Published on: 05 Sep 2016

We are moving into a world of averages with P8 and the problem with this is that it hides the detail

Progress 8 ready

Peter Kent, a past president of ASCL, once described Progress 8 (P8) as “the least bad measure so far” and I think the majority of the profession would agree. Regardless of the intricacies of how it’s calculated and the risk of inspectors and others over-interpreting marginal differences, the principle behind P8 is a good one. Every child and every grade matters.

But any new accountability measure brings challenges with it. Two of the biggest here are the moral dilemma of balancing the needs of your school as an institution with what is best for your individual students and the practical question of how to adapt teaching and assessment, and structure learning for every student. These are two considerable hills that all school leaders will need to climb.

Getting the balance right

James Lissaman, Assistant Head at De Lisle College in Leicestershire, appreciates the difficulties in walking the tightrope between a school’s needs and the students’. After all, the suite of subjects that students need to pick can sometimes mean that more creative students can be pushed down a more academic route.

This is where an informed dialogue between the school, students and their parents is essential, and where independent evidence can help to make the right decision. These are important decisions and students and parents need to feel listened to. De Lisle College reviews targets based on nationally benchmarked assessment data and triangulates this with what they know about the students to provide really informed advice.

James points to the example of a student who, when she arrived, had fairly low target grades in the more academic subjects and was targeted E grades for most of her GCSEs.

“However, the Cognitive Abilities Test (CAT) showed that she was very creative and very active, and she left us with A grades in PE, art, drama and music,” he says. “We could have pushed her down the academic route, but it was clear that it wouldn’t have been right for her. We’ve got to remember that we’re here for the children.”

Changing mindsets

The teaching implications of P8 are also far-reaching, something that Phil Hart, Headteacher of Westhoughton High School in Bolton, believes is the biggest challenge for the profession.

However, good planning and a good programme of professional development can support the shift from the C/D borderline to knowing that every grade, every subject and every student now matters.

Assessment can help this process, too. Westhoughton has looked very closely at their assessment priorities – what they assess, how they assess, when they assess and what that data is used for. “We’ve reinforced the message that the purpose of data is to move learning forward, not to create some nice graphs that look good on the head’s wall,” says Phil.

Starting points

So, with the new term now under way, where should you start? The most important step is the effective baselining of your new intake and building the richest profile of each student in the first half term. The sooner you understand where a student is starting from, the sooner you can work out how best to support them. If you don’t go through this process, you will spend six months on the back foot.

Westhoughton has taken the approach that the Attainment 8 expectation for each student is a fixed end point, albeit an estimate, and they use this end point to plot a journey that will get students of all abilities through the more rigorous linear GCSEs.

The school uses CAT in Year 7 and Year 9 to look at potential ability, and surveys attitudes with the Pupil Attitudes to Self and School (PASS) survey every 12 months to look at other issues, such as confidence. This is very important given GL Assessment’s recent analysis of PASS data across the UK, which shows a significant decline in attitudes throughout Key Stage 3.

“Youngsters’ attitudes to learning and school matter enormously,” says Phil. “It’s important to understand what happens to a child’s self-esteem, confidence and work ethic, and what can be done to address problems in these areas when they are identified.”

Westhoughton’s aim is to actively seek out those ‘hard to spot’ students who develop a discrepancy between ability and attitude so that the school can provide proactive and not reactive interventions for them.

“We’re making full use of the wraparound nature of our assessment programme to help get an indication of which students are likely to have difficulty in reaching expectations,” says Phil. By comparing ability with attainment and looking for any barriers to learning, they have every base covered.

Progress is uneven

When it comes to using data to support your students’ targets, I would, however, add a note of caution. As everyone knows, children do not progress in a linear fashion. They take wrong turns, U-turns and shortcuts and they stall and occasionally go into reverse. I would make a plea not to micro-manage every test result. Otherwise, every reversal, every stutter and sidestep will be magnified.

This may be a particular temptation now that you’re staring down a five-year road following the removal of modular GCSEs. But if you fill the vacuum with too much assessment, you will be putting putative P8 scores on your students’ shoulders. Over-interpret a few low assessment scores and you’ll fail to stretch them; over-interpret a couple of good ones and you’ll undermine their confidence by pushing too hard.

What next?

Progress 8 is here to stay (for now, at least) and I agree with Duncan Baldwin, ASCL’s Deputy Director of Policy, when he says that the next area the profession needs to focus on is improving the understanding of what inferences we can draw from the scores.

We are moving into a world of averages with P8 and the problem with this is that it hides the detail. Given that the overall score is made up of several components, two identical scores can disguise a whole range of variations. One school may be delivering some great things in vocational education while the other is very strong in English. On the other hand, if you look at it differently, a school where the high attainers are doing very well and the poor attainers are not, may have the same overall P8 score as a school where all students perform closer to the average.

As Duncan puts it, “It’s only when you start lifting up the bonnet and looking at the individual buckets of P8 that you will understand the real strengths and weaknesses of your cohort.”

The same general premise can be given to all types of assessment. Data needs to be used to understand your students better and to provide enough information to make the most appropriate decisions.

Performance indicators can tell us a lot but we need to dig deeper to do the best for every student. For that, you’ll need to use formative individual assessments periodically, from the start of Year 7 to GCSE year, to ensure that the right decisions are being made for each student over the whole five years.

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