Imagine two colleges, let’s call them People’s College and Top Academy.
We want to compare them, so we turn to the national performance tables which tell us that the average A-level point score for People’s College is 200 (C-) compared to 230 (B-) for Top Academy. A-level value added is also more positive at Top Academy.
So Top Academy must be better, right?
Dig a little deeper and we discover that Top Academy is quite selective in its intake and their A level cohort of 150 had an average GCSE point score on entry of 6.7 (nearer to an A than a B)
It turns out that 150 of the 300 A-level People’s College cohort also had that same average GCSE point score and those 150 students achieved an average A-level point score of 235 (B), doing better than the comparable group at Top Academy.
The other 200 A-level students at People’s College did as expected given their prior achievement and their average A-level point score was 173 (D-), so although they achieved the expected pass rates, grades and value added for their prior achievement, they pulled down the overall average A-level point score for People’s College.
The performance tables also tell us that Top Academy has higher value added than People’s College. But Top Academy asked 20 of their students to leave after passing their AS levels with disappointing grades. This removed a number of students who were heading for lower than expected value added. These students moved to People’s College where they brought their lower value added to their new college, driving the People’s College value added score down overall.
The fact that Top Academy achieved higher value added was due to the positive boost provided by the departure of these leavers as well as the drag they brought as joiners to value added at People’s College. In fact if the transferred students were taken out of the calculation entirely, People’s College would actually have higher positive value added.
So, after a short investigation we have established that for these two imaginary colleges:
People’s College A-level students do better than comparable Top Academy students when students with the same prior achievement are compared – like with like.
People’s College students have higher value added than Top Academy students when only those students who followed a full 2 year A-level course in the same college are compared.
And yet Top Academy is clearly ahead in the performance tables…
Although hypothetical, this ‘counter intuitive’ scenario is perfectly realistic. The current competitive context for post-16 recruitment, the range of selective providers, excess capacity and the nature of the performance tables create the possibility of such perverse incentives and paradoxical outcomes right across the country.
‘Aspiration Tax’ postscript:
Another 20 Top Academy students made the wrong choice of course, did badly in their first year and needed to start again on the first year of a two year programme at People’s College. This meant that they would later add to the number of People’s College students who are over 18 at the start of an academic year and who are only funded at 82.5% of the rate for their fellow students aged 16 or 17 despite following exactly the same programmes. This is a funding cut for People’s College which Top Academy won’t face as none of their students will study with them for 3 years.