Here we go again on the Government's education rollercoaster. For more than a decade, schools have battled to secure their place in the league tables by pushing as many of their pupils as possible through the hoop of five GCSEs at A* to C. They have used GNVQs (they count for four GCSEs) and subjects like drama and sport which motivate teenagers but draw the derision of the "standards-are-falling" brigade. Now, ministers are changing tack. Five good GCSEs, they say, are not enough. In future, they won't count unless they include English and maths. The effect on some schools will be dramatic. More than 100 will fall at least 1,000 places in the tables.
No one doubts the importance of the basic skills of maths and English for school-leavers: Sir Mike Tomlinson argued the case persuasively in last year's report on 14 to 19 education. This week, a college principal says that, without these qualifications, students will struggle in further and higher education. He is right. Existing vocational courses are a poor substitute.
But the crude mechanism of league tables is the wrong way to tackle a complicated problem. Most of the schools that will plummet down the tables educate a high proportion of disadvantaged pupils. Ministers are right to have high expectations of pupils from poor backgrounds but there are limits. Graham Hollinshead, a head whose school will tumble 2,500 places in the tables, points out that his staff are already working as hard as they can to get pupils over the maths and English hurdle. The issue here is not poverty of aspiration but poverty.
Better vocational courses would do more to raise English and maths standards than any amount of fiddling with league tables. Our Dutch neighbours manage to teach literacy and numeracy through motivating, work-related courses very effectively.
We need hundreds of imaginative ways to equip pupils with basic skills.
They will only be found by teachers as they decide what works for their classes. The Government's controversial white paper talks of setting schools free. It should set them free from league tables.