How the other half fails;Book of the Week;Books;Reviews

10th December 1999 at 00:00
Is success at GCSE for some being bought at the expense of failure for others? Ted Wragg examines the evidence

Rationing Education: policy, practice, reform and equity By David Gillborn and Deborah Youdell Open University Press pound;15.99 For the past 20 years GCSE results have improved each year. Every August a well-practised ritual is enacted: local and national media carry pictures of this year's winners, delighted 16-year-olds shrieking with joy, embracing their friends; a headteacher and teachers' union officer proclaim that it is all down to hard work by staff and pupils; a proud politician states that the Government's policies are working, so please vote for us again; and, lastly, Rhodes Boyson is dusted down and dragged out to proclaim that standards are in fact falling.

In Rationing Education, a detailed analysis of two secondary schools, David Gillborn and Deborah Youdell argue that these superficial images of universal success conceal a disturbing story of discrimination. The prominence given to "winners" in the current standards agenda, they believe, conceals the strategies that handed them their victory, thereby obscuring what it means to be a "loser". Those who miss out are often the most vulnerable: children from ethnic minorities and the poor.

In the two schools studied, one grant-maintained, the other a comprehensive, they found heavy emphasis on what they call the "A-C culture". "A school now lives or dies by its results," says a head of year in one of the schools, while a head of department in the other describes how, "the staff here are now under pressure to get A-to-Cs. I mean considerable pressure like, you know, that's never existed before."

In the case of the GM school the pressure is direct and unsubtle. GM schools regard themselves as part of a market, free of local authority patronage and control. GM teachers are given subject and personal targets, set by the head and governors, which include the percentage of A-C grades expected. Year-on-year improvement is demanded, and the whole campaign is tackled with military precision.

Not surprisingly, teachers spend most of their time working with CD borderline candidates. As one teacher says: "My estimated grades are about 51 to 52 per cent. So that means to hit those targets I've got to put the pressure on the Ds - what I've estimated to be a D. And I won't hit my 70 per cent unless I can convert those Ds into Cs."

Other GM staff describe how they feel "put under the cosh". Teachers have to give senior managers the names of pupils predicted to get a grade D "who if they whip themselves a bit harder possibly could go to a C". The head of Year 11 describes some of the "crazy" demands: "They think every child coming into schoolI must get five A to Cs. And if you try and explain to them that it's not possible for some to get that they say, 'Well, it's because you're not teaching them well enough'. And that's soul-destroying as a teacher."

The authors describe the marginalisation of those not in the A-C category. At the GM school a ranking of the predicted scores of the GCSE cohort is displayed on a notice board. Only the names of the 150 highest-ranked pupils are given; the bottom 40 children are omitted.

The methodology employed in this study is questionable. It is a qualitative analysis, but it would still be useful to know who was interviewed, on what criteria and with what focus. The authors are clearly partisan and, although interviewers have to reflect and sustain discussion, some of the questions to pupils seem leading and tendentious, using the argot of the group. Take the following exchange: Researcher: "Everyone seems to talk so much about A-to-CsI" Pupil: "Mmm, I know, that's what gets up my nose."

Researcher: "I heard there was a chart put up on the wall? With everybody's name and that on?" Pupil: "Yeah, that was embarrassing."

Different leading questions, equally tendentious, might have had the researcher saying: "So, since GCSE results have improved a lot, do you think people are grateful for what the school has done?"; or "Everyone seems to talk so much about failure", inviting a "What about all our successes?" response. After all, the investigators solicited the "talk so much about A-to-Cs" by asking teachers "What counts as having done well in the GCSEs? What are you aiming for?". No one should be surprised if responses refer to grades, thus completing a self-justifying circle.

Despite these reservations, the book is a powerful piece of polemic, supported by a strong argument that there is a shocking underlying story to what, on the surface, is a national success. Public assessment and evaluation conventions affect, for good or ill, what happens in classrooms.

Another book might have reported enthusiasm from pupils heading for three or four A-C grades who, under pressure to achieve, got five, and then embarked on a higher education course they had not envisaged.

The question this book asks so vividly, however, is whether success for some is being bought at the expense of others.

Ted Wragg is professor of education at the University of Exeter

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