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The Conservatives and Labour hold different views on the future of England’s system of school accountability by Progress 8. However, both parties’ thinking is at odds with the research evidence.

Over the last 30 years, successive governments have held secondary schools to account for their GCSE results via national school performance tables (for a review see Leckie & Goldstein, 2017). In 2016 the Conservatives replaced their longstanding ‘5A*–C’ school performance measure – the percentage of pupils with five or more GCSEs at grade C or higher – with Progress 8, a ‘value-added’ measure of the average pupil progress made between key stage 2 SATs and GCSE. This long-argued-for shift in measuring school performance reflects the fact that simple school differences in GCSE results say more about differences in the types of pupil taught in different schools than differences in the effectiveness of the education provided by those schools.

The Conservatives, however, have repeatedly stated their opposition to making any further adjustments for pupil demographic and socioeconomic characteristics, despite a substantial research literature providing evidence in favour of such adjustments. In recent research we argued that Progress 8 is fundamentally biased against schools teaching poorer and other educationally disadvantaged intakes (Leckie & Goldstein, 2019). We showed how further adjusting Progress 8 for just seven pupil background characteristics (age, gender, ethnicity, language, special educational needs, free school meals take-up and deprivation) leads the national rankings of one-fifth of schools to change by over 500 places. We also showed that over 40 per cent of schools would move out of the government’s ‘underperforming schools’ category. We encourage readers to explore the Northern Powerhouse Partnership’s interactive map of this research, which shows how the Progress 8 score of every school in the country changes after these adjustments.

Labour, in contrast, would appear more sympathetic to contextualising schools’ Progress 8 scores, especially given that the last Labour government published ‘contextual value added’, a measure that did adjust for both SATs and pupil background. Thus, from the perspective of school accountability by Progress 8, Labour’s April 2019 announcement to scrap the key stage 2 SATs seems strange. Scrapping the SATs, while potentially addressing many concerns around their deleterious effects on schools, teachers and pupils, would also remove the most important adjustment made by Progress 8 – namely, the adjustment for prior attainment. It would in effect force a reversion to judging schools by average GCSE results. In our latest research (Leckie, Prior, & Goldstein, 2019), we take up this idea and show that even if Labour were to adjust GCSE scores for pupil demographic and socioeconomic characteristics, this would be a poor alternative even relative to simply adjusting GCSE results for the SATs, let alone the preferred approach of adjusting for SATs and pupil background. Put simply, Labour’s proposal to scrap SATs could leave us with a worse school-accountability-by-results system than that of the Conservatives.

Of course, the above arguments assume that both parties’ attempts, in government over the last 30 years, to judge schools off the back of school performance table results will simply continue unaltered. This excessive reliance on these tables has raised their stakes to such an extent that there are now many well-documented perverse behaviours associated with them, and the GCSEs and SATs that underlie them.

What is needed instead is a more radical rethink of our school accountability system. While the Conservatives appear to be happy sticking with the status quo, Labour appears more keen to entertain such a move but has thus far been light on detail. The research described here suggests it would be wise for Labour to make firmer plans for any new accountability system before disassembling the current one, since in absence of any further reform, simply scrapping the SATs will result in a worse school accountability system.


This blog is based on the article ‘The implications of Labour’s plan to scrap Key Stage 2 tests for Progress 8 and secondary school accountability in England’ by George Leckie, Lucy Prior and Harvey Goldstein, which is available on arXiv.


Leckie, G. & Goldstein, H. (2017). The evolution of school league tables in England 1992–2016: ‘Contextual value‐added’, ‘expected progress’ and ‘progress 8’. British Educational Research Journal, 43(2), 193–212.

Leckie, G. & Goldstein, H. (2019). The importance of adjusting for pupil background in school value-added models: A study of Progress 8 and school accountability in England. British Educational Research Journal, 45(3), 518–537.

Leckie, G., Prior, L., & Goldstein, H. (2019). The implications of Labour’s plan to scrap Key Stage 2 tests for Progress 8 and secondary school accountability in England. arXiv: 1911.06884 [stat AP].


More content by George Leckie, Lucy Prior and Harvey Goldstein