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Good news – Progress 8 will control Ofsted

Progress 8 (P8) figures for almost all the state secondary schools in England were published for the first time by the DfE on 19th January – Each school is now judged by the value it has added in 5 years to the expected attainment of its Year 7 students entering in 2011 – a plus figure shows the value the school has added, a minus figure shows the reverse. P8 is now the headline figure for schools’ success and everyone can see how well each school has done compared with the other schools in its local authority area and other members of its academy chain.

The DfE has confirmed that decisions on inspections will now be taken in the light of P8. Schools with +1.0 won’t have a routine inspection in the calendar year following publication of P8 (an inspection could still be triggered by unusual concerns like a complaint, safeguarding or radicalisation). Schools with -0.5 or below are likely to be inspected; and schools with -0.25 or below with other factors for 3 consecutive years will be regarded as ‘coasting’ and liable to intervention – see DfE Progress 8 and Attainment 8, pages 8/9.

A less noticed result of P8 is that it will now control Ofsted’s judgements.
Progress 8 is reported in 5 categories:

Well above average +0.50 and above About 5% of schools
Above average +0.49 to +0.20 approx[1] About 25% of schools
Average +0.20 approx to -0.20 approx About 40% of schools
Below average -0.20 approx to -0.50 About 20% of schools
Well below average -0.51 and below About 10% of schools

A school with Above average P8 can hardly now be judged as Requiring Improvement (except for unusual reasons like safeguarding or radicalisation). And a school with a Below average P8 can hardly be judged as Good, let alone Outstanding. Objective evidence of value added by the school’s work over 5 years must necessarily take precedence over the judgements typically of 5 inspectors carried out over 2 days.

The consequences can be striking. For example, a Let’s Think in in a northern city assessed as Requiring improvement and attaining Above average P8 (+.0.33, the equal 6th highest of the city’s 32 schools for which P8 is available) cannot now reasonably be judged as less than Good. And a school assessed as Good in January 2016 attaining Below average P8 (-0.29, the lowest of the 14 non-special schools in its London borough for which P8 is available) can no longer be regarded as Good.

Ofsted inspectors are required to take statistical information about the school into account (School Inspection Handbook, paragraph 29). It is therefore very hard to see how, apart from unusual factors such as safeguarding or radicalisation, inspectors can now judge schools with Well above average P8 as other than Outstanding, schools with Above average P8 as other than Good or better and schools with negative P8 as other than Requiring improvement or, particularly if they have Well below average P8, as other than Inadequate.

It is clear that Ofsted’s internal quality control will scrutinise discrepancies between inspectors’ judgements and Progress 8 to avoid the risk of a judicial review which Ofsted would lose.


This control of Ofsted through Progress 8 will have five benefits for teachers.

  1. It will remove the uncertainty of Ofsted inspections and therefore their ‘threat’ element which contributes to teachers’ stress. Knowing that Ofsted can’t reasonably come up with a judgement different from what’s shown by Progress 8 will make inspections little more than routine. As parents and local communities come to understand what P8 means, as they soon will, and as P8 scores are updated annually as Ofsted judgements can’t be, P8 rather than Ofsted will become the yardstick of the school’s reputation.

  2. Ofsted inspections will become rarer and may soon be limited to schools with Well below average or unchanging negative P8 scores and schools with significant drops in P8. This may well be intended. Ofsted inspections are expensive and reducing their number will make significant savings.

  3. These changes will gradually stop SLTs using Ofsted to frighten their staff and making unreasonable demands on them. The Ofsted School Inspection Handbook, paragraph 28, contains a remarkable list of 19 things that Ofsted does not require from schools (“does not” is in bold each time). They include such things as Ofsted requiring lesson plans, evidence of previous planning and assessments, and data recorded in a particular format or frequency. The Handbook calls these “myths” and they clearly have been included because SLTs still use them to pressure their staff to work in particular ways –

    Moving to P8 should put an end to this, also to schools buying advice from former Ofsted inspectors and spending time and resources on mock inspections.

