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Sam Freedman: Ed Balls finally gets something right

Freedmansam Sam Freedman is Head of Policy Exchange’s Education Unit.

Finally, only sixteen months into the job, Schools’ Secretary Ed Balls gets something right. After the summer exam marking fiasco, the slow destruction of the integrity of the academies programme, the disastrous “National Challenge” and the row over admissions codes, it had to happen eventually.

It’s hard to imagine anyone will disagree with yesterday’s headline announcement that the pointless Key Stage 3 SATs for fourteen year olds are to be scrapped. When the Conservatives and the NUT are in agreement it’s safe to say there’s consensus. It should have happened long ago. Their only value over the past few years has been to keep the tally of the numbers of children let down by our current school system: this year 180,000 children failed to achieve minimum standards in either reading or writing in the tests. Perhaps that’s what convinced Balls to scrap them.

Possibly more significant in the long run, though, is the DCSF’s second announcement yesterday, on the way information about schools will be provided to parents in the future and follows a proposal made by Policy Exchange earlier this year. In a report in March (“Helping Schools Succeed”) we recommended that the ridiculously complex set of league tables through which schools are made nominally accountable to parents should be replaced by a simple grading or traffic light system – as used in New York and Alberta. We found that even education experts couldn’t explain to us how to correctly analyse the “value added” results in the league tables. Seven months later the DCSF have announced that they agree. Instead of league tables, schools will simply be graded A-F. As we recommended, the information used to derive these grades will include exam results but also ‘pupil well-being’. This will make it far easier for parents to make decisions about schools – an important pre-requisite, it should be noted, for Michael Gove’s plans to introduce the Swedish “free schools” model in England.

Apparently a White Paper will be presented next Spring containing full proposals. Policy Exchange will certainly make some additional recommendations during the consultation phase. For a start, the information behind the A-F grades should include exam performance over time, not just year by year – that way we can focus on whether schools are improving or not rather than relying on a snapshot of one years’ performance. The absurdity of using results from a single moment in time has been fully illustrated by the “National Challenge”, which condemned as a failure any school where fewer than 30% of pupils achieved five good GCSEs including English and Maths. Schools scoring fewer than 30% last year but higher this year still don’t know if they will continue to be classed as National Challenge schools. Secondly, we will be suggesting to the DCSF that they take into account not just pupil well-being when assigning grades but also a measure of parental satisfaction, so that schools start to treat parents as consumers rather than a nuisance to be ignored. Hopefully the department will keep listening to us. And hopefully Ed Balls will now embark on a series of inspired initiatives to transform our school system by harnessing the power of non-state providers. I won’t hold my breath, though.

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