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There has been a great deal of attention paid to Mr Gove’s long predicted move to scrap some BTecs and reduce the league table value of the rest to one GCSE (from as many as four). But what will be the result in terms of secondary school priorities? Looking at payment by results (PBR) systems might be a useful starting point for debate.

PBR schemes in which the payment is connected to a specific outcome will tend to see clients divided into three groups. I’m sure there are other terminologies, but these groups could be called ‘the cream’, the people who would have achieved the outcome (getting a job, staying out of prison etc) without any support, ‘the core’, who may be more likely to meet the outcome or meet it more quickly as a result of support and ‘the hard cases’, who are unlikely to achieve the outcome without a level of support which is unfeasible given the terms of the contract.

Cream skimming and parking (what is done with the hard cases) don’t happen because contract providers are bad people, they are the inevitable consequence of certain PBR systems. The main way to avoid these tactics is to move from a focus on a specific outcome to ‘direction of travel’ measures. In this approach the provider doesn’t get much money for the employment of cream clients but can get a payment for getting a hard case to, say, attend a literacy course. For several years the view among employment policy makers has been that this direction of travel is dangerous; leading to providers putting core clients on access courses of dubious value but never getting them anywhere near a job.

Schools aren’t paid by results but they are paid for places. The number of pupils they attract and the status of the school and its staff depend on key performance measures. Mr Gove and Alison Wolf have today repeated the allegation that many schools have pushed pupils into BTecs of dubious value because they are an easy way to lift a school’s GCSEs score. However, both have had to admit the evidence is circumstantial; lots more pupils do vocational qualifications like BTecs and as this isn’t in children’s best interests  – according to Gove and Wolf – schools must be guilty of putting their institutional needs above the interests of pupils.

My own experience suggests that the motivation is somewhat more complex. Schools encourage less academic pupils to take courses which they may find more engaging and in which they have more chance of success and the welcome by-product of this strategy has been – until now – that it helps with the GCSE score. A more charitable interpretation of school behaviour might have been a bit better for staff room morale but it wouldn’t have made such good headlines.

But there is a perverse incentive I have frequently seen at play. It lies in the power of the five GCSEs (including Maths and English) target. This clearly encourages many schools, particularly those worried about their overall OFSTED ranking, to focus resources (for example, small group and Saturday top up classes) on those at the border line of attaining the magic five (rather than those who could get many more or have no chance of making the threshold). This incentive remains in place. Indeed, as Mr Gove presses harder on attainment of the EBac  - in which there are five required subjects not just two - the key measure of school performance, the channelling of resources into the borderline pupils may be accentuated.

The latest school performance tables offer a lot more information in a more accessible form than before. I particularly welcome the information about how low, medium and high attainers have done based on their level leaving primary school. This is a direction of travel measure; the top-line school rankings have for some time combined absolute and progression targets, but the latter are made more vivid in the new performance information.

The excellent Conor Ryan has suggested that the proliferation of measures could cloud rather than enhance accountability. He may be right, but, then again, perhaps a more pluralist approach in which different schools can pursue different measures of success would be good. (Although the hard part of choosing something other than headline GCSEs is persuading parents to shift their focus from this measure.)

My point is slightly different. I agree with Mr Gove, Professor Wolf and many others that if vocational qualifications are weak and equivalences unjustified then something should be done. But just because Government removes one allegedly perverse incentive doesn’t mean everything now lines up in a natural and benign way. It would be very interesting to see from Government an analysis of how they think the different measures now applied to schools will affect how schools use resources and guide pupils.

The fear about the EBac - that it will increase the proportion of pupils who fall into the hard case/parking category - will probably have been increased by today’s announcement (as it cuts off some routes for lower attaining pupils to achieve results for themselves and their schools). Mr Gove is a powerful communicator and decisive policy maker but he doesn’t always seem very interested in the detail, but when it comes to the way national targets shape school policies that’s exactly where the devil is hiding.

PS Since first posting I have discovered that Graham Stuart, independent minded Conservative Chair of the Education Select Committee made a very similar point today, but using rather more forceful language.

 

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