On 19 January 2017 the Daily Telegraph published the following article online. The article has since been largely rewritten. I have commented on the original version. The text in red is mine.
There are several things that worry me here. There are so many errors and misunderstandings and that isn’t good. The biggest worry is that I tend to trust the press. My default position (and I suspect that of many other people) is to believe what they say (not just this newspaper but others too). If there are this many misrepresentations and errors in an article about a subject I know a little about, what are the chances there are errors in other coverage too? Can I believe anything I read … ?
Secondary school league tables 2016: Over 1,500 schools are falling behind, figures show
19 JANUARY 2017 • 12:33PM
More than 1,500 schools are falling behind, according to the Government's new progress measure, official league tables released today by the Department for Education (DfE) show.
Almost a quarter of a million pupils monitored under the Government’s new GCSE ranking system – called Progress 8 – are at schools which were given a negative rating, meaning they are performing below the national average.
Progress 8 has been created so that the total Progress 8 score for all pupils across the country is zero. The average score per pupil is therefore also zero. When this is transferred to school level things are not entirely straightforward. We shouldn’t expect there to be exactly the same number of schools above and below the average, but this is roughly the case. [The discrepancy is down to the different sizes of schools, the fact that special schools tend to be smaller and that Independent schools are not included within the figures. To give a simplified example: if you have all of the pupils in two schools, one of which has a positive Progress 8 score and the other a negative one. Half the schools are below average. If you then split the pupils from the school with the negative score into two different schools you could have one big school with a positive score and two small schools that have a negative score. Then there would be twice as many schools below average as there are above average.]
My reading of the numbers is that in 1616 schools the pupils averaged a Progress 8 score above zero, in 48 schools the pupils averaged a score of zero and in 1994 schools they average a score below zero.
There are three issues so far in the article. One is that it is bonkers to complain that lots of schools are “below the national average”. The way averages work is that some are above and some are inevitably below. The only way to avoid having anyone below average is for every single school to be exactly average.
The second is I can’t get “1500 schools” from the figures! 1994 schools were below zero (but it would seem odd to use “more than 1500 schools” to describe 1994 schools). Maybe they are referring to the 1598 schools that are -0.1 or below. But this is not sensible, because the government has said Ofsted will investigate schools whose figures are lower than an arbitrarily chosen -0.5, of which there are 705.
The third issue is that it is nonsensical to make a big deal about “Almost a quarter of a million pupils” attending schools where the average Progress 8 score is negative. The key thing is the _individual pupils_ whose P8 score is negative. If a child gets a negative score it doesn’t matter whether they are at a school where lots of other people did the same or not.
Free Schools, which were introduced under by former Education Secretary Michael Gove in 2010, were proportionately the worst performing schools in the state sector.
In total, 84 per cent of free schools were given a negative rating for progress. Academies performed comparatively well, with the majority (57 per cent) rated as above the national average.
If you look at the figures for every school that is a Free School then there are 13 with a positive P8 score and 71 with a negative score, which is 84.5% negative.
There are some important nuances that have been missed here though. First of all, this is only 84 schools out of 227 Free Schools. The rest have not yet got to the stage where pupils are in Year 11, so only 37% of Free Schools are included in the figures.
Then let’s look at the different types of school. Free Schools include special schools, Studio Schools and UTCs. It doesn’t seem fair to put all of these together and then to compare them to Academies. For example, if we look at all special schools (whether Free Schools or not) we find that 406 of them had negative scores and 2 of them didn’t. This is for sensible and understandable reasons, which I won’t go into here. The point is, though, that the different types of school that make up ‘Free Schools’ is not the same as the types of schools that make up ‘Academies’.
In fact, Special schools were only a small fraction of the Free Schools, but UTCs are very different from mainstream schools and seem to have their own particular challenges. Again, it seems unfair to compare them to academies. I didn’t know anything about Studio Schools so I looked them up. Their website states that the “Studio Schools curriculum moves away from traditional methods of subject delivery with the curriculum delivered principally through multidisciplinary Enterprise Projects in the school and surrounding community”. It also previously mentioned that students “work towards GCSEs in English, Maths and dual award Science as a minimum”. If as a school you have some students who only work towards GCSEs in English, Maths and double Science then it is unsurprising your P8 scores are low. (I pass no judgement on Studio schools – I am only pointing out that their curriculum requirements are not closely aligned to Progress 8.)
The figures also revealed a clear north-south divide with the more than half of the ten worst local education authorities (LEAs) in terms of student progress situated in the north-west of England.
The league tables showed that every single school in Knowsley, Merseyside, was failing, as were 90 per cent of schools in Redcar and Cleveland, North Yorkshire.
It might well be reasonable to look at exam results in different areas of the country, but again there are other confounding issues. For example, if it happens that there are more PP pupils in certain parts of the country then those areas’ P8 scores may well be lower.
It isn’t right to describe schools that are below average as “failing”.
Meanwhile, the five best performing areas for pupils achieving 5 A*-C including English and maths were all in London, with Hackney, Kingston upon Thames, Kensington and Chelsea, Barnet and Westminster at the top of the league table.
Nick Gibb, the schools standard minister, said the figures “confirm the hard work of teachers and pupils across the country is leading to higher standards”.
The implication in this article is that Nick Gibb’s quote refers to the Progress 8 figures. Either this is wrong and Mr Gibb was actually talking about other figures, or Mr Gibb is wrong.
If you have a measure like P8 which has zero as its average then this is, definitionally, a ‘zero-sum game’. You have no way of telling whether standards are going up, down or staying the same.
This year, nine of the top 10 schools for GCSE results were state schools, with the country's best three state schools all situated in north London. Henrietta Barnett School, a girls' grammar school, scored 100 per cent for students obtaining both 5 A*-Cs.
Queen Elizabeth's School – a boys' grammar school – came second, with 100 per cent of students gaining 5 A*-Cs, and St Michael Catholic School, a grammar school for girls, came third.
Independent schools performed poorly in the tables, with 62 per cent of them coming in the bottom third of schools for 5 or more grade A*- C including English and maths.
This is due to the fact that many independent school students sit IGCSEs, which are not officially recognised by the Government.
This isn’t getting better. The school that came first scored 100% (we are now talking about pupils gaining 5A*-C grades rather than Progress 8). The school that came second also scored 100%. It is difficult to see how they have been separated.
This year is the first time that the Government’s new measure for attainment in GCSEs, called Progress 8, has been used to rank schools. It measures students’ progress in eight subjects from primary school through to secondary school.
The eight “core” subjects measured by Progress 8 are English, maths, history or geography, the sciences, and a language.
Um, no they aren’t. This confuses the EBacc subjects with Progress 8. While English and Maths are part of P8, pupils need three of the others that are mentioned and then have any three further subjects (which can include the other English exam that many pupils take and can include other EBacc subjects).
Mr Gibb said: “As well as confirming that the number of young people taking GCSEs in core academic subjects is rising, today’s figures show the attainment gap between disadvantaged and all other pupils has now narrowed by 7 per cent since 2011.
“Under our reforms there are almost 1.8 million more young people in good or outstanding schools than in 2010, and through our new, fairer Progress 8 measure we will ensure that even more children are supported to achieve their full potential.”
Here is the URL for the article. As mentioned earlier, it has changed significantly since I copied and pasted the original version. There is no official statement that the article has been rewritten (although the time given on the article is different).