GCSE Performance Tables – statistics or spin?

GCSE performance table day is again an occasion for the DfE spin doctors to exercise their skills in the manipulation of data. The headline this year is that the number of schools below the floor target has fallen substantially. This is of course evidence that “the government’s education reforms are raising standards in secondary schools.”

The first question to be asked is “what reforms”? The new curriculum hasn’t started yet. Nor have the new GCSE’s. In fact all these pupils took the exams that Gove has condemned as representing nothing but dumbing down. Improving results under the Labour government are consistently put down to easier exams and grade inflation by Gove and his followers. But apparently this year, higher results represent real progress.

There are only two actual policies mentioned in the DfE press release – academisation and the English Baccalaureate.

Some impressive sounding statistics are presented about the EBacc. The proportion of pupils taking it has gone from 23% to 35%. What the DfE don’t tell us is that the proportion passing it has gone down. In 2012 about 40,000 pupils entered EBacc but didn’t pass it. In 2013, that number was 70,000. Which leaves us with the question, is pressure from Whitehall pushing a significant number of pupils down a pathway that is not right for them and on which they aren’t succeeding.

But academies are of course the big one. Yet again, the DfE chooses to compare the improvement in sponsored academies with all local authority schools. This is a misuse of statistics which has been comprehensively rubbished over the last couple of years. Henry Stewart on the Local Schools Network site, previewing today’s results points out that:

“This is due to what is known in statistics as a “floor effect”: those schools with a lower starting point will grow faster than those with a higher one.. As sponsored academies tend to start from a lower base, their increase is greater if compared to all other schools. “

In other words, they are not comparing like with like. When you dig into the actual performance of the different kinds of school a very different picture emerges. So, for example

– a higher proportion of academies (sponsors and converters) saw a decline in their results in 2013 than did maintained schools.

– More than half the schools below floor targets are in fact academies. Given that making a school an academy is just about the only policy the government has to improve schools, you have to wonder what is going to happen to these schools.

– Some 40% of the sponsored academies that were below floor targets this year had been above that level in 2012 – so a substantial proportion of sponsored academies are actually going backwards.

It’s obviously true that any kind of school can run into difficulties. But the point here is that these things are not meant to happen – or at least they should happen much less – in academies. That has been the constant mantra of this government.

At first sight, it seems likely, as has been the case before, that there won’t be much difference between different kinds of schools. It’ll confirm again that the great crusade about structures is a dead end. Schools improve when they are well led and have good teachers and when there is a culture of sharing and collaboration with others. It takes more than an Act of Parliament to make this happen – it’s hard, often slow graft. The easy paths so beloved of current ministers are in fact turning out to be dead ends.

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