Issue 201 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1996 Copyright Socialist Review

Feature article: Loaded dice

Chanie Rosenberg

League tables of GCSE and A level results were introduced in 1993 ostensibly to aid parental choice of school and give an incentive to raise standards through competition between schools.

As almost all the top places in the ranking order are filled by independent schools, it is obvious that they measure the school's intake rather than its achievements. They give no indication of the difference schools make to the performance of pupils what has been termed the `value added' the progress made from earlier to later attainment.

However, all sorts of other factors need to be taken into account. Between 60 to 80 percent of educational attainment including exam results can be accounted for by pupils' socio-economic background. A survey of almost all 15 and 16 year old pupils in Nottinghamshire in 1993 allots points for GCSE grades: an A gets 7 points, a B 6 and so on. The total points covering all the exam entries of each pupil are shown [see graph] first for pupils of manual parents, and then for pupils of professional parents.

The first big difference is the number of entries per pupil, 6.8 for the manual group, 8.8 for the professional group, a difference of 29 percent, giving mean scores for all subjects of 20.8 for the manual group and 43.9, more than double, for the professional group. Pupils in the manual group heavily predominate the lowest total score bracket, with only 4.3 of their number reaching the highest bracket. The very opposite is the case for pupils in the professional group. The inverse symmetry is remarkable. The social class of other pupils in the school, the proportion of intake from professional and manual backgrounds, also influences the performance of each pupil.

Social class influences performance throughout school, the advantages or disadvantages conferred being already well established by the end of primary or middle school life. Studies typically find that about half of the variation in attainment in public examinations can be predicted from, or statistically `explained' by, pupils' attainment on entry to secondary school.

Another indicator of social class is free school meals (FSM). In the Nottinghamshire survey the difference in performance of the socially disadvantaged pupils who receive FSM and those who do not closely mirrors the above results: the average score of the FSM recipients is only just over half that of the others; and they are also entered for a third fewer examinations than the others.

The survey also shows that boys dominate in the lower ranges of performance, and girls in the upper ranges. Ethnicity too has an influence. The number of pupils from ethnic minorities in the Nottinghamshire survey is small but the results are typical. The Afro-Caribbean pupils, possibly reflecting their disadvantaged class position and discrimination in teacher expectations, performed worst: their average A-C score was 19.8, examination entries 6.6, Asian pupils scored 27.9, entries 7.4; white pupils 30.2, entries 7.8.

Other factors influence a value added analysis: number of entries more pupils entered for more examinations contributes to improved performance; attendance (an obvious factor); staying on intentions those intending to stay on doing better; even date of birth September and October children who spend longest in the school before assessment do better. Also correlated with progress are characteristics of pupils' household. These include household size and adult composition, educational level of parents, parents' occupation, the level of material and social (dis)advantage in the immediate neighbourhood of the home, the wider opportunity structure including the level and character of local employment opportunities, and opportunities for further progress in education and training.

The three features most predictive of attainment are gender, FSM and, most powerfully, parental occupation social class. These three factors account for just under a third of the differences between schools' overall points score a considerable proportion of the differences in schools' overall scores.

For those fatalists who cry doom when faced with these apparently deterministic statistics, it is worth noting that pupils buck the trend in a significant number of cases by performing at the opposite extreme to that of the group as a whole. Some 12 percent of the manual group performed at the very highest levels, while 7 percent of the professional group performed at the lowest levels. Individuals, and schools, can make a difference!

The adjustments to the raw score rankings made by added value is brilliantly illustrated in a chart which shows the effect of four statistical adjustments for pupil intake on estimates of the quality of six secondary schools chosen from an education authority in which all schools are comprehensives. Individual attainment is measured here by the number of passes in public exams taken at 16, 17 or 18 by pupils who were in their final compulsory year in 1983-84. A difference of 0.2 corresponds to roughly one pass. The adjustments are for gender, ability at 12, family background, and family background of other pupils in the school.

As the Nottinghamshire research soberly comments: the basic principle of value added analysis is that schools at the extreme ends of league tables can be demonstrated to be equally effective, though they work with young people of very varied backgrounds. What a waste of financial and human resources for such an utterly spurious result!

Unfortunately the publication of league tables is not just a drain on resources. It actually distorts and damages the education system to quite an extent.

Like most of the Tory reforms which pay lip service to the primacy of parental choice, while in fact reducing it, the tables are meaningless for the large majority of families, including nearly all working class ones. The higher ranked schools are not within the bounds of their aspirations, being private, grant maintained, grammar or comprehensive in middle class areas, and likely to be oversubscribed with well motivated families who know how to get the best out of the education system. Working class parents want their children to progress at school, knowing the dice to be loaded against them being top attainers. For the vast majority of those for whom the league tables were supposed to be designed, parents, they are a waste of money and resources.

A damaging side effect of the scramble for high places emerged from the 1996 GCSE entries, which `lost' about 90,000 pupils about one in seven of 16 year olds who left school without any qualifications at all. Some failed, some did not complete the coursework or turn up for the exam, but up to 50,000 of this number were not entered for the GCSE exam at all.

Comparative international studies rate post 16 performance by English pupils the equal of anywhere. At the same time they show that before that age there is a `long tail' of academic under achievement. The high fliers have always done well in the English educational system, the children at the bottom of the heap have been failed by the system. These are overwhelmingly working class children.

Whatever talk there may be of `equality of opportunity', the government has succeeded in preserving the class system of education, and even enhancing it. The major class division of private and state schooling is rigidly maintained, and in the maintained sector the government has chipped away at the benefit working class children may have derived from the common GCSE exam started in 1988, which saw an annual rise in the pass rate.

Course work, accounting for at least 25 percent of marks, and in some subjects all marks, was drastically reduced in 1992 to account for no more than 20 percent of the marks in any subject. This disadvantaged working class children for whom the continuous assessment of course work more readily maintained their motivation over the two years, and improved their performance. Then the starred A (A*) was introduced to further separate the high fliers from the rest. With the league tables the numbers of top grades A-C became the criterion of excellence, neatly redividing the GCSE once again into the equivalent of the O level and CSE it was set up to replace, with the non-A-C achievers relegated firmly to the scrapheap. The relegation is exacerbated by schools concentrating resources on D grade students, hopefully to move them up to A-C grades, which in maintained schools means neglecting the poorer students who more urgently need the reinforcement.

Return to Contents page: Return to Socialist Review Index Home page