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Some reasons to be cheerful

As the first year of teaching the new GCSE English specs comes to an end and there’s been some misinformation about Progress 8, it’s worth recalling four positives which underpin all the current changes. With all the fuss about academisation with its ‘business’ model of operation, it’s easy to forget that the present Government is continuing the most progressive series of curriculum and assessment reforms since 1986 – well, for secondary schools; for primaries it’s a different, sadder story.

Closing the gap. England has almost the worst record in Europe for students leaving education with poor qualifications or none, leading to the highest proportion of NEETS in any advanced country. This is a result of a GCSE system in which only grades A* to C count, leaving other students to be treated as less important. All the main political parties agree this is a huge waste of potential and, starting under the Coalition, it has led to the pupil premium and investment of £110 million through the EEF on educational research in raising attainment by disadvantaged students. Progress 8 is the third strand of this policy.

Interestingly the Conservative Government is continuing the policy. Last year the headteacher unions lobbied for the pupil premium to be released into general school funding, but in his Autumn Statement last November George Osborne refused.

Progress 8
is becoming the main school accountability measure. When the new GCSEs are implemented, decisions on routine Ofsted inspections will be taken solely on the basis of P8. Schools with a P8 of +1 or more (adding an average of one GCSE grade above their students’ nationally estimated grade) will not be inspected the following year except for special reasons like safeguarding. Schools with a P8 of minus 0.5 or less are likely to be inspected.

P8 includes the Attainment 8 grades of all a school’s students and measures the value it adds from Year 7. All progress counts, by the least able as well as the most able. On the other hand, the number of highest grades (9 – 7, currently A*/A) will be capped so that schools will have compete for them. (Grades 6 – 4, currently B/C) will also be capped, but as the numbers are so much larger the effect won’t be so noticeable.)

Schools will therefore need to work across the whole ability range – maximising the progress of the moderately and less able and supporting the most able in competing for the highest grades. This has two implications.

Rethinking teaching and learning. Many schools still follow the discredited teaching model promoted by the National Strategies –teacher-led, fast-paced, episodic, with learning evidenced immediately in writing. This was introduced from 1997 by the DfE and a private company, Capita, without any research evidence of success. It was abandoned by Government in October 2008 when international comparisons (PISA, PIRLS and TIMSS) showed no evidence of rising standards, ending in March 2011 when Capita’s contract expired.

Unfortunately no Government has publicly declared the Strategies a failure (all the material was simply removed from the DfE website within a month of the Coalition’s election in May 2010) and schools have been left to find alternatives. Fortunately HMI began to reassert itself with its report Moving English forward (May 2012) recommending a different approach which coheres with plentiful research on effective teaching and learning by people such as Robin Alexander, Neil Mercer, Guy Claxton, Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam.

Forward-looking schools are moving towards a style of teaching which is exploratory, cognitively stimulating and based on productive discussion (‘verbal drafting’). They realise that answering multi-mark analysis, evaluation and comparison questions on unseen texts will involve skills that can be nurtured but not drilled.

Mixed attainment grouping. As progress by moderately and less able students will count towards Progress 8 as much as by able students, schools will sooner or later need to consider mixed attainment grouping, often called mixed ability teaching. There is extensive, robust research evidence that mixed attainment teaching raises attainment by all students – able, moderately able and less able – except for the purposes of early entry which the DfE is now against.

For further information about all these points, please see Really raising standards in GCSE English (summary) and Really raising standards in GCSE English (full version).

Although we are going through a lot of demanding changes at present, a focus on cognitive development rather than instruction should raise the quality of education in England for all students by making teaching and learning in secondary schools more stimulating, effective, equitable and enjoyable. For teachers who went into teaching ‘to make a difference’, as most of us did, this can only be to the good.