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Is poverty a barrier to the targets?

The good news is that there has been a further one point increase in the percentage of 15-year-olds gaining five good GCSE passes this year. Sadly, that is less than the government target of 2 per cent a year - and even less than TES estimates last month, based on the results in 89 of the 150 education authorities. Though these are still only provisional figures, we are sorry to say that the record rise we heralded has not happened.

The improvement among the lowest-achieving schools is above the average at two percentage points. That is another positive result. These schools need to maintain a higher rate of improvement if all children are to have an equal chance of success. But at these rates it would be 25 years before they catch up with the rest.

And there are some even more worrying signs. The proportion of candidates getting a triplet of good maths, English and science GCSEs is falling. The percentage getting five A to G grades is going down rather than up towards the 92 per cent target. So are the Government's aims too ambitious? Or schools' efforts too feeble?

Sustainable improvement is a long and slow process. Any impact of the literacy, numeracy and key stage 3 strategies on GCSE results would not show up yet. The 20023 Year 11s were already in secondary schools when the literacy strategy was introduced to all primaries, and at KS4 when the KS3 strategy began.

Not until the end of this decade will we see the GCSE results of pupils who have had the full benefit of the literacy, numeracy and lower secondary strategies. Primary schools have shown that significant improvements are possible. But even these have reached a plateau. Does the next big change require social and economic measures to tackle the effects of child poverty rather than expecting schools to overcome them?

Secondary schools also have to battle with economic and social forces beyond their control. Good GCSE results are far more likely where candidates see them as a step on a realistic career ladder. Sadly, in many areas of the country, the prospect of a good local job for those who study hard remains poor and the link between effort and reward hard to see.

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