  4. Moving to Progress 8 will also put an end to the unfairness where Ofsted judges schools in middle-class areas as Outstanding much more often than schools in more deprived areas. The Education Policy Institute has found that secondary schools with up to 5 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) are over three times as likely to be rated ‘outstanding’ as schools with at least 23 per cent FSM. Secondary schools with the most FSM pupils are much more likely to be rated ‘inadequate’ than those with the fewest.

    The least deprived schools are also most likely to improve their Ofsted judgement and least likely to be down-graded. Secondary schools with the fewest pupils with low prior attainment are almost six times as likely to be rated ‘outstanding’ as schools with the most low prior attainers. At the other end of the scale, schools with the most low prior attainers are much more likely to be rated ‘inadequate’ than those with the fewest low prior attainers –

    This shows Ofsted inspectors’ bias towards schools in middle-class areas and the replacement of such judgements with a more objective system is long overdue.

  5. A move to Progress 8 as schools’ headline figure for accountability should in due course allow Ofsted to resume HM Inspectors’ original role of advising on good practice. At present Ofsted inspectors are forbidden to give advice on improving teaching and learning. The School Inspection Handbook, paragraph 28, begins:

    Inspectors must not advocate a particular method of planning, teaching or assessment. It is up to schools themselves to determine their practices and for leadership teams to justify these on their own merits.

    This shows Ofsted’s continuing lack of confidence in the professional judgement of its inspectors, probably for good reason in that most of its inspectors developed their experience under the now discredited National Strategies. But it causes the bizarre situation in which inspectors judge lessons but cannot advise on how to improve them. It means Ofsted can’t recommend to schools the excellent advice in its own publications such as Moving English forward It is a strange situation when the Government body charged with raising standards in schools is not allowed to advise schools how to do this. Perhaps the new Chief Inspector will recognise the opportunity given by Progress 8 to rectify this.

[1] Approx indicates a narrow range of scores where schools can be categorised as Above average or Average (or Average / Below average) depending on the confidence interval of the school’s score. This is a statistical calculation explained at Progress 8 and Attainment 8, pages 21/22 and Annex D.

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Even fewer grade 9s

It has become clear that far fewer grade 9s than A*s will be awarded in English (and Maths) in 2017 and subsequent years. This has some unexpected implications for teaching and learning.

Ofqual originally planned that “the proportion [of candidates] awarded a grade 9 overall should be less than, but not dramatically less than, the proportion awarded a grade A*”. To ensure comparable outcomes between the current grades and the new, the proportion of candidates attaining A*/A at present will receive grades 9 to 7. Of these, it was intended that grade 9 would be awarded to the top 20 per cent in each subject “to provide a greater level of discrimination than the present A* grade”, i.e. making 9 more difficult than A*, but not much more difficult. Grades 8 would then be awarded to the next 40 per cent and grade 7 to the final 40 per cent. Setting grade standards for the first award of the new GCSEs : Ofqual Board Paper 39/14 (Ofqual 2014) paragraphs 55 – 68, especially 66 and 67.

Ofqual has now accepted that some subjects achieve considerably more than 20 per cent of A*s – Latin and Classical Greek are given as examples – and has changed its policy to reflect this. The proportion of grade 9s will be ‘tailored’ to fit each subject’s history of A*s more closely. “The tailored approach uses a formula that would result in, across all subjects, close to 20% of those awarded a grade 7 or above being awarded a grade 9.”
Decisions on setting the grade standards of new GCSEs in England – part 2 (Ofqual 2016) section 4.

This looks like a minor technical change, but it isn’t. While some subjects will receive considerably more than 20 per cent of grade 9s, others including English will receive substantially fewer.

Ofqual provides the following table showing the impact of the different approaches to the award of grade 9 in English Language and Mathematics. The figures in blue in brackets beneath the percentages give the numbers of students expected to achieve A* and A in 2017, rounded to the nearest thousand, based on Ofqual’s analysis of the 2014 results.

