Exclusive: Ofsted to penalise schools for ‘gaming’ league tables

Schools must choose qualifications for the benefit of pupils, not to climb the rankings, warns inspectorate

Ofsted is to crack down on league table “gaming” and mark down schools that use qualifications for their own benefit rather than focusing on the needs of pupils, a senior official at the inspectorate has told TES.

Sean Harford, Ofsted’s national education director, has been alarmed to read that the PiXL Club – a partnership of more than 1,500 schools – has been advising its members to enter entire cohorts for obscure qualifications so that they perform better on the new Progress 8 performance measure. He believes that this could amount to “gaming” that “will affect pupils’ long-term prospects”.

PiXL has always argued that its advice benefits pupils because it allows them to pass more exams. But in an exclusive interview with TES, Mr Harford has revealed that schools that follow such advice could find themselves marked down on crucial pupil outcomes and leadership judgments when Ofsted inspects.

“If a school specifically puts whole cohorts of children in to do certain qualifications just to score points, not for the learning experience of young people…that clearly would be reflected in the outcomes judgement,” he said.

“[We’d] look at the part of the curriculum judgement that is within the leadership and management as to whether an appropriate curriculum was being put on for those young people. If schools are choosing to do certain things that just get them points rather than for the benefit of the children and their futures, we will take that into account and make their judgement appropriately.”

‘Distorted’ measures

Mr Harford said that Ofsted inspectors would be trained next term to take an “even sharper look” at the qualifications schools used and to check whether they “distorted” the Progress 8 measure for their own ends. He is also seeking a meeting with PiXL (Partners in Excellence) about the advice that it offers schools.

The official raised his concerns after reading a blog that Tom Sherrington, head of Highbury Grove School, Islington, north London, wrote following a PiXL meeting last month.

Mr Sherrington reported that heads were advised to enter whole cohorts for qualifications like AS levels in use of maths and creative writing, and the European Computer Driving Licence, to maximise their Progress 8 scores.

Mr Harford took to Twitter to write how “depressing” it was to read about this “gaming”. “The sad thing is that pupils could end up doing [qualifications] that suit neither their abilities [nor] their aspirations,” he wrote. “That’s a really big issue for me.”

Paul Hammond, PiXL’s eastern regional organiser, defended the organisation on Twitter, writing: “Difficult to see who loses out if kids get listed qualifications and headteachers keep their jobs.”

But Mr Harford responded: “Depends on whether the qualifications are right for the pupil, or just right for the school’s scores.”

Now he has outlined what Ofsted will do if it finds schools in such a situation. “If we believe the Progress 8 measure is being distorted by the chosen qualifications we wouldn’t give it as much weight as we might have done,” Mr Harford told TES. “We will have to say, ‘Look, we will look at the other measures with a bit more weight and look at the progress of pupils and say: is the historical data reflective of that? What’s changed?’” He added: “It would mean we’d look at other outcomes and ignore the Progress 8 score if it was clear they had manipulated it in some way.”

Sir John Rowling, chair of PiXL, told TES that he did not want to comment directly about criticisms of PiXL’s work, as he had arranged to meet with Mr Harford next week to discuss the issue. But he added: “We are wholeheartedly behind Ofqual and Ofsted in any work they do to find people who are abusing the system.” He did not believe, however, that the problem was widespread.

@kayewiggins

This is an article from the 8 April edition of TES. This week’s TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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