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A prospect of buckets and baskets

10 February 2017

Dennis Richards foresees some of the educational obscurities of 2017

AS WE returned to school in the New Year, it was hard to avoid the feeling that some kind of crunch was coming. Ideas and proposed policies are floating about, but what is the Government’s plan?

Apparently, “Grammar schools do not mean grammar schools.” Per­­haps the Prime Minister means that there should be “soft” selection rather than “hard” selection. Bring­ing this reform about, in the teeth of opposition from just about every­body in education, will indeed be a remarkable feat. The support she will undoubtedly receive from Nigel Farage and his supporters may not be welcome.

The mantra “Grammar schools are popular with parents” works only up to a point. That point is usually when children reach the age of nine, and the vast majority of parents suddenly realise that their own offspring will not pass the selection test.


THE good news for faith schools is that Mrs May said that she wants to see more of them; the grammar-school furore allowed that one to slip past unnoticed. It will be interesting to see how far the Church of England’s education supremo, the Revd Nigel Genders, and his team succeed in their aim of creating 500 new C of E free schools.

The last leap forward was the opening of scores of new C of E schools after the publication of the late Lord Dearing’s seminal report The Way Ahead, in 2001. Any expansion will be met by the usual chorus of opposition from Accord and the British Humanist Associa­tion, but their case will be even less credible than it was then. Most new Church of England schools are in areas of high deprivation, and the Church has taken over several where everybody else has tried and failed.


AN IMPORTANT aspect of the 2017 agenda will focus on a new method of assessment and reporting the results to the public: in other words, interpreting the league tables. Called, mysteriously, Pro­gress 8, this is about the 45th attempt to make the league tables “fairer” by taking into account other factors. Applied to the football Premier League, Hull City would be champions, and Chelsea relegated. Somebody should explain it to the Hull City Board. They began the New Year by sacking their manager — again.

Progress 8 is the most baffling and complex scheme in the history of assessment. Try it. You may need a stiff drink first. According to the Department for Education (DfE), “Progress 8 is a pupil’s Attainment 8 score, minus their estimated Attain­ment 8 score.” A school’s Progress 8 score is calculated as the average of its pupils’ progress in a range of eight subjects. The Department for Education says: “For all pupils nationally, the average Progress 8 score will be zero.” Statisticians love a big round zero. In reality, it means the school has met its target if it gets zero. Parents and governors may take some convincing.

In the Progress 8 system, some subjects carry more weight than others. They are now classified by their status in the curriculum into three “buckets”; or, in some schools, “baskets”. Both terms have some unfortunate connotations: “He’s a real basket case,” for example. Mind you, “kicking the bucket” would be even worse.

Religious Education, in spite of its popularity, has not made it into the Premier League of Bucket 1, which is solely reserved for English and Maths, which score double points. Neither is RE included in the E-Bacc prestige Bucket 2. Instead, it’s with the also-rans in Bucket 3, a sort of “best of the rest” option.

For faith schools, however, it still offers a marvellous opportunity, not just to score some valuable extra points for the school, but also to make it credible, and even enjoy­able. In schools that value RE, it could be a winner.


ONE move this year is certain. Tech­­­nology will continue to ad­­vance, leaving me in its wake. For example, I recently heard a col­league speaking in soothing tones to Alexa. This was worrying on two counts: he does not speak like that; and his partner is not called Alexa. Then the tone changes: “Volume down,” he says in an authoritative tone.

All became clear. He was using the latest gizmo, the new Echo Dot voice-recognition system. There are, it would seem, a few teething pro­blems: Alexa can get confused. If she mishears the instruction, her jokes can be “iffy”.

Predictive text is equally dan­ger­ous. A diary anecdote in The Times said that a churchwarden, Christine Armstrong, was asked to let the vicar, who was on holiday, know how his locum had performed at morning service. “Rex was great this morning,” was her intended text. Unfortunately, the first “R” auto­matically transposed itself to an “S”. The vicar allegedly con­gratulated her on her exertions. Happy New Year.


Dennis Richards is a former head of St Aidan’s C of E High School, Harrogate, North Yorkshire.

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