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Scrap "Contextual Value Added" measures for schools

Seaton Nick Seaton of the Campaign for Real Education says CVA measures for schools offer a cover for failure

Everyone involved with education at local level will have come up against 'contextual value added' (CVA) measures of school performance. But how many question such manipulated statistics as they should?

In January this year, Bristol University's left-leaning Centre for Market and Public Organisation published a paper, The Limitations of Using School League Tables to Inform School Choice by George Leckie and Harvey Goldstein.

It needs a maths degree to understand it fully, but no matter. The general thrust is that because the system now uses pupils' test results when they were 11-years-old and the same pupils' exam results
when they are 16 or 18, performance tables are a poor measure of school performance. In the years between, it is argued, a bad school may have become a good school and vice versa.

The catch, of course, is that it is not tables of raw test and exam results that are at fault. It's the way raw results are manipulated by the CVA process, then presented to suggest an under-performing school
is better than it is.

CVA  is  a handy tool for officials, headteachers and politicians to justify their  ineffectiveness. It also allows ideologically driven members of the establishment  to attack good schools (especially grammar schools) on the grounds that their success is due to the 'privileged' nature of their pupil intake.

Concerns about CVA revolve round the unreliability of the complicated mathematical formulae it uses to estimate the results youngsters should achieve when they take their GCSEs or A-levels.  Instead of
emphasising real results, it manipulates them and measures schools on whether or not they achieve their concocted targets.

This manipulation takes several variables into account: gender, age within cohort, eligibility for free school meals (FSM), special educational needs, ethnicity, English as a second language and income deprivation.

Implicit here, of course, is the idea that a child who suffers from any form of social deprivation (such as being a boy!) should not be expected to do well at school.

The FSM measure has always been questionable, because self-reliant families rarely claim such benefits even when they could. The Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) has gone some way to acknowledging this. Its Guidance for Local Authorities on Revising and Resubmitting Expressions of Interest in Building Schools for the Future, DCSF, September 2008, says: 'For social need, we will now use
the Tax Credit Indicator (TCI) rating for the school. This responds to several comments that the previous proxy, eligibility for Free School Meals, often does not, for local and cultural reasons, fully reflect social deprivation.'  Do they know each family's income anyway?

Reporting recently on some of these developments, the Times Educational Supplement (27 February 2009) quoted  Professor Goldstein, who described CVA measures as 'at best misleading, at worst dishonest.' Professor Stephen Gorard of Birmingham University, who writes sensibly on the subject, advised that CVA measures provide 'no basis for making policy, rewarding heads, condemning teachers or
closing schools.'

Despite all this, CVA is regularly used by Ofsted, and local authority inspectors and officials, when advising elected members.

But aren't schools funded and run for the benefit of their pupils, not those who work in the system?  What matters to youngsters and their families are the raw results they personally achieve, not whether their school has reached some politically-driven target.

Each year, millions of taxpayers' pounds are wasted compiling CVA tables. Isn't it time to save some money? Have simple, honest statistics? And, incidentally, consider the true value of different exam subjects?

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