I feel like I’m hearing a lot about progress recently, and not just from “Progress 8.” More and more, our dialogue about education seems infused with progress – first there was “progress within a lesson,” now, progress over time. And what’s not to like? Clearly, the children in our care should be moving on, and improving day to day, year upon year.
And once I think I would have welcomed this: our focus on the C/D borderline, driven by league tables and a desperate need to stay afloat with budgets tied to student numbers, seemed to ignore both the top and the lowest achievers.
Or did it? In the fortunate position of working in small schools, in my experience we’ve always focused on pushing every child, even the lowest achievers, over the C-threshhold that will undeniably open more doors to them. I’ve written about how in my school 95% of students walked away with a C or above in English Language – and that my biggest regret is the 5% we didn’t get, when I knew it was possible. In my previous school, that figure was 98% last year – I wish someone would write more about that! (Caroline, Lizzie… I’m looking at you!) Moreover, the top were not left to languish; in my new school’s last year 11 cohort 35% achieved A or A* grades.
My problem with progress is not concerned with the top achievers. Any measure forcing schools to also stretch those with high prior attainment seems sensible. My problem with progress is when turning an F into an E carries the same incentives as turning it into a higher benchmark.
Cognitively speaking, I can’t find evidence that any child is not capable of achieving a C in English; all I can find evidence of is that they’re not capable yet. Some students need more time; through a variety of factors, whether that be poor attendance (so often linked to other social issues) or being in the early stages of learning English, or else labeling with any of the various acronyms denoting their ‘difficulties’ with learning. All this tells me is that they need more time, more attention, more intervention. And we need higher expectations.
Too often, students coming into secondary school with low prior attainment are victims of a social system which engrains disadvantage and ensures a cycle of poverty, and of an educational system not yet advanced enough to work through those gaps in their learning. The problem with progress, for me, is the potential there is to further engrain this problem, so that we end up fulfilling the low expectations society has had for certain children from birth.
I’m not sure I can ascribe to a system where an equivalent D represents a good thing. I’m tired of people telling me “that’s a huge achievement for that student,” because it might be, but we can do better; they can do better. We need to have bigger ambitions of our own ability to transform the life chances of every single child; not just the borderline children, of all children. In the new 9 to 1 system, I need to know what represents the ticket to the future, so I can ensure all students achieve it.
We don’t have to look far to see schools which are coming close to ensuring that all their students have access to any life they could desire; King Solomon Academy in London has used high expectations and epic amounts of work to secure useful outcomes for almost every student in their care. Then, of course, there are America’s high performing Charter Schools which send every child to university.
The problem with progress is when it comes with a lack of an end game. It is the kind of word which makes it acceptable for professionals to say: “we can’t change society/the welfare system/the class system/the parents” – when in fact we can change the outcome, and overturn the whole.