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Primary Education News
News Disadvantaged schools face uphill struggle to meet GCSE targets
Low-attaining pupils hit by tougher exams and a form of quota on how many achieve certain grades
Headteachers are warning that tougher GCSE exams and a form of quota on the number of students who achieve certain grades are in danger of leaving vulnerable schools branded as failures.
This year's GCSE results – which showed a small fall in achievement nationwide – appear to have disproportionately affected struggling schools and disadvantaged pupils, especially schools sitting close to the government's target of 40% of pupils getting five A*–C grades including English and maths.
Stephen Ball, the principal of the New Charter academy in Ashton-under-Lyne, in Tameside, Greater Manchester, said that unexpectedly poor results in this year's GCSE English exam had plunged the school well below the government's 40% floor target, which he attributes to changes in the grade boundaries.
Last summer, changes by an exam board set off a national controversy after it hiked its grade boundaries for the GCSE English results, meaning that marks which in the previous year would have gained a C were instead given a D.
Ball says a similar thing happened this year, when the exam boards refused to issue grades for exams taken in English before the summer, and then revised their grade boundaries after exams were taken.
"Last year we fell from 46% getting C or above to 39%, which put us just below the government's floor targets. This year the boundaries changed again, taking the school's pass rate down from 39% to 33%.
"The impact on the school's morale is bad. It's really rock bottom," Ball said.
As a result, the school had 45 pupils with passes in maths and three other GCSE subjects but who counted as failing to meet government performance targets because of their English grades, including 30 who came within three marks of getting a C.
Another headteacher of a school below the 40% floor, who did not want to be named, confirmed a similar pattern, saying that more than half of the school's pupils who expected to get Cs, "in some cases comfortably", instead received Ds.
"The problem is an exam system that is essentially a quota system, in which only 60% can get a pass mark," Ball said. "What seems to be happening is that there is not a clear criterion for passing GCSE English."
Bill Watkin, operational director of SSAT UK, the schools network formerly known as the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, said the current system "disadvantages the disadvantaged," with schools in deprived areas facing an uphill struggle in turning around academic performance as exam grades got tougher.
Watkin said from his discussions with headteachers and principals, it appeared that the grades for low-attaining pupils were unexpectedly hit this year, while high attainers had done better than expected. One possible explanation was that grade boundaries had not been evenly distributed, he said.
Ball said he had never experienced a similar situation in 25 years of teaching, including 20 years as a headteacher. His school sits in the most disadvantaged part of Tameside, with half the school's pupils eligible for free school meals, while one in four speak English as an additional language and 12% are classed as special needs – all above the national averages.
"For us, we're very vulnerable. Our intake is very poor, our intake is below the national average. A lot of our work is around the C-D borderline," said Ball.
"We're doing our damnedest to get the kids across the C-D border, so we are very vulnerable to boundary changes."