Last week the Department for Education released provisional performance data for secondary schools.*
The data includes the number of students ‘entering’ and ‘achieving’ the EBacc, Michael Gove’s flagship qualification designed to restore ‘rigour’ to the curriculum. For the former it’s 39.6% of all state funded students, up from 38.6% for 2014/15 and still nowhere near Nicky Morgan’s 90% target for 2020. For the latter, the figure’s 24.5% (compared to 24.3% last year) in other words less than 1 in 4.
The problem for the EBacc continues to be the modern foreign language requirement- last year two thirds of students did not enter a language, compared for example, with just 1 in 5 who did not enter either history or geography and 1 in 10 not entering science. (With English and maths, the subjects making up the EBacc) This year there have been 7% falls in French and German entries -though a slight increase in Spanish.
The DfE has been keeping rather quiet about EBacc recently and has not published the results of the consultation undertaken last year. Instead, it’s focusing attention on the progress-8 attainment measure – where it is possible for students to be able to maximise scores without a foreign language, though their performance in English, maths and three listed EBacc GCSEs must be included.
For Gove’s critics, rather than a step forward, EBacc was part of a return to a narrow, backward looking and elitist learning
– a way of imposing a grammar school curriculum without having to bring back the grammars.
In the future, if never able to properly establish itself in the majority of schools, the EBacc might serve as a necessary precondition for becoming one of Theresa May’s ‘selective’ schools?
There will be a new headline performance measure for secondary schools from September 2016. Schools will no longer be ranked according to the number of students passing achieving 5 A* to C GCSEs. Instead, Attainment 8 data will record the average score for their year 11 students across 8 subjects. More significantly they will have to publish data for Progress 8 – a new value added measurement. The Department for Education has invited schools to ‘opt in’ and provide Progress 8 data for 2015 – over 300 have done so. As well as Attainment 8 and Progress 8 data, 2016 performance tables will also include the percentage of students achieving grade C in English and mathematics as well as the English Baccalaureate.
For 2016, a student’s Attainment 8 is calculated on the following basis. 1 is equivalent to a grade G at GCSE with 8 equivalent to an A*. Mathematics is double weighted, as is English, provided the student has also been entered for English Literature. The student is then scored on three EBacc subjects and then three other GCSE or recognised vocational qualifications. Individual subject scores are totalled and then divided by 10 (because of the double weighting). A student scoring 4.5 in 2016 for example would be performing between a D and a C in their individual GCSEs
A student’s Progress 8 score will take on more significance. Performance levels at the end of KS4 will be compared with those at the end of KS2. A student producing a positive value- added return will be performing above the level expected by students with an equivalent KS2 performance and this will be expressed as a positive number  A school’s Progress 8 score will be the average score for its student cohort. For all mainstream students it will be expected to be at least zero. If a school is 0.5% below its ‘floor standard’ the school may come under scrutiny by Ofsted
What are the implications of Progress 8?
The government argues that because the new system is based on eight subjects it is broader than the EBacc and could mean the creative arts subjects are no longer squeezed out of curriculum. Also, because a student can include three vocational subjects in their score, it could represent a move away from a ‘one size fits all’ academic education in the way that Ofsted’s Sir Michael Wishaw appears to want In response to this however, a number of concerns can be identified.
Firstly, not completing the EBacc, will make it very difficult to record a positive progress 8 score. Schools will recognise this and concentrate resources accordingly. Secondly it’s unrealistic for Year 11 subject targets to be based on English and maths tests completed in Year 6. Progress 8 does not necessarily increase the chances of artistic and creative non-EBacc subjects returning to the curriculum. Schools will be reluctant to reintroduce these as it is likely results will be included in students’ scores immediately without there being the space for new courses to become properly established. Progress 8 is unlikely to encourage schools diversify their vocational provision. Instead they will continue to concentrate on the subject areas where they have expertise. To count in performance tables, vocational courses have had to take on many of the characteristics of academic qualifications. A student completing a non-recognised vocational course will score nothing.
