The number of secondary schools considered to be under-performing has doubled, government figures show. However, Harrogate district’s headteachers are hitting back at the Department for Education’s (DfE) league tables and say the decline is due to a major overhaul of how success is now measured. JAMES METCALF reports.
Only a student’s first attempt at a GCSE is included in the annual performance tables from now on, and some vocational qualifications have been stripped out of the rankings.
330 schools nationally fell below the government’s floor target this year, up from 154 last year, after failing to ensure at least 40 per cent of pupils gained five good GCSE grades and made decent progress in the basics under the reformed performance tables.
And this increase has caused concern that schools will appear to be failing not just because of changes to the system, but also what the public may see as volatility in last summer’s GCSE results.
Schools that fall below the threshold could face action, including being closed down and turned into an academy, or being taken over by a new sponsor.
However the DfE insisted that the floor standard is one of a number of factors that schools are judged on and falling below the benchmark does not automatically mean that a school will face intervention.
It also said that the two major changes to the exams system do not affect pupils individual exam results.
Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said: “For too long pupils were offered courses of no value to them and schools felt pressured to enter young people for exams before they were ready.
“By stripping out thousands of poor quality qualifications and removing resits from tables some schools have seen changes in their standings.
“But fundamentally young people’s achievement matters more than being able to trumpet ever higher grades.
“Now pupils are spending more time in the classroom, not constantly sitting exams, and 90,000 more children are taking core academic subjects that will help them succeed in work and further study.”
PERCENTAGE OF STUDENTS ACHIEVING FIVE A*-C GRADES AT GCSE:
80 per cent in 2013, 61 per cent in 2014
Boroughbridge High School:
59 per cent in 2013, 52 per cent in 2014
Harrogate Grammar School:
83 per cent in 2013, 77 per cent in 2014
Harrogate High School:
54 per cent in 2013, 39 per cent in 2014
Harrogate Ladies’ College:
73 per cent in 2013, 57 per cent in 2014
Knaresborough King James’s School:
76 per cent in 2013, 66 per cent in 2014
Nidderdale High School:
47 per cent in 2013, 57 per cent in 2014
Outwood Academy Ripon:
71 per cent in 2013, 63 per cent in 2014
Ripon Grammar School:
98 per cent in 2013, 97 per cent in 2014
73 per cent in 2013, 62 per cent in 2014
St Aidan’s Church of England High School:
83 per cent in 2013, 87 per cent in 2014
St John Fisher Catholic High School:
89 per cent in 2013, 84 per cent in 2014
According to the DfE, due to reforms the 2014 figures are not directly comparable to previous years.
Knaresborough King James’s School head Carl Sugden and Outwood Academy Ripon head Angela Sweeten were not available to comment.
Ashville College Head Mark Lauder said: “Unfortunately the 2014 league tables will make confusing reading for Ashville College parents, since they do not contain iGCSE (international GCSE) results.
“We study a healthy mix of GCSEs and iGCSEs at Ashville College, with iGCSEs being offered in maths, science, and languages. We believe the iGCSE in these subjects offers rigour and, in particular, excellent preparation for A-level.
“Exceptionally strong performances in all three subject areas will therefore go unrecorded, and also will not be counted towards the government’s English Baccalaureate qualification.
While it is appreciated that the main aim of performance tables is to create a benchmark for state schools, the independent sector as a whole – and certainly leading HMC schools like Ashville College – will stand firm in promoting outstanding education via iGCSE curricula where appropriate.”
Boroughbridge High School Head Geoff Jenkinson said: “I have been a headteacher for 20 years in three North Yorkshire schools and every year there are issues as Governments make attempts to improve the system and make subjects more rigorous.
“That intention is laudable but sometimes that complicates things unnecessarily for students. I think we have to take it on the chin if we think where we are going is better than where we were before, and I certainly think it is.
“You have just got to stick to what you believe is right for young people. That is the key to sustainable excellence rather than a one-off spike.”
Harrogate Grammar School Head Richard Sheriff said: “By showing first entry only it is ignoring the achievement of students who went on to get a much better grade and I can’t see any educational benefit in that rule for our students.
“It has affected our percentage but no student is going to be asked at a job interview for first entry, it is always the best that counts, so it is meaningless.
“It is nonsense really and it has made it impossible to relate this year’s performance to last year’s.
“Educators can take a broader view of all the data and form a professional opinion of our own performance, but for the general public looking in it must be incredibly confusing.
“To make a judgement of a school based on one piece of data such as this is unhelpful and is likely to be inaccurate and the unfortunate thing is that the government has a focus on schools that fall below the floor target.”
Harrogate High School Head Andrew Bayston said: “League tables were introduced over 20 years ago to provide parents and stakeholders with accurate information on relative school performance.
“Recently published league tables are inaccurate, to say the least, as the results published are based on first entry and not the final results students were actually awarded.
“Changes to the rules stating which exams count, and the reporting of the first entry result in the league tables will understandably cause confusion. A large number of improving schools have used early entry to boost student confidence and to prepare them for vital GCSE exams.
“We used early entry responsibly to ensure our students had every chance of success. However, we will continue to do our best for each individual student both now and in the future.”
Harrogate Ladies’ College Head Sylvia Brett said: “In reality our GCSE pupils in 2014 got 92 per cent A*-C, 50 per cent of which were A*-A. It is so ridiculous and what makes me most cross is that it is not fair on those children.
“They worked their socks off, as did my staff, to get the best grades they could, so it does not serve any purpose and it is misleading parents who can’t see this in the wider context which you need.
“The primary reason behind the change for schools like HLC is because iGCSEs are not counted and we chose to do them because we believe they are the best for our children.
“Schools have a big challenge to show the reality and what it means, but unfortunately in doing that we undermine the leage tables which is not what the government wants us to do.
“So it is a concern as long as I don’t explain things and we have a national job to help everyone educate themselves about how to look at these tables.”
Nidderdale High School Head Ian Simpson said: “In terms of attainment we have gone up by 10 per cent, and in terms of progress we are on the cusp of being in the top ten per cent of schools in the country.
“I do feel sympathy for schools who had been working to a curriculum that meant some students were doing qualifications that did not count or they planned to put them in early and they didn’t do as well as they would have hoped.
“For us we never had those plans so nothing really changed and the students performed well. I want to sing the praises of last year’s year group who have worked on what is a robust curriculum.
“The issue going forward is that the qualifications that count on the tables are not always suitable for some of the lower level learners and the issue is how to keep those students engaged.
“We have found courses and ways of teaching that have allowed students to make progress but each year group is different and it is going to be a challenge and an ongoing problem.”
Ripon Grammar School Head Martin Pearman said: “I am absolutely delighted with the outcome from the league tables, we had an exceptional year last year with the highest percentage of A* and A grades we have ever had.
“We did have an early entry for maths but students all got the top grade. That has always been our policy, so that has never really affected us.
“I have never tried to play curriculum games by sitting exams at a particular time or one that is easier. The league table position, at the end of the day, is not that important to me – what is important is that students achieve their potential.”
Rossett School Head Helen Woodcock said: “The confusion surrounding the tables meant that parents cannot trust this year’s statistics to accurately reflect the performance of schools, locally or nationally; neither do they properly reflect the achievements of students and teachers.
“We have always believed at Rossett that the government’s school performance tables only offer a partial view of all we have to offer. To gain a full picture parents need to look at the school’s website, visit the school and look at everything.
“We fully support the notion of a system of national accountability which gives parents the information they need. Like many of the national professional teaching bodies, we just think that there has to be better way - one that is fair to all schools.”
St Aidan’s Head John Wood said: “I feel sorry for some schools that have found themselves with a considerable reduction in some of their results because of the stripping out of some subjects they have used to support some students and the status of that school is being judged harshly, perhaps erroneously.
“All we want to do is focus on our students, giving them a first class, all round education which enables them to move forward into further education and society as good citizens.
“I look at the children I have been privileged to work with and I think every school therefore has to do what is best for those particular children.
“There are definite issues in the government’s figures that have led to the apparent drop in standards and I think that is something educationalists need to address.”
St John Fisher Head Rob Pritchard said: “The 2014 tables are not comparing the same to the year before, however we always do what we think is right for our young people.
“We are very pleased to be top of the league tables, of course we are, but we always do what is right and often that is how the youngsters achieve.
“Hopefully the tables represent that no matter what the starting point of the youngster they have reached their potential, and that it what we are interested in.
“There is a lot of information in there, but for 2014, because some of the rules of entry were changed mid-year for some schools it may be misleading to some parents.”