GCSE gap grows between best and least able pupils    

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The Independent Online

The widening gap between able and disaffected pupils was highlighted yesterday in official statistics showing ministers were on course to meet their target for top-grade GCSE passes but that more children left school with no qualifications at all this summer.

The widening gap between able and disaffected pupils was highlighted yesterday in official statistics showing ministers were on course to meet their target for top-grade GCSE passes but that more children left school with no qualifications at all this summer.

The Government's target for 95 per cent of students to pass at least one GCSE by 2002 now looks unlikely to be met because the number of teenagers who failed every exam rose for the first time since the targets were set in 1998. More than 33,208 students left school without a single GCSE pass this summer, up from 32,500 last year. That is a slight drop in the failure rate, to 5.5 per cent from 5.6 per cent last year, explained by a 4 per cent rise in the number of 16-year-olds.

But this marginal improvement still means ministers are unlikely to achieve their target of cutting the failure rate to 5 per cent by next summer. Teaching unions said reducing the failure rate became increasingly difficult when dealing with the least able and most disaffected teenagers. The failure rate has fallen by just 1.1 percentage points in the three years since the targets were announced.

The Government is, though, on course to meet its other GCSE target – for 50 per cent of pupils to achieve at least five A*-C grades at GCSE by 2002. This summer 49.8 per cent of students reached this standard compared with 49.2 per cent last year. Stephen Timms, the School Standards minister, said: "The Government's commitment to driving up standards is delivering real progress. We set ourselves a challenging target – that 50 per cent ... should get five or more GCSE passes by 2002 – and we are on track to meet it.

"The students who received these results now have a solid basis on which to continue their academic or vocational education."

But the Secondary Heads Association condemned the current exam system as "too time-consuming, confused and costly" and said league tables pushed schools into concentrating on pupils on the C/D grade boundary. It called for the abolition of league tables, the scrapping of the GCSE as an exams taken by all 16-year-olds and its replacement with modular tests taken by students of all ages whenever they were ready.

John Dunford, the union's general secretary, said: "The key to successful implementation of change for the 14 to 19 age group is reform of the examinations system, which is now too time-consuming, confused and costly. Qualifications should no longer be age- related for 16 and 18-year-olds. More just-in-time examinations and more online testing should take place. National league tables of achievement at age 16 and 18 have no part to play in a progressive qualifications structure."

Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said that achieving year-on-year improvements with the least able pupils became increasingly difficult. Getting every single youngster to pass an exam gets progressively more and more difficult as you get down to the bottom of the really hopeless cases," he said.

"Schools do concentrate a lot on the kids at the C/D margins because of the league tables. Unfortunately, this means that kids at both the top and the bottom ends of the spectrum might suffer."

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