Is it time for league tables to focus on pupils at 18?

17th February 2012 at 00:00
Former DfE official questions GCSE performance measure

Why are the results of GCSEs taken by 16-year-olds used to judge secondary schools when the compulsory age of education and training is due to be raised to 18?

This question has been posed by Jon Coles, who until December was the government official in charge of school standards. He argued that the raising of the participation age to 17 next year, and to 18 in 2015, offers the perfect opportunity to rethink and redesign school accountability.

"It is and ought to be seen as a paradigm shift in our education system," the former Department for Education director-general for schools said. "We are saying that every young person should be in some form of education or training until at least the age of 18."

Mr Coles, who now leads a chain of academies and independent schools, suggested that school performance measures should follow suit. "I think we should try very hard to articulate what it is that we think everyone by the age of 18 should know and be able to do," he told a Cambridge Assessment conference. "What are the skills, qualities, experience, knowledge and understanding that they ought to have in order to be successful in the rest of their lives?"

Mr Coles was still at the DfE when it announced a plan to introduce new school performance measures of "how young people do when they leave school" in November 2010.

Last August, TES revealed that, as part of these "destination" measures, the Department was thinking of ranking schools according to the proportion of sixth-formers they send to Oxford and Cambridge universities. But even if this controversial plan - which heads believe could be "very misleading" - does go ahead, there has been no suggestion that it should supplant GCSE results as the main performance indicator.

Mr Coles' new job as chief executive of the United Church Schools Trust and United Learning Trust, has shown him that things are very different in some schools. "Among our group, one of the things that is clear in independent schools is the extent to which they focus on university destinations and A levels as measures of performance compared with the maintained system, which continues to focus overwhelmingly on GCSE performance," he said. "This is a moment where we could think about how we could change the accountability system."

Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, agreed that there was a problem with a main school performance measure based around 16-year-olds when the aim is that they should be educated for another two years. He believed that a system centred on a portfolio of qualifications that pupils pick up as they progress might make sense. But Mr Trobe also noted an obvious flaw in the idea of basing a system around the results or destinations of pupils aged 18 or older: where would 11-16 state secondaries feature?

"Anyone working in those schools would say, 'Why am I being judged on destinations post-16 when I have had no influence over pupils' last two years of education?'" he said.

The DfE had similar reservations. In a document seen by TES last year, it rejected the idea of judging schools on the proportion of 16-year-olds who eventually attended university. This week, a spokeswoman for the Department said: "We are making much information available about school performance so that parents and everybody else can look down into the information and pick out what's important to them."

Anthony Little, the headmaster of Eton College, argued last week that GCSEs should be scrapped in favour of a school leaving certificate. And while the standing of the GCSE continues to decline, calls for a school accountability system based on something else are only likely to grow.


Raising the participation age to 18 was hailed by the last Labour government as a historic change comparable with the raising of the school leaving age to 16 in 1972.

In fact, it is the compulsory age of participation in education and training that is to be raised to 17 next year and 18 in 2015. Part-time training courses taken by those in work will also count.

The coalition government has continued with the plan, but rowed back on its most controversial aspect: enforcement. It said that "to avoid criminalising young people" the enforcement process will be "introduced progressively over a longer period".

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