NATIONAL targets for secondary schools should be based on lower grade GCSEs so that weaker pupils get their fair share of time and attention, says an Institute for Public Policy Research report.
League tables based on top grades should be scrapped, says the left-leaning think tank, because they have helped to increase the gap between the strongest and the weakest.
These recommendations are part of a strategy to measure social exclusion. The report has been submitted to the Government's Social Exclusion Unit.
The authors recommend that education targets be based on the proportion of 16-year-olds failing to get at least 20 GCSE points - roughly equivalent to five D grade GCSEs. Annual league tables should be based on average GCSE scores rather than the proportion of top grades, they add.
"Over the period in which these targets and school league tables have been operating, there is clear evidence of a widening of educational inequalities at the most crucial stage, the end of compulsory schooling," says the report.
Between 1991 and 1996 the top tenth of students increased their average GCSE points score by nearly nine points. For students in the middle of the range, the improvement was nearly seven points. But for the second tenth up, the improvement is only four points while the bottom tenth registered almost nil gain.
"By focusing on the attainment of five or more higher grade GCSEs the tables have given schools incentives to concentrate on the pupils at the borderline of grades D and C," say the authors.
The Government's current strategy to limit inequality involves cutting the proportion of 16-year-old school leavers with no qualifications at all. The IPPR says this will make little difference. Students with four low grade GCSEs fare little better in the jobs market than students with no certificates.
The report says five low-grade GCSEs marks would be more significant. This five D or E grades level is currently reached by 86 per cent of pupils.
l The gap between the strongest and weakest pupils widened in 1997 according to new figures from the Liberal Democrats and education lobby group Article 26. The average point score for the top 20 per cent of pupils (combined GCSE GNVQ) increased by 5.4 grade points between 1992 and 1997, said education spokesman Don Foster.
Meanwhile the bottom 20 per cent only improved by 2.1 points over the same period.
"Without change, the Government's approach to target setting will aggravate rather than reduce relative disadvantage," said Mr Foster. "Rather than countering Tory failure, Labour is in danger of compounding it."
"Social Exclusion Indicators" by Peter Robinson and Carey Oppenheim is available from the IPPR at 30-32 Southampton St, London, WC2E 7RA price o6