GCSE results reveal 'two-tier' schools

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Labour is presiding over a return by stealth to the era of grammar and secondary modern schools, a study suggests today. Schools – including many of the Government's flagship academies – are switching from academic GCSE subjects to boost their rankings in league tables, according to the independent think-tank Civitas.

Results out today will confirm that thousands of teenagers are still leaving school without top- grade GCSE passes in maths and English. The results for 600,000 pupils will show an improvement in the percentage obtaining A* to C grade passes in maths and English – to about 56 per cent and 63 per cent respectively. However, that will still mean about 300,000 students fail to obtain top grades in both subjects, despite the Government's insistence that schools must publish their results in the basics.

Annette Brooke, the Liberal Democrat spokeswoman for children, said: "After 11 years of a Labour government, most young people are still failing to achieve five good GCSEs including maths and English. If we are going to have a world-class education system, we must do more to promote educational achievement, especially among the most disadvantaged children."

Schools are encouraged to move away from academic subjects because exams experts have ranked some vocational subjects as equivalent to four GCSE passes. "There is a grave danger that academic study is being reserved for the high performers, which will widen socio-economic divides," the Civitas report says.

"If this were to escalate, there is a very real possibility of a reversion to a system akin to the grammar/ secondary modern divide – though arguably in less meritocratic a form.

"That a purportedly equalising Labour government should be the architect of such a divide would be tragic irony. Significantly, though, it is all too apparent that it is the system which has lost interest in the pupils – largely because they run the risk of not delivering the right A* to C performance through academic GCSEs."

The report acknowledges that General National Vocational Qualifications, which were ranked as worth four GCSEs, have now been abolished. But it points out that some qualifications – such as the Edexcel BTEC first diploma – are still considered to be worthy of four passes.

It cites hitherto unpublished research by Roger Titcombe, a former headteacher, showing a disparaging gap between the number of pupils at some flagship academies obtaining five A* to C GCSE passes without maths and English, and the numbers when the two subjects are included. These include Marlowe Academy in Ramsgate, Kent, where the figures for last year were 39 per cent and 7 per cent, respectively, and Barnsley Academy (62 per cent and 20 per cent).

A breakdown of results by subjects showed no top grade passes at Marlowe in either history or geography, and very few in European languages. A similar picture emerged at Barnsley and the Greig Academy in Haringey, north London.

The Schools minister, Andrew Adonis, insisted the report's key findings were "wrong", saying: "The achievement gap between children from deprived backgrounds and the more affluent is closing. Just because a pupil is on free school meals does not mean they are destined to fail at school. Many schools in the most deprived areas are achieving excellent GCSE results."

He added: "It is ridiculous to suggest that performance tables are designed to meet government targets. For example, two years ago, we deliberately changed the tables to include achievement in English and maths. This brought about a big decline in reported performance but we made this change because it best served the needs of pupils, parents and employers."

Today's results are expected to see the number of A* or A grade passes rise to nearly 20 per cent for the first time. Last year, 19.5 per cent of pupils were awarded these grades. The overall pass rate, though, is set to remain the same at about 98 per cent.