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Transparency, what transparency?

June 17, 2011

John Fowler

OK, I admit I am nosey, and I also felt like a relaxing 30 minutes with Excel’s Pivot Tables, but the announcement that the weakest 200 primary schools in the country will become academies in 2012/13 made me test the Government’s claim to be a transparent administration.

The DfE website has a transparency site which digging down leads to a claim that access to the data underlying statistical releases publishes by the Department since July 2010 is available. And that the December 2010 publication Key Stage 2 Attainment by Pupil Characteristics, in England 2009/10 contains the underlying data.

Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. I was not looking for the performance of each child on each question in the May 2010 KS2 SATs (which is stored nationally) but the English and Mathematics results aggregated to school level that would be useful information to provide some context to the Secretary of State’s policy proposals “to raise standards and tackle underperforming schools”. It’s not there.

So, we do not know the criterion (or criteria) which qualifies a primary school to be one of the weakest 200 in the country, nor which are the local authorities with “particularly large numbers of struggling primaries” so that the DfE can collaborate with these authorities to tackle a further 500 primaries. And for what it is worth, how the DfE has handled the fact that many primary schools will have missing data from Summer 2010 due to the teachers’ boycott of the tests, and that between year variation in raw performance will appear great when crude statistics are used due to the small year group size in most primary schools. We are told that it is related to the ‘primary minimum floor standard’, but also, to confuse matters, it is a measure of progress from 7 to 11 (which has nothing to do with floor standards). And the floor standard keeps changing. It was 65% of year 6 pupils achieving level 4 in both English and mathematics until July 2008, when it was without warning reduced to 55%, and again without warning it was increased to 60% a year ago. Schools which quite rightly believed they were above the floor target suddenly found they were below it.

I am told Pivot Table skills can double the pay of a tabloid journalist. All the national media organisations were sent a pack last December containing access to the spreadsheet of school level results (it was one CD when I last saw one in 2008) prior to the national publication of the Key Stage 2 results. This is how the school level information is published which can now be found on the websites of these organisations. Type in your postal code on the BBC education website and instantly the nearest couple of dozen primary schools appear. Only limited information is published this way. The CD contains (or at least use to contain) much more information including a time series analysis. If the Department has not already leaked the information, it would not be hard for these media organisations to make a stab at where these 200 primary schools are. Meanwhile, I shall ask the DfE for the information, at least the CD which was handed out last December.

Meanwhile, there are 200 primary head teachers anxiously looking at their in boxes to see whether they have been labelled as one of the weakest 200 primary schools in the country, and the likely prospect of being named and shamed.

Clearly, Michael Gove has learnt from Ed Balls’ fairly disastrous naming of secondary schools below the then floor target in Summer 2008. It did enormous damage to some schools, especially in the eyes of prospective parents, but did lead to significant help from the National Strategies in both personnel support and resources. It is too early to judge whether this policy was a success, but my hunch is that ten years from now it will be seen as a courageous thing to do but the media handling could have been handled much better.

Certainly, the support the named schools and their local authorities received was excellent. This support structure has now gone, and all these primary schools are being offered is being chained into an Academy Trust, or as the DfE Press Notice puts it: “The rapid conversion of so many great schools to academies means there is now a larger pool of great schools to build chains and improve underperforming schools”. Given that most of the established chains, if they have relevant experience it will be with secondary schools, it does not bode well for these schools.

The strategy is justified because the Education Secretary has said that “Evidence shows that the academy programme has had a good effect on school standards” quoting a non-peer reviewed study by a couple of academies from the LSE. There was a time when senior officials from the education department would boast that they would never let an idea outside the department until it had been tested to destruction. Sadly, that was a long time ago.

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