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James Groves: Gove must be wary when he sets targets

James Groves is the head of the education unit at Policy Exchange

Today’s announcement that secondary schools in England are to be set the more ambitious target of securing five good GCSE passes for at least 50% of their pupils by 2015 is the natural extension of plans made clear in last year’s White Paper - The Importance of Teaching. There will undoubtedly be opposition from teacher’s groups and unions. However, that schools will be kept under consistent pressure to drive up standards is good news for pupils, parents, employers and the economy at large.

But the setting of such floor targets can only take us so far. This Government must be careful not to fall into the same numbers game as beset the last Labour Government’s education policy.   As our recent report,   Room at the Top, highlighted, floor-targets have the tendency to put pressure on teachers to focus a disproportionate amount of their time on those students who are on the C/D borderline, rather than on those slower - and indeed higher - achievers.  To take an example, the proportion of pupils who gained an A*, A or B grade in Maths only improved by 0.4% between 2001/2 and 2009/10, while the proportion gaining C grades over the same period went from 21.3% to 26.5%, an improvement of 5.2%.

In that same report, we contended that a measure of achievement based on points scored (perhaps in core subjects) would be preferable as a lead indicator, so that moving a child from an A to an A* is valued equally to moving him or her from a D to a C.Gaming of the system, whereby schools have encouraged pupils to take exams in less academically rigorous GCSE equivalents, was a chronic problem under Labour’s Secondary National Strategy. The Coalition Government has so far gone to great lengths in attempting to over-turn this problem. It is welcome news that Professor Alison Wolf been charged with implementing many of the proposals set out in her recent review. Addressing GCSE equivalency was very much one of these, but today’s announcement makes this issue even more critical if we are to avoid the gaming which has plagued us over the past ten years.

Yet the planned floor-target of 50% 5 A*-C GCSE’s should be welcomed. Bold and progressive steps on the part of Government are necessary. They set a clear goal, give direction and, in the instance of education in the UK, are necessary, given the frightening fact that only around 50% of our kids leave school with a good GCSE in English or Maths. However, such steps must feed into a bigger narrative. Giving even more emphasis to the critical part that such improvement will play in improving the skills base of the UK workforce and in securing we stay ahead of international competitors might be one such "bigger picture" to connect with.

Michael Gove will no doubt apply this narrative as he defends this new floor target. But of course playing into the theme of economic growth and global competition turns the spotlight onto other contentious matters in relation to GCSEs that the Government cannot ignore. That subjects such as ICT, Economic and Design and Technology do not count towards the English Baccalaureate is certainly one of these. Perhaps a debate for another day.


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