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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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