Gove's GCSE targets will hurt gifted pupils, claims Tory MP

Schools will ignore gifted pupils and those with special needs as a result of a new government target for ranking them, the Conservative chairman of the influential Commons select committee on education said yesterday.

Graham Stuart accused Michael Gove, the Secretary of State for Education, of a U-turn over setting new targets for all schools to get 50 per cent of their pupils to obtain five A* to C grades at GCSE. In one of the most forthright criticisms so far of the Government's education policy by a Conservative MP, Mr Stuart gave warning the target could lead to up to 50 per cent of secondary schools being classified as "failing". At present, 870 out of the 3,000 secondary schools in England fail to reach the target of half of their pupils gaining five A* to C grades. "You can imagine the hundreds of schools above them will be paranoid to the point of total distraction at the prospect of joining that 'failing' group," Mr Stuart added. "You could have 40, almost 50 per cent, of the secondary schools in this country utterly obsessed to the expense of everything else to avoid being in that category."

The result would be pupils put on "dead-end courses just to help schools pass a mark", he said. "If you've got to meet the 50 per cent target, do you admit the special-needs child to your schools?" he asked. "Is this going to help call attention to the child with special education needs who has no chance whatsoever of getting five GCSEs, or is a headteacher going to put most attention on the progress of the borderline [D to C grade] pupil? Is the child who is definitely going to get a B grade whatever happens going to get attention? It seems to me the answer must be 'no'."

Mr Stuart said successive governments had failed to focus on accountability measures that focused on the performance of every child and it appeared the present Government was "backtracking" on moving away from a focus on five good GCSE grades for all, including in maths and English.

The Coalition's approach will, Mr Stuart said, mean that schools would "like some demented maniac keep moving the spotlight on to another area... [and] sure enough, if you shine on another area it tends to improve, but it comes at the expense of elsewhere".

He advocated ranking schools on "contextual valued-added" scores – whereby pupils were given a ranking on what they had achieved when they started and then given a new one on taking their GCSEs. This would show whether the school had improved the performance of its pupils.

Under the Government's proposals, schools will have to reach the 50 per cent target by 2015. At present, the target is 35 per cent. When Mr Gove increased the target last month, he said: "I realise that in stating this aspiration some will criticise too strong a focus on testing." He added that an outstanding school would also look after the pastoral needs of its pupils.

A spokesman for the Department for Education insisted yesterday: "The new standards are judged on the progress that all pupils make, not just attainment – to take into account schools which have very challenging intakes and to make sure that their hard work is properly recognised."