Richard Garner: Latest performance formula is laudable but totally baffling

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The kindest comment one could make about the new way of showing how well a school has performed at GCSE is that it is obscure in the extreme.

The kindest comment one could make about the new way of showing how well a school has performed at GCSE is that it is obscure in the extreme.

The closest analogy is that it is rather like the Duckworth /Lewis method - devised by two academics to determine which team is the winner in a rain-affected cricket match. Nobody in the world of cricket has any idea how they devised the formula.

Neither would many people involved in education understand how officials from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Government's exams watchdog, decided that an A* grade in a traditional GCSE academic subject was worth 58 points, a D grade in a vocational GCSE - like leisure and tourism or health and beauty - 68, and a distinction in an intermediate GNVQ in information technology 220.

In fact, therefore, the only difference between Duckworth /Lewis and the GCSE point score system is that - by and large - cricketers think academics have a formula which produces a fair result.

However, while the furore over the GCSE system might enjoy its Monty Python moments - the headline in yesterday's London Evening Stand- ard said that cookery was more important than physics, for instance - it does have its serious side. It means that a struggling school - say, any of the 71 on the list today of those who have failed to meet the Government's target of getting 20 per cent of pupils to obtain five A* to C-grade GCSE passes - would do better in the league tables if it persuaded pupils to ditch maths and English and concentrate all their efforts on a GNVQ plus one other subject instead.

Indeed, research published by The Independent yesterday revealed many are already doing that. Of the 10 schools labelled as most improved in last year's league table, seven had failed to get 50 per cent of their pupils to achieve a top grade pass in maths and English.

Independent schools said today's league tables "no longer have any value whatever in reporting on meaningful achievement in key academic subjects or serious vocational studies".

Today's new-style league tables are not, though, a New Labour con trick to massage the figures and make the Government look good. Even under the old system, devised before Labour took office, more weight was given to vocational qualifications.

It is a laudable aim to try to give every qualification some meaning but, if the Government is to persuade the Confederation of British Industry that it is serious in tackling the lack of basic skills among the workforce of tomorrow, it must reconsider this package.

In some ways it is a pity that this ghastly formula emerged this year. Today's league tables for the first time include a measure for showing which schools have done the most to improve their pupils' performance between starting at secondary school at the age of 11 and reaching 16. That development has to be welcomed.