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Obsession with grade C is undervaluing some students

It's that time of year. The secondary league tables are finally published and journalists are desperately trying to find a news story that's different from the usual line that standards must be getting lower if students are doing better.

This year has been no exception. Earlier this week saw serious papers from both sides of the political spectrum running stories that suggested, for example, that the number of pupils gaining five or more GCSEs at grades A-star to G had dropped by 6 per cent, or that 62 per cent of boys from comprehensives were failing to make the grade at GCSE.

However, looking at the data it's hard to see anything but improvement in any of the key measures published this week, or at the very least, no significant change. The number of students gaining five or more GCSEs at grade C or above is up. Results are up in English and maths. The gap between boys and girls is closing. Even the percentage of students gaining five GCSEs at any grade is up.

So what is the story this year?

On the one hand, perhaps it's time to give the government credit for taking the brave step of including English and maths in the tables. Employers, universities and colleges have all been calling for higher standards in basic literacy and numeracy for many years.

By including these core subjects, the national figure for 5+ A-star to Cs has dropped by about 15 per cent. For many schools the gap is even wider, with some seeing a difference of more than 50 per cent. Yet if we believe that league tables indirectly help to raise standards (and that's another whole debate), then to include English and maths as part of the data is absolutely the right thing to do.

Common sense says that making something a target increases the chances that it will be achieved. Analysis of results over the last 12 years shows an average increase of about 1.4 per cent each year in those gaining five or more A-star to C grades. Compare this with the figure when you specifically include English and maths and the figure drops to about 0.9 per cent. No doubt this percentage will start to creep up over the next few years now that these subjects are included and the system readjusts to the new regime.

On the other hand, the danger is that by concentrating on the C grade, now widely seen as the unofficial pass mark at GCSE, the whole system starts to focus on students on Ds and Es at the expense of those at either end of the spectrum. As Ralph Tabberer, director general of schools at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, suggested recently, schools can improve their performance on the A-star to C benchmark without improving the grades of the most disadvantaged or lowest performing students.

The irony is that when the GCSE was introduced in 1986, the aim was to provide a uniform system of assessment to replace O-levels and CSEs where all students could be seen to achieve on an equal basis. When it was launched, the GCSE was described by the then Conservative Education secretary, Sir Keith Joseph, as tougher, clearer and fairer. Grades were awarded from A to G to reflect the whole ability range. More than 20 years later the growing obsession with the grade C boundary leaves many students feeling inadequate and undervalued. For them, it is simply not true that gaining a grade D or E at the age of 16 is a fail. For many young people it's a real achievement. It doesn't mean they can't read, write or do maths. Neither does it mean they have to leave school or can't go to college.

Of course we need to continue to improve. But let's not take away from teachers, students and their families the fact that standards really do seem to be rising. The real question is, are they rising fast enough for us to keep up with the global competition?

Andy Buck Headteacher of the Jo Richardson Community School in Barking and Dagenham.

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