A new way up the ladder
For one Hertfordshire secondary school, however, such activities have been seen as a first step towards the targets. And the first two White Papers on competitiveness provided the spur.
New national targets for education and training to improve competitiveness were set in last year's White Paper. By 2000 85 per cent of 19-year-olds should have five GCSEs grade A-C (or national vocational qualification level 2) and 75 per cent should have A-level equivalent (level 3). Ministers want 30 per cent of the workforce to reach level 4 (higher education equivalent).
More was expected on the targets this year, and the absence has fuelled speculation about ministers' disappointment over progress. A recent report from the Government's National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets has already conceded that the HE target will not be reached.
Nevertheless, schools and colleges say the targets have helped raise sights.
Onslow St Audrey's school in Hatfield is one of 30 schools and colleges in the county drawn together 18 months ago, by Hertfordshire education authority and the county training and enterprise council in a bid to turn national statistics into local reality. "We looked at how our schools were doing and how they should be doing," says Chris Hatten, director of education at the TEC. "We showed them where they were underachieving and what they could do about it."
The institutions which signed up with the joint LEATEC Commitment Project were presented with county council projections showing how their students were likely to perform at A-level, based on their GCSE results.
The group also commissioned the services of Professor David Jesson of Sheffield University, who studied the data and suggested ways to improve results, such as by changing examining boards or keeping back students born late in a given year.
Onslow St Audrey's headteacher, Teresa Williams, says she soon realised that some of the school's pupils were being held back by low confidence and poor self-esteem. "We are not going to be able to raise achievement among students who lack motivation and confidence, so these are questions which need to be addressed first," Ms Williams said.
In March, teachers at Onslow St Audrey's selected 30 pupils in Year l0 to join a six-week programme of outdoor activities calculated to inspire team spirit and enthusiasm. The list included abseiling and fire-fighting techniques.
Ms Williams is not claiming that the participants will all now get A grades at GCSE, but she found that the programme altered many pupils' attitudes towards school and she plans to repeat it.
Meanwhile all the Commitment Project schools and colleges have been targeting their stronger pupils in a bid to boost GCSE results.
Onslow St Audrey's and other institutions involved in the project, including Hemel Hempstead School and Oaklands College,are also taking more trouble to ensure that pupils pick the right courses.
The county council figures showed that, for example, a girl in Hertfordshire who takes maths A-level after getting a C grade in GCSE would be likely to fail, whereas a boy taking the A-level in the same circumstances might scrape a D or an E.
"A student choosing the wrong course is shown as the biggest reason for failure," says Liz Cristofoli, deputy principal of Oaklands. "We are now making students think very hard about their choices."
The college, which has eight sites across the county, has linked up with schools to give post-16 students a wider choice of courses by allowing them to spend two days a week at one institution and three days at the other.
Dr Will Mullen, deputy head of Hemel Hempstead School, which has almost 1,000 pupils, says teachers have a hard job persuading students to avoid certain A-levels particularly as schools are desperate for the funds these pupils provide.
Dr Mullen admits that Professor Jesson's suggestions meant the school stopped working on the assumption that poor GCSE and A-level marks were just the outcome of "a bad year".
"We started looking at the individuals and also at the teachers. We brought in our strongest teachers in a particular subject to teach the set that was a CD borderline at GCSE." Lunchtime revision classes were also introduced.
The Commitment Project schools and colleges have also introduced self-review: pupils have been asked to write down how they believe they could boost their expected performance in impending exams, and have attended regular mentoring sessions.
Funding is a problem, however. The 30 institutions which joined the project 18 months ago received just Pounds 500 each - the cost of the Excel software they needed to analyse the results data.
"The Government says it is no good throwing money at the problem, but I think there is no harm in it," says Dr Mullen. Despite the money problems, Hertfordshire's attempts have so far paid off.
In l995, 73 per cent of its 19-year olds achieved at least 5 GCSEs at grade C or above, or their equivalent, 6 per cent up on 1993. These results are still, however, 12 per cent below the 2000 target.