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News

Suffolk has interpreted schools data upside down: Cambridge research says

Some Middle Schools achieving KS3 results a whole year ahead of Secondary Schools, study reveals

Feb 7, 2007

The research done by Suffolk County Council to "prove" the superiority of two-tier schools over three-tier can equally well be used to show the opposite, a new piece of research from Cambridge University's Faculty of Education shows.

"the data put forward by the Suffolk Review (2006), aimed to promote the advantages of a two over three tier
system, can be equally used to indicate that the three tier system may actually be outperforming the two tier system with regards to transfer," says the paper, by PhD student Jenny Symonds.

A key argument put forward by Suffolk is that the "sag" in school performance shown by pupils when they change schools is exacerbated by having to change schools twice in the three-tier system.

However, as Symonds points out: "A large number of American studies state that declines are more likely caused by features of post-transfer school environments rather than by the act of changing schools."

"this paper argues that from the basis of very similar SATS results between the two and three tier systems, despite experiencing two transfers, pupils moving into middle and upper schools may experience less declines than their secondary school counterparts," Symonds writes.

Drawing on American research, she argues that many local authorities in Britain have mis-identified the problem with school transfers, concentrating on orientation programmes and "cross-over units of work".

"However the real problem may lie in the very nature of secondary and middle school environments," she writes. "Steps towards improving these environments should replace the focus on isolating the process of
transfer as responsible for declines."

Ambiguous Data

The arbitrary test point at Keystage Two set by the National Curriculum (and possibly soon to be abolished, as the government again reviews its education strategy) inherently favours two-tier education, because it comes at the end of six continuous years of schooling in that system. But as both Labour ministers and their shadow Tory counterparts have increasingly become aware, education is not about arbitrary tests, but about the whole process.

As Symonds says: "At present, there is no nationally published measure that gives an equivalent assessment of the overall effectiveness of middle schools, therefore, public judgements are made by using ambiguous data."

Arguing that GCSE is probably the only effective comparison of the two school systems, Symonds notes that:

"Perhaps surprisingly, from Annex 9 of the Suffolk Review (2006), it clearly shows that when using contextual value added data (CVA), Suffolk upper school pupils have better overall GCSE results than their secondary school counterparts (33% of upper schools being below the national average of GCSE G-A* grades compared to 40% of secondary schools). Although not quite as many upper school pupils obtain five GCSE C-A* grades, this may again be related to their higher CVA."

These statistics are ignored in the main body of the Suffolk report.

She goes on to note that preliminary data from school which have piloted a "condensed" version of Keystage Three (SKS3) appear to indicate that Middle Schools are achieving results in Year Eight that are a whole year ahead of two-tier secondary schools in Year Nine.

Meanwhile:

"As pupils progress into GCSE, the distance between the systems reverses with upper schools obtaining slightly more GCSE grades overall. This may indicate that upper school environments can also quickly reduce declines following transfer, or that they incur less declines initially. Both of these features may be present in the three tier system, and need further investigation before any claims on middle and upper school effectiveness can be made."

Enough said.

(emphasis added throughout)

Read the whole paper here