Secondary school tables: Headteachers attack 'unrealistic' exam targets

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Headteachers attacked the Government's obsession with setting targets for schools yesterday when the latest tables of GCSE and A-level results were published.

Leaders of the National Association of Head Teachers called on ministers to suspend publication of the exam league tables until a new system had been agreed that gave a better idea of teaching quality in the 3,500 secondary schools.

A start has been made on what are termed "value added" tables with a pilot involving 200 schools this year. These tables show what pupils have achieved at the age of 11 when they arrive at secondary school and then measure how much improvement has been ach-ieved in their performance by the time they sit national curriculum tests at 14. A similar exercise is then conducted to show how much they then go on to improve by the time they take GCSEs.

Headteachers argue that today's "raw data" league tables and the Government's tough regime of targets for GCSE passes (15 per cent of pupils with at least five A* to C grade passes in at least one of the past three years by 2002, 20 per cent by 2004 and 25 per cent by 2006) simply lead to an annual "naming and shaming" of schools that fail to reach the targets.

John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, said of the targets: "We have been angry about this policy right from its inception. It completely undermines those schools who work in some of the most challenging circumstances.

"We regard five A* to C grade passes as being the wrong way to measure these schools – a lot of whom have a very mobile school population who won't be with the school for long enough for it to have made a difference by the time exams come along.

"Also, the expectation that there will be annual rises in the five A* to Cs every year is completely at odds with reality."

This year's tables show that nearly half of the schools failing to reach the 15 per cent target had passed this hurdle last year.

Ministers are planning to introduce a national "value added" formula for every school next year, which is aimed at helping parents to see the difference teachers have made to a pupil's performance. To this end, they will also be publishing the results of national curriculum tests at 14 for the first time.

Their target-setting agenda won backing from local education authority officers yesterday. One senior official working with inner-city schools said: "It does help. It can also help restore morale. You should see the joy on some teachers' faces when they reach a demanding target."

Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education, said: "Schools across the country have made good progress this year. With 104 out of a total of 150 education authorities increasing the percentage of their pupils achieving five or more good GCSEs, we are making excellent progress across every region."

Meanwhile, two comprehensives that were relaunched in a blaze of publicity under the Government's FreshStart scheme have the worst truancy and absence rates in England, according to the tables. East Brighton College of Media Arts saw its truancy rate almost double this year, while pupils at Firfield Community School in Newcastle upon Tyne, which was closed and reopened with a new name, missed the most lessons through authorised absence, where parents vouch for them having time off – 22.4 per cent, equivalent to a day a week. The school will close next year.