Progress 8 can be shaped in different ways to different needs
Photo: Kiki Vega/Unsplash

In our last blog we looked at the birth of the Progress 8 school accountability measure in 2016, the issues it was designed to address, its success and the concerns it subsequently provoked.

The biggest concern was that because Progress 8 measures achievement using mainly Ebacc qualifications, it was too pro-academic and a cause of the decline in creative and technical GCSEs.

The worst affected is Design and Technology which has plummeted 54% since 2016.

There has been quite a bit of debate about how to address this issue over the past year.

Labour leader Sir Kier Starmer has said he would ‘update’ Progress 8 to boost creative and technical subject uptake.

More recently, a report from the Lords Education for 11 – 16 Year Olds Committee called for the Ebacc accountability measure to be abandoned altogether as a way of reversing the downward trend.

That last idea sounds deceptively simple, but needs exploration.

The EBacc on its own is simply a measure of whether students are getting results in a suite of traditionally ‘academic’ subjects – though even there, there is a debate about that definition.
For example, Religious Studies is not deemed an EBacc subject, though this has not had any negative impact on its uptake.

Typically, when calls are made to scrap the EBacc, the intent is less to get rid of the measure itself and more to break its link with the accountability system – which occurs primarily through its inclusion in Attainment 8 and Progress 8.

Currently, the three buckets that make up those measures are: English and maths; the Ebacc qualifications; and an ‘open group’.


The simplest way to remove the link with the Ebacc would be to remove that bucket – so you would have a ‘Progress 5’ with two maths and English buckets and then the three current ‘free’ buckets. If you accept the argument that the EBacc buckets have driven down numbers taking creative and arts subjects, then logic might suggest that reversing this would counter that effect.


However, there is no guarantee this would happen.

Ultimately, if the choices of the last decade have become embedded in the system (and particularly through financial constraints which can also dictate the curriculum schools offer), it might be that this would not drive the dramatic change some argue is needed.

A way for policymakers to provide more of a guarantee that declining courses are taught would be to increase Progress 8 to say Progress 9 or 10.

As explained in a previous blog, this would be done by adding a fourth bucket of subjects to the Progress 8 measure.

Progress 10

Taking them out of the ‘open’ bucket and putting them in a fourth one with the stipulation that one or two subjects must be chosen would ensure they are taught.

But another benefit of this from a policymakers point of view is that they would not have to cut out any of the current Ebacc subjects – which would be popular with those in the sector who maintain the importance they have for individuals and the country’s prosperity.

However, the downside of this could be that it increases the load on students, who currently take an average of 7.81 GCSEs.

If the school feels compelled for them to take ten, then their abilities may be spread too thinly, having a detrimental effect on the outcomes of all their GCSEs.

Another way to incentivise choosing the arts without making them compulsory could be to double weight the Progress 8 points for those subjects in the same way as maths and English.

While this may see a greater uptake of the courses that offer twice the points, it would likely spark uproar from the other subject associations that have not been selected – ‘Why are the creative and technical more important than what we offer?’ would probably be the refrain.

So, if Sir Kier finds himself in a position to reform Progress 8 here are some options for him to look at.

The same goes for policymakers wanting to address the Lords’ committee’s concerns about the future of the arts and technical subjects.

But, they must be clear which route they want to go down.

Do they want to take more control over what schools teach and guarantee the subjects are taught or loosen the reigns and trust school leaders will take the desired action?

Progress 8 can be used to achieve many things, but much care is needed in how it is handled.

Read More:
Levers of change: How policymakers can shape the system
Knowledge and skills, two sides of the same coin