Ross Clark

Lies, damned lies and education

Ross Clark on how the government has used success in vocational courses to boost the exam results of failing schools

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When Tony Blair made his famous pledge to concentrate on ‘Education, education, education!’, maybe we all misheard, and he really said: ‘Obfuscation, obsfucation, obsfucation!’ After all, that is what his education ministers have spent the past seven years doing with school exam results. It isn’t hard to find a teacher these days who thinks there has been a lowering of standards of GCSEs. The dramatic improvement in pass rates over the past few years have not been achieved by better teaching or brighter children, they say, but by spoon-fed examination answers, excessive reliance on coursework, making it easier to get your parents to earn your qualifications for you.

Easy though GCSEs have become, it transpires that for government propaganda purposes they are still not easy enough. The government’s much-trumpeted claims about turning around low-performing schools are based not so much upon improved GCSE results as on a switch to a much lesser-known qualification called General National Vocational Qualification, or GNVQ.

In September, David Miliband, the schools minister, caught a train to Birmingham for what has become for him a typical engagement: a visit to a sometime bog standard inner-city comprehensive school which has been turned into a shining example of what can be achieved thanks to the government’s enlightened education policy. In fact, on this occasion there were three schools for Mr Miliband to visit: the Ninestiles School, the International School and the Waverley School, which together have been formed into the ‘Ninestiles Federation’ run by a single ‘executive head’. Until recently, these schools were run separately and considered by some to be beyond hope. Judged by what has become the standard measure of assessment for state schools — the percentage of GCSE candidates achieving five or more exam passes at grades A* to C — the International School was graded in 2003 as the ninth worst in the country, with just 9 per cent of pupils achieving five or more GCSEs at A* to C.

The transition of the three schools into what the government calls ‘cutting edge’ schools began with the transformation of Ninestiles School by one of the government’s favourite headmasters, Sir Dexter Hutt. When Hutt took charge in 1988, only 6 per cent of pupils gained five or more GCSEs at grades of A* to C. By 2001 that had climbed to 31 per cent and by 2002 to 72 per cent. This remarkable turnaround earned Hutt his knighthood and the chance to head the first schools’ federation. A similar turnaround was then witnessed at the two other schools in the federation. The International School improved its 5+ A*-to-C percentage from 9 per cent in 2003 to 33 per cent in 2004 and the Waverley School from 18 per cent in 2002 to 51 per cent in 2003 and 62 per cent in 2004, enabling it to claim to be the fifth most improved school in the country.

The schools themselves attribute their rapid improvement in GCSE results to two things: the recruitment of permanent staff to replace the itinerant supply teachers who used to carry out much of the teaching, and the instigation of a new graded discipline system which works like the yellow card/red card system at a football match. Of course, these are very welcome improvements. One pupil told reporters: ‘Before, there were hardly any rules at all. We could come in late or misbehave and no one would say anything.’ Yet closer analysis of the examination results and the schools’ curriculum suggests that improved discipline isn’t the only factor. When the Department for Education and Skills (DFES) grades schools according to their GCSE results, it quietly slips vocational qualifications into the figures. Moreover, it does so in such a way that puts greater emphasis on vocational qualifications than on academic ones. A pass in GNVQ information technology, for example, is deemed to be equivalent to no fewer than four passes at GCSE (and is included in the data used to make up the school exam tables as if it were four GCSE passes). Finish a course in how to use Microsoft Windows, in effect, and you are judged by the government to have attained the same educational achievement as if you had slogged your way through exams in maths, physics, chemistry and biology. I asked the DFES how it has come to decide that one GNVQ is equivalent to four GCSEs, but the frosty press officer failed to provide a reason.

For a guide as to the relative difficulty of GCSEs and GNVQs, it is worth studying the curriculum for the Waverley School. The middle stream there spend no more time on their GNVQ in information technology than they do on their maths or English GCSEs — four hours a week. Perhaps this explains how the Waverley School can obtain such good exam results when its pupils in 2004 were on average absent for one day in every ten — a total of four weeks a year.

Why, indeed, bother putting your pupils through the horrors of mathematics at all, when you can improve your school’s exam table performance by pushing them into GNVQs instead? Interestingly, the Waverley School omits to produce a subject-by-subject breakdown of its exam results in its prospectus — in contravention of the rules laid down in DFES circular 0270/2002. But I managed to obtain a subject-by-subject analysis from Ninestiles by posing as a prospective parent, and it shows just how dependent the school is on GNVQs for its good exam results. In 2004, just 42 per cent of the 226 pupils who took English achieved a C grade or better, and only 43 per cent of the 226 who took maths. Just 29 pupils took physics and a mere ten took French. Yet 216 took a GNVQ in information technology and all passed.

The three Birmingham schools are not the only ones which have been improving their league-table position by pushing pupils away from academic GCSEs and towards GNVQs. One of the first schools to appreciate the value of GNVQs was the Thomas Telford School in Shropshire, whose headmaster, Sir Kevin Satchwell, was knighted after it topped the state school exam tables, with 100 per cent of its pupils achieving five or more GCSE passes at grades A* to C. Realising the potential of GNVQs to massage an underperforming school’s exam results, the school set up in 2000 a company, Thomas Telford School Online Ltd, to devise and market GNVQ courses to other schools. This year, 1,200 of them are each paying £3,000 for a licence to use the course themselves, making the school millions.

Head teachers who still value academic qualifications are appalled. One former headmaster of a northern comprehensive complains that schools such as his are penalised in the school league tables by refusing to drop academic subjects in favour of GNVQs. ‘The GNVQ in information technology is really no more than training in how to use Microsoft. If you go through all the motions, you get the qualifications: the pupil ends up with a folder full of competency statements signed by his teacher, saying he has followed the exercises. That’s not education. There’s no gaining of understanding in that.’

The tragedy is that a good idea — offering vocational training to pupils who are clearly unsuited to academic courses — should have been abused in order to exaggerate the success of the government’s education policy. As it happens, GNVQs are being phased out over the next four years, but you can bet the replacement qualification will offer just as much, if not more, scope for bullying the figures. With fewer and fewer pupils taking examinations in maths, perhaps the government is reckoning on no one having the statistical education to work out what is going on.