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David Gillborn and Deborah Youdell argue that since the publication of results schools are rationing education, and therefore widening the attainment gap.

THIS week sees the publication of the GCSE performance tables. Since their inception the tables have charted a year-on-year improvement in the proportion of pupils attaining five or more higher grades. But they have not recorded the equally important fact that inequalities of attainment, between certain social class and ethnic groups, are growing ("Learning gulf divides rich and poor pupils", TES, April 2). Our research suggests that these two trends are directly related - league tables are driving up inequality.

Our project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, involved two years studying the day-to-day life of two secondary schools as they sought to improve their league-table position. Teachers and pupils in the schools are under incredible pressure and they share a feeling that the A-to-C benchmark has become all-important.

Here is a sample of the comments from the teachers: "I've had to make decisions I know have undermined their self-esteem".

"A school now lives or dies on its results".

"The hard fact is that Cs are worth very much more than anything below a C".

The importance of league table success has led schools to develop new ways of identifying and encouraging pupils who might - with extra help - attain the five A-to-C benchmark. Increasingly schools are rationing their attention so as to concentrate on children at the "borderline" between grades D and C. This group are subjected to a range of strategies, including extra teacher support; one-to-one mentoring and the like.

In addition to the "borderline" pupils, this rationing process creates two other groups. First, those thought to be safe bets for five higher grades, and last, those judged as below the level where such attainment is possible. Children in the first group, the highest attainers, are much less of a priority than was previously the case. Schools must do everything they can to recruit such children but, once through the school gates, they are no longer the centre of attention. Nevertheless, the Government's concern for "gifted and talented" pupils (in initiatives such as Excellence in Cities) confirms that they are certainly not forgotten.

At the other end of the spectrum, however, are those children thought unable to contribute to the five A-to-C benchmark. They are relegated to bottom sets; taught by less experienced teachers; and fall further and further behind. Our research shows that this group includes a disproportionately high number of working-class children; pupils with special educational needs; and African Caribbean young people.

As part of our project we also canvassed the views of pupils. Here are some of their comments: "They say they believe in equal opportunities, but they don't"

"You have to get a C, otherwise it's a fail".

"They don't seem to care about what we want to do for ourselves".

In their attempts to improve their league table performance, schools are trying to identify pupils' likely attainments earlier and with greater finality than at any time since the move to comprehensive education. Research shows that setting by ability, which the Government strongly advocates, is happening more often and earlier in pupils' school careers.

We found additional forms of selection are also being used. These include creating "sink" groups of pupils with special educational needs or for whom English is an additional language, and selection to different types of subject under the guise of guided "option" choices in Year 9. Even where a school is firmly committed to mixed ability and an inclusive ethos, GCSE regulations now require most subjects to select pupils for tiered exams that place a fixed limit on their achievement.

These approaches are often pursued with the best of intentions. But their effects are to separate out working-class and Black students, who are disproportionately judged as lacking the necessary "ability" or the right "attitude" to succeed.

If the pattern of growing inequality is to change, policy-makers at all levels will have to support teachers in their attempts to value equity and opportunity.

There is general agreement that the current tables are flawed; why not suspend publication for a year or two while a better method is found? At local authority and school level there are relatively simple things that can be done to disrupt the unintended but seemingly inevitable slide towards greater selection and inequality. Ethnic monitoring is a good way of raising questions about who is being denied opportunity.

Bringing about change will take time but a first step would be to question the value of league tables that reward the rationing of education.

David Gillborn and Deborah Youdell work in policy studies at the Institute of Education, University of London. "Rationing Education" is published by Open University Press on December 1

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