Friday, November 25, 2005

Still Embracing Mediocrity

The Times reports today that the brightest children at 11 are being failed by state schools. Whereas children in the top 5% of the country at private schools are almost certain to get 3 As at A-Level, only a third of state school children have the same achievement. While this is worrying, it is not entirely surprising, given the problems of comprehensive education.

Co-blogger Richard was telling me earlier this week that if you look at "value-added" school rankings, where improvement at each level is measured, there isn't a huge difference between different types of schools. There are two things that come out of this: firstly, that variation in educational provision needs to be tackled right from the bottom up (and this may well include trying to encourage more families to foster a culture of learning; not just improving primary schools). The more detailed problem is the vacuousness of the statistics.

As I wrote back in July, children taking official tests at age 11 are graded in bands extending up to Level 5. This is all well and good, except that the government expect children to achieve Level 4 at that age. Thus, those who are 'good enough' to pass are lumped into two pretty broad categories that are not particularly helpful in diagnosing future progress. Although I don't know the exact figures, assuming that 70% of children achieve the level expected, that means that even a rough division of the two categories has 35% of children being assigned the same level.

How is our school system supposed to help the brightest in the country when statistically they get swept aside? The government chases media headlines by setting targets for the basic level of learning expected from schools (it is, of course, expert in the manipulation of statistics) - and thus great pressure is placed on teachers to prioritise helping those on the borderline between pass and fail.

Broad-brush groupings of pupils who are well above average standard doesn't help them at all. They're always going to pass; they're almost always going to get high marks; the chances of them not receiving the top grade possible is pretty slim. Why should teachers spend time on that when their school's reputation and their professional standing depends on other children? The problem only comes to a head at a later stage when the ability needed to step up to greater levels is more pressing.

Grading the brightest students according to broad bands is never going to help the high achievers at state schools. At all the key stage assessments that will be used in a study like the one reported by the Times, students are being assessed by national criteria that are aimed at a middle or lower tier of the population. A state education system has a responsibility to make sure no child is left behind. That's fine, but only to a point. Bright kids have educational needs too. A comprehensive system where they are lumped together in a class, reinforced by an education system that fails to recognise their high achievement, cannot respond to them.

Labour's educational record is one of embracing mediocrity. When "value added" scores are taken into account, children who should have done better in their exams don't really get picked up. Because when they were at Level 5 at age eleven, in reality they would have been at a Level 6 or possibly even a Level 7. Slipping down the rankings later is not quite so easy to pick up, I would imagine: because it is so difficult to talk of an average "Level 5 student" there is no real knowledge in schools of how those raw numbers should correlate into exam results at 16 or 18.

And of course, attention is all too often not paid to them anyway. Schools funding and reputation is boosted by catch-all headlines figures, that look at how far basic standards are met - nothing to do with the potential high-flyers whose achievements are, ultimately, less crucial. This sounds a bleak picture - but unless there is pressure applied on pupils, the chances of fulfilling potential are less. Yes, it might be said I am taking away personal agency here - but at the same time, it is possible to create a culture that uses personal agency as a force for good. I don't want to just stand back and let our education system crumble into dust. Until we start considering all pupils, not just those lower down the scale, the inequalities that have been highlighted on the front page of the Times today will continue.