'The school league tables paint a far murkier picture than the government is prepared to admit'

Forget the spin about today's league tables – the truth is that endless government reforms are having a damaging impact on pupils and schools, writes NEU joint-general secretary Mary Bousted

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The UK Statistics Authority has repeatedly taken the Department for Education to task over its misleading use of statistics. Perhaps it should look at the department’s press release, issued today, with the bold headline "Education standards continue to rise at GCSE and A level". 

Delving into the figures, the picture is far murkier than Nick Gibb, the schools’ minister, is apparently prepared to admit.

So, what you would not learn from the DfE press release is the fact that English Baccalaureate entry is down by 1.5 percentage points – which is a big surprise given that EBacc entry has been strongly promoted by the government as a key accountability measure. The decrease in the proportion of pupils entering the EBacc is largely driven by a decline in pupils taking languages at GCSE. This may reflect the difficulty schools are facing recruiting languages teachers. Or it may reflect a conviction amongst teachers and school leaders that studying computer coding or design technology or an appropriate vocational subject may be a much better use of many pupils’ precious learning time in schools.

The danger of EBacc

Only 5.9 per cent of low prior attaining pupils achieved the new EBacc threshold measure (which includes achieving a grade 5 in English and maths). This appallingly low figure casts even more doubt on the wisdom, or otherwise, of forcing pupils through GCSE courses which they are disproportionately, on these figures, likely to fail. What cannot be measured, of course, is the damage done to these pupils’ sense of self-respect and their willingness to engage in further education to improve their knowledge and skills. The danger is that the EBacc will drive the young people who most need further education further away from continued learning and study.

The DfE press release is also silent on the fact that attainment across EBacc subjects, measured by Attainment 8, has also fallen by 3.9 points. This fall is attributed to the introduction of the 9-1 GCSE grades for English and maths in performance tables. Schools are now being judged on the percentage of pupils who achieve a grade 5 (the higher pass) in English and maths GCSE. This has had two profound consequences.

The first is that 60 per cent of pupils failed to achieve grade 5 in English and maths. Quite what effect this will have on further study of these two core subjects is yet to be seen, but I predict that there will be fewer English and maths A-level entries. Is this really what the government intended when it introduced the new GCSE grading system and much harder academic requirements? To put pupils off from taking these core subjects at a higher level? And what will the consequences for UK productivity be if that is, indeed, the case?

The second consequence of the new GCSE grading system and harder academic requirements is that there has been a 29 per cent increase in schools falling below the floor standard in 2017. The government’s explanation for this worrying increase is complex and includes: more schools scoring very negatively against Progress 8 scores; the new grading system for English and maths causing greater variance in performance (as there is more of a gap between the top and lower performers); and the removal of writing assessments from key stage 2 scores.

'A toxic mix'

What I take from this complex explanation is that schools are at the mercy of rapid-fire changes to the curriculum and to accountability measures, driven by central government, at a time when they are educating more pupils than ever before, together with a crisis in teacher supply and acute funding pressures. A toxic mix if ever there was one. 

Indeed, given the above, it is surprising that the percentage increase in schools falling below the floor standard is not greater.

I would urge the UK Statistics Authority to examine today’s DfE press release carefully. Cherry-picking data to produce a positive picture does no one, least of all education ministers, any favours. The truth will out. And the truth of today’s figures is that government reform of the curriculum and qualifications at GCSE is causing significant unintended, and negative, effects on pupils and schools.

Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union. She tweets @MaryBoustedNEU

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