The research, published by the University of Bristol alongside FFT Education Datalab, interrogated whether Progress 8 had “encouraged schools to work more equitably” by focusing less on borderline pupils.
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Progress 8 became one of the Department for Education’s main performance measures for schools from 2015-16.
Before this, schools had been measured on the proportion of pupils who achieved at least five good (A* to C) grades at GCSE – including English and maths.
But with Progress 8, schools are judged on how much progress their pupils make between the end of primary school and the end of secondary school, regardless of whether they hit particular grade thresholds.
The researchers said that while the evidence suggested that Progress 8 had improved outcomes for lower-attaining pupils, it was unclear whether this had come at the expense of borderline pupils.
They added that more work was needed to understand the impact of Progress 8 on different groups of pupils, including those with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
The study analysed data on more than half a million pupils in England who took their GCSEs in 2016 and 2017.
It found that, compared with borderline pupils, those classed as lower-attaining made greater progress in English and maths under Progress 8.
But the researchers cautioned that this did not necessarily mean that schools were making more of an effort to support lower-attaining pupils at the expense of borderline students.
They said it was possible that the difference in progress could be down to “unobserved factors”, such as changes in pupil ability or teaching quality over time.
The study also found that boys from disadvantaged backgrounds –those eligible for free school meals – made more progress than their better-off counterparts under Progress 8.
But girls from disadvantaged backgrounds saw no improvement in their progress compared with other pupils.
The researchers said this suggested that there was “room for further improvement” in progress made by girls from disadvantaged backgrounds.
They added that the findings “should be interpreted with caution” as they were based on a small number of pupils.
Chris Husbands, director of the Institute of Education at the University of London, said the research was a “valuable contribution” to the debate on Progress 8.
But he cautioned that it should not be used to make “swift judgements” about the impact of the performance measure.
“This is an important piece of work which analyses data over two years to better understand how schools are faring under Progress 8,” he said.
“It is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand how this key policy plays out in schools and its implications for equity and social mobility.”
But he added: “The study is based on data from the first two years of Progress 8. We should not make swift judgements about the long-term impact of this crucial policy change based on a couple of data points.”
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