  English Language[1] Mathematics
Entry 611,000 585,000
% of grades A and A* 18.8
% of grade A* 5.3
The 20% approach (% of grade 9) 3.8
The tailored approach (% of grade 9) 3.4
The tailored approach (% of grades 7, 8 and 9) 18.8

As you see, the number of candidates attaining the highest grade in English Language drops from 32,000 to 21,000 under the new ‘tailored’ approach, a drop of nearly one-third. In fact, the drop will probably be even greater because:

  • 21,000 grade 9s are 18.26 per cent of the 115,000 candidates attaining A* and A.
  • Ofqual’s formula for calculating the number of grade 9s per subject is: Percentage of those achieving at least grade 7 who should be awarded grade 9 = 7% + 0.5 × (percentage of candidates awarded grade 7 or above).
  • 50 per cent of 18.8% attaining A* and A = 9.4%
  • 9.4% + 7% = 16.4%
  • 16.4 % of 115,000 = 18,000 to the nearest thousand, a drop of 44% from the 32,000 attaining A*.

I have written to Ofqual asking for an explanation of the difference between the two calculations and will post it when I have received it.

Ofqual’s latest paper says that the ‘tailored’ approach will “result in, across all subjects, close to 20% of those awarded grade 7 or above being awarded a grade 9”. This isn’t so, as explained in the paper by Tom Benton which proposes the formula for calculating grade 9s which Ofqual has accepted. Benton writes:

“we suggest adopting the following simple formula:

Percentage of those achieving at least grade 7 who should be awarded grade 9 = 7% + 0.5× (percentage of candidates awarded grade 7 or above)

For example, if 20% of people get grade 7 or above then the percentage of these awarded grade 9 should be 17%. If (as for Biology grade A) 42% get grade 7 or above, then 28% of these should be awarded grade 9. If (as for grade A in Latin) around 74% of candidates get grade 7 or above, then 44% of these should be awarded grade 9.”

Benton then states Ofqual’s aims with greater frankness than Ofqual:

“This rule fits with the stated aims for grade 9 in that:

a. Overall, across all subjects, the percentage of those achieving at least grade 7 who will be awarded grade 9 is very close to the 20% suggested by the currently intended rule.

b. Across almost every subject, the percentage of candidates achieving grade 9 will be substantially lower than the percentage who achieved grade A*” [bold added].

See A possible formula to determine the percentage of candidates who should receive the new GCSE grade 9 in each subject [PDF document], page 6.

How much lower?

Unfortunately it isn’t possible to calculate the number of grade 9s for English Language in 2017 because the grades for English and English Language are published as combined figures. The nearest estimate is 18,000 as explained above.
But an accurate figure for English Literature can be calculated from the number of awards in 2016 published by the Joint Council for Qualifications –

English Literature
Entry in 2016 414,286
% of grades A and A* 21.3
% of grade A* 5.1
The 20% approach (% of grade 9) 4.1
The tailored approach (% of grade 9) 3.6[2]
The tailored approach (% of grades 7, 8 and 9) 21.3

The number of candidates receiving the top grades in English Literature will fall by almost exactly 10,000 between 2016 and 2017, from 24,856 to 14,969, a drop of 40 per cent.

Implications for teaching and learning

Competition for grade 9s will be fierce, especially from selective, independent and other high-achieving schools whose reputation depends on the numbers of top grades achieved. Independent schools aren’t subject to Progress 8, of course, but their attraction to parents depends largely on their examination results.

In these circumstances most schools are likely to achieve very few grade 9s, if any, in 2017 and subsequent years. The competition for 9s will also impact on 8s, making them more difficult to attain. And remember that Ofqual’s statutory commitment to consistency of awarding between Boards means that their standards of awarding will be closely monitored so that no Board can award higher grades more easily than another.
In these circumstances schools will do their best for their most able candidates, but they should also devote resources to the moderately and less able. This is because (a) enabling moderately and less able students to attain a grade above expectation counts as much for Progress 8 as with more able students (see Progress 8 above expectation 2016 [PDF Document]) and (b) this will be easier to achieve because there will be less competition for the lower grades.

Schools should therefore investigate teaching programmes which engage moderately and less able students in discussion of literary texts and techniques, building the confidence that will enable them to respond confidently to unseen texts and closed-book questions.

[1] Ofqual’s projections for English Language, based on aggregated 2014 data for English and English Language.

[2] 50 per cent of 21.3 = 10.7 + 7% = 17.7% of number attaining A* + A (84,514)

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