Progress 8 will lead, almost inevitably to a further increase in the role of data and of those responsible for collecting it, in driving the curriculum. For example, data managers may insist that every student is entered (even if not properly prepared) for English Literature, to enable the doubling of their English score. Finally, Progress 8 can only increase in workload stress and cause a performance management nightmare with individual student attainment targets replacing group averages. In most schools, all of a student’s GCSE results will be included.
There are lots of unresolved issues surrounding Progress 8 on which teachers will need to remain vigilant.
 For a list of schools that have, see http://www.education.gov.uk/cgi-bin/schools/performance/group.pl?qtype=NAT&superview=sec&view=progress8
 The numerical calculations will change when the new 1-9 GCSE grading system is introduced from 2017.
 See the DfE Guide (page 16/17) for details of this calculation https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/497937/Progress-8-school-performance-measure.pdf
 Michael Wilshaw speech to Centreforum 18/01/16 https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/ambitions-for-education-sir-michael-wilshaw
 The numbers of vocational qualifications that qualify for performance tables have been severely reduced and no longer count as ‘multiple’ GCSEs. See: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/381074/2015_KS4_list.pdf
Full-time vocational education courses developed in colleges and school sixth-forms in response to increased staying on rates from the 1980s. They were seen as alternatives to academic learning and offered through training organisations like City & Guilds and BTEC now long since subsumed into larger examination awarding bodies. They concentrated on particular occupational areas, particularly those in the growing service and business sectors. They also included a number of ‘generic’ or ‘soft’ skills like ‘team working’ and ‘personal development’ which, it was argued, were now essential in the changing workplace. Delivered through assignments and projects.– the ‘new vocationalism’ as it became known, was generally considered to be a progressive pedagogy with many young people liking to learn this way.
Vocational qualifications also became an integral part of the KS4 curriculum –the first stage of a ‘vocational pathway’ proposed by Sir Ron Dearing as part of his review of the National Curriculum in the 1990s. The current University Technical Colleges (UTCs) directed by Kenneth (now Lord) Baker, which offer specialist 14-19 education are a continuation of this approach. Though designed to help in the transition to work, Advanced Level vocational qualifications have been used for entry to higher education – to the ‘new’ universities, rather than elite institutions. Vocational qualifications have also been included in school league tables, counting as several GCSEs. As a result, many schools made them an additional part of the curriculum for students who had chosen academic courses.
Officially equal in status to academic qualifications, research continued to show that it is lower performing students who are enrolled on vocational courses. Vocational qualifications have also been criticised for lacking ‘rigour’ with the Wolf Review –commissioned by the Coalition – concluding that many lower level vocational qualifications were ‘worthless’ in terms of increasing employment opportunities. It argued that young people would be better off learning in the workplace and doing apprenticeships.
The Coalition and now the Conservative government have been very harsh on vocational qualifications. To be included in performance tables and in the new ‘TechBacc’ they have had to meet certain requirements in relation to their content and the type of assessment they use. The old style BTEC qualifications loved by many teachers will no longer exist. Students on construction courses for example, are now required to study trigonometry and Pythagoras, with new Ofqual rules requiring a minimum 0f 25% external assessment. The number of eligible qualifications has also been reduced. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, except that it’s likely to alienate many of the young people more engaged through the vocational approach.
In other countries, vocational pathways have been linked to apprenticeships and employment training, in the UK this has not been the case. Though employer representatives and Ofsted have called for more emphasis on vocational learning and a move away from a ‘one size fits all’ academic curriculum, there is certainly no evidence individual employers consider applicants with vocational qualifications to be more qualified for work. On the contrary, research shows that, with a few exceptions, it’s the traditional academic subjects that have continued to have much greater status and attract the highest returns in the labour market.
Also, as the occupational structure changes and people are likely to have a number of very different ‘careers’ during their working life, that’s if they are the lucky ones and are able to secure work at all after a new wave of digitalisation, it’s questionable whether any specialist vocational study from a relatively early age has any benefit. If vocational courses are to remain on the school curriculum it is important that they are part of a broad general education that covers a range of learning experiences. It also important that as well as just teaching how to, they cover a variety of issues about ‘work’ –its social context and changing nature.