Academies champion goes against Michael Gove

Bright pupils ready to sit papers early are held back because of fear over dropping down league tables, says chief executive

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Headteachers are being “pushed about” to act against the interest of their own pupils as a result of pressures from the Government and exam league tables, the boss of one of the biggest academy chains has warned. Jon Coles, chief executive of the United Learning Trust, which runs 36 academies, said: “I think it is quite easy for heads to feel they’re forced to do something which may not be in the best interest of the pupils.”

Mr Coles cited the Education Secretary Michael Gove’s recent decision to crack down on the number of pupils put in for their GCSE exams early – by only allowing the grades achieved at their first sitting of the exam to count towards the school’s league table ranking.

“I’ve got no doubt at all that a number of heads with reluctance did pull their children out of the November exam entry having thought it was the right thing to do,” he said in an interview with The Independent on Sunday. “They felt it might put their league table position at risk.

“However, it might not have been the right thing to do for the individual child – and remember C grades at GCSE are important not just for league table positions but for entry into the sixth form and university.”

He added: “There is something here that’s really, really important about heads having the confidence to do the right thing.”

Mr Coles acknowledged abuses of the early entry system. Earlier this year, the exams regulator Ofqual revealed that some pupils had been entered for the maths exam up to seven times in the hope of getting a C grade somewhere along the line.

“I think it is true there are examples of early entry and multiple entry not being in the children’s interest, but there are valid reasons too.” Pupils may be entered for exams early if they are very bright, to help boost confidence; and to allow a teacher to focus on vulnerable children – by splitting up the dates when pupils sit the exam.

A spokesman for the Department for Education said: “Schools should not be entering pupils into exams in the hope they can ‘bank’ a C. It is far better that children study the subject fully and take it when they are ready. We are not banning early entry. We are changing the system so only results in first exams count, but there is nothing to stop schools entering pupils early where they believe they will get the best result they can achieve.”