Government should rethink primary school league table reforms, says think tank

A new report from CentreForum says that ‘pupil progress’ should be the principal league table measure for primary schools in England.

The report, sponsored by Pearson, argues that the government should revise its plan to overhaul primary school league tables.

The Chair of the Education Select Committee described the report as “excellent” and said he hopes the Department for Education will “give it the consideration it deserves”.

Government proposals

Under coalition proposals announced in 2014, primary schools in England will be held to account by two new league table measures to replace the longstanding attainment measure.

The present measure requires 65% of pupils in every primary school to achieve level 4 in their SATs exams at age 11. But under the new tougher regime, the expected attainment level per school will be raised to 85%.

Those primary schools that fail to meet this more aspirational standard will instead be held to account by an alternate measure tracking pupils’ progress over time.

The new progress measure will require a baseline assessment of pupils in their first half term of reception. This will be used to measure the progress pupils have made by age 11 compared to others who were assessed to be at a similar level of attainment at the start of primary school.

Make ‘pupil progress’ the principal league table measure for primary schools

While welcoming the government’s push to raise standards for all pupils, CentreForum says that the new regime should be concerned chiefly with measuring pupil progress – as the government resolved to do at secondary school level in response to CentreForum’s earlier analysis.

When it comes to judging the impact schools are making, the best and fairest measure is to assess the progress that all pupils make whilst they are in the school. Attainment thresholds always mean that some pupils’ success is more important to the school’s league table position than others. That is not fair and at odds with the government’s own aims for the education system.

James Kempton, Associate Director, Education and Social Mobility at CentreForum and co-author of the report

CentreForum finds that pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds are among those that are more likely to be neglected under the attainment threshold measure.

The think tank’s report 'Progress matters in Primary too', supported by learning company Pearson, argues that the attainment floor should be less prominent in the proposals, and recommends that pupil progress should become the principal league table measure for primary schools.

Exclusive modelling undertaken by CentreForum shows that only 1 in 10 primary schools currently meet the proposed attainment floor, meaning progress will likely be the "dominant metric" anyway.

Even those schools that achieve the attainment threshold will only do so by ensuring at least average progress is made by their pupils, the report adds.

CentreForum also looks at concerns raised around the reliability and fairness of a baseline assessment. It concludes that these concerns do not present fundamental impediments to implementing the progress measure, but that school leaders, teachers and parents need to be better informed.

To support that end, CentreForum urges the government to “provide clear, defensible evidence that the baseline assessment is valid, fair and reliable”.

CentreForum have identified the crucial importance of progress based measures which evaluate how well a school is delivering for each of its pupils, as opposed to attainment thresholds that distort behaviour by forcing teachers to obsess about a small number of pupils who are close to obtaining a particular standard.

Progress measures reward schools for helping both struggling children and those at the top of the class alike. They are therefore a much fairer and more effective accountability measure and the Education Select Committee has championed them as a result. This approach fits in much better with the government’s two key aims for the education system, namely to secure the best outcomes for all pupils and to close the gap between the most disadvantaged pupils and the rest. I hope the DfE will read this excellent report in detail and give it the consideration it deserves.

Graham Stuart MP, Chairman of the Education Select Committee

CentreForum's report hits home on three key messages. You have to measure schools on progress if you want to incentivise the right behaviour. You have to pay serious attention to pupil mobility. And the benefits of a baseline in reception do outweigh the costs – if you design it well. I hope this report has the same positive impact on primary accountability as CentreForum's previous work on secondary accountability.

Russell Hobby, General Secretary, National Association of Head Teachers

We are delighted to have been able to continue our collaboration with CentreForum on school accountability, following the success of the original ‘Measuring what matters’ report. Primary schools, like secondary schools, need and deserve an accountability system that recognises and rewards them for ensuring every child achieves their potential. CentreForum's powerful analysis shows that a measure that prioritises the progress children make is the fairest and most effective way to do this.

Kath Donovan, Director of Primary Learning Services, Pearson UK

Read the report
Read the CentreForum report ‘Progress matters in Primary too: Holding schools to account consistently’ by Harriet Davison, James Kempton and Chris Thoung.

Find out more about CentreForum
CentreForum is an independent liberal think tank seeking to develop evidence based policy solutions to the challenges facing Britain.