Last week’s GCSE results provided conclusive proof, if any were needed, of league tables’ immense influence over schools.
The English Baccalaureate (EBac) - recording the proportion of students achieving GCSE grade Cs or better in English, two sciences, maths, history or geography and a language - was a case in point.
There are no penalties for schools that perform poorly against the measure, yet as the first cohort to complete full two year courses since the EBac’s introduction sat their GCSEs, entries in French, German, Spanish, geography and history all climbed dramatically.
In era where the government emphasises the benefits of school autonomy, it seems ministers actually enjoy more control over them than ever. All that is required is a statistical nudge and teachers, trained in a culture of targets and tables, immediately jump to attention.
Sometimes that is a good thing – a revival in foreign languages is long overdue. But this summer’s GCSE results also illustrate a darker side of school hyper accountability, with schools doing whatever it takes to get the results they need.
Questions have also been raised about whether plans to overhaul the accountability system – which could be announced by the government as soon as next month – will stop schools trying to game the results.
Last week’s results showed a big spike in the number of under-16 sitting GCSEs, with early entries up by 39 per cent in a year. In maths one in 10 students – 89,353 – had been entered three times for the GCSE in a year.
Even exam boards, which stand to earn millions in extra fees from multiple entries, are clear that the practice is “doing real damage to education”. The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) warned that schools were being turned into “exam factories” and that employers didn’t want “exam robots”.
Meanwhile, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) blamed the “perverse incentives” created by the “huge pressure” of accountability measures.
The government is well aware of the potentially damaging effects of such measures. It is already tackling schools’ exploitation of “pseudo-vocational” qualifications, with multiple GCSE equivalences, to boost league table positions.
And last week education minister, Elizabeth Truss, said the government was equally determined to address the “troubling” increase in early and multiple GCSE entries.
Her aides reeled changes likely to make a difference, from a new Ofsted framework that will encourage inspectors to challenge schools over exam entry tactics, to the end of January exams sessions and a big reduction in re-sit opportunities.
But the biggest tool in the government’s armoury is the accountability system itself. Reformed secondary school league table measures will be announced this autumn, possibly as soon as next month. The problem is they are likely to create perverse incentives of their own.
Ministers have proposed two new indicators:
*An average point score showing the progress every student makes between Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 4 across eight subjects including English, maths and at least three more EBac subjects
*The percentage of pupils achieving the equivalent of today’s GCSE C grade in English and maths
But charity the Wellcome Trust, which funds medical research, has claimed that as schools seek to maximise their performance under the new regime there could be falls in physics and chemistry GCSE entries.
Meanwhile the CentreForum think-tank has argued that the government should drop its proposed English and maths measure because it would perpetuate the current over emphasis on C/D grade borderline students.
In a report, backed by Conservative education select committee chairman Graham Stuart and ASCL, it says that English and maths should instead be given double weighting in the points score measure to create a system that would encourage schools to focus on all pupils.
But the CBI is less optimistic, warning that any accountability system based on GCSE performance will to lead schools feeling “forced to game the system, wherever the bar is drawn - to the detriment of pupils, teachers and employers”.
There is an alternative method of accountability – Ofsted inspections. But their outcomes have become more closely linked to statistical indicators like GCSE results in recent years.
The two could be decoupled to create a more time-consuming but less data-reliant inspection system. But that would cost money that an austerity driven government is unlikely to provide.