The March of Progress

What do you mean by this?

Nothing, but to show you how a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar.

Hamlet

The new Rules of The Game were recently announced. (At least, in the olden days, like 2011, it would have been  recent. In Modern Times, a week is a very long time in education).  Schools will now be judged to have met the “threshold” or “floor target” solely based on progress measures rather than the number of C+ grades.

What the new measures mean is that the progress of students working at the upper and lower levels of attainment matter as much as those on the C / D borderline. And this has to be a good thing. The old system was weighted to reward schools heavily for improving A*- C percentages. In practice this meant that a C, B or A had the same value to school leaders. And a D, E, F or G also had the same value. You were either above or below the line; your grade counted, or it didn’t.

In practice, many schools in danger of not meeting the threshold attacked the borderline – their ZPD, if you like – and invested large sums of money and teacher time in moving Ds to Cs. Indeed, this almost entirely sums up the approach of the Pixl Club, which  flourished under these arrangements:  a “laser focus” on converting D1s and D2s into Cs, and then working on the D3s. I found it all rather counterproductive. Students and teachers working in sets away from these levels were under less pressure than those in the Twilight Zone. I wouldn’t say any of my colleagues were apathetic, but they certainly didn’t get as much attention. And for students, especially at the lower end, the institutional signals were all wrong.

Shifting the focus to levels of progress paid dividends for us, and I am sure it will in many other schools. I think of the able but assiduously lazy student who believed his future lay in football. Nothing really got through to him until his teacher showed him that he had made zero levels of progress since Year 7. He cried. Groups of students who had been neglected came to the fore. While we had always noticed the noisy, attention-seeking boys who were underachieving, now a group of quiet, polite, well-behaved girls came to light. They were doing just enough for teachers to leave them alone, but working entirely within their comfort zones. Focusing on levels of progress changed that awareness – alas, too late for some of them.

Of course, a focus on progress rather than grades is going to expose a number of schools who have been working with well-prepared, well-supported students and getting very nice results each year, thank you very much. Not as many as some of the war-weary veterans of the tougher schools might hope, but some whose laurels are no longer there to rest upon. And perhaps some schools – like mine – where we got just acceptable results but fantastic levels of progress, will get a fairer press.

The last point, though, is only a hope. Along with the deeply entrenched class prejudices of England, which the education system duly reflects back to its society, is the ongoing political mileage to be wrought from education by the parties and the media. Education is too valuable a political headline-grabber to be left alone. No matter what measures are adopted, my guess is that poorer students and their schools will come in for more than their fair share of criticism, while the more comfortable middle-class schools, and their independent counterparts, will be given a relatively easier ride.

As Hamlet pointed out, ” . . . the age is grown so picked, that the  toe of the peasant comes so near the courtier, he galls his kibe.” Perhaps we will yet see a few kibes galled under the New Rules.

 

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