Measuring educational performance

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I was recently forwarded a link to an essay by Lord Adonis on his ideas for education if and when a new Labour government is in power. In it, he summarises some of his proposals for improving the education system. I do like some of his ideas, particularly those that seem to imply the raising of the status of teaching as a profession in our society, with appropriate remuneration included. However, throughout his essay he refers to “performance” and “high performing” schools, without precisely defining what he means. I may be misrepresenting him, but

I suspect that when he thinks of high performing schools, he is generally thinking of those that produce pupils with many high-grade qualifications at the key milestones of GCSE and A-level.

Whenever discussing issues of education and school performance, it is always a good idea to clarify what one means, and what is measured. At GCSE, the proportion of 5 A*-C grades is often reported and discussed, and of course, this is important for children and their future opportunities in our society, where you can be accepted of rejected for a job interview simply because you have one too few GCSEs at C grade or above. But we have to remember that this is not strictly a measure of school performance. If the intake is already performing highly on entering school, the school has less of a challenge than if the children are less able on entry. As a result, “value-added” was developed as a measure of school performance. This is the average amount of improvement of children during their time in the school; in effect, the school is adding value to the child’s “educational capital” – a resource the child can then draw on throughout the rest of their life, and employing companies can utilise.

Taking this idea one step further, we get the more recent measure: “contextual value-added”. This attempts to take into account not only the initial level of performance of children, but also other factors that may negatively impinge on their educational attainment, such as non-English as a native language, socio-economic status, etc. Unfortunately, although this is a very sensible approach, and is more realistic of the challenges inherent in providing education in the UK (a country that has one of the highest levels of educational and social inequality in the Western world), it is not as straightforward to understand as the 5 A*-C grade measure, and this may be why it is less often discussed or referred to in the media. One of the greatest problems with value-added measures of educational performance, however, is the fact that employers generally filter candidates based on absolute achievement and performance in national exams. This may be why the 5 A*-C grade measure has become as important as it is.

The other problem with these measures is that they are unstable over time. Schools that perform well, generally don’t perform so well 5 years later, and vice versa, meaning that league tables based on them are actually not useful for parents deciding where to send their children. On entry, a school might be the best in the area, but when the child reaches GCSE exam time, this is unlikely to still be the case (check out this paper by Leckie and Goldstein, 2011).

In order to really make a difference to children and our society going forwards, perhaps we need to move away from a system that is so obviously open to systematic bias and misrepresentation of children’s abilities and potential at such an early age? Surely, an ability to learn, enthusiasm, a work ethic, and ability to get on with a wide range of people in a challenging and fast moving work environment is more valuable to most employers than ticking a box for GCSE achievement? You don’t stop learning when you leave school. In fact, in some of the most interesting and challenging jobs, you need to continually learn to be successful. I find it sad that we still manage to write-off many children before they leave school. If they are not interested in the world, enthusiastic and motivated to learn, is that not a greater failure of the school system than absolute performance?