Deconstructing the Post 16 Performance Table Industry

The government has just published proposals to change and extend the data to be published about students’ performance in schools and colleges after the age of 16. For the first time, they propose to include measures about the performance of students working towards Level 2 post 16. They also – and these are amongst the few positives – proposing a common system for schools and colleges and to include a focus on completion. The drop-out rate from A levels at the end of Year 12 is one of the rarely recognised scandals of the system.

Previous attempts to produce something meaningful post 16 have been pretty unsuccessful. Publishing percentages of students passing, getting particular grades or point scores is simple but not particularly meaningful without knowing where students are starting from. There have been attempts to produce value added data for A levels but extending this to other qualifications has got really nowhere.

First reactions to these proposals are likely to be that they are mind-blowingly complex. For Level 2 there will be an attainment measure, a completion measure, a combined attainment and completion measure, a destinations measure, two closing the gap measures, an English and maths measure and probably three others. Level 3 is much the same with the addition of measures about progress and about “facilitating subjects”.

Even with this complexity however, it’s not obvious that this will tell students what they really need to know. The range of post 16 opportunities is so wide that potential students really need to know how a school or college does in their subject – especially in colleges there can be huge variation between curriculum areas.

What we’ve learned about performance tables is that they are likely to have perverse consequences. Often no one spots them in advance but in schools we’re seeing everything from forcing students into courses that will show the school in the best light to outright cheating in examinations. So it’s worth giving some thought to what might happen with these.

There is a very clear nudge in the proposals towards traditional A levels – the so called facilitating subjects. There will be many institutions that feel that their standing depends on this measure. We can expect the press to home in on it and to be encouraged in this by ministers. How then will schools and colleges react to an able student who wants to do something else? We seem to be getting to the point of believing that for a high achieving student to have any other ambition other than a Russell Group university constitutes failure on the part both of student and school or college. We really do need to understand that the range of opportunities in today’s world is much broader than that.

Overall though it seems likely that many of these measures will be of little interest to the public at large. What they will be used for however is to hold institutions to account. A whole new set of floor targets are to be created – though as yet there are no details of how they will be pitched. With schools, this is where the real damage has come. It’s what forces them to do everything possible to game the system and we can expect the same result here. Here too, it will not be in the best interests of students.

It’s interesting to see the range of interventions that the government anticipates using when schools or colleges fail to meet the floor targets: “referral to the FE commissioner (for FE colleges), or Education Funding Agency (for sixth form colleges) for closer scrutiny, or turning the school into an Academy.” The possibility that an academy might fall short of these targets clearly has yet to penetrate the thinking of the DfE. More fundamentally but not openly admitted, what we are seeing here is likely to be the introduction of private sector organisations into FE – a new wave of Harris and Oasis colleges?

Lastly there is an intriguing final section about ‘MOOCs’ (Massive Open Online Courses). These currently are open on line HE courses run by (of course) “prestigious universities”. The government is asking us to consider whether this approach can be applied to post 16 education. Which fits of course with the way Rupert Murdoch has been cosying up to the DfE to position News International as a key content provider in this world. Is this the vision for sixth form and college education in the future? Watch this space.

One Comment on “Deconstructing the Post 16 Performance Table Industry”

  1. Richard Pring says:

    Dear John

    Thank you once again for keeping us all so well informed. Do you think that Orwell’s ‘1984’ should become compulsory reading for all future teachers?