Gove’s school league tables will fail the poorest pupils

The introduction of the English Bac will push money away from those children who need it most.

When the new school league tables are published later this morning, there will be lots of parents and teachers who are shocked by the latest ranking of their school. More worryingly, the league table is going to pull head teachers in two directions and discourage them from using the pupil premium to help the poorest pupils.

The new table will measure how many pupils get good GCSEs in just five subjects – English, maths, science, a language and a humanities subject – rather than results across the board. The new measure, labelled an English Bac, is being introduced to combat what Michael Gove sees as a rise in "soft subjects". So many schools that rose up the league table last year because their pupils improved in other subjects are likely to see a sharp fall in their league table position today. Indeed, the government estimates that only 15 per cent of pupils will achieve the Bac.

The fact that the new league table has been introduced retrospectively has caused anger among teachers. They are concerned that they will be ranked using exams that were taken before the new measure was even in place. Up until this year, they were being actively encouraged to offer a broad curriculum, including information technology, diplomas and citizenship – none of which will be included in the new Bac. It is unfair, they claim, to penalise them for following the previous system.

Though these criticisms are justified, they are unlikely to cause much concern to Michael Gove. The very point of pushing the reforms so quickly is to shine a spotlight on the problem he has identified. The lower the number of schools passing the English Bac, the more evidence there is to back his claim that pupils are failing conventional GCSEs.

But what should give him a bigger headache is the impact the new league tables will have on the poorest pupils. Since becoming Education Secretary, Gove has made narrowing the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils his cause célèbre. Yet today's reforms to the league tables are likely to encourage schools to focus their resources on more affluent pupils.

IPPR analysis shows that, in 2009, only 26.6 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals achieved five or more A*-C grade GCSEs or equivalent including English and maths, compared to 54.2 per cent of pupils not eligible for free school meals – an attainment gap of 27.6 percentage points. And only 10,000 children on free school meals got grades A*-C in a modern language – just one in 50 of that year's cohort of pupils.

The harsh reality is that the pupils most likely to achieve the Bac are those from more affluent backgrounds.

By placing the English Bac at the heart of the new accountability framework, the government is providing an incentive for schools to focus resources on those middle-class children likely to do well in a narrow range of academic subjects. Even the pupil premium, which is money intended for poorer children, is likely to be diverted to help boost a school's position in the league tables.

While Gove's rhetoric on narrowing the attainment gap between rich and poor pupils is laudable, he is sending a contradictory message with the new rankings. Until this contradiction is resolved, it will be the league tables that dictate where schools focus their effort.

Resolving this contradiction will require two things. First, additional support should be targeted towards the pupils for whom it is intended. The pupil premium, for example, could be an entitlement for every child on free school meals to activities such as extra catch-up tuition, small-group tuition or one-to-one teaching to stretch the most able. This would prevent the funds being diverted towards pupils more likely to boost a school's position in the league tables.

Second, the accountability system should be adjusted to give weight to a wider range of measures than attainment in "hard" GCSEs. New York City, for example, has introduced a school report card that includes measures such as the progress of children from low-income households. This would be a better way to hold schools to account for their performance against a wide range of criteria.

Jonathan Clifton is a research fellow at IPPR.

Jonathan Clifton is a senior research fellow at IPPR.

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Winning Scottish independence will be even harder than before - but it may be the only choice

Independence campaigners will have to find answers on borders, currency and more. 

The Brexit mutiny has taken not just the UK economy and its relationship with Europe into uncharted waters. it has also imperilled the union between Scotland and England. From Sir John Major to the First Minister, both Unionists and Nationalists had warned of it. The outcome, though, has made this certain. The Leave vote in England and Wales contrasted with an overwhelming Remain vote north of the border.

That every region in Scotland voted to stay In was quite remarkable. Historically, fishing and industrial communities have blamed the European Union for their woes. That antagonism was probably reflected in lower turnout - an abstention rather than a rejection. 

The talk now is of a second referendum on independence. This is understandable given the current mood. Opinion polls in the Sunday Times and Sunday Post showed a Yes vote now at 52 per cent and 59 per cent respectively. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests even arch No vote campaigners, from JK Rowling to the Daily Record, are considering the option.

The First Minister was therefore correct to say that a second referendum is now “back on the table”. Her core supporters expects no less. However, as with the economy and Europe, the constitutional relationship between Scotland and England is now in uncharted seas. Potential support for independence may be higher, but the challenges are arguably bigger than before. The difficulties are practical, political and geographic.

Of course the Little Englanders likely to take the helm may choose a velvet divorce. However, given their desire for the return of the Glories of Britannia that’s improbable. They’re as likely to wish to see Caledonia depart, as cede Gibraltar to Spain, even though that territory voted even more overwhelmingly In.

Ticking the legal boxes

Practically, there’s the obstacle of obtaining a legal and binding referendum. The past vote was based on the Edinburgh Agreement and legislation in Westminster and Holyrood. The First Minister has indicated the democratic arguments of the rights of the Scots. However, that’s unlikely to hold much sway. A right-wing centralist Spanish government has been willing to face down demands for autonomy in Catalonia. Would the newly-emboldened Great Britain be any different?

There are no doubt ways in which democratic public support can be sought. The Scottish Government may win backing in Holyrood from the Greens. However, consent for such action would need to be obtained from the Presiding Officer and the Lord Advocate, both of whom have a key role in legislation. These office holders have changed since the first referendum, where they were both more sympathetic and the legal basis clearer. 

Getting the EU on side

The political hurdles are, also, greater this time than before. Previously the arguments were over how and when Scotland could join the EU, although all accepted ultimately she could remain or become a member. This time the demand is that Scotland should remain and the rest of the UK can depart. But will that be possible? The political earthquake that erupted south of the Border has set tectonic plates shifting, not just in the British isles but across the European continent. The fear that a Brexit would empower dark forces in the EU may come to pass. Will the EU that the UK is about to leave be there for an independent Scotland to join? We cannot know, whatever European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker may be saying at the moment. The First Minister is right to start engaging with Europe directly. But events such as elections in France and the Netherlands are outwith her control. 

Moreover, currency was the Achilles heel in the last referendum, and hasn’t yet been addressed. George Osborne was adamant in his rejection of a currency union. The options this time round, whether a separate Scottish currency or joining the euro, have yet to be properly explored. A worsened financial situation in the 27 remaining EU members hampers the latter and the former remains politically problematic. 

The problem of borders

Geography is also an obstacle  that will be even harder to address now than before. Scotland can change its constitution, but it cannot alter its location on a shared island. In 2014, the independence argument was simply about changing the political union. Other unions, whether monarchy or social, would remain untouched. The island would remain seamless, without border posts. An independent Scotland, whether in or out of the EU, would almost certainly have to face these issues. That is a significant change from before, and the effect on public opinion unknown.

The risk that's worth it

Ultimately, the bar for a Yes vote may be higher, but the Scots may still be prepared to jump it. As with Ireland in 1920, facing any risk may be better than remaining in the British realm. Boris Johnson as Prime Minister would certainly encourage that. 

David Cameron's lack of sensitivity after the independence referendum fuelled the Scottish National Party surge. But perhaps this time, the new Government will be magnanimous towards Scotland and move to federalism. The Nordic Union offers an example to be explored. Left-wing commentators have called for a progressive alliance to remove the Tories and offer a multi-option referendum on Scotland’s constitution. But that is dependent on SNP and Labour being prepared to work together, and win the debate in England and Wales.

So, Indy Ref The Sequel is on the table. It won’t be the same as the first, and it will be more challenging. But, if there is no plausible alternative, Scots may consider it the only option.

Kenny MacAskill served as a Scottish National MSP between 2007 and 2016, and as Cabinet Secretary for Justice between 2007 and 2014.