The number of secondary schools considered to be under-performing has doubled, government figures show. However, the 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.
Overall, 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:
Wetherby High School:
71 per cent in 2013
58 per cent in 2014
Boston Spa School:
49 per cent in 2013
46 per cent in 2014
Tadcaster Grammar School:
70 per cent in 2013
66 per cent in 2014
Sherburn High School:
56 per cent in 2013
58 per cent in 2014
The Grammar School at Leeds:
98 per cent in 2013
zero per cent in 2014
According to the DfE, due to reforms the 2014 figures are not directly comparable to previous years.
Wetherby High School Head Lucie Lakin said: “We are above the national average and local schools, which isn’t the be all and end all, but the way the tables have been done shows that.
“This is positive, though our targets and ambitions are personalised and stretch beyond the fairly crude tables.
“It is pleasing for us to be there, but we recognise that every year the goal posts change and it isn’t always representative.
“At Wetherby High we are proud of the students’ work in a terminal exam in the summer, but it isn’t comparing like for like, and certainly the year on year comparisons are nigh on impossible.
“The qualifications last year are totally different to this year, which is really unhelpful because parents looke to the government to provide a coherent benchmark of how the school is performing.
“As well as it being unhelpful it is actually misleading because it isn’t an accurate representation of the full picture.
“League tables and pitting schools against each other is fundamentally flawed. There are so many other aspects to a school that are not taking into account by the headline figure and tables, by their very nature, make for a more adversarial and divisive atmosphere when schools should be working together.”
Boston Spa School Head Christopher Walsh said: “When the announcement was made about first and best entry, schools were left in a difficult position.
“You had to choose what was more important to you, the achievement of the children who were going to be entered twice, or the school’s place in the league table.
“That was the first time in my time as head where making a choice for the child was not the same as making the choice for the school, but it took us all of a minute and a half to say we make the decision for the children.
“So, you will see that we got 46 per cent of children achieving A*-C, but that was the picture in January. The real picture is in August when 60 per cent achieved, which is a huge difference and I am actually quite proud of that gap because it shows that our children stepped up and that our teachers did a grand job.
“Those children have a GCSE in maths and English and in some cases five or ten others, but that doesn’t appear in the league tables.
“The difficulty for families is that there is not in the league tables genuine data to show how schools have performed, there is just a snap shot to show how schools were performing at one point in the academic year.”
Tadcaster Grammar Head Martyn Sibley said: “We are delighted that Tadcaster Grammar School continues to perform very strongly compared to schools nationally.
“We are particularly proud of our value added measure at Key Stage 4 which shows that our students make progress in their best eight subjects which is significantly above the national average.
“Similarly in English and maths. This is the result of a huge amount of hard work by both students and teachers and reflects our ‘culture of excellence’ at TGS.”
Sherburn High School Head Maria Williams said: “We are very pleased to see how favourably we compare with other local schools, and that despite changes to the way the headline figures are calculated our percentage of pupils achieving five or more grades A*-C including English and maths has continued to rise – we are the only local school to achieve this.
“The current performance tables including only the first sitting of exams, exams now being linear and with some vocational and academic qualifications no longer being included, means that they are not a full picture of student success.
“66 per cent of students at Sherburn High School attained five or more grade A*-C GCSEs including English and maths and were able to progress onto level three courses, above the national average of 56.6 per cent.
“Many other students attained equally important qualifications allowing them to progress into further education, employment, and training.
“We are proud of all of our students’ successes, not only those measured by narrow and ever-changing government dictated performance tables.”
Grammar School at Leeds Head Mike Gibbons said: “The iGCSE is an exam used by many leading independent schools. We choose iGCSE at the Grammar School where we think it best suits the needs of our pupils in studying that particular subject, for example we feel that in the sciences and maths the iGCSE is better preparation for A-level.
“Given that virtually all our students move onto A-level and to leading universities, and we have studied iGCSE for a number of years now, that decision would appear to be vindicated.
“In 2014 our candidates achieved a 99.6 per cent pass rate in maths and 96 per cent in science, but as they sat iGCSE their success is not recorded in the league tables, impacting on three important performance indicators.
“This is one of a number of flaws in the construction of the tables, for example they don’t reflect the baseline abilities of pupils, the progress that they make or the pathway of study that best suits them.
“While league tables remain a useful source of information for parents, these issues make accurate comparisons impossible. We always recommend looking beyond the league tables by visiting schools, meeting staff and pupils and talking to other parents, in order to fully understand the environment where your child is most likely to flourish.”