in order to set a ‘baseline’ from which to identify the child’s progress, they are being put in a situation of stress and pressure during the SATs. This leads to more pressure during GCSEs. All this because schools need to be measured and quantified. As I noted at the beginning of this blog post, this is all to measure schools, not individual pupils.
These measurements are vitally important for schools and teachers, as their career and earnings are dependent on getting good results. It puts teachers in an incredibly difficult position, by treating them like used car salespersons with targets to be met.
Look at any parenting forum or Facebook group, and you’ll see posters advising each other to check the League Tables when choosing a school for their child. But kids aren’t data in a spreadsheet and this leaves out so much non-academic learning and emotional development. There’s no space in the spreadsheet for that.
A score in a table cannot however tell you anything about the pastoral care in the school, how the teachers communicate with pupils and parents, or how the school deals with bullying or abuse – just three examples that in my experience are much more important to how your child will grow and flourish in a school.