Why league tables fail the children

Today, The TES reveals that some inner city schools are abandoning academic subjects in order to boost their league table places (page 1). This is perhaps the most shocking example of what economists call "the law of unintended consequences" since John Major first required schools to publish GCSE results in 1992.

On the face of it, the principle of offering good quality vocational courses to children living in disadvantaged areas, many of whom struggle to achieve in academic terms, is exemplary.

But everyone who cares about education, from the Secretary of State downwards, should be dismayed by the perverse and unanticipated effects that testing and league tables are clearly having on the system. The facts are these: First, our survey exposes the myth that vocational qualifications, as presently configured, are equivalent to four GCSEs. They are not. To be fair, ministers now acknowledge this and the controversial GNVQs that have helped to give so many schools a leg up the league tables are being replaced.

The new qualifications will not only need to be a good test of aptitude but must also reward effort, in exactly the same way as GCSEs do.

Second, the consequence for many inner-city children is that they are being denied the chance to pursue important academic subjects that could be their passport to a good university and successful career.

The national curriculum supposedly gives children an entitlement to study science, history or geography and modern languages until the age of 16. For many children, those options are being denied.

For others, choosing an academic subject may mean increased chance of failure, especially if they have to make do with demoralised or unqualified teachers working in departments that have been run down. That is not right.

Third, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that some schools try to conceal from parents the extent to which they have pulled the plug on academic courses.

This is understandable enough. They are simply acting in their own self-interest.

Having employed vocational qualifications to turn their schools around - and having gained the accolade of "most improved" - the last thing they wish to do is scare off parents who want their children to succeed academically.

That isn't right either.

This sorry mess does not mean schools should cut back on high quality vocational options for young people from 14 upwards. On the contrary, much more needs to be done in this respect.

If the Government is serious about offering choice it must act to ensure all pupils 14 to 19 are given options across a full range of academic and vocational subjects. That entitlement should include the right to be taught by suitably qualified subject teachers.

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