School League tables based on the GCSE results of pupils were published this week.

The Department for Children Schools and Families hailed the results as a sign of continuing success.  The Schools’ Minister Vernon Coaker pointed to the increased proportion of pupils gaining 5 or more A*-C at GCSE, with a higher percentage of pupils gaining good grades at GCSE in English and Mathematics.  London was identified as the region of top performing schools, a dramatic improvement on GCSE results since 1997.

The Government also pointed to the reduction of the number of  schools designated as ‘National Challenge’ – this is where GCSE passes have been typically low, with schools challenged to improve their results. 

The Government also claimed that Academies have demonstrated that they are successfully reversing low levels of attainment in neighbourhoods they serve.

So, the Government have used the latest statistics to demonstrate that their education policies have been successful. 

However there is another side to this apparent success story. The Guardian reported that a 10th of schools had failed to meet GCSE targets and claimed that Academies, while being hailed as key to raising stands make up a significant proportion of ‘National Challenge’ schools.

A form of ‘value added’ which measures the progress a child has made between the ages of 11 and 16 has been introduced this year, this indicates that over half of state schools are failing to meet expected levels of progress.

Interestingly however, it is the schools in the most deprived areas that have improved the most.  As sociologists of education will observe it is such schools that are most likely to struggle, with the social class of their intake impacting of educational attainment.  While these results do not prove that social class no longer influences educational attainment it indicates that policy interventions may lead to improvements in some areas.  Funding has been targeted in these areas, and rightly so, given the consistent evidence for low levels of attainment in these areas.

Now the Lib Dems have criticised the Government for failing to provide the same amount of targeted intervention in ordinary towns, with schools in this area demonstrating less improvement, with some schools struggling to meet targets.

It is almost as if the Labour Government has become a victim of its own success.

At the bottom of the scale, the number of schools where a large number of pupils are leaving without 5 good GCSE’s is increasing.  This indicates a polarisation of attainment – with more pupils gaining more good GCSEs while at the same time more pupils with few qualifications.  An added problem is that these pupils are likely to be concentrated in these so called ‘failing schools’ which then struggle to improve, because their levels of attainment are largely shaped by their intake. 

Perhaps to put the criticism into context we should take note of what Vernon Coaker has to say:

“A decade ago, just 35% of children left school with five good GCSEs including English and maths, now with our best results ever it’s 49.8% for all schools. In fact, the average school performance in 1997 is now roughly where we put the absolute bottom benchmark expected. This hasn’t happened by chance.”


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