UNEQUAL PROGRESS

The new progress measure expects less of the less able

It is, at first glance, a great idea to adjust expectations for different abilities so that children compete with others who share the same starting point.  Those who arrived in the key stage doing exceptionally well now compete with similar high-fliers to hit new highs at the end of the key stages.  Those who arrived in the key stage with disappointing results compete more realistically with others who had the same result.

Able children tend to make good progress.  Their enthusiasm and success is reflected in a brisk pace of learning.  The less able move more slowly.  In other words, there is a strong relationship between attainment and progress. It seems at first only fair to compare children with their academic peers.

Schools with a large number of high attainers will look anxiously at their progress rates.  In secondary, where the progress result is the only one to count in the floor standard, there will be grammar schools exposed for poor progress in spite of outstanding attainment. Conversely, schools with very challenging intakes will have their value-added efforts recognised.  Teachers working in leafy areas will shudder, but those with challenging intakes will feel the fairness of this rebalancing.

It is refreshing to see the ground levelled between schools, but there is a problem.  It is this: less progress is expected of the less able.  If this was your child with weak attainment, how pleased would you be that expectations have been lowered for them?  Would you not want them to make the same strides forward that are expected of their more able peers?

In impoverished areas, there is an argument that more, not less, can be expected of low attaining pupils.  They do not underperform because they are intellectually inferior, but because they lack the resources and support enjoyed by more affluent peers. In other words, they have the capacity to catch up, and that is what we should expect.

Accountability borderlines play an important role in directing the attention of teachers in Years 2, 6 and 11. They will feel immense pressure to focus on those pupils who need a helping hand to make it over the line, and give attention to more challenging standards expected of high attainers, and deal more quickly with the lesser demands placed on the less able.

And this issue is further complicated by the lack of ready measures of progress between key stages. The abolition of levels has left schools unsure about the expected standard, particularly in years 1, 3, 4 and 5, and key stage 3. The working party on assessment without levels has rightly urged schools to improve everyday classroom assessment but eschewed tracking.  An assessment vacuum has opened up for senior managers who no longer have the management information that was once provided by tracking through levels.  The tests rule because the tests are the only external assurance that exists. Unintentionally, the working party has forced schools to seek out all manner of assessment schemes, none of them using the same scales, confounding moderation, and it has forced secondary schools back onto numerical results and CATS tests.

In one sense the new progress measure is great news for the neglected able.  They shall be challenged.  But the risk is that those who are behind, disadvantaged and unmotivated will be celebrated for their lesser gains, and put quietly on the back burner.