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GCSEs: league tables a 'broken system' because of constant tinkering, critics claim

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School league tables have been condemned for being 'nonsense' and a 'broken system' in the wake of results published today that have pushed hundreds of schools below the government's floor target.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) claimed that the Department for Education tables offered a “skewed” picture of school performance while the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference (HMC), representing elite independent schools, said they had become a “nonsense”.

Heath Monk, chief executive of the respected Future Leaders Trust, which runs government's Talented Leaders programme to place headteachers in a tough schools, added his voice to the chorus of criticism, describing league tables as a "broken system".

Mr Monk said changes to the tables had “created a situation where this year’s results cannot be compared to previous years”. “In constantly tinkering with the system, we are in danger of losing touch with what education is meant to achieve,” he said.

Some HMC schools like Rugby and Uppingham have seen their results plunge to zero as far as the official tables are concerned because they have used versions of the IGCSE that do not count because they are not regulated by Ofqual, a problem highlighted by TES last year.

State schools have also been hit by changes with the number falling below the government’s “floor standard” of 40 per cent of pupils achieving five A*-C GCSEs including English and maths, more than doubling from 154 to 330.

The DfE has highlighted its decision to only count pupil’s first entry in a GCSE rather than their best result and new limits on how much vocational qualifications count as the main two reasons.

But hundreds of state secondaries have also been hit by a late decision not to count IGCSEs from the AQA and WJEC boards and others have been caught out by a bizarre ruling that mean their English results don’t count because of the order that exams were timetabled – leading to some zero scores.

A move from modular to linear GCSEs, widespread school concerns over the grading of English, and hundreds of secondaries reporting unexpectedly low results in maths may also explain the decline on the key GCSE measure seen in some secondaries.

ASCL and the NAHT heads' union have teamed up with the United Learning private school and academy chain, and the PiXL club grouping of schools to set up their own alternative league tables, which include the “best” results from more than 750 schools.

Russell Hobby, NAHT general secretary, said: “This initiative will, over time, give parents stable, accurate and neutral information.

“We have seen so many changes to league tables in recent years that it becomes impossible to compare year to year or school to school. Our goal in the alternative performance tables is to offer a more stable and consistent set of measures to help parents make informed choices and schools to plan ahead with more certainty.”

Mr Monk said alternative league tables (ALTs) showed “many people have lost faith in the government’s league tables”.

“But they are a symptom of a broken system, not a solution itself,” he added. “ALTs risk allowing schools to pick and choose the data they want to publicise, leading to a situation where no-one can really tell if a school is serving its students well.”

But Mr Monk and Mr Hobby agree that the government’s changes have hit schools serving pupils from poorer families the hardest.

Brett Wigdortz ,Teach First chief executive, said: “Today’s results reveal that the attainment gap between richer and poorer students has widened for the first time in recent years.

"It is shocking that only 1 in 3  of pupils eligible for free school meals achieved at least 5 A* to C GCSEs (or equivalent) grades compared to 60.5 per cent of all other pupils." 

A DfE spokesman said: “We have made important changes to a system that rewarded the wrong outcomes. We have stripped out qualifications that were of little value and are making sure pupils take exams when they are ready, not before.

“The changes may result in some variation across all types of schools, ensuring they are held to account for the right outcomes. We issued guidance to all schools on this.”

Related stories:

‘Ridiculous’ rule on timing scuppers league table scores November 21 2014

Shock as schools learn true worth of IGCSEs October 24 2014

League tables are 'nonsense', say private schools October 23 2014

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