Commentary - So is it trouble or bubble?

21st January 2011 at 00:00

Last Wednesday, Radio 4's Today programme woke the nation up with the news that only one in six pupils had achieved the Government's new measure of GCSE success.

It was an ominous sign for heads across the country who feared their schools' reputations were about to suffer because of the English Baccalaureate - a new measure they see as unfair.

Data and league tables have become the be all and end all in the way schools are held accountable to government, local authorities, Ofsted and the general public. So it is understandable that any new measure would cause anxiety.

In one sense the EBac should be nothing to worry about. Ofsted says it is not yet taking it into account and the floor targets that can spell closure or takeover for schools with low exam results are still set according to the existing benchmark of five A*-C GCSEs including English and maths.

It is that measure which ministers say will "always" be the "anchor" for secondary school accountability because it offers reliability, robustness and continuity. But it is not just immediate government intervention that heads fear. League-table measures alone have the power to put parents off a school, reduce numbers and set it on a spiral of decline that can still end in closure.

Today decided, along with most national newspapers, to make EBac failure the story they led with on league-tables day.

But beneath those headlines there was better news for schools as the actual tables that papers printed were still compiled according to the measure of five A*-C GCSEs including English and maths.

Professor John Howson, a teacher recruitment expert, views the EBac as a "Whitehall bubble" story, and a survey of last week's local newspapers suggests he may be right, with the new measure barely mentioned.

It is the local media that heads' leaders say can have the biggest influence on parents, most of whom Professor Howson believes will not even understand what the EBac is.

So heads need not lose too much sleep - for the time being at least.

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