The awkward truth about primary progress measures

The new primary progress measures aren't fairer for children and don’t add up for schools. Anne Heavey explains why.

Anne Heavey explains why the new progress measures aren't fairer for children and don’t add up for schools.

You may have heard that the new progress measures are a fairer measure of school performance than attainment. I’m not convinced and worry that for some children, they might be decidedly unfair. In fact, the DfE stated the following in a leaflet to parents last year:

There are 2 main advantages to the new progress measures:

  • they are fairer to schools because we can compare pupils with similar starting points to each other
  • they recognise the progress schools make with all their pupils, highlighting the best schools whose pupils go furthest, whatever their starting point.

How are they calculated?

Here is a very brief reminder of how the measures are calculated:

  • Children’s results at key stage 2 are compared to those of other children who had a similar starting point prior attainment.
  • To make this comparison children are allocated a “prior attainment group”, which range from the highest attaining pupils, through to the lowest attaining.
  • Prior attainment is currently based on teacher assessment judgements at key stage 1.
  • Schools have progress measures published for three subjects: reading, writing and maths.
  • The consultation proposes moving the starting point to a baseline at the “start of school” (most likely during reception).

The thing is, the way the current progress measure is designed creates some problems for the pupils in the lowest prior attainment groups.

SEND progress scores

And, in a recent SEND release from the DfE we can see for the first time that this new measure does result in pupils with SEND receiving lower progress scores than their peers, here are the 2015/2016 progress scores for pupils with and without SEN:

Children with SEN are already likely to receive lower attainment scores, last year just 14% achieved the expected standard in reading, writing and mathematics, compared to 62% of children without SEN.

This is where the progress measure should come in to recognise the development of these pupils, but with average progress scores of -1.5, -2.6 and -1.4 (as shown in the table above) these progress measures are not truly reflecting the achievements of these pupils either. This is because the lowest attainment groups include many pupils with EAL, as well as those with SEN. Pupils with EAL often make significantly greater progress than their peers without EAL, which distorts the expected progress for pupils with SEN.

In this system expectations are too low for children with EAL, but too high for those with SEN.

Should we really have a system that could distort the aspirations that we have for our children? 

A classroom of primary school children with their hands up

When the achievements of individual children are reduced to their relationship to the average of all children, important information is lost. The progress measures are just not subtle enough to capture the nuanced learning journeys that pupils with SEND make. Think about how different the progress scores will look for primary schools with large proportion of pupils with EAL vs those with a large proportion of pupils with SEN.

Given that there is no appetite for a “contextual” element to be introduced it is unclear how this approach to measuring progress could be made to work if pupils with very different characteristics are included in the same “prior attainment group”.

The impact on schools

Moving to a reception baseline assessment will not address this issue, in fact it may make it worse, as it would likely include many more children who are new to English so likely to receive low scores.

The impact of having a large cohort of pupils with SEN on a school’s progress measures could be significant, and given the high stakes attached to meeting floor and coasting standards, you could understand if primary school leaders wanted to limit the numbers of pupils with SEN at the school. Whilst this would be unethical, in the current context, it is not unimaginable. At ATL we would have to question whether the risk to inclusion is worth it for the three numbers each school get at the end of the progress measure calculation? And, what does -0.3, -2.4 and -0.7 really tell a parent about how well a school serves its children?

Moving to a reception baseline assessment will not address this issue, in fact it may make it worse, as it would likely include many more children who are new to English so likely to receive low scores.

Children changing schools between reception and year 6 is another huge issue, which again has an impact on how accurate and therefore fair the progress measures can be. ATL has calculated there are around ¾ of a million children in English schools that are not all-through primary schools, these are infant, junior, lower and middle schools rather than those that include reception through to year 6. Suggesting that some pupils could still use key stage 1 SATs scores isn’t fair when other pupils won’t have to take them, but neither is crediting (or damning) one school for the progress made at another. This is before we consider the many pupils who change school outside of normal transition points.

We need a fair progress measure

It is extremely disappointing that the DfE did not take the opportunity in either the primary assessment or Rochford consultation to ask about how the new primary progress measures are working. In their current form, they are not working for many children with SEND or EAL, or schools with high pupil mobility.

Progress 8 has similar problems, suggesting that the approach we are using to measure schools isn’t actually fairer than the old system.

Here are some key tests for a progress measure that we could call fair:

  1. Does the measure distort expectations for pupils with SEN or EAL?
  2. Does the measure work for different types of school, not just all-through primaries?
  3. Does the progress measure include pupils who change schools outside of typical transition?

It’s time to find a new way to hold schools to account, one that is fairer for all concerned.