'Most improved' schools fail in core subjects

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The Independent Online

New research casts doubt over whether schools singled out in government exam league tables as the most improved in the country deserve their ranking.

New research casts doubt over whether schools singled out in government exam league tables as the most improved in the country deserve their ranking.

A study of the 10 most improved secondary schools in last year's tables shows more than half the pupils in seven of them failed to get top grade A* to C grade passes in either maths or English.

Almost all relied instead on putting the majority of their pupils in for GNVQs (vocational qualifications) in information technology or science, deemed to be worth the equivalent of four GCSE passes.

The research by a retired headteacher, David Brown, sent to The Independent, comes on the eve of the publication of this year's tables tomorrow. It underlines concerns by the former chief schools inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson, who headed a government inquiry into exam reforms, that pupils can achieve the benchmark of five A* to C grade GCSE passes - without either English or maths.

"Schools could theoretically top a future GCSE five A* to C grade league table without a pupil gaining a GCSE pass at any grade in any subject," Mr Brown wrote in his report. He argued that all schools would have to do was to put all of their pupils in for the intermediate GNVQs in information technology and science and - if they passed - they would be granted eight A* to C grade passes.

Mr Brown suggested that many schools regarded as "failing" by ministers because less than a quarter of pupils got five top grade passes were, in fact, doing better in the core subjects than those topping the most-improved list. "Despite regular public condemnation from the Government, such schools are frequently well regarded by their pupils."

Richard Baker, head of Croxteth Community School in Liverpool - one of the top 10 - admitted encouraging pupils to take GNVQs to improve its league position. "When you're called to the Department for Education and Skills and told you'll close in two years unless you get 25 per cent of pupils getting five A* to C grades, it does tend to concentrate the mind," he said. "We looked at how we could best get up to that figure and realised GNVQs were a means of getting four A* to C grades that maybe our children would never otherwise get."

He said that only 17 per cent of pupils had got top-grade GCSE passes in English and 6 per cent in maths. However, he said that the GNVQs did involve much more work. He added that the "pretty intensive" nature of the modules was good grounding for pupils to do well in other subjects.

Mr Brown stressed that his research did not mean that any of the "top 10" were poor schools. "It does, however, suggest that the 'top 10' schools may not be any better than a large number of other schools getting much lower percentage five A* to C grades," he added.

A spokesman for the DfES said that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority had ruled that the GNVQs - which comprise six units of study - "were deemed to be the equivalent of four GCSEs".

"Achievements in the GNVQ qualification are therefore legitimately included in the performance tables," he added.