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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Two referendums have revived the Tories and undone Labour

The Scottish vote enabled the Conservatives' rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted Theresa May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

In the final week of the Scottish independence referendum campaign, as the Union appeared in peril, David Cameron pleaded with voters to punish his party rather than Scotland. “If you are fed up with the effing Tories, give them a kick,” he said. Cameron’s language reflected a settled view: the Conservatives were irredeemably loathed by Scots. For nearly two decades, the party had no more than one MP north of the border. Changing the party’s name for devolved contests was discussed.

Since becoming Conservative leader, Theresa May has pursued a hard – she prefers “clean” – Brexit strategy that Scots voted against and the Conservatives have achieved a UK-wide poll lead of 20 points.

Yet rather than regressing, the Scottish Conservatives have resurged. On 22 April, a Panelbase poll put them on 33 per cent in Scotland (a rise of 18 points since 2015). A favoured Labour barb used to be that there were more pandas (two) in Scotland than Tory MPs (one). The poll would leave the Tories with 12 seats and Corbyn’s party with none. Tory aides confess that they were surprised by the figures but declare there are “no limits to our ambitions” in Scotland.

The roots of this recovery lie in the 2014 independence referendum. The vote, and the SNP’s subsequent landslide victory in the 2015 general election, realigned Scottish politics along unionist and nationalist lines. Led by Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives have ably exploited the opportunity. “We said No. We meant it,” the party’s official slogan declares of Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum. Under Ruth Davidson, the Tories have already become the official opposition at Holyrood.

Labour is torn between retaining unionists and winning back nationalists. It has been punished for its equivocation, as it is being punished over its confused response to Brexit. In April 2016, the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, said that it was “not inconceivable” that she could back independence if the UK voted to leave the EU (and earlier suggested that MPs and MSPs could be given a free vote). Jeremy Corbyn recently stated that he was “absolutely fine” with a second referendum being held.

“For us it’s a badge of honour but there are some people in Scottish Labour who are quite queasy about that word [unionist] and I think Jeremy Corbyn would be very queasy about it,” Adam Tomkins, a Conservative MSP for Glasgow and public law professor, told me. “Don’t forget the Northern Ireland dimension; we’ve all seen the photos of him rubbing shoulders with leading republicans. The Scottish Union is very different to the Irish Union but the word migrates.”

The irony is that Corbyn allies believed his anti-austerity, anti-Trident platform would allow Labour to recover in Scotland. Yet the pre-eminence of the national question has left it in a political no-man’s land.

In contrast to the rest of the UK, Scots backed Remain by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. Far from protecting EU membership, as David Cameron had promised in the referendum campaign, the preservation of the Union now threatened it. Theresa May has since yielded no ground, denying Scotland both a second independence referendum on terms dictated by the SNP and single market membership. But polls show no rise in support for independence.

Conservative aides believe that Sturgeon miscalculated by immediately raising the prospect of a second referendum following the Leave vote last June. Families and communities were riven by the 2014 contest. Most had little desire to disrupt the uneasy peace that has prevailed since.

Nor are the politics of Brexit as uncomplicated as some assume. Thirty-six per cent of SNP supporters voted Leave and more than a third of this bloc have since turned against independence. As elsewhere, some Remainers have accepted the result and fear the instability that secession would cause. Scotland’s trade with the UK is worth four times as much as that with the EU. Davidson, who was one of the most forceful advocates for Remain, says that pursuing independence to counter the effects of Brexit would be “stubbing your toe to then amputate your foot”.

Theresa May, who spoke of the “precious” Union when she became Prime Minister, has devoted great attention to Scotland. Cabinet ministers are instructed to develop a “Scottish plan” when they formulate policy; buildings funded by the UK government now bear its insignia. Davidson’s influence was crucial to May’s decision to retain the 0.7 per cent foreign aid commitment – an emblem of compassionate conservatism.

After a decade of SNP rule, Tory aides believe that their rival’s poor domestic record, most notably on education, is “catching up with them”. More than a year has elapsed since the Scottish Parliament passed new legislation. “We’ve got a government that simply isn’t very interested in governing,” Tomkins said. “I thought that Nicola [Sturgeon] would change that. I was wrong.” What preoccupies the SNP is the constitutional question.

Shortly after the remarkable Scottish polls, a new survey showed the Tories on course to win the most seats in Wales for the first time since 1859. For some former Labour supporters, voting Ukip is proving a gateway drug to voting Conservative.

Two referendums have now realigned politics in the Tories’ favour. The Scottish vote enabled their rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

Before the 2015 general election, Labour derided the Tories as a southern English force unworthy of their official name: the Conservative and Unionist Party. Partly through accident and partly through design, May and Davidson are now reclaiming it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496