Headteachers in Sheffield schools got a big pat on the back this week when new league tables revealed how much progress is being made by the city’s children.
Sheffield is the best performing core city in England when using the new Progress 8 measure that calculates the progress students make between leaving primary school and finishing their GCSEs.
Only two of the city’s secondary schools failed to meet the Progress 8 requirement, which is calculated by a series of data-driven equations so mind-bogglingly baffling that I’ve yet to meet a classroom teacher who can explain it without going cross-eyed and foaming at the mouth.
Basically, schools get a number. If the school gets a “0” it means the students are making average progress. Above zero, and the kids have made better than average progress. So these schools are off the hook. If your result is below -0.5, you’re below the floor standard and so keep your eye on the car park because the OFSTED inspectors will be round shortly to wreak havoc, drive teachers to the doctors and ruin careers.
Floor standard? This is easily explained by the government’s own website: “In 2016 (or 2015 for those schools that chose to opt in a year early), a school will be below the floor standard if its Progress 8 score is below -0.5, and the upper band of the 95% confidence interval is below zero.”
Confused? Well, let’s delve a little more into this mathematical madness. The calculation of a child’s Progress 8 measure (which isn’t shared with parents, by the way, probably because it’s meaningless), is based on something called the Fine Level. This is a method of calculating where a child is at when they finish Year 6.
The Fine Level is just one figure. Your child might come out as a 4.7, or maybe 4.8. Perhaps they’re a 5.1, who knows? But the Progress 8 measure takes their combined knowledge and understanding aged 11, puts it into a mathematical mincing machine and out pops one number to represent your child’s first six years in education.
This one number, which doesn’t reflect weaknesses or specialisms in any particular subject, is then used to measure their progress against English, maths, languages, humanities and vocational subjects. But it’s OK, because each of these subjects also has a computer-driven formula to make sure the end result is fair, even if it’s not understood. By anybody.
It’s number-crunching, dystopian data-driven madness when the main league tables of our education system turn students into single digits and calculate their achievements in ways too confusing to share with parents.
Councillors are right to come out and celebrate the results of Sheffield schools, as I have done before in this column, because it does show that teachers in this city are doing a good job. But at what cost?
While head teachers are gaining wrinkles and losing hair over Progress 8 calculations, they pass pressure on to the classroom teachers. These same classroom teachers know they have to get Jonny a “C” and Bianca a “B” for them to make the required progress, so the pressure is passed to the students.
This pressure, which is heightened by the numerical nonsense of Progress 8, comes from the top. And every time it is mentioned, every time it is brought out as a threat, every time it is changed and every time the goal posts are moved, the whole system is squeezed like a sponge so that all levels feel the pressure.
Pressure turns into stress. And so in this country today we have teachers dealing with more cases of teenage mental health than ever before. Suicidal thoughts are not uncommon among young people studying for their GCSEs. Tutors deal with cases of self-harm on a daily basis. Eating disorders are on the increase. Depression and low self-esteem are things that go hand in hand with teenage life in 2017.
It’s not all down to school pressures, of course, but the heightened urgency to achieve certainly plays a part.
And where, dear data lovers, are the league tables showing the schools with the best child welfare? Where are the calculations to show how happy our children are? Where are the councillors praising schools with the best records of mental health? Progress? What progress?