Standards in schools matter more than league table positions
Parents, pupils and teachers were all let down by a system which incentivised schools to put league tables – not pupils – first
By Nicky Morgan
When this Government took office in 2010, we found an education system that had lost its way. Far too many young people were leaving school or college without the qualifications which employers and universities value. Grade inflation was rocketing out of control, while educational standards stagnated. Parents, pupils and teachers were all let down by a system which incentivised schools to put league tables, not pupils, first – and the poorest suffered most of all.
That’s why our plan for education is designed to help every child, regardless of background, develop the knowledge, skills and values to prepare them for life in modern Britain.
We introduced important reforms to the curriculum, GCSEs and A-levels, pegging them to the best in the world. By introducing new, higher-quality GCSEs, we have ensured that the qualifications used in league tables are, and remain, rigorous. As part of this crucial process, we stripped out all unregulated International GCSEs, or IGCSEs, as they do not have to go through the same tough approval process as GCSEs – and in some cases are not as challenging. In the worst case, students do not have to study Shakespeare for an English qualification, and their speaking and listening element still counts towards their final grade, despite the fact that we know it cannot be rigorously assessed.
To be fair, league tables have to be based on exams that present a level of difficulty that is as comparable as possible. England’s independent schools are some of the best in the world. But they have long maintained that they have different needs to the state-funded sector. We respect that. It is why, for example, they are not subject to Ofsted inspection in the same way as state schools. I am confident that schools still using IGCSEs will switch back to our new, world-class GCSEs in due course.
We made two other important changes to performance tables this year. We scrapped poor-quality qualifications which left young people unprepared for jobs or further study, ensuring that the only qualifications to count in league tables are those which employers or universities rate. And we ended the pressure on schools to enter pupils for exams before they are ready, or to subject them to endless cycles of resits, just to artificially inflate their league table position. One school last year, for example, entered pupils an average of eight times each for mathematics GCSE – incredibly, more than 1,700 entries in total. How much time did those poor children waste in exam halls, instead of the classroom? We have changed the rules so that only the first attempt is reflected in league tables.
These were big changes, and we knew that they would have an impact. After all, that’s why we introduced them. But schools have known about these changes since 2013 – and the tables published yesterday show how much things have changed. All told, 90,000 more young people took the core academic GCSEs which employers and universities value, and which open doors for the future, compared to 2010 – an increase of 71 per cent in just four years.
That means 50,000 more young people taking GCSEs in languages, and 85,000 more taking history or geography. The number of A-level entries in so-called “facilitating” subjects – those recommended by top universities – has risen by more than 20,000 since 2010, with record numbers (and record numbers of girls) studying the sciences and maths.
These are impressive increases, and young people, schools and teachers deserve credit for all their hard work. But toughening up the rules has also caused some schools’ league table positions to change: 330 schools are now below the minimum standard.
This is, of course, 330 too many. But the evidence shows that every time the bar has been raised, schools have risen to meet it. When we introduced this floor standard, and then raised it, schools improved and improved again – and I have every confidence that they will continue to do so.
What matters is not league table positions, but standards. We need to keep raising the bar, and keep encouraging schools to improve.
Education is our great transformer of lives. We have a duty to make sure that the league tables by which parents judge their children’s schools are those which encourage the right behaviour, rewarding those institutions which push every child to achieve the best that they can and to take their place in modern Britain.
That’s the only way that every young person, every parent, every teacher and every employer can have confidence in our qualifications, confidence in our schools, and confidence that our education system gives all children the skills and knowledge they need to succeed.
Nicky Morgan is the Education Secretary