Has Nick Gibb won the education battle?

The schools minister backs traditional teaching methods. But do they actually improve results? Schools Week investigates

The schools minister backs traditional teaching methods. But do they actually improve results? Schools Week investigates

Nick Gibb
Long read

Schools with traditional education methods dominated the top of last month’s league tables, prompting a piece in The Times declaring that “stricter schools get better results”.

So has Nick Gibb, a staunch proponent of such approaches, won the education war? Schools Week investigates

“Academisation and free schools work,” wrote Mark Lehain last month, the former special adviser who soon after returned to the fold with the education secretary.

“More rigorous curriculums and exams work. Explicit approaches to behaviour and teaching work.”

The comment echoed many from proponents of traditional approaches after the publication of last year’s progress 8 league tables, where some of the highest-flyers were schools with strong traditionalist values.

So does it stack up?

Schools Week has established that at least 10 of the top 20 schools are “traditional”, although it could be higher as it is essentially a subjective judgment.

But some of the best-performing schools are clearly in this category.

Michaela Community School in west London topped the progress 8 tables with a score of 2.37 (which means pupils achieve more than two grades better per subject than pupils with similar prior attainment at the end of primary school).

Led by Katharine Birbalsingh, often labelled “Britain’s strictest headteacher”, the school is renowned for its silent corridors, no SEND labels and detentions for failing to have a pen.

‘We’re doing the best we can for children’

Mercia School in Sheffield – dubbed by some as the “Michaela of the north” – came third with a progress score of 2.22.

The school day runs until 5pm every day except Friday, when pupils finish at 3.45pm.

Mark Lehain
Mark Lehain

Dean Webster, its head, describes its approach as “warm-strict”, but added there was often a “stigma” around traditional schools.

“Ultimately all we are ever doing is doing the best by children and we are achieving that. It changes lives and the grades that they get is the passport for the next phase of their life.”

Lehain, in a blog last month for the online newspaper CapX, said the results were “yet more vindication” of the Conservative’s education reforms.

He also said “many of the schools who have explicitly and publicly rejected these traditional approaches in favour of progressive ones are doing far worse than average”.

Some progressive schools get low scores

Again, identifying a list is difficult. But one of the flagship progressive schools is School 21, a free school in east London co-founded by Peter Hyman, Keir Starmer’s current senior adviser.

School 21, downgraded from ‘outstanding’ to ‘requires improvement’ earlier this year, had a progress score of -0.32, which is classed as “average”.

The school did not comment. But its website states it “operates with the conviction that schools need to ensure a focus on head (academic success), heart (character and well-being) and hand (generating ideas, problem-solving, making a difference)”.

Two Doncaster secondary schools at XP School Trust, also well-known for its progressive approach, had “well below average” scores of -0.64 at XP East and -0.58 at XP School.

Its website states the trust “believes that our children deserve a three-dimensional education focused on academic performance, character growth and beautiful work”. The trust declined to comment.

Progress scores favour certain cohorts

But there is a big caveat: schools with certain pupil cohorts tend to do better in progress.

Jo Hutchinson
Jo Hutchinson

Jo Hutchinson, the director for SEND at the Education Policy Institute (EPI), said these “limitations” meant results varied “considerably by a range of factors that are outside the school’s control”.

For instance, the average score for pupils with English as an additional language was 0.51, compared with -0.12 for non-EAL.

Out of the top 50 progress 8 schools, 36 had above-average levels of EAL pupils.

Michaela and Tauheedul Islam Girls’ High School in Blackburn, the two highest-performing progress schools in the country, had just shy of 70 per cent of EAL youngsters. The national average is 18.1 per cent.

Faith schools a factor

FFT Datalab said some pupils would have recently arrived in the country when they took their SATs in year 6, so their results “may not have been a fair reflection of their attainment” at the time.

If you exclude these pupils, the differences are actually down to ethnicity. For instance, there is a wide progress gap between black Caribbean EAL and non-EAL pupils, while there is to no gap for Chinese students in both groups.

Faith schools were also a factor, Hutchinson said. The EPI researchers found in 2016 that faith schools had more pupils achieving five A*s to C than non-faith schools. The same applies to progress 8.

Results seem to back this up. Faith schools make up 34 of the top 50 progress 8 schools, despite accounting for just one in five secondary schools nationally.

In fact, just three of the top 10 schools are non-faith based. That includes Mercia. “You could argue … that if you are a family that has faith then the values of schools like ours, that are traditional, fit with those family values and the offer is attractive,” said Webster.

Top schools have fewer SEND pupils

EPI researchers put the difference down to faith schools tending to have fewer disadvantaged children and pupils with SEND.

Traditional schools also face this criticism. Their strict approaches to behaviour are sometimes not inclusive for children with additional needs and can result in them moving to other schools, critics say.

Eleven of the top 50 progress schools are grammars, which have far fewer disadvantaged pupils than average. But even excluding these, 24 of the remaining 39 schools have below average numbers of poorer children.

Michaela is one of the few that has more (31.1 per cent across the school compared to a 27.1 per cent England average).

Michaela School
Michaela School

But Dave Thomson, chief statistician at FFT Datalab, said progress 8 scores in some schools were “so high that even if you take into account that they are girls’ schools or that some groups of pupils, such as EAL pupils, perform slightly better, the differences are so great it’s not just down to that.

“It could be down to teaching and learning. But it could also be down to other external factors such as parental support and tutoring.”

Calls for ‘informed accountability’

Rebecca Boomer-Clark
Rebecca Boomer Clark

In 2019, researchers at the University of Bristol created an “adjusted” progress 8 to re-weight a pupil’s score according to factors such as their ethnicity, free school eligibility and gender.

In their alternate performance tables, published by the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, 41 per cent of schools deemed to be underperforming or “well below average” moved out of that category.

Researcher professor George Leckie said they would re-run the measure next year. He expected a “greater reordering of schools now than pre-pandemic, because schools in harsher circumstances have fallen further behind.

“It’s not that the quality of teaching has worsened, it’s the multiple challenges and struggles of the student body. There’s a greater need.”

Becks Boomer-Clark, the chief executive of the Academies Enterprise Trust, asked “how to overlay” factors such as SEND, disadvantage and location on top of progress 8 to get a “more nuanced and accurate understanding of the added value that a school is providing”.

Calls for a ‘balanced scorecard’

Jonny Uttley, the chief executive officer at The Education Alliance, said a single measure allows people to “obsess about it” and “try and score political points”.

He said a “balanced scorecard”, which included contextual data alongside progress 8, would be more suitable.

Jonny Uttley
Jonny Uttley

Rob Tarn, the chief executive at the Northern Education Trust, cautioned contextualising could lead to “lower expectations in more vulnerable schools”. But he supported the idea of a dashboard of various measures.

“What we need is a more grown-up, broader view of school performance.”

Labour did not respond to comment on whether it would add more context into progress 8. But the party has announced plans to hold schools to account for performance in at least one creative or vocational subject.

The DfE said there were “no current plans” to include a new contextual value-added measure.

progress 8 was designed to “encourage schools to offer a broad and balanced curriculum, with a strong focus on an academic core”.

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  1. Chris Bentley

    The assertion that traditional schools produce better outcomes is at best disingenuous and reveals the cretinously low level of discernment being employed by Mr Gibb & Co.
    The overall experience of many children has become increasingly impoverished thanks to a misguided belief that everything must be subordinate to the 3 RS, condemning thousands of pupils to a boring, sterile, fact based, non-practical educational diet, which constantly judges them as not good enough. Within these ranks are many wonderful young people with huge potential and incredible talents whom we are depriving of a proper education that really does allow each pupil to demonstrate and realise their potential. Move over Mr Gibbs. Move over Ofsted and let’s start growing our youngsters instead of force feeding them

    • Spot on Chris. We have lost over 40 years of education because of the kind of approach that’s led us to where we are: terminal examinations, silo’d departments, highest ever rates of poor mental health and absenteeism amongst total failure to develop skills, lateral thinking and integrated multi disciplinary learning. Result a loss of creativity and a workforce ill equipped for the 21st Century.
      We have a system where some subjects like Engineering have disappeared and one
      that trains children how to pass exams in a narrow line spectrum of knowledge and skills rather than to be able think creativity and become independent learners. It’s a system dominated by competition; children, departments, teachers and schools all compeat whereas education is better as a collaborative process. In industry people work collaboratively in teams. Children think and learn in different ways Mr Gibb, a proponent of Singapore cramming, with it’s reportedly high rates of suicidal students, has created a system where the criteria for success are focused on a relatively small window of knowledge that only suits a relatively small number of students. Schools that highly regiment children and have children who are bright with educated and supportive parents are seen as successful, but their success is only on a very narrow platform.