Weaker pupils sacrificed in grades chase

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Less-able pupils are paying the price for competition in education as schools cut down on the numbers taking GCSEs, teachers' leaders said last night.

As new figures revealed in yesterday's Independent suggested that thousands were leaving school at 16 without qualifications, experts were searching for explanations. More than one in eight school leavers do not pass any exams at all, it has emerged.

While some argued that schools were not entering pupils who were likely to fail, others said the reasons why a 3 per cent rise in the number of 16-year-olds had only led to a 1 per cent rise in exam entries were complex.

Improved employment pros- pects for 16-year-olds, cuts in the number of exams taken by each pupil and increases in exclusions and truancy could all be responsible, it was suggested. Officials argued that league tables were not likely to have caused mass withdrawals because they were based on the proportion of the age group who passed GCSEs, regardless of whether they entered or not. But there were claims that schools were reducing entries in the hope of boosting grades.

David Hart, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said there was a strong suspicion that schools were concentrating on getting as many pupils as possible through five or more A-C grades, the measure usually used to judge their performances in league tables. "The tragedy is that the less-able pupils appear to be paying the price."

Others argued that the apparent drop in entries could be due to a decrease in the number of pupils taking resits. Alan Smithers, professor of public policy at Brunel University, said that in 1992, 12 per cent of 17-year- olds resat GCSEs. Now, very few did so. Instead, 78,000 took intermediate vocational qualifications in 1994.

Professor Smithers added that some schools might be encourage weaker pupils to concentrate on fewer GCSE subjects "in the hope that they might get more C grades".

Some headteachers said yesterday that although there were no figures available yet, it was possible that more pupils were leaving at Easter without qualifications to take up jobs. An upturn in the economy might have led to an increase in unskilled employment, they said.

Others blamed the cost of entering pupils for exams for the apparent drop in entries. John Dunford, headteacher of Durham Johnston comprehensive school in Durham and president of the Secondary Heads Association, said his school spent more than pounds 30,000 per year on GCSE exam fees. With a total budget of pounds 300,000, 80 per cent of which went on salaries, he said the costs represented a major item.

A Department for Education spokesman suggested that a rise in vocational qualifications or a drop in entries by mature students could account for the shortfall. "We are aware that there are some students leaving school without any qualifications, and we have asked Sir Ron Dearing [Chairman of the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority] to consider what might be done to motivate them. He suggested a qualification for those who are missed out by the GCSE system."