GCSE results study shows Government is missing key target on pupil achievement

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New GCSE results show the Government has failed to reach a key target for the number of top passes and looks set to miss a broader target for grades next year.

New GCSE results show the Government has failed to reach a key target for the number of top passes and looks set to miss a broader target for grades next year.

In one of the most important goals of Labour's education policy, schools were expected to improve A* to C passes at GCSE by two percentage points. But an analysis of this summer's results released yesterday showed the increase was only half the improvement needed.

A target to ensure the overwhelming majority of schoolchildren leave with five basic passes also looks unlikely to be met next year.

The results showed that nearly two-thirds of students failed to achieve good passes in English, maths and science. There was also concern about the number who left school with nothing. The total rose by nearly 1,000 to 33,678.

Overall the results indicated that the gap between the best and the rest in education was widening.

Ivan Lewis, an Education minister, acknowledged there was much more work to be done, but he stressed that significant improvements were being made. "On the whole we are very pleased it's moving in the right direction but we want to do a lot better," he said.

The missed target is a setback for the Secretary of State for Education, Charles Clarke, because it was agreed with the Treasury in return for extra funding. Under the target the percentage of 16-year-olds gaining at least five good GCSE passes was supposed to increase by two percentage points every year from 2002 until 2006.

This year the figure for England rose by just one point from 51.6 per cent to 52.6 per cent.

Another target requires 92 per cent of 16-year-olds to achieve five or more A* to G grades at GCSE including English and maths by 2004. This year only 86.3 per cent met this target, down 0.8 percentage points from last year.

Meanwhile the proportion of 16-year-olds achieving good passes in English, maths and science dropped to 38 per cent, down from 39 per cent last year.

There were particular concerns over the maths results which fell by one percentage point to 48 per cent and modern foreign languages which dropped by three percentage points to 36 per cent this year.

Alan Smithers, professor of education at Liverpool University, said: "You are not going to get much out of your life if you can't handle words or numbers properly," he said. "The maths and English results are just not good enough. If you leave school with no qualifications you are likely to end up doing a relatively unskilled job."

Margaret Murray, head of learning and skills at the CBI, warned that employers needed young people with good literacy and numeracy skills. "Without basic skills in English and maths, young people will find themselves unemployable," she said. "This should be the Government's top priority. We must remember that 34 per cent of firms say they are dissatisfied with the literacy and numeracy of young people.

Damian Green, the Conservative education spokesman, said: "This is an alarming trend. If we don't get the basics of education right, then we will not get anything else right either. It is terrifying that nearly two-thirds of 16-year-olds do not reach a reasonable standard in the three basic subjects."

Mr Lewis admitted that ministers had been concerned by this summer's GCSE maths results. "We have to do better in terms of maths," he said.

Progress was being made in recruiting maths graduates as teachers and this would improve the quality of education and results, he said.

Foreign languages were also a worry. He said the Government's plan to introduce languages into primary schools would be more effective than "forcing" young people to study languages to GCSE.

Asked if he was confident that the Government's targets will be met next year, Mr Lewis replied: "I'm confident that year on year we will continue to improve as a consequence of the reform and investment that we're putting in.

"That is really the most important thing, that the targets are really raising our game."

But John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said the government targets gave schools a "perverse incentive" to focus on borderline students at the expense of the less able.

"Heads remain disappointed that the main schools' performance indicator is still the proportion gaining five A-C grades. This figure does not give a true indication of a school's performance. It also gives schools a perverse incentive to concentrate on students at the C/D borderline at the expense of other young people."

Doug McAvoy, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, attacked the use of targets, which he said were "plucked out of the air".

"The Government has created a problem for itself by using these airy targets but from the school's point of view it's improvement that matters," he said.

'It's amazing how different it is to study at college and enjoy what you are doing'

Shelley Fitzpatrick hated secondary school and didn't do her GCSEs, becoming one of more than 30,000 pupils who leave school every year with no qualifications after 11 years' education.

She said yesterday: "I hated the way everything was compulsory. You had to do these things because they said so not because you wanted to or because it would be useful to you."

Despite a government campaign to engage disaffected pupils the problem is growing. Exam results released yesterday showed that 33,678 students achieved no GCSE passes this summer, compared with 32,754 last year.

Young people without qualifications face a difficult future. Many jobs and training are beyond their reach and they are at risk of drifting into crime. Most will find themselves trapped in low-skilled, dead-end jobs.

Shelley, 18, has made progress. After a year in a low-paid job, she enrolled at a further education college and achieved five top GCSE passes. She is studying A-levels in law, history and English literature and wants to do a law degree. She said: "After I left school I got a job in a local café doing waitressing and washing up. It was a real shock to me and made me realise that I had to do something with my life or I was going to be stuck in a dead-end job for ever. Taking five GCSEs in a year at college was tough but it's amazing how different it is to study at college and enjoy what you are doing."

Sarah Cassidy