Although sadly not able to attend ResearchED 2014, I was delighted to see the outpouring of positivity it brought to twitter. It's unleashed a bloganza of reflections I've only begun to get through but I can recommend @turnfordblog onuncertainty, @francisgilbert on what happens when woolly liberals andslatehard traditionalists meet and @oldandrewuk's talk on logicalargument – relevant far beyond the confines of educational debate. A wise woman - @RosMcM - once said though, that when things are going well that's the time to look inward. So having been assured that a dedicated, smart profession can keep on rapidly improving schools I want to ask what would an improved system look like? If we made every school a Mossbourne Academy or, dare to dream, a King Solomon how much would impact would we expect on poverty and social mobility?
If every school improved to that level then they would to some extent all be the victims of their own success; a national A*-C% pass rate of 90% would mean a C ceased to have any value. Grades are a currency with which we buy places at university and ultimately well-paying jobs. If the supply of 'good' grades rises without a corresponding rise in the supply of well paying jobs, grade inflation has occurred. It makes no difference whether the rise is due to better educated students or easier exams, the law of supply and demand is in charge.
In fact the success of schools has already caused a grade devaluation to take place. The reformed GCSEs are graded 9-1 with a 4 equivalent to a grade C but a 5 (C and 2/3) the new 'good pass'. The government claim that grade 5 is “broadly in line with what the best available evidence tells us is the average PISA performance in countries such as Finland, Canada, the Netherlands and Switzerland.” But of course that doesn't endow this grade with guaranteed value. The vast majority of children look for jobs in their own country, so if schools slog their guts to ensure every child gets a 5, and let's face it they will be pressured into doing this, then 5s won't be considered good anymore either.
Changing the nation's grades to allow finer distinctions between the most able will also have an unpleasant side effect; it will reveal more starkly the link between family income and educational performance. We've grown accustomed to styling this as the 'achievement gap'; the difference between the percentage of children eligible for free school meals getting 5A*-C inc EM and the rest . Focussing on greater numbers of poor children reaching the C threshold, ignores the fact that in the great schools that make this happen, rich children do even better. In top 15% schools for attainment, poor children's performance at GCSE is higher than the national average, but it's still below that of children who aren't poor in those schools. So if we strain every muscle and make every school as good as the top 15% we would still have an achievement gap. Rich children would still use whatever grading system replaced the discredited 9-1 classification to purchase places at our country's elite institutions, leaving poor children languishing in a job market that's unkind to many graduates, let alone those who don't go to university at all.
Graph courtesy of @ftdata - Social Mobility Challenge for School Reformers
As the graph above shows the only schools that don't have an achievement gap are the worst ones. Ofsted bullies who insist schools can close the gap by levelling up should explain how, because it's not clear that it's ever happened. One very interesting fact about the rapid improvement of London schools from 2000 is that it was accompanied by a sharp increase in the number of students receiving private tuition. Those with means didn't stand still while education improved for the poorest, they spent money to maintain their competitive advantage.
There are those who say this doesn't matter, that the purpose of school is to teach knowledge so if students are passing harder exams education has improved. That schools are there to give to the same opportunities to all and it's not their fault if middle class pupils are better at taking advantage of those opportunities. That's a reasonable position but it's not how education policy is ever sold. Michael Gove, speaking in 2014 said he was making “society fairer,more progressive, more socially just”.
That's a noble ambition, I'd vote for it, but I cannot see how it will happen as long as Education remains a competition between individuals to see who can get the highest grades. Improve school and you improve it for everyone, rich and poor alike. The advantages of the rich - parental expectation, stable home life, private tuition - all then tip the scales in their favour. If we're serious about helping the most disadvantaged we need a fundamental rethink of schools' objectives; exams are not enough.