Bright pupils 'held back by league tables'

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The best GCSE candidates are not being given the chance to excel due to government exam league tables, a head teachers' leader warns today.

The league tables' focus on the percentage of pupils obtaining five A* to C grades (including maths and English) has prompted schools to put less emphasis on stretching the brightest pupils, according to Dr John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).

Instead, many have held special sessions for pupils thought likely to be on the borders of a C- or D-grade pass to make sure they achieve a C-grade pass. Those struggling to get a lower-grade GCSE pass have also been neglected, he argued.

Dr Dunford described the situation as "one of the perverse incentives" of the exam-performance tables. "There would be more A*-, A- and B-grade passes [if league tables didn't exist] because people would have put more resources into getting the highest grades," he told The Independent.

"There would also have been more D- and E-grade passes because you would have put more help into those who are struggling and made sure they get a qualification as well. There would be fewer C-grade passes as well. Instead, they concentrate on the C/D borderline cases."

The results of this year's exams – which were sat by more than 600,000 young people – will be announced tomorrow. The Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove, has promised a review of exam league tables to ensure they paint a broader picture of what schools have achieved.

Dr Dunford is pressing for schools to be ranked on what he calls a "capped point score" per pupil instead. Under this system, the school would be ranked on the average point score achieved by pupils in their best eight subjects (so long as these included maths and English).

"If you don't cap it, you would end up with students being put in for as many GCSEs as possible to get a high point score," he said.

League tables have also had an impact on the subject choice of pupils – with many schools putting young people in for vocational qualifications such as the BTec, which are deemed to be worth the equivalent of four GCSEs.

Government academies in particular have been singled out for doing this. However, the existing academies point out that they mostly serve disadvantaged areas or have taken over from failing schools – where pupils are thought more likely to benefit from vocational qualifications.

Tomorrow's results are expected to reveal a relatively poor showing in maths and English compared with other subjects. Since the decision by the previous Labour government to focus on pupils getting five A*- to C-grade passes including maths and English in league tables, schools have put pupils from a wider range of ability in for these two exams.

As a result, only 4.1 per cent of candidates obtained an A* grade in English and 4.6 per cent in maths. Similarly, 62.7 per cent achieved an A*- to C-grade pass in English and 57.2 per cent in maths compared with an average of 67.1 per cent overall.

Professor Alan Smithers, the head of the Centre for Education and Employment at the University of Buckingham, said: "You'd have expected quite a lot of improvement in English and maths with the effect of the literacy and numeracy strategies in primary schools now filtering through to secondary schools."

Overall, tomorrow's results are expected to show a rise in both the percentage of A* grades awarded and A* to C grades. However, the overall pass rate of 98.6 per cent is unlikely to see any significant change.