Get Used to “Bubble Kids” and “Educational Triage”

“Bubble kids”, “target intervention group” and “educational triage” are terms that the education community and the public will need to come to grips with in coming years. They reflect new educational approaches in the era of publication of school results and league tables.

“Bubble kids” are students whose results form a bubble just below proficiency benchmarks on standardised tests such as NAPLAN. They form a “target intervention group” to improve school results. “Educational triage” is the practice of devoting extra resources and time to the “bubble kids” or the “target intervention group” to get them above the proficiency benchmark.

“Educational triage” is a common strategy adopted by schools in England and the United States in response to the pressure created by public ratings of schools. Focusing on improving the results of students just below benchmarks is seen as the most likely way to improve a school’s average score or the proportion of students achieving a performance benchmark, meet improvement targets and avoid closure.

Intuitively, the strategy makes sense. But, it can have a cost. Low and high achieving students can receive less support because their results are less likely to affect a school’s published results. Indeed, it may lead to worse outcomes for these students as several academic studies in England and the US have shown.

The latest example of “educational triage” comes from England in an expose by the Guardian newspaper [21 September] using internal school emails and staff bulletins leaked by a teacher at a London secondary school.

The report details the approach taken by the school, which is near the bottom of the national league table, to increase the proportion of students achieving the threshold measure used to rank schools on end of Year 11 exam results. The measure is A+ – C grades in five subjects, including English and maths, on the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exams.

The emails and staff bulletins show that at the beginning of the 2009-2010 school year, a group of just over 70 pupils, or just over a third of the school’s GCSE year cohort, was identified for extra support. All were seen as having the potential to achieve the threshold measure in the exams, but also to be at risk of missing it. The most experienced teachers in the school were allocated to the “target intervention group”.

Students who had a chance of achieving a C grade in maths, but not in English, were not included in the target group because they would not help the school’s overall results if they did not achieve a C in English, meaning they were forced into lower maths streams. This particularly affected students with English as a second language because they were less likely to gain a C grade in English. It meant that they were placed in classes with difficult behaviour students. As one staff email stated:

The lower set, difficult behaviour, pupils … have very little intention of learning independently so they are running riot instead. Today there was a big fight … I think it needs to be brought to the head’s attention that it is not possible to include the [pupils with English as an additional language] in this group. I am sorry to say they are simply frightened.

Students who were allocated to the target intervention group were pulled out of other lessons to receive extra instruction in English and maths from January onwards, some 5-6 months before the GCSE exams. According to one teacher:

These students were provided with individual support and group lessons in order for them to achieve a grade C in English or maths. In English support lessons, the students were being told what to write in their [coursework] essays.

Some targeted students were entered for English and maths GCSE’s early so that they could have an extra go at getting a good mark. However, those who achieved a C grade or better in either subject were then withdrawn from lessons in that subject for the rest of the year to concentrate on the other subject, with the aim of achieving a C grade in that. The teacher says:

The situation created an appalling atmosphere within the school. The senior management were not concerned about those who were not on the [intervention] list, and even if they were on the list, they were only targeting a grade C even if that student needed to obtain a grade B for sixth-form college.

The teacher said that most pupils also studied a work-related science course, deemed by the government to be worth two GCSEs for league table purposes and assessed entirely on course work, which pupils could pass just by “copying” from teachers.

A staff briefing document shows that the school was so keen to prioritise the target intervention group students that photographs were taken of them and displayed in the staffroom. The document includes a note from the principal saying: “Please could all staff continue to talk to these pupils to motivate them”.

The Guardian report said that other evidence of schools being encouraged to focus on borderline students is not hard to find. For example, advice from the Labour government’s London Challenge school improvement project included suggestions to ensure borderline students achieve their targets and encouraging schools to match staff to [pupil] groups effectively.

This was backed up by many reader comments submitted to the Guardian website. For example:

I worked in an Academy which had achieved poor results the year before and I can verify that the practices described in this article were widely used. In addition we ‘helped’ these target kids with their coursework (ie. told them what to write) if it wasn’t good enough.
The article also mentions ‘most pupils also studied a work-related science course, deemed by the government to be worth two GCSEs for league table purposes and assessed entirely on course work, which pupils could pass just by “copying” from teachers’
This qualification is called BTEC Science and I taught this for a year. It is 100% coursework and is marked by teachers inside the school with a small sample being sent to the exam board for verification. All my students passed by copying from me. I felt ashamed to ‘teach’ it.

Another said:

This is what has been going on in our local secondary school. A few years ago it had just 30% or so kids getting 5 GCSEs and was on the verge of special measures so it introduced a compulsory BTEC in PE which is worth two GCSEs and is done by coursework and guess what – now 60% get 5 GCSEs.

Another said that focus on borderline students is also common practice at lower levels of schooling:

I can confirm that this also happens in Primary Schools at Key Stage 1 and 2, where schools are measured on the number of levels children achieve. Resources and time are allocated to getting borderline pupils over the magic number.

Anastasia de Waal, director of family and education at the think tank Civitas, who has investigated results-boosting tactics in other secondary schools told the Guardian that its case is consistent with other anecdotes she has heard from parents and teachers.

How have we got into this crazy situation where school improvement strategies can actually end up damaging students’ education? It all becomes a statistical exercise, with the kids’ needs becoming utterly redundant in this equation.

There is already evidence that schools in Australia are adopting the same approach in response to the publication of school NAPLAN results on the My School website.

The Australian Primary Principals Association has revealed that in the lead up to this year’s NAPLAN tests many schools allocated more resources to those students most likely to improve school results. Other students with greater needs did not receive as much attention for the first five months of the year until after completion of the NAPLAN tests.

Welcome to the new world of My School.

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