Editorial: No easy answers

23rd October 1998 at 01:00
Education is a fiendishly complex beast. In the same week that we hear the Government wants to set GCSE targets for secondary schools, the head of an examinations board tells us that comparing exam standards over time is almost impossible, and a research project concludes that inspections by the Office of Standards in Education have a negative effect on schools' results.

Cynics might argue that one method of raising those stubborn scores would be to cancel all OFSTED inspections. There might be rejoicing in staffrooms up and down the land - but this would be no real solution. Schools must be publicly accountable, and no one can be particularly proud of the standards achieved in the pre-OFSTED era.

What those findings do suggest is that people - and institutions - can't do everything at once, and tend to concentrate on what is most urgently demanded. If the imperative, one summer term, is to prepare for an inspection, then that will be the focus. It is highly regrettable that schools in this situation take their eye off the examination ball, but hardly surprising.

Similarly, we know that league tables which focus on five good GCSE grades have polarised the results, since many schools have concentrated on pushing their pupils over the CD hurdle, neglecting the lowest achievers. The overall points scores which are planned for the next set of tables are supposed to solve this problem - and we have yet to find out what interesting unintended consequences will ensue.

International comparisons show that our new ambitions are still very modest: half our 16-year-olds getting five good GCSEs, and 95 per cent at least one A*-G, by 2002. Yet in most developed countries, well over three-quarters of the age group graduate from secondary school at 18 with a full baccalaureat-type certificate. There is currently much talk of our results "plateauing", as if we can't squeeze any more out of our exhausted system; yet we are still nowhere near these levels.

The fact is, we need complex solutions. Soon, we hope, the results of the literacy and numeracy strategies, the efforts to reduce exclusions and truancy, the numerous out-of-school initiatives, the extra books and computers - in short, all the effects of last year's White Paper - should start to kick in. If they don't, we're in trouble.

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