New league tables 'trip schools up'
Headteachers have warned that schools are being "tripped up" by constant league table changes, as new rankings showed that the number of secondaries considered under-performing has doubled in a year.
Major reforms have had the most effect on schools working with the poorest children, according to the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT).
More than 300 state schools fell beneath the Government's floor target this year after failing to ensure that enough pupils gained five good GCSE grades and made decent progress in the basics.
The Department for Education (DfE) insisted that the rise is down to two key reforms - a decision that only a teenager's first attempt at a GCSE would count in the annual performance tables, and a move to strip poor quality vocational qualifications out of the rankings.
But headteachers warned that the tables may not give a true picture of a school's performance.
NAHT general secretary Russell Hobby said: "Data on school performance can be useful if used with caution, but today's adverse statistics are due to the Government's constant changes to league tables and provide no indication of the actual performance of schools over time.
"Secondary schools continue to improve and continue to perform: they have been tripped up by last-minute changes to eligibility and methods of calculation. Many of these changes disproportionately affected schools working with the most disadvantaged students.
"Even in the last few weeks we have seen more turmoil over the inclusion of IGCSEs in future league tables. It is now time for the Government to stop interfering in examinations on ministerial whim and let schools focus on teaching.
"It is also time for schools to turn their attention away from the Government's ever-changing measures and follow their own values for what is right for the students they serve."
The new league tables, published today, are based on data provided by the DfE and show how every school and college in England performed at GCSE, A-level and other academic and vocational qualifications in 2014.
State secondaries are considered to be below the Government's floor target if fewer than 40% of their pupils gain at least five C grades at GCSE, including English and maths, and students are not making good enough progress in these two core subjects.
In total, 330 schools fell below the benchmark this year, up from 154 last year.
Schools that fall below the threshold could face action, including being closed down and turned into an academy, or being taken over by a new sponsor.
The DfE insisted that the floor standard is one of a number of factors that schools are judged on and falling below the benchmark does not automatically mean that a school will face intervention.
It also said that the two major changes to the exams system - which schools were told about around 18 months ago - do not affect pupils' individual exam results.
Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said: "By stripping out thousands of poor quality qualifications and removing resits from tables, some schools have seen changes in their standings.
"But fundamentally young people's achievement matters more than being able to trumpet ever higher grades. Now pupils are spending more time in the classroom, not constantly sitting exams, and 90,000 more children are taking core academic subjects that will help them succeed in work and further study."
Mrs Morgan added that the Government has "raised the bar" and that schools are already rising to the challenge.
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "Because the performance tables are calculated so differently this year, the fact that more schools are below the floor target doesn't tell us whether standards are stable, improving or declining. The only way to get a true picture is to calculate this year's headline data using 2013 rules."
An analysis of the data indicates that this year's top school for GCSEs was King Edward VI Five Ways School, an academy in Birmingham. It entered 155 pupils for GCSEs and equivalent qualifications and all scored at least five C grades, including English and maths. It also had the highest average points score per pupil at 685.5.
The most improved school was the Charter Academy in Southsea, Hampshire, which has seen its results rise from 39% of students getting at least five Cs including the basics in 2011 to 83% achieving this standard in 2014 - a 44% rise.
The latest figures also show stark differences between local authorities.
The top-performing area, with 73.8% of state school pupils scoring five or more A*-C grades including English and maths, was Kensington and Chelsea.
This was followed by Trafford (72.2%), Sutton (72.1%), Kingston-upon-Thames (70%) and Buckinghamshire (69.5%).
At the other end of the scale, just over a third (35.4%) of pupils in Knowsley reached this key benchmark, along with 44% in Bradford and Blackpool, 44.6% in Nottingham and 44.7% in Kingston-upon-Hull.
Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt said: "Both parents and teenagers will be greatly concerned by chaos in the exam system brought about by David Cameron's schools policy.
"It is taking the country backwards and threatening standards. Parents deserve to know exactly how their child's school is performing - but under this Tory-led Government, all they've got is confusion surrounding school results year on year."
Calculations by the Teach First charity reveal that the attainment gap between rich and poor students has widened this year.
Chief executive Brett Wigdortz, said: " It is shocking that only one in three (33.5%) pupils eligible for free school meals achieved at least 5 A* to C GCSEs (or equivalent) grades compared to 60.5% of all other pupils; this is a gap of 27.0 percentage points.
"Exams have changed this year, but even without these changes the gap would have increased from 26.7 (2012/2013) to 27.2 (2013/2014) percentage points."
He added: "Over recent years great strides have been taken to close the gap, but today's data sees a reversal overall: things are getting worse for poorer children, instead of better.
"As we approach the election it is time for all political parties to ensure fairness in education is a national priority.
"Teachers must be at the heart of any lasting solutions and we need to continue our efforts to attract the best teachers into the profession - especially those working to support children from low income communities."