Progress 8, Whole Education and why less may be more

Last week I was lucky enough to attend a Whole Education conference at Shireland Collegiate Academy in Birmingham where the hot topics of Progress 8, the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) and life without levels were explored. The resounding message of the day was the call to ‘do what kids need, not what we think others want to see’.

The day began with an overview of the Literacy for Life curriculum that forms the basis of the fully integrated Key Stage 3 curriculum at the host school. Dedicated staff teams deliver a thematic based curriculum for the majority of the week. Technology and flipped learning is at the heart of their methodology. The focus is on developing and assessing competencies, with the highest competency levels only achievable through collaborative working and helping others. This is a school curriculum that recognises the need to develop skills and personal qualities alongside knowledge and one very much in line with ASDAN’s philosophy.

Whole Education chair, Sir John Dunford’s keynote speech picked up on this theme. The school curriculum is much bigger than the National Curriculum and should ensure that young people are work ready, life ready and ready for further study. Performance measures create perverse incentives and drive the curriculum unless we are prepared to do what we believe to be right for every student.

Powerful bodies share his thinking. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission in England states that schools need to focus on developing wider skills alongside improving academic attainment, and highlights the importance of ‘preparing students for all aspects of life, not just exams… supporting the development of character and other non-cognitive aspects of personality that underpin learning’.

John Cridland, the previous CBI Director General, shares this view: “Employers seek school leavers who do not just possess a clutch of examination passes but are rounded and grounded. Emphasis on exams and league tables has produced a conveyor belt rather than what I would want education to be – an escalator.”

And Andreas Schleicher of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development argues: “Today, schooling now needs to be much more about ways of thinking, involving creativity, critical thinking, problem solving and decision-making.”

So, will Progress 8 encourage and enable teachers to help students develop these skills and prepare them for life after exams? Well, that depends on how brave we are! Although the aim of Progress 8 and the EBacc is for a broad and balanced curriculum for all, pushing all children through EBacc subjects may cause them to do worse overall. The Department for Education (DfE), in their ‘Progress 8 measure in 2016, 2017, and 2018’ paper published in January, states that the ‘number of qualifications each pupil should enter remains a professional judgement led by what best meets the needs of an individual’. The DfE recognises that ‘it may benefit some less able pupils to work towards good grades (and hence score more points) in fewer subjects, with the emphasis on doing well in English and mathematics, rather than to take more subjects but achieve lower grades overall’.

Whole Education’s research supports this recommendation and shows that lower prior attainment students forced to do a high number of subjects do less well. Students get higher grades if they do fewer subjects. Doing a subject they really enjoy and that engages them may help them do better in other subjects. So the DfE and Whole Education are recommending that we should be offering courses appropriate to the needs and interests of our learners even if they do not fit into one of the Progress 8 baskets.

So how can ASDAN help? Research conducted by the University of the West of England demonstrated that students who do CoPE, the Certificate of Personal Effectiveness, are 11% more likely to get an A* to C grade in English and 19% more likely to get five good GCSE grades including English and Maths. The impact of CoPE is greatest for learners with situational or educational disadvantage, in other words those most likely to have lower prior attainment. ASDAN offers a broad, balanced, exciting and engaging range of curriculum programmes – programmes that develop the skills employers are crying out for. Senior leaders just need to be prepared to do what is best for our young people rather than focusing on perverse measures. In the words of Sir Mark Grundy, Executive Principal of Shireland Collegiate Academy: “We need to take risks, be brave and do the best for the kids!”

Author: Karen Hudspith, ASDAN Development Manager

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