7, July, 2015

“What’s wrong with the Government’s definition of a coasting school?”

As the Education and Adoption Bill continues its passage through Parliament, Dr Rebecca Allen sets out the evidence on the definition of coasting schools

“What’s wrong with the Government’s definition of a coasting school?”

Dr Rebecca Allen, Director, Education Datalab

The “coasting” schools measure in the Department for Education’s draft Education and Adoption Bill will be used from summer 2016 to identify schools eligible for government intervention if they cannot show a “credible improvement plan”.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan introduced the definition, saying that: “For too long a group of coasting schools, many in leafy areas with more advantages than schools in disadvantaged communities, have fallen beneath the radar.

“I’m unapologetic about shining a spotlight on complacency and I want the message to go out loud and clear, that education isn’t simply about pushing children over an artificial borderline, but instead about stretching every pupil to unlock their potential and give them the opportunity to get on in life.”

This sounds like an ambitious plan to improve standards and outcomes for all schools and pupils. So what’s wrong with the Government’s definition of “coasting” schools?

1. Schools serving more affluent communities with higher ability intakes are less likely to be “coasting”

Secondary schools with pupils who have higher prior attainment (higher scores at Key Stage 2) find it easier to make the expected progress and achieve the Progress 8 scores they need to avoid be classified as “coasting”. This is because pupils with lower prior attainment (lower scores at Key Stage 2) are less likely to make expected progress between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4 than pupils with higher prior attainment. This is because schools in more affluent areas will, on average, achieve higher Progress 8 scores. The schools serving cohorts with lower prior attainment tend to be those in disadvantaged areas, so once again, the spotlight is away from those in affluent communities. The Government’s definition of “coasting” has a social gradient to it.

The social gradient problem is less of an issue at the primary stage: primary schools serving affluent communities are at risk of being judged as coasting, though not as much as for schools with higher FSM proportions. A better and fairer accountability measure would be one where schools were judged relative to schools like them.

2. Multiple accountability measures make it confusing for schools

The introduction of “coasting” schools, alongside floor standards and Ofsted judgements, means that schools are going to be subject to multiple accountability judgements at once. This might be helpful, ensuring no school falls between the cracks. Or it might undermine the credibility of the accountability regime by signalling confusing messages to schools.

3. Threshold measures and volatile progress measures will help some “coasting” schools escape judgement

The definitions used for both primary and secondary “coasting” schools currently include pass rate threshold measures. In summer 2016 and 2017, secondary schools with five A*-C GCSE pass rates (including English and mathematics) above 60% for the two years prior escape “coasting” schools judgement. Similarly, primary schools with over 85% of pupils achieving Level 4 and above in reading and writing and mathematics in the three years prior will not be considered “coasting”. These threshold measures are much easier for affluent schools to achieve, meaning these schools, with their higher ability intakes, are once again to avoid the spotlight. In contrast, it is much harder for schools serving poorer communities to use these threshold measures as “get-out clauses”. Although this problem should disappear after three years for secondary schools (once Progress 8 is the sole measure used), for primary schools, the threshold issue will remain.

Volatile progress measures are also a problem. It’s important to remember that schools will need to perform below the expected standards for three years in a row to be categorised as coasting. This is mainly a good thing, as there is a lot of volatility in school cohorts and progress measures. Using more years of data should reduce the amount of noise and be a more reliable indicator of the underlying teaching and learning going on in the school. However, this means that schools with much smaller cohorts (which typically have more volatile progress measures year-on-year) may be able to avoid being classified as “coasting” because they have the occasional lucky cohort that gets them out of trouble.

Put together, the Government’s definition of “coasting” schools means that the “spotlight on complacency” will continue to keep some schools in the dark.

A quick summary of how “coasting schools” will be identified

In 2016, a secondary school will be “coasting” if:

  • its five A*-C GCSE pass rate (including English and mathematics) is below 60% in 2014 and 2015; and
  • it is below the median level of expected progress between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4 in both English and mathematics in 2014 and 2015; and
  • its 2016 Progress 8 score is below a threshold (which will be set after the 2016 results)

In 2017, a secondary school will be “coasting” if:

  • its five A*-C GCSE pass rate (including English and mathematics) is below 60% in 2015; and
  • it is below the median level of expected progress between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4 in both English and mathematics in 2015; and
  • its 2016 and 2017 Progress 8 scores are below the threshold

By 2018, “coasting” secondary schools will be identified using three years of Progress 8 data.

In 2016, a primary school will be coasting if:

  • it had fewer than 85% of its pupils achieve Level 4 or above in reading, writing and mathematics in 2014, 2015 and 2016; and
  • it had below the median percentage of pupils make expected progress in reading and writing and mathematics between Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2.

From 2016 onwards, the 85% expected standard threshold for primary schools will remain in some form and a progress indicator will be also be included. The introduction of new national curriculum tests and the removal of levels means that the Level 4 target is likely to be replaced by an equivalent scaled score. We await announcements of exactly how these will be defined.

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