Education in the PfG: Part One

Several days ago, I wrote about my misgivings about one of the measures outlined in the new draft Programme for Government (PfG.)

In this post, I’m looking at the commitments relating to Education that are contained in the draft PfG.

In terms of the Outcomes, the only one which appears to be education-linked is that which states ‘We give our children and young people the best start in life.’

Regarding Indicators, there are three which explicitly relate to education:

  • Improve educational outcomes
  • Reduce educational inequality
  • Improve the quality of education

The Measures identified for these three Indicators are interesting, and worth exploring in more detail.

The Indicators

Improve Educational outcomes & Reduce educational inequality

The Measure identified for Improving Educational Outcomes this time around is ‘The % of school leavers achieving Level 2 or above including English and Maths.’

As a measure, this one would have been expected. Level 2 equates to 5 GCSE A*-C grades, including English and Maths- a combination collectively referred to as ‘good’ GCSEs.

The draft PfG includes reference to how, in 2013/14, 63.5% achieved 5+ good GCSEs, up from 62.2% in 2012/13 and 56.3% in 2007/08.

The draft PfG is already out of date on this one, as the Statistical Bulletin released last week shows how the corresponding figure for school leavers obtaining 5+ good GCSEs for 2014/15 has risen to 66.0%.


Year % School Leavers

securing 5 ‘good’ GCSEs

2007/08 56.3%
2012/13 62.2%
2013/14 63.5%
2014/15 66.0%

With regard to the Indicator entitled Reduce educational inequality, the measure to be used is identified as being the ‘Gap between % of school leavers and % of FSME school leavers achieving at Level 2 or above including English and Maths.’

The relevant figures to act as a baseline measure are not included in the draft PfG. They were, however, included in the Statistical Bulletin. In 2014/15, the % of FSME pupils securing 5+ good GCSEs significantly increased from the 34.9% outlined in the PfG (from 2013/14) up to a figure of 41.3% in 2014/15.

Those figures stand against overall school leaver rates of 63.5% and 66.0% respectively, indicating that the gap closed from 28.6% to 24.7% from 2013/14 to 2014/15.

These two core Indicators featured in the last Programme for Government (2011-15) and therefore it is no surprise to see they have returned as the core indicators guiding Departmental action this time around.

In old money, they were identified as key commitments in ‘Priority One’ of the PfG (2011-15) where the respective targets were worded thus:

Increase the overall proportion of young people who achieve at least 5 GCSEs at A*-C or equivalent including GCSEs in maths and English by the time they leave school to 66% by 2014/15.

Increase the proportion of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who achieve at least 5 GCSEs at A*-C or equivalent including GCSEs in maths and English to 49% by 2014/15.

The first target was impressively met in 2014/15. The Executive introduced the Delivering Social Change Signature Project for the 2013/14 academic year, a programme which involved employing additional teachers to target pupils capable of securing 5+ good GCSEs at selected schools. The DSC Signature Project was an undoubted success, and the relationship between the initiative and the significant jump in pass rates that helped lift the rate to the 66% mark is referred to in the latest Statistical Bulletin.

The second target was not met. In fact, there was never any credible prospect of it being met, given the low base of achievement. In reality, crossing the 40% mark was a significant advance in its own right. Pushing towards the 50% mark would require a significant investment in the form and scale of the Signature Project.

However, reintroducing the programme would prove very costly, and at a time when schools are facing severe budgetary problems which will be resulting in many teacher and classroom assistant redundancies this summer and in the forthcoming academic year, it is very difficult to see where the money will come from to fund a programme wound up less than a year ago precisely due to the inability of the Executive to continue funding it.

Consequently, it is no surprise that a target % figure has not been incorporated within the draft PfG for either of the two new Indicators, though I would expect pressure to be brought to bear externally to ensure that ambitious target figures are ultimately included to concentrate minds and actions before the document is finalised.

In addition to Signature, one of the other factors that could have aided the process of advancing the % of FSME pupils securing 5 good GCSEs is the fact that the number of FSME pupils as a % of the overall school leaver population has significantly risen in recent years on account of the extension of the eligibility for FSM under the Working Tax credit criterion (the 17.9% of kids in 2013/14 became 23.7% in 2014/15.)

Improve the quality of education

The third Education-specific Indicator included in the draft PfG is entitled ‘Improve the quality of education.’ The Measure for this Indicator is outlined as being the ‘% of schools where provision for learning is good or better.’

I must say that I find this measure to be somewhat bizarre. In the draft PfG, it is stated that data relating to this measure is not currently collected.

In every ETI report published in relation to a school, grades (by terms) are provided for Provision for learning as a sub-grade below the Overall effectiveness grade. Other sub-grades are awarded for Achievement and Standards and Leadership and Management.

What I find bizarre about this choice of Indicator in the draft PfG is that it seeks to isolate ETI assessment of a sub-grade level as the pre-eminent area of concern. Given that the Overall effectiveness grade is awarded by ETI after factoring in a global assessment of the school, including provision for learning, it seems unnecessarily restrictive to ignore the broader qualitative judgment of the inspectors and instead focus in on but one area- not least since the issue of school leadership is one widely recognized as being crucial to raising standards.

Again, there are no % figures provided for targets, though I would expect this to be addressed prior to the publication of the final document.


  • chrisjones2

    If I was a purist I would suggest that, for example:

    “‘Improve the quality of education” is an input

    but the measure

    ‘% of schools where provision for learning is good or better.’

    is also an input and an almost unmeasurable one

  • Brian Walker

    Yet another remarkable piece of textual analysis from Chris. In my experience of performance management, we eventually learned to create targets which were few, specific and actually measurable but not to over rely on them.

    At best, this process can be an aid to policy making not the whole thing. Just as easily it can become an enclosed topdown system and quite unaccountable. I hope it simplifies in future iterations. Too many outcomes means even more indicators, making the whole process horribly complicated and bureaucratic. It can also be teleological i.e you rig the indicators to achieve outcomes which you have decided on in advance. I fear a huge bureaucracy arguing over every step of the way. T. .

  • Cosmo

    Nearly a quarter of ALL NI schoolchildren now qualify for FSME ((free school meal) (so are classified as disadvantaged).

  • Ryan

    Getting parents to become serious and involved in their children’s education is the key to helping kids get excellent grades, especially parents from disadvantaged backgrounds.