Hundreds of state secondary schools are entering pupils for two English qualifications at the same time in a bid to secure good grades and boost their standings in league tables, TES has learned.
Schools are putting pupils in for both GCSE and IGCSE English exams to improve results, with only the better grade counting towards performance tables.
The strategy is being promoted by a group called the PiXL (Performance in Excellence) Club, which aims to dramatically improve GCSE results among its members. Around 400 secondaries are part of the club, each paying pound;3,500 a year to receive advice and tips on how to become more successful.
The tactic of entering pupils for multiple exams has been branded "cynical" by ministers, who are drawing up reforms to league tables in a bid to reduce the focus on GCSE floor targets.
But according to former headteacher Sir John Rowling, the chair of PiXL, the strategy has yielded good results. About 80 per cent of member schools are entering some of their students for both the IGCSE and the regular GCSE, he told TES.
Sir John said the main aim was to ensure that students achieve a good grade, but he added that league tables were also a concern. "Most heads thought the IGCSE was just for independent schools and that it didn't count towards league tables, but we have studied it very carefully and we've found it can be very appropriate for some state school students," he said.
The idea has taken on greater relevance in the light of this summer's GCSE marking fiasco, which led to thousands of pupils getting lower than expected grades, Sir John said.
"It has assumed new importance because of the messing around with grade boundaries this summer," he explained. "Teachers work like slaves all year then, at the end of it, get messed about. They invest all that effort, just to be scuppered at the last minute, so I say if there is another alternative then use it.
"(Entering pupils for the IGCSE) is not instead of another exam, it is alongside - we mix and match."
Ministers announced in June 2010 that the IGCSE would count towards league tables, after it had grown in popularity in independent schools. It is considered a more traditional qualification than GCSE, with an emphasis on end-of-course exams.
The PiXL Club provides schools with a range of strategies to improve results, from highly detailed pupil data tracking to in-depth studies of previous years' exam papers.
Oasis Academy Shirley Park in Croydon has seen the proportion of its students achieving five good GCSEs including English and maths rise from 26 per cent to 66 per cent in just three years since joining the PiXL Club.
Dan Morrow, head of the secondary phase at Shirley Park, said his school had entered students for both IGCSE and GCSE English for the first time this year to stretch the most able. Pupils did both exams to help "ensure they didn't miss out on a qualification", he said.
Mr Morrow admitted that there is an "element of game playing" in the strategy, but likened it to other school improvement schemes, such as London Challenge, which raised exam results. "It's about setting pupils up for life with the right qualifications," he added.
Earlier this year, Graham Stuart, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, called education secretary Michael Gove "naive" for not recognising that league table measures were a "driver of behaviour".
But the Department for Education criticised the practice of double entering pupils for exams, pointing to an upcoming consultation on school accountability that will attempt to limit the impact of league tables.
"This is clearly not in the best interests of pupils," a spokeswoman said. "Schools must only enter students for the qualifications that are right for them, not for the cynical reasons this suggests."
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT heads' union, said it was hard to see the educational benefits of entering students twice. "I don't blame schools for doing it though," he added. "It's just another example of the perverse incentives that are a result of league tables."
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: "Putting students into more exams than necessary is a very poor outcome for those students, however they perform in the exam. Our students are already over-examined, so to double enter them to improve your position in league tables is disappointing, and reduces the amount of teaching and learning time a child receives."
THE PIXL CLUB
- 400 - the club has almost 400 member schools
- pound;3,500 - the cost of membership per year
- 60 - primaries that have signed up in the first pilot year (2012-13)
- 20 - the number of pupil referral unit members
- 4.6% - the increase in five good GCSE scores including English and maths across all member schools last year
- -0.4% - the fall nationally on the same measure
- 6 - the number of meetings held per year to help a school boost its GCSE